Warning: This entry contains a shade of sentimentality. I’ll go ahead and apologize to anyone who reads this and says, “That Josh is such a cheesy fruit.” While I do not like abundant fruit and cheese in my writing or otherwise, I’ve been thinking about things like this and I’m giving myself a pass this one time. Everyone should get the occasional cheese pass. This is mine.
I’m not big on surrounding myself with canonical quotations by great thinkers. After a while quotes can just become a mélange of theoretical room decorations. So I try to stick with the ones I can actually deal with, that I can enact. And I have this one quote that I strategically place in my eye line so I’ll see it whenever I write. Show me a day when the world wasn’t new, it says. It’s the kind of thing I always consider when I’m writing: the amazing exists if I just try to notice. For the purposes of writing it’s a reminder to keep things fresh—that even if a character does boring things and speaks boringly and acts like a boring slug… even then there is something unexpected about that person. There is some reason to be amazed by him or her. If not, the story’s not worthwhile.
But finding amazement in real life is an entirely different tamale. I’m just as guilty as anyone and often find myself bored, bored, bored. I don’t mean this as an insult to the people I hang out with or to David Letterman—you regal little cat. But I am generally not enthralled by my daily activities. That’s why I have to write, to keep myself interesting and interested.
Why is amazing so difficult? Maybe it’s human nature, but it feels like the capacity for amazement is slowly being programmed out of us. For one, we just don’t have time to notice anymore. We’re always in a rush. I rush to get up. I rush to get my errands done and my run in and my writing finished and my grooming perfect (this always takes a while). We want things fast. We no longer have an attention span (whatever happened to just staring at the ceiling?) because we don’t have to wait for anything. I can have Steel Magnolias cued up, ready to watch in five seconds. Two more minutes for the popcorn to pop and sometimes that’s too long. We can get a fully cooked burger in 30 seconds. You can buy pre-made PB & J sandwiches. What? Worse yet, we’ve progressed to a point where we can explain away everything. Good? Yes. But bad for our capacity to be amazed. Thermodynamics, cloning puppies, ultrasounds, brain mapping, robots, satellites, infrared stuff and lasers… lasers for God’s sake. Right now my window shades are moving by themselves and that would (and should) be pretty cool in and of itself. And it is, right up until the a-hole fluid dynamicist in my head informs me that it’s simply the result of the sun heating up the window and creating hot air that’s moving up and taking the shades with it… or some such.
Perhaps the world’s newness has become invisible because we’re constantly focused on what we want, not what we have. That is, newness has become synonymous with faster, better, more gigabytes, sleeker, higher resolution, richer, happier. Newness in this sense is based not on noticing or appreciating, but on possessing the latest and best of something. We’re always told what we don’t have and, consequently, we’re unable to be impressed—as we’re walking down a street and talking on the phone to a distant friend about how much our cell phone sucks because it can’t take high-resolution video—by the amazing fact that we’re talking with our distant friend using a device small enough to fit in our pocket.
Amazement itself, too, is being somehow perverted. It’s like our capacity for it is redirected elsewhere: some dark and sinister place, like that basement in Silence of the Lambs. That’s right, I’m talking about reality TV. Reality TV is a dangerous two-headed monster. First, like it or not, we see this human image on TV and we identify with it, an identification that goes deeper when we know it’s “reality.” Secondly, we give precedence to the people on TV, their lives, etc. because a producer has deemed them worthy, i.e., they’re lives must be more amazing than ours because they’re on the screen. Thus, we have a presentation that is both close to us and, somehow, better. What results, I think, is a hermetically sealed, force-fed—albeit tasty—imitation of amazing. Our amazement at reality TV is like Krab. We think it’s real, but it isn’t. What’s worse, if we taste it enough our ability to appreciate the real thing slowly dissolves. Things like reality TV take amazing out of our hands and minds; we become numb. We watch the drunken, imbecilic cast of Jersey Shore do drunken, imbecilic things. We say, “Oh, how novel.” Kim Kardashian takes a dump. “Oh, how extraordinary.” Danny Bonaduce drinks himself silly, head-butts a limousine window, and—with blood streaming down his face—proposes to his girlfriend. “Oh, how heartwarming.”
In the face of Kate Plus 8 and 4G networks and particle accelerators all I can think to do is this: forget. Forget it all, even if just temporarily. Pull away and let all that stuff recede into the background. We often use the word naïve as a bad thing, an insult even. Naïve is the one who sees the world from a different vantage point: a distant overlook from which it’s only possible to see general shapes and shades, not the world’s details and faults and rigmarole. Naiveté resides in disavowing all the scientific and technological knowledge, all the explanations, we’ve amassed. It’s seeing just to see. This is the person who, despite everything we know about pollution, is still captivated by the reds and yellows of the evening. It’s the kid rolling around in the dandelions sending white parachutes all over the yard, germination be damned. Naïveté is when you forget any knowledge of osteoporosis and focus instead on the knotted beauty of your grandmother’s hands, on the clapping and handholding and exertion and worry and enjoyment that made them that way. (Thanks, Jourdan.) If nothing else naiveté is a hell of a lot more interesting than the alternative, even in small doses. Think of it as a way of writing the world.
Here’s some amazing stuff I saw today: David methodically grooming himself, a clump of dust twittering in the heating vent, a bike staying upright, a floating Cheerio, a woman walking a dog bigger than she was, a beaver paddling in the pond outside my apartment, a little girl’s wiry, cotton-ball afro.
Keep it amazing.
P.S.-Here’s a great little short film that accentuates newness in the face of ordinary. Directed by Ramin Bahrani and narrated by one of my favorites, Werner Herzog.