The other day I watched a homeless man turn over a trash can and roll it a few hundred feet down the street so he could sit on it while he powered his device at one of the mobile charging stations that has replaced New York City’s former phone booths and it made me wonder if we had outpaced evolution or if it was the other way around. All the effort we go through to feed energy to our machines: Do we make the tools or are we?
(Are we the tools, is the question. I know as it stands it reads like an incomplete sentence, but “Do we make the tools or are we the tools?” is a little much, to my ear. Although arguably if a sentence can be read in such a way where it seems incomplete it is not super ear-worthy either. “Do we make the tools or do the tools make us?” might be the solution, but it carries the implication that we are in fact products of the tools and not actually the tools themselves. I suppose this whole conundrum is a testament to the inability of language to fully convey intended meaning. That, or the need for editors. (This conundrum is a testament to one or the other, the inability of language to fully convey intended meaning or the need for editors, is what I’m trying to say.))
This is not an original observation (the tool thing), but there are no more original observations. Someone said that before, a long time ago, and it continues to be true. There are no more original anythings, which is something that is easy enough to understand when you find yourself staring at a shelf filled with hundreds of consumer items whose only individuating features are the impossibly slight differences they shout in hopes of standing out strongly enough for you to drag them down and bring them to the register. It makes you wonder: Why are we even here? What is our purpose? What does the future hold? Why bother?
These are questions which have troubled our greatest thinkers and dimmest wits alike since the first cave person looked at a cave painting and wondered whether or not he should say something about how it didn’t look very different from the drawings he had seen in some of the other caves on the mountain range and if you were going to take the time and use up the precious fire to draw the running meat on the wall why wouldn’t you want to do something that at least brought a little bit of your own—and then BAM a bear jumped out and ate him. It took a long time before we as a species figured out you needed to go all the way into the back of the cave and take a good look around before you decided to settle in and start doing your derivative hunt sketches there. Anyway, these questions, which have been with us for so long, have simple answers. It helps to reframe what we’re wondering about. Why are we here? Luck and chemicals, mostly. The more interesting, and resolvable, question is when are we here?
Allow me to enlighten you.
We are here in the brief bit between being nothing and returning to it. It has happened to millions before us and it will happen to millions more after, although how many millions more I cannot safely speculate. Surely the numbers will fall. Soon our success, such as it is, as a species, will sputter to a halt and the smaller cohort that survives will live out its days either enjoying what little comfort remains to be had behind giant walls or dodging the dogs who hunt for the same scraps thrown over them that they do when they are not running from fires. (The scraps that are thrown over the walls is what the people who aren’t inside the castle (and the dogs) are hunting for. Most of us will be living outside the walls, is what I’m saying, hoping for half-chewed chicken bones or whatever that the rich of the future will toss through the crenelations once they realize there is not a lot of space to bury your trash in an entrenchment. But this is an issue for future humans to deal with. And, I suppose, dogs. And, unfortunately, chickens.) We will not escape the planet, or what we’ve done to it, no matter how many tech billionaires try to distract you from what they are doing by suggesting that it’s a possibility. We’re not going anywhere else, and no one is coming for us. There is no, as it were, Mekhi Phifer. This is it.
What I’d like to talk to you about today is what we are doing with that brief bit of time. Some of us, mired deeply in a depression so subtle yet enervating that it convinces even its sufferers that it is a misfortune of their own making, can only look with increasing incomprehension at everything around us, particularly when we find ourselves staring at a shelf filled with hundreds of consumer items whose only individuating features are the impossibly slight differences they shout in hopes of standing out strongly enough for us to drag them down and bring them to the register.
Some of us, afflicted by an incurable optimism that is just as destructive as depression but probably much more pleasant to endure existence alongside, brush away each obstacle in our path as we journey about the ladders and chutes (mainly ladders, although a not insignificant number of these people will tell you how they’ve really learned so much more from the chutes. Some of them will even refer to these as “learnings,” and you will sit there and nod silently and wish that you were both suddenly eaten by bears.) to the place where we want to be.
Some split the difference, knowing deep down that there’s no point or purpose but muttering our mantras in any event and following life’s little instructions because even though they are tacky and sad they sometimes work if we let ourselves forget that (that they are tacky and sad) and the feeling of not wanting to die you have when things have worked out is considerably preferable to the feeling of pride you have in not falling for the whole mindfulness/motivation mishegas in the first place, plus it pays better.
The rest of us put our heads down and do what we have to. We don’t like it but we try not to think about it too much, and that helps. We can’t, as do the difference-splitters, convince ourselves that it matters, which is one of the greatest self-cons of all time and something I highly suggest you avail yourself of if you are able to. (And trust me, you probably are. You would be shocked at who secretly is.) We do the things they tell us to and then go home (“go home” means something different these days but you know what I’m talking about) and drink or hit the vape pen or crush up opioids with the mortar and pestle we got when we moved into this place and thought we’d be making our own pesto for dinner parties that stopped happening a year or two later (because who had the energy anymore and how much pesto can you actually eat, let alone make?) and snort them through the plastic straws we shamefully hide in the back of the cabinet in case our environmentally-minded friends stop by for a surprise inspection. Then Netflix and bed.
The thing about those four types of people?
They all die.
They all return to nothing.
I will. You will. The person you forward this to with the subject line “Can you believe he is still doing this bullshit?” will. We are here in the brief bit between being nothing and returning to it. It doesn't matter whether or not you think it matters. It's all over soon. (But not soon enough, no.)
Keeping that in mind, I would like to suggest that if you have not yet listened to Róisín Murphy’s Róisín Machine you should do so as quickly as is practical. I don’t dance—don’t ask me—but if this summer you saw an older man with a graying beard walking through town in a Bauhaus t-shirt jerking arrhythmically to whatever was playing through his headphones, that was me, and it was not Bauhaus (that was playing through my headphones). I am not sure how you feel about disco (disco is chronologically approximate to where my brief bit between being nothing and returning to it began, and back then it was considered to be a bad thing (by, to be sure, bad people for bad reasons, blah blah blah, Alice Echols wrote a terrific book about it) but I have fully come around on it and it is nice to know that it is back in favor as I (hopefully) make my grand return to being nothing) but the album is fairly disco-intensive, so don’t be shocked. (Róisín, incidentally, is pronounced “row” (as in “it’s a long one to hoe”) “sheen” (as in Martin or Charlie, but not Emilio, which I do not think he gets enough credit for given that it was still a real and potential hindrance at the time he made that choice), although I guess in Northern Ireland there’s a whole other way of pronouncing it, which of course there is but I’ll be fucked if I’m going to get into that here because as much as I want to return to being nothing I would like to do it in the least painful way possible and involving oneself in controversies concerning sectarian differences is absolutely the wrong way to go about that. In fact, maybe forget I said anything about it at all.) Also, I know people don’t listen to albums as such anymore but it really does work best if you go all the way through, the sequencing is terrific. (Hahaha, I am discussing album sequencing! Can you tell it is almost time for my return to nothing?)
Okay, I’m glad we got this chance to talk after such a long time. If we’re still both here in, say, 2023, let’s do it again. I won’t be happy about it, but then when am I ever?