Pareidolia: Of Patterns, Randomness, and Attention
Featured image: “Cloud Study,” by Jervis McEntee, Morris K. Jesup Fund, 1982
On Saturdays my dad had a Miller Lite, which sat on the woodpile while he split logs. He ordered split logs to be delivered and then split them further, stacking them on pallets while listening to the Red Sox on a transistor radio. All winter he lugged in wood and stamped the snow off his boots at the door. All winter I hovered two inches in front of the woodstove because the house was so cold. I stood there burning my pants and reading.
I am always cold, so perfectly unfit for winter sports, but skiing was one of several skills I’m unsuited for that my parents required I be proficient in. I only liked the lifts, and wished that instead of getting off at the top I could whip around the bull wheel and loop up and down the mountain all day. On a school-sponsored ski trip to Vermont, we worked around our same-sex hotel rooms by taking to the halls, where I remember sitting on the floor playing a card game whose appeal was the yelling of a swear word. We were trying to annoy the cruising teachers, but didn’t want to get in actual trouble, so we’d yell, “Bolshevik!” instead, which we thought was hysterical.
When the Romanovs were shot in a Siberian basement in 1918 bullets ricocheted off the diamonds they’d sewn into their clothes. The soldiers had to finish them off with bayonets. Not only can you not take it with you, but what doesn’t kill you might lead to something worse. I remember my mother crying and crawling around near the woodpile, palpating the ground in search of the diamond that had fallen from her engagement ring. I don’t know if she was upset about the material or sentimental value, but she never found it.
When I was a kid I read the books on my bedroom shelf over and over: A Wrinkle in Time, Rebecca, Jane Eyre, and Sweet Valley High #7, in which Elizabeth sustains a head injury and starts acting wild like her twin sister, Jessica. I liked books about risky teen behaviors, which sometimes taught me how to do the things they were warning against. I learned how to make myself throw up from a library book. I learned about the art and importance of tanning. Through my adolescent summers I fried my fair skin into a reluctant tan and now I have sun damage.
For about two years in my late twenties I watched back-to-back reruns of The Nanny every day after work. Over time, I let a few people in on my dirty secret, perhaps in an effort to take the edge off my perceived gravitas, but I might be misremembering either how I thought people saw me or how I was. When Rusty and I got engaged, I enlisted some work friends to throw me a small cocktail party in order to preempt my other, malicious friend from throwing me a bachelorette party with a penis cake, which I knew she’d do just because I’d hate it. At the cocktail party, I was made to answer quiz questions about The Nanny in a bridal shame game that was much more painful than the penis cake would have been.
I keep my shame close, like diamonds in my clothes. To deflect or be buried with.
There is an eddy of writing about D. W. Winnicott by women lately, especially about the idea of the “good enough mother,” of whose use I am uncertain and of its liberatory appearance suspicious. My shallow research on the term’s meaning reveals that it’s a trick—a good enough mother is one so perfectly attuned to her child and its needs that she knows when it’s time to draw back and let it suffer a bit. If a mother either tends too closely to her child after a certain arbitrary point, or before that fails to create a closed loop of flesh and feeling with her baby, then she is not good enough at being good enough.Sometimes I think that not art but the idea of it might finally be played out, and yet here I am still writing about it.
There is also much recent writing about choosing not to have children, regret at having had children and about hatred of the state of motherhood (those last two things being not at all the same, in my experience). There is writing about failing to have had children and about succeeding at never having wanted them.
According to Winnicott, sustaining your child’s illusion of complete wish fulfillment early on is essential to their developing a healthy relationship to the ups and downs of real life later.
Maggie lands on a purple Candy Land square and asks me what’s the difference between violet and purple. I tell her there isn’t one and I’m pretty sure I’m wrong, but while the difference between illusion and reality is everything, the category of “everything” includes itself.
Ovid said, “Everything changes, nothing is lost” of humans and our vicissitudes. Isaac Newton said the same thing, but of the universe. I don’t worry about loss so much as indistinctness, and while I try to ignore my mixed-up middle, I need to know where I begin and end—parents, children, paper, world, the eyes, the heart, or the head?
I once climbed what’s known as the First Dune of the Sahara, even though there must be first dunes all around the desert’s edge.
I saw Weezer perform a flawless one-to-one rendition of the 1982 Toto hit “Africa” on TV. I looked up the music video, which has Weird Al Yankovic playing Weezer’s lead singer in a flawless recreation of the video for the band’s 1994 hit “The Sweater Song,” only he’s dressed like Buddy Holly from their other hit song. This kind of approprio-ventriloquist art trick is ingrained in my generation’s ethos. As I write this, I’m thinking surely there’s an artist right now making flawless knockoffs of famous original artworks and selling them for either a mint or a song, and then there he is, in tomorrow’s paper.
(“Original” means the first or only instance, which can be opposites.)
A famous trickster artist rigged his painting to self-destruct upon its recent sale. The self-destruction then became the artwork and the subject of copyright, which I’ve possibly violated simply by not naming the artist. Has the idea of art condensed to an ultimate state of self-annihilation? Sometimes I think that not art but the idea of it might finally be played out, and yet here I am still writing about it.
I started reading “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” to see if it holds up—holds up not from 1935 when Walter Benjamin wrote it, but from when I first read it around 1993. He says that before industrial reproduction each thing was only itself, i.e., that the fact of authenticity has been replaced by its concept, like the dodo was traded for the idea of its extinction. This contradicts my sense that concepts are always already in the world for us to find and identify—that before Gutenberg and his printing press, authenticity was just waiting around for something to adhere to it. Surely there are more concepts hiding out there like still-undiscovered species, of which biologists say there are many, even as great swaths of others are dying off.
Benjamin says that a painstakingly hand-copied version of an early manuscript was no less authentic than the original. A painstakingly hand-painted copy of an Old Master is different because it’s one of two more kinds of art tricks—forgery, which is a lie, or a send-up of authenticity, the idea of which, rather than the object itself, is the essence of the artwork and whose point is to reveal the complications of art valuation. Of these two art tricks, I think the lie is now the more authentic one. The other’s been worn to a nub.
In 2001, Rusty and I got on a large jet bound for New Zealand, and when it stopped in Tonga to refuel, we were the only ones who got off the plane. In the town on the main island we’d booked a room at the sole hotel, which was a chipped blue cinder-block structure with a drained pool and spotty electricity. We were all alone except for an older couple whose son had won a weeklong stay at this place by holding his tongue out the longest on a British TV game show. They were miserable. At the time I felt superior, but now I know better. (I am the dodo.)
The last song at middle-school dances was always “Stairway to Heaven.” Its collage of many tempos presented challenges that you and your partner had to silently negotiate—let go of one another and rock out or continue slow dancing awkwardly at the original rate? It was said that if you played the track backward it contained a satanic message, which was a real apparent problem at the time. Dan Rather played backmasked music clips on the evening news. Worries over subliminal messaging seemed to relieve parents of the onus to deliver actual messaging, while the real hell was happening in the back of the school bus, where I once saw someone dared to eat an onion like an apple. (He threw up.)
(“Apparent” means both obvious and only in appearance, which can be the same or opposites.)
Ferdinand de Saussure blew me away in college. The difference between “cat” and a cat and the cat gently pried the world apart like layers of delicate pastry, asking, if words aren’t actually attached to the things they refer to, then what is or happens in the space between?
If you search your own name incognito from different VPN addresses too many times in too short a period, you are mistaken for a robot and asked to select images containing particular traffic-related elements from a grid of blurry photos in order to prove yourself human. But while crosswalks are obvious in the foreground, it’s impossible to see them back where the vanishing lines of the street almost meet. And rumble strips, striped-out no-parking zones—how do you know if the computer thinks these are crosswalks or not? Is it tricked or trying to trick me?
The backmasking phenomenon is largely attributed to pareidolia, or the perception of seeming patterns in random information. Like the man in the moon or the Virgin Mary on a grilled-cheese sandwich, there was nothing there. When I looked up “pareidolia” I learned it’s a subcategory of “apophenia,” which is “the tendency to mistakenly perceive connections and meaning between unrelated things.” I can’t see how you tell when perceived connections are real or mistaken and what counts as a relation when “everything” includes itself.
On the radio today a guest was speaking of celebrity suicide in light of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain’s. He was basically making fun of people for staging their death scenes, but how could you not consider the effect of your planned death? Cobain left his suicide note under a clod of dirt next to his head. Sylvia Plath put out milk and bread for her children, who were too young to ingest them in the form that she left them. Rothko hacked up his arms with a paint knife then collapsed in a color field of red.
The Seven Sisters of the Pleiades committed suicide because Orion was after them with bad intentions. Zeus stuck them in the night sky. The word for this is “catasterism.”
When my uncle found out he was dying he told me the worst part was that he’d never get to find out what happened. To what, I asked. To everything, he said. If I were to rank the categories of unknowns to which I’d like to have the answer, they’d be metaphysical, physical, global, in that order.
The worst CAPTCHA is selecting squares with a traffic light. Does a traffic light include its arm and pole or only the light boxes proper? There’s no appreciable reward for doing either.
I’ve committed my life on paper to making distinctions, but what if they are illusory or unimportant? If I reached the end of the sorting—winnowed all things into labeled containers like an assiduous TV homemaker—would I have figured something out or just spit shined the dishwasher while letting the dirty dishes pile up in the sink?
I loved Robert Frost before I became a poet and learned to hold him in contempt. Mawkish as he can be, the evocativeness of “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” is strong and lingering. Its rhyme-y nostalgia might evoke dark and winter and snow-muffled silence to me less because it says so, though, than because I stored those associations in it. I grew up poking around in the New England woods and perhaps the poem is a handy vessel in which to hold that immanence. Or are the trudging Anglo-Saxon words—“woods,” “snow,” “woods,” “lake,” “year,” “dark,” “deep,” “sleep”—doing actual work in spite of my resistance?
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Irony is a fault of mine, but not one I attempt to correct. Letting it pool in my conversation seems to keep it out of my writing. I have a weakness and knack for clever wordplay, though, and I’m not sure they aren’t the same.
“The Road Not Taken” was another favorite I later sent to the trash heap. I took it out again once I noticed that since the speaker takes the less-traveled road, the title must refer to the other road—the well-trodden one—in which case it’s a referential loop and the road we each believe less traveled is actually the one that everyone picks and we’re all just fooling ourselves thinking we’re so goddamn original. The poem either is or is about the equivalent of a fake beat-up concert T-shirt from Urban Outfitters and I love that I can’t tell the difference.
I might once have had sex on the roof of a shed. I don’t know if I dreamed this or if the person I did or didn’t do it with merely suggested it, and whether seriously or as a joke. I know where I was and when and with whom, but not whether it’s a truth or a dare I didn’t accept. I would love to know the exact day and time when I could last say whether I did or didn’t have sex on a shed and know what new memory took that memory’s place, and then what later replaced that one.
Do I make and lose memories at the same rate? I wish I could not just experience but witness my new memories popping like corn while the old ones nipped back into impermeable kernels. If I cut myself off from or stopped storing new data—became an anchorite or anterograde amnesiac like Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates—maybe then I’d have access to more of my past. I’d study the rolling updates to my mind and memory in a vacuum.
(How great is it that “hermetic” and “hermitic” have different roots but are almost the same word and almost the same thing?)
I want to put myself down on paper and look at it. Except whatever I learned from looking I’d then have to add to it.
I can’t stand that I won’t get to write about my death.
Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli says, “Heat cannot pass from a cold body to a hot one . . . this is the only law that distinguishes past from future.” In other words, the heat of the universe is being dispersed and can’t reverse, so there is in fact a full-scale order to events. Seems like human memory is a kink in the physics, though—a back-masked track in the record—not because we remember but because our memories affect what we do in the future.
Sometimes I see my memories through a retro-colored filter, like how my mother’s stories of her childhood look black-and-white to me. Mine have the look of unremastered cop shows from the eighties. In middle-school typing class we used electric typewriters with sheets of paper taped at the top edge so we couldn’t see our hands or the keys underneath. The radio was always tuned to the Top 40 station and while my memory of typing class looks like Hill Street Blues, it sounds like “Broken Wings.”
In computer class I learned to make spirograph-looking designs with a string of commands. No one ever explained the wider applications of this, but I liked watching the triangular turtle whip around to make a symmetrical pattern in the colors I’d asked for.
Creativity, as opposed to rote learning, is a prized quality in children right now and a major concern of parents. I have several times almost bought one or the other of my children a spirograph—which has all the appearance of a riveting game—for Christmas, even though it is an utterly uncreative and also boring contraption. This is the kind of impulse purchase I repeatedly have to resist. It’s not born of nostalgia, but the sense that my children should have the same things that I had as a child, which I guess is something like tradition. Tradition is shifting baseline syndrome and feels a lot like the reason I had children in the first place.
I remember deciding to touch a glowing orange stove coil. I remember looking up at the sunlit surface of a pool before I knew how to swim. I remember taking my own life on the internet. I think I take gambles not for the adventure but to bring about something definite. In spite of the inspirational quotes in my teenage notebooks, I’ve always been less interested in the journey than the destination.
There’s a current cultural affinity for presence—aka “mindfulness,” which, contrary to the word’s suggestion, is to deprive the mind of its own attention—but not for the mind’s depiction, which was the purview of the modernists and their inheritors. In the preface to Writing Is an Aid to Memory, Lyn Hejinian speaks of and exhibits “a restlessness made inevitable by language.” Having long believed that writing replaces my memories, I instinctively resist the book’s title, but I suspect its therapeutic cast is cheeky. A cat provokes her Gertrude Stein-like observation, “the task of biography sit cat has stop wrap of a sum and immediate notion simultaneity in some measure,” the jointed micromotions of the cat weaving into the speaker’s self-awareness. The word “sum” repeats through the long poem, stating the tension between the mind’s incessant tallying of information about the world and its experience of itself, affirming over and over again “I am.”
Writing Is an Aid to Memory is an experiment in omissionless self-depiction, where the sum of a life is an endless journey toward a shifting image of what it is. Great, but I’d rather see my memory in a display case (it would have to include the display case).
I just read there’s a huge quantity of microbial biomass deep within the earth’s crust. It’s impervious to the forces of sun and moon that dominate life on the surface, which might allow it to withstand a climate catastrophe. It’s also beneath the reach of noxious seepage from industrial runoff and mounds of cast-off plastic. With metabolic and reproductive processes that are glacially slow, working at the time-scale of geology, some microbes have been alive for thousands of years. Up here, we live and die in beeps and blips, flickering. It’s nice to know of something dark and durational, like biological butoh.I spend my days in front of a screen, a necessity that’s invented me.
Time is only all of itself. The units we ascribe to it are particular to earth, which noodles in a different signature than the rest of the universe. Math should work everywhere, lain over creation like a grid on an overhead projector, but it didn’t do much good before zero was invented.
(I grew up hating math and now can’t even help my kids with their long division. I wish I’d been more careful in what I chose to remember.)
I read that the next frontier of CAPTCHA technology (CAPTCHA being an acronym containing the term “Turing,” even though the bot-detecting test is actually the opposite of what that suggests) is to foil the search engines’ detectors of superhuman perfection. In other words, the bots need to learn to supragame the system by making human errors. After that, it’s only a matter of time before they learn and show us not just how we are but how they want us to be, not entirely unlike the hegemony of soybeans.
I miss so many manual qualities of being human: phone books, newspapers, figures on paper, drawing wet marker over overhead transparency. I spend my days in front of a screen, a necessity that’s invented me.
In 1906 the English statistician Francis Galton made a discovery. At a country fair contest to guess the weight of an ox, he rightly figured the answers would be all over the map, but found that their average was just about exact. If I could apply the wisdom of crowds to crowd wisdom—i.e., take the internet and average it—would the mean of all its information and opinions constitute a seed bead of truth about what it is or means to be a human? Try as I do to locate what’s useful, I have a bias of faith in my own taste and am unduly influenced by what I choose to pay attention to.
Increasingly my attention is to my own attention.
Down the street from my in-laws’ on Martha’s Vineyard there’s a nature preserve where I go to escape the crowded house and bloated blue hydrangeas of town. Awhile back the trustees began clearing out the tangle of non-native vegetation, which revealed a bench at the edge of the salt pond. I began spending a lot of time there. Once the swans molted and left billows of down on the moss. The trustees kept on removing the bittersweet, phragmites, and invasive shrubbery, and instead of a thicket the meadow began to feel like a meadow, but the immaculate lawns of the surrounding properties became visible. Now when I walk there I feel like I’m trespassing in an antiseptic suburb.
In my life on paper I’m equally obsessed with authenticity and relativity, seeing them in superposition like Schrödinger’s cat. In my life in the world I’m the opposite. Forever half and/or half.
There’s a hard plastic case to a shape-sorting game someone gave to Willie when he was two. The shapes are long gone and the case isn’t good for holding anything else, but I hang on to it, sparing it from the ground. I’d give it away—I have a habit of donating junk only so I don’t have to toss it myself—but it very obviously has no further purpose. It can’t be recycled. It makes me anxious every time I see it.
My sister has a winter coat whose collar she found out too late is made of real coyote. She doesn’t want to render the coyote’s death pointless, and yet she also doesn’t want to contribute to the current fashion for coyote-collared coats. She could give it away, but that wouldn’t prevent the perpetuation of the fashion, since someone else would still be wearing it. Also, then she’d have to buy another coat, which is expensive.
I used to say with irony that Coyote Ugly is my favorite movie. It concerns a young woman who gets a job dancing on a bar in order to pay for her dream of becoming a songwriter. Her dad finds out and is disappointed, but nothing is going to stop her. I saw it again on TV recently and it felt so dated—not because of the fashion or soundtrack or prominence of cassette tapes and the Yellow Pages, but the idea that one has a true self to be.
I love it.
I have a winter coat with a fake fur collar. Not only does it perpetuate the fashion for fur, but it will also one day end up in a landfill, its synthetic fibers adding to the mass of languishing plastic. Competitive virtuosity is also fashionable, but we’re all in a pickle. I keep my virtues close, which doesn’t help anyone.
Increasingly, my life is characterized by the endless infernal reading of articles, information roiling and self-replacing like the slow boil of a convecting sun. If I really want to depict my mind as it is—its plexus of connections—should I read more, to activate it, or less, to distill it?
I just read an article disparaging individual efforts to combat climate change, like walking to the dry cleaner and shirking plastic straws. While I am not complacent about my household efforts, even worse than the useless plastic shape-sorting game case is the potentially handy roll of plastic wrap in my kitchen cabinet, which I can neither stand to use nor throw away. Occasionally I tear off a small piece to cover the kids’ leftovers with, taking care not to let it touch the food so that I might recycle or reuse it. Then, though, I’m distributing its presence, which causes me further stress. I’m locked in a zero-stakes game of Russian roulette with a half-used roll of Glad Wrap.
In our time of competitive virtuosity people are often said to be paying attention to the wrong things. Sometimes it’s a question of scale—i.e., why are you worrying about this small problem when there are so many big ones. This is a reversal of the think-globally-act-locally credo of the nineties. Whether the energy moves up or down the chain, is the outcome not the same?
That’s an actual question.
I read about a Dutch entrepreneur who is developing a giant contraption to collect the plastic in the Pacific garbage patch and bring it back to shore for recycling. Even though the eddied plastic is only a tiny percentage of what’s in the ocean at large, he’s raised huge sums of money, including from Coca-Cola and other corporations responsible for the existence of the trash in the first place. The contraption consists of a huge boom and voluminous underwater “skirt” that stabilizes and directs the thing’s movement in the ocean currents. The whole apparatus is made of plastic—another drop in the bucket, certainly, but the part that really bothers me.
Light from the farthest stars I can see in the sky doesn’t end at my eyes, but bends around me and the planet at my feet. This is the nature of light. It feels, though, like it’s come all this way to be seen—that visibility is part of its definition. Was the essence of light different before beings existed to perceive it?
I don’t know the difference between nature and essence, but sense that by using both words I’ve covered some extra bases.
How can it be that the purpose of most things isn’t to be perceived? (I mean that in all the ways you can read it.) In one of my notebooks there’s a quote from Hayden Carruth: “The eye has knowledge the mind cannot share.” Whether if by “share” he means experience together or convey, a poet always means in all the ways, even if he doesn’t know it.I can’t see how you tell when perceived connections are real or mistaken and what counts as a relation when “everything” includes itself.
Carlo Rovelli says past, present, and future are illusions since it’s a different time at every point in the universe. Why then am I so thrilled by the fact that past and future coexist only in the minds of the sentient life that invents time by perceiving it?
There’s a video of Max Ernst explaining his signature frottage technique, where he’d make a pencil rubbing—often of floorboards—and then turn it into a fantastical drawing. No matter what impression he started with, it almost always turned into a forest, which is a place, he says, where you’re both outside and in, free and imprisoned. I too always end up in woods, lost in my thoughts and memory, but I can’t see the trees for the branching canopy.
While an illustration of torque looks like a curly phone cord, Robert Creeley at his best feels like a maximally twisted paper napkin. He doesn’t just delay resolution of meaning with his line breaks, but puts it off forever by allowing several possible and sometimes contradictory meanings to coexist, winding them down the poem like a stripe around a barber pole.
Such strangeness of mind I know
I cannot find there more
Than what I know.
One way to read this is that the speaker can’t find the strangeness of his mind more than he can’t find what he knows. Can you not have one thing even more than you don’t have another? Possibly, when one is abstract and the other measurable—like, maybe I don’t have peace of mind more than I don’t have a red car. I definitely don’t have a red car, but I don’t have peace of mind in a lot more ways. Of strangeness and knowing, is one more quantifiable? Off the bat, I’d say knowledge is more measurable, but only that which is fact based—the rest is complex, shifting in the mind’s currents. Maybe it’s easier to isolate strangeness since we notice it, like the cat with an incongruous umbrella you circle in a children’s magazine brainteaser.
I gave up reading The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction after two pages. I was bored because its ideas have been assimilated. I can’t distinguish the ideas I’ve personally assimilated from those sucked in and incorporated by culture, which makes me wonder when and if having naturalized a notion counts as knowing it.
The human mind is part and parcel of the world it apprehends. With Homo-sapiens-sapiens’ self-reflexive double sentience, what seems is all that is actual. When Wallace Stevens says, “Let be be finale of seem” in “The Emperor of Ice-Cream,” I read the triumphant “be”-ing as the place you land and stick it with jazz hands, but a finale is also the end. He and Creeley both actualize the tension between what seems and what is and whether and how we can or do know or see the difference. “And that has made all the difference,” on the other hand, is a pat ending to a poem about the sameness of two seeming options, which interests me, but it’s just smirking at humans’ bias toward our own perceived choices, leaving out all the tension.
The most disappointing thing about the internet is how often it disabuses me of illusions and misremembered bits of information, breaking the connections that stemmed from them. I’ve long linked Frank O’Hara with Albert Camus, who I thought had also been run over by a weird vehicle, but it turns out he died in a run-of-the-mill car crash. I didn’t know until it vanished, but I’d savored that fake coincidence, Camus being the quintessential and least felicitous I-don’t-do-this-I-don’t-do-that kind of writer.
Still, they both died in their prime in vehicular accidents. They died six years apart and were six years apart in age when they died. There must be another iconic run-over writer whom I misremembered as Camus and whose death connection with O’Hara is roaming freely without my awareness.
This morning at church the minister said, “Revelation is ongoing.” I wrote it down because while we think of a revelation as pertaining to a single thing and as an end in itself, if the one thing is everything in aggregate, then revelation is a process, unfolding forever like an endless paper fortune-teller game.
After we read The Stranger in A.P. English, someone brought in a VHS tape of The Cure’s “Killing an Arab” music video, for which the teacher wheeled in the media cart. The Gulf War had just ended. I don’t remember thinking that Meursault was an asshole. Whether I’ve changed more in time or in kind with the culture is hard to say, but thanks to the madding-crowd wisdom of the internet and/or my age, I can feel the way I’m changing changing.
I saw Forrest Gump in a Colorado movie theater with Dan from the dude ranch I was working at. One of its conceits is that Forrest appears as a background figure in all the important national events of the sixties and seventies. At the time, the generation before mine seemed so epic, but now I think it was just the first and last whose members were all watching the same thing on television.
When I later visited Dan in Los Angeles we attended his brother’s wedding at a cut-rate amusement park with rinky-dink throwing games and a Snoopy theme. I had neither been invited nor was planning to attend and was wearing one of my tatty thrift-store getups—houndstooth skirt with a broken zipper, men’s undershirt, and clompy shoes. The bride seemed annoyed I was there, but then the groom didn’t show and she forgot about me. We waited forever before he finally arrived with a bloody face after getting in a car accident on the way. He did not rise to the occasion, but moped and shuffled though the ceremony and reception, looking as sorry for himself as possible. At the time, I thought it was a riot.
Dan’s own wedding was a few years later in a fake Danish town near Santa Barbara, and dinner was an actual smorgasbord. The ubiquitous gift shops carried a mishmash of Northern European schlock—wooden shoes, butter cookies, Viking board games, cuckoo clocks. I bought a magnet and still have it.
Irony is a form of avoidance, a space between, a means of not committing to anything. Most genuine things are embarrassing, though, and only Kevin Bacon is zero degrees from himself.
A thing I’ve been attuned to lately is the celebrities of my youth being no longer famous. Sometimes when they die I’ll hear about it as a one-line news item on the radio and think about what a big deal their demises would have been thirty years ago. Conversely, when I hear about the deaths of crooners and early film stars I feel bad when I’ve never heard of them. I hardly know any celebrities anymore and can’t distinguish my increasing age-based disdain for youth culture from the decentralizing forces of the internet. Everything I’ve taken to be the case feels newly provisional: what if my nineties-sanctioned disaffection was stupid and I am now part of more problems than solutions?
I wasted so much time watching boys play video games. I remember every gummy blip of the Super Mario Bros. music. Later they moved on to stylized cinematic sadism—Glengarry Glen Ross and Reservoir Dogs—for which I feigned admiration, even though they were tedious and virtually devoid of women. I think about how I might help spare my son’s future admirers this kind of gendered-entertainment torture, but teens now torment one another remotely, it seems, making piling onto a sectional sofa to watch sadistic movies seem wholesome.
Not long ago a much older man emailed me to ask if I’d write a blurb for his book, which I agreed to do. He then wrote, “There is some very masculine sensuality, in the long poem ‘Pricks.’ If it offends, let it go.” I am not at all offended by masculine sensuality, but told him that on second thought I was not the right person to endorse his book. I’m still not sure what he was telling me to do, but it’s when things change the way they change that you are lost, and I knew exactly where I stood.
In Mythologies, Roland Barthes likens the process of manufacturing plastic to alchemy, the mythical transmutation of matter. The worker executing the process is “half-god, half-robot.” When he wrote it in the 1950s, soon after plastic products became widely available, it surely must have seemed a miraculous substance—imagine replacing your playground tin toy bucket with a light and shiny red plastic pail. It’s hard to fathom now that anyone could align our mundane mass-made products of convenience with gold, that storied substance we most often credit with inherent worth. In fact, the respective cash values of gold and plastic are inversely proportional to their utility. Because it’s so soft, gold’s value is almost purely aesthetic—we’d have little use for it without vision.
On our honeymoon in Thailand, Rusty and I visited a temple containing a dead monk in a plexiglass case. He was sitting in lotus position, exactly how he was found after death, wearing a pair of pink plastic sunglasses. I think the point was that he died with a soul so pure his body hadn’t decomposed. But of what use is his lifeless body?
What doesn’t kill you might lead to something worse. Death doesn’t deal kindly with cheaters.
There is a plague of plastic gemstones upon my house, but I also have a real one set in an engagement ring that belonged to Rusty’s great-grandmother and which is by far the most beautiful and precious thing I own. I frequently put it on my finger and admire it in my bathroom lighting. I don’t wear it outside the house, though, because I wouldn’t want to perpetuate the fashion for diamonds, which are generally born of the most egregious human rights violations. I also don’t like what it would signal about what I value, even though I value beauty above all else.
“Pareidolia” by Kate Colby, reprinted with permission of Conjunctions. Copyright © 2021 by Kate Colby.