Aphorisms
Essays About

A reader's days would seem dull to someone watching from outside. I read, think about my reading, and write about my thinking. I spend hours in chairs, staring at pages or screens, not speaking, hardly moving. The audience would wonder if I were alive. The life is inside: a reader's outward calm belies a mind in motion. We are wrong to think of readers as introverts. Readers are secret extroverts who crave constant society, only they crave it with novelists, philosophers, and poets, not their neighbors. They traverse distant worlds and interview the dead, while the so-called socialites never leave the local scene, homebodies of the here and now.

Watching an airplane gain altitude after takeoff, I marvel at the feat of flight. But on second thought I correct myself: my marveling depends on taking gravity for granted. Would it not be equally reasonable to marvel that a broken plane plummets to earth? If I strip my thoughts of custom, cutting my brain to the bone of ratiocination, I find no first principle of logic dictating that objects must fall.

We call facts like flight extraordinary because they violate ordinary facts like gravity. But ordinary facts are only extraordinary facts we have grown used to.

If we took nothing for granted, there would be no dullness to highlight the wonderful. Wonder rests on lack of wonder.

A part of me hates to see my one year old cry. But given that she cries over trivialities like falling ten inches from a standing to sitting position, a part of me loves to see her cry, because when her lips wrinkle and tears flow my love for her wells up. There is a disturbing paradox in love: we take pleasure in loving; the beloved's pain intensifies our love; therefore, we take pleasure in the beloved's pain.

Though I loved my daughter before she was born and very soon afterward, surprise, not love, was my chief emotion as the doctor pulled her from the birth canal. She entered life a rough-looking creature: her skin was covered with a white film, her wet black hair was matted to her head, and her right ear, the first feature I saw, was so crumpled from delivery that I briefly thought she had cauliflower ear. Looking past her disheveled condition at her face, I saw no resemblance to my wife or me. Though I had no real expectation of what she would look like, her unfamiliar appearance startled me by reminding me that I did not know her yet. I had loved my mental idea of her, talking to her through my wife's skin during pregnancy, but now her reality and particularity said to me, slow down with your love, I am not made in your mental image. How could this be my daughter, my dearest, the flesh of my flesh, when I could not have told her apart from a total stranger?

I've sometimes felt a milder version of this estrangement from expectation when arriving at a vacation rental that I had visualized incorrectly based on photographs. Imagine, too, the soul's alienation when, the veil of mortality lifted, it beholds God and discovers that the God it loved in life was only a fantasy, and it must now learn to love all over again.

I travel not only to see the world, but to see home. Every trip is two trips, because being abroad makes home a foreign land when I return. I choose destinations for their contrast with my origin: tropical instead of temperate vegetation, large instead of small cities, warm beaches in winter and alpine lodges in summer. I stay as long as I can, to weaken my memory of home. Then, at trip's end, as the airplane descends toward my old patch of earth, I get a newcomer's view of where I live. As I open my front door, my house is a hotel, where with a lodger's senses I notice the odor of my wood floors for the first time in months. For a day or two, I am a tourist of my own life.

By pleasure rather than labor, by release rather than exertion, we create life. Meanwhile, in all our other endeavors, we work much harder to produce a far less impressive result. It takes me months to write an essay; it took minutes to create my daughter.

True, my wife had to carry our child for nine months, and together we must guide and raise her for eighteen years, but these are outward and trivial aids. My wife in pregnancy, though I honor her suffering, was more acted upon than acting, a Petri dish for our fused cells to grow in. I am installing gates to keep our daughter from tumbling down the stairs, but she is mysteriously engineering her own ability to crawl. We parents are mere managers, facilitating rather than performing the critical work. We provide milk and play mats and cribs for naps, and out of these raw materials our babies assemble brains, speech, movement, emotions, and consciousness.

Why pore through parenting books as if a child's development hinged chiefly on our methods? Overzealous parents are like software managers who don't know how to program yet think projects will fail unless they tinker with the few superficial details they understand.

At parties, relocating from acquaintance to acquaintance, I exchange updates on work, family, or upcoming travel plans, repeating the same conversation five times an hour. To stave off boredom, I listen more than talk. I have a learner's nature, not a teacher's: I am more interested in what I do not know than in what I know. Thus I regard as a bore not the person who only speaks about himself but the person who only asks about me, a topic I already know. I seek out egotistical people who expand my knowledge of the world with detailed narratives of their fly-fishing excursions or their child's violin concerts, people who are as little interested in asking polite questions about me as I am in answering them. I want to hear the opinions of experts, and everyone is an expert about his own life.

I used to come home every night to a childless house, and I was happy. But since my daughter's birth, if I come home and she is away for the night at a grandparent's house, my evening goes poorly. I check the video monitor of the nursery and feel empty to see an empty crib. My evening walk, without her in a carrier against my chest, is exercise without pleasure. How can I be dependent on a being who, six months ago, did not exist? I did not need her when I did not have her. But she has entered my life as a nail enters a block of wood, simultaneously creating a hole and filling it. Remove the nail, and the hole remains. Love completes unhappy people, but uncompletes happy people, because love means we can no longer be happy alone.

Who would not be fascinated to know what his life will be like in 15 years? Yet time will satisfy our curiosity about the future so slowly that we will never gain much pleasure from learning the outcome. To quench my curiosity now, I travel back in time instead of forward. My present life is the future secret that some self of a prior decade longed to look into, and now I know the outcome and need only recall the curiosity. I imagine myself in high school wondering whom I would marry, where I would live after college, and what my job would be, so that I can pull the curtain of time and flood my remembered ignorance with insight. My accurate and failed predictions equally fascinate me: I am, and am not, who I planned to be.

The mind is a phasic receptor, only noticing a sudden stimulus. We are unconscious of who we've become because we became who we are too gradually. Forgetting is a trick for remembering.

I am more adventurous in a small than a large city. In a large city, the hassle of getting anywhere imprisons me within a few square blocks of my hotel. Intimidated by complex subway routes and the cost of parking, I favor not the best restaurant but the nearest, so I can walk. I venture afield in the daytime but skip the nightlife, for I hate to be exhausted at evening's end and need a conquistador's will to get back to my bed. In a small city, I can park where I like and make reservations last minute, and thus I never abandon a plan for dread of logistics. In a large city there is more to do, but in a small city I do more.

When a hurricane strikes a coastline, and I follow its onset and aftermath on the news, I am struck by the brevity of the event. Floodwaters rise to the second stories of buildings, and cars float in the street, but a day or two later, the ground is dry, the sun is out, and the world is as it was. Impressive as storms are, they cannot match the staying power of pleasant weather. They muster all they have and blow themselves out in twenty-four hours, like panting sprinters doubled over after fifty meters. The blue sky pushes their fury aside and re-asserts its casual sovereignty. With unsinkable buoyancy, normalcy resurfaces.

This return to normalcy sets me up for surprise when I read reports that people are dead. Though the waters no sooner rose than receded, the victims they briefly drowned did not revive with the next day's sunrise. The world before and after the storm was livable, and deadliness only encroached upon life for a moment, but life, a featherweight, once knocked down stays down. Surely the victims' lives, like the electricity, should only have been interrupted, not ended. The cause was fleeting: shouldn't the effect be?

negotiation_curve.jpgNegotiators—whether politicians or homebuyers—begin with bold concessions which rapidly shrink the gulf between opposing sides. But like curves approaching an asymptote in geometry, as they near an agreement they level off and struggle to bridge the final, though trivial, gap. The effect of their ongoing quarreling is that, by the end, their motivating goal is not so much to strike a deal or make a sale as to make the other side yield, on no matter how minor a point. The fact of winning a concession matters more than the concession's substance. Not who yields most, but who yields last, appears to lose. The negotiation grows more bitter, the less remains at stake.