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?
Negotiators—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.
I doubt the phrase "The Great Recession," as applied to the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, is destined for future history books. The word "recession," by reminding us of the weightier word "depression," undercuts the adjective "great." How can it have been great if it was not great enough to be a depression? It is only great in a lesser class, a superstar of the minor league.
The phrase's makers and repeaters commit the error of overestimating the magnitude of events they happen to live through. They judge from within, like farmers in tornados who, because the sky turns black and the wind blows the roof off their house, declare the apocalypse come, though at the moment of their prophecy most of the globe basks in sunlight.
When a parent says, "time to come in," the playing child protests, "must I?" Parents therefore declare children to be willful. But to children, parents must seem willful, for children grasp the rules but not the reasons. For adults, the reasons make the rules tolerable. We go to work because we know we must earn money. But children go kicking to school because going to school is the inscrutable dictate of their superiors. Adults live in an orderly cosmos of law and consequence, but children live in a Homeric world of fickle gods and arbitrary fate.
At concerts, moved by a beautiful song, we are drawn to the songmaker's soul, the wellspring of the song's beauty. If the glow she gives off in melody and words is so wonderful, how luminous it must be in the inner chamber of her being! Most likely, though, her soul's hearth is cold, for she has sung this song nightly to audiences for six months straight. Habit has deadened her to every feeling except loathing for another repetition. She was moved once, when she wrote the song, when she was the surprised and admiring audience of her own inspiration. But now she is only another instrument she herself plays, a flute deaf to its own sound.
Packing up my belongings when I move always causes me a small existential crisis. Suddenly, the walls are bare. Nail holes rather than photographs line the hallways. My feet, accustomed to the soft pile and bright pattern of an Oriental rug, touch a hard, cold floor. My empty bookshelves no longer cloak me in an aura of culture and history. My speakers are boxed up, and the quiet disquiets me. I have, in preparing to move, already moved into a house devoid of color, warmth, and resonance. Is this the same place I was living all along? Seeing my familiar home stripped and emaciated feels like seeing the skeletal figure of a friend on his death bed. The bare, unsignifying walls seem like a hidden truth I had papered over with my belongings. I worry, was the old life and color a lie? Is human meaning a poster on the white plaster wall of nature?
Cops and robbers would score the same on personality tests. Children who love guns and action, when they grow up, may act out their instincts on either side of the law. They may shoot people, or shoot people who shoot people. What we call brazenness in a criminal we call courage in a police officer.
Planning layoffs feels akin to planning a murder. Managers call secret meetings to identify which employees to eliminate. They observe the targeted workers' morning arrival times to plan the best hour to strike, forming teams of hit men to deliver the news.
Being privy to the plans places you in the morally questionable position of knowing your co-worker's fate but concealing it from him, like concealing from a friend that a car is about to hit him. You exchange pleasantries with him the day before his doom, discussing upcoming projects that you know do not concern him.
As the unlucky employees are called one by one to the boss's office, a contagion of rumors spreads through the building. Every heart thumps in fear of being called next, as medieval villagers trembled that the plague would jump from their neighbor's house to theirs, or as a panicked crowd scatters beneath the unpredictable aim of a rooftop sniper.
After the layoffs, survivor guilt blends with relief in those left behind. The names of the departed are taboo and spoken only in whispers. We say the fired employees were "let go," as if the company merely allowed rather than forced them to leave.
Soon, the daily collegiality of the workplace lulls everyone back into a sense of familial belonging, and we forget that we are instruments of profit whose continued employment depends on earning the company more money than we are paid.
Mr. Stanley’s Aphorisms and Paradoxes are outstanding examples of the long-form aphorism... inevitably studded with discrete individual aphorisms that could easily stand on their own.
-James Geary, author of The World in a Phrase: A Brief History of the Aphorism