When the Scaffolding Comes Tumbling Down

I have a friend who is a fan of medicating, as it were. He, like most people I know (myself included), has an elaborate pharmacy he uses to propel himself through the day — and with gusto! — from coffee to kratom to booze to pot to whip-its to Ambien to whatever. Note than none of these are illegal. And so a little of this, then a little of that, and the day goes on without catastrophe. Mind you, this is a highly productive person with his own business and happy family. (I add this aside as I hate that drugs are generally seen as an ugly agent, even if they often are for many people to whom I mean no disrespect at all). He refers to this all as his scaffolding.

I love this word, this image: scaffolding. It's poignant in that it holds up a structure, helps maintain a structure, but is not itself a structure. Existentially, we all rely on scaffolding in different forms  — those things that hold us up.

Jobs are probably the most pervasive form of scaffolding. They give people an identity — I'm a coder; I'm a UX designer; I'm a chef —but they also structure people's time. They give people a clear, presumably inarguable (although I'd beg to differ) reason to get out of bed in the morning. It gives them some place to go, a reason to have their bodies doing this and that. It gives them purpose. Take away their job and whatever would they do? How would they spend their time? Who would they be? In Silicon Valley, and its culture, a job is no longer just a job. It's a way of life. It's a scaffolding so pervasive it seeks to take over the structure.

Of course, in reality, people are frustrated and fatigued from their jobs. Which is why they have Netflix and Amazon and Hulu and HBO. They have their shows. Shows become a way for people to distract themselves from their fatigue and frustration. This same show culture mocks the housewives of old who needed to see their shows at all cost — their soap operas. But it's all the same thing: scaffolding to keep people from standing alone, naked, with nothing to define their time or grab their attention.

This is not to say that these shows are bad or that watching them is bad. Jeez, I watch all kinds of things. I am not criticizing. I am, however, pointing out that jobs and shows are part of our scaffolding. You can hear the panic, feel the dread, when the WiFi is down. Whatever shall we do? What will amuse us? Where will we sit and what will we look at?

The scaffolding pervades — porn, politics, the new restaurant, Tinder, Facebook, the news. It's all so many things to demand our attention, keep us distracted, so many things to fill the day so we never have to reckon the various miseries that pervade our lives: our self loathing, our horrible childhoods, the relentless crap we tolerate in our romantic relationships, the soul suffocation of work, the fear of death, the actual deaths of our loved ones, our own impending demise.

I am not saying everyone is unhappy. What I'm saying is that the mere fact of being human inevitably affords us a certain amount of misery. Communication goes astray at an alarming pace (some would say always); desire provokes and goes unsated; love goes unrequited; parents get frustrated and scream at their kids, making both miserable and guilty and self-loathing; those closest to us die. I'm not being a pessimist. I am stating the obvious: living is fucking hard. And so we construct scaffoldings of different sorts to keep the pain at bay.

But what happens when the scaffolding comes tumbling down?

For me, my scaffolding involves a litany of substances — of course — but more integral is a certain sense of a solitary, knowing self. This is how I've imagined myself in the world: alone, outside the social (despite having been married and having a kid; a scaffolding is a story as much as anything else) and always understanding the way of things. Coffeen: the smart guy.

I clung to this notion, this conception, this support for decades. I cling to it still. The thing is, it's giving way. I suddenly find myself 47 years old, nearly broke, and alone. Yes, I have a child. Yes, I have some friends around the country. But, somehow, I've managed to keep them all at arms reach — or further. And my understanding of things? It looks terribly silly in the blinding light of my sister's death and the horror of trudging myself through the everyday.

Over the past few months (if not longer), this scaffolding has begun to give way. It became obvious to me when I went to New York in October, my first time home since my sister's funeral. And I was devastated, overwhelmed by memory, an inchoate swirling affective teem. It was not a series of images or events I was recollecting: it was my life all jumbled, all the sensations, all the loss, all the loves, all the death, all the violence, all at once, here and now. I was gutted, a bumbling, mumbling fool. So I upped my booze and my kratom and my Ambien which, perhaps needless to say, only made the scaffolding less steady. Still, back in SF, I doubled down on my pharmacopeia.

And then Christmas came and I couldn't turn to my usual litany of substances as I was sick as a dog. And then this sickness got worse. Desperate, I got a script for an awful antibiotic, hoping despite everything that it would restore order. But it did just the opposite: it made the entire scaffold collapse. I began crying hysterically all day and night as a steady stream of misery drowned me — alone and lonely in my shitty little rented house. (This is an actual side effect of the drug, Levaquin.) And I now understand Nietzsche when he says that when he was sick, he was not sick at bottom. For me, however, my sickness went all the way down.

Take away my coffee and cocktails, my kratom and pot; take away any work to distract me; take away my loves and desires; take away my shows as I've seen them all too many times and now they've begun to ring false; take away my philosophical ramblings and my witty repartee (a generous interpretation, no doubt); take it all away and what is left? This blubbering fool.

Laying about trying to maintain....something...I've been rewatching Breaking Bad. Hank is a character whose scaffolding we see give way. His good old boy machismo is no match for the horrors he faces — killing a man in a firefight, then seeing co-workers killed and maimed in an explosion, then being shot. He's afraid to say he's afraid; he's afraid to show himself a blubbering fool: he's afraid to be vulnerable. So he tries to double down on the machismo, despite relentless panic attacks. This only takes him so far so he retreats sullenly into his bedroom, ordering rocks and minerals like a lonely woman buying clothes online at 4:00 AM.

There is no such thing as no scaffolding. Indeed, the structure — who we are — and the scaffolding are entwined. But when the scaffolding gets too rigid, it can't support this human structure that moves, changes, that suffers in new ways. My scaffolding has been the scaffold of the solitary young smart ass — horny and quick and hyper critical: the smartest, randiest guy in the room who just wants to be left alone. But I'm older now. I move slower. My main tether to the world, my site of unconditional love that was always there, is there no more.

And so I need a new scaffold, one that can bend with me when I heave over in pain. One that can give way and allow other people to see me, to see my pain, to help me. I suppose this is why older people turn to Buddhism, to a practice and philosophy of acceptance. Without the vigor of youth, without a steady scaffold, all we have left is this. And this is what Buddhism presumably offers: this, just this — a scaffolding that's always changing to fit its structure.

I'd like to suggest that within us all is a blubbering fool — a scared, lonely, bag of flesh that just wants to love and be loved, to be known, to be held. And that much of our scaffolding impedes this, impedes love, impedes intimacy because it defers vulnerability. Because we work so hard to maintain the scaffolding, we neglect this blubbering fool, this beautiful, grotesque being. And so neglect this all too human life.


On Solitude: Balancing the Human & Inhuman

This is a bit more of a personal podcast as I take a quick break from talking about my book. This one was inspired by Christmas and my will to solitude — and the limits of this will.

I've long enjoyed the romance of the solitary man who takes joy in clouds and the sky. And, no doubt, these things bring me a certain ecstasy. But I run into the limits of my inhumanity as I feel lonely, as I grieve, as I desire. To shed my humanity is a false dream, a dangerous dream. There is much that is beautiful in the human experience, even when ugly. But, more than beauty, there is the inevitability of that human tug of childhood memory, of romantic desire, of a will to be loved.

I mention:

- What this hebe does on Christmas
- Kierkegaard's reading of Abraham and Isaac in "Fear and Trembling"
- Deleuze and Guattari's inhuman becoming


Reading the Way of The Way (podcast)

Here is the second moment in the title of my book, The Way (Reading the Way of Things). I've been attracted to this notion of the way since reading Hagakure: The Way of the Samurai which I came to through Mishima who I came to through TC Boyle's East is East. I love that path because it shows that the way of something is fundamentally multiple and surprising.

A way is a trajectory, a verb, a becoming — but a becoming that goes like this. It is particular even though it is unknowable once and for all and is multivocal. I think of the number Pi: it is at once absolutely determined and yet surprising and unknown.

I could have called the book Reading the Ways of Things. But I like the tension in the singular "the" that is nonetheless always and already multiple.

In this episode, I discuss:

- Hagakure
- Calculus
- The reality cooking TV show, Chopped
- Epictetus
- Deleuze's breakdown of the distinction between the one and the many

Enjoy! Thank you!


Redefining Literacy: Towards Creative & Critical Reading

How we define what it is to read — how we define literacy — is how we define the happening of the world and our role in it. Nothing is more politically, ethically, & ideologically charged.

When we teach kids to read, we teach them to decode — what sound each letter makes, what each word means. No doubt, this is necessary. But once a kid can decode some words, we say that the kid can read. Literacy, then, becomes defined as the ability to decode an already existing message.

After all, that's what decoding is — the unscrambling of a meaning that already exists. Reading-as-decoding assumes that meaning awaits us and it's the reader's job to find it. This means — ha! — that the world has already delivered its message. And our only job is to figure out what that message is.

Implicit in such a configuration is that the reader — you, me, our kids — is not herself part of the meaning. Meaning is something that already happened and is expressed over there. Readers — which is to say, you and me — happen after meaning happens. This is literacy for, and of, the dead.

This is life lived backwards. We might call it Socratic as Socrates asks how we can come to know anything. How could we even ask a question about something we know nothing about? It's an epistemological dilemma: in order to know, Socrates claims, we have to already know. Learning, he tells us, is a matter of memory, of remembering what we've forgotten.

This of course means the reader doesn't create meaning. Meaning is delivered from on high. To decode is to be at the mercy of the meaning creator; we're looking for his — and, yes, it's usually his — meaning. This is why biography is considered one of the great decoder rings: know the man and you'll know his meaning. The key is probably lodged in his childhood or, more likely, in his duodenum (pace Nietzsche who says all prejudices come from the intestines).

This is great for the powers that be. It is not the reader's job to question the message — and it's certainly not the reader's job to question the code itself. Of course, when we think we're being generous, we teach that readers have the option not to like a message. They can even replace it with another. Don't like Adam Smith? Ok, then who do you like? Marx? Great! And then we believe that the reader has been critical, replacing the dead text with a different dead text. In this world, critique is a kind of discerning necrophilia.

And it demands a posture of witness and recline. In this version of literacy, the reader is not implicated in the process of reading. The reader is not constitutive of the meaning-event, of meaning creation. The reader waits for the word and then tries to decipher it and is told if she's right or wrong. This is called a spelling test — one of the more absurd, egregious pedagogic go-to's — Mom! Dad! I got a 100% on my spelling test! I followed all the rules perfectly! Holy shit! Who invented this nonsense?! Who ever thought that the best way to teach reading was to teach an absolute right and wrong? The spelling test becomes the essay becomes the degree becomes the job becomes what already was and the reader, along with the world, dies in the process.

I want to suggest a different definition of what it means to read. I want to suggest that meaning is made in between — in between letters, in between words, in between people and things, in between reader and text. A text does not just sit there and await decoding; it comes to you who are yourself a text. And the you-text and the text-text resonate, collide, pass each other by in a more or less elaborate calculus — like the San Francisco fog pouring over the hills, a champagne flute shattering as it hits floor, like the warmth that comes the first time she takes your hand, like rain on pavement, rain on dirt, rain on face.

This shifts the posture of the reader. Rather than leaning back and awaiting the text, the reader is in the mix, in the thick of it, in and of and with the event. The reader is leaning a tad forward. But not too much; lean too far forward and you miss the text all together (most ideology critique does just this: it leans so far forward because it's already read the text). The reader is poised, ready, in motion while still, anticipatory without being determinative. Text and reader — neither of which are singular — engage each other in a kind of dance, wrestle, flirtation, fucking, friendship. They become a hybrid within a hybrid world. (The world is hybrid all the way down.)

And literacy becomes something other than decoding: it becomes an engaged, critical, and creative act. Literacy is participatory; it demands all of you, not just your decoder ring. Imagine that. Imagine literacy programs for which decoding was necessary but never sufficient for reading. Imagine how different classrooms would look. Imagine how different we'd all look to each other. We are not things to be decoded. We are things to create and be created.


Reading Reading

Here I talk about why I use this word "reading" in the title of my book, Reading the Way of Things.

I purposefully want reading to be something different than the decoding of letters or images, as if the world were already written and we decipher it. I want reading to be a creative act, an inaugural act. I want reading to entail a different posture of standing towards the world: a leaning in and an opening up, a going with so that reader and text create each other.

I talk about why, when I taught comp, I taught reading. To write critically is to read critically. I never understood how one could separate the two.

I also talk about the materiality of literature, the way Deleuze crawls into the skin of texts, and why I haven't read his book on Bergson.