longing for the real

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Month: July, 2012

Letter Writing

For this week’s post I am presenting the links to two pieces I posted this week on the award-winning U.S. Intellectual History blog that I think might also fit well here and be of interest to our readers. These meditations touch on topics we regularly explore here on our blog, including technology and the texture of everyday life.



-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

In the Matrix of Modernism: Veganism, Sociopathy, and OK Cupid

We were standing in Gimmie! Coffee for good reasons.  As she can tell you at the drop of a hat, they use certified coffees including Fair Trade, Organic, Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and Rainforest Alliance.  They feature local, hormone-free milk in their espresso bars, corn-based compostable cups instead of plastic, and local providers of other goods and services whenever possible.  None of their products are cheap, of course.  But the price of Gimmie! Coffee is part of the price you pay for feeling like a better person.  Starbucks is the New Death Star, everyone knows that.  You have to be a little dead inside to buy coffee there.  You have to be one of those people.  She knows who they are.  Ask her and she’ll point them out on the street.

I didn’t ask any questions while we waited for her soy latte.  It had been a calm morning so far, and I didn’t want to introduce any discord into what promised to be a nice day together.  We’d been having problems in the relationship.  The long-distance between Rochester and Ithaca, not to mention other complications, had pushed things to the brink more than once in less than three months.  But today was to be a recovery day; we planned to take a long hike together to talk about what we could do differently.  Both of us said we wanted to save the relationship, and the hike was billed as a kind of sustainability event to determine whether or not we could.  All we needed was her soy latte and we’d be on our way.

Waiting alongside the other ethical customers, I thought it was a good time to tell her about the special lunch I made for our hike.  First there was the peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  It was actually quite sophisticated.  I started with two slices of Ezekiel 4:9 Sprouted Grain Bread, organic of course, toasted them lightly, then carefully applied Crofter’s Organic Just Fruit Blackberry Spread to the first slice.  I thought of it as the luckier of the two before I moved on to the peanut butter.  She’d voiced some misgivings about the mid-grade Smuckers I had in my cupboard the last time she visited, so I made a special point of buying a much more expensive organic brand for this particular sandwich.  It was accompanied by organic sliced carrots and cucumbers, but the trail mix, I admitted, contained only organic peanuts.  The raisins and walnuts I brought were, unfortunately, non-organic.

Knowing that she really prefers to eat everything organic, and that she takes her veganism very seriously, I half-jokingly apologized for this least decorous part of the menu thinking she’d still be impressed by my considerable efforts to please her.  The meal was certifiably vegan-friendly as far as I could tell.  But the raisins, she informed me, really were a problem.

It became an educative moment for me and anyone else who happened to be listening.  Some foods have higher pesticide residue than others, so if you’re going to decide which to buy non-organic, she said, you should make sure they’re not tree fruits, berries, or leafy greens.  These are all part of “the dirty dozen,” she explained.  There is a hierarchy and we should observe it.  Otherwise who knows what chemicals we’ll be exposed to.  My failure to buy the right product at the right grocery store now culminated in a harsh look on her face as she enunciated the word “raisins.”

Some people have a way of doing everything just right.  From the first conversations we had on OK Cupid, she appeared to be one of them.  Her diet, her intensive exercise routines, including 90-minute Bikram Yoga classes sometimes twice a day, her former Buddhism, her gourmet cooking expertise, her precise knowledge of poetry, art, and music, her meticulous composting and recycling habits—nearly every choice this woman made seemed to conform to the most rigid dictates of physical, aesthetic, and ecological excellence.  And yet something was missing.

On the walk back to my car from Gimmie! Coffee I couldn’t resist asking any longer.  I’d noticed a hickey on her neck when we left her house and I knew it would drive me crazy if I didn’t ask if I had given it to her.  This was conceivable since I had been in Ithaca two nights before.  But the large dark mark on her neck looked fresh.  Some part of me knew I hadn’t given it to her.  So, after a few more minutes of light conversation during which I looked for an opportunity to change the subject, I asked, and she proceeded to tell me the story of what happened that morning while I was driving to Ithaca.

She and her fitness buddy used to date.  I’d known that.  She even told me early on that she still had feelings for him, and I chose to continue.  It was only after our first month together when I asked if she’d told him about us that I began to worry.  She hadn’t told him, and she didn’t plan to because she felt it might endanger their friendship.  They were, after all, trying to rebuild a friendship after he’d ended the relationship several months earlier, and she felt like this effort was still somewhat fragile.  She wanted to protect it from anything that might dampen their rapport, and she asked me to understand.

I was of course uncomfortable with such an awkward arrangement—her continuing to see this fitness buddy, whom she still had feelings for, almost daily for their various fitness-related activities without any open acknowledgement that she was in a long-distance relationship with me.  But because I wanted to preserve our relationship at an earlier point of turmoil I eventually acceded to her wishes.  I promised to trust her to do three things at once: to honor our relationship while sustaining her close friendship with her fitness buddy without making the two worlds collide.  As far as she was concerned, she got the best of both of us.  I was still uncomfortable, but I reconciled myself to keeping the faith.  I believed her when she said she loved me and that she was in control.

It turned out she wasn’t.  Even though we’d planned to start our long hike at 9am, she decided to go biking with her fitness buddy earlier that morning.  At the end of their ride, she told me, he kissed her, and then he gave her the hickey.  He’d been emotional lately, and it seemed to come out of nowhere.

As soon as I asked her the question—“did I give you that hickey?”—and she responded, coldly and flatly, with “nope,” I felt every ounce of feeling I had for her drop out of the pit of my stomach.  But I wanted to hear more of her story.

“How did you feel about it?” I asked.

“Conflicted,” she answered.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I knew you were driving here when it happened, so it was weird.”

“But obviously you kissed him back?”

“Well, yeah.”

“So where do you think that leaves us?”

“Well I guess that’s up to you.”

I’d re-joined OK Cupid almost exactly three months earlier because I thought I had no argument against it.  A friend made the case that the site and others like it are really just extensions of modernism and the city, and I was convinced.  The neat moral injunction that emerged from our discussion one night at a bar—either embrace the bricolage of possible human interactions, meanings, and experiences, or face the consequences of rejecting this latest iteration of modernism—led me to decisive action.

The day I re-opened my account I received the first message from the woman I would doggedly pursue for three months until that fateful morning.  In the beginning, I thought it was one of the most remarkable success stories of modernism in action I’d ever experienced.  But driving home that day the panorama of my idiocy was undeniable.  This is what you get when you participate in a medium that sorts people like commodities, I thought.  Bricolage ends in the possibility that one can merge extreme ethical sensitivity on the one hand with extreme ethical impoverishment on the other.  There are no rules in this new wild west.  There are only aesthetic preferences, whether they be early morning bike rides, dates with six different people six nights in a row, or coffee that makes you feel like a better person.

The peculiar form of ethical bricolage I encountered in Ithaca was not invented by OK Cupid, nor was it likely conceived in the modern era.  But one has to wonder how much the online format—particularly the primary node of the screen—reinforces a pattern of behavior that tends toward treating other people merely as means of personal satisfaction.  The OK Cupid app available on most smart phones epitomizes this pattern by turning each individual profile into a mere face on a menu, not unlike a cup of soup or an arugula salad one evaluates on the basis of taste and appetite.  At this extreme, “services” like OK Cupid and Grindr begin to look like data dumps of lost souls.  Lost souls are of course nothing new, either.  But this particular way of congregating and exchanging lostness (and loneliness) may be.

Whatever the truth about OK Cupid, I think I should have rejected this latest iteration of modernism.  I should have abstained.  Still, the seduction of experience lingers.

-Michael Fisher

Why Desire?: Part II

This was the fifth time I had seen the ad in two days, a white sign featuring Ben and Jerry’s new Greek Yogurt: there’s peanut-butter banana, some sort of fudge flavor, but most significantly to me, blueberry vanilla graham. I’ve been living in Brooklyn for the past two weeks, so travelling by subway I’m exposed to many of these sorts of ads. Everything from AIDS awareness and online colleges to the newest attempt by Adam Sandler to recover his goofy-kid glory days. I find myself wondering, after having experienced this daily deluge of advertisements, how effective they really are, and why. We all know that advertising works, as the screeds against its pernicious influence are wont to remind us. But I’d like to think that most people aren’t the dupes they’re made out to be by these polemics and academic studies and, in New York, it seems to me that, with so many people with so many interests and concerns, the last thing that many on the subway are thinking about is imbibing the faux mountain scene constructed from blueberry frozen yogurt and graham cracker pieces. Though, I certainly was.

On going into a bodega a few days ago to buy a snack, a healthy and oh so bourgeois container of prepared quinoa salad, I noticed the ice-cream cooler as I was in line to check out. I walked over to it, and there it was, the blueberry graham cracker mountain scene contained in a compact pint I could take back to my apartment, presumably to devour in solitude with a romantic comedy. I had to buy it, and did, and the experience of eating it lived up to the expectation the mountain scene provided; it was delicious, exhilarating, somehow, even scenic. Not too sweet or sugary like most ice creams, not terribly heavy, the tart blueberry was offset by the sweet crunch of graham cracker swirl. Ben and Jerry’s had done their job. The flavor had gotten into my head like a virus, only to be cured by the compulsion of frozen dairy consumption. It felt great.

I thought, in the midst of my enjoyment, of how cliché the whole thing was. Seeing the advertisement enough times had led me to buy without thought upon confrontation with the frozen pint, beckoning to me as if it knew I was coming. Maybe it did. The act was exactly what the advertising department had intended. To have been acted upon by persuasion was a strange feeling, though in many respects this was no different than having been told about a book or a movie to look into, maybe even to buy eventually. “Try our new ice cream flavor kid, you’ll love it!” is what I imagine the old-time Ben and Jerry’s traveling salesman would say. And I did. I did love it. “Thank you sir, and thank Ben and Jerry when you see them!”

But what’s the psychological import of this sort of persuasion? My desire for sweets was activated by a corporation (albeit a more or less ethical one); I paid to fulfill that desire. I don’t think of this hedonistically, and I think of the camaraderie often engendered by such exchanges in bars, restaurants. (The fun-time ads for TGI Friday’s come to mind, though I’ve never been there).

“But can this be truly fulfilling?” asks my good friend Mike Fisher. Having thought about the implications of James Livingston’s provocative and incredibly intelligent new book Against Thrift: Why Consumer Culture is Good For The Economy, The Environment, and your Soul, he’s led to wonder if consumer culture is all that we have left in modernity for the fulfillment of solidarity and emotional communion. Tough question. Can we be fulfilled by consuming? Can we exchange our desires together, in such a way that the togetherness outweighs the medium, where the medium of consumption is somehow irrelevant? And if we can only do so through the stultifying constraints of the work-leisure cycle, working to consume to escape work, then will these joint or collective exchanges prove to really be so fulfilling, or rather just collapse in on themselves in an endless cycle of repetitive consumption, as Hannah Arendt pointed out in her critique of Marx, subject to the psychology of diminishing returns?

First, perhaps we’re wrong to set erect such a stark dichotomy between the pleasures of consumption and those of communion, being with and for another. I’m not suggesting that my desire for ice cream is equal to my desire for other human beings (though it’s been suggested). What I mean is that our desire for others is, initially, the desire to consume them, and that the emotional dynamics that go into our being with others, our social discourse and acts of communion, are laden with acts of persuasion that act on this desire, at both conscious and unconscious levels. When we’re attracted to someone at any level, they act upon this desire, and we become persuaded by them to the extent that our desire to consume them transforms into desire to lose our self in them, as a sort of transcendental fulfillment.

At work in advertising, the acting on our desires through persuasion in those enticing ice-cream mountain scenes on subway walls, is a similar process. Of course, when we wind up in endless cycles of consumption disguised as permanent fulfillment, transcendence even, then we lose the initial significance of desire contained in consumption, a significance, I think, that points to our separateness, and perhaps to our own mortality. That is, if we cannot realize the significance of human desire contained in consumption, the fact that we all long to be “whole” yet can never be, then we’re blinded to the absence of heaven on earth, something we so deeply yearn for in our longing to be more than human, and forget the mark of our mortality that is the mark of separateness. But if one could come to recognize and appreciate the significance of this limitation, and appreciate the “place of reach” in our desire to consume, our perpetual yearning for fulfillment and its inevitable unattainability, if we could come to recognize this in our yielding to advertisements, then might we come to rethink the uses to which we put consumption, the purposes and goals to which we attach its name?

What I have in mind here is something like what Lyle Rubin seems to hint at in his excellent piece on James Livingston at Dissent when he writes, “I’m unwilling to issue a cheerful endorsement of our buy-and-sell predicament. What I’d like to see is a better consumerism, a better corporate America, a better modernity.” What this better consumerism, this better corporate America might look like, I’m not so sure. But it seems to me that one of the first steps in realizing it might begin on a psychological and philosophical level, realizing that we consume for many of the same reasons we desire others, the most significant of these being our imperfection.

The sheer sensory enjoyment I receive from eating ice-cream, I think, is a mark of this imperfection because, as Norman O. Brown put it, embracing our desires (even the small ones) means dealing with death, recognizing its place in our psychological landscape. Blueberry graham cracker frozen yogurt is a synecdoche for my wanting to “get on with it” (life, that is) in the best way I know how, but also a recognition that such desires, a common fact of humanity, should bind us, attune us to those around us (We can all eat ice cream together!). It’s an attunement, I think, which, if collectively articulated, could channel our desires into something greater, more ethical, something that might change the nature of our stultifying “buy-sell-work” predicament which keeps us isolated and tethered to the imperatives of the middle class and the nuclear family. We might think of it as a secular way of coming to grips with dependence and limitation, an acknowledgment of finitude as “separation” that might allow us to see in our personal concerns with work, school, and consumption, a sense of the brokenness and isolation our current political and economic climate fosters.

Such an attunement might begin, paradoxically, by recognizing the commonality in our desire to consume “things” and “others,” both of which so often end in the routine of over-consumption and addiction, like the valorization of romantic love as transcendence, because we lose our ability to recognize our separateness from these “things” and others, and so unconsciously assign to them a divine mandate that they simply don’t, and can’t have. Recognizing this limitation, even more paradoxically, should form the basis of solidarity, political and otherwise, channeling these too often unacknowledged desires toward greater social goals.

What a better consumerism might look like, bearing this in mind, could be a boon to cooperative ventures, localism, and corporate accountability because these collective efforts entail a mutual recognition of dependency and limitation, an appreciation of the fact that we mortal creatures want something ineffable out of life that will never come, but in the meantime we defer to our stuff and to other people, a deference that meets in the nexus of our Keynesian economy of consumption that, for better or worse, isn’t going anywhere.

In this deference, however, as we find ourselves in the mire of desire that is communion and consumption, finding the place of desire in both, as a recognition of separateness, could arguably be exactly what is required from us to break free from the restraints that turn this “separateness” into alienation and isolation, instead of cooperation.

-Erik Hmiel





The Hardest Word

Some people can’t say they’re sorry. And some people really can.

My daughter and I decided to eat at a restaurant down the road from our house the other night. We rarely eat there. It is a bit fancy, though more in our minds than anything else; a bit pricey, though completely fine for ordering a burger or a sandwich, which was what we had in mind. This was the closest place to get something.

It was unusually hot, we had been on the go all day, and we were hungry. Very hungry. We entered the restaurant and debated whether to go to the eating area near the bar, which was where I thought our attire and slightly disheveled state would fit in more, or the dining room, which, she pointed out, was very casual, really, because it is attached to a humble nine-hole golf course and, well, this is the twenty-teens and Americans tend to be informal most places these days, even when eating dinner out. She was right, of course.

The host welcomed us without looking askance and none of the other diners batted an eye as we entered the dining room. We were shown to our table and all was well. Until the waitstaff forgot we were there and never returned.

We entertained ourselves and waited and waited. Finally, after much deliberation (we had time for a protracted discussion of all of the pros and cons, after all) we concluded that we had better leave and drive a little further to a place where we could just get a slice of pizza, pronto.

In the course of sneaking out of the restaurant, we were spied by a young man who turned out to be the manager. “Did we..forget all about you?!” he asked. Drained, my usual coverup operation fell by the wayside and I confessed gently, nearly inaudibly, with a feeble smile, “Um…yeah..kind of…but it’s really OK…we’re just so hungry…and we came here because you are right by our house…” His response was very unusual in this day and age. He blurted out, “Please stay! I’m so sorry! Please let us feed you!”

How could we turn and leave? The prospect of food had a definite appeal, but even further, it was the nature of his apology that was impossible to resist.

And it turned out to be genuine. By the time he had guided us back to our table, he had somehow arranged for a waiter to appear with a basket of bread and a pitcher of water. The manager also apologized again in the sweetest terms, as did everyone else waiting on us, but they all did so respectfully briefly, so that they could get right to our order. A gracious waitress brought our dinner as quickly as it is humanly possible to make a grilled cheese and cheeseburger. The manager checked in to see if we had been served, stating that of course our drinks–a tall glass of cold milk for my daughter and a lovely chilled Pino Grigio for me–were on him.

It was like a scene in the British miniseries “As Life Goes By,” in which a 50s-something couple has reunited after having fallen in love as young adults and gone their separate ways: he had to go off to war and his letters, through some accident, failed to reach her.  Now that they are back together (spoiler alert) he is preparing to propose something very important, and they go to an elegant restaurant that has just opened up. They are the only ones dining there and he can’t get a word in for hours because of the obsessive ministrations of the waitstaff. No sooner does the couple take a sip of water than someone shows up to refill the glass. You get the picture.

At our restaurant, the waitstaff was hardly intrusive in this way, making all the more clear that they were truly sorry for neglecting us. At every key point they were there with friendly efficiency, and it ended up being one of our best dining experiences ever. The manager returned to see if we enjoyed our meal and suggested we order a dessert. When we said we couldn’t eat anything more, he insisted we choose something to take home, also on him. Over the next couple of days, the huge piece of carrot cake allowed us to savor our experience again and again.

What was it about this particular response that makes it stand out from so many other apologies that one gets, overhears, or makes over a lifetime? It made me reflect on just how meaningful an apology it was and on how, on much more serious, life-altering  (ok, what threaten to be life-worsening) matters, some key person’s apology had fallen short.

What made this apology different?

In these times, between consumerism, advertising, and the service economy, we are all too familiar with efforts to manipulate our emotions. The obligatory “customer relations”-style apology, we know, signifies nothing about whether a particular human being actually feels sorry, bad, remorseful, guilty, or feels anything at all, actually. (Do everything to make Table 7 happy. The woman’s a royal complainer and will threaten to leave if she doesn’t get waited on immediately. [Eye roll. Exit left to kitchen])

It is tempting to see the manager’s apology as different because it was heartfelt, genuine, authentic, or something like that. He saw right through all of those usual layers of encrusted assumptions and expectations interposed between us in such situations. He seemed to see two fellow travelers who were just hungry, but still in good spirits and open to making a real human connection. And this was what was made. All because his apology was real.

It was real because of something else not ordinarily considered an essential part of an apology. The Oxford Dictionaries Online give the standard definition of an apology as “a regretful acknowledgment of an offense or failure.”

True, the simple formulation of words, “I’m sorry,” goes a long, LONG way. As long as it does not come wrapped in an excuse, defensiveness, pointing the finger, failure to take responsibility, or insincerity, the verbal apology helps those relations strained by a wrong–whether large or small, intended or unintended, conscious or unconscious–committed by one of us to the detriment of another.

There are many other tangibles and intangibles that make some apologies better than others. However, the crucial element that can make or break an apology is what comes after “I’m sorry.”

This time, we do want the other shoe to drop. On the part of the person wronged, there needs to be an acceptance of the apology for it to be complete. In the era of immediate gratification and emotional superficiality, we might like to think this is the end of it.

After all, already we are pushing things way beyond what Fritz Perls proposed in 1969 as the mantra best suited to a philosophy of life focused on fulfillment of our needs, which many clearly live by today:

I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.


In many ways, though, “I’m sorry” and “I forgive you” is just the beginning. After the two shoes have dropped, perhaps we still need to listen for something else (the coat, a symbol of our self-protection, even from other humans at times?) to drift to the floor. This can take a lot of time, needing sometimes a whole life course, and is quieter and less easily discerned than the certain thud of the two shoes.

One day a year or two ago the same daughter who joyously basked with me in the wonderful apology from the restaurant manager, came out with this: an apology doesn’t mean anything unless the person stops doing whatever it is he or she apologized for.

Chicago’s 1982 song, “Hard to Say I’m Sorry,” puts it rather simply. Someone heard his lover saying that “everybody needs a little time away”; “even lovers need a holiday.” This wound provoked the apology of the well-known chorus:

Hold me now
It’s hard for me to say I’m sorry
I just want you to stay
After all that we’ve been through
I will make it up to you
I promise to
And after all that’s been said and done
You’re just the part of me I can’t let go

In a restaurant setting, a waitperson can apologize and then fail to provide better service. No huge life-worsening there. It’s a free country and one can always leave, choosing either to sneak out or make a dramatic exit.

But in the plethora of other settings in which we find ourselves living in some kind of relation to others, there is the omnipresent possibility for a slight or hurt of every kind, imaginable and unimaginable.

The rational calculus of self-interested individualism under the guise of freedom and self-fulfillment mistakes the temporary meeting of basic needs for true life-giving sustenance, which can perhaps only be experienced collectively.

If we are unable to give–and accept–a true apology, it is is questionable whether we can ever return to a state of things between us that allows anything good, let alone beautiful, to happen. The tone of an apology can be all artifice, but atonement, making amends, and acting on our words are not so easily and carelessly affected.

-Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

“What Is Modernity?”

There’s fear in his eyes.  His cheeks pucker upward in an awkward smile, the way one smiles before a job interview.  But the wide stare betrays a lack of trust, perhaps guilt.  In either case he can’t control it.  His hands extend asymmetrically around the laptop in front of him, mirroring the disconnect between his eyes and the muscles in his face.  There’s something robotic about this man.  He appears to be sitting on a comfortable sofa with his laptop, smiling over his shoulder at approaching company.  But his crooked posture doesn’t quite look human.  Does he exist?  Or does he represent a particular kind of existence we’re supposed to find appealing?  The ad’s intention is unclear.

I wanted to think he doesn’t exist.  “He could be the amalgamation of a series of stock images someone managed to assemble in the shape of a billboard,” I thought as I biked passed the intersection.  The man’s hair is neatly manicured and his suit is firmly pressed, but he looks undeniably nervous.  The laptop’s screen is blank.  In the background above his head, faintly discernable planes appear to be arriving and departing in the distance.  A web of bright industrial lines denote the antiseptic corridors of an airport terminal branching into space.  Surely the man’s sofa, laptop, and business attire are meant to convey his acquaintance with the ideals of entrepreneurial success.  But the lack of confidence in his face is unmistakable.  As if to make a wry joke, the billboard’s caption stretches across the left side of the sofa beside him: “M.S. in Strategic Leadership, Now Online!”

Both the man and the message sit atop an abandoned building across the street from 7-Eleven and kitty corner to Rent-A-Center in Rochester, NY.  Someone must have thought this was an appropriate way to pay homage to Monroe Avenue.

I arrived at Boulder Coffee and couldn’t take my eyes off the barista’s t-shirt.  White type against black background, “Keeping Providence Drunk One Punk At A Time” was not something one said without meaning it.  I took it to represent the transvaluation of Christian asceticism at the same time it was ostensibly an advertisement for a local punk band.  Glancing at the artful tattoo that graced the right side of her scalp, then the black handkerchief that hung outside her back pocket, I wondered if she’d seen them perform. Clear lines leading back in time, I wanted to know what she thought her punk credentials meant.  I remembered the flag I saw flying outside the anarchist collective a few streets earlier.  “Don’t Tread On Me” it declared in similar bold white type against a menacing black background.  Punishing the punisher, sentencing Him to death; waging war against all manner of restraint.  These are the archetypal trappings of youth who’ve learned to spite.  I could feel her anger press against me as she took my order, but I dismissed it with the same ease that I rode passed the anarchists’ flag without pausing.  None of this is shocking anymore; ordinariness is the modern insignia of conquest.

Riding back up Meigs Street I came to a four-way stop sign.  My normal habit would be to blow right through it without stopping, but in this case I was one of four motorists arrested by arriving at the intersection in unison. We had a moment there, the four of us.  We were part of something just before we ascended toward our respective destinations.  The source of authority that bound us together was impersonal and abstract, but we all observed it, if only for a moment before it was time to proceed beyond the social compact back into our private lives.

The fact that we advanced in near perfect synchronicity made the passage of our little community feel sad.  Once codified into conventions like this, mutual self-interest can be so bittersweet.  The two cars to my right and left streamed passed each other first, then the Dodge pick-up and I moved toward each other almost lovingly, crossing hip to hip for a split second.  We all got what we wanted, but we were each headed in opposite directions.  The inanimate, undiscriminating symbol that established order and regulated our shared movements had served its purpose, and we were free to go; but where?

I for one was peddling fast and headed home.

Out of nowhere, the question came back to me as I pushed passed Pearl Street.  It had been over a year since the day of my oral exams, but the memory of that moment still haunts me.

“What is modernity?” the professor started off in his characteristically sprawling tone.  I knew this was coming, and I had an answer prepared.  But I should have known that it would fall flat the way any answer to that question must in an academic setting.  “Modernity is the recognition and diffusion of autonomy throughout growing sectors of society over time,” I spouted confidently, thinking I’d handled his opening salvo quite well.

To his credit, the professor proceeded to savage me, revealing my ignorance of specifics despite so much hard work unmasking generalities.  As loathe as I was to admit it, I deserved to pass knowing I had failed to grasp the question.

Rounding the last corner before the entrance to my driveway, I told myself again that it was hubris to think I could have answered him adequately.  “Modernity is a feeling, ‘all that’s solid melts into air’ is an abstraction,” I whispered as I approached my empty house. Glancing up at the setting sun, I lifted my bike onto one shoulder and closed the garage door as soon as I was safely inside.

-Michael Fisher