When the problem arose for us whether habit or theory was better for getting virtue—if by theory is meant what teaches us correct conduct, and by habit we mean being accustomed to act according to this theory—Musonius thought habit to be more effective.

—MUSONIUS RUFUS, LECTURES, 5.17.31–32, 5.19.1–2
—found in The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday

At first, of course…whatever virtue might be, unless fused with practice, theory is blinding.

Following the above quote in The Daily Stoic, Holiday quotes Hamlet that “there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

There’s more than a little irony in having Hamlet lecture Horatio about the wideness and vastness of the earth given how often Hamlet is bounded in the nutshell of his own skull, trying to convince himself of its “infinite space” despite the pressure of those bone walls constantly closing in.

I am Hamlet (and the egg man, and the walrus, meaningless) in the worst way: dwelling inside my head, enduring the self-inflicted agony of indecisiveness and inaction and theoretical musing, the pain of which, even in failure, is greater than any action I might take.

But the Hamlet quote doesn’t necessarily mean what everyone thinks it means.

I’ve been part of many discussions of the play in which this line is taken as a directive to open-mindedness, that many things—though not all things—are possible.

That doesn’t go far enough because Hamlet is a true skeptic, demanding proof of every thing and for every action.

Skepticism of this sort simultaneously allows for seemingly infinite possibility while ruling out perhaps the most important possibility of all: faith.

I don’t mean religious faith (necessarily), but belief that transcends—or is at odds with, or comes before—evidence, that by the very logic that makes it possible makes it impossible.

Skepticism would be an easy road were it not for the intrusion of faith, be it in the form of love, divinity or pleasure.

If there is any difference between them.

What does this have to do with Rufus’ lecture on virtue, habit and theory?

To not die twice, as Hamlet does, by inaction and action, I have to let habit at least occasionally lead to virtue and action lead to belief.

This is the only living response to the deepest, darkest waters of depression too: churning and slapping in some semblance of swimming.

Fake it and make it in a reflexive relationship.

I am shot through with the bolts of light and dark, the passage of things I know, without proof, to be true.

Light and dark alike leave rifts and fissures such that when one is transcendent the aftermath of the other is indistinguishable.

What is required, with fail, is that I do without knowing.

Every step a controlled fall.

Forgive myself for not knowing what I do.

Sarah/NomadWarMachine writes on “lurkers”:

There are times that, for various reasons, I read conversations and watch what is going on without visibly participating. Does that make me a bad person, or is my behaviour an entirely rational response to our busy modern world? Do I need to ‘fess up and join in, or is it socially acceptable nowadays for me to passively consume what others create?

To which I say:

I might start calling it “lurning.”

Random thought about lurking and “stealing” — when I make and share something and someone lurns from it, I think of it as that unknown person enacting an act of kindness on my behalf. I not only don’t need to know, but perhaps it is better that I don’t, like when I give the barista a gift card from the coffee shop and tell them to use it on later customers until it runs out. How much of the frustration expressed about “lurkers” is driven by ego and a desire for validation…neither of which is helped at all by the reputation signaling foregrounded by social media services and apps?

Don’t get me wrong: I struggle immensely with these issues of ego and meaning and putting my self-estimated value too often and too much in the hands of others. But that is, as they say, about myself, not about “them.”

Another thought — how often is “lurking” a matter of perspective and incomplete information. I am more and more someone who would likely be considered a lurker in most of my former ed/edtech communities, but really I’m a lurner and a conduit to unseen communities not visible from the perspective of the lurker-labelers.

In some ways I’m an old fashioned reader: I find things to admire in experimental writing and I’m not automatically put off by syntactically or formally challenging writing, but mostly I prefer reading that gives me something to care about driven by a narrative force, even if that narrative is internal to a character. The “speculative” part of good “speculative fiction”—the ingenious ideas and world-building—still need those things.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s New York 2140 gave me very little of the things reader-me needs. The central characters, as the title tips us, are none of the mostly cardboard people living in the submerged-but-only-half-drowned city of Robinson’s dreams (current and future, I suspect), but the many faces of New York City. If you love New York City as a place and an idea—if it holds something of your heart—then perhaps this weird ode to it will resonate. For someone like me, for whom New York City is of no particular interest, much of the book relies on a shared aesthetic and affection and belief that isn’t there. I (used to) experience the opposite side of this imbalance often, when I would wax on—and on, if not eloquently—about a book or piece of music or work of art that so moved me I couldn’t imagine the person I was speaking to (or at) didn’t share my basic feelings about it, rendering most of what I was saying moot the moment the words left my mouth.

New York 2140 preaches to a Big Apple choir. It seems unlikely anyone who didn’t already feel the love will come away from reading it thinking “My God, what a city!” despite the innumerable assertions that it is so. New Yorkers and the people who love New York can pat themselves on the back at their real and imagined resilience.

Nor are there any human characters in the novel possessing much in the way of actual humanity. Most function like Westworld hosts, seemingly there to convey and portray messages without ever giving the reader a feeling that their existence extends beyond their particular paragraphs or sections in the text. Backstories are hinted at, but more in the way an abstract of a book hints at the whole than a well-fashioned piece of clothing conceals and reveals. For all its insight into the chaotic clockwork of finance, the naiveté of the portrayal of politics is astounding.

The paradox is that Robinson seems deeply concerned with humanity—a friend mentioned that Robinson is on a mission (my word) to promote a utopic vision of and for humanity. But lost in the utopic Yes We Can! and Hope! intended to inspire, or at least console, we living humans, many seeing through—and reflecting off—a glass darkly, are the actual people. Perhaps the diffidence with which Robinson portrays misery, deaths and die-offs is meant, in its nonchalance and sterility, to itself be a statement of some sorts…but it just left me without much reason to care.

New York 2140 isn’t without interest. This “cli-fi” book is a melange of:

  • a collection of sometimes ingenious ideas about a city under climactic siege in search of a plot,

  • a study in the minutiae of big finance in service of a morality tale, and

  • a hang-in-there-kitty bit of humanitarian self-help in the guise of a novel.

The first two of these mean there are all kinds of little, admirable touches and observations; there’s a reason I’ve enjoyed Robinson’s work, such as the Mars trilogy and Aurora. I imagine the third is what probably resulted in some reviewer on NPR lauding the book in stentorian tones as “the novel we need now”—and I desperately need help to alleviate the acidity of my view of humanity’s prospects—too bad there wasn’t enough of the human in this book to help with that.

Leonard Cohen supposedly said that “the last refuge of the insomniac is a sense of superiority over the sleeping world.”

I wonder if Cohen was consciously in conversation with Nabokov who wrote that “sleep is the most moronic fraternity in the world, with its heavy dues and crude rituals.”

I’ve indulged in that subtle superiority that taps hollow like the veneer built through talking about how so-very-busy I am.

But mostly insomnia is a broken meditation.

Feeling my pulse through my body, stacatto drums of doubts in my ears.

The moiré behind my eyelids.

The photonic flashes, brain wave and oracle.

Is this a brainstorm?

Am I the tree forked by lightning or the creature squatting beneath it?

I turn, a tumult on the shore of a sunless sea.

I think of Chuang Tse and his and/or butterfly whose wings inspire a tempest in the space between my temples, interrupting the susurrus murmurs of the furtive, plotting priests.

Is it written thou shalt not sleep?

Is every lethean list found and lost at 2am a litany or a looking glass?

Flat on my back, hands folded on my chest, missing only a flower.

Should I die before I sleep, I pray some thing my soul to eat.

What’s so important about me that I can’t be handed over to another world?

The day will be an echo, the night a shadow, of and at the last.

I lean toward the water, breath and mirror.

Breath and mirror


Find your passion. The find your passion backlash. It’s complicated. I can pretty confidently say I’ve never uttered the phrase because, even when things we care about spring from reasons practically unknowable, I’ve never believed that care to be truly innate. So I would never say “find” your passion in the sense that it pre-existed, nor would I say “follow” your passion, which seems to imply that innateness even more strongly (though I note the indiscriminate switch between the two verbs in the Atlantic headline and article that prompted the recent mini-furore).

Nor in this context would I use the singular form passion. I knew it was possible to have many passions—and did, sometimes to my detriment—long before I was old, aware and presumptuous enough to proffer what would come to be known as Tweet-size advice.

But the same article challenges the idea of following one’s passion through some pointed questions that I can’t imagine most people I know saying yes to: are you “waiting to find your passion?” Would you have “unlimited motivation for your passion?”

And does anyone take literally the clichéd adage “Find something you love to do and you’ll never have to work a day in your life?”

I believe in the superior richness of the growth mindset. I believe that we develop our passions, though not solely…the pressure of our pursuits may form some of those rough diamonds while others may come from those actions and events in our lives so complex as to be unknowable, but in both cases we cut and polish the raw diamonds we are fortunate enough to recognize.

But more than that, I unashamedly seek something that I have only discovered through pursuit of my passions: (moments of, so far) transcendence. There are pleasures to be had in “mundane” and “routine” work, but the peak, practically out-of-body experiences come for me only when what I am doing involves something I am passionate about.

My favorite quote of all time amidst a lifetime of collecting them is from the Henry James short story “The Middle Years” when the dying writer comes to terms with the fact that he will die before writing the great work he realizes he is finally ready to create: “We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

Our passion is our task. The real question isn’t whether we find or follow or develop our passion(s), but what passion comprises and what it is composed of in our particular world and time. That takes work. It’s something we cultivate. But it’s also a little magical and there’s no reason not to let the mystery of it be a motivator.

Last week a young man (it’s strange to me I’ve made it long enough to legitimately refer to someone as a “young man”) suicided off a building on campus.

Some people from my office were out walking and saw the cluster of emergency vehicles and what might have been a shrouded body at what the state calls the scene of even that kind of death a “crime scene.”

They weren’t sure what had happened or even if they had seen what they had seen.

But I was.

I knew immediately.

Many years ago I stood exactly where he stood, heart pounding in my chest and ears and fingertips and my thighs, tensed and knotted for the step over the ledge.

Years before Ben Folds wrote it, I was feeling it: I was having a son who I knew would feel the same things, who I knew would be like me, and I was so sorry and so tired of fighting it.

There was no one around at 4:22a, Tuesday morning, February 4, 1992.

“Perfect Blue Buildings” — another song I’d nearly sung years before it was written.

It was about -20F and I imagined the low temperature somehow made the concrete harder.

I had a note in my pocket too.

I had my note in a sandwich bag so it wouldn’t become unreadable if there was (too much) blood.

I could smell the cold ozone of old cigarette smoke.

I could squeeze through the gap and drop head-first.

No one could miss me because no one really knew me any more than my not-quite-eight-months-old daughter knew me, just another ugly giant she wouldn’t remember.

It was silent in the striped shadows of the amber orange lights.

Routine things I’d done the day before and that sleepless night included: forgetting my clothes in the communal dryer, eating what I didn’t think of as my last meal at the time, a bacon cheeseburger with extra mustard and pickles, abandoning writing a poem—and poetry altogether, sneaking into a study carrel and reading when I was supposed to be working.

I wrote the note that night, four lines on a legal pad, pausing only to decide how to sign—how to end–it in the apartment where my wife and daughter weren’t.

Not too long ago a friend who became an acquaintance and then a stranger would shoot himself at desk not a dozen feet—two lengths of my foreign body—from that study carrel where I malingered, drowning in the collected poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

It was only later, so much later, maybe not yet, that I heard what the heart heard and guessed what the ghost guessed.