a priori/a posteriori

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Sending Up Flares, aka Now I Can Die in Peace

There are a lot of people that do amazing things with their lives.

We’re all going to be dead soon.  That’s a fact that - if we take 10 seconds to think about it - is obvious to all of us.  It’s not up for debate or anything.  Soon, we’re all going to be dead.

And really, before that much longer, human beings will be dead.  Our species is going to die out.  Maybe that one takes a little longer - it takes a minute to think about that before it starts to be less “scary” and more “yeah, that makes sense.”

Do you ever say a word, and then repeat it out loud, and then repeat it again, and again, and again, until the sounds start seeming weird?  It doesn’t sound like a word at all anymore.  In fact, it seems really weird that those sounds ever meant something at all.

Pickle.  Pickle.  Pickle.  Pickle.  Pick-le.  Pick-le.  Pickle pickle pickle pickle pickle pickle pickle pickle pickle.

Pic.  Kle.  Pick. Le.  Pickle Pickle Pickle.  Phh. Ick.  Uhl.

At some point, it hits you.  Wait a second...   a “pickle” isn’t actually “a pickle.”  It’s not that word.  That thing isn’t that word at all.
“The door is a-jar.”  “...I see it! I see it!!” - Bill Hicks
It’s just a green thing.  Sometimes you cut it long-ways, and sometimes you cut it into little circles.  But it’s not a “pickle” really.  Pickle is just the thing that we call...that thing.  But a “pickle” isn't a “pickle,” at all.  Because there’s no such thing as a pickle.  That’s just some sounds we say.  And then if we know English, then we know what thing you mean.

That’s a fun thing you can do with any word, or with your name, or whatever.  Right now, you’re 30 seconds away from understanding that a word doesn’t mean anything, if we don’t let it.  When it comes to language, it’s all just bullshit we made up.

Well, that’s the same idea with the human race.  When you think about it for 30 seconds, you realize that not only are we individually going to be dead soon, but collectively, as a species, we’re going to die out soon, too.  Not soon like Tuesday, or whatever.  But “soon” in the sense that, whenever we do end up dying out, there’s really no immediate end of “time” in sight.  So no matter how long we last, we’re probably not going to get to see how the movie ends.

I think for some people, that just never occurs to them.  And that’s fine.

But for some people, it does.  Somewhere, deep down, people know that no matter what they do in their lives - no matter how well it goes - in the end, it’s not going to matter.  It’s just not.  Our lives are not going to matter.  What we do, with our lives:  Will.  Not.  Matter.


The craziest part is, this photo was taken with an iPhone 4

I think some people are afraid to think about that, because they think that if they knew that, they’d stop caring.  They’d stop trying.  They’d know it doesn’t matter, and so they just wouldn’t be able to give a fuck about anything.  Not their bodies, not whether they’re happy or not, and definitely not their 9-5.

I don’t know what to tell other people, because I’m not them.  But I can tell you that - for me, and for my brain - I know I’m going to die.  And I know I’m not going to matter.  But I’m still trying.  I still care.

I wasn’t a good student growing up, and so I avoided reading most of the classic stuff that every student is supposed to (Let me take this time to apologize to my 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Esposito.  It’s not you - it’s me.)

I never read anything by Ralph Waldo Emerson in high school.  In fact, I didn’t start reading his stuff until a few months ago.

Holy crap.  That guy was AWESOME.  He was just like me!  He knew he was going to die.  He knew he was gonna go back to nature, that whatever he did as a human being, it would be no more meaningful than what his physical matter had done as a leaf, 500 years before.  He understood that he was nothing.

But he didn’t let that paralyze him.  He still cared.  He still tried.
Don’t let the bow-tie fool you:  this dude was really fuckin’ funny. And just an overall badass.

I’m going to die soon.  But that’s okay.  I still want to have fun, even though it won’t matter.  I don’t know why.  My gut just tells me to try, and to enjoy this conscious experience I’m having (I believe the technical term is “life”)  --  even though I know it’s meaningless.

I don’t know what to tell someone, if their gut tells them not to try.  I don’t know better than you.  All I know is what my gut tells me.  If your gut tells you that nothing matters, and that makes you not care, then I don’t know what to tell you.  Honestly?  I’d say trust your gut.  I don’t know where that will lead you.  But if you only listen to what feels right to me, then are you really existing?  Are you, yourself, really living a life?  Fuck me, fuck my gut.  What do you feel?  Should you give a shit, or not?

I don’t know why I still care.  I don’t understand everything.  But I know what brings me joy, in the meantime, before I die:

Getting to cross paths with other people that are still trying.


Again, I can’t claim that life is fair.  Our brains are our brains, and I’m not delusional enough to think that any brain is better than any other.  The idea of “intelligence,” as it’s been presented to us, is almost completely bogus.

My local bank has a security guard.  He’s so damn good at his job, it’s ridiculous.  He’s just a cool dude.  He calms people down that are in a bad mood.  He makes sure no matter how long the wait is, everyone feels like the system is fair.  And it’s 100 times easier to deal with suffering, if we can see that the suffering is being dealt out fairly.

That’s an epiphany I had while I was standing in line at my bank - you’re not supposed to understand the world better while you’re filling out a deposit slip.  But I do now!  And all because that guy is so damn good at his job.  I’m a better person now, thanks to that guy.  My bank’s $12-an-hour security guard.

And it would be so easy for that guy to not give a shit.  But he does.  He cares.  He tries.

That’s what gives me joy, while I happily wait for my name to be called back into the universe.  You don’t have to be Ralph Waldo Emerson.  You don’t have to be “smart” at all.  Maybe my bank security guard is a genius.  Maybe he isn’t.  I don’t care.  The dude tries.  Every time I leave, I try to think of a reason to say something.  I wish I had an excuse to be friends with him.

Instead, I just tip an imaginary cap, hoping he somehow understands that he kicks so much ass, he makes me feel like I’m in a small town from the 1950s.  I’ve never talked to him, more than a few words.  But you can tell:  that dude cares.


A year ago, my car battery died when I was doing shows outside of Boston, in a really poor, depressing area.  The guy who came to tow the car was a little younger than me.  Early twenties.  We talked for a while, as he was trying to jump the car, and then as he went to Plan B, and then Plan C, and then finally decided to tow my Green ’96 Nissan to the shop where he worked.

In a way, he was a simple dude.  He worked on cars.  He toyed around with monster trucks, and re-building old Jeeps and trucks, when he wasn’t working.  He wanted to own his own shop, and spend his life fixing cars.  College never even occurred to him.

At the time, I was with Vijaya - my partner at the time, and one of my best friends to this day.  She and I are both deep thinkers.  We’re both over-thinkers.  And we’re both what society would call “smart.”

I don’t know if society would have called our mechanic “smart.”  Honestly, probably not.  But we both thought he was an awesome guy, and we found ourselves bummed that we’d never see him again.  Because he had something in common with us.  He cared.

Did he ever think about the universe ending, and realize he was never going to matter?  But despite that, he was still going to fly in the face of logic, and devote himself passionately to the best-lived life possible???

Probably not.  I don’t know if he was “smart enough.”

Fuck smart enough.  Fuck intelligence.

I’m not saying we should be as dumb as we can be.  I like the idea of people challenging themselves, and becoming our best selves.  I love the idea of us embracing knowledge.

But that’s the thing:  we should all become our best selves.  If your best self is knowing everything about cars, then does it make sense for me to say “Well, actually, I’m better than you, because I know what Ralph Waldo Emerson was saying in his 1841 essay entitled ‘Self-Reliance.’  In fact, I have to give a lecture about it in an hour.  So could you please hurry up and fix my car for me?”

So don’t misunderstand me:  People that care are people that care.  We’re all awesome.


But for me - and if this makes me an asshole, then so be it - I think I find a special bond with people who know all this shit doesn’t matter, but still care.  People who could decide to not give a fuck, but try their best to better the world anyway.

Emerson cared.  I know, because he wrote.  He wrote his brain onto a page.  And now, 200 years later, I can see his brain.  Even though he’s long dead, I know he tried.


Two years ago, I was sitting in a Denny’s in Austin, Texas.  I’d just performed with Patrice O’Neal, one of the best stand-up comics ever.  He was 6-foot-5, 350 pounds.  And he was eating like...well, like he was at a Denny’s.  He brought up his health.  I asked if he ever thought about eating healthier.  He said yeah, but kind of shrugged the idea aside.  I figured there were 100 people closer to him that probably ask the same questions - he didn’t need a 101st.

But the conversation stayed on his mortality.  So I asked if he ever thought about his legacy.  About how he’d be remembered, once he was gone.

He said he did.  He said he wanted to leave something.

Looking back on that meal, I’m furious with my mind.  Because I barely remember any of it.

I remember thinking that he was right.  He needed to be careful.  He was about to hit 40.  If he wasn’t careful, he could be dead in 20 years.

He was dead in two.
Patrice is on the right.  For the record.

I’m furious with my mind, because it should have known.  It should have saved more of that memory.  More of that night.

I remember keeping score for kickball, when I was in 5th grade.  I remember that if you kicked it out of the doorway and into the hallway, it was a 10-point home-run.  Off the basketball backboard was 10 points too, I think.  If you made it in the hoop, it was 25.  It happened maybe once or twice a year.  If you made it in, you were a Bradford Woods Elementary School legend.

For fucking REAL, Brain???  You remember THAT - but not the conversation I had with Patrice, about comedy, about life, about legacy?  You couldn’t have made room for one of the only one-on-one conversations I ever had, with one of the most significant people in my entire life?  10 points if it went into the hallway?  For fucking real?


I went to write this three days ago, on Monday.  And it wasn’t until I tried to write the story about our meal at Denny’s that I realized:  I’ve forgotten almost all of it.  I was shocked at my lack of recall.  I had been saving that memory in my head for two years, and I just kind of presumed I’d be able to reference it, forever, if I wanted to.  But Monday, when I went into my brain looking for it, I found a few blurry images, a couple split-second soundbites, and lots of 5th grade kickball.  And then, as I was explaining it to Vijaya, I just broke down crying.  Which I’m sure, ironically, Patrice would have called me a bitch for.

But the memory stuff isn’t up to us.  I have to forgive myself.  That’s how loss works.  It wouldn’t make us sad, if we got to keep everything we wanted.  We could just go back to that moment, whenever we wanted.

I can’t.  I don’t remember much.  He said something to one of the waitresses.  Not in a mean way.  He wanted to figure out her story.  I wish I remembered more.  For you, and for me.  But I don’t.

He said he cared about his legacy.  I remember that.  At least I have that.  He said he wanted to make sure he put something out.  He wanted to make something.

In the next year, he recorded his first hour special, after 20 years as a comic.  He called it “Elephant in the Room,” and it’s one of the 10 or 20 best specials ever recorded.  He followed that up by recording a week of shows at the DC Improv, the first place I ever saw him live.  That was cut up and made into a phenomenal CD - “Mr. P” - which came out this past spring.  About six months after his death.

He cared about his legacy.  If you didn’t know him at all, you could have mistaken him for someone that didn’t care.  He was so at peace with himself at times, it seemed like he didn’t give a fuck about anything.  The truth was, he was at peace with himself, because he gave a shit about everything.  He knew it didn’t matter.  But he was still trying.


I’m lucky I found Patrice O’Neal.  He did a half-hour special for HBO, and it came out when I was a junior in college.  I was lucky.  That special was like him shooting up a flare.  “I give a shit.  I care.  I’m trying.  Anybody else?”
Patrice’s 2005 HBO One-Night Stand was incredible

Emerson’s essays were his flare-gun.  “I’m trying my absolute best here.  I’m trying to live my life well.  I care.  Anybody else?”

Two years ago - about two months before I sat down at that Denny’s with Patrice - I saw a flare go into the air.  And so I investigated.  And when I found the source, it was Vijaya Thakur.  We didn’t have the same brain, exactly.  But we immediately recognized:  we both gave a shit.  We’ve shared great moments since then, including watching and talking to Patrice, and riding together in a tow truck through Brockton, Massachusetts.

With my encouragement, she founded Resolve Network, a non-profit that has since helped thousands of women in the Congo - the most dangerous and supposedly hopeless country in Africa - improve their lives in subtle but significant ways.  She’s worked her ass off to give small loans to women there.  Victims of violence.  Rape victims.

Vijaya and I live pretty easy lives, comparably, here in America.  It doesn’t seem like we have that much in common with any of those women.  But we do have this in common:  they’re trying.  They could think about it for 30 seconds, and decide that no matter what they do, it doesn’t matter.  But they don’t do that.  They care.  They care about their legacy.  The women Vijaya is working with - they give a shit.
Mapendo Isabelle and her kids, in the Congo. I’ve been told she’s also badass.


I’m not saying I’m as brilliant as Ralph Waldo Emerson.  I’m not saying I’m the comic that Patrice was.  I’m not saying I’m as brave - or as resolute - as those women in the Congo.  But I do care.  I am trying.

That’s why I sent up a flare this past weekend.  I recorded two shows, and I’m going to make an album out of it.  Because I care about my legacy.  Because what I do matters.  Even though I know it doesn’t.

And I want other people to be able to find me.  I want to meet, and compare notes, and high-five, and collaborate - to connect - with everyone else who’s trying.  Whether they’re other comics, other artists, or the security guard at my bank (if you’re reading this, dude, we should totally hang out sometime).

I’m going to die soon.  And I won’t be in this form anymore.  That’s okay.  I’m not alone.  It happens to the best of us.

Time to go.  But I proved this weekend that I care.  I poured my heart into those shows, and I feel like even if I died today, I’ll have friends for the rest of time.  Because people will always know that I tried.

Up goes the flare.

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