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Category: Random Musings

Surface level

Tonight I’m drinking chocolate milk from the local dairy straight out of the bottle. (From a chocolate cow? Near a chocolate stream?) I was listening to Brahms’s Symphony No. 1 and when that ended I switched to Third Stream Music by the Modern Jazz Quartet. I know it sounds really pretentious, but that’s mitigated by the fact that I don’t know much about either.

“Surface level” is my whole thing. I like a lot of things and know just a little bit about them. My internal store of information is miles wide and an inch deep.

In one of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov there’s a character — I think it’s the Mule — who can make intuitive leaps on small amounts of information with a high degree of accuracy. I’ve always thought that was the way my brain works best. Take a little bit of reading here, a dash of overheard conversation there, maybe a glimpsed movie poster or TV ad, and suddenly I’m in a conversation with someone who mentions a thing I don’t really know about but can carry on a conversation about. If we get in too deep I’ll eventually have to admit I don’t know much or else change the subject. But for a few minutes I can slide over the surface of the conversation as if my tiny chunk of knowledge was the tip, not the whole iceberg.

This kind of brain function lends itself to brief but passionate dives in a variety of topics. I’ll get into a band and listen to nothing else for weeks. I’ll read a book and devour more by the author or in the genre. I’ll take up the ukulele or the slingshot or whittling or the bow and arrow. While I’m in the middle of whatever the topic is, I’m consumed by it. And then … it’s over. It might be weeks or years until I think of it again. Maybe I’ll never go back to it. But a little bit of what I learned sticks around. At this point, 48 years into this method, all those little bits amount to quite a lot. Not a useful lot, but a lot nonetheless.

A librarian friend once told me that this is a good kind of brain for a librarian to have. I do adore libraries. And I’m glad to live in the age of streaming music and YouTube and Wikipedia rabbit holes. It’s the golden era of momentary obsession.

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Who you know (Dunbar’s number)

Yesterday, while sitting in a grocery store cafe and working on some projects, I suddenly had the idea to pare down the number of contacts in my online address book. I can’t say why exactly, other than the general shrinking of scope I’m attempting with my life as a whole.

At one point I had about 3,000 names in my contact list, but over the years I’d reduced that down to about 650. Last night I exported the remaining contacts to ensure I could restore them if necessary, then deleted all but the people I thought I’d like to contact again, plus a few deceased folks whose birthdays I’d still like to observe and thus left them on the list so they’ll show up on my calendar. When all was said and done, I was pleasantly surprised (well, maybe not that surprised) to see that I’d reduced my contact list to about 150 living people, aka Dunbar’s number. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar believes we can retain relationships with about 150 friends and acquaintances. Beyond that, it’s too many people to effectively maintain any kind of regular communication with.

As you might know if you’ve been in my orbit for a while, my philosophy of humanity’s survival is “small intentional communities of mutual aid.” I’ve been arguing for years for the idea that our time is better spent trying to make a difference with the people we live near and can actually know. The more we try to deal with massive problems on a massive scale, the more we realize our relative powerlessness and the faster we become dispirited, or else our activism becomes mostly hashtags and memes. But if we stick to working at a hyperlocal level, we can make an actual difference and build real relationships. You may disagree and that’s fine. This is what I think, though, and my past 20-plus years of labor, political and community organizing are the reason I think it.

As I look over the 150 people remaining in my address book, I realize of course that they’re spread over a wide geographic area — multiple states, multiple countries. They’re not an expression of this idea of hyperlocal community building. If I was more ruthless and pared the list down to people with whom I have some sort of active relationship, I’m sure it would drop down to the low double digits. Once I move to Albany and start renewing old relationships, and making new ones, I expect the overall total will end up stabilizing around Dunbar’s number again. Some people will move into my life, others will move out.

I do want to use this current list of humans to try to increase the number of people with whom I have contact each week. Not counting incidental contact in stores, I have face-to-face conversations with maybe one person a week, sometimes two. If I expand the circle to people with whom I have text or phone conversations, it’s maybe a half dozen on a good week. And most of those communications are very brief and surface-level.

Yesterday a friend called and said he had just a few minutes to talk but he wanted to use those few minutes to contact someone he cared about. I thought that was a great idea. Despite my general phone-phobia, I think I might try it.

I’ve spent decades winnowing people out of my life. I’ve always been good at walking away and never looking back (except in the case of my most recent long-term relationship). It’s time to get better at keeping people in my life, instead.

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oh the distances we’ll go to pretend we’re home

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I thought maybe you and your parents were speaking again, he said. We aren’t, I said. Fuck that. Why are the abused always expected to meet the abusers halfway? I nailed the door shut, built a moat, filled it with piranhas, set up an electric fence and a machine gun turret. I’ll cut any motherfucker who even slows down at the end of the driveway.

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POEM: aria


some kind of moth has settled
on the other lawn chair
here in the tent that keeps away the bugs
I’m listening to Verdi’s Rigoletto
for the third time today
it’s the soundtrack to the novel
that has caught me in its grasp
rain falls gently on the tent
the dog scampers toward me
but he can never find the entrance
somewhere up the hill a cow lows
(if that’s the word I want)
it’s all nearly perfect
which is probably close enough

/ / /

18 June 2021
Greensboro Bend VT

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POEM: we gave up

we gave up

we said we’d work on the hard parts
but when the hard parts came
we looked away, picked up our phones
until eventually the couch felt shorter
as the distance between us grew
perhaps it was inevitable
but we’ll never know

/ / /

13 May 2021
Greensboro Bend VT

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Two Things

Two Things

The First Thing

It used to be that mental illness was a taboo subject. This was bad. The stigma created by the silence harmed many people and prevented people from living the happier lives they could have lived. Now, however, we’ve overcorrected, and mental illness has become the explainer for way too much of human behavior. I see this especially in my partner’s generation (people in their 20s), for whom various forms of mental illness have become the defining factor in their lives. This is particularly a problem, in my opinion, because of the second thing.

The Second Thing

Of course mental illness is real. People have actual malfunctions in their brains, PTSD from trauma, and a whole host of other things. BUT we also live in an incredibly sick society. We’ve been sold (quite literally) a lie about what constitutes success and happiness, and we’ve been sold that lie so we’ll buy things we don’t need, obey social mores and rules we don’t need, look up to “leaders” we don’t need, and avoid doing the things that actually contribute to human well-being and happiness. In a society as depraved as this one, feeling depressed and crazy is a rational reaction. Again, there are real mental illnesses, but I also really believe that many of us feel the way we do because we realize something is wrong but we’ve never been shown any way to live outside this awful, harmful system. We’ve been sold a series of yardsticks that all lead to less and less happiness, rather than more.

So What?

A logical question is to wonder what to do about any of this. And this is where I come back to the same song I always sing, namely that small intentional communities of mutual aid are the only rational way forward. We need to do everything we can, no matter how small each individual step may be, to separate ourselves from this system. Grow food. Make things. Stop needing crap. Help one another. Trade skills. Live together. Yes there are a million complicating factors, but some of them are what we’ve been told is unachievable by the very people who have the most to lose if we achieve them. We can heal ourselves, but we can’t do it using the system that made us sick.

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POEM: the armchair anarchist meets the Turkish men

Photo by Jason Crane

the armchair anarchist meets the Turkish men

SportsCenter is blaring on the TV above the fireplace
ten feet away is another TV
        tuned to a different channel

& from the overhead speakers falls the voice
        of the Queen of Soul
I’m trying to read a magazine through the distractions

as if those aren’t enough, Turkish men begin collecting
in front of the lobby’s other fireplace
“As-Salaam-Alaikum” and a kiss on each cheek

because I’m a proper lefty I feel an instinctive need
to approve of their gathering
        to be better than the unwashed (sniff)

that’s when I see the Amway bag
& realize that this pyramid is no Mount Nemrut
& yes I had to look that up

/ / /

Jason Crane
30 January 2018
Pittsburgh PA

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POEM: on listening to The Lark Ascending by Ralph Vaughn Williams in an outdated Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh

on listening to The Lark Ascending
by Ralph Vaughn Williams
in an outdated Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh

it’s a miracle, music
this couch has seen too many sittings
my tea cools in a styrofoam cup
one of the lamps buzzes then shorts out
& I’m hundreds of miles from those I love
yet the violin cuts the grey sky
letting light pour in through the gash
& for sixteen minutes, this room is paradise

/ / /

Jason Crane
24 January 2018
Pittsburgh, PA