The Post-Game Show

This is #17 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk and hike in my local community. 

both images in this post are by Midjourney; my own prompts — they do not depict nor are they based on photos of any real person

Many of the words we use to describe beauty imply that its effect is incapacitating: Stunning. Knockout. Blown away. Staggering. ‘Drop-dead’ gorgeous. The word pretty comes from the term ‘pratfall’.

When I see her walking toward me on the park path, it is not hard to understand why that is so. As soon as I see her, I start to second guess my reaction — the desire to stare, the quickening of the heartbeat, the aesthetic and, um, other appreciation. And then the cascade of mental cogitations and recriminations: self-opprobrium, embarrassment, shame, confusion, thoughts about what beauty does and does not confer, and its benefits and challenges, thoughts about the different forms of privilege and how they are used and misused, what constitutes civilized behaviour and why that is so, why we find most wild creatures beautiful but few of our own species so, and off into the bottomless introspective rabbit hole. You probably know the drill.

Of course, most importantly at that moment, I look away so as not to appear to stare. I am a polite Canadian, after all. But whatever I had been noticing or thinking about prior to that moment has been lost.

It occurs to me that we react to beauty in two very different ways, ways that we tend to conflate, and I wonder if what is happening is that my body and my self are warring over what response is and is not appropriate. Anyway, no matter — back to my contemplative, and hopefully observant, walk in the park.

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So it seems that this (fit and healthy but increasingly inflexible and weary) body is taking me for a walk again. It’s been a long winter, and I imagine the warm sun must feel a bit strange and unfamiliar on its skin.

I say “I imagine” and “its skin” because it’s clear that ‘I’ am not this body. It — this body — has substance, apparently anyway: a water-filled bag of cells and organs that is, I am guessing, a complicity rather than an individual. It even has its own ‘atmosphere‘, its own surface thermal convection system, so in a way it’s more like a planet, an ecosystem, than a single ‘thing’.

I am trying, these days, not to attribute to my self the characteristics that are actually ‘its’. ‘I’ am, after all, just a process, and likely an illusory one at that — the process of trying to make sense of what is apparently happening. The body reacts — fearfully, angrily, sorrowfully, joyfully, lustfully, enthusiastically, equanimously, protectively, instinctively. And then this sense-making ephemera that is ‘me’ layers on reactions that are conceptual rather than perceptual — judgement, anxiety, hatred, grief, shame, envy, depression, love, appreciation (see? not all bad!). But ‘we’ confuse them together, as if ‘we’ were responsible for all of it.

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I have left the park now, walking down a residential side street. There’s a little girl struggling to ride her small pink bicycle, as her father looks on encouragingly. “I’m never going to get this!” she says. Her father tries to reassure her: “Sure you will! In no time you’ll be riding that bike automatically, without even thinking about it.”

The girl does not look reassured. It is surely unimaginable to her that something that eludes her in these moments of total concentration and effort, will soon enough require no concentration or effort at all. How do we cross that seeming chasm of capacity, that shift from the conscious to the unconscious doing of things? And at what cost? What does it mean that we are not even aware of doing things that we once thought impossible?

Our selves are so un-self-aware that they conflate their sense-making with the body’s adaptive reactions, and think they are all our selves’ doing.

Still, it’s easy to get confused between what originates with this body, what is ‘its’, and what is ‘mine’, this self’s. Which of ‘us’, for example, this body or ‘me’, is the hedonist, striving in all things to maximize pleasure and minimize pain? Which is seeking to lie on beautiful tropical ocean beaches, to listen to exquisite, well-crafted music, to gaze at beautiful people and astonishing works of art? Which of ‘us’ is doing that seeking, and getting pleasure from it — this body, or this self, which is seemingly along for the ride?

Since other creatures seem to enjoy some of these pleasures — creatures that are not apparently afflicted with selves — ‘I’ can only surmise that it is this body that is the hedonist, not ‘me’. What is ‘my’ role then? Alas, I suspect it is just to try to make sense of it all — to try to explain why this body reacts as it does, and, absurdly, to take responsibility for that reaction. So there is embarrassment and shame at the body’s reaction to the stunning woman in the sports bra. And there is analysis of the music, to see what qualities might have evoked such pleasure. And there is love and appreciation of beauty, and of art.

No wonder, stripped of possession of this body’s unfathomable reactions, ‘we’ our ‘selves’ feel so incomplete, as if something is missing. Yet none of these cogitations, none of this ‘making sense’ is necessary, or really adds anything to the pure raw pleasure of this animal body’s life, or mitigates its moments of unmediated pain. This self, this ‘me’, is just a veil of confusion, a useless appendage. A post-game show, rehashing what is already whole and complete.

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There is a commotion up ahead. A squirrel is frenziedly scampering and nattering angrily as it races up a tree. A young tabby cat follows in hot pursuit. By the time I reach the yard, a woman has emerged from the nearby house. She is standing on the landing of her front steps, alternately shouting at and consoling the cat, which is clinging to the trunk, with one paw draped over one of the tree’s forks. “Not again!”, the woman says, seemingly more to me than to the cat, which does not appear to be listening anyway. She is tapping on her cell phone, presumably calling for help.

One of the consequences of us taking kittens away from their mothers when they’re young is that they don’t learn the essentials of how to be a successful cat before they transfer their dependence to much less helpful humans. Knowing how to climb a tree is something biologically conditioned in cats. But knowing how to get down again is culturally conditioned — it has to be learned from its parents, by demonstration.

As with cats, human learning is a blend of the biological and the cultural. Though because human babies are dependent for so long compared to most other species, our biological know-how is both more limited than, and more quickly overlaid by, cultural learning, re-conditioning us. And human bodies’ cultural learning, unlike the cat’s, is obfuscated by ‘our’ insistence on it making sense, when it need not.

When Mary Oliver wrote “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves”, she wisely implied that your body loves in a much different, more natural way than ‘you’ do. Its love is instinctive, undebatable, while yours (‘ours’) is conditional, fraught with judgement, anxious, guarded, disconnected, and endlessly needing reassurance.

‘We’ are not much good for anything, it seems, even love.

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A few blocks on, I notice a crow furiously shaking a twig, about two feet long, in its beak, and hammering it against the ground. It is nesting season for crows and this is clearly serious business, not play. Nearby there is a large pile of branches left behind after some work crew’s spring trimming. So, curious to see how the crow might react, I sit by the pile and spend a few minutes breaking some of the thinner branches into small lengths of various sizes. I know from a bot query that their nests are around 45cm wide and 25cm high, framed by interwoven twigs 15-30cm long, so I’m aiming for pieces of that size. I also peel off some bark, which the bot told me is often used for lining the nest.

The crow is now nowhere to be seen, so I rise, dust myself off, and continue on my walk. And I wonder: was the crow’s display of twig-shaking a learned behaviour to condition humans like me to produce smaller twigs? It seems unlikely, but a quote from Melissa Holbrook Pierson about her beloved pets comes to mind:

This is the basis of my dogs’ storied love for me, their one and only. Only I know the real truth. It is not this Melissa they love. If they bark menacingly at someone who approaches, they are not doing it to ensure my safety. There is but one thought in their minds: do not harm this person, for she is my most valuable possession. My large Swiss army knife, the one with all the extra attachments.

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Soon after, I reach the lake, which is the urbanized remains of an old gravel quarry, now stocked with fish and replete with a night-lit fountain. There is an old man shuffling toward one of the lakeside benches, looking kind of sad, haggard and arthritic, and carrying a small bag of what turns out be food for the ducks.

I look at him and think: I can imagine ending up like him, but I hope I don’t. He sits at one end of the bench and the words from the song Old Friends come to mind. With a smile, I resist the temptation to sit at the other end of the bench.

Instead, I find myself listening to the music playing quietly on the speaker system set up along the path around the lake. There’s an instrumental version of a song playing and I’m filling in the words in my head and realize it’s Cody Fry’s moving orchestral version of Eleanor Rigby. And the old man is staring at the speaker and shaking his head slowly as the song’s chorus plays. And then we suddenly catch each other’s eye as we both recognize the song, and its ever-appropriate meaning. We both look around at all the people nearby. And then we both look down. What is this feeling? This awkward, unbridgeable recognition of unspeakable truths?

And I realize: I could have been this guy. I could be this guy. We’re close to the same age. And yet, I know with absolute certainty, I do not want to hear his story. I don’t want to know how things might have been otherwise, how hard it is for others, how much suffering there is below the veneer of pretending we’re all OK and we know what we’re doing. After all, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality.”

I laugh, dismayed at myself, as I turn away. I think of the stunning woman in the park. I want to hear her story, I realize, aghast.

There is, I think, no hope for ‘me’.

This body, on the other hand, doesn’t want to hear any stories. It is too wise for that. It knows stories are just fictions, make-believe, useless conjecture, making sense of what doesn’t make sense.

At least ‘I’ hope so.

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This body is walking home, now. For several blocks, it walks behind a well-dressed middle-aged couple. To the extent I can see them, they have serious, rather aloof expressions on their faces. Or maybe I’m just projecting. I don’t want to hear their story, either.  They walk quickly, but don’t seem to be going anywhere in particular. They say nothing to each other. Maybe they’ve said everything there is to say. Maybe they’ve run out of things to say, and are just walking for the sake of walking because it’s what they’re used to, a habit, a ritual, something they think they should be doing.

Maybe they have been doing this for forty years. Maybe for them, this is a normal life. I think of the Peter Steiner cartoon of the bored old guy watching TV and the aproned woman in the adjacent kitchen washing dishes. The caption is: Life without parole.

I wonder — Is it hardship, is it suffering, if it’s the only life you’ve ever known?

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Back at home, I work on some tracks for a new song I’m writing. It’s the usual tug-of-war: This body wants dance music, while ‘I’ want complex new-age-y sonatas.

Writing done, this body falls into a troubled, almost haunted sleep. Near morning, it has a vivid dream about attending a conference with a bunch of interesting strangers. In the dream, we’re all young, smart, curious. One woman in particular is especially intriguing, and while she’s always in the picture during the evening events during the conference, my character in the dream never has the chance to really talk with her. She looks nothing like the woman from the previous day’s walk, but she has the same… energy? My character’s infatuation grows. And then the conference is over and it’s time to drive people home, and suddenly there’s a sign from her, unspoken. No idea what it is. Something subliminal. My character’s heart soars.

This is entirely this body’s dream, not ‘mine’. As usual, ‘I’ am just there for the analysis, the making of sense and meaning. The post-game show.

When this body awakens, it is aglow. It remembers these feelings, this amazing concoction of chemicals. But once it realizes it was just a dream, it quickly refocuses on ‘real’ things. Game over.

‘I’, however, do not recover so quickly. In a few unconscious moments, it seems, ‘I’ have virtually fallen in love with an invention, a story. Back to sleep, please! ‘I’ want this feeling, the one that consumes you, so much that nothing else matters. Who cares if it’s real? The feeling of invincibility, where the self — me! — is utterly extinguished, where all that is left, even for an impossibly brief time, is… indescribable.

This body is not convinced. It’s in charge. That Hail Mary touchdown play, it’s been called back. Never happened. Stop thinking about it. Even better, stop thinking, period.

Probably just as well, ‘I’ tell my self. Would never have worked out anyway. Falling in love with characters you’ve just dreamt up is hopeless, destined to end badly.

This body shakes ‘me’ out of this reverie. It’s making a matcha latte, and somehow, absurdly, ‘I’ am convinced I need to direct the process. What would we do without each other?

This entry was posted in Creative Works, Illusion of the Separate Self and Free Will, Month-End Reflections, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Post-Game Show

  1. Peter Webb says:

    Thanks for this beautifully written piece; it helps to make sense of we humans having two of so many different ‘things’ our bodies.
    Two eyes, two ears, two arms, kidneys, legs….somehow with one head (with two lobes) …swimming together.

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