I get lost in a flesh-colored sea of mundanity, and feel powerless by virtue of membership. Alternately, the slightest brush of sentiment, a sudden memory of a childhood contemplation, a simple courtesy, each can bring me to sentimentality and emotional vulnerability. I may be awed by a feat of community, only to be horrified by the quickness of depravity. Hot and cold.
Hidden somewhere in my DNA is whatever code whose execution makes me need community. I don’t pretend to understand it, and I’m nearing the end of my too-cool aloofness toward the idea of sharing my concern with others, even putting theirs above mine. Each time I roll my eyes at Christian goodness expressed as a bumper sticker, I’m hoping someone sees it. I want to share my weak outrage, cleverly if possible.
I suffer the fools, nodding with a forced grin, or, more frequently these days, a committal nonchalance, a disaffection. I try not to enable their insipidity. My working hypothesis is that I can condition people to spare me their American Idol gossip and formulaic well wishes, this hypothesis underpinned by the presumption that they proffer the former to justify their interest, and the latter at the behest of perceived cultural obligation. Neither, then, is anything better than the misapplication of earnestness, a motive earnestness powering a crass social algorithm.
Whatever the quality of the hypothesis, I am yet not quite the good scientist. While you may rest your willing suspension of disbelief of the meaninglessness of our entire venture on a fetish for familial melodrama, I am just as easily duped into giving a damn by the ignorant wagging of a small dog’s tail. There’s no sound nihilistic conclusion that doesn’t undermine the value of both.
In our best moments, people and I dance like we’ve been at it for years, like we took lessons and we know what we’re doing. We finally cave and celebrate Christmas, because, damn it, it’s as good an excuse as any to get together and laugh and talk about the good old times and make yet another promise to stay in touch and yes I mean it this time. They’ve got a way of confusing me, people do, making me forget for a moment the difficulty of thinking deeply about continued existence without concluding that it’s ludicrous. I can get lost in that attachment. I can want a social life, a life filled with people and their straining against credulity to believe in the President or their political parties or how wonderful their children are. I can get lost in it, because I want their illusions to be true, because it makes those first steps out of bed each morning easier to take.
Convinced that I can circumnavigate banality by choosing to associate with like-minded folks, I seek them out, find them, and usually make them regret having admitted to a shared interest. I have gone so far as to bemoan the absence of this social cloud, blaming my fractured attentiveness to fields of my interest on the fact that I’ve no one of whom to ask for help and no one to whom to offer it. If only I could surround myself with ambient similarity of intent and disposition, I suppose, I’d finally earn my pride.
There’s logic in that, of course. There are fewer things any one of us can do better alone than there are things better suited to multiple effort, and individual aptitude doesn’t scale well. And maybe my American pedigree comes with too great a focus on not only genius, but on solitary genius, the single brilliant point in all the surrounding murky darkness. Too great, as I’ve only just seen my way through it and started learning that genius doesn’t exist, that the question isn’t even relevant to any substantive success. No, whatever our natural aptitude, it’s our work that achieves; and work is about the goal, independent of whether we reached out for help or soldiered on in private.
The Teachers Lounge
I have this idea, right? I’ve tinkered with it, and I’m convinced it’s a winner. It’s about a coffee house, but not Starbucks or that local shop you go to to keep it real. No, this is a shop with coffee, and healthy snacks, and white- and/or chalkboards, and computers loaded with fancy math software. And books—oh, the books. Shelves of canonical tomes, of Newton and Euclid and Euler and Gauss. Lesser works, too, but nothing without rigor. The real stars, though, are the customers.
They’re math geeks, physics geeks, engineers in fact or aspiration, hackers and crypto wonks, and the taggers-along who dig the nerd scene. You could float from one table to the next and overhear all manner of esoteric enthusiasm; and you could watch the hasty cycle of writing, erasing, lip-chewing, and writing at the boards, two or three contributors locked on a proof or a messy optics problem. All the reference material you’d ever need, all the theorems and algorithms and particle masses, are sitting on the shelves, in multiplicity. You could just soak it in, and maybe learn a thing or two.
Or, rather, I could. Ambient similarity of intent and disposition + ready access to coffee and geeks. And I own the place, which means all the business is my business; and it means that I’ve made it out of the cube farm and into the fold. No longer on part-time terms, I’m a full-time, fully vested member of that community. I’d call this place The Teachers Lounge.
Despite the eagerness with which I hang it, there’s a window behind all that window dressing, and it opens out into a void. All our efforts, all our cares, all our lofty endeavors, all our conniving and violence and pity, all of it breaks down to a single concern: survival. Depending on the scope, survival of the individual or survival of the species; but each of our urges to survive arises from similar genetic heritage, so the former is just an instance of the latter. How, then, can survival actually mean anything, really? If we matter to more than ourselves, I have yet to see how. Put those things together—that all our business is merely survival, and that our existence bears no objective worth—then our business is not itself imbued with intrinsic value. We must give it any value it has.
But the form of this value varies across cultures, measured nationally or racially or ethnically or socioeconomically, so we can’t even provide a sake for life other than life itself. This value is for each of us to assign if it is to be nontrivial, which is problematic. It’s problematic because the shared vision, the community, is in its sparest incarnation a search for authenticity, of an authority for evaluation; if we can each count on no one else but ourselves to define our value, then the community offers false hope at best, confusion or worse otherwise.
I’ll skirt an invocation of Godwin’s law and instead generically assert that history provides us many glaring examples of vicarious valuation gone wrong. Wherever there is a prostration to the wisdom of crowds, there stands a good chance for disaster and mayhem, though we might merely suffer banality instead. And we’re back where we started.
I have a few projects in mind that revolve around a surprisingly resilient interest in sharing something with a group of people. Most are more immediately tenable than The Teachers Lounge. I’ve decided—again, but more resolutely now—to give this community thing a serious whirl. I’m anticipating making use of the extra computing power; for anything my brain can crunch, mine and someone else’s might do it better and/or faster. And there are some prospects for sustainable business models among them, too. But most of all, I’m interested in collecting data and testing my hypotheses. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe there’s some kind of meaning hidden away in the spaces between us. I don’t think so, I’m not expecting much, and I’m not quite beyond feeling I’m selling out. Alas, there is but to give it a shot.