The Subtext of Life
A thesaurus for the moments you can’t explain
I think a lot about the “in-between” moments in life. The simple and routine sights or sounds or interactions that give you pause and evoke more complex thoughts or meanings. Some sort of human symbolism that perhaps only deeply aware writers or those with psychic emotional intelligence can properly explain. A split second in your mind where you’re not quite sure where that came from. You may experience de ja vous, and you often wonder if other people feel the same. It’s some faint reminder that you’re attempting to conjure to make a more complete picture of what we’re all doing here. Humanity in sepia with your mind working as if you’re writing in a mental diary. A secret with yourself. The subtext of life.
Ever since lockdown, I miraculously got into cooking. If you were my mother who had to baby an absurdly picky eater who equated cooking to work and yet another thing on my type-A to-do list, you would be SHOCKED. It was a desperate attempt to add structure to the long day in confinement. It forced me to get out of the house for groceries and try to busy away a few hours from rumination. Let’s be honest, it was also to try to find a hobby that was not drinking as the pandemic was the epicenter of no rules imbibing. It turned out being one of the best mental health moves I have ever made. Why? Because unlike that fuzzy opaqueness I tried to describe in the first paragraph, you get a tangible end result. An achievement even. A completed mental high-five like when the trash is all out at the curb and then collected. What do all the workers in law or finance have to truly show for their work? Emails, that’s what. No tower built. No street paved. No crops plowed. To quote the Atlantic about why misery is on the rise (sidenote: I will NEVER be one of those guys that hyperlinks an article as part of their sentence to prove their point or show how well researched it is, people have very little time as it is! They are not going to read each article!) “But literally visualizing career success can be difficult in a services and information economy. Blue-collar jobs produce tangible products, like coal, steel rods, and houses. The output of white-collar work — algorithms, consulting projects, programmatic advertising campaigns — is more shapeless and often quite invisible. It’s not glib to say that the whiter the collar, the more invisible the product.”
So while cooking leaves me with that PRODUCT, that satisfying ability to snap a pic of food porn, I now try to look for that invisibility when I am not working. All in all, an extremely wordy way to say that I can not go to the grocery store without thinking about this commencement speech “This is Water” by David Foster Wallace — a master of one that can put words on the indescribable. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eC7xzavzEKY (If you have 10 minutes, I promise you this is worth your time and may change the rest of your day).
I also think of the movie Sideways a lot to better try to explain this point. This movie has stayed with me because yes, my depressive side can commiserate with Miles (Paul Giamatti). I believe whoever wrote this movie knows exactly what I mean by these fleeting moments that are seemingly larger than they appear to be, instances that are really an analogy. At the opening of the film, call it an abrupt Monday morning, a hungover Miles runs out in a bath robe to move his car because the groundskeeping crew has arrived. How many times, in a shell-shocked, rude-awakening drowsy sense of anxious anticipation have you heard the sounds of the Monday morning bustle? Its not sounds of a printer or fax machine. It’s the squeal of the brakes of a garbage truck. Or a leaf-blower that sounds so close that it could be in your kitchen. I think these moments show us that the grind is bigger than us. Someone with likely similar problems and worries, if not more, has already had their coffee and commuted to their workplace. The hustle is already alive whether you are ready or not. It’s like a second humanity alarm clock. Now you have to get yourself together and join it. Because that’s what we do. Sure, it may be a trap, but I will tell you that the months that I was unemployed, these sounds crushed my being. Other fellow humans were meeting the day and following societies rules. I was hiding under my weighted blanket.
Cue later in the movie and Miles and the hilarious Jack (Thomas Haden Church) are driving up to wine country. In one of those “American Beauty” artistic scenes that subtly begs for attention and perhaps Oscar consideration, the camera pans to several grids in the screen in which the men are riding the incoming rush of wind with their hands from outside their convertible. Feeling that rush of air propelling your hand up like a surfboard on a wave is something we all did as kids. It’s something so simple, almost instinctual. If you do it as an adult though, it brings such nostalgia and memories and meanings. Oodles more than when you were a kid, perhaps directly compounded by the years gone by, pain felt, humble lessons learned. It’s one of those things you do to prove you can be uncomplicated again, to leave it all behind for a moment. To feel yearning as if you’re watching Field of Dreams. One of those wordless motions that makes you want to call your Dad and tell him you love him.
Last, such amazing writing is seen in Miles love interest describing how she got into wine. So many people would say obviously because of the taste, the refinement, or perhaps the cool graphic of a certain bottle that draws them to it. However, since this woman works with wine, it evokes something deeper than her day to day. Also, much more eloquence than I could showcase above:
I don’t know. Why are you into wine?
No, but I do like to think about the
life of wine, how it’s a living thing.
I like to think about what was going
on the year the grapes were growing,
how the sun was shining that summer
or if it rained… what the weather
was like. I think about all those
people who tended and picked the
grapes, and if it’s an old wine, how
many of them must be dead by now. I
love how wine continues to evolve,
how every time I open a bottle it’s
going to taste different than if I
had opened it on any other day.
Because a bottle of wine is actually
alive — it’s constantly evolving
and gaining complexity. That is,
until it peaks — like your ’61 —
and begins its steady, inevitable
decline. And it tastes so fucking
I have a few more of these intangible thoughts that I can place, but the best part is you just experience them in the non pre-meditated moment, like Maya did above. I often like to think about cities the way she described wine. I often find myself frustrated that a city doesn’t have a real life personality or a family history. That famous structures can’t ACTUALLY tell memories of what it’s seen. The way that when say the Yankees play the Red Sox, ESPN will do some montage with a celebrity voiceover going over all the stereotypical traits of a place. Picture Ray Liotta in his Goodfellas voice talking as if he’s a NY yellow cab not waiting for you or Mark Wahlberg speaking as if he’s the Old North Church and signals it won’t take shit from no one. I find I like these stereotypes of countries or cities or regions SO MUCH, that when I realize its just a collection of people, several of which are transplants, going about their routines it disappoints me. I think its similar to when you realize football is not the highlight reel with the inspirational music and cut-out scenes of players running out of the tunnel in slow motion. That in actuality, its sloppy and boring save for one or two plays.
I’ll leave it there, but I would love to know if you have any similar stop-in-place thoughts or moments. If nothing else, it will help make the world a touch less tedious. Keep swimming through that water!