Depression, stalemate, and gridlock

A friend of mine was wondering about the Great Depression. The problem they saw goes something like this. Before the stock market crash, you had people doing needed work and receiving needed wages. There was a positive economic cycle: money changes hands between lenders, employers, workers, and consumers, each of them, so far as he remains in that cycle, becoming richer and getting more needs met. But then – boom! – a problem in New York, on a particular fall day…* and suddenly no one around the country is working any longer.

Now, what sense does that make? The work is still there to be done. The people are still there to do it. The tools are available, there is time in which to do the work, there is time and nothing but time, there is too much time and nothing to do to fill it, and yet there is no work getting done. Everybody wants the work to get done, they can do the work, and they have the tools and the time; but nobody works. How can that be?

It’s a striking question. It remains interesting on closer examination, in that answering it doesn’t seem to blunt it. So if you were to say, for example: They don’t work because there is no money. The lenders can’t loan money to the employers, for whatever reason. So the employers don’t have money to pay the wages, can’t maintain the machinery, can’t order supplies, can’t transport completed goods to market, and can’t sustain operations between goods creation and sale. So the workers don’t get paid, and don’t have money to create their own operations, and are idle. So no consumers have money to buy, so other operations dry up as well, fewer lenders are making money, so lenders have less to loan, more employers are losing funding, more workers are remaining unpaid.

Well, and if you were to say that: that answer gets you nearly nowhere. For what after all is money? Isn’t it just a measure of value? We measure this much of that kind of labor and say it’s such-and-such a number of dollars, this much of that kind of material is such-and-such another number. Why would a loss of the measuring instrument result in the loss of the thing it measures (for surely in a depression labor and goods do seem to disappear)? If you destroy or damage a person’s bathroom scale, they won’t starve to death, or even lose weight as a result.

How can money, this man-made pseudo-thing, very much internal to and created by our political processes and social structures, have this power over them, as if it had substantial existence outside of them? – and how does it vanish, if no one of the people that created it and maintained it wants it to vanish and is trying to make it vanish. You return to the original question. Why should some problem, on the stock market, with the money supply, which is extraneous to people’s needs and desires, keep them from pursuing and meeting their needs and desires.

It is strange. But it isn’t singular, I don’t think. There are parallels elsewhere. For example, in love. Let’s take a couple. They love each other. They express their love to each other, they give each other energy and support, they make each other feel good, they care for each other and meet each other’s needs while each gets their own needs met. There is a kind of economic cycle of increasing happiness and well-being. Person A feels happier and more secure, so is able to aid Person B, who becomes happier and more secure, and more able to help Person A. They maintain firm boundaries and their sense of self while sharing burdens and covering weaknesses with strengths. The demonstration of love becomes a habit, which becomes a foundation for a better and deeper love.

But then take that same couple at another time, in a difficult time. Watch how their interactions with each other seem to rob them of energy. Watch how minor problems become aggravated by the other’s presence, absence, interference or non-involvement. Looking closely: the needs are still there, the skills are still there, the desires and intentions are all present, just as before. But the needs are not getting met, the skills are not being applied, weaknesses are exaggerated and insecurities increase. There is hostility and mistrust; every interaction, far from creating energy and pleasure, reduces it and robs pleasure from other activities. Far from being a refuge, the relationship becomes what you fear most. And any effort you make to turn it around or make it better involves you in so much pain you are doubly reconfirmed in your fear. The habit of distrust only finds confirmation for itself.

I think this situation will be familiar to anyone who’s had a relationship fail, or nearly fail, or observed others’ failing. And of course every relationship is different and fails in its own particular way. It’s impossible to detail the multiple reasons why any particular one fails, or why another that seems so toxic manages to continue. But a result of whatever the core problems happen to be is lack of trust, or faith, or hope. I don’t have faith that my lover isn’t trying to hurt me, I don’t believe what they say about where they have been, I can’t trust them to take care of their problems in their own way, I have no hope that they will even recognize the problems that I see. Without trust, it is and becomes increasingly more difficult to get the benefit of a relationship, because you must be continually on your guard.

The business world is not dissimilar. Any routine business transaction depends on credit, that is to say, trust. Even the existence of money is dependent on this trust, in that I trust, in receiving a dollar bill for my labor, that I will be able to convince someone else to take it, in return for goods. Likewise, in shipping goods, I trust that I will receive payment in thirty days. In paying, I trust that I have received quality goods or that I can pursue the manufacturer and recover my losses. But when lenders begin to lose trust that their loans will be repaid, or lose trust that their holdings of collateral can be redeemed for the value of the loan, when employers begin to lose trust in their ability to successfully market their goods, when workers lose trust in the payment for their labor, the cycle doesn’t continue.

I don’t mean to take away from the question. I’m not saying witnessing the failure of love might make widepsread economic failure any more comprehensible, or any more ordinary. But I do believe it is something we are familiar with, it follows a pattern that can be recognized elsewhere. Maybe the best way to describe what money is, is trust, or that its flow in a system is indicative of the level of trust in the system. So it’s not directly a measure of value, or if it is that, it is this as well, an indicator of trust, such that the disappearance of money from the system isn’t the cause, but the tell-tale sign, of the breakdown of the system.

There is another, possibly simpler analogy. Imagine automobile traffic. Take a situation where people are content with the speed they are going. Traffic flows freely and in an orderly way. Merging traffic onto a highway is allowed into the stream. Lane changes are not contested. In this situation, studies show (I don’t have a citation but I might be able to find one, I read something on the internet once, you know the way it goes), traffic actually will go faster than in the contrasting situation: Merging cars have difficulty finding space to join. The drivers in the main stream of traffic are jealous of their space and don’t allow lane changes or mergers in front of them. In this situation, the cumulative effect of each driver’s individual lack of trust and desire to ensure the fastest possible speed given the amount of traffic is that the overall speed of traffic is reduced. This reduction in speed has then the result that drivers are more anxious to increase their speed, are less likely to allow mergers or lane changers ahead of them, and contribute more to the overall reduction of speed.

Again, the issue here is a lack of trust. The aggressive driver does not trust that the flow of traffic will get them where they are going in a timely way. The trusting driver, provided they are in a system populated by other trusting drivers will, all other things being equal, arrive more quickly than the driver who is trying to go more quickly than their fellow drivers, provided the fellow drivers are also concerned about their speed and don’t trust the flow of traffic. Of course then, the trusting driver, like the trusting lover or the trusting lender, if they are in a system populated by their opposite, will find that through no fault of their own, or perhaps entirely their own fault due to their own actions, that they will arrive more slowly, be in more pain, and lose more money than their fellow citizens.

What does this amount to? Well, I don’t know that I understand my own answer. Certainly it doesn’t seem to make the question go away. How does it happen that money, or trust disappears from a system? Why do two lovers stop loving? Is there a way to make drivers just relax? These are just restatements of the original issue, in modified form. They’ve been blended, and combined, but not processed or consumed or transformed from the suspended, hanging state of the question to the settled state of the answer.

I wonder if the real portrait that emerges here isn’t of the question, which seems to have meant something different to my friend mind than to mine. Rather, it seems as though the real subject is my own mind, and my own preferences: I prefer the question not to have an answer, and I will allow myself to explore an answer only if I can feel that at the end of the exploration I will have returned to the question more puzzled than I was at the beginning. There is something in me that doesn’t want to trust an answer, that would prefer to dwell with the question, because something as problematic and untrustworthy as a question is less challenging than the answer which asks you to depend on it, and use it to solve other problems. Like the well-fed cat, I play with it and put it in terror of its life before getting bored and going elsewhere, leaving my prey as alive as when I first encountered it.

* I think this is actually a disputed point. It is an open question, from what I read on the subject, which was little and long ago, so I don’t know that I could direct you more firmly than I am about to, it is an open question whether the Great Crash really was a cause of the Great Depression. I believe the issue is that the Depression did not begin in earnest until 1931, but there were already indications of the problems to come before the crash in October 1929.

Let that be a lesson

Two children, one of them in a brown cap, it might have been a girl, were kicking a beach ball up in the air, back and forth. It would go up quickly, weaving side to side like an inflatable buoy against the mottled blue backdrop of the sky. It would complete the curve, drifting down slowly.

They ran up and down on either side of a green asphalt tennis court with a saggy, torn net. For all the attention they paid one another, they might have been side by side or miles apart – they were watching the ball. The surface showed a map of the world in bright, unhealthy color. The surface was divided into twelve longitudinally, like long cantaloupe slices. The sea was pointillist blue.

The nearer child, probably a boy, kicked at it too hard and lost his balance. He fell on his back, the ball bouncing behind him. The large-eyed, bearded man with that had been observing them trotted quickly after it. He bent and picked it up in one hand.

Eight countries in a row across sub-Saharan Africa had been colored the same pinky orange, and the borders of a small middle eastern country did not appear, its name showing in a non-specific location. The child that fell had rolled over and both were watching him. He made sure. He unplugged the north pole and squeezed from east and west until the ball was a limp pankcake between his large palms and his long, thin fingers.

Looking forward, looking back

Technology, or new media, or google, or somebody, has helped take the mystery out. There are plenty of blogs written by Peace Corps volunteers in the Caucasus. And I actually recognize a lot of what they describe, though I’ve never been near there. There’s a certain post-Sovietness that seems to be common to where I was (from September 2002 until January 2004, I lived in a small, ethnically Buryat-Mongol town in Eastern Siberia).

I can look forward to the same old exhortations to drink, the same condescending and infantalizing behavior by those who know me, the personal questions from strangers, unasked-for honesty, aggressive dogs, and mini-celebrity status. The same catechism of questions, even, persisting unchanged over thousands of miles of the previous Evil Empire. How much do teachers make, are you looking for a wife, is our vodka better than yours, how do you say kaif in English.

Just in the past couple days, I’ve started to dwell on old memories and think of things I hadn’t thought of for a long time. The memories seem to come compulsively. In certain moods, I have difficulty keeping violent images, thoughts of violent harm to my body, getting sliced to ribbons, getting hanged, or shot, or punched, I have a hard time keeping representations of harm to myself out of my mind. There’s a force to the thought that is very like the force the thought is of, the same contempt for my own integrity. These memories have the same compulsive feeling to them. But I can’t be sure what to do with them. I’m not revolted at them, nor am I really pleased by them. There’s a curious lack of affect to them. They’re like a dull movie, or more exactly, like someone else’s memories.

Soon after I moved into a new home in October of my first year, I got pneumonia. My host family was sure I had gotten it from running around without a hat off. My habit had been to walk around the hills in the afternoons, I stopped that because of the weather, soon after. There were lots of things to find. Over a hill, one hundred feet away from my door, there were no dwellings, no civilization for miles. But it was like civilization had walked through, taking mile-long strides, its hands in its pockets overstuffed with junk, dropping bits of garbage everywhere without taking notice. Once I found a dry stream bed filled with children’s shoes that may have been there since the previous winter. Abandoned vehicles, a sofa, a filing cabinet, a tire. Or a window frame, or piles of rotting documents, or a lonesome boot in the middle of a flat, empty plain.

I had lost my hat somewhere I can’t remember where. Looking back I was a little out of control. I can remember walking for it seemed almost an hour to the local temple, outside of town, and nearly fainting on the way, because I had forgotten to eat. At any rate, this was after I had been in my new home for two weeks or so, I went on my usual afternoon walk, it was cold and windy, I thought my hood would be protection enough. It may have been but a couple days after I was running a temperature and feeling strange. I was sent to the clinic. I remember not wanting to take that advice, but it turned out to be good.

I had trouble understanding the doctor because her face mask made it impossible to read her lips. She gave me antibiotics, told me to rest. I remember being asked how I was feeling, I told them my brains were boiling. I was giddy, and laughing. I had a temperature of 104 but I felt great. Exhilarated, grinning, dancing in the front hall. I only stayed home a week or so, then was back at work, But I remember one teacher telling me it looked like I had really grown up, she couldn’t say how, but I really looked older. Later she said, no I’d just lost weight.

It’s a persistent memory, the feeling of the fever, the light glow I had, like I had witnessed some kind of glorious event, but only at a distance, and happening to someone I wasn’t all that close to, so the effect wasn’t very strong but it was still in that genre. The taste of the memory somehow lingers on the back of my tongue. From that point on, however, I felt at home, I got used to the repeated questions, the stares, I even began to speak more fluently. I started to make friends and feel content. It was as if the sickness was a gate I had to pass through, a staging area while I switched horses, on my way to another stage of life.

Transition dialogue

A: You’re on your way now. It’s finally begun! That process that you have been waiting on for so long is finally gearing up. You must be in a strange state. How does it feel?

B: It’s strange to be in between. I’m not here any longer, I’m not there yet. I can’t really relax. It is a strange state, it’s like not being any state at all. It is exactly like not being in any state at all.

A: Don’t you feel a little bit here, and a little bit there, both at the same time? That is what change is all about, after all. Isn’t it being in two different states at once, so you have aspects of both and aspects of neither; isn’t it a new and exciting mixture?

B: Right, like when I ride the bus in the morning, I am at one and the same time already at work and still at home. Or actually, not at all. A transition is another kind of beast entirely from its start and its end. It has nothing to do with either stationary state, exactly because it’s not what they are, stationary. Like being on a bus, the process of transition is bumpy and irregular, and requires a heightened degree of attention and awareness. Now imagine it is a new bus route, and you only have a few loosely-described landmarks to watch for. Does that sound comfortable?

A: Huh. Because the impression I had from you before was more like this: you are loosening your grip on your present life, in order to shift and reach out for someting new. You talked about living in a tunnel, a cold, dark, wet tunnel, for so long, crawling and crawling and never seeming to get anywhere, and then you get a whiff of fresh air, warm, dry air. It sounded like a pleasant prospect. I could see you becoming expansive as you talked. Now you don’t seem pleasant, or I mean pleased.

B: Fear and restlessness look like energy, because they are energy. Regardless, they aren’t pleasant.

C (to A): Do you think he has really changed at all or is in any process of change? It looks to me as though he is where he was, just as before, only he is unsure about his prospects, which is why he talks about change so much, and dresses it up in such varied costumes, to frighten himself or flatter himself and see which one he thinks it looks best in, or he looks best in.

An early fall afternoon

From an elevation in the sandpit you commanded the playground. There was a train of boys running after a train of girls. It was shapes and activity. One girl seemed to stand still in the center of it. She held her eyes tight closed. He raised a sliver of bark above his head. It was his sword of justice.

He fell upon the group shouting, holding his weapon, he flew down from the hill with air rushing past his scalp. He felt glee and power as he chased. Older boys shouted after him, he felt the sun. He was a good runner. With a sudden burst of speed he caught up with and tackled a boy. He heard cheers. The wind was rushing past and he was strong.

He pinned his shoulders to the ground. Underneath him, he rolled like a snake. He couldn’t keep hold, and lost control of the wriggling, struggling thing. He reached out and bit the neck, hard. The boy grabbed at his head and yanked, and slid out and escaped in disarray. He stood and walked proud.

He passed the older boys again, on the rise before the school. You fight dirty. Didn’t you see him bite? And here came the monitor. His smirking grimace looked severe. Who is your teacher. He was delivered to his classroom. He saw fear cross the face of the stiff girl, who kept her eyes turned away. His hands were dirty and left marks on his workbook and forehead.

Biking and the city

Some of the best things in your life refuse to come to you except through luck, or as the backside of a problem. I didn’t choose it, but my fear of driving kept me from ever being dependent on a car. I’ve never owned a car, and never felt I had to. Admitting that I needed one, and mastering myself to the point of learning how to use one, would have been too high a price to pay. I think that’s a pretty rare bit of good fortune, in spite of all the humiliation and misery I felt during the six years I couldn’t overcome it.

I still feel a little uncomfortable riding in a car, though I don’t panic or lose control any more, and I can talk about it now. And now, it’s really only discomfort: I don’t feel comfortable with the huge disproportion between the size and importance of what’s being transported (me), and the large, loud, bulky machinery that seems required to transport it. Mass transit is different, a bus would go where it was going regardless of whether I was on it. Walking was always how I preferred to get anywhere, but for longer distances or regular transport I depended on the bus. Regular reading time, habitual mingling with people, breathing all their various smells, I find I need that even in my most withdrawn moods. A certain basic level of exposure to humanity, any kind of humanity, is part of what I require to keep myself sane.

I can’t pin down all the reasons, but certainly I was becoming more aware of my health, when I began to bike to work and forego the bus. I’ve been biking to work five days a week, and to most other places I go on the other days, for about two or two and a half years. I think I crossed the point of no return when I realized that I could reliably arrive before the bus, going between almost any two points in town. Biking has had the effect of humanizing the scale of the city: keeping it to human limits and filling in a lot of what had been sort of white space on my mental map; and also expanding the scale of the accessible city, where before it often had felt just too large: when an hour’s ride and two transfers stand between you and that photo shop you want to visit, it’s harder than when you have a pleasant breakfast and a long, flat, gentle ride along the river and the railroad to look forward to. The bicycle, as has been said only I can’t remember by who, is one of our most humane inventions. Large-scale becomes manageable scale, and it doesn’t lose its human character. Neighborhoods remain neighborhoods, they aren’t a conduit or a roadside attraction; passing traffic through one does not destroy it; but they are no longer limiting: it becomes easy to go beyond their limits.

But for me the first thing about the bicycle is its flexibility. The bus goes on established routes, at certain times and is not subject to me or my desires. I have to subject myself to it, to its driver, to his habits of braking, steering, and merging. It’s the loss of control. Walking has obvious spatial limitations, an hour’s walk, the distance from my apartment to my work, takes too much time from my day. The car appears flexible, but is not: individually, driving a car, I feel the flexibility and power. But at the end of my trip I have to deposit my ton of metal and plastic somewhere. And take up usable space while doing it. And so does everyone else: the space demanded by the car makes for non-negotiable rigidities in urban design. Acres of ground have to be flattened and made useless dead areas to store these things. Streets have to be widened, limiting productive space, then widened again to let the cars that aren’t even using the street for transit to take up space along them; and entire concrete buildings have to be built to house them, which makes for giant economic black holes in the middle of the city.

The bicycle is a more forgiving, less demanding tool. The flexibility of the bicycle, the variety of paths it can take me on, its readiness to hand and its contented nature, reflects the nature of the city. This is my idiosyncrasy, but I feel like I belong in a city, I am a human in a busy, humming happy human hive. I feel here that I have freedom and options and challenges. If I want to explore, there is plenty to learn, if I have other needs, it is here that they will be met, by other humans, who have gathered here for the purpose of meeting one another’s needs. Likewise, I feel in control of myself and unburdened on a bicycle, and able to explore and encounter life, and to live together with other humans. This is a lot to put on the slender frame of a bicycle, but though the spokes which bear the weight of the rider are thin and look weak, their curious radial design enables each to carry the load the other cannot, and they form a stronger support than an equivalent amount of metal, gathered together, without the variety and power-sharing organization of a bicycle wheel, could do.

Politics and self-abandonment

I am a sucker for what you might call political pathos. A large group gathered peacefully for a common purpose will reliably bring a tear in my eye and a lump in my throat. I’ve noticed the tendency for at least ten years. It’s a curious sensation: it’s longing, and happiness, and hope, but it’s mixed with a feeling of great loneliness and distrust: I mistrust the group and its aims, and I mistrust myself, and my own feelings. I feel like I want to be one with the group but I feel completely cut off on the other hand. There’s a certain exquisiteness, like a sensual tickle or a painful exercise session. But it’s a feeling I don’t like to sustain for too long.

I suppose I could trace it back to church meetings and religious summer camps from my childhood. But the occasion doesn’t have to be religious, or political: I also get it at concerts, at parties, even, in the right setting, at a lecture or discussion. And I don’t have to be present at an actual gathering either, nor do have to be in agreement with its purpose, I can even be revolted by it, and all the same I will be carried along, and left with an inner core of coldness and non-committal feelings. I nearly wept at the end of The Battle of Algiers each of the three times I saw it, and each time my feelings of ambivalence towards the movement and the events celebrated in it only increased: in the same proportion as my emotion. It’s as if I have the urge to leap into the sea, and I can only barely hold myself back. There is a roiling, tumbling chaos of water below me, and I want to dive in, even though I am fearful of and sure of being smashed and torn apart in it.

I felt it again today. Today the weather was strange, it was a double-minded Oregon day that didn’t know whether to storm or shine. There was hail, rain, snow, sleet, wind, and bright sunshine. You could be standing hunched over in a downpour in your doorway while the roof of your building behind was getting a light sprinkling; across the street you can see hail bouncing off the parked cars, and down the block, the sun is shining and people are walking their dogs and smiling at one another. It was also the Oregon kickoff meeting for the Obama campaign. I nearly didn’t go. If I hadn’t come up with such transparent excuses, I wouldn’t have gone. But I made it too easy for myself to see through, and I shamed myself into going. I showed up, I stood and nearly cried standing still, just seeing the crowd, maybe 700 people in all, more women than men and probably as many young as old. It was difficult to stay standing, watching alone, but something in me made me behave rudely to those who tried to speak to me. I think if I had talked to them I might have cried. All very strange emotions, but again, that underlying mistrust at the emotions I was feeling, and dislike of their power over me.

I don’t know how to deal with the idea that I might be a political person. All my life I haven’t been, I haven’t trusted it. I haven’t liked to think about politics, read about it, or discuss it. My brothers are the same way, as far as I can tell. There’s something about it in our family. And yet on the other hand, I feel like I am participating, to the extent that I was able, I was there in part, to do honor to the memory of my father; who is surely much of the reason we don’t like politics. It’s a complicated picture I don’t think I will be able to draw.

It’s complicated not least by my father’s conservatism, which he never wavered in. One of the only times I talked politics with him in the last few years, he defended Nixon, surveillance, and torture to me. I don’t believe Obama stands for anything that he would support. And yet I feel there’s something there in Obama’s campaign, in his rhetoric and the way he makes his appeals, that respects my father the way I respect him, like he would be willing to govern in my father’s name as well, not only in the name of his party and his voters and his prime constituencies. Who knows how far that feeling of mine is reflected in the reality: not me, not least because the reality is not there yet. But there’s something I can feel happening in me, the fear is ebbing. Who knows, maybe next week will find me knocking on the doors that I fled from this week.

Outside my window

My west-facing window is divided in two. The north side slides laterally. I don’t think the panes or the frame are original, but the external setting contains some old wood indeed: it’s so weather worn it’s almost not there at all. It’s a bundle of splinters that continue to associate from habit.

The south, fixed side of the window is on the outside. The moving side is backed with a screen, and has a permanent smudge which covers over half its area in a vertically elongated diamond shape; in combination with the screen behind it makes a double distortion. At night, the center of this area glitters and the streetlights beyond grow fuzzy spring dandelion heads.

The other pane is still dirty, but clearer. I can see downtown Portland and the west hills, and Morrison Street falling away to the river. My whole building shakes whenever a bus or a large truck goes down this hill, and my windows give a faint rattle. I can’t help imagining a hollow underneath my hill.

I almost feel a little ground washing away, a hundred feet beneath me, every time I flush the toilet or unplug my bath. I get a grainy, gravelly flavor in my mouth, like a taste of the unreliable sediment down below. The thought of my perch, bricks, wood and all tumbling away beneath me, all except that which clings to a skeleton of pipes, is enough to keep me from using the water, or stirring from my seat.

The lodger’s money

Trying something a little different here: write a story keep it at exactly 250 words. We’ll see how it goes. Just trying to keep things simple for now.

The mother and her daughter were sitting at the small table by the window in the otherwise empty kitchen. The lodger came in and sat down. The mother yanked closed the curtain on the window that looked on the road. She turned to her daughter: did she have anything to say for herself? The daughter continued to stare at the lodger. She sat curving her spine, contrary to her recent, conscious habit. Her mother repeated the question. She bent further forward, her head tilted back and her broad chin elevated. She kept her small teeth tight together. The silence acted as a goad on him, and he jerked forward in his chair.

So it is nothing to you? Is it nothing that you have ruined our relationship? You have made everything rotten. Do you have nothing to say to me? The mother looked at him out of the side of her eye. She sat for a moment, then sent the daughter out of the room.

She said, I ask myself, what have I done wrong? Does she fear me so much, she couldn’t come to me? The lodger interrupted her. But she isn’t afraid of me, I would have given it to her if she had asked. She knew that.

The mother accepted and dismissed it with a gesture: her hand, curled slightly, came in to her body, palm up; then it rotated and, flat, palm down, and went out straight to her side. She knew it, she knew it.

Work and the otherworkly world

There was sudden rain, and the view of the north-west warehouses from the fifth-floor window was sunk in the kind of blue that I usually see only in lowlit photographs from digital cameras. Other people weren’t surprised, it was predicted. But I didn’t know about it, and hadn’t packed a lunch. I was counting on my burrito, rain or shine. I went out and did a ducking sort of run and reached the canvas cover of the burrito cart. The rain wasn’t the usual Portland rain, but sharp and swift and it came in at an angle. The cart was empty and unminded; the surface of the salsa was getting filmy, the cheese was starting to drown, and the wind was knocking the tinfoil around from one side of the counter to the other.

Where I was standing, the rain was blocked from going down my neck by the overhang, but it hit me all up and down the back of my legs, which now itch, and my feet are still wet. The cart stayed empty for several minutes. I don’t like a burrito but once a week, but when I want it I want it then, so I stayed. Several minutes of hopping from one foot to another, trying to peer around in the rain, ducking back under cover. Then I remembered I had inexplicably put a book in my pocket before coming outside. Good instinct however. I stood reading for several minutes before the strikingly green-eyed, skull-headed (hollow sockets, a vanishing nose with two long, upturned nostrils) burrito minder returned.

I read an argument that began with this premise: there are two approaches to the world, the otherworldly and the this-worldly. The this-worldly aren’t only those who don’t believe in life after death, but also those who did but thought it was like life now, only more so: with work, praise, society, and love; life, as it is, only pruned of pain or tedium. But those who think that there is no good to be found in this world and all that is good can only be the opposite of what we see, that this world is essentially valueless. I don’t know how far that goes in context, but out of it, it’s a fine was to divide everyone I know who works.

There are those who think their jobs are okay, but there are some things they’d like to change, but over all they are doing what they want to do. Then there are others, for whom all work is bad, it can’t be improved or ameliorated apart from making it vanish, and the real, true life is confined to what happens outside of working hours. Time goes on two tracks for this group, and the two don’t intersect.

But in the analogy, everyone in the second category is secretly a counter-platonist. Because the other-worldly person, according to the book, thinks of the other world as inviolate and separate and not dependant on this world. This world is a nothing, an illusion, or an offense. Even the adoration of the other world which he practices is a defilement, and unworthy of that world. There can be no connection. It is the platonist other world, which is purity, truth and reality itself.

But Plato himself, this is the beginning of the story, made a strange reversal, just at the point where he had developed the idea of the involate other world. At this point he turns and incorporates a strange version of this-worldism; the world that we live in turns out to be the product of the other world, what is good in it comes from that other world and so does what is bad, which is a corrupted version of the otherworldly good. Further reasoning along this line concludes that not only is the self-sufficient world the source of this world, it is also dependant on this world, its own characteristics are imperfectly expressed if it cannot be creative. In order to be the pure, good, true and real thing it is, it needs ot be the source of the less true and the imperfect thing that it creates. The blinding light creates and needs to create shadows and half-light. The shadows and the half-light, their imperfection, is part of the overall perfection, and they are themselves thus good.

But for the other-workly person, the real work, the real life, is enabled by the bad in this life, the pain in here and now is the foundation for the true glory yet to come. In order for the real life to exist at all, the work and the drudgery must be gone through, the real work or the real life wouldn’t be possible otherwise. And in the complementary turn to Plato’s, the real work is what gives this work its meaning, it is what makes it bearable. This work, as it is, is good; since it enables the other.

The burrito maker returned. I asked whether on days like this she really appreciated her job. Yes, she said, she’d been standing there, alone, watching the rain this morning, not attracting a line, and thought now why didn’t I bring a book? Reminds me what a good job this is. I said it was like camping, sitting in a tent. She said yes, or a boat. The canvas was flapping, and we were wet. I got extra sour cream and cheese on my burrito, and nearly fell asleep at my desk afterlunch, sitting in my wet things with an over-full belly.