#8: Searching for meaning in searching for meaning

(And then writing about it)

Hello. Supposedly another week has passed since we last spoke. All of us are still alive.

A Short Story With No Moral

Last May, our hot-water heater broke. One day our shower worked fine, and the next day it was impossible to find a middle ground between scalding and freezing. Weirdly we didn’t immediately alert our landlord. I think we kept assuming it was a fluke, and then realizing, over and over, that it wasn’t. That first week I spent every shower pressed against the tile wall, poking my limbs in tentatively, adjusting the temperature (futile), and then willing myself to just “dunk,” catching as much of the narrow window between scorching and glacial as I could. 

The irony was, right before all this happened, a man had come by our place to “perform routine maintenance” on the hot-water heater. Before that visit, it worked perfectly. Like a dream! Not that I’d literally ever noticed that—you’re not supposed to think about your hot-water heater. But once it broke I became very nostalgic for showers that didn’t require endurance. Eventually we called our management company and they sent a guy to come look at it, who fiddled around with things and deemed it fixed. And it was, for a day, then it went back to fucked. So he returned, fiddled again, deemed it fixed, and same thing. This repeated several times. Sometimes a different guy would come, occasionally he would do more than just fiddle (one guy “cleaned it out”), but before long I would always find myself pressed against the wall again, convincing myself cold was just a state of mind.

Drew this diagram of our temperature adjustment valve for you. Is there really not a shorter word for “temperature adjustment valve”?

Eventually we became immune to each other’s bathroom screams, like unfeeling sociopaths. There were weeks where we just put up with this, too busy or frustrated to tell them that it still wasn’t working. The logic of that decision doesn’t hold up, I admit. But as horrible as the showers were, somehow (unbelievably) we’d forget all about them once we dried off. At least until one made me angry enough that I would write an email right then and there, standing naked in the bathroom while the icy water ran. Sometimes they’d respond by telling us how a shower worked (“it can take a few minutes to warm up…”). We’d joke about trying to move the temperature valve so little that the adjustment was invisible to the human eye, just in case our inability to find the Goldilocks temperature was an issue of dexterity.

Would you believe me if I told you this went on for a year?

What we couldn’t get over is that none of this would have happened if that original guy hadn't come in to perform “routine maintenance” on it. We kept repeating this fact to each other every few weeks, laughing in disbelief. Somehow it made it so much worse than if it had just broken randomly. A month ago we finally begged our management company for a new hot-water heater—whenever it was safe to install—and they agreed. A few days later two guys came in wearing masks, Avi and I scuttled into a corner, and less than 20 minutes later, it was done. Fixed. Forgotten. Our first showers were heaven and we haven’t thought about our hot-water heater since.

The next day we realized our heater broke. As in, it was blowing hot air out of the vents at all hours of the day, even when it was off. This was a few weeks ago; our apartment became a stale 85 degrees. At this point we concluded our place had some kind of Final Destination curse on it—except instead of being chased by death, we were being chased by the wrong temperature. (Not the worst curse.) I’m embarrassed to admit that, again, we waited at least three days to alert management, just in case it was a fluke. We shut the fuse off for the heater and just opened the windows to stay cool. It was then that we realized we never open our windows, and that we’d been closing ourselves in for most of quarantine like fucking vacuum-sealed chicken breasts. Granted, it’s been cold, and our street isn’t lively or attractive like the ones you see in viral videos of New York fire escapes filled with people drinking wine, but suddenly we could hear the trees swishing! And the occasional stranger talking! A light breeze was coming in! What kind of masochists had we been?

Our ventilation has since been fixed—apparently it got tampered with during the installation of our hot-water heater—and now we can technically use our AC, but instead we’ve kept the air off in favor of open windows. And we’ve been reveling in it as if open windows haven’t been a universal pleasure of human existence for literal centuries. And what if our heater hadn’t broken to remind us of that? And what if our hot-water heater hadn’t broken before it?

Sometimes I can sense my own desperation to justify the things that happen, as if there is some divine order to everything—even though I don’t believe things happen for a reason as much as we apply reason to things that happen. As I wrote this I was sensing all the connections between my hot water fiasco and what is happening now—the blind hope that bad things are flukes that will fix themselves; the fixation on the one guy who did that one thing to cause all this, and what if he hadn’t?; how quickly we forget cold showers after they happen, then adjust to warm showers even after we’ve longed for one for months; the compulsion to seek out silver linings, to deem the nonlinear path ideal because we have no choice but to accept it. Sometimes I think this search for meaning is pointless. Other times I think it’s all we get.

3 Additions to Your Quarantine Vocabulary

Invented by me and Avi out of pure necessity.

In-between energy: When you’re transitioning between activities but, due to a lack of resolve or interest, you linger in a kind of physical/existential purgatory, emitting an indecisive energy which permeates the room and inhibits the focus of whoever is around you.
As in: Your in-between energy is off the charts. Are you actually gonna work out or what? I’m trying to work here!

Tiny touches: When two people are in a very small amount of physical contact, like say, a toe is lightly touching a leg, or the very tip of a knee is brushing against a hip. 
As in: I’m sorry but no tiny touches at this time, I’m reading.*
*
Tiny touches are highly divisive—some love, some hate.

Bodega santa: A member of your household who goes to the bodega for something you need and comes back with a variety of random/largely unnecessary treats.
As in: Wow, you went to the bodega for Advil and came back with a kombucha, a bag of jalapeño kettle chips, and a box of Hello Pandas? Bodega santa 😍

5 New Coping Mechanisms

-Doing therapy in my car and feeling like I’m in a submarine
-Texting cute dogs from adoptapet.com to Avi with no explanation
-Distinguishing between night pajamas and day pajamas
-Looking out my window for extended periods of time like a cat
-Jalapeño kettle chips

10 Things I Consumed Last Week

  1. This New York Times essay by Parul Sehgal, “In Search of Time Lost and Newly Found,” which critiqued people like me (in a good/necessary way) and attempted to capture something impossible to capture.

  2. The book A State of Affairs: Rethinking Infidelity by Esther Perel. Her first book Mating in Captivity completely changed how I think about love/sex/relationships/monogamy and this one did the same, albeit to a lesser extent. I started finding her prose a little grating (why so many puns?) but I still love how she thinks. I’ll never think about cheating the same again.

  3. This interview between Phoebe Bridgers and Paul Mescal. They are FLIRTING. I love flirting.

  4. “Fuck the Bread. The Bread Is Over.” by Sabrina Orah Mark for The Paris Review. A chaotic, urgent, beautiful essay.

  5. The poem “June” by Alex Dimitrov. I often feel left out/intimidated by poetry but sometimes the right poem comes along (like Mary Oliver’s “Wild Geese”) and makes me think I should read more of them.

  6. The search results for “plop method tutorial,” in an attempt to make my hair look less like the bottom of a broom.

    My hair post-plop! Could still sweep with it but in a fun way.

  7. Mrs. Fletcher, an HBO show that got middling reviews, which my friends Mallory and Gyan defiantly disagree with. I finally watched its single season and liked it! It’s nice to see Kathryn Hahn centered.

  8. The definition for the word “flotsam.”

  9. “My Appetites” by Jerry Saltz, New York Mag’s art critic, which reminded me of his great Longform interview (I don’t like everything he does but I like that he exists).

  10. Two bags of jalapeño kettle chips.

Lastly, 1 Art Musing Care of My Friend Laura

My friend Laura Bannister is a brilliant writer with an unmitigated love of New York trash and a taste for culture that’s so broad it’s easy to forget she’s one person. Since she’s regularly exposing me to new things I love, especially art (which I know embarrassingly little about), this week I asked her to recommend a work that responds to the human compulsion to search for meaning. In her words:

Donald Judd’s Untitled (1991)

A preternatural ability to eavesdrop at great distances means I am often—at least, anytime that is not now—catching fellow gallery attendees puzzling, “But what does it mean?” Here is a truth they already know, that you know too, but remains worth repeating: the profoundness of our encounters with art are not hinged on the unlocking of some enigmatic truth. (In his ‘67 essay, Death of the Author, Barthes argued viewers are complicit in generating a work’s final meaning, their own speculative associations activating a “space of many dimensions”.) I have always found this murkiness freeing. There is no singularity, only slipperiness. There is no way of seeing, only ways. Sometimes I imagine thousands of fragmentary meanings hovering over a sculpture or a painting or a film, like infinite drafts of a mind map, intersecting and doubling back, partially erasing one another. And sometimes, when I am exhausted by finding meaning in anything at all, I turn to a genre fixated on its erasure, in which there is nothing to decipher but the physicality of the object itself.

There’s plenty of dick-swinging machismo to be found in the obsessive formalism of the 60s minimalists, but I honestly don’t mind. For anyone desiring time with works that allow them to rest, to search for nothing beyond the immediate, I suggest this 1991 box by Donald Judd. Constructed from enameled aluminium, there is a potency—an electric pull—in its seemingly ordinary form, in the deliberate mundanity of its industrial material, the exactitude of its dimensions, the sameness of its separate parts. Even observing Judd’s floor works online, I am subsumed in their materiality; I take pleasure in the hard-soft dichotomy of their forms, the fact that they are solid yet empty. (A less shiny recommendation for the exhausted is Walter De Maria’s Earth Room, a readymade meditation comprising 250 yards of heaped dirt.)

Laura’s the best. Okay that’s it for this week! I miss you all. See you next Sunday.
Haley

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