Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays

170 aphorisms, mini essays or poems on life by James Richardson
poetry, philosophy
by: James Richardson 2018-10-272018-11-28 finished certainty: log importance: 2

James Richard­son is an Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mic poet & critic at Prince­ton Uni­ver­si­ty. Sev­eral of his po­etry col­lec­tions fea­ture com­pi­la­tions, typ­i­cally named “Vec­tors”, of short non­fic­tion prose: apho­risms, com­ments, & “ten-sec­ond es­says”, re­flect­ing on life. They are among the most pop­u­lar of his writ­ings.

Vec­tors 3.0 is ex­cerpted here.

By The Num­bers, Richard­son 2010

Vec­tors 3.0 has been ex­tracted from By The Num­bers, James Richard­son 2010 (ISBN: 978-1-55659-320-8), pg38–67 of the e-book. This is a com­plete ver­sion (the Lit­er­ary Re­view only ex­cerpted 32 of the 170). It is the third in a se­ries: Vec­tors 1.0 was pub­lished in Vec­tors: Apho­risms & Ten-Sec­ond Es­says, Richard­son 2001; and Vec­tors 2.0 in In­ter­glacial: New and Se­lected Po­ems & Apho­risms, Richard­son 2004. (See also my GPT-3 neural net­work im­i­ta­tions of Richard­son.)

“Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays”

By James Richard­son

  1. The odds against to­day were in­sur­mount­able, un­til it hap­pened.

  2. If you can’t take the first step, take the sec­ond.

  3. Ex­pe­ri­ence afraid of its in­no­cence is use­less: no one is rich who can­not give his riches away.

  4. Spon­tane­ity takes a few re­hearsals.

  5. The days are in or­der, the months, the sea­sons, the years. But the weeks are work. They have no names; they re­peat.

  6. Noth­ing dirt­ier than old soap.

  7. Office sup­plies stores are the cathe­drals of Work in Gen­er­al. They for­give, they con­sole, they promise a new start. These sup­plies have done work like yours a mil­lion times. Take them home and they will do it for you.

  8. When it gets ahead of it­self, the wave breaks.

  9. Few plans sur­vive their first suc­cess, which sug­gests they were less about their goals than about the pos­si­bil­ity of a lit­tle suc­cess.

  10. The heart is a small, cracked cup, easy to fill, im­pos­si­ble to keep full.

  11. Hard disk: the let­ter I re­mem­bered as em­bar­rass­ing is OK after all. I must have re­vised it just be­fore send­ing. I never con­fuse what I dreamed with what I ac­tu­ally did, but this is differ­ent: which draft am I?

  12. Work is re­quired play.

  13. My mis­takes are not mine, but they are em­bar­rass­ing be­cause you might mis­take them for my sins, which are.

  14. Per­fec­tion is be­sieged. Hap­pier is the man who has done just a lit­tle bet­ter than he ex­pect­ed.

  15. How proud we are of our mul­ti­task­ing. What is Life but some­thing to get off our desks, cross off our lists?

  16. I find my mar­gin­a­lia in an old book and re­al­ize that for decades I’ve been walk­ing in a cir­cle.

  17. The reader lives faster than life, the writer lives slow­er.

  18. Snakes can­not back up.

  19. First frost, first snow. But win­ter does­n’t re­ally start till you’re sure that spring will never come.

  20. No one in hu­man his­tory has ever writ­ten ex­actly this sen­tence. Or any­way these two.

  21. Noth­ing im­por­tant comes with in­struc­tions.

  22. The mod­esty of avoid­ing rep­e­ti­tion is the van­ity of think­ing they must have been lis­ten­ing the first time.

  23. It can’t hurt to ask is a phrase fa­vored by those who can’t quite tell peo­ple from in­sti­tu­tions, think­ing of both as ran­domly dis­pens­ing or re­fus­ing fa­vors. Ac­tu­al­ly, it hurts me to be treated like a slot ma­chine, maybe enough to pass the hurt along to you.

  24. I need some­one above me—the Com­mit­tee, the Law, Mon­ey, Time—to be able to say No. Sad my lack of in­tegri­ty, though I sup­pose it would be sad­der to need them to say Yes.

  25. The knife likes to think of it­self as a mir­ror.

  26. The tyran­t’s self­-es­teem is just fine, thank you. It’s you he does­n’t care much for. And yes, he rec­og­nizes that he does­n’t feel what you feel. Which is a good thing, since your feel­ing is so weak that it makes him need to beat you up.

  27. Self­-suffi­ciency clings… to it­self.

  28. He’s an­gry at the wronged for mak­ing the world un­just.

  29. If you do more than your share you’d bet­ter want to: oth­er­wise you’re pay­ing your­self in a cur­rency rec­og­nized nowhere else.

  30. The as­cetic’s last plea­sure is blam­ing you for all he has for­gone.

  31. There are two kinds of peo­ple in the world… and who is not both of them?

  32. Be­ware speak­ing of The Rich as if they were some­one else.

  33. We’ve learned to won­der which neu­tral­izes truth more effec­tive­ly, the tyran­ny’s cen­sor­ship or the democ­ra­cy’s ten thou­sand me­dia out­lets. In the for­mer truth is too cost­ly, in the lat­ter there’s no mar­ket for it.

    In Freud the facts get around the cen­sor in the metaphors of dreams, in Shel­ley we live in a dream of over­fa­mil­iar­ity and dead metaphor that only the poet can re­viv­i­fy. Does rep­e­ti­tion em­pha­size or hyp­no­tize? Which is clear­er, what we see or what we don’t see. Are we new or old? Do we love hate or hate love?

  34. You have two kinds of se­crets. The ones only you know. The ones only you don’t.

  35. Some­how the guy who’s re­ally in­ter­ested in ab­solutely every­thing is re­ally bor­ing.

  36. So­phis­ti­ca­tion is up­scale con­for­mi­ty.

  37. The mir­ror’s so quick it only sees what’s in front of it.

  38. Know­ing how to be pleased with what’s there is a great se­cret of happy liv­ing, sen­si­tive read­ing, and bad writ­ing.

  39. If you think you might be lost, you are. If you know you’re lost, you’re at least free to look for the way.

  40. What keeps us de­ceived is the hope that we aren’t.

  41. Every­thing is about pol­i­tics. No, wait: every­thing is about sex. Mon­ey, art, God, self, work.

  42. For those who tread lightly enough the air is a stair.

  43. I often find my­self in­ton­ing Clarke’s Any suffi­ciently ad­vanced tech­nol­ogy is in­dis­tin­guish­able from magic, or any­way half of it, since every­one’s heard it al­ready and in­ter­rupts. Ac­tu­ally the tech­nol­ogy does­n’t have to be very ad­vanced. I drive a car and grasp the ba­sics of in­ter­nal com­bus­tion en­gines but I still treat mine as halfway be­tween pet and malev­o­lent de­ity, mut­ter­ing re­as­sur­ances, curses and spells. Maybe a chip de­signer gets com­put­ers well enough that they are purely tech­nol­o­gy, but he can’t know that much about me­te­o­rol­ogy or gene-s­plic­ing or, well, po­ems. What differ­en­ti­ates tech­nol­ogy from magic is not our knowl­edge but our faith: that some­one else un­der­stands.

  44. Clar­ity is nei­ther trans­parency nor light. It’s the an­gle that sud­denly lets you see through the win­dow’s glare, the pond’s re­flec­tions.

  45. Faith is broad. It’s Doubt that’s deep.

  46. How badly I’d like to be­lieve that my cher­ished mod­er­a­tion and heav­ily de­fended calm could rule the world. But as things are, some­body has to feel too much, some­body has to speak too loud, some­body has to be com­pletely un­rea­son­able.

  47. Don’t trust the rev­o­lu­tion­ist with your free­dom: he’s an au­thor­i­tar­ian who just hap­pens to be out of pow­er.

  48. Pa­tience is eas­i­est when it’s the best way to make Im­pa­tience re­ally mad.

  49. Is he talk­ing about world hunger or just hun­gry to talk, is he an­gry at in­jus­tice or just an­gry, is he ruled by con­science or does he just need to rule mine? Prob­a­bly my scru­ple about pu­rity of Faith is ir­rel­e­vant, but so, if the stan­dard is Good Works, are his words.

  50. Lis­ten hard­est to the one you hope is not telling the truth.

  51. The coy and im­po­tent self­-im­por­tance of sub­ver­sive. A bunch of kids in black who can’t think of any­thing bet­ter to talk about be­tween drags than how un­cool their par­ents are.

  52. Thoughts are dis­cussed, opin­ions dis­played.

  53. The peril of ar­gu­ing with you is for­get­ting to ar­gue with my­self. Don’t make me con­vince you: I don’t want to be­lieve that much.

  54. Tyranny and fan­tasy both like to write every­one else’s lines.

  55. He prides him­self on hav­ing lots of opin­ions, like bad moods he’s en­ti­tled to. Worse than stu­pid­ity is in­tel­li­gence that claims the right to be stu­pid.

  56. No one blames you for hav­ing your dream, just for telling it.

  57. Every­one’s psy­ched that elec­tions are de­cided by a sin­gle vote! That it’s a close game! That choice ap­prox­i­mates chance!

  58. The lesser of two evils is the one with the less evil friends.

  59. How com­fort­ing, your para­noia: some­one’s lis­ten­ing, some­one’s watch­ing, some­one’s think­ing about you all the time.

  60. Build bot­tom up, clean top down.

  61. Pre­ci­sion strike. We’re only killing that one guy. And ac­tu­ally only his worst thought. And there, just a lit­tle to the left of the mid­dle, only the very worst part of that.

  62. The fire does­n’t know where all that smoke came from.

  63. The pat­terned shirt, the speck­led wal­l-to-wall don’t show dirt. Some­times, truth be damned, we need re­lief from see­ing. Our re­sponse is a big­ger prob­lem than the prob­lem.

  64. For­give the evil done to you. Re­al­ly? I can’t help think­ing the Book just did­n’t trust me enough to say what it meant: In time you will see that much of it was not evil, and that much of the evil was yours.

  65. Too much apol­ogy dou­bles the offense.

  66. For­give­ness is free­dom, the saints say, but they are saints and do not care that it may be free­dom even from love.

  67. All those days that changed the world forever! Yet here it is.

  68. Let us ex­plain to our­selves the differ­ence. A rock might be very big, like Ply­mouth Rock or the Rock of Gibral­tar. Or un­der­ground, as in bedrock. A rock is rough. A stone is smooth: it might well be cut into a grave­stone, a cob­ble­stone. Rocks you clam­ber over, stones you step on. What’s that bril­liance on her fin­ger, a rock or a stone? The rock­-thrower is anony­mous. Let him who is with­out sin cast the first stone.

  69. Do unto oth­ers and an eye for an eye have the same pay­ment plan.

  70. For Sisy­phus the trou­ble of push­ing the rock up­hill was worth it for the thrill of watch­ing it smash every­thing on the way down.

  71. That lit­tle bird, pretty calm there in the snow, is cold, but it must be a dis­con­tin­u­ous and lightly reg­is­tered sen­sa­tion. Cold. Peck peck. What’s that? Oh yeah, cold. Whereas I would be des­per­ate in a few min­utes think­ing about freez­ing For­ever and Ever. Some­where in evo­lu­tion we traded en­durance for fore­sight. In­tel­li­gence was first of all the abil­ity to wor­ry.

  72. That half-sec­ond be­tween stub­bing your toe and con­vuls­ing with pain? Some live there for­ev­er.

  73. We ask What’s the worst that could hap­pen? see that it would­n’t be so bad, calm down a lit­tle. What I want to know is: what is that Worse than the Worst we have to fig­ure out over and over is not go­ing to hap­pen?

  74. The squir­rel strug­gling in the road. Some­thing very deep says If it can’t live it should die. I kill it with a stick. Maybe to stop my own suffer­ing, but I don’t think so: I’d rather walk away. Maybe Na­ture wants me to think this way about my own kind? The thought strug­gles in me. I kill it with a stick.

  75. Stones, toys, ants, birds, chil­dren: the more we de­cide is less than hu­man, the less hu­man we be­come.

  76. Her grief re­peats with a high cracked sound, like an en­gine in which some­thing has bro­ken loose and is smash­ing around. Peo­ple scare us when they’re like ma­chi­nes, when they’re so hu­man.

  77. If we were re­ally sure of our free­dom we would­n’t be so dis­com­fited by those who make pas­sion a habit, or habit a pas­sion.

  78. Slug, fun­gus: part of your body has fallen out. Snake, rat: part of it might try to get back in.

  79. Trea­sury re­ports that its green ink ab­sorbs opi­ates: every bill car­ries ten nanograms of co­caine. Amaz­ing what this might be made to say about sev­eral ad­dic­tions, but I’m go­ing to stop right now.

  80. Road­kill. Some­thing eats the eyes first, starved for… what?

  81. The rich man thought he was hoard­ing free­dom, but he could­n’t stop and in the end it all turned out to be mon­ey.

  82. Last Day say all the stores.

  83. In a strange city, my one ten­u­ous root is a lit room in Ho­tel X. Pass­ing Ho­tel Y, I imag­ine tak­ing a room there as well, trav­el­ing away from my trav­el, pure waste, lost or free, what­ever the differ­ence is. Has any­one ever done this and man­aged to get home? Please write.

  84. Of course I’m an es­capist. I’m try­ing to get some­where re­al.

  85. It’s not that they give things of no worth: that, too, is giv­ing. It’s what they want for them.

  86. The Vic­to­rian ho­tel has a mar­ble colon­nade, gilt, ori­en­tal rugs, but there’s not a tux in sight: shirt­s-out-over-jeans mix with busi­ness suits. Is it free­dom that we no longer have to dress up to such el­e­gance, or is it his­to­ry-is-ours ar­ro­gance? Prob­a­bly it’s more that life now is a theme park: when you visit Dis­ney World you don’t dress as Mickey or Goofy.

  87. Tragedy and com­edy ended with death or mar­riage, but our shows, mys­tery and sit­com, be­gin with them.

  88. We don’t blame the vic­tim, al­ready mur­dered when the show starts. We don’t even blame the perp too much—we just want to find out who he is. We don’t blame the cops for blam­ing him. Best of all, we don’t blame our­selves, so triv­ial our own crimes in com­par­i­son. And if any­one wants to blame us we’ve got a per­fect al­ibi for prime time.

  89. You have the right to lie when they have no right to ask.

  90. Since God died, no one has re­mem­bered you. But now it seems your DNA is every­where and could be fol­lowed like a trail, if you could just act sus­pi­cious enough.

  91. He spends min­utes look­ing for a park­ing place that short­ens his walk by sec­onds, days look­ing for a price lower by an hour’s wage, as if he would oth­er­wise be fooled.

  92. The bou­tique wants you to think you’re col­lect­ing, the dis­counter that you’re steal­ing.

  93. The thing about the nat­ural world, beau­ti­ful or bleak or bleakly beau­ti­ful, is that noth­ing seems to be in the wrong place. From this win­dow, how­ev­er, I can see the trowel I left in the yard, and I’m go­ing to have to go down and do some­thing about it.

  94. The way your walk changes en­ter­ing a store or mu­se­um, slow­ing, widen­ing a lit­tle, eyes sweep­ing lev­el. For­ag­ing on the an­cient sa­vanna for some­thing to eat, some­thing to use.

  95. The Mys­tery we’re ab­sorbed in takes prece­dence over all the mys­ter­ies that won’t be solved when the hour ends, a pro­tec­tive paren­the­sis within the larger sto­ries of Love and Work, which are in­side the story of Life, which is in­side Big Bang. Ac­tu­ally scale is ir­rel­e­vant: it’s just as likely we’d use cos­mol­ogy to dis­tract us from a bad day at the office. The­o­ret­i­cally all these are con­tained within a larger Sto­ry­less­ness, but that it­self is only the ro­man­tic story I have at last at­tained free­dom, which in an in­stant de­cays into more sta­ble sto­ries such as I’m so bored I’d rather be afraid or I must pun­ish the de­luded masses with this hard truth or Let’s watch TV.

  96. From the tipped tree you learn how shal­low roots are. More meets the eye than does­n’t.

  97. Joe Cool is play­ing at Cold. And his babe is Hot, which is also play, and in that more like Cool than like Warm: no one ex­claims de­light­edly “Man, that’s Warm!” We’ll pay to watch the play­ers of Hot and Cool, but we flee the sales­men, priests and politi­cians solemnly emit­ting Warm.

  98. That our feel­ings flicker so ob­vi­ously in our faces must mean Na­ture thought it was more im­por­tant that every­one be able to read them than that in­di­vid­u­als be able to hide them. Maybe it tells us, too, that the most dan­ger­ous faces are the ones be­hind which there is no feel­ing at all.

  99. Glass­es, for ex­am­ple, have gone from up­tight to wide-eyed and back again. Fash­ion is feel­ing, open­ing and clos­ing, cy­cling be­tween warm and cool, wel­com­ing and slick. Or rather, it de­cides which half of feel­ing will be pa­rad­ed, which half will seem hid­den, and some­how truer.

  100. The sun’s so bright it has no face.

  101. Yet some­times maybe I de­cide to let an emo­tion I re­ally could con­ceal flit faintly across my face. If it seems I be­trayed it un­will­ing­ly, you are less likely to re­spond as if you had seen it. Though maybe that lit­tle bit of act­ing is not re­ally a con­scious strat­egy but a deep in­stinct: in the an­i­mal world, too, emo­tions are often merely the­atri­cal, and so many threats, fake fights and sex­ual dis­plays send mes­sages but end in noth­ing.

  102. More and more grad­u­ates of the School of The­atri­cal Par­ent­ing. The guy be­ing a Good Fa­ther so loudly we can all ap­pre­ci­ate him, the woman with the wail­ing in­fant rolling her eyes as if to say “Can you be­lieve this baby?”

  103. Pas­sion is faintly rhetor­i­cal, as if we needed to con­vince our­selves we were ca­pa­ble of it.

  104. Am I try­ing to help, or do I just want you to like me? The way feel­ings are, it’s not so easy to dis­tin­guish your hap­pi­ness from mine.

  105. Her grief is eased when all grieve with her, his when he sees that grief is only his.

  106. I say Be rea­son­able when I am afraid to feel what you feel.

  107. A feather lands on the pond and a dozen gold­fish come to poke at it. We are who­ever rises into our eyes to have a look.

  108. Those so thor­ough you can­not in mercy ask them to do any­thing. Those so em­pa­thetic it is cruel to tell them a trou­ble.

  109. As a cou­ple they are salt of the earth, sodium chlo­ride. As sin­gle el­e­ments, she was a poi­so­nous gas and he a soft and des­per­ate met­al, turn­ing even wa­ter into roil and flame.

  110. When we talk it’s not you or me we are get­ting to know. It may be noth­ing at all, it may be bet­ter than both of us.

  111. Don’t touch, don’t stare. But no one minds how hard you lis­ten.

  112. No one so en­ter­tain­ing as the one who thinks you are.

  113. The Boy wants mag­i­cal pow­ers. He wants the world to re­spond gi­gan­ti­cally to every lit­tle thing he does and says, and even all he does­n’t say and do. Un­til he meets the Girl who does just that.

  114. Lov­ing your­self is about as likely as tick­ling your­self.

  115. That book, that wom­an, life: now that I un­der­stand them a lit­tle I re­al­ize there was some­thing I un­der­stood bet­ter when they baffled and scared me.

  116. A knot is strings get­ting in each oth­er’s way. What keeps us to­gether is what keeps us apart.

  117. Nos­tal­gia for a Lost Love. At a cer­tain dis­tance the parts of you and her that could never love each other be­come in­vis­i­ble, which is how you got into that whole mess in the first place.

  118. My loss is sad: I have not yet lost it all.

  119. Fi­nally peace. And then the whis­per: Does that pas­sion work any­more? I’ll wake it up and see…

  120. The will has a will of its own.

  121. It is with po­etry as with love: forc­ing your­self is use­less, you have to want to. Yet how tire­some and un­gen­er­ous is the one sprawled among flow­ers wait­ing for his im­pulse. There’s such a thing as know­ing how to make your­self want to.

  122. Our res­o­lu­tions for self­-con­trol are like our wars for peace.

  123. Free­dom has just es­caped. Peace has for­got­ten. Bore­dom is pound­ing on the prison gates to be let back in.

  124. To be­gin the jour­ney, buy what you need. To fin­ish, dis­card what you don’t.

  125. As for my writ­ing. I like it enough to keep go­ing. I dis­like it enough to keep go­ing.

  126. What hope we had when we knew every­thing would last forever, and what hope­less­ness.

  127. Now the mail is not Hope but What Do They Want from Me? I still fetch it, per­haps know­ing that some­day I’ll be re­duced to hop­ing they still want some­thing from me.

  128. It takes thick gloves, pry­ing down to the knotty junc­tion, get­ting as many of the roots as I can, to take care of them for maybe a year, the bram­bles. But I’m avoid­ing the point, pas­toral­ly, which is the dul­l-wit­ted ma­lig­nancy that’s tak­ing you over, that there’s no scalpel pre­cise enough to ex­cise one bad cell at a time, no chemother­apy bomb smart enough to kill them all with­out killing you. I need to be a gar­dener small enough to pull out one by one the run­ners that are re-wiring you. Here, the gods have granted my wish but I am just as help­less, hands blood­ier and blood­ier as I work far into the night. There are acres and acres to go be­fore that lit­tle rise where the thorns have over­grown the cas­tle where you are strug­gling not to sleep. I can do this, I can do what­ever is nec­es­sary. It won’t take forever, noth­ing takes forever, but so many things take longer than we have.

  129. Of course when I look in the mir­ror I see what was there 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s not just van­i­ty, dear: I see through you the same way.

  130. The myths tell us what we al­ready know: that it will be the last light left burn­ing, wak­ing us even after death. Seems I have spent my whole life flee­ing Judg­ment, and yet I must not be­lieve in it, since no fail­ure, no be­trayal forces me to ad­mit Yes, at last that is my­self. What a strange re­lief it would be to fi­nally hit that bot­tom, a hypochon­driac who learns at last what he will die of.

  131. Be­hind your face, which hardly changes, who knows what thoughts. It’s the op­po­site with the gods: their pow­ers and sto­ries are con­stant, but painters give them ran­dom faces.

  132. That let­ter, what would it have been, of love, of praise, of an­ni­hi­lat­ing un­der­stand­ing? It seems, al­most sad­ly, that I no longer want to get it. Oc­ca­sion­ally I still want to write it, but how could I send to any­one else what I would not my­self re­ceive?

  133. Alas, how quickly my sin­cer­est praise turns into apol­ogy for se­cret doubts.

  134. Faces are mo­tion, which is why all the pho­tos of you are bad. Even the most nat­u­ral-look­ing por­trait is a sen­tence in­ter­rupt­ed. And faces in mo­tion hide an even deeper mo­tion. You seem to sit there and meet my eyes across the table, but you are so many other places, cling­ing here for a mo­ment against all the cur­rents that will soon sweep you on­ward. We are so moved by the faces caught in the win­dows of trains go­ing the other way be­cause they tell us how all faces re­ally are.

  135. A very few peo­ple have seen me only at my best. They are pre­cious friends, but I dare not meet them again.

  136. What was it like be­fore lan­guage? My oc­ca­sional thought, more than urge but still less than words, that would trans­late as Eat now, there may be no food where we’re go­ing.

  137. Out walk­ing, I think of that face I love or some scene of aw­ful em­bar­rass­ment and stop dead in my tracks, as if I had to choose be­tween mov­ing and be­ing moved.

  138. Clar­i­ty, even in per­son, can be pretty hard. Tele­phones are hard­er: if I can’t see your eyes, how do I know what I’m say­ing? With writ­ing, mis­un­der­stand­ings mul­ti­ply, since tiny shifts in tone and speed are no longer au­di­ble—the writer tries to com­pen­sate by man­ag­ing rhythm and punc­tu­a­tion and de­ploy­ing a larger and more nu­anced vo­cab­u­lary than we need for speech. Along comes e-mail and from all sides the com­plaint that it is a pe­cu­liarly tone­less genre that reg­u­larly offends and an­noys and mis­in­forms. Though screens are not as sta­ble as pages, e-mail is not es­sen­tially differ­ent from other writ­ing. The differ­ence is us: we write it too quick­ly, we read it even more quick­ly. A lot of e-mails are work, to be got­ten out of the way. And even the young, who grew up with it—e­spe­cially the young, who grew up with it—seem in­ca­pable of read­ing fur­ther than three sen­tences be­fore flap­ping off into some heaven of I al­ready know this. Not a prob­lem if the e-mail­ers or tex­ters are in con­stant chat and so deep in a shared con­text that mis­un­der­stand­ing can be averted with crude steer­ing like smi­ley face and LOL, or if they’re us­ing the form as a kind of con­tent­less I was here, the way peo­ple used to leave their cards. But the temp­ta­tion is to e-mail lit­tle es­says. The temp­ta­tion is, worse, to try to re­place our un­pre­dictable and wound­ing so­cial drama with writ­ing: the pro­tec­tion of its dis­tance, the smooth­ness of its in­fi­nite re­hearsals. But who has the pa­tience to be a good writer all day? In­evitably, we send too soon and get back re­ports of the dam­age. I re­solve to quit e-mail and get a life. Or maybe just do one more re­vi­sion. Thanks for read­ing to the end.

  139. Of course we want to write what we loved read­ing over and over. That’s differ­ent from con­struct­ing an Ob­ject of Study, which is sort of like bait­ing a trap with sta­ples or ca­pac­i­tors. Such con­trap­tions sub­sist on the praise of those who want per­mis­sion for sim­i­lar self­-in­dul­gences, even though the only mice ever seen near them are me­chan­i­cal.

  140. When you think in words, are you sure it’s your own voice you hear?

  141. I want to kill the guy dom­i­nat­ing the train with his cell phone. What’s his prob­lem, pa­thetic self­-im­por­tance or pa­thetic de­pen­dence? Ah well, maybe if we still had real lives we’d all be gab­bing around the fire, gos­sip­ing at the pump. What’s re­mark­able, after all, is not his self­-im­por­tant prat­tle but that some­one is lis­ten­ing to it. Or so I’ve as­sumed: maybe there’s re­ally no one on the other end?

  142. Soli­tude: that home wa­ter whose sweet­ness you taste only when you’ve been some­one else too long.

  143. The au­di­ence is face­less, back rows dis­ap­pear­ing into dim­ness, and it does­n’t talk back. Find your au­di­ence and you will blath­er. Write, in­stead, to the lis­tener at your ta­ble for two, the one in your head whose faint blush, half-s­mile, glazed eyes make you cor­rect course in mid­sen­tence, back off, ex­plain, stop to lis­ten.

  144. Fame is un­der­writ­ten by those who want it to be there when it is their turn to have it.

  145. Old ra­dios hummed a lit­tle be­fore they could think what to say, their deep in­te­ri­ors like em­bers blown on. They told the great sto­ries, in them the great stars sang. New ra­dios, sleek and com­pul­sively chat­ty, in­stantly re­peat what they have heard. The TV, their doe-eyed younger sis­ter, grew up adored. She wants so much to be looked at that you stare at your feet, abashed. She says Have a drink with me, and then I’m so lonely that I can love noth­ing. Stay for an­oth­er.

  146. It is the empty seats that lis­ten most rapt­ly.

  147. The great man’s not sure he wants you to crit­i­cize even his great ri­val, lest there be no such thing as great­ness.

  148. Talk­ing to your­self is not the same as talk­ing to no one.

  149. I’m forced to ad­mit I’m sec­ond-rate: I don’t have the ge­nius’s cer­tainty about who he is. And when I talk my­self into that cer­tain­ty? I’m third-rate.

  150. It’s not suc­cess but self­-con­grat­u­la­tion that the Fu­ries scent.

  151. Would it have been bet­ter or worse if I could have whis­pered to my­self back then I know the way. Fol­low me. But it will take 30 years.

  152. My best critic is me, too late.

  153. I look over my old books, hap­pi­est when I find a line it seems I could not have writ­ten.

  154. Only your un­no­ticed vic­to­ries last: the rest are avenged.

  155. I’m scared of the huge ocean—what pre­vents it from throw­ing it­self over me and the tiny con­ti­nents? So much harder to see what’s hold­ing oth­ers back.

  156. By spend­ing so much on in­sur­ance—med­ical, car, fire, dis­abil­i­ty, re­tire­ment, ter­mite, ap­pli­ance—I try to make every year av­er­age. I guar­an­tee that I’ll be peren­ni­ally slightly short of cash in the hope that I’ll never be to­tally broke. A mort­gage, broadly speak­ing, is also a kind of in­sur­ance—a­gainst ever hav­ing to ask Where shall I lie down? Other kinds of pay­ments en­sure more or less con­stant an­swers to the ques­tions of who to be, who to be with, what to do, whether to live.

  157. What is more yours than what al­ways holds you back?

  158. What I can’t do at all is no trou­ble. But save me from what I do pretty well with dis­pro­por­tion­ate effort and dis­tor­tion of soul. For that I am in Hell.

  159. Is this po­et­ry? Is the tomato a fruit? Yes to a botanist, no to some­one mak­ing a fruit sal­ad. If the world is di­vided into po­etry and prose, this is prose. If it’s di­vided into fic­tion, non­fic­tion, and po­et­ry, this is po­et­ry.

  160. The gods give no credit for the good deeds I com­plain about do­ing.

  161. All my life I’ve been work­ing on an ex­cuse no one will ever want to hear.

  162. The sin­ner hopes there is no God. The just man look­ing at the world thinks there can­not be. The lazy man just can’t imag­ine any­one want­ing the job.

  163. I’ve lived here so long I trip on what has been gone for years.

  164. How do you know life is not a dream? Be­cause things change so slow­ly. Be­cause you can fo­cus on a page or dial a num­ber, and when you go back to your study for your glass­es, there they are, just where you left them. Be­cause you can’t fly and they don’t come back from the dead. Be­cause so often you want to be­lieve that life is a dream.

  165. I shorten my life by imag­in­ing it’s too late for every­thing I re­ally did­n’t want to do any­way.

  166. No one has yet failed in the fu­ture.

  167. At first skep­ti­cism keeps you from be­ing too much like every­one else, then, you hope, from be­ing too much like your­self.

  168. Sure, no one’s lis­ten­ing, Eng­lish will die in a hun­dred years, and the far fu­ture is stones and rays. But here’s the thing, you Oth­ers, you Years to Come: you do not ex­ist.

  169. That one thing in Life I’m meant to do?—well, I have to fin­ish this first.

  170. Clos­ing a door very gen­tly, you pull with one hand, push with the oth­er.