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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Mark Making

I am a stay-at-home dad. I retired from the software biz five years ago, my wife earns the money and I raise the kids, keep the home, walk the dog, etcetera, etcetera. My life, to put it mildly, changed a bit in this transition and I won’t say it was easy. I managed it, and here we are.

The largest change, or at least the one that I have most noticed, is this: almost everything I do has ephemeral results. Sweep the floor, and 30 seconds later a kid spills sugar all over it. Wash the dishes, then cook a meal, and lo, the dishes all need to be washed again. You could argue, and I do, that the whole process is producing a long term result in the form of well-fed children who are in turn gradually evolving into older children presumably well educated and finally, one hopes, into well adjusted, interesting, adults.

This is a bit hard to see from here in the trenches. From here, it looks like I do the same tasks over and over to no permanent effect. Sometimes this is, uh, a bit of an emotional challenge.

Well, so it goes, right?

Indeed, for essentially the entirety of human history, everything any human did had this exact character. Dig roots, gather grubs, cook and eat them. Repeat. Eventually, recently, we invented agriculture, so you could plow a field and it would stay plowed until stuff began to grow but even then almost all the labor was the kind of thing I do all day.

Only in the most recent times have we come to the idea that normal people ought to be able to do things which last, to make marks on the world which are not erased by the incoming tide. The universality of this notion even in the west, the idea that we even ought to be able to make such marks, is, what, 100 years old? If that? In much of the world it’s still nothing like universal. There is no place in the world where the ability to make semi-permanent marks (like, say, blog posts) isn't at least a little of a privilege. I dare say there are vast swathes of humanity for whom the idea is at best a distant dream, and maybe even undreamed of.

And yet, it seems to be an in-built human yearning. Someone was drawing stick figures of animals on cave walls a really long time ago. Probably someone who had a whole great whack of people gathering roots and doing the mundane daily work of feeding everyone so Thag could go draw animals.

After that we see cultures building pyramids, or as my father liked to observe, piles. Every culture builds pyramids, because all you need is rocks and slaves. Something urged the warlords of everywhere to direct things to be piled on top of other things, which seems an odd choice considering the other more direct pleasures that could have been gotten with those same resources. Surely those same slaves could have been deployed giving backrubs, or incredible amounts of sex?

Backrubs and sex do not mark the world with anything like the permanence of a gigantic rock pile.

I feel it myself, and I think anyone reading here feels it too. That urge to make stuff, to make marks that last. In our case, mostly photographs. In my case, not enough photographs, and too many words.

My thoughts return to Michael Reichmann who made a bold play at some permanent mark, but didn't manage it. His web site remains, kinda, but it's not very interesting any more and anyways photography as something Everyone's In To is kind of petering out. His endowment and his book just kinda sank, and while the web site will no doubt putter along for a few more years, maybe even decades, it too will fade away. I sympathize, despite my distaste for the man.

Where am I going, here? Hell if I know. Partly I am just whining about the fact that so much of I do feels pointless and stupid on the bad days (not all days are bad days, I assure you). Partly I'm struggling with the fact that even the more permanent marks I make will pass away, probably much sooner than I imagine.

Is Buddhism just a set of ideas that boil down to "nothing you do will leave a mark, be happy anyways?"

I'm tryin' I'm tryin'! Settle down over there Guatama!


  1. It took me about sixty years to get really comfortable with the idea that I'm living a pointless life in a pointless universe, and so I don't have to worry about it any more. I do drink too much but then, so did Alan Watts.

  2. Looking at the results of those humans who set out to make their mark on the world, on the whole I really wish they hadn't bothered. What do we have?
    A selfie.
    Of the worst kind.
    Most who made a difference just got on with their work. If Shakespeare's actors hadn't later gone to the trouble of writing down his stuff he'd be a footnote somewhere.
    I have a feeling the small acts of love that people do have a butterfly effect and make the real difference here. But you won't get the adulation of this world.

  3. Stick with it, only a decade or so to go, but be warned: I made a similar move by going part-time when our eldest started at school, and made a deal that if my partner did kids' bed-time (which pushed me beyond my limits) I'd do all the cooking. This arrangement still stands, even though our "children" are nudging 30 and living in London. Women are cunning.

    I'd better leave it to any female readers (there must be one out there, surely?) to make the obvious, "gendered" observation on your account of human history...

    The projected heat death of the solar system does rather put a limit on any mark-making. Our human awareness of this ultimate full-stop to life on earth can take the edge off even the best back-rubs (sex with slaves, not so much). We can only hope the the science is wrong, and belongs with phlogiston and 19th century projections that we'd be over our heads in horse dung by now. Meanwhile, that floor won't sweep itself!


  4. Must work on my Twitter follows ...

  5. Before excitement, comes boredom.

    You want the secret of life? Here it is: cappuccino and fresh croissant. Not from Starbucks, find a real coffee shop/bakery. Can't find one? Keep searching. It's not holy, but it's a grail.

    But really, what do I know.

  6. I feel that most of the artworld - and academia's - need for e.g. "New Ontologies" or otherwise some kind of groundbreaking contribution at every moment overrides some of the most valuable stuff we can experience and do. My favourite Meeks book is that one of his wife just mowing the lawn back and forth. That short moment one afternoon mattered enough to him to photograph the whole thing and make a book out of it. His books don't last, they're silver prints! But damn, every time I see that work I remember what counts.

    "I saw a cool sunlight glimmer in the river I walk by each day this morning -- maybe I'll make a book of glimmers" seems more important to me then, than trying to make some grand statement. It won't make a mark, but it might do a little something good for someone else's life.

    1. Isn't it his son in "Middle Air"? I'll have to have another look. But I too love Raymond Meeks.


  7. You may appreciate this poem, which happened to be published in this week's TLS:

    The Fiftieth Danaid, by A.E. Stallings

    What is the difference between a hell
    And every day, if hell is but a chore
    That needs repeating? I think it must be men
    Who made it up: draw water from the well
    To fill a sieve. To plod across the floor
    Balancing the over-brimming dawn,
    Pumping the breast milk, stifling the yawn—
    Work is the deep spring that never dries,
    Artesian as the day’s contingencies—
    The dirty cup, the interrupted song,
    The bed of love that must be made again,
    As if this livelong life were all along
    An afterlife, as if I should repent
    How each day filled with its diminishment.


  8. Surely the producing of progeny is defining ? At my (undisclosed) age with 5 children I think I have achieved my biologicals function

    1. Kinda? But in a way, it makes it worse, though.

      I clean up after these little monsters endlessly why? So they can grow up, and endlessly clean after their own monsters, in an endless cycle of pointless reproduction and consumption!

      In its own way it makes me more frantic to make a more permanent gesture.

      It's not like I expect my kids to exceed me as a result of all my hard work. I am a second generation PhD, I *am* what the Enlightenment wanted to make, I am the endpoint! If I can't do something, arguably there's nothing to be done.

  9. Is it more important to make marks in the world or on those we live with?