“He sounds pathetic.”
I was standing in the entry of my parents new midtown apartment, and my father had just emerged from his office/my sometime bedroom, where, minutes earlier, I had set before him the latest issue of The New Yorker–one that, the morning prior, whilst sitting at gate C4 of the Minneapolis airport, I had found to feature a Talk of the Town about a man I used to date. Specifically, about the fact that (as the piece informed me) said man had left his lawyer job to follow around the New York Knicks for a full season and blog about it.
“Well, that’s harsh,” I said, miffed.
I’d found the whole thing pretty charming. He and I, after all, had bonded over the Knicks, our first date drinks at Clyde’s, a subsequent several watching games, and since seeing the article I’d been indulging various one that got away fantasies (I was just thinking of him earlier this week…we did part ways for reasons more to do with context than chemistry…), even checking to see whether he was free for coffee over the weekend. (Alas, as neatly as they’d brought us together, the Knicks and their road games pried us apart: Would love to catch up, he wrote, but in the morning I fly to Denver.)
Friends were similarly inclined, offering such enthusiastic affirmations as Wow! Wild! and Did I meet him? I vaguely remember thinking he was cute.
My father and brothers, on the other hand (Knick fans most): less enthused. I caught their drift. Sure, the guy might be giving up a perfectly good career and life savings for, potentially, the worst team in NBA history. But, I strained to reason, at least he’d gained some media attention! The possibility of a book deal! Probably, the faintly renewed interest of at least a few ex-girlfriends!
And, of course, the obvious: a purpose.
Two days later my mother and I spent a storybook sunny Manhattan day: a walk, a shop, a museum. She would have preferred to see some mid-century paintings at The Met, but, game woman that she is, humored me for a visit to the Guggenheim, where I was interested in checking out a retrospective of works by the conceptual artist On Kawara.
Among the items on view: canvases adorned only with the written date, hung beside a (seemingly arbitrary) newspaper cutout; maps of cities overlaid with the artist’s travels; binders filled by typed lists enumerating people he’d met in a given day.
I was most enamored by a display of postcards sent to friends announcing I got up at 10:45 pm and I‘m still alive, don’t worry. It reminded me of that familiar impulse, upon getting off a flight, or waking up on a Saturday morning, or getting through a class, to call someone (usually my mother, and usually, I don’t) just for the vague comfort that this matters, someone cares, I’m here.
It reminded me, too, of the way that I sometimes lapse into thinking a partner will supply me with purpose. (When, in fact, the only thing I know I can rely on to provide the kind of shape and urgency I am prone to crave is writing.)
Before taking her leave for the miniature Kandinsky exhibit and the gift shop (where she purchased postcards to write her granddaughters–presumably less cryptic–missives), my mom dispensed some characteristically sage insight.
“It’s striking how unemotional it all is,” she said.
Indeed, the curators noted the distance Kawara maintained from his work, how one could fully absorb the art without gleaning much at all about the life or attitudes of its creator.
“I guess so…” I said.
But, I had to tell her, I kind of disagreed.
Strolling up the Guggenheim’s grand, sun-lit ramp, I felt rather close to Kawara. There’s a way in which, I thought, it tells me a lot about a person that they send John Baldessari deadpan postcards, that they chronicle dates in Heveltica font on plain painted canvases, that they make maps and binders and newspaper cut-outs in elaborate effort to represent the fact of their existence in the scheme of time.
On the surface, I can see how Kawara’s gestures appear cold and calculated. But beneath, I think there’s a rawness, a desperation, even; a literal and very human expression of a very human need: to imbue our leaves with meaning, with purpose.
The way I reacted to the exhibit shed some light on how charmed I’d felt by Dennis’ project: whether it takes the form of conceptual art or a (maybe mildly misguided) dedication to one of sports’ most terrible teams, I find something inherently appealing about a person making great grasps to figure it out.
Figuring it out, I know, is not a luxury we all have. You need not walk many blocks in this, or any city, to feel reminded of the many whose daily survival is nothing short of heroic, not to mention exhausting: if I had to work a menial job, feed a bunch of kids, care for my or someone else’s aging parents, commute multiple hours in packed subway cars or on interstates…well, I doubt I’d write this blog or peruse museums or read much of anything. (Although, who’s to say? Maybe my idle time is a curse and if I had eight children and overtime I’d be on my fourth novel by know. We’ll never know.)
But among the few with more fortune and flexibility, I applaud those who try and seek some framework, some narrative, make some comment on what the hell it might mean to get out of bed in the morning.
When someone suggests (whether earnestly or absurdly, or from some unknown place between) that their purpose might be all about the people they meet or the places they walk or the fortunes of a basketball team, it prompts the rest of us to consider not only what that might mean, but what purpose we have in our own lives.
And that’s something, I think we can all agree, we should probably consider more.