The thing about screaming on the beach is that there is no catharsis; the wind simply takes your scream from you and scatters it into a thousand fractured ooooo’s that nobody will ever hear, the waves are never disrupted, the creatures and moldering shipwrecks of the deep remain indifferent to the concerns of the shore. Ask anybody who’s ever been stranded on a desert island—screaming on the beach affords no consolation. It is a meaningless act we lie about, like so many others: I’m eating this kale because I like it, voting is a noble civic duty, I am a good person because I sent ten dollars to the Navajo nation. The desire to find the silver lining is the most toxic American trait there is, it’s so hardwired in my psyche I have yet to effectively un-learn it no matter how many dirtbag leftist podcasts I listen to.
I briefly got back into the professional copywriting game last month when a friend contracted me to ghostwrite a eulogy. I used to joke that being a “content creator” was just a step above working in a donkey show, but as it turns out, telling the story of somebody who died too soon is actually the bleakest use of the quill. The decedent was my same age, and as I gathered the necessary details I had the opportunity to map our respective journeys, as if there’d be some particular switchback where it became clear how or why things turned out the way they did for her instead of me. But the plain truth is that fate just loves to fuck up a narrative: like so many other things her untimely demise just came down to bad luck.
Hence the futile desire to go and scream on a beach.
But then, en route to screaming, a perverse relief: the appearance and disappearance of monoliths in Utah and Romania and California. And then of course, the insistence of humans on interfering with them. As Ken Layne opined on a recent Desert Oracle Radio broadcast, some people can’t bear to let a good mystery remain mysterious. I’ve been following the various monolith developments with a very wonderful old friend of mine over the last couple of weeks and we have jointly bemoaned the efforts of humans to document and dismantle these splendid objects. It occurs to me frequently when I read the news these days that the average American is so cowed by fear and desperation that we keep trying to impose a childish and petty will on the things which will forever be bigger than us: art, science, the rocky wilds that only bighorn sheep and jumping chollo and space aliens can travel unassisted.
On days when the bad brains got too savage for me I used to call my favorite aunt, when she was still alive, and pretend I was totally fine. She always knew better, and inevitably she’d wend the conversation back to some story from when she was young, which was during the Great Depression. She grew up in a house without indoor plumbing and didn’t know the taste of butter until she was eleven years old because her family couldn’t afford to buy it. She would tell me these stories not to illustrate that things could always be worse, but to assure me that things often do get worse, and sometimes they stay bad for a long time, but that you live through them anyhow.
She taught me not to look for meanings, but to treasure moments, and I think of her every day when one of those moments appears in the desert of my own depression. That the monoliths defy explanation is what makes them so good, if we’ll only let them be. Maybe they’re just part of a Doritos marketing campaign or the work of an ambitious RISD graduate, but maybe the hope is in the realization that we are capable still of confounding ourselves. We’ve been sailing seas of unchecked disaster for so long, bypassing every island that affords a practical solution for our ongoing misery, that it feels good to light even if temporarily on shores of wonder that ask nothing of us at all.
Of course at first I hoped it was aliens, because I always hope it’s aliens, because I welcome any visitor that could render all this species-specific despair irrelevant with intergalactic pragmatism, but I realized just as quickly that it’s not very likely. I sense that even if they are out there, the aliens have deliberately left us to navigate the coming dark ages with what we already have at our disposal. As I look at the monoliths, I think of how my aunt taught me that the absurdity of living through terrible times will bond you to the people you love in a thousand tender secret ways, like the taste of a perfect smear of salted butter on a roll, that will mean nothing to anybody but you.