i’m tired of being a zero vector


i’m tired of being a zero vector
with no direction
         no dimension
                  and no magnitude;
         what i need is another element
                  —but that would be
         a contradiction
of my definition

* This, and other poems scribbled during a university linear algebra course taken about a decade ago, can also be found at http://www.sushidog.com/bpss/poems/tupaz.htm.

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we are born
as identity matrices
[nonzero]
         [nonempty]
a subset
         of the complexity
                  that is the universe
until fate hands us a scalar
from the twin ends of infinity
and we grow in magnitude
to become universes
                  —ourselves

* This, and other poems scribbled during a university linear algebra course taken about a decade ago, can also be found at http://www.sushidog.com/bpss/poems/tupaz.htm.

On the Restoration of Order


Today, for the first time in a very long and tedious week, my house stopped resembling the aftermath of a tornado.

It’s still nowhere near it’s normally impeccable state, but the furniture, at least, are in their rightful place: the dresser has forsaken the bathroom, the mattress has deserted the sofa, the hangers have vacated the doorway, and the dozens of tiny accoutrements have marched their way back home.

None of this, of course, was achieved as blithely as it seems. There was, before anything else, the matter of the sawdust—which had roundly defeated my best attempts with paper and plastic and bags and tape. The fine reddish powder had insinuated itself everywhere: into bags and boxes, onto books and shoes, into clothes and towels, onto hangers and hooks. I spent two hours hoovering every navigable surface (walls, ceilings, mirrors, screens…) before concluding my assault with soap and sponges and powder and rags.

(In the end, I bagged my ravaged clothing—fifteen kilos worth—and dispatched them to a laundromat where they were free to take up space.)

Now, I have approximately six hours to enjoy this restoration of normalcy—the majority of which will be spent asleep. Tomorrow, new workers will descend, the stink of paint will replace the reek of varnish, and the internal diaspora will resume. This will involve banishing the silverware to the sofa, exiling the appliances to the bathroom, deporting the oven to the den, and incarcerating the foodstuffs near the stairway. If my sanity remains intact, it’s merely because the worst has passed, some order has been re-established, and the end is in myopic sight. By Sunday, the remodeling will be complete, the intruders will depart, and the zealous restoration of harmony in my universe can resume without restraint.

I can hardly wait.

On the Consolations of Ritual


I woke up this morning, fretful and fatigued, plagued by remnants of a receding nightmare.

The cause of my disquiet is easy enough to discern. I am a creature of habit, attached to schedules and routines, predictability and order. The disruptions of the last seven days are taking their toll.*

I have an arsenal of weapons for dealing with anxiety: odd bits of poetry, enigmatic riddles from Zen, temporary flights of fancy, emergency calls to home. When my distress becomes particularly acute, then I resort to the reliable comfort of ritual.

This morning’s was making myself an omelette.

Omelettes are a recent discovery, and for a habitual ascetic, an entire class of indulgence. I am accustomed to oatmeal—its coarseness, its plainness, its effortless simplicity. Omelettes, in comparison, strike me as superfluous. Their very excessiveness is a source of delight.

Oatmeal needs, at the very most, a bowl, a spoon, some oats, some milk. Omelettes require, at the very least, a bowl, a fork, a spatula, a pan, a plate, some eggs, some milk, some pepper, some salt, some oil, some basil, some cheese. Oatmeal needs stirring and heating. Omelettes require beating, mixing, chopping, frying, stirring, flipping, up-ending and folding. Calorie for calorie, omelettes demand more time, more effort, more attention, more care.

All of which, precisely, are what my frazzled nerves require. To focus, for half an hour, in the absorbing task of executing the mundane, to telescope the horizon of my concerns to the circumference of a pan, to suspend all priorities save keeping my fingers intact—all of these are balms to a soul in distress.

These, in essence, are what rituals provide: purpose, rhythm, familiarity, control. From the pragmatic to the profound, from the sensible to the sublime, these programmed gestures provide our only solid footing in an increasingly unstable world.

All of which means that, for the next few days at least, it’s eggs I’ll be needing far more than oats.

* An account of these is provided in three essays below On the Suspension of Order.

On the Democratization of Affection


Just the other day, I found myself dispensing with over two hundred “friends.”

The sheer brutality of the above statement points to the intuition that provoked the culling spree. To examine the agglomeration of one’s connections and to find a single uniform mass discredits the very notion of affection and debases the very nature of friendship.

Fondness is despotic; fraternity detests equality. Intimacy demands favorites and preferences, hierarchies and priorities. Our friends are friends because their value exceeds the rest, because we would discount the needs of the many to honor the needs of a few.* George Orwell’s line that “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others,” is as much a description of friendship as it is an indictment of Stalin.

Facebook erodes these boundaries and cancels these distinctions. No line divides the people we’ve loved for decades from the people we’ve known for days. Chance encounters masquerade as life-long intimacies; a conversation of five minutes merits the same designation as a marriage of five years.

The norms that govern our relationships have customarily been implicit. We can distinguish, without deliberation, who falls under “friend,” who falls under “stranger,” and who falls under all the subtle gradations that lie between both. But when we are confronted with the options to “confirm” or to “delete,” we are forced to articulate an inarticulate code and create guidelines for behavior in an unregulated domain. Here our instincts falter: we waver and we hesitate, we dither and we delay. We agonize between the authenticity demanded by love and the obsequiousness required by civility. Do we accept “friend requests” to confirm intimacy, or to evade embarrassment, or, even more insidiously, to establish popularity?

And who, even, is the final arbiter of affection? Who can trace the borders in this amorphous terrain? What do we call a casual encounter that was nonetheless meaningful? What do we name a long-standing business relationship that nevertheless remained within its bounds? There are people in our lives who are emphatically not strangers, yet neither can we call them friends. These are the people whom we traditionally designate as acquaintances, and it is largely from these that our friendships eventually form.

And perhaps it is this category that Facebook should render as the default—if I’m ever to be spared the ignominy of continuously discarding friends.

* This line paraphrases what Kirk tells Spock in Star Trek III: The Search for Spock, and beats, hands down, anything that could have passed between Sam and Frodo, Gimli and Legolas or even Jack and Ennis.