To be successful in Millennial America without sacrificing soul and artistry—that
was the goal, the tightrope to be walked in a concrete land of parking garages and traffic
lights, where everything is bought and sold, where a person’s selfhood is bartered for
attention and defined to the outside world as a collection of square images on Instagram
or 140-character ironic wry doubletalk, and of course the definition of the self from the
outside seeps into the definition of the self on the inside, the puddle spills over onto the
grass, the locusts invade the green field, the emoji invades the printed word.
The 21 st century is a place where the person you could be and should be resonates
everywhere from cereal boxes and television commercials to the traditional places such
as your parents and your teachers, where sex appeal determines where you go and what
you think you can get, a land of planes buzzing across the cloudy sky, of voicemails and
friend requests, of waiting in traffic across the Verrazano Bridge at 1a.m. on a Tuesday.
It’s a world where a cash dollar amount is put on funerals, communication,
hospital care, information like the weather, product sales records, where the government
watches what you’re doing and knows your credit card history, where corporations buy
the history of your habits and where eleven year-old girls turn to Twitter campaigns to
pay for chemotherapy—to be successful in America without sacrificing soul and artistry,
that was the thought pattern that dominated each day for me, the struggle of finding the
middle ground, of not selling myself short of all the things I wanted, of the things I knew
I’d always want, of reaching outward and grasping reality between the spaces of my
fingers and consciously shaping it into an image I felt compelled to choose.
I am flesh—I am cohesion, I am entropy, I am a grace of human bone and tissue
My junior year of undergrad came and went in a flurry of motion; it was a year of
transition, a year of reading and a year of anxiety, of constant additions and revisions of
the to-do lists I made for myself in an effort to get everything accomplished on time in a
way that was acceptable to others and the empty filler that is so much of the college
experience. No longer was I an underclassman free to do as I please, my unoccupied
time entirely my own. Responsibilities tugged at every breath I took, my true intellectual
life a crestfallen Prometheus, the fire I contributed banality.
I got a job as a Resident Assistant, became vice-president of my school’s writing
club. I took five classes each semester, worked two undergraduate majors, wrote for my
school’s newspaper, published stories and poetry in every campus publication, served as
vice-president of my school’s English honor society and woke up each morning with
tremendous expectations to fill each day with accomplishment, to add another bullet to
the list, another line to the resume, to check off another box, to write just one more word,
one more paper, one more A.
I was trying to justify existence.
Ambedo—I gnaw, I weather away.
I’d been to New York City just once in my life, a two-day trip leaving my rural
country town in the Finger Lakes with my father and sisters that no one particularly
enjoyed. The city wasn’t our place, it wasn’t where any of us belonged, it wasn’t where
the things that mattered to us happened. It was a place on a map with exotic food and
noise and pollution, a tourist destination, and I don’t think anyone in my family ever
thought of the city as a place of habitation where people lived, worked and died, but
rather of a land of lights, continual motion and glamor that we’d see on television but
never in our actual reality, never breathing in front of us. It was a lifestyle foreign from
our own—urban and suburban Americas can be so different.
We were tourists. We spoke different Englishes. I took a small bite from a Big
Apple and tasted sourness and shock.
For whatever reason, New York has a way of inspiring humans that no other city
can duplicate. Maybe it’s the buildings, maybe it’s the voices you hear, maybe it’s just
the way it’s marketed. There were open slots for a Senior Seminar class trip to
Manhattan. I wasn’t taking the class, but some friends were able to secure me a seat.
That morning I left my dorm room on the 3 rd floor of Casey Tower by 6:45, the
sun just nipping its head over the trees as I exited the stairwell into the open spring air for
the walk up campus to be picked up. The red State University of New York van was
gassed up and parked in the lot when I arrived.
“Good to see you this morning,” Dr. Clarke greeted me, a kind smile on his face.
He was in his 50’s with curly gray hair and an intelligent Tennessee accent and taught
“Good morning, Dr. Clarke.”
“I’m glad to see you’ve packed light.”
He took my backpack with everything I’d need for the weekend and set it in the
trunk. I stepped to the side of the van and peered in. Fifteen or so tired faces clutching
their phones and earbuds, elbows resting on the windows.
I crawled to the only open seat in the very back of the van. I’m a tall guy, and as I
made my way to the back I got to know just about everyone with my knees and my
elbows. I sat down in between my friend Mark and a girl I didn’t know. She had dark
hair and pretty green eyes that hovered over a big book. The trademark double
bookmarks gave it away to be Infinite Jest.
“Hi, I’m Jake,” I said as I reached for my seatbelt, knowing we’d be sitting next
to each other for the long car ride.
She looked up from the book toward the head of the van.
“Anne,” she said, and looked back down. I don’t know if she looked up again for
the entirety of the five hour journey.
By the time we stopped for the bathroom at a New Jersey McDonalds three hours
later, the entire 15-person caravan felt friendly with each other—shared suffering will do
that. We enjoyed our first day touring the city, visited Greenwich Village, set up shop at
the Vanderbilt YMCA, got dinner at a small restaurant on 37 th street and dozed off for our
big Saturday, where after breakfast we were to have free time.
As I unfurled my sleeping bag on the top bunk of our cot my phone’s screen lit
“When will you be back? I can’t edit all these papers by myself,” my friend Nicole
had texted. She was the president of the magazine I edited.
“I’m on a trip until Sunday,” I wrote back.
“Could we do it online? I’ll make a google doc.”
I turned my phone off and went to sleep.
I stood looking up in awe of a tall building with a poster of Batman sprawled
down the side. I held back the urge to take a picture.
“Let’s keep moving,” Annie said.
Mark and I trailed behind her, Google Maps apps open on our phones.
“She’s from Brooklyn. She knows her way around New York,” he said to me.
We crossed a few blocks and eventually great white steps emerged as we rounded
a corner. We followed Annie through the great doors and through the turnstile.
She turned around when we’d reached a table where two women in dresses sat
with a basket on the table in front of them.
“There’s an encouraged $1 donation to enter,” she said.
She put her dollar in the basket, smiled at the women as she walked past them and
was through a doorway into another room before Mark and I had even pulled out our
“She’s not super friendly, is she?” I asked Mark.
“She’s a really nice person when you get to know her, actually.”
He took off his hat put his sunglasses in his pocket.
“She’s just very… different.”
“That isn’t very specific,” I laughed.
“No, man, like… for example, in class one day we were asked why we write, and
we had to share what we wrote down.”
“I feel like that’s pretty standard for writing majors.”
“She said she wrote to understand all that it is time does to us.”
The question confused me. My answers were chaotic and disordered. Why did I
To explore what it is time does to us. Interesting.
Like an origami swan, sometimes the world of our perceptions unfolds itself in
front of you, some great connection is made, suddenly the words on the inside of the
swan’s white paper become open for translation.
I knew no word at the time to describe the transcendence that emanated through
me while walking through the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the first time, 19 years
old, with the freedom, time and mind to not only analyze but really to feel van Goh, to
look Mark in the eyes and tell him this Picasso was not impressing me, to look at a Greek
sculpture of Dionysus and say yes, that’s how I felt once, too, that’s how it really is for
us. Mark and I spent hours pouring over Cézanne; he surveyed every room of paintings
while I wandered to the historical exhibits, observing 2 nd century Mesopotamian limestone
carvings Door lintel with lion-griffins and vase with lotus leaf, admiring Yup’ik dance
masks from Alaska, viewing what may be the first and oldest piano in existence, built by
Bartolomeo Cristofori in Florence in 1720.
The pillars of the museum reached up to the high copper-tinged ceilings, marble
towers cold and smooth against my hands, solid like a Greek Cyclops and tall like the
Parthenon. The floors were composed of a beautiful, glassy marble, a delicate and fine
amberish color, the tiles square with stone benches that had dark green plants jutting out
from them, real plants that filtered the air to be fresh as you breathed in, so clean and
complementing to the glass ceiling, the light in every room natural, real, and all of this
with finely-wrought iron chandeliers hanging downward from the blue-glass sky, a
trillion light-saturated panes of glass visible in the tall buildings seen through the skylight
windows glittering like scales from a score of snakes wound together on a flat plane.
All of this was reality.
The halls held flags from every country, sigils from medieval French familial
houses, a trio of jousting sword-armed armored knights stop-motion cantering on their
steel-plated horses, all the armor polished and clean, not a speck of rust anywhere, the
gray faceless expressions on the mannequins underneath the steel hardly rendering the
detailed armor lame. Even the chainmail underneath, visible only on close inspection,
was expertly crafted. I’d tried my hand with chainmail in a high school art class and
could feel with my own fingers the hours of handiwork the maker had put into these
weapons of death and defense.
I looked around to see Mark in an adjacent room gazing at armor quite unlike
what I was staring at. His armor was that of a samurai, light, steel plates with hard
leather underneath, flexible with what I thought to be bamboo forming a skirt-like bottom
with long thigh-high boots hanging down. The gold headdress to the armor was a long,
thin dragon, his face roaring with rage, flames spouting from his nose like fiery whisps of
rainbows, flames composed of other little dragons.
We were consumed, spellbound, engaged with the openness of expression in
those hundred rooms. We sat on a bench breathing in Antoine Watteau’s Head of Man,
trying to decide if the man depicted was dead or alive, where he came from, when in my
life I had been that man, where he’d gone, what he’d seen, what his scars were from, why
his muscles were clenched, why his lips were so; he reminded me of a sawed-off tree, its
rings visible; I could almost smell sawdust emanating from him in my nostrils as I
adjusted my green flannel, tied my leather shoes, ran my fingers through my hair or
touched the stubble on my chin. Red and black chalk, I thought, just red and black chalk.
How could it mean something? It meant something.
“Do you think Monet intentionally made his lily pads look like reflections of the
branches above them?” I asked Mark as we stood gazing at Bridge over a Pond of Water
“It’s more complicated than that,” he said. “The branches look like a reflection as
well.” As he adjusted his hoodless sweatshirt—the museum air fresh and open, the
natural light coming in clear and unmolested from the sunny day outside, the vast sprawl
of chattering voices buzzing through the open windows from the hum of activity
channeled from the outside—I thought back to something I’d read years ago, surfing
Wikipedia as a seventh or eighth grader.
“I read somewhere that Van Goh was inspired by Japanese art, their porcelain and
woodcut prints,” I said.
“Maybe Van Goh was trying to copy their ritual suicides when he cut off his ear.”
“I love impressionism,” I told him. “It’s a journal entry describing a single
moment in time.”
“They do the best at capturing the soul of place. But I don’t like how they do
“No, that’s not impressionism. That’s Rembrandt.”
“I don’t know him,” Mark said.
I was thinking of Annie’s words.
That’s what I thought about as I sat on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, the steps of the center of Western cultural conversation in the world’s greatest city.
I thought of the human nakedness on display, I thought of the poems I’d written in
the past and how hard I’d tried to make them work, about how the only museum they’d
end up in was the Sophomore Creative Work: 2013 folder on my Macbook, itself hidden
away in Undergraduate Creative Years; I thought about New Constellations, the only
story I’d written I’d ever felt proud of; I thought of the journal I’d recently began
keeping. I thought of humanness, of the wrinkles on my hands. I thought of the
vulnerability I would be exposing myself to— but I was ready to make that choice.
There was something here worth pursuing, something in these hundred rooms with
which to say “this thing is good—I will give my living to see it live.” I believed we were
here to risk everything in our hearts and heads. I was readying myself to enter the
Ambedo is a Latin word translated as either I gnaw or I weather away, neither of
which seems appealing at first, but therein is where the appeal lies, the bones of it
all—like a mother fox studying mice to feed to her pups, in that profoundly stoic moment
there is a boundless and ethereal world unfolding within our grasp, the mundane rendered
transmundane, the monumental sprawl of conversation invading the windows of the Met
from the 5 th avenue crowd humming with the vibrancy of Elysian Fields, rumbling with
elation, the intoxication of the human mind on apparent and genuine display.
Ambedo—the momentary trance in which you’re absorbed in sensory
details—the Asian woman leafing through books, the girl sketching Head of Man in her
sketchbook, the aging couple sharing a newspaper, the dreadlocked man singing for Eric
Garner on the sidewalk petting his cat. It was the dance of human motivation. I filled my
iPhone with notes.
I gnaw, I weather away. Writing made me a part of the world—my words meant
something, a vessel of tendons longing for cohesion and grace.
Across from the steps to the Met were street vendors selling fried rices, teriyaki
chickens, barbequed brisket, simmering chili hot like a palmed stovetop, dishes of
steaming oysters, an onslaught of odors wafting across the way. On the steps where I sat
a young woman sat down with a burka around her head and followed the grid of the
streets looking east. A man sat in a chair at a table saying something about “Now is the
time! Now is the time!” A white-haired, bespeckled old man in boots and suspenders sat
a few steps below, stretching his legs and arms out and turning his head as people walked
by. The four of us sat there, lost in perceptions, penetrating the voices as they passed by.
If we could turn back time, could we learn to live right? Time is irreversible,
every second irrevocable, the components of a moment unfathomable as the years.
The writer explores everything it is time does to us. Somehow I thought there’d
be more of a narrative arc, I typed into my phone.
I quit the Notes application and opened up Chrome.
How to navigate nyc subway, I searched.