Seventy hours

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Thompson Street, NYC, October 2014.

Rain, humid, on West 4th Street,
Before house wine at The White Horse.
‘This restaurant has lost something’.
Second winds, third coffees
And yes sir, that’s my Babbo;
Sunlight on the reservoir
Then bagels in a cafe on the Lower East Side (‘the secret’s in the water’).
Hailing taxis, unsuccessful, on street corners.
Crosswalks, car horns, subway screeching.  Always more coffee.
And ‘if you can make it here’…

Under all the low engine hum of the city, driving forward, on.

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‘Burned by my vision of a world that shone’

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.

Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.

Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.

Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.

At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.

Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.
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Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.

James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.

Clive James. Pic: RubyGoes

Clive James.
Pic: RubyGoes

Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.

While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.

“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.
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Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.

When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.

Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris. Pic: Line1

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.
Pic: Line1

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Life hack #2- revise, revise…and then revise

Hemingway's first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms. Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Hemingway’s first-page draft for A Farewell to Arms.
Pic: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum

Ernest Hemingway’s war novel A Farewell To Arms could have ended any one of 39 ways.

We know this because Hemingway told us so but also because, two years ago, an edition of the book was published containing each of those endings, and a further 11 more to boot.

Some are more optimistic than the final, fatal closing paragraphs, some are minor variations, some entirely different to what was published.

But, as far as the writer was concerned, it took 39 attempts to nail it, “39 times before I was satisfied”.

Three decades later, asked what had made the task so difficult, Hemingway answered, simply: “Getting the words right.”

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A 2012 news story on the new edition of the novel was shared with me this week by M, a fellow soldier in the journalistic trenches.

It sparked my interest. My daily workload involves revision, three or four times for every article edited, reading closely for facts and legal. This blog likewise.

But I doubt I’ve subjected any piece of writing to more than a dozen revisions, let alone three dozen, before filing it away.

The Beatles, 1964

The Beatles, 1964

Hemingway’s dogged rewriting of his novel’s closing paragraphs put me in mind of Malcolm Gladwell’s observation on the success of The Beatles.

He estimated that the group performed 1,200 live shows in the four years before they broke through to stardom, in 1964.

Reading Hemingway, or large parts of his work at least, or listening to The Beatles, it’s easy to presume that finely tuned words or close-to-perfect melodies occur, when they do, more or less naturally.

Such artists laboured on their art, of course, but their inspiration surely ran far beyond Edison’s fabled one per cent?

However, the older I get the clearer the importance of revisiting, remaking and repeating, becomes.

To the extent that the secret of producing the best creative work can be reduced, for me, to a simple practice.

To improve it, revise it; when you can’t revise it any more, you can’t improve it.

Ernest Hemingway in London at Dorchester Hotel 1944. Pic: NARA

Ernest Hemingway at Dorchester Hotel, London, 1944.
Pic: NARA

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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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Here Is New York – in five fragments

Central Park, October 2010. Pic: Cormac Looney

Central Park, October 2010.
Pic: Cormac Looney

It’s long been a habit of mine to read my way to a destination before I actually travel there.

Not using guide books, but novels or poems. And so, over the years I’ve come to associate certain places, cities in particular, with certain writings.

When I think of London it’s the city of Great Expectations, and Pip’s coming of age in the streets and rooms of Newgate, or the eerie East End gothic of Peter Ackroyd’s Hawksmoor.

Likewise Haruki Murakami, whose The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle took me to a surreal, paranoid version of Tokyo in fiction, accompanied me on a visit to Japan earlier this year.

On occasion I haven’t, nor am I every likely to, be in the place I’m reading about. While I’ve visited and revisited the remote Gilf Kebir plateau in the Libyan desert, where Michael Ondaatje set part of The English Patient, I doubt I’ll ever see it in person.

But the literary place that’s mapped clearest in my mind is one I have visited – the city of New York.

Hence my interest the recent Reading American Cities series on the Guardian’s Books blog, specifically the entry on Manhattan.

I agreed with one of the titles recommended as a “literary companion” to the city – The Great Gatsby. But the others, DeLillo’s Underworld and Auster’s The New York Trilogy, while certainly books of the city, weren’t books of my New York.

And so I chose my own – here’s New York in five fragments, from five works.


410uN4RypVLCrossing Brooklyn Ferry, Walt Whitman (1855)

Others will enter the gates of the ferry and cross from shore to shore,
Others will watch the run of the flood-tide,
Others will see the shipping of Manhattan north and west, and the heights of Brooklyn to the south and east,
Others will see the islands large and small;
Fifty years hence, others will see them as they cross, the sun half an hour high,
A hundred years hence, or ever so many hundred years hence, others will see them,
Will enjoy the sunset, the pouring-in of the flood-tide, the falling-back to the sea of the ebb-tide.

 

Gatsby_1925_jacketThe Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)

Over the great bridge, with the sunlight through the girders making a constant flicker upon the moving cars, with the city rising up across the river in white heaps and sugar lumps all built with a wish out of non-olfactory money. The city seen from the Queensboro Bridge is always the city seen for the first time, in its first wild promise of all the mystery and the beauty in the world.

 


a4afce26-ab10-42c8-9180-0a268a4b78f5-280x420Catcher In The Rye, J.D. Salinger (1951)

I live in New York, and I was thinking about the lagoon in Central Park, down near Central Park South. I was wondering if it would be frozen over when I got home, and if it was, where did the ducks go? I was wondering where the ducks went when the lagoon got all icy and frozen over. I wondered if some guy came in a truck and took them away to a zoo or something. Or if they just flew away.

 


2f656cc7-40b4-4e5a-8917-d2ecdf6e9a01-273x420Netherland, Joseph O’Neill (2008)

 We were sailing on the Staten Island Ferry on a September day’s end…Everybody looked at the Statue of Liberty and at Ellis Island and at the Brooklyn Bridge, but finally, inevitably, everybody looked to Manhattan. The structures clustered at its tip made a warm, familiar crowd, and as their surfaces brightened ever more fiercely with sunlight it was possible to imagine that vertical accumulations of humanity were gathering to greet our arrival.

 

Finally, and despite my misgivings above about guide books, it’s impossible to avoid E.B. White’s classic love letter to his home city.

hereisnewyorkHere Is New York, E.B. White (1949)

The city is like poetry: it compresses all life, all races and breeds, into a small island and adds music and the accompaniment of internal engines. The island of Manhattan is without any doubt the greatest human concentrate on earth, the poem whose magic is comprehensible to millions of permanent residents but whose full meaning will always remain elusive.
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Lifehack #1 – the human chain

"...part of the great human chain." Beneath the Parrotspitz, Alps, 2010.

“…part of the great human chain.”
Beneath the Parrotspitze, Italian Alps, 2010. 
Pic: Cormac Looney

“Only connect” wrote EM Forster. But with what? What is it that links us, that bridges the gap between each of us as we exist, in Patrick Kavanagh’s words, “alone in our loneliness“?

Does such a comfort even exist? If so, does this common thread transcend place, language, gender, even time?

How easy is to access this ‘oneness’? Is it as simple as a look or a conversation, or is it realised only after a long period of communication, by way of friend- or relationship?

Identifying, describing and celebrating this human connection has always preoccupied writers and poets, of course.

But seeking and finding the connection often comes easier, in my experience, to musicians. Perhaps this is because music can be, for many, a more direct and immediate form of emotional transfer that the written or spoken word.

It’s apt then that one of the best descriptions of human connection, its origins, reality and reach, came from a man who has spent a life singing his poems.

Leonard Cohen, 1988. Pic: Roland Godefroy

Leonard Cohen, 1988.
Pic: Roland Godefroy

On being asked if melancholia produced better art  Leonard Cohen, who turned 80 this week, took the question and answered with hardened, learned insight.

His response is a description of what links us, often despite ourselves, as we push on through – the feeling of a ‘human chain’.

“We all love a sad song. Everybody has experienced the defeat of their lives. Nobody has a life that worked out the way they wanted it to. We all begin as the hero of our own dramas in centre stage and inevitably life moves us out of centre stage, defeats the hero, overturns the plot and the strategy and we’re left on the sidelines wondering why we no longer have a part – or want a part – in the whole damn thing.

Everybody’s experienced this, and when it’s presented to us sweetly, the feeling moves from heart to heart and we feel less isolated and we feel part of the great human chain which is really involved with the recognition of defeat.”
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Note: I like the idea of ‘life hacks’ – pieces of advice, knowledge, insight, admonitions; discrete mind shots that improve life and produce an awareness of living.
The Lifehacks section of the blog is where I’m collecting and collating them.

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France – ne me quitte pas

Feeling like filet. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Feeling like filet.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

Well, we lasted almost two weeks.

It’s remarkable that we held out for that long. But we did.

Remarkable why? Well, given the amount and quality of beef I’d eaten a fortnight ago in Bordeaux I’d reckoned it would be months before I’d want to encounter another steak.

Likewise, after the seafood smorgasbord we tackled in Le Petit Commerce I doubted I’d want shellfish again until a visit to Howth in midwinter.

But it’s hard to shake off French cooking. After two weeks of whole-wheat pasta, roasted veg, rice and – to be fair – a monstrously delicious rib-sticking mac and cheese dish at The Woollen Mills, we wanted back.

But how can you replicate dining al fresco at the balmy Place des Quinconces on an autumnal weekend in Dublin?

There’s two ways: do it yourself or go to La Maison at Castle Market in central Dublin. We did both.

The DIY meal was steak – a filet mignon to be precise. The cut lacked the fat-fuelled taste sensation of a La Tupina sirloin but, seared for two minutes on each side in a scorching pan and seasoned with just sel gris and pepper, it was a perfect Friday night dish.

Admittedly it lacked the accompaniment of open-fire-cooked duck fat frites, and I still had to wash up afterwards, but it was enough to place us back by the Garonne, however briefly.

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin

La poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme, at La Maison, Dublin.

The following night was more of full-on French dip.

La Maison markets itself as fine dining. Maybe it is, in terms of service at least, but the menu also has a strong rustic feel, with pungent pates and meaty cassoulets.

Despite a number of good meals in Bordeaux we’d missed a decent pate. In La Maison we got at least two – one a chicken liver and the other a pork rillette. Both were meaty, earthy, fragrant.

They were the curtain raiser for the real star though, my entrée of fresh and shell-fish in white wine sauce. Salmon, trout and a white fish (that, frankly, I’d swallowed before I recognised) were mixed with mussels and baby potatoes to make a dish grandly dubbed ‘la poelee de la mer sauce bonne femme’.

This was a more modest offering than that the Le Petit Commerce showstopper but, alongside a crisp sauvignon blanc, it was satisfied my lingering pangs – of hunger and for France.

Perhaps it was the last of the ‘sauce bonne femme’, the blaze of my companion’s crepe suzette, or the cognac afterwards, but for an hour last weekend I could have been sitting in a bistro off the Triangle d’Or.

What’s “I could get used to this” in French?

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A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

A la carte à La Maison, Dublin.

“An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me.”

It’s perhaps unsurprising that it was a Frenchman who immortalised the concept of taste as memory. Unlike Marcel Proust I’ve never experienced it with madeleines.

Filet mignon and la poelee de la mer though? – that’s a different matter.

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Reading, the long and short of it

What would Cervantes, Tolstoy or Wallace think? Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

Unimpressed? Cervantes, Tolstoy, Wallace.
Pic: Steve Rhodes (David Foster Wallace)

HOW long is too long?

Around 250 pages – if you’re award-winning novelist Ian McEwan.

More than one reader probably slammed down their Hilary Mantel in disgust last week on encountering the writer’s comments on the length of the modern novel.

Using his new release, The Children Act, as a convenient guide, McEwan reckoned 65,000 words is about the right length for a book nowadays.

Such a work can be read in one sitting, he suggests, “like enjoying a three-hour movie or opera”.

Moreover, “very few really long novels earn their length…the Americans especially love a really huge novel…a real brick of an object.”

This shorter-is-better mindset shouldn’t surprise anyone. McEwan is about as far from an American as I can imagine, and most of his novels clock in well under 250 pages.  (The much-lauded On Chesil Beach runs to 166, placing it firmly in novella territory.)

"A real brick of an object."

“A real brick of an object.”

One can only imagine what David Foster Wallace (1079 – Infinite Jest), Cervantes (1072 – Don Quixote) or Leo Tolstoy (1225 – War And Peace) would make of it all.

As a reader (or masochist) who has made it through Moby Dick (625) twice in his 36 years I’m not on McEwan’s page on this.

His comments did get me thinking, though. What was the last 800-page novel I read? And, for that matter, when was the last time I watched a three-hour movie?

It’s been a while, on both counts. But I haven’t avoided longer books because, as McEwan suggests, characters should be established “very quickly” and one or two subplots is enough.

If only it was that simple. Like most people the reason I avoid longer books is time.

Time that’s eaten into by digital grazing, by work, by working out, by (sometimes) just wanting to sit in a room and stare at the ceiling.

Any number of reasons, really. But they combine and conspire to cut into reading time and the concentration required to read.

A slim Steinbeck.

Flat boy – slim.

When my time comes under pressure like this shorter books quickly look more attractive. And so I buy The Children Act and not The Goldfinch, lamely convincing myself that I will, one day, get to Donna Tartt’s 784 pager. (Spoiler: I won’t.)

But once or twice a year, usually on vacation when the time pressure eases, I’ll attempt something longer – The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle on a two-week trip last May, for example.

The increased time investment usually yields a greater reward – more time spent with characters, deeper immersion in plot – and I tell myself I should really do this more often.

And then my eye is caught by a slim Steinbeck and I’m back in the sub-65,000 aisle again.

With a clear two-week period coming up soon I’m already promising myself great things: maybe even Murakami’s gargantuan 1Q84 (brace yourself …928).

We’ll see. Maybe it’s time for a very short story (4), just while I decide.

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The raw and the (partly) cooked

A rare sight. La Tupina's sirloin. Pic: Clare Kleinedler

A rare sight. La Tupina’s sirloin.
Pic: Clare Kleinedler

If you want blood you’ve got it.

If you don’t, why the hell are you sitting in La Tupina?

That’s what I’d ask any of the lunchtime diners around me, if I wasn’t too busy salivating amid the waft of duck-fat frites and seared sirloin in this Bordeaux bistro.

And sipping a local vin du pays, of course.

The establishment, housed among 18th century streets on the left bank of the Garonne, is a local if not national institution.

Founded in 1968, it’s showcased the country cuisine of the French southwest – a style wrought “between the kitchen garden and the fireplace” – for almost half a century.

If we were going to have steak frites anywhere in France this was the place.

And so, on a short visit to the city last week, we booked lunch there.

This despite the fact that I’m not a ‘steak man’, or anywhere near it.

And that’s because ’rare’ – in Dublin and in my experience – is often anything but.

Que les restes de sang - as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Que les restes de sang – as they say on Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

With one exception (a very high-end joint where the steak and, alas, a thread of gristle were cooked properly) my recent experiences ordering such a steak in the capital had usually led to me eating it medium rare, or even medium.

Perhaps I’m unlucky. But the upshot is that at home I avoid the cow.

Not in Bordeaux, though.

First at La Tupina and, the following evening, at Brasserie l’Orleans I had two palate-changing beef encounters.

The former’s sirloin arrived on a disarmingly bare plate, garnished with sel gris and accompanied, though it was hardly necessary, with those frites whose aroma I’d been inhaling since we stepped in.

It cut like butter, releasing juices and – not to put too fine a point on it – blood that reduced me, after two or three bites, to a state of stupored carnivorous ecstasy.

It took a lot not to pick up the plate, take it to the nearest dark corner and spend the afternoon licking it.

A week on I can, just about, still taste that cut.
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The parting dish - Brasserie l'Orleans' steak tartare.

The parting dish – Brasserie l’Orleans’ steak tartare.

All good things end.

However, when you’re in Bordeaux and the clock’s ticking, more good things can and must be found.

And so, the night before we left, my wife and I found ourselves at Brasserie l’Orleans, opposite the famed sycamore trees of the storied Place des Quinconces, within sight of the statues of Montaigne and Montesquieu.

But my gaze extended only to the rim of my plate. On it lay French cuisine’s other great meat masterwork – a steak tartare.

Plenty of it too, the unctuous raw beef chopped and mixed with capers and onions, seasoned and presented, once more, avec frites. (And also sans egg, risking the purist’s outrage).

In one bite soft, delicate and seriously substantial (this is raw beef, after all) –  it’s as close to the cow as you can get, on a plate.

I doubt anyone is happy to leave Bordeaux but this was a meal to soften the blow.
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Two dishes – one ingredient. Two restaurants – one city.

There’s far more to Bordeaux, of course, but visiting there without eating these two dishes would be far less of an experience.

As would eating steak anywhere else.

Along the Garonne.

Sur la Garonne.

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Back to the old, weird America

The Basement Tapes

The Basement Tapes.

NEWS this week that Bob Dylan is to release a drawer-emptying 138 track compilation of music from his Basement Tapes sessions brings me back.

Specifically to a damp room of a shared house on Dublin’s north side, sometime back in the mid-90s, and my first encounter with some of this material.

At the time I was a university student and, having plenty of time on my hands, spent a great deal of it strumming my battered Hohner acoustic guitar.

Most of the songs I played were either written by Dylan or connected to him in some tangential way: Hank Williams, The Band, Woody Guthrie, The Grateful Dead.

I’d picked my way through most of Dylan’s 1960s’ albums when, idling one afternoon in the since-departed Freebird Records on Eden Quay, I spotted the two-cassette The Basement Tapes.

A couple of hours later I was back in my room in Fairview, about to press play on a recording I’d read of in dispatches but knew little about.

What came from the speakers, from the first track (the aptly-named Odds and Ends), was nothing like the firebrand protest singer or the drug mystic of Times They Are A-Changin’ or Blonde on Blonde.

This was a different beast to those recordings, a sprawling circus in a swamp, populated with history-book figures, hustlers, blues singers, welcoming women and doomed men.

'A passport back.' Highway 61, 1955. Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

‘A passport back.’
Highway 61, 1955.
Pic: Ontario Department of Highways

Some songs covered a 200-year sweep of America history, some the hassle of placing a long-distance phone call. It was wider and deeper than any single set of songs I’d heard before.

Woody Guthrie had travelled and written America but songs like Clothes Line Saga – while quotidian on the surface – cut much deeper into the fabric of the country.

Slave songs sat beside surreal travelogues, hymns to personal freedom were followed by the Edward Lear-esque nonsense verse.

The critic Greil Marcus has pointed out that the Basement Tapes represent less an album or a genre than a country and it’s history – “the old, weird America”, another country whose story was distilled by six men in a home studio in 1967.

I’ve been playing, thinking over and reading about that country and these songs since I pressed play in that room almost 20 years ago.

Over the years I’ve heard other outtakes from the sessions – in addition to the 22 songs, 16 by Dylan and eight of The Band’s, on the official release – but I’ve never heard the bulk of the recordings.

Describing a different set of recordings, The Band’s second album, Greil Marcus suggested that “it felt like a passport back to America for people who’d become so estranged from their own country that they felt like foreigners, even when they were in it.”

Is it naïve to expect that The Basement Tapes Complete could provide something similar for those who listen now, in a another time and a different country?

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The Grim Reaper will see you now

'Just out of sight...'

‘Just out of sight…’
Pic: InSapphoWeTrust

PHYSICALLY I was sitting in the optician’s waiting room, about to be called for an eye exam.

In my mind I was – of course – waiting on death, as it edged closer minute by minute, my body a decaying vessel, my organs weakening, a Great Black Nowhere just out of sight around the corner, past ‘Frame Fitting’.

It’s the same feeling every time. Doctor, physio, dentist: each appointment another ‘fingers-crossed for the check-up’ episode.

This never happened before my mid-30s, before I ‘got sensible’ and started scheduling regular check-ups and appointments.

But since then I rarely walk out of a surgery or into a physio’s office without some inkling of my mortality. In fact it’s probably what drives me to make the appointment in the first place.

I’m not the only one, of course.

Death anxiety has been a popular concept since the 1970s, when cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his book The Denial of Death.

Becker argued that humans understand that death is inevitable, and this creates an anxiety which erupts sporadically, leading us to spend our lives trying to forestall, avoid or simply deny our end. (In my case usually all three, as I wait for name to be called in another airless room).

He wrote: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

'The result of all this existential agonising.'

‘The result of all this existential agonising.’

So there you go. That impression of dread, that fear of The End, that incipient feeling of sand slipping through your hourglass, isn’t because you had an extra glass of wine last night or a heavy fry-up or read the news from the Middle East this morning.

You’re desperately trying, between parking the car and texting your brother, to process the reality that we’re all going to die some day, later or sooner. That’s all.

And the result of all this existential agonising, for me?

Turns out I need new glasses.

My declining eyesight is, of course, an indication that one day I will die, my cognitive function, memory and existence wiped out, removed, eradicated. That’s the downside.

The upside? I do like the frames.

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