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Sunday, March 14, 1999
By Paul Ford
An odd little lecture from a man with symbols on his skin.
You, sitting there moping over your coffee. What would you do if you quit your job? Don't pretend you'd like a job as a janitor so you can write a fucking novel.
What you must do to keep sane is stop looking for meaning. The whole point of those crazy moral absolutes is to transcend them, to get over them. There is no such thing as purity, no matter how long you sit cross-legged in a heather field. Have I ever shown you my tattoo?
He rolls his polo-shirt sleeve to show an incredibly detailed array of information engraved into his right shoulder.
Lean in close, it's hard to read. It starts with my Social Security Number and name. Below that is a list of institutions I've attended, with years, starting with day care, elementary, private high school. Note the GPAs by my undergrad and MBA. Below that, each of my jobs, with dates. All sexual relationships over one year are logged here, too, in with the institutions.
Follow my finger. To the right of the list of institutions, a graph of my gross income in black, with a red line for value of my investment portfolio. Blue is gifts to charity. I get it updated every 18 months or so.
You see, if you found me dead but still intact, you could rebuild me from this information, this patch of skin. I really do believe we are the sum of our connections, our institutional experiences. Not just going to private school, but the little private school equivalents we create for each other later in life. When I feel confused, I just go to the mirror, turn up my sleeve, and remember who I am.
Who I am is these names on my arm. It's an institution to live in Brooklyn, another to live in Manhattan. Ever watch Harvard grads interact? It's horrifying, right? "Did you live in Baker Hall?" "No, I didn't live in Baker Hall, but I knew a lot of Baker Hall people." "Okay, you're hired." They support each other's fantasies, they consensually hallucinate this universe where Baker Hall makes a difference. If 2 people believe it, and they have some money between them, whatever they think is true. They come together like little whirlpools in this ocean of humans and suck up all the money, because they believe it's their right to do it. "Their institution has actualized them."
I sound like some neo-spiritual Fast Company prophet of commerce, don't I? But Fast Company leaves you a way out, and my tattoo doesn't do that. You can reject Fast Company and go to the woods, deny what happened, pretend it doesn't matter, reinvent yourself in some new environment. But my kids will see this. They'll know their daddy had 5 girlfriends in 6 years, and three different jobs. They'll see from the little black box on my arm that I was fired from this job, and quit these four. This is a way to keep from bullshitting. Or at least to let other people see the bullshit for what it is.
You can constantly re-invent and re-brand yourself, you're supposed to, and I got into this crazy career loop, where I was just making things up to please myself. One week I was a troubled artist caught in a false commercial world; the next week, a client meeting went particularly well, and I was a corporate warrior with his eye on equity. I couldn't stand myself, so one day I wrote down who I was, a big list, and boiled it down to essentials. It fit in a three-by-three square. This is it, the summary of my stock, all my internal identifiers turned into one big permanent mark.
I always wanted a tattoo, and I thought it would be an interesting one to get. I really liked the idea of squeezing my life down into bare facts, and I have enough room for 120 years of life before it reaches my elbow.