Escape into Meaning

Excerpts from the book of Evan Puschak

Reading Emerson was like watching magic. Somehow he was able to retrieve the cloudy, half-formed thoughts in my mind and write them down with astonishing eloquence—a century and a half before I was born! This is the magic of articulation, of putting things exactly right, and it’s been the basic obsession of all my work since that afternoon in Barnes & Noble.

You know the experience I’m talking about: someone phrases something perfectly and an idea that’s been a fog in the background of your mind suddenly solidifies. A lot of the time we aren’t fully aware of our thoughts and opinions, so when another person articulates one, it feels strange, like a surprise coming from within.

From Emerson, I learned two fundamental truths: first, that we learn by expressing, not by thinking, which is to say that knowledge doesn’t really exist until you can write it down.

There’s something very wrong about the iPhone being a policeman of its own use. Apple builds the shiniest, most addictive and useful tool in human history, then installs an app that’s supposed to help us use it less? That’s like McDonald’s serving Big Macs with a note that reads: “Eat only 30 percent of this Big Mac, as a whole Big Mac is not good for you.”

Screen time management tools are little more than PR stunts, from another industry promoting solutions to problems it creates. Tobacco giants did (and do) the same; so do oil companies. In 2005, British Petroleum popularized the term “carbon footprint” to divert the public’s attention away from BP’s role in climate change and toward individual responsibility.

None of us needs more research to verify something we feel all the time. At a Senate hearing in 2020, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testified that he didn’t “think the research has been conclusive” on whether social media is addictive. Despite the fact that there is plenty of good research finding that it is (and that social media addiction correlates positively with serious mental health problems like depression), I don’t need an academic paper to tell me what’s happening inside my head. I’ve got proof coming out the wazoo. When my laptop is taking a second to buffer a YouTube video and I grab my phone to scroll Facebook rather than wait—that’s my proof.

Not all content consumption is passive. Good books, films, journalism, videos, podcasts, etc., encourage you to think critically. When you’ve finished a book or an album, there should be a period of time for you to reflect on what you’ve experienced. You should have a break to let your mind wander, to examine your response, to write your thoughts down, to discuss them with others. That’s one reason I love seeing movies at the theater. We talk about preserving the communal experience of watching movies, but what about when the movie ends, that ritual of slowly getting up, emerging into the lobby, and waiting until someone finally says, “So what did you think?” The conversation that follows, in the car ride home or over drinks at a bar, is what makes the passive viewing experience active.

The other thing Greenfeld’s theory implies is that the border between culture and individual minds is porous. We’re already thinking with a language we didn’t invent, with knowledge we didn’t generate, with conventional wisdom established long before we were born. How many of our ideas are original?

And as I spend more time online, I’m getting better at ascertaining the internet’s opinions, instead of developing my own. After I watch a YouTube video or see an Instagram post, I instinctively scroll to the comments to see what others think. The number of likes and dislikes offers me a ready-made judgment.

Don’t get me wrong: you can learn a lot on the internet. You can learn more than at any previous time in history. But ingesting information is only half of learning. The other half, the more important half, is responding to that information, thinking critically about it, about what it implies.

When those who have spent their entire working lives trying to understand an issue cannot find consensus, how does the layperson determine what is right?

But there’s a more fundamental reason for climate change skepticism: the anxiety of knowing how little we actually know. For all their accredited institutions, their rigorous processes and impact factors, scientists are essentially saying, Trust us. There’s an unshakable feeling of vulnerability that comes with trust like that, in which a mass of knowledge is outsourced and remains obscure.

In the nineteenth century, rag-and-bone men scavenged unwanted household items and sold them to merchants. That’s what Yeats envisions as the poet’s job: to scavenge items from the heart and sell them to the public, to weave all that detritus into images and stories and truth.

When Superman wakes up in the morning, he’s Superman. His alter ego is Clark Kent. His outfit with the big red S, that’s the blanket he was wrapped in as a baby when the Kents found him. Those are his clothes. What Kent wears—the glasses, the business suit—that’s the costume. That’s the costume Superman wears to blend in with us. Clark Kent is how Superman views us. And what are the characteristics of Clark Kent? He’s weak. He’s unsure of himself. He’s a coward. Clark Kent is Superman’s critique on the whole human race.”

What about Superman? Does the Boy Scout in blue tights, the tireless defender of Truth, Justice, and the American Way, fit the modern sensibility? Not in the way Batman does, that’s for sure. We can sympathize with someone’s parents being killed, but can we sympathize with someone’s alien home planet exploding? We can relate to a man risking death to avenge his loved ones, but can we relate to an invincible being who protects the entire world? We can empathize with a crusader, but what about a man of steel?

I think we can empathize with Superman, but it’s harder to pull off. In many ways, the Man of Tomorrow is a relic of values past. He’s a symbol of that goodness we no longer recognize in the world. He’s the epitome of the classic hero the antihero was invented to modernize. His idealism smacks of naïveté, and in the comics he’s regularly mocked for this by other heroes, especially Batman.

This is why many consider Superman a boring character. He’s too perfect, too powerful, too vanilla. Even his creators thought so, which is why they invented kryptonite, his Achilles’ heel. As far as vulnerabilities go, kryptonite is not the most creative. It’s little more than a narrative device in physical form, and a blunt one at that.

When, for some wacky reason or other, Superman’s powers vanish or decrease significantly, it’s usually cited as an opportunity to “humanize” the character, which implies that Superman is always at risk of becoming unrelatable. And he is. It’s hard to get Superman right. It’s hard to make any Golden Age hero relevant to a modern reader, but it’s especially hard with Superman. De-powering him is one way to do it, but it’s not the only way. There are terrific stories in which Supes is fully powered and fully relatable. And there are dull stories where he gets a bloody lip. I don’t think you humanize Superman by focusing on the physical. He is too perfect in that respect. But just because he’s perfect physically doesn’t mean he’s perfect in every way. Superman is not without psychological weaknesses. He’s not invulnerable to emotion. This, I think, is what writers should focus on.

Bob Proehl said, “The best Superman is whichever one you were reading when you were twelve.”

With such strength, Clark could’ve done anything. No one alive can check his power. So when he wants to play high school football and his father says no, why does Clark listen?

The corny answer is also the right one: love. The Kents give Clark what every child needs, human or Kryptonian. They are attentive and kindhearted, firm yet patient, affectionate and, most important, present. Their presence is the mirror image of the Waynes’ absence. If Bruce becomes Batman as an act of vengeance, Clark becomes Superman as a reciprocation of the Kents’ love.

There are things Lois can do that Superman can’t. There are things Clark the reporter can do that he can’t as a superhero. Superhearing and X-ray vision are useful (if probably illegal) investigative tools, but they won’t make a source trust you or sharpen your prose. Superman can save the people of Metropolis from a burning building, but Clark can expose the contractors who cut costs by using cheap, flammable cladding and the city officials who lined their pockets by looking the other way. To paraphrase Lois from Enemy of the People, Superman can thwart the hammer of evil, but Lois and Clark can go after the arm swinging it, and the system that grants it freedom of motion.

When Clark wakes up in the morning, he’s neither the symbol nor the secret identity. He’s the boy who grew up in Smallville, the son of Jonathan and Martha, the friend and colleague and sometimes husband of Lois Lane, a journalist for a great metropolitan newspaper, an immigrant, a child of adoption who yearns for a family he never met, a person who accepts the responsibility his power implies, who tries to reciprocate the love he received to the world that took him in. Clark Kent is not a critique of the human race. He is part of the human race. In all the ways that matter, including and especially his weaknesses, he is human. He’s one of us. As he says in Lois & Clark: “Superman is what I can do. Clark is who I am.”

“A brief moment of happiness is pretty good,” he says. “I also think that just focusing on making money and buying stupid things is a good way of life. I believe materialism gets a bad rap… If your things don’t make you happy, you’re not getting the right things.

If you’re my age or older, maybe you know what I mean. It’s not that we love one another less; it’s that there’s no substitute for physical proximity and the free time of early adulthood. Priorities shift, responsibilities grow, we make choices. I’m as big a culprit as any. I keep moving to new cities, unable to settle. I see photos of my friends’ kids, and they look so old, and I realize how much I’ve missed. I no longer share in all the biggest developments of their lives. Sending a text, making a call, video-chatting, double-tapping an Instagram post—it’s not the same, is it?

Is this how it happens? Not with a bang, but with gaps between hangs that gradually get larger, and you forget to send that birthday message, and you’re surprised to learn they actually left that job six months ago, and “Where are you living these days?” and the only time you all get together is at weddings, but the weddings are running out, then months turn into years into decades and you’re telling optimistic thirtysomethings that this is when friendships begin to fade. Please do not let me be that guy.

I’m not resigning us to that fate, not yet. I’m old enough now to know that it’s possible to grow distant from your closest friends. But it’s not a foregone conclusion. These people mean too much to me. These people are me. The destabilizing feeling that sinks my stomach at the thought of losing them proves that better than any model of identity, better even than the brilliance of Virginia Woolf.

So I’ll work to stay in their lives. I’ll make an effort to see them. I’ll listen and share, ask for advice, tell them I love them. The distance between us makes it harder, but it’s only our bodies that are distant. And the body misleads.