IMYS #27 - Touching Beauty

Reaching for the infinite

“He saw the beauty in it and he reached out and touched it.”

That’s what Dave Chappelle said about one of his sons trying out standup comedy. When he said it, he glanced just above head height and raised his palm on a lightly extended arm. It was a gesture of desire and trepidation. His gaze wasn’t toward the heavens. It was somewhere just above where he currently sat. It was a perfect encapsulation of how each of us could reach for beauty.

It’s important too that the word here is “touch.” It’s not experience. It’s not own. It’s not master. It’s not practice. It is merely to touch. That word reminds us of the gossamer fragility of beauty. Handle it too roughly and it can disappear.

For some of us, there’s a deeply ingrained Protestant work ethic that tends to eschew beauty except in the sense of production or output. We even have words for it like craftsmanship which separate that kind of effort from something that is Art with a capital A. I do think there is a through line with all these concepts which is that of beauty. I believe that beauty is what Dave Chappelle was talking about touching.

Chappelle describes his child seeing the beauty “of this thing I do” which is his work as a comedian, specifically as a standup comedian. He acknowledges that his work is art and that it is in and of itself not necessarily beautiful. The beauty lies in the act of sharing that art. It’s the incredible binding of energy between a performer and an an audience. It exists in a moment yet it lingers in our blood.

Think of the performances you’ve seen and how you felt for hours or days after. There’s a reason people say things like, “That concert changed my life.” I believe that it literally changes our lives. We are different people when we walk through the exits. Our molecules have shifted. We are bereft of these kinds of experiences in our current lockdown world. It is a great loss.

That’s a lot of musing about art and how we experience it on a path to beauty. It’s heady stuff. What hit me about the comment and the moment in the show is what it meant to me as a parent.

Chappelle was tapping into that primordial motivation parents have to see our children find beauty. We talk about the biological imperative to perpetuate our DNA and, sure, that’s the mechanism of procreation. What that ignores is how we get from our birth to the birth of our grandchildren. That arc is full of infinite narratives where we as parents fail or succeed at our children’s ability to reach out and touch beauty.

In many ways, parents aren’t fully responsible. There’s a great big world out there which isn’t always so focused on beauty. This is another topic that Chappelle touches on when he describes the event where his son tried standup. It was a community event to raise money. That community bit is important. Chappelle has put himself and his child into the midst of a community of others also reaching to touch beauty whether it be their performance or the act of helping others.

We tend to wallow in the image of the lonely artist creating in fit of near madness. What it could look like instead is a community where each of us is supported in our attempts to touch beauty. Maybe it’s in cooking the perfect pizza. Maybe it’s in writing a book that your neighbors all read. Maybe it’s in buying something made by that woman at the Christmas Market.

Reaching out to touch beauty is a vulnerable thing to do. Imagine it physically. With our arm and our gaze raised, our balance is uncentered, our soft belly meat exposed, our intentions laid bare. We are sharing of ourselves in the hopes that our community will treat the beauty inside with love and respect.

What beauty have you reach out and touched today?

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Dave and David

David Letterman’s interview series on Netflix has lots of wonderful moments and some that are fluffier than I might like to see Letterman doing. Still, the recently released episode with Dave Chappelle is solid gold.

Watch Dave and David

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See McQueens' intro to the New Review

Gift Idea for Book Nerds

The New York Review of Books is a wonderful magazine that is mostly focused on long-form book reviews. I’ve shared many articles from it in this newsletter. Around the Christmas holidays each year, they do a sale of themed boxes of their books which are just an incredible deal. I recommend checking them out even if you just want to buy a box for yourself. If you get really jazzed, you can subscribe to the annual plan which will surprise you with a random book each month. If you have a book lover in your family but can never pick out the right book, this is a great option.

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Ancient Horses, Ancient Challenges

My wife is a passionate horse person. She trains horses, teaches lessons, and helps horses stay healthy and happy. It is amazing to watch her coach not just the horses but the people, too. I often ask her about the history of horsemanship so we were excited to read about this new research that shows a more specific timeline of horsemanship in China. Specifically, the research bridges the gap between when horses were mostly pulling things like wagons, carts, and plows to when humans started riding them. One wonders at the pressures that moved humans to try this decidedly dangerous activity.

Read about ancient horses

The Air We Breathe

I now live along the Ohio River. One of the most polluted towns in the US is about an hour away on the other side of the river. There are industrial plants all along the river. I worry about what that might mean for long-term health. Increasingly, freedom from these sorts of worries is class and race adjacent. We all know that landfills, sewage plants, and industrial plants have often been located in poorer and mostly non-white areas. Boyce Upholt’s essay, “The Meaning of Air” examines these issues and how they intersect the increasing notion of protecting wilderness which is often engaged in by well-to-do whites with little input from those folks already dealing with poisons in paradise.

Read Boyce Upholt's "The Meaning of Air"

Have a great week. Let me know if you touch any beauty.

Your guide,