I have seen the tops of clouds.
October 27, 2014 6:07 AM   Subscribe

All these grown-up monsters for my grown-up mind, they are there in the nights I wake up terrified and taunted by death. When I feel so small and broken, when despair and terror take me, I have a secret tool, a talisman against the night. I don’t use it too often so that it doesn’t lose its power.
The only thing we can say for sure is that we will die, but we will die having gone so far above our primordial ponds and primate forests that we saw the tops of clouds.
posted by Sokka shot first (37 comments total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
 
You're flying! It's amazing! Everybody on every plane should just constantly be going "OH MY GOD! WOW!". You're sitting. In a chair. In the sky.

- Louis CK
posted by CaseyB at 6:27 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


Same, except for me its "My selfie just hit 100 likes...[...]...ONE HUNDRED!"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:30 AM on October 27, 2014


The FA is a little overwrought, probably, but it's good to be reminded that hope is a necessity and despair is a luxury.
posted by notyou at 6:45 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


We are diseased and angry and we kill each other and ourselves and all the world.

We should invite him to join metafilter. He'd fit in well around here.
posted by happyroach at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2014 [9 favorites]


I fly quite a bit and I still haven't gotten over being taken up into the sky. And he's right, it is a good anodyne for worries about personal and societal decay and collapse...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 7:00 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I was flying back from Iceland to the US a few days ago. I always get a window seat, because I'm lucky enough not to have mobility issues or comfort issues that preclude me from doing so.

It was spectacularly clear over Greenland, and you can see the tops of enormous mountain ranges. Mountain ranges that are buried in ice. Even coming back from Iceland, land of innumerable geological wonders, seeing that was something I was amazed and humbled by.

Apparently there are entire alpine mountain ranges completely subsumed beneath the Antarctic cap, too.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 7:18 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


Quinn Norton is a woman.
posted by gsh at 7:19 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


In all the history of humanity, I am one of the few that has seen the tops of clouds. Many would have died to do so, and some did. I have seen them many times. I have seen the Earth from space, and spun it around like a god to see what’s on the other side. We are the only consciousness we’ve ever found that has looked deep into the infinite dark, and instead of dark, we saw galaxies. Galaxies! Suns and worlds beyond number. We have looked into our world and found atoms, atomic forces, systems that dance to the glorious music of the universe... I know mysteries that great philosophers would have died for, just to have them whispered in their dying ears. I can look them up on my smartphone. I live in the middle of miracles, conceptions and magics easily worth many lifetimes to learn, from which I can pick and choose.

Yes, these things are true. But what of it? Louis CK, linked above, likes to beat people up for not going around in a constant state of amazement. Norton is less judgy; more power to her if she draws comfort from the progress of our knowledge and our powers.

But these conditions under which we live, which our ancestors would indeed have found miraculous to the point of incomprehension, turn out not to be very amazing at all when they become part of everyday life. I grew up in a world where information was hard to access, and now live in a world where it's all on my phone, and it's not as different as I thought it would be.

I've seen the tops of clouds, too, lots of times. They look a lot like the bottoms of clouds.
posted by escabeche at 7:22 AM on October 27, 2014 [7 favorites]


She's not saying "Let's then be complacent and shut up about the problems of our modern lives." She's saying "Let's temper our fears with the knowledge that progress is possible. If humans can fly, maybe we can fix the environment, maybe we can fix injustice and poverty, let's hope we can!"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:34 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


I've seen the tops of clouds, too, lots of times. They look a lot like the bottoms of clouds.

Is that the closest we're going to get to a mention of Joni Mitchell?
posted by fredludd at 7:37 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


Seeing the tops of clouds is itself a non-trivial contributor to environmental issues.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 7:41 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


(This is a sentiment I share with her but I can't stop laughing at my "cloud-to-butt" Chrome plugin's antics here. To witness the wonderment of one who has seen the tops of butts... Plumbers really are a modern marvel...)
posted by Mooseli at 8:16 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


fredludd wins.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:21 AM on October 27, 2014


In all the history of humanity, I am one of the few that has seen the tops of clouds.

This would come as a surprise to the inhabitants of ancient cities like Machu Picchu, who lived at 8000 feet above sea level and occasionally ventured to the tops of 20,000 foot peaks for burials. Or the residents of the ancient and present-day towns and villages of the Tibetan plateau and the Himalayas. Or people who have climbed Mount Fuji in Japan or Mauna Kea in Hawaii for the purposes of religion or exploration or tourism.

Admittedly, these ancient and modern peoples may not have made it to 35,000 feet, the lofty vantage point of airplanes. But they've definitely enjoyed the experience of viewing the tops of clouds (as a thousand postcards of the unkai, or sea of clouds, observed from the summit of Mount Fuji bear witness).
posted by Gordion Knott at 8:22 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Man, tough crowd. I like the article.
posted by Alex404 at 8:25 AM on October 27, 2014 [5 favorites]


The tops of clouds.

Topping Goodale pass in mid November, pulling a string of mules to the trail crew at Graveyard Meadow. They were winding up their extended season. My forest service radio check predicted heavy snow this afternoon. At 11,000 feet I was between two layers of clouds; everything was grey, and the sun was a stain on the horizon. Visible to the south, Kaiser Ridge seemed an island, and the clouds were a grey sea. I always evoked that simile when I was above the cloud-line. Down the steep south face of Goodale via a series of rocky switchbacks, the mules and my mare clattering and scuffing on naked rock, we passed into the lower cloud blanket, into a whiteout. Snow buffed my face in large wet flakes. Shades of grey resolved into black white--darker, yet somehow brighter because of the contrast. I let my mare find the camp, indeed, I could barely see the bonfire the trail crew had built at the tree line until I was nearly upon it. Next morning we loaded the mules with shovels and pulaskis and rock bars, rucksacks, and their tent, and shuffled through fresh powder down the mountain.

Every year returning to the mountains, I was freshly struck by why I love it. Remembering is only a bookmark in a page. Flying over the Sierras I always try to find trails I've ridden, but the pilots of commercial aircraft are never accommodating.
posted by mule98J at 8:27 AM on October 27, 2014 [7 favorites]


I know mysteries that great philosophers would have died for, just to have them whispered in their dying ears. I can look them up on my smartphone.

It strikes me that Diogenes, at least, would be a little bored with anything our smartphones would have to say. And I can't imagine that late antique Neoplatonists, gathered around their fume-spewing bronze heads of Apollo, would be particularly impressed with the consensual hallucination of the Internet.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:30 AM on October 27, 2014


> I've seen the tops of clouds, too, lots of times. They look a lot like the bottoms of clouds.

Not at sunset they don't.
posted by benito.strauss at 8:35 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I grew up in a world where information was hard to access, and now live in a world where it's all on my phone, and it's not as different as I thought it would be.

Really? It is for me, I still find it fascinating that so much information and knowledge and advice and entertainment are available at my fingertips.
posted by Greg_Ace at 8:39 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


I have my own anti-despair motto, which I pull out when I get overwhelmed, or when I can find absolutely nothing to look forward to or be grateful for. It is: at least we have no natural predators.

Flight is mind-bogglingly amazing, but knowing I don't have to worry about being eaten by a bear really puts shit into perspective.
posted by Metroid Baby at 8:39 AM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have my own anti-despair motto, which I pull out when I get overwhelmed, or when I can find absolutely nothing to look forward to or be grateful for. It is: at least we have no natural predators.

That's not true. Capitalists eat us.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 9:02 AM on October 27, 2014 [3 favorites]


And each other!
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 9:05 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Well, yeah, in a manner of speaking. But not literally, with sharp teeth and the panicked chase and death and everything.

...yet.
posted by Metroid Baby at 9:26 AM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


It strikes me that Diogenes, at least, would be a little bored with anything our smartphones would have to say. And I can't imagine that late antique Neoplatonists, gathered around their fume-spewing bronze heads of Apollo, would be particularly impressed with the consensual hallucination of the Internet.

Yeah, given Socrates-Plato's hostility to the written word in favor of memorization, they would be weeping at our reliance on technology for information. Having the Internet in my pocket means I basically don't have to personally know anything anymore since I can always look it up if needed.
posted by Sangermaine at 9:36 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


I can't imagine that late antique Neoplatonists, gathered around their fume-spewing bronze heads of Apollo, would be particularly impressed with the consensual hallucination of the Internet.

Oh sure like the Oracle at Delphi was any more reliable.

We have looked into our world and found atoms, atomic forces, systems that dance to the glorious music of the universe... I know mysteries that great philosophers would have died for, just to have them whispered in their dying ears.

You know, it's impossible not to hear this in Rutger Hauer's voice.
posted by octobersurprise at 9:51 AM on October 27, 2014 [8 favorites]


Well, except Roy was waxing poetic about specific things he had actually seen with his own two eyes.

You know, granting that he was a fictional character and all.
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 10:10 AM on October 27, 2014


I can't read this essay as anything other than a paean to the cognitive dissonance of environmentally conscious first-worlders. Seeing the tops of clouds on that flight probably put more CO2 in the atmosphere than a typical Kenyan does in a year.
posted by Wemmick at 10:26 AM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


Even if we kill ourselves off with nuclear fire, or gray goo, or drown ourselves in stinking acid oceans, it is good that we have lived, that we did all of this, and that we grew into what we are, and learned to dream of what we could be.
This point seems to be worthwhile making in an essay of this sort. Not because it is either profound or undeniable, but because those of us on the left have come to tend to treat it as obviously and undeniably false. We have good reasons, I think, for a degree of pessimism about the value of our species and its history, but I am wary of the paralysing effects of despair.

If we're going to make anything better, hope seems a more powerful and appropriate motivator than damage limitation. Fear is an intrinsically conservative motivation. We cannot be radical without hope, and we live in a world in desperate need of radicalism.
posted by howfar at 12:48 PM on October 27, 2014 [8 favorites]


I don't see why hope requires that it be "good...that we did all of this". You can be hopeful for the future (although, for the record, I am not, at least insofar as "hopeful for the future" means that we can fix our mistakes and maintain the Bright March of Consumerism forward to the end of days) and still think, "You know, it's really not good that we did all of this. We could have taken a better path. Let's try to do that now."
posted by Steely-eyed Missile Man at 12:56 PM on October 27, 2014


I've seen the tops of clouds, too, lots of times. They look a lot like the bottoms of clouds.

Um, no, they don't. Are you sure you've been in an airplane?
posted by serena15221 at 1:07 PM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


I think that is a fair point, Steely-eyed Missile Man, but I also think that it is probably important to at least be open to the possibility that we are, as a phenomenon, like every other part of the universe, unique, and beautiful and valuable. That we are not a stain on an unsullied world, but rather part of the wonder of the whole fucking thing. Do we need to feel that all the time? No. Do we need to accept it as a certainty? No. But that's not what this essay is arguing for. It's arguing for an idea of ourselves that may, on occasion, give us the strength to get through the great adversity we face and have created. It is, I think, useful, sometimes, to reflect on and enjoy the good, as well as to consider and address the bad.
posted by howfar at 1:07 PM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


Seeing the tops of clouds is itself a non-trivial contributor to environmental issues.

She does acknowledge this, however obliquely, in the FA. 6th paragraph 2nd sentence.
posted by carping demon at 1:36 PM on October 27, 2014 [1 favorite]


They do look like the bottoms of clouds except weirdly flat. It is neat.

I mostly do this about food. I'm of European descent so I spend a lot of time thinking about how my ancestors didn't have all this cool shit like chocolate or potatoes.
posted by NoraReed at 2:49 PM on October 27, 2014 [2 favorites]


The thing I dislike about that Louis C.K. bit is the idea that because we're flying in a plane, any complaints about the experience are therefore invalid. "You're in a plane! Shut up and suck it up!" Maybe that would've seemed reasonable when air travel was new, but these days? No. Air travel is a fairly routine part of daily life now, so our standards have risen — which is perfectly reasonable. It's about expectations. If someone tells me "You'll go up in the air! It'll be amazing!" than getting up in the air will probably be impressive. If they tell me "you'll board the plane at this time, you'll arrive at this time, there'll be refreshments available onboard, and we do this often enough to be reasonably good at it" then I do feel annoyed when those expectations aren't met.

Similarly, it's ludicrous to claim (which I've seen but of course can't find a citation to at this point) that because ancient peoples would have considered a linen shift, a woolen robe, and a leather belt to be sufficient for a person to be well-dressed, people today are unreasonable because they they think they need an office-suitable pair of pants PLUS a less-formal pair. What vanity! No, just trying to live reasonably in line with the standards of one's neighbors and culture.
posted by Lexica at 4:55 PM on October 27, 2014


I can't read this essay as anything other than a paean to the cognitive dissonance of environmentally conscious first-worlders. Seeing the tops of clouds on that flight probably put more CO2 in the atmosphere than a typical Kenyan does in a year.

Or, it could be like eating the last Passenger Pigeon, thinking how tasty it is, while being overtaken by the dawning realization that you'll never have another meal like that.

Or the benumbed cynic who wouldn't recognize beauty if it stuck its tongue in his ear.

Sweet vision, sad undercurrent, and just outside your referent, unspeakable horror.

From the bottom: red rays at sunset.

And ironic, how Kennecot Copper injected those lovely green hues into Arizona sunsets before they struck their tent and headed for, um, greener pastures.

C02 is good for plants.

Herbert, after flying over the Mojave in a commercial jet, was inspired to write Dune.

It never ends.
posted by mule98J at 6:16 PM on October 27, 2014


Maybe I'm just extra-talented at pessimism - scratch that; I know I'm extra-talented at pessimism - but seeing the tops of clouds doesn't really do it for me. It all seems too fragile, too evocative of humanity's tendency to insert ourselves everywhere we don't belong just because we can.

What does it for me, and I offer this up to those of you who are similarly unmoved by the tops of clouds, is walking into one of the stacks at my library, just wandering up and down between the shelves. Maybe taking a book off to peruse it a bit, maybe just marvelling at all the accumulated stories, information, wisdom and yes, even misinformation or what was thought at the time that turned out not to be the case. The beautiful bindings. Even the smell of books. I'm lucky enough to work in an enormous reference library so it's pretty easy for me to do this, though harder at 3am when those night fears come knocking. But there really is something about them that helps me find that same sense of hope. Whatever else is wrong with humanity, we got this right.
posted by Athanassiel at 6:31 PM on October 27, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh sure like the Oracle at Delphi was any more reliable.

[ Prophesy ] [I'm Feeling Lucky]
posted by BrashTech at 6:23 AM on October 28, 2014


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