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Let’s play a word association game:
Papyrus (featured widely on my 6th grade social studies worksheets).
Platypus (an upscale pasta-and-salad chain restaurant I encountered this summer, in Singapore).
Platitude (“a remark or statement, especially one with a moral content, that has been used too often to be interesting or thoughtful,” Google told me).
The opposite of a platitude, I think, is a Truism. Truisms go a little like this: “IF YOU HAVE MANY DESIRES YOUR LIFE WILL BE INTERESTING” or “WORRYING CAN HELP YOU PREPARE” or “PAIN CAN BE A VERY POSITIVE THING.” Invented by neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer in the 70s, these aphorisms are bite-sized and always in all caps.
One will fall into your lap whenever you need it. In detention? “YOU MUST DISAGREE WITH AUTHORITY FIGURES.” Trying to get on birth control? “THE DESIRE TO REPRODUCE IS A DEATH WISH.” Your roommate left your suite unlocked and now your speakers are gone? “PRIVATE PROPERTY CREATED CRIME.”
Holzer originally printed them on broadsheets — white font, black background — and then left them strewn around Manhattan. Now they just mostly float around Tumblr, buoyed by the reblogs of bored and sad teenagers.
Jenny Holzer’s Wikipedia bio says she is 65 years old. I wonder if Holzer receives Social Security benefits. And how much in royalties did she make from her collaboration with the Dallas Cowboys? (On sale, on their website: “EXPIRING FOR LOVE IS BEAUTIFUL BUT STUPID” on a shirt, “BOREDOM MAKES YOU DO CRAZY THINGS” on a cap.)
Sometimes I begin to shelve whole chapters of my life according to Truisms. They become shorthand for embarrassing moments I’d rather not recount, personal failures of all kinds. For example:
“SOLITUDE IS ENRICHING” is good when I’m in the library on a Saturday night.
“TECHNOLOGY WILL MAKE OR BREAK US” worries me when I make a phone call. The missing chunk of glass at the top of my iPhone, with its remnant jagged edges, might cut my ear.
“WORDS TEND TO BE INADEQUATE” is for my apathy as deadline approaches, be it for an essay or a View (like this one, perhaps?).
“MONEY CREATES TASTE.” Some girl left a Canada Goose coat in my suite last year. She never bothered to retrieve it.
“IT IS EMBARRASSING TO BE CAUGHT AND KILLED FOR STUPID REASONS” is a good way to think about the time I ironically (or not) rushed a recent addition to the Yale Greek life scene and didn’t get a bid!
I’m getting too old for Truisms. I used to confuse Jenny Holzer with Barbara Kruger, a very long time ago. I am embarrassed to say I have loved “IT IS IN YOUR SELF-INTEREST TO FIND A WAY TO BE VERY TENDER,” because it spoke to me about empathy and opening up to people or something. I talk about getting one as a tattoo, but keep changing my mind. (Which one? What font?). A Truism gets a little trite sometimes, too.
Maybe the feeling I’m having is a territorial one. A million other kids with laptops can parrot the same phrases as I do (“RAISE BOYS AND GIRLS THE SAME WAY”). No, you can’t have a connection with the same Truism as I do! (This is the way I feel about certain Karen Russell short stories, for example.) Never mind having a personal connection to an idea; how about being under the impression that I own it?
* * *
This is a different story:
We jumpstarted a Zipcar with another Zipcar last weekend, after Sophie convinced the guy from customer service on the phone that we really, really needed to get on the road. It was already dark, and there were 10 of us, plus bags. We were sprawled in a corner of the parking lot.
By all accounts, I am fairly absent-minded. Before we even got in the cars, while we were still four hours away from other Sophie’s house by the lake, I must have taken the bracelet off and left it on the pavement. It was a nice bracelet — rather, a necklace I had wrapped around to fit my wrist. Smooth, tiny red beads on string; a graduation gift from my aunt and uncle.
48 hours later, after pulling back into the lot and parking the car and retrieving all our belongings, we sat down and waited for the other car of five people to arrive. Then I found a couple beads scattered amidst gravel. And then a few more! If I had to hazard a guess, I was probably the person who drove over the bracelet.
I lose all sorts of things. Pens and water bottles and every Apple accessory imaginable. Sometimes my left contact disappears and I can’t see the lecture slides anymore; my sister sorts the laundry and all my socks end up in my mother’s dresser.
“OBJECTS ARE MEANT TO BE USED UNTIL THEY AREN’T” is not a Truism … at least, not one penned by Jenny Holzer. But I said it to myself anyway, over and over, while picking up the beads from the ground.