Leaving my mid-Manhattan hotel to write at the Starbucks across the street: almost a smart idea.
Almost because: it is blasting Christmas music on November 29th. An impossibly young-sounding baby wails from the lower level trying to make its discomfort heard over the louder wail of festive saxophones.
I hear you, kid. I hear you.
Headphones are an option for me of course. One I’ve chosen. But there’s a problem: I’m primed to attend to underlying patterns and background stimuli. With that priming background music pops out from behind whatever I have playing.
I attend to the background. It’s a defense mechanism since that’s where my comfort lies. Conversations filter through even as I try to meld into the wall. Festive saxophones switch out for playful trumpets and well-meaning crooners intruding on my playlist.
Every time Christmas comes around I end up thoughtful about the period when Christianity overtook Paganism, especially through Briton eyes. The pagans saw it as a landscape of competing magics, according to archaeologist Barry Cunliffe among others. That war all but ended as Saint Patrick defied tradition to light the signal fire on the Hill of Slane first — rather than that on the Hill of Tara, as an insult to the primacy of the pagan nobility of Tara.
Magics never stop competing. They change and morph and adapt — or they’re not magics. More than fifteen hundred years after Patrick’s king-of-the-hill game I am surrounded by the recent trappings of his faith — now manifested in a jolly piano tune about travel, snow, something about a fire. The front window of this Starbucks is pasted with holly and mistletoe decals. Someone somewhere is upset that my coffee cup is red and lacks overt deference to the upcoming holiday.
Most people don’t give a shit.
Magics never stop competing, especially in New York City, I’ve found. This is my second trip here in three months — and the twenty years before that. The personal enterprise and entrepreneurship on display still hasn’t ceased to amaze me. Every corner in Manhattan someone else trying to make it work, but even more than that, trying to make it look like it’s working. The appearance, the display, the forward-looking optimism that whatever magic they’re weaving is working. That the mere portrayal that it’s working adds to its arcane power and future momentum.
British writer Warren Ellis recently charged an audience to act like they live in the Science Fiction Condition — “like you can do magic and hold séances for the future and build a brightness control for the sky. Act like you live in a place where you could walk into space if you wanted.” Britons have excelled at that kind of projection for ages. They used to toss all manner of weapons, coinage and other riches into various lakes not just as religious tribute but as a forward-looking projection of how they wanted deceased to appear in the afterlife. Not to indicate current status — but to display their own sort of Fiction Condition even to the gods.
And as magics go, so this went — the conquering Romans later sold interests in British lakes to entrepreneurs looking to recover their riches. Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords may be no basis for a system of government, but it seemed to work fine as a basis for speculative investment. It can’t be any sillier than the securitization of mortgage clearing-house fraud that exploded in 2008, anyway.
Paradigms change — entire worldviews — and we’re all still looking to show the future how great we are there, even if we’re not quite there yet.
Someone a few tables over is talking about an app they’re building. The speakers are promising good times to come through happy, sentimental jazz. I’m maintaining my own Fiction Condition for the moment.
And still wondering what lake to drain for my treasure.