Staring at the Sun

Gloom and doom during the solar eclipse changes to optimism when I lock myself out of the apartment

I was fired from my job last month, and the apocalypse is near. At least one of these statements is true.

Think about it. We’re on the brink of nuclear warfare, class warfare, race warfare. Mass opioid abuse numbs the population almost as much as the incessant stream of push notifications.

And what better way to signal the oncoming end of days than a total solar eclipse, slitting the wrist of the continental United States lengthwise so we bleed out our impurities.

I was ready for it because (spoiler alert from the first paragraph) I am currently unemployed. Each day for my final few months, I fell into a state of catatonic despair between 10 AM and 7 PM. It turns out hating your work environment for too long will have adverse consequences. Important figures within the organization will eventually take notice — I was canned just before my two year anniversary.

I’m okay though. In the days following the departure, I saw it as an opportunity to explore alternative professional options — creative work perhaps. I have enough cash in the bank for a few months of measured living. Plus, I have some work experience to my credit, finding a new job might be easy — I’ll reach out to my contacts and test the waters.

This initial optimism didn’t last long. One week into the job search, I had exhausted my professional connections. Two weeks in, I had flunked my only on-site interview and ran out of qualified listings on indeed.com. After three weeks, I’d settled into a familiar pattern of despair from my last prolonged period of unemployment in Summer 2015.

  • Wake up at 10, eat cereal, drink coffee, stare at social media, lose motivation.
  • Fall back asleep, wake up at 2:30, look for job listings, find no new job listings, fall back asleep until 4.
  • Wake up, exercise for an hour, eat dinner.
  • Apply to a job for which I know I’m not qualified, feel anxious, stare at ceiling.
  • Read news, become more despondent, call my dad and feel slightly less despondent.
  • Go to bed at 2 AM.
  • Repeat as necessary.

Yes, the apocalypse is near. Technology is consuming our sensory inputs and free time. Nobody learns — nobody thinks. All we do is talk over one another and hurl insults via the WWW. And now a solar eclipse? How poetic. How literary in such a Lars Von Trier way. I wasn’t blind to it. I was going to make the most of it.

I’ll call up my friends, ask who’s down to rent a Zipcar and drive to South Carolina. We’ll let the scent of marijuana guide us and have ourselves a Burning-Man-esque experience to celebrate civilization’s return to the soil from whence it came!

All my friends were working.

That’s okay. Romance is the answer! I’ll ask my girlfriend to take the day off. We’ll make our way out west for an exhausting but beautiful journey to gaze upon the celestial bodies in motion. Because in a world ruled by equal parts oligarchy and chaos, Love is the only true North!

My girlfriend was visiting her parents that weekend.

Van-pool it is. I’ll take to the message boards and find my own ride to totality!

This was never a serious consideration.

Well fine, I’ll hole myself away and contemplate metaphysical reality in a damp room next to a buzzing air conditioning unit. We all die alone. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Not with a bang, but a whimper. I think therefore I am. I know the drill, life is a series of escalating anti-climaxes.

The best I could think to do was make some small form of “art” out of this lonely experience. First, I would take a series of staged Instagram photos which correctly portrayed my intuitive understanding that this was a cosmically ill-omen. Next, I would dive deeper into the gloom by writing a literary essay on the state of the earth and our useless struggle against the infinite vacuum of time. I was superbly prepared for the latter, having already jotted down working titles and dire imagery.

To Stare at the Sun, by Daniel Weiss.
“The dimmed light produced a waxy gloss on both leaves and shadows, and my skin clung to itself under the humid pressure of early afternoon.”

I felt like a young James Joyce.

And then, because the earth stops rotating for no one, Monday arrived.

Having failed to procure eclipse glasses before the locust swarm of NYC residents laid waste to them all, I knew I was going to have a muted experience. My “Insta-art” had to reflect that point, so using a collapsed cardboard box from a neighborhood 99-cent store, I made myself a camera obscura.

Camera Obscura no. 1

The image of schoolchildren in the sixties wearing cardboard boxes on their heads conjures a sickening sense of nostalgia for “better times,” while the idea of an adult wearing one should seem foolish. Furthermore, when posed alone in casual settings, the boxed-head evokes eerie sensations akin to that of the famous plague-doctor mask. A tucked-in shirt and socks-with-sandals definitely play on the “obscure” part of the name, casting a light of isolation, while a shirtless male sitting alone with a downturned head produces sensations of shame and sexual perversion.

Camera Obscura no. 2

And to think of the camera obscura’s origins during the late Dutch Renaissance. A time of dark etchings, soft colors, and memento mori strewn amongst treasures and books from the educated world. Ah! It was all coming together.

Still Life — Brooklyn 2017

There I sat, using the most lowbrow of social media to produce a shadow of real art — the same way a pin-prick hole in the back of my cardboard box would present only a shadow of the real eclipse. So subliminal, so wonderful!

And the day was, by all initial indicators, a roaring success. My pictures turned out wonderful, and not that I — a cultured philosopher — care about these sorts of things, but I received four (FOUR!) likes within ten minutes of posting my first pictures! I was giddy, I could see the crescent reflection of the sun on the wall of my box. I wanted more. The shadows in my apartment’s mosquito-infested back yard were growing long, and 2:44 PM, the maximal eclipse, was nearly approaching.

So without hesitation or planning, I flew out the front door to the street, where no shadows were found on the scalding pavement. And as I stood there, looking into my box, I heard a man’s strange accent from the next stoop over.

“Is this all for the eclipse?” — I think it was Scandinavian of some sort. My pride over the day’s artistic achievements made me excited and, despite my previously brooding mood, friendly.

“For sure! I made this camera obscura to safely view the sun, it’s just a shadow though, all the glasses were sold out.”

“Yahhhs!” he replied. “Some people wanted fifty dollars for them — so crazy!”

“Do you wanna take a look?”

“Oh! Do you mind?”

“Not at all!”

And in that moment, I started to forget my artistic lean and contrived bad mood. He said enthusiastically that my contraption was very cool, and he thanked me for sharing the experience. “I did that,” I thought, “I made a memory for a complete stranger.” It felt good.

My tolerance for searing concrete was wearing thin, so I decided to descend back into Plato’s cave. Except I couldn’t.

It seems Icarus, once again and in a most appropriate figurative sense, flew too close to the sun. Only making sure to grab my phone for more insta-opportunities, I had locked myself out of the apartment. Panic. Heat. Isolation. Sadness. Socks-with-sandals. These were unfortunate circumstances.

I thought to ask my new Nordic friend for shelter, but he had disappeared. I walked to the garden level entrance and tried to force my way in. Luckily, for my own future peace of mind, the door did not budge. I frantically checked my pockets, hoping some miracle had occurred and keys had levitated into my pants while I wasn’t looking. Nope. Maybe there’s a key hidden somewhere? Nope again. Could I call the upstairs neighbors? Wouldn’t help, they don’t have access to the first floor apartment.

But I had my phone, and with that, I called my roommate and told him I would be picking up his keys shortly. With no metro card or cash though, it looked like I would be walking the hour-plus to his place of work, wearing jeans, a polo shirt, and Birkenstocks — a combination I thought so artistic and meaningful just five minutes prior.

But wait — my phone! The de facto center of the solar system! Could technology — the very thing I use ironically and blame for the downfall of my generation — be the saving grace in all of this? Yes. I have a cell phone, so I can call an Uber. Even better — I have the Car2Go app, so I can just walk to the nearest blue teardrop on my map and commute myself in an air conditioned capsule.

This felt weirdly good. I was relieved my mistake would only put me back 45-minutes and 20-bucks. I had just come off a small social high, and I successfully reasoned my way through a tough situation. In my contemplation, I started walking the wrong way to my reserved Smartcar, but the day felt cooler and stepping was easy. And as I made my way down the street with old men sitting in lawn chairs on the sidewalk, cats darting between parked tires, and ladies fanning themselves on their stoops, I wasn’t thinking about the imminent death of the world anymore.

And there, in front of me, was a small group of strangers. A mother, a young boy, a baby sister, a fellow pedestrian, and an elderly grandfather figure. The grandfather was laughing as the pedestrian looked upward through a pair of paper eclipse glasses, and my heartbeat quickened.

“Excuse me, are those sanctioned eclipse sunglasses you have there?” They laughed at my formality and took turns repeating the word “sanctioned.”

“Yes they are!” The mother replied. I asked if I could take a quick look, and she said of course. I received the flimsy glasses and saw the grandfather continuing to smile, looking at the boy. The boy was looking at me, also smiling, and the mother tended to the sleeping daughter. I rested the glasses on the bridge of my nose, craned my neck to the sky, and there it was. Glowing orange behind heavily tinted plastic, I could see the roundness at the actual center of our solar system. I could see the blackness of the moon passing slowly in front of it, and the blackness of eternity behind both. The edges of the sun wavered ever-so-slightly, and I might’ve imagined it, but I thought I could see waves of plasma on the surface. And despite the day’s intended sense of ennui, it just slipped out of me, “Oh, wow.”

There’s no other word for it than magnificent. Even at 70%, the eclipse was magnificent. My turn with the glasses was short, and I handed them back to the mother. I said thank you, and continued down the street. I wanted today to be a lesson in cosmic irony and existential angst. I wanted the eclipse to make me feel small and worthless, and I wanted it to bring out the sallow feelings of gloom usually provided by my nightly reading of current events. I wanted validation that depression is the natural state of intelligent people. But it didn’t give me that. I gave me that. Me sitting alone in a cold bedroom gave me that. The eclipse provided me motivation, innovation, community, and entertainment.

There may not be any symbolism. After all, it’s just a large rock moving in front of another space-object. The United States will see another eclipse in 2024, and when it does, the line of totality will pass directly through my hometown of Cleveland. Maybe I’ll watch it on my childhood driveway next to my parents. They’ll be in their seventies. Maybe then I’ll get my moment of existential realization. But not today.