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Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays

170 aphorisms, mini essays or poems on life by James Richardson

James Richardson is an American academic poet & critic at Princeton University. Several of his poetry collections feature compilations, typically named “Vectors”, of short nonfiction prose: aphorisms, comments, & “ten-second essays”, reflecting on life. They are among the most popular of his writings.

Vectors 3.0 is excerpted here.

By The Numbers, Richardson2010

By The Numbers, Richardson2010

Vectors 3.0 has been extracted from By The Numbers, James Richardson2010 (ISBN: 978-1-55659-320-8), pg38–67 of the e-book. This is a complete version (the Literary Review only excerpted 32 of the 170). It is the third in a series: Vectors 1.0 was published in Vectors: Aphorisms & Ten-Second Essays, Richardson2001; and Vectors 2.0 in Interglacial: New and Selected Poems & Aphorisms, Richardson2004. (See also my GPT-3 neural network imitations of Richardson.)

“Vectors 3.0: Even More Aphorisms and Ten-Second Essays”

By James Richardson

  1. The odds against today were insurmountable, until it happened.

  2. If you can’t take the first step, take the second.

  3. Experience afraid of its innocence is useless: no one is rich who cannot give his riches away.

  4. Spontaneity takes a few rehearsals.

  5. The days are in order, the months, the seasons, the years. But the weeks are work. They have no names; they repeat.

  6. Nothing dirtier than old soap.

  7. Office supplies stores are the cathedrals of Work in General. They forgive, they console, they promise a new start. These supplies have done work like yours a million times. Take them home and they will do it for you.

  8. When it gets ahead of itself, the wave breaks.

  9. Few plans survive their first success, which suggests they were less about their goals than about the possibility of a little success.

  10. The heart is a small, cracked cup, easy to fill, impossible to keep full.

  11. Hard disk: the letter I remembered as embarrassing is OK after all. I must have revised it just before sending. I never confuse what I dreamed with what I actually did, but this is different: which draft am I?

  12. Work is required play.

  13. My mistakes are not mine, but they are embarrassing because you might mistake them for my sins, which are.

  14. Perfection is besieged. Happier is the man who has done just a little better than he expected.

  15. How proud we are of our multitasking. What is Life but something to get off our desks, cross off our lists?

  16. I find my marginalia in an old book and realize that for decades I’ve been walking in a circle.

  17. The reader lives faster than life, the writer lives slower.

  18. Snakes cannot back up.

  19. First frost, first snow. But winter doesn’t really start till you’re sure that spring will never come.

  20. No one in human history has ever written exactly this sentence. Or anyway these two.

  21. Nothing important comes with instructions.

  22. The modesty of avoiding repetition is the vanity of thinking they must have been listening the first time.

  23. It can’t hurt to ask is a phrase favored by those who can’t quite tell people from institutions, thinking of both as randomly dispensing or refusing favors. Actually, it hurts me to be treated like a slot machine, maybe enough to pass the hurt along to you.

  24. I need someone above me—the Committee, the Law, Money, Time—to be able to say No. Sad my lack of integrity, though I suppose it would be sadder to need them to say Yes.

  25. The knife likes to think of itself as a mirror.

  26. The tyrant’s self-esteem is just fine, thank you. It’s you he doesn’t care much for. And yes, he recognizes that he doesn’t feel what you feel. Which is a good thing, since your feeling is so weak that it makes him need to beat you up.

  27. Self-sufficiency clings… to itself.

  28. He’s angry at the wronged for making the world unjust.

  29. If you do more than your share you’d better want to: otherwise you’re paying yourself in a currency recognized nowhere else.

  30. The ascetic’s last pleasure is blaming you for all he has forgone.

  31. There are two kinds of people in the world… and who is not both of them?

  32. Beware speaking of The Rich as if they were someone else.

  33. We’ve learned to wonder which neutralizes truth more effectively, the tyranny’s censorship or the democracy’s ten thousand media outlets. In the former truth is too costly, in the latter there’s no market for it.

    In Freud the facts get around the censor in the metaphors of dreams, in Shelley we live in a dream of overfamiliarity and dead metaphor that only the poet can revivify. Does repetition emphasize or hypnotize? Which is clearer, what we see or what we don’t see. Are we new or old? Do we love hate or hate love?

  34. You have two kinds of secrets. The ones only you know. The ones only you don’t.

  35. Somehow the guy who’s really interested in absolutely everything is really boring.

  36. Sophistication is upscale conformity.

  37. The mirror’s so quick it only sees what’s in front of it.

  38. Knowing how to be pleased with what’s there is a great secret of happy living, sensitive reading, and bad writing.

  39. If you think you might be lost, you are. If you know you’re lost, you’re at least free to look for the way.

  40. What keeps us deceived is the hope that we aren’t.

  41. Everything is about politics. No, wait: everything is about sex. Money, art, God, self, work.

  42. For those who tread lightly enough the air is a stair.

  43. I often find myself intoning Clarke’s Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic, or anyway half of it, since everyone’s heard it already and interrupts. Actually the technology doesn’t have to be very advanced. I drive a car and grasp the basics of internal combustion engines but I still treat mine as halfway between pet and malevolent deity, muttering reassurances, curses and spells. Maybe a chip designer gets computers well enough that they are purely technology, but he can’t know that much about meteorology or gene-splicing or, well, poems. What differentiates technology from magic is not our knowledge but our faith: that someone else understands.

  44. Clarity is neither transparency nor light. It’s the angle that suddenly lets you see through the window’s glare, the pond’s reflections.

  45. Faith is broad. It’s Doubt that’s deep.

  46. How badly I’d like to believe that my cherished moderation and heavily defended calm could rule the world. But as things are, somebody has to feel too much, somebody has to speak too loud, somebody has to be completely unreasonable.

  47. Don’t trust the revolutionist with your freedom: he’s an authoritarian who just happens to be out of power.

  48. Patience is easiest when it’s the best way to make Impatience really mad.

  49. Is he talking about world hunger or just hungry to talk, is he angry at injustice or just angry, is he ruled by conscience or does he just need to rule mine? Probably my scruple about purity of Faith is irrelevant, but so, if the standard is Good Works, are his words.

  50. Listen hardest to the one you hope is not telling the truth.

  51. The coy and impotent self-importance of subversive. A bunch of kids in black who can’t think of anything better to talk about between drags than how uncool their parents are.

  52. Thoughts are discussed, opinions displayed.

  53. The peril of arguing with you is forgetting to argue with myself. Don’t make me convince you: I don’t want to believe that much.

  54. Tyranny and fantasy both like to write everyone else’s lines.

  55. He prides himself on having lots of opinions, like bad moods he’s entitled to. Worse than stupidity is intelligence that claims the right to be stupid.

  56. No one blames you for having your dream, just for telling it.

  57. Everyone’s psyched that elections are decided by a single vote! That it’s a close game! That choice approximates chance!

  58. The lesser of two evils is the one with the less evil friends.

  59. How comforting, your paranoia: someone’s listening, someone’s watching, someone’s thinking about you all the time.

  60. Build bottom up, clean top down.

  61. Precision strike. We’re only killing that one guy. And actually only his worst thought. And there, just a little to the left of the middle, only the very worst part of that.

  62. The fire doesn’t know where all that smoke came from.

  63. The patterned shirt, the speckled wall-to-wall don’t show dirt. Sometimes, truth be damned, we need relief from seeing. Our response is a bigger problem than the problem.

  64. Forgive the evil done to you. Really? I can’t help thinking the Book just didn’t trust me enough to say what it meant: In time you will see that much of it was not evil, and that much of the evil was yours.

  65. Too much apology doubles the offense.

  66. Forgiveness is freedom, the saints say, but they are saints and do not care that it may be freedom even from love.

  67. All those days that changed the world forever! Yet here it is.

  68. Let us explain to ourselves the difference. A rock might be very big, like Plymouth Rock or the Rock of Gibraltar. Or underground, as in bedrock. A rock is rough. A stone is smooth: it might well be cut into a gravestone, a cobblestone. Rocks you clamber over, stones you step on. What’s that brilliance on her finger, a rock or a stone? The rock-thrower is anonymous. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.

  69. Do unto others and an eye for an eye have the same payment plan.

  70. For Sisyphus the trouble of pushing the rock uphill was worth it for the thrill of watching it smash everything on the way down.

  71. That little bird, pretty calm there in the snow, is cold, but it must be a discontinuous and lightly registered sensation. Cold. Peck peck. What’s that? Oh yeah, cold. Whereas I would be desperate in a few minutes thinking about freezing Forever and Ever. Somewhere in evolution we traded endurance for foresight. Intelligence was first of all the ability to worry.

  72. That half-second between stubbing your toe and convulsing with pain? Some live there forever.

  73. We ask What’s the worst that could happen? see that it wouldn’t be so bad, calm down a little. What I want to know is: what is that Worse than the Worst we have to figure out over and over is not going to happen?

  74. The squirrel struggling in the road. Something very deep says If it can’t live it should die. I kill it with a stick. Maybe to stop my own suffering, but I don’t think so: I’d rather walk away. Maybe Nature wants me to think this way about my own kind? The thought struggles in me. I kill it with a stick.

  75. Stones, toys, ants, birds, children: the more we decide is less than human, the less human we become.

  76. Her grief repeats with a high cracked sound, like an engine in which something has broken loose and is smashing around. People scare us when they’re like machines, when they’re so human.

  77. If we were really sure of our freedom we wouldn’t be so discomfited by those who make passion a habit, or habit a passion.

  78. Slug, fungus: part of your body has fallen out. Snake, rat: part of it might try to get back in.

  79. Treasury reports that its green ink absorbs opiates: every bill carries ten nanograms of cocaine. Amazing what this might be made to say about several addictions, but I’m going to stop right now.

  80. Roadkill. Something eats the eyes first, starved for… what?

  81. The rich man thought he was hoarding freedom, but he couldn’t stop and in the end it all turned out to be money.

  82. Last Day say all the stores.

  83. In a strange city, my one tenuous root is a lit room in Hotel X. Passing Hotel Y, I imagine taking a room there as well, traveling away from my travel, pure waste, lost or free, whatever the difference is. Has anyone ever done this and managed to get home? Please write.

  84. Of course I’m an escapist. I’m trying to get somewhere real.

  85. It’s not that they give things of no worth: that, too, is giving. It’s what they want for them.

  86. The Victorian hotel has a marble colonnade, gilt, oriental rugs, but there’s not a tux in sight: shirts-out-over-jeans mix with business suits. Is it freedom that we no longer have to dress up to such elegance, or is it history-is-ours arrogance? Probably it’s more that life now is a theme park: when you visit Disney World you don’t dress as Mickey or Goofy.

  87. Tragedy and comedy ended with death or marriage, but our shows, mystery and sitcom, begin with them.

  88. We don’t blame the victim, already murdered when the show starts. We don’t even blame the perp too much—we just want to find out who he is. We don’t blame the cops for blaming him. Best of all, we don’t blame ourselves, so trivial our own crimes in comparison. And if anyone wants to blame us we’ve got a perfect alibi for prime time.

  89. You have the right to lie when they have no right to ask.

  90. Since God died, no one has remembered you. But now it seems your DNA is everywhere and could be followed like a trail, if you could just act suspicious enough.

  91. He spends minutes looking for a parking place that shortens his walk by seconds, days looking for a price lower by an hour’s wage, as if he would otherwise be fooled.

  92. The boutique wants you to think you’re collecting, the discounter that you’re stealing.

  93. The thing about the natural world, beautiful or bleak or bleakly beautiful, is that nothing seems to be in the wrong place. From this window, however, I can see the trowel I left in the yard, and I’m going to have to go down and do something about it.

  94. The way your walk changes entering a store or museum, slowing, widening a little, eyes sweeping level. Foraging on the ancient savanna for something to eat, something to use.

  95. The Mystery we’re absorbed in takes precedence over all the mysteries that won’t be solved when the hour ends, a protective parenthesis within the larger stories of Love and Work, which are inside the story of Life, which is inside Big Bang. Actually scale is irrelevant: it’s just as likely we’d use cosmology to distract us from a bad day at the office. Theoretically all these are contained within a larger Storylessness, but that itself is only the romantic story I have at last attained freedom, which in an instant decays into more stable stories such as I’m so bored I’d rather be afraid or I must punish the deluded masses with this hard truth or Let’s watch TV.

  96. From the tipped tree you learn how shallow roots are. More meets the eye than doesn’t.

  97. Joe Cool is playing at Cold. And his babe is Hot, which is also play, and in that more like Cool than like Warm: no one exclaims delightedly “Man, that’s Warm!” We’ll pay to watch the players of Hot and Cool, but we flee the salesmen, priests and politicians solemnly emitting Warm.

  98. That our feelings flicker so obviously in our faces must mean Nature thought it was more important that everyone be able to read them than that individuals be able to hide them. Maybe it tells us, too, that the most dangerous faces are the ones behind which there is no feeling at all.

  99. Glasses, for example, have gone from uptight to wide-eyed and back again. Fashion is feeling, opening and closing, cycling between warm and cool, welcoming and slick. Or rather, it decides which half of feeling will be paraded, which half will seem hidden, and somehow truer.

  100. The sun’s so bright it has no face.

  101. Yet sometimes maybe I decide to let an emotion I really could conceal flit faintly across my face. If it seems I betrayed it unwillingly, you are less likely to respond as if you had seen it. Though maybe that little bit of acting is not really a conscious strategy but a deep instinct: in the animal world, too, emotions are often merely theatrical, and so many threats, fake fights and sexual displays send messages but end in nothing.

  102. More and more graduates of the School of Theatrical Parenting. The guy being a Good Father so loudly we can all appreciate him, the woman with the wailing infant rolling her eyes as if to say “Can you believe this baby?”

  103. Passion is faintly rhetorical, as if we needed to convince ourselves we were capable of it.

  104. Am I trying to help, or do I just want you to like me? The way feelings are, it’s not so easy to distinguish your happiness from mine.

  105. Her grief is eased when all grieve with her, his when he sees that grief is only his.

  106. I say Be reasonable when I am afraid to feel what you feel.

  107. A feather lands on the pond and a dozen goldfish come to poke at it. We are whoever rises into our eyes to have a look.

  108. Those so thorough you cannot in mercy ask them to do anything. Those so empathetic it is cruel to tell them a trouble.

  109. As a couple they are salt of the earth, sodium chloride. As single elements, she was a poisonous gas and he a soft and desperate metal, turning even water into roil and flame.

  110. When we talk it’s not you or me we are getting to know. It may be nothing at all, it may be better than both of us.

  111. Don’t touch, don’t stare. But no one minds how hard you listen.

  112. No one so entertaining as the one who thinks you are.

  113. The Boy wants magical powers. He wants the world to respond gigantically to every little thing he does and says, and even all he doesn’t say and do. Until he meets the Girl who does just that.

  114. Loving yourself is about as likely as tickling yourself.

  115. That book, that woman, life: now that I understand them a little I realize there was something I understood better when they baffled and scared me.

  116. A knot is strings getting in each other’s way. What keeps us together is what keeps us apart.

  117. Nostalgia for a Lost Love. At a certain distance the parts of you and her that could never love each other become invisible, which is how you got into that whole mess in the first place.

  118. My loss is sad: I have not yet lost it all.

  119. Finally peace. And then the whisper: Does that passion work anymore? I’ll wake it up and see…

  120. The will has a will of its own.

  121. It is with poetry as with love: forcing yourself is useless, you have to want to. Yet how tiresome and ungenerous is the one sprawled among flowers waiting for his impulse. There’s such a thing as knowing how to make yourself want to.

  122. Our resolutions for self-control are like our wars for peace.

  123. Freedom has just escaped. Peace has forgotten. Boredom is pounding on the prison gates to be let back in.

  124. To begin the journey, buy what you need. To finish, discard what you don’t.

  125. As for my writing. I like it enough to keep going. I dislike it enough to keep going.

  126. What hope we had when we knew everything would last forever, and what hopelessness.

  127. Now the mail is not Hope but What Do They Want from Me? I still fetch it, perhaps knowing that someday I’ll be reduced to hoping they still want something from me.

  128. It takes thick gloves, prying down to the knotty junction, getting as many of the roots as I can, to take care of them for maybe a year, the brambles. But I’m avoiding the point, pastorally, which is the dull-witted malignancy that’s taking you over, that there’s no scalpel precise enough to excise one bad cell at a time, no chemotherapy bomb smart enough to kill them all without killing you. I need to be a gardener small enough to pull out one by one the runners that are re-wiring you. Here, the gods have granted my wish but I am just as helpless, hands bloodier and bloodier as I work far into the night. There are acres and acres to go before that little rise where the thorns have overgrown the castle where you are struggling not to sleep. I can do this, I can do whatever is necessary. It won’t take forever, nothing takes forever, but so many things take longer than we have.

  129. Of course when I look in the mirror I see what was there 10, 20, 30 years ago. It’s not just vanity, dear: I see through you the same way.

  130. The myths tell us what we already know: that it will be the last light left burning, waking us even after death. Seems I have spent my whole life fleeing Judgment, and yet I must not believe in it, since no failure, no betrayal forces me to admit Yes, at last that is myself. What a strange relief it would be to finally hit that bottom, a hypochondriac who learns at last what he will die of.

  131. Behind your face, which hardly changes, who knows what thoughts. It’s the opposite with the gods: their powers and stories are constant, but painters give them random faces.

  132. That letter, what would it have been, of love, of praise, of annihilating understanding? It seems, almost sadly, that I no longer want to get it. Occasionally I still want to write it, but how could I send to anyone else what I would not myself receive?

  133. Alas, how quickly my sincerest praise turns into apology for secret doubts.

  134. Faces are motion, which is why all the photos of you are bad. Even the most natural-looking portrait is a sentence interrupted. And faces in motion hide an even deeper motion. You seem to sit there and meet my eyes across the table, but you are so many other places, clinging here for a moment against all the currents that will soon sweep you onward. We are so moved by the faces caught in the windows of trains going the other way because they tell us how all faces really are.

  135. A very few people have seen me only at my best. They are precious friends, but I dare not meet them again.

  136. What was it like before language? My occasional thought, more than urge but still less than words, that would translate as Eat now, there may be no food where we’re going.

  137. Out walking, I think of that face I love or some scene of awful embarrassment and stop dead in my tracks, as if I had to choose between moving and being moved.

  138. Clarity, even in person, can be pretty hard. Telephones are harder: if I can’t see your eyes, how do I know what I’m saying? With writing, misunderstandings multiply, since tiny shifts in tone and speed are no longer audible—the writer tries to compensate by managing rhythm and punctuation and deploying a larger and more nuanced vocabulary than we need for speech. Along comes e-mail and from all sides the complaint that it is a peculiarly toneless genre that regularly offends and annoys and misinforms. Though screens are not as stable as pages, e-mail is not essentially different from other writing. The difference is us: we write it too quickly, we read it even more quickly. A lot of e-mails are work, to be gotten out of the way. And even the young, who grew up with it—especially the young, who grew up with it—seem incapable of reading further than three sentences before flapping off into some heaven of I already know this. Not a problem if the e-mailers or texters are in constant chat and so deep in a shared context that misunderstanding can be averted with crude steering like smiley face and LOL, or if they’re using the form as a kind of contentless I was here, the way people used to leave their cards. But the temptation is to e-mail little essays. The temptation is, worse, to try to replace our unpredictable and wounding social drama with writing: the protection of its distance, the smoothness of its infinite rehearsals. But who has the patience to be a good writer all day? Inevitably, we send too soon and get back reports of the damage. I resolve to quit e-mail and get a life. Or maybe just do one more revision. Thanks for reading to the end.

  139. Of course we want to write what we loved reading over and over. That’s different from constructing an Object of Study, which is sort of like baiting a trap with staples or capacitors. Such contraptions subsist on the praise of those who want permission for similar self-indulgences, even though the only mice ever seen near them are mechanical.

  140. When you think in words, are you sure it’s your own voice you hear?

  141. I want to kill the guy dominating the train with his cell phone. What’s his problem, pathetic self-importance or pathetic dependence? Ah well, maybe if we still had real lives we’d all be gabbing around the fire, gossiping at the pump. What’s remarkable, after all, is not his self-important prattle but that someone is listening to it. Or so I’ve assumed: maybe there’s really no one on the other end?

  142. Solitude: that home water whose sweetness you taste only when you’ve been someone else too long.

  143. The audience is faceless, back rows disappearing into dimness, and it doesn’t talk back. Find your audience and you will blather. Write, instead, to the listener at your table for two, the one in your head whose faint blush, half-smile, glazed eyes make you correct course in midsentence, back off, explain, stop to listen.

  144. Fame is underwritten by those who want it to be there when it is their turn to have it.

  145. Old radios hummed a little before they could think what to say, their deep interiors like embers blown on. They told the great stories, in them the great stars sang. New radios, sleek and compulsively chatty, instantly repeat what they have heard. The TV, their doe-eyed younger sister, grew up adored. She wants so much to be looked at that you stare at your feet, abashed. She says Have a drink with me, and then I’m so lonely that I can love nothing. Stay for another.

  146. It is the empty seats that listen most raptly.

  147. The great man’s not sure he wants you to criticize even his great rival, lest there be no such thing as greatness.

  148. Talking to yourself is not the same as talking to no one.

  149. I’m forced to admit I’m second-rate: I don’t have the genius’s certainty about who he is. And when I talk myself into that certainty? I’m third-rate.

  150. It’s not success but self-congratulation that the Furies scent.

  151. Would it have been better or worse if I could have whispered to myself back then I know the way. Follow me. But it will take 30 years.

  152. My best critic is me, too late.

  153. I look over my old books, happiest when I find a line it seems I could not have written.

  154. Only your unnoticed victories last: the rest are avenged.

  155. I’m scared of the huge ocean—what prevents it from throwing itself over me and the tiny continents? So much harder to see what’s holding others back.

  156. By spending so much on insurance—medical, car, fire, disability, retirement, termite, appliance—I try to make every year average. I guarantee that I’ll be perennially slightly short of cash in the hope that I’ll never be totally broke. A mortgage, broadly speaking, is also a kind of insurance—against ever having to ask Where shall I lie down? Other kinds of payments ensure more or less constant answers to the questions of who to be, who to be with, what to do, whether to live.

  157. What is more yours than what always holds you back?

  158. What I can’t do at all is no trouble. But save me from what I do pretty well with disproportionate effort and distortion of soul. For that I am in Hell.

  159. Is this poetry? Is the tomato a fruit? Yes to a botanist, no to someone making a fruit salad. If the world is divided into poetry and prose, this is prose. If it’s divided into fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, this is poetry.

  160. The gods give no credit for the good deeds I complain about doing.

  161. All my life I’ve been working on an excuse no one will ever want to hear.

  162. The sinner hopes there is no God. The just man looking at the world thinks there cannot be. The lazy man just can’t imagine anyone wanting the job.

  163. I’ve lived here so long I trip on what has been gone for years.

  164. How do you know life is not a dream? Because things change so slowly. Because you can focus on a page or dial a number, and when you go back to your study for your glasses, there they are, just where you left them. Because you can’t fly and they don’t come back from the dead. Because so often you want to believe that life is a dream.

  165. I shorten my life by imagining it’s too late for everything I really didn’t want to do anyway.

  166. No one has yet failed in the future.

  167. At first skepticism keeps you from being too much like everyone else, then, you hope, from being too much like yourself.

  168. Sure, no one’s listening, English will die in a hundred years, and the far future is stones and rays. But here’s the thing, you Others, you Years to Come: you do not exist.

  169. That one thing in Life I’m meant to do?—well, I have to finish this first.

  170. Closing a door very gently, you pull with one hand, push with the other.

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