I had a big weekend planned in terms of productivity, but I’m me so the big weekend turned into a “big day” beginning Sunday and then of course Sunday had to begin with a diet soda buy because caffienated diet soda is my biggest remaining vice.
Yes, I suppose that someday it will kill me, but then so will quite literally anything else in the end, and on the scale of vices if I’ve lost the smoking and lost the alcohol I suppose there are worse places to be than drinking diet Coke.
So the whole “big weekend” (well, starting on Sunday)—which will eventually turn into a big Sunday starting at 11:00 and then into a big Sunday afternoon starting at 1:00 and then into a big Sunday night starting at 5:00 and then into a big rest in preparation for the big day that no doubt starts on Monday morning—had to begin with a trip to the drugstore at the bottom of the hill.
— § —
So it’s a Sunday morning in Utah valley. This means certain things.
It means that there will be nobody around. Nobody but a handful of cars (in Utah, generally speaking, cars are people and people are absent). It will be quiet. I will be utterly alone with my thoughts. I will go into the 24-hour drugstore and there will be not a human soul visible.
Even the cash registers by the electric front doors will be unmanned when they open; I’ll walk in an empty store to the soda aisle, grab my two-liter of Coke and my two-liter of Mountain Dew, walk back to the cash register, and ring the bell for service. Five or ten minutes later, someone who has been alone in the store for so long that they’ve forgotten how to talk will finally turn up and mostly wordlessly ring up my purchases, and then I’ll drive back up the hill, on mostly empty streets.
It’s all quite fabulous for being unmotivated and getting nothing done on weekends, particularly on Sundays, since it enables you to pretend that the world has stopped existing and thus your task list no longer has to be tackled; you’ve been given a metaphysical free pass by the apparent end of all of time.
Only today, when I pull into the parking lot, there are three very well dressed, very hip-Hollywood-looking forty-or-fifty somethings standing outside in front of the electric doors. Their posture (feet slightly apart, hips slung and holding up beige designer jeans, white straw fedoras cocked to one side on clean-shave, white, bald heads) and the ways in which they are sporting too-big smiles, sliding their eyes sideways as they animatedly speak, and so on tells me that these are well-off professionals doing that brand of upper-middle-class white “talk cool, talk serious, talk professional, talk witty” socializing about things that—if they get it right—come off as “I don’t take this too seriously / even though it is very serious / but I know that you know that I know that you know / that the way in which we must play it off because we’re above it all / is merely evidence of our success / and in fact everyone else must play it through.”
In short, these people looked so out of place in Utah Valley in general, and on a Sunday morning in particular, as to throw me entirely off.
And then I went inside.
Emptiness? Solitude? Hardly! Two cash registers were flanked by two lines of the very same people, each seven or eight people deep, same level of over-dressed-ness for Provo, chatting with the same Whole-Foods-and-Hot-Projects animation with one another, and two silent cashiers working in studied silence, no doubt intimated by their apparent betters, to ring up their purchases and get them out the door.
Had I stepped somehow across some sort of time-space rift into Los Angeles or Chicago? Into Brooklyn? It was disorienting. And fascinating that it was all so immediately clarifying. Culture matters. And it’s visible. The only times you start to doubt this are those times when you haven’t seen any variation in it lately. I’ve clearly been having one of those for a while.
— § —
Now I know these cashiers, it being my wont to have the same weekend over and over again (and many similar weeknights besides), so as I was bringing up the rear, and as by the time I was being rung up most of them had made their way out the door, I asked—
“Hey, who are these people? This isn’t a Sunday morning Utah Valley crowd.”
The cashier who always knows and welcomes me by name (except this morning, having been cowed into silence by the magnificence of the mid-life hipster brigade) finally broke out her silence and explained to me that this group comes down every now and then on a Sunday morning from Sundance in a big Mercedes van like the one I had seen on the parking lot. There is apparently a very expensive rehab center center there that draws people from all around the country.
So, to draw on a clichéd phrase, that explained everything.
The mannerisms, confidence, serious-not-seriousness-about-seriously-important-things, and catastrophically on-point (and anachronistic-by-age) fashion became obvious necessities. It’s a Sundance crowd. Naturally these are well-off jet-setters who are hip enough to need rehab. Naturally!
Talk about things falling into place!
If someone came to me and said “I want you to do me a photo shoot for a luxury lifestyle product aimed at upper- and upper-middle class coastal creatives, so find some models and give me a scene of some edgy middle-aged white Hollywood and New York creative professionals who have their own brand, earn both too much and not enough money to talk about, each know at least ten nationally famous people personally, and have gone away to Sundance for rehab,” this is exactly the scene I would have put together—the very bodies, the very hairdos, the very costumes, the very postures, the very affect. Everything.
— § —
So at first when Donna told me this (the cashier’s name isn’t Donna, but I can’t remember her real name because I’m horrible, and it’s a Donna-like name in its cultural valence, if that makes any sense) I did the ironic thing inside my own head and went over everything I’ve just typed, just as I’ve typed it.
“Oh, of courrrrrrrrse they are.” (← Me inside my head.)
Internal smirk and snicker. I’d like to say that I’m growing with age, but it took Donna’s next statement to wake me up.
“Sorry about the lines. It creates a bit of a problem because they all come at once in a secured vehicle, they all have to check out at the same time, and they don’t have access to cash or wallets, so they have to share a single card and their minder has to enter the pin for them. Makes it hard to run multiple registers.”
Now a light comes on.
These are people in rehab, after all. Branding or no, wealthy or no, hipper-than-thou or no, Sundance or no, intentional or no, here they are on a Sunday morning not doing the things that their talents have otherwise enabled them to do, but rather on a social island, invisibly wandering around a drugstore in a rube state, having been driven down the mountain together by a chaperone.
Despite appearances, they’re not actually the embodiment of breezy freedom and savvy that they ooze. They’re not actually free to move about the country. They’re stuck being shuffled around like inmates in a disguised prison bus that they didn’t drive down themselves, buying products at a Walgreens in the middle of suburbia in the middle of a Red State in the middle of nowhere. They’re without their primary assets—cash to wield like power tools and an audience to appreciate their poses and render them valorizable.
I found myself torn between familiar feelings of inadequacy—high incomes, no doubt high influence, better clothes, clearly better social skills, to judge by their facial expressions and animated conversations—and feelings of actual pity.
On the top of things and on the bottom of things at the same time. That’s something everyone can empathize with. The intensity of the paradox and the heights and depths probably vary, but the human condition gets even those with have happy wallets, seven-figure manners, networks to die for, and beige woven fedoras that cast shadows on perfect white skin and white teeth.
— § —
Over the last two years I’ve read a lot of what I can only describe, with some embarrassment, as self-improvement books. These from every corner of the bookstore—psychology, business, spirituality, lifestyle, etc. It is a marked change from the academic literature that occupied the previous twenty years of my life.
I’ve read about highly effective habits, getting back your mojo, finding your purpose, developing grit, and passion, and insight, and skills, and blah, blah, blah.
Has it helped?
Hard to say. Earlier this morning after having waken up and before going down the hill to buy my diet soda fix, as I was reflecting on the possibility of writing this post, I had one of those moments in which I thought maybe I’d made a conceptual breakthrough and conceptually distilled the line between success and failure that all of these books talk about down to a single axis of something-or-other. Put yourself on the right side of this axis and you’ve got it made; let yourself slide to the wrong side of this axis and you’re in trouble.
Thing is, I can’t for the life of me remember what it is any longer or what I was going to write about it (even though it seemed clear, obvious, and powerful at the time), so I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that I probably had it wrong anyway, since if it was so right, (I’d like to think) I’d still remember it an hour later.
If I had to go even further out on a limb and try to summarize what I’ve learned in all of this reading, I’d have to say that I’ve learned that there are no answers. Self-improvement, like most everything else—academic life, the internal combustion engine, iPhones, hike-with-your-dog meetup groups, Oprah, national government, etc.—is mostly snake oil.
There is no help to be had. Not in the way that I look for it, anyway.
That is to say—there are no answers to be had.
I think partially by virtue of the class that I grew up in and partially by virtue of the particular regional culture that I grew up in, I have a deeply embedded sense that somewhere there are people that have The Answers and also The Skills and that these people thus have The Money and The Good Life and that aspiration and ambition are really about acquiring The Answers and The Skills so that I can join them.
And that I’ll know when I get there because once you have The Answers and The Skills, certainty sets in like a wonderfully comforting disease and you know what to do and can see how each question that you face has a right answer and each choice that you make has predictable outcomes and you can operate it all like a telephone switchboard and ride life right into the seat of a classic convertible driving down a long, winding mountain road covered with fallen red and orange leaves toward your large Victorian mansion in the New England woods, where your two well-groomed, well-trained dogs and your Harvard-bound children will greet you.
All you have to do is learn and practice.
This is, of course, bullshit, and intellectually I know that it’s bullshit. Over and over again I have been amazed—for literally decades—at the way in which powerful people that I work with and for and that are in positions of leadership have no certainty about their choices, operate on imperfect and incomplete information that in academics would earn scathing comments from journal reviewers, cross their fingers and hope for the best, and yet as all of this is going on feel complete confidence in the notion that what they are doing makes sense and is valuable.
I don’t have that. Where I see opacity and a startling lack of defensible data, they see concrete information to act on. Where I see snake oil, they see valuable steps and tools.
Maybe that’s the difference between success and failure. Understanding that no-one and nothing is perfect, anywhere, so if you have even five percent of the truth, five percent of the discipline, and five percent of the moxie that would theoretically be possible of the world were perfect, you’re on your way to being in the top five percent of all of humanity.
Others, like me, tend to sit around and keep pushing to try to find 95 percent of the truth, 95 percent of the discipline, and 95 percent of the moxie, and feel that we’re unjustified in acting and unworthy of compensation of any kind until we get there.
What I grew up feeling was “cheating people because you’re not up to doing the job right but you’re taking their money anyway” was in fact a complete misconstrual of the job. The job is not to “do epic shit” if you’re a person who has trouble seeing the “epic” in shit that is utterly, utterly imperfect. The job is, rather, merely to “do some shit or other.”
That’s a lesson I’m still trying to learn. And a kind of courage I continue to struggle to have. At forty-something I’m better than I was at thirty-something, and at thirty-something I’m better than I was at twenty-something, but—I’m still not there.
I had a conversation with a friend recently and blasted an old drama teacher from college for telling me that I wasn’t really trying. She didn’t mean that I wasn’t putting out a good product. She meant that I wasn’t taking any risks. For me. That’s the key concept. Risks do not inhere in the action; some people are more competent than others. Risks inhere in the actor (literally, in this case).
I need to take more risks. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, &c.
If I want until I’m able to actually competent enough to “do epic shit” before doing anything, I’ll wait forever. Or rather, I’ll wait another forty years or so and then croak having done nothing.
— § —
Part the third: history as materiality.
I wanted to write about this as my masters’ thesis for a while, before I veered off into other areas like urban space (tangentially related), experience design (less related), and ethnonationalism (related in metaphysical terms, I’m sure, but defending that statement would be an exercise in INTJ-only abstractions and/or the most offensively trite kinds of monument-centric memory studies theory).
Everywhere in my life are obsolete things. I don’t mean tools necessarily (though these are certainly a part of the set), but Things more broadly. Material of all kinds that were emplaced aeons ago in other lives and lifetimes I’ve led and that have become a part of the scenery, consciously forgotten but still present in the sensorium.
Vampire stickers hidden behind a bathroom stool near the tub that my daughter placed there when she was maybe two years old, before she could read, hell before she could talk, before I was divorced, when family life was a completely different thing. Chalk drawings we did on the bricks of the house three or four summers ago. A green couch on the patio that nobody has sat on since I can remember. An empty chest of drawers in a room I never use. A coffee maker to make the coffee I don’t actually drink and haven’t done at least since I was working on my dissertation. A whiteboard above my desk that I used to use to track my progress on:
- Dissertation and academics
- Book writing and editing
- Being a good husband
- Being a good professor
- Software development projects
Now it hangs there on the wall, empty. I haven’t written on it in ages. I’m no longer an academic. I no longer work for a publisher. I no longer write books. I’m no longer a husband. I’m no longer a professor. I cannot even remember what specific software development projects I was ever working on, only that for a while I had a bunch of tasks listed there and that toward the end I was giving myself an “F” very loudly on the board for progress in that area.
I have three printers. I rarely print a damned thing. But there they sit, connected, stocked with paper.
On the hooks in the hallway hang winter coats, hoodies, and outerwear in quantity. I have not just got them out of storage and hung them up in anticipation of the coming winter season. They hung there all summer. And the summer before that. They fit no one any longer. They’re just there, and I don’t even see them.
Every now and then I notice one of these little details here and there and spend some time remediating it—cleanup, redecoration, trips to the thrift store, etc. Only it actually takes quite a bit of time to rework these corners of material life; you can lose three or six hours clearing away the historical cruft in just a tiny spot in the house or a miniscule area of your life. It’s hard to think that it’s time well spent. So it accumulates, all of this history, and colors you and your days.
I grew up in a house with the kind of socially involved mother who was always following dead people around. What I mean by that was that she knew literally everyone in the neighborhood and of kept in contact with all of her extended family, and as a result, someone was always newly dead and she was always volunteering to turn up and help out—help the family, help to clean up the house, help everyone and everything to move on.
And I grew up seeing the vast stores of cruft and material inertia that these often very old people had accumulated around them. It used to make me think that all old people were crazy. Why did they keep all thus stuff? Didn’t they find it oppressive and weird to be surrounded by years and years of things whose very purposes and identities had long since become completely unclear?
Now that I’m at middle age, I’m fairly sure that they did. But you can either spend time trying to clean things up or you can just move on and do new things. If you spend all of your time trying to track down all of the stuff that isn’t current any longer and get it written out of your life, you’ll have precious little time for anything else. That would be a way of spending your life “un-living” it, trying to undo it.
There’s nothing morally or ethically or spiritually wrong with that, it’s just that it means that you won’t get any new life—it’s like the big crunch theory; half the life of the universe is spent expanding outward, the other half contracting back inward and undoing the incredible quantity of things that have already happened.
Most people don’t want the second halves of their lives to be a matter of reliving the first half of their lives in reverse as they try to erase any evidence of their having been here; they still want to live new adventures, experience new things, write new chapters. And so they move on; you let the already written parts be already written and stand or fall on their own; you stop concerning yourself with them.
In practical, everyday, in-the-building-where-I-live terms, this means that shit piles up. Now and then when something gets in the way, you go back and clean it up, but most of the time when you do the calculation (Should I work on a current or a new project, or should I spend that time going back to undo the material cruft of an old project?) you decide to just move on.
If the old coats hanging in the hallway aren’t bothering anything, it’s probably not worth the effort to remove them. When there are new coats for which room is needed, the old coats will go naturally. If they never do, it means that you’ve moved on from those hooks and hangers anyway.
There is a school of thought that says that the right way is to avoid all of this, and that the right way to avoid all of this is to ensure that you don’t accumulate any material cruft to begin with. Live minimally and so on.
This strikes me as more cocked fedora-ism.
“I know that you know that I know that if we’re going to be hip, important creatives, we need to study Zen habits and adopt them as a pose.”
I don’t believe for a moment that the loudly Zen people don’t have accumulations of things that have built up and that they’ve left behind. Maybe they don’t have them in their living rooms and bedrooms and bathrooms; that’s the lower-middle-class way of doing things. But they’re there.
If you really did live “minimally,” i.e. you really did generate absolutely zero historical detritus of any kind, conceptual, metaphysical, emotional, or material, I’d suspect that you weren’t actually living at all.
Everyone has detritus, even if it’s disguised as a Mercedes van driven down from Sundance to a Walgreens in the middle of Provo, Utah.