Monday, July 17, 2006

How to live.

I read an essay in the New York Times book review this week by Benjamin Kunkel, and it indirectly suggested to me that there's something really wrong with the way I write about my life, the way I think about myself and how I live my life. Of course, according to Kunkel, I am in really good company by writing about myself as the survivor of dysfunction and tragedy - which is, sadly, how I view myself or talk about myself in stories. Augusten Burroughs writes like that and manages to keep things funny and lively, and he sells books. James Frey lies like that, and his jackass self sells books, even now that his memoirs have been proven as largely false.

Kunkel says that the current influx of memoirs is about overcoming some sort of addiction, dysfunction and such. Nowadays, he says, popular memoirs only show how to survive. They don't begin to examine or give examples of how to live a fulfilled, complete life. Religious devotionals do that. Self-help books try that.

Henry David Thoreau, of course, is invoked in the essay, speaking of WALDEN as a memoir of an examined, contemplative existence. Kunkel seems to wonder why no one writes WALDEN anymore.

My friend Vic will tell you that I hate Thoreau, even though I've never read him. She once laid into me, during my journalism days, about how exposure to newspapers, media and the world outside of my own day-to-day existence was just a way of complicating my life. It gave me things to worry about, from the frivolous concerns of my neighbors to how a war between two small nations on the other side of the world might affect the price of Corn Flakes here.

"Thoreau believed in abandoning the newspaper," Vic would speak of him like he were a deity. "The outside world didn't concern him while he was in his cabin at Walden Pond. Sometimes I wonder why we don't live like that."

"Didn't he go home everyday and eat lunch with his mother?" I asked. "I thought I heard that somewhere. How detached from the world and free from worry can you be if you go hang out with your parents everyday?"

"He tried to limit himself to a contemplative, examined life," she argued.

"He sounds fucking crazy," I said. "Just some guy without a job living in a cabin who has to depend upon other people for food. Of course, because he writes about it, that makes him a noble man - instead of some unwashed vagrant. Or the Unabomber."

Vic rolled her eyes.

"Thoreau merely thought the key to living life was to 'simplify, simplify,'" she quoted.

"Um, if he was so interested in keeping things simple, why didn't he just say 'simplify' once?" I asked her. "He was either being ironic or stupid."

Anyway, so the Kunkel essay led me to wonder if I should try to figure out "how to live." But I've realized that's what me and all the other dysfunction survivors have been trying to do, anyway. The best that we've been able to manage, thus far, is survival.

Part of the current memoir trend is market-based. Survival memoirs have been selling well lately, so that's what the publishing industry snatches up and sells. The publishing industry has changed vastly since Thoreau's days, and, if Thoreau were around nowadays, he would likely be regarded with ire and ridicule. I mean, Thoreau would be against the Internet. Thoreau's contemplative solitude at Walden, if it were to occur now, would probably end with some standoff involving ATF agents.

People used to have the time and freedom necessary to discover how to live. The world nowadays requires you to merely survive. Songs are written about how people work all day to buy enough gas to get to work everyday. If you met a modern philosopher or prophet on the street, you'd run from them or suggest that they get medicated. However, tell a story of drug addiction and inspiring recovery, and you'll end up friends with Oprah.

Take me. I exist in an atmosphere of perpetual drama and anxiety. I'm happy sometimes. I've been labeled a worrywart, fatalist and stressball. I am most certainly not the spokesman for my generation, though I don't think there likely could be anyone to completely fit the bill. The most relief I get from my day-to-day existence is a good movie, an episode of GILMORE GIRLS, some funny clip from YouTube. There's always something for me to worry about, except when I'm on vacation, and even then I have to worry about getting home.

Big philosophical questions are now the luxury of undergraduates playing card games in dorm lobbies. They read Ayn Rand. They read Thoreau.

I used to seek God, too. Now I'm just trying to make the rent.

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