The Art of Throwing Away an Evening

You’ve likely been in this situation before.  Some friends or family invite you over for dinner, and when the eating is finished, they invite you into the living room to sit down and relax.  Then some jackass turns on the television. God help you if you’re with some people I know and the news is on; they’d rather listen to the government propaganda coming out of the boob tube than allow conversation to flow naturally between the several visitors.  I’m not saying they’re bad people; it’s a habit that they acquired probably beginning with those big loud speakers in elementary school.  But it does make for a dreadful way to spend an evening.

I have been in houses where the television is on all evening.  I’m sure in many places it’s never turned off, ever.  How can the people who live there know each other?  Love and affection cannot be created through osmosis, so when people sit silently watching something together, they don’t engage in the dialogue that is necessary to friendship.  Call me old fashioned, but I want to know something about the person sitting next to me.  I don’t mean the simple booboisie questions like “Where do you work?” or “How many kids do you have and what colleges did they get into?”  I want to know what winds someone’s clock, what gets him out of bed in the morning, what he wonders about when he’s got a whole five minutes to himself.  I want to know if philosophical questions annoy, confuse, or delight him.  It says a lot about a man.  Most people don’t have any patience for these things.  Maybe that’s why the television is on so much.  We are the people with nothing to talk about.  After all, the conversation about soccer practice, Harvard, and GPA’s only lasts so long.

It’s all a waste, really.  Hours of our lives get spent on having our brains distilled into a mucousy pulp.  Down the black hole of the technological dark ages we go.  People who spend their free time half asleep on bar stools make better use of their time.  Hangovers go away; televisions seemingly do not.

Do you recognize something of your own routine in what I’ve just described?  Does your husband spend every waking hour that he’s not at work obsessively watching sports analysis shows, or, more irrelevant still, news and politics?  I don’t intend to insult sports—in fact I myself enjoy them—but there is only so much staring at an idiot box before one becomes stupid.  Fret not, for I bring glad tidings of great joy:  you don’t have to spend your evenings trapped in front of the TV while letting the good stuff of life ooze out your left ear.  You can turn the television off, and live.  I have developed a number of ways to while away an evening so that the “waste” of time is actually constructive.

I did something recently that I hadn’t done in a long time:  the aimless road trip.  It doesn’t have to be long, but it does help to get far enough away from home to get lost and have to find your way back.  That is a glorious feeling, one that many seem unaware of.  When I lived in Lancaster County I used to take such trips in the golden glow of the evening summer sun.  It was a spiritual event.  You haven’t seen anything until you’ve seen a red barn in a valley bathed in the sunset.  I used to pass a number of tobacco farms in that part, and I would wonder how long it would be before the government turned these hard workers into criminals.

These road trips can be taken alone, or with a friend.  Two is the maximum number, I think.  Just the other night I called up a friend of mine, and we drove around the countryside for an hour or more, spewing forth on any number of subjects, most of which were highly personal.  Road trips are good for that.  It is ultimate privacy, and there is no one to interrupt the conversation as often happens in urban areas where everyone knows everyone.  There is something about road noise that soothes the soul and greases the wheels of the brain.  Many conundrums have been solved on windy, hilly roads to nowhere.  No widgets were made on this safari, but I think we are both better men for having taken it.

Maybe you don’t have a car, or don’t like to drive.  In that case I hope you’re not a teetotaler.  (I hold that hope for you in any case.)  One can then always engage in people watching.  Go to a restaurant—it doesn’t even need to be a good one, it just needs to serve alcohol—and get an outside table.  Sitting outside in the spring and summer makes up for any bad food one might eat.  Sit.  Eat.  Drink.  Breathe.  Watch.  You can learn a lot from watching the world go by.  I have pissed away entire evenings like this, the table conversation drifting between energetic banter and quiet contemplation.  The colorful characters come up and down the street, and the entertainment is free, with the price of your meal.  Do not invite any Christian Fundamentalist or Modern Liberal friends; they will ruin the evening by being serious about something.  By all means, discuss serious subjects, but don’t do so in a serious manner.  It tends to hide the truth of a thing.

Finally, there is always the evening dinner party.  I have a friend—let’s call him Thomas Mann—who occasionally invites me out to the Mann estate for an evening of eating, drinking, and discussing whatever’s on our minds.  His downstairs neighbor comes up and usually asks me what I’ve been reading, or what I think of some development in the current events department.  If a television is involved it is only to watch one to two short little things, and there are no TV aficionados there to hush us if we decide that the conversation in the room is more interesting than the pixels on the screen.  No holds barred.  All opinions listened to with respect (but be prepared to be respectfully, though possibly mercilessly, refuted).  Sounds bytes are highly discouraged.  The most wonderful thing about the chit chat at the Mann estate is that no one seems to be too eager to pack things into nifty little boxes; lingering questions are not a threat.  I’m a little less dogmatic, and therefore less of a jackass, than I used  to be, thanks to these delightful visits.  Throw in a little sherry and you have yourself one heavenly experience.

So there you have it, three ideas to use the next time you don’t feel like spending an evening hypnotized by technology. I think you’ll find that if you try these ideas, your partners in the crime of not being “good productive citizens” will become your true friends.  Note that conversation plays an important role in all these activities, and this is the glue that holds humanity together.  People who share ideas find common ground and ways to peacefully, and even respectfully, coexist.  People who do not have open discussions self-righteously shoot each other.  Oh hell, who am I kidding?  Most people would rather own a gun than a book.  Well, for the small minority of you who do try this out, enjoy, and may life be yours to the fullest.

My Vomitorium Membership

Anyone who keeps tabs on me will know that about three years ago I started running and by winter of 2009 had lost forty pounds.  I’ve kept all this up, but for all the work I was doing I felt I just needed an extra edge.  I was working too hard to be yet a little over weight, so I bit the bullet and joined a gym.

My gym includes people of all kinds; it’s not the place for an uber-serious bodybuilder.  We say that modern men are not superstitious, but one finds evidence of a belief in mystery at my gym.  Anyone who is serious about getting in better shape agrees with the physicist that F=ma, but many of the people at my gym believe that a kind of magic reigns, as if going to the gym is like visiting Lourdes, the Fountain of Youth, or the nudie bar.

I have struggled to keep a straight face while witnessing some of this.  Old women lay on the ab machines, half-asleep, as if mere contact with the sweat-stained rubber will give them the torso of Michael Phelps.  This while the F=ma crowd paces about nervously, waiting for machines and wondering how fast their heart rates are going to plunge. At other times I’ve seen people young enough to do better walk on a treadmill at some glacial pace for thirty minutes and burn a whopping 150 calories.  At that rate they’d be better off skipping the extra cafe latte and staying home and doing something they enjoy, since exercise is obviously indulged half-heartedly.  The elderly recovering from surgeries and heart attacks is one thing; the lazy middle-aged is another.

Nevertheless, it’s not just the lackadaisical who provide the entertainment.  Just the other day I watched some guy do eight reps on the bench press and then get up and stretch his right leg.  More common is the mistake of jerking the weights around.  My joints hurt just watching it.  One of the disadvantages of being young is that your body doesn’t impose discipline for such infractions, and so the young do this disproportionately.

A few years ago I saw an article which essentially asserted that exercise makes you fat.  This is, of course, ridiculous, but only if you know what you’re doing.  Running six miles isn’t even enough to burn off most donuts.  A lot of people assume otherwise, however, and so, after burning their whopping 150 calories on a treadmill, I suspect they head home to eat like pigs while watching rubbish on the idiot box.  (Many idiot boxes—or, if you prefer, booboisie tubes—are available at the gym, too, since most people can’t stand the thought of being outside the matrix for more than a few minutes.)  Maybe this explains why so many of the people at the gym are downright fat, along with why that stupid article was written in the first place.

I looked around at all this one day and had a sudden vision of Roman vomitoriums.  Are these people here just so they can eat more?  Are they attempting to be thin without giving up even the worst of their eating habits?  Would all cultures in all times consider vomitoriums to be grosser than gigantic sweat-holes?  I’m skeptical, especially since I’ve been frequently surrounded by the hygienically-impaired.  I won’t go further into detail, for fear of anesthetizing the reader.

If you want to go to a gym, and if you want to make real progress, there is one place you can go:  the free weights.  By its nature, this section is limited mostly to people who know what they’re doing.  Most of the members at my gym would be afraid to pick up a fifteen pound dumbbell, so it’s a perfectly safe place to go.  Anyone in that section means business and knows you mean business, too.  Get in, work out, get out.  The shared ambition even increases cooperation.  There are no fat people taking naps on the benches.

If jaw exercise were as beneficial as using a gazelle, I suppose America would be the fittest country in the world.  We love to talk about fitness, to admire supermodels, and to buy gym memberships and eat fat free food-like substances.  But something is obviously wrong, since such a small portion of our society is actually in good shape.  I am afraid that physical fitness is a fad that will pass away, a good wave for smart businessmen to ride until people realize they’re not accomplishing anything, and give up, sliding down Mencken’s proverbial greased pole.  Golf is easier.  I only hope that when that day comes, there will still be a place for me to work out.

On Rejoicing and Other Soulful Assaults on Mercantilism

A few months ago I watched the HBO series on John Adams.  Politics aside, he was a fascinating man, though his wife Abigail (gorgeous name, that) strikes me as an even more compelling character.  Late in life, so the HBO depiction goes, Adams takes a walk through a field with one of his sons and, upon spotting a little flower, overflows with joy.  “Your mother used to say that I don’t take enough delight in the mundane,” he says.  “Rejoice, evermore!”

Rejoice, evermore.  It’s a common refrain in human literature.  Holy books and religious ceremonies are filled with it.  And yet it seems to me that most of the time we consider such an attitude to come from mood.  If I am happy, I will rejoice, and if not, well, to hell with your sunny attitude.  In my old age, though, I’ve come to feel that rejoicing is a matter of mental discipline, more than anything else.  It is a disposition that has been cultivated, not a gift of fate.  Notice the imperative nature of the statement:  rejoice.  No qualifiers there.

It is telling that in Western Christianity two days devoted to rejoicing are reserved for the penitential seasons of Advent and Lent.  Morbidity is set aside in favor of lightheartedness.  Rejoice.  Do not be afaid.  Et cetera.  Shut up and quit your complaining, in other words.

Years ago I was in a terrible depression when I called home for Mother’s Day.  After speaking to my own mother she gave the phone to my grandmother, with the instructions that I was not to let on how bad things were.  I was offended.  Such a demand went against all the self-indulgence I had been taught by the new age hippies in charge of the education system I had been fed into.  It seemed to me that honesty was more important than being pleasant.  I now see the wisdom of what was asked of me.  There is no reason to subject someone else to my misery, especially if there is no productive reason to do so.  Unpleasantness perpetuates itself anyway.  We feed our own monsters when we go on about how horrible life is.

Behind the commotion, noise, and mindless entertainment that comprises most of modern life lies a very real misery, I’m afraid.  And yet it is not all in the mind.  We have asked for it, and we have gotten it good and hard.  We deserve it.  Any culture that places so much emphasis on the material world will end up this way.  When I talk about materialism, however, I don’t emphasize the indulgence, which is merely the necessary counterpoint to the real problem:  anxiety and work.  The WASP culture is a nervous one that has little trust in the goodness of life.  We love to complain about greedy corporations that (or should I say “who,” given the Supreme Court’s infamous ruling?) are only too willing to grind the souls of workers into powder behind a cubicle wall, but they get away with this because we let them—because, at some level, the simple life isn’t good enough for us.  Modern technology has increased our productivity astronomically, increasing opportunities for leisure and good health, and we have turned it into an excuse to mechanize society and try to make more money.  But are we really happier than the people who whizzed in street gutters and died of the bubonic plague at age 35? Maybe we are, but we shouldn’t answer too quickly.

The frantic pace of our work creates the demand for mindless entertainment.  As a musician who is engaged in making art music—not pop music—I often wonder if places like the orchestra hall are empty less because of a lack of education and more because beauty is just too much for most people to take.  Who can listen to a symphony by Brahms and then go back to the office building without being tempted to shoot himself?  Instead, we fill our heads with the noise and contention and hatred that resembles the workaday world—reality TV, machine-like computerized music that accompanies tone deaf celebrities, and football, which is increasingly a sport strictly for militarized animals—while most adults live vicariously through their kids because they secretly hate their lives.

What would happen if most people realized that it was their lot in life to enjoy it, that they might have life abundantly?  The anonymous wizards who run the treadmills of modern life would be powerless in the face of popular demand to live life wholesomely and thoughtfully.  I don’t think I’m dreaming of the impossible here.  It is because we think that a quieter life is impossible that it never happens.  Our Waspy anxiety says, “I will enjoy life—read books, go to the symphony, smell the roses—when I accomplish x, y, or z.”  It’s also an adolescent insecurity.  “I want to be making 75k by the time I’m 25.”  Etc.

Maybe some of you think I’m just smug, but I know the price of leisure.  For years I have chosen a lower income and a lower standard of living in exchange for enough mental space to cultivate an existence that is at least somewhat fit for higher thinking and contemplation.  Some people think I’m lazy, but they can go to hell:  I would never jump into the hamster wheels that make them such boring dinner mates.

Do-gooders are often the worst when it comes to all this.  “How dare you be so happy when so much is wrong with the world?”  Well, for starters, I can’t control much of it.  I can only influence my own little world.  And what if the dollar collapses tomorrow?  Or what if the nut jobs who say the world will end on May 21 are right?  All the more reason to rejoice.  The measurable and the tangible are not the real stuff, the essence of life.  The things that really matter are hard to describe with any satisfaction.  But we’ll never even discover them if we’re always counting beans, or fighting “Tara-ists,” as George Bush calls them, or trying to get our little tyke into Harvard.  I guess it all goes back to that whole foolishness of the wise and wisdom of the foolish business.

So just call me a jackass.  I’m content with what’s right in front of me.

Rejoice evermore.