Tag Archives: Meaning of life

A Hunger Artist

Caleb was a smart, funny, middle-aged real estate salesman who dressed well and seemed amused by the world.  He sat apart in my Shakespeare seminar, every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon, shrouded in the kind of invisibility that accompanies older, returning, so-called “non-traditional” college students.  The rest of the class, early 20-something undergraduates, were only interested in each other and passing the 3 credits of Shakespeare required for their various humanities degrees.  But I paid attention to Caleb and listened to him when he occasionally spoke up.

Maybe this was because I spent my childhood and early adult years in search of male role models, my father having been emotionally absent for most of my life.  Whatever the reason, while the other students were busy trying to get together with each other and / or ridicule each other’s ideas—oblivious to everyone and everything (often including the professor and the work) that stood outside the narrow purview of their post-adolescent obsessions—I was taking it all in, especially the things Caleb said. 

I remember thinking that he seemed to have everything a man could want: intelligence, style, money, wit, and enough virtue to believe that he could better himself by getting a second bachelor’s degree.  In my own very naïve and superficial way, I thought he was teaching me something by example.  I paid attention because I believed there were life secrets in plain view that could be discovered as long as I showed up, closed my mouth, and opened my mind.  But the lesson I was destined to learn from Caleb would not be taught until I got to know him better.

Toward the end of the course, we had to find a partner and prepare a presentation on one of Shakespeare’s history plays.  I was a hard worker.  So the presentation was relatively easy.  And since, like Caleb, I was a social outsider in the class, it seemed natural that we would be partners.  In this way, I got to know him a lot better.  We met a few times at the country club, of which he was part owner, and he taught me the basics of golf—which I found interesting but which I have not played since then.

We did the work, but I also got drawn temporarily into his social sphere.  Caleb had a magnetic personality and was constantly surrounded by money, activity, assistants, and stunning women, most of whom were professionals in commercial real estate or finance.  His lifestyle was impressive and a bit overwhelming to me.  Still, working with him over the course of a month gave me an insight I hadn’t had, a vision of what life could be like after college.  But it all fell away one afternoon over lunch when Caleb gave me some frank advice.

We’d just finished eating with a woman named Eva, who was about 5 years older than me and already a heavyweight in east coast corporate real estate.  She could have easily been a girl in one of my classes, but she’d graduated a year before from Princeton.  She was also one of the most physically beautiful people I had ever looked at.  When she said her good-byes and went off towards the tennis courts, Caleb and I watched her go.  I felt like I’d been struck by a bolt of lightning—that curious blend of admiration and despair that started wars in the ancient world, made poets fill their heads with absinthe and jump off bridges, and makes everyday people like you and me weep in the dark.

Caleb noticed the look on my face and said, “Don’t be a walking wallet in your life, Michael.”

I said I didn’t understand and he just looked at me with a faint smile as if to say, yes, you damn well do.

“This is no life to fall in love with,” he said.  “Study hard.  Do what you’re good at.  This—” he frowned and waved his hand to take in the people sitting around us, Eva (now a tiny figure in a white skirt among other tiny white-skirted figures on the tennis courts), the rolling golf course, the perfect blue sky—“is artificial.”

Over the years, it has occurred to me more than once that I could have sincerely responded with: “Most things we want are.”  But I wasn’t that glib at age 21.  Instead, I must have nodded or changed the subject because I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.  I do remember how Caleb pronounced artificial, like it was covered in some kind of excrement.  And I clearly recall how my sense of Eva immediately changed from infatuation to a kind of dread. 

If Caleb, a man who seemed to have everything, could feel bitter about his choices, then what lay in store for Eva?  For me?  How long would it take for the acids of commercial real estate to etch lines of acrimony and despair into her beautiful face?  And to what lengths would she go to cover all that up and approximate her former smile?  To what lengths had Caleb gone?  And how unsophisticated and superficial was I that I couldn’t see this while he could read my deepest longings and insecurities over a Caesar salad at the club?

I suppose he’d taken his own advice in spite of his regrets.  Caleb was doing what he was good at: reading me, helping me understand how to find satisfaction.  A gifted salesman knows your likes and dislikes, knows how to help you get what you want.  At the deepest purest level, a salesman is your best friend.  No one cares more deeply about fulfilling your needs, about why and how you’re hungry and how to feed you.  It has occurred to me that a true salesman—someone following his inner gift such that a writer like Cormac McCarthy might say he carried the secret fire—is as much an artist as any painter or poet.  He merely works in a cruder medium: human desire.

Caleb was one of the few people I’ve met in my life who carried that fire alongside his pain.  The possibility that one could actually do this was the lesson he taught me in a single conversation on a beautiful California afternoon sometime in 1993.  It opened my mind, not to becoming a real estate salesman like him, but to the reality that I had the secret fire, too; that somewhere it was already burning; and that discovering it was more important than all the dreams of avarice.

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The Fundamental Strangeness of Life

Recently, someone wrote to me wanting to know how I could support myself doing what I do.  It was a legitimate and sincere question that nevertheless had undertones of skepticism.  The writing life?  Really?  Just admit you’re flipping burgers in the back of some cantina, why don’t you.  And my answer was that I really am doing this the way I say I am.  It’s not impossible—hard sometimes, but never impossible.  The bottom line is that I’m doing exactly what I want to do in life.

So wRembrandt's Philosopher in Meditation (detail).hy the incredulity?  Why the outrage?  I think it stems from the ingrained assumption that leading a responsible, hard-working life is at odds with fun and satisfaction.  When I worked in law, my supervising attorney used to say, “Sleep is for the weak” and “If you’re smiling, you’re not working hard enough.”  I hated that and I suspect that such traditional attitudes about work and life begin with western religious assumptions  about what we’re here to do and where we’re headed—assumptions many of us would rather do without.  It’s also hard not to see a telling interface between this aspect of conformist culture and consumerism.

Then again, I firmly believe that once we start making small decisions about what we want, once we start saying no to the bullying mechanisms of conformist culture (see Office Space for a great hilarious treatment of this), the way we see the world begins to change.  Things we thought were dull and boring begin to reveal hidden dimensions.  Fears evaporate.  It’s like learning to swim: at first, we sank like stones but then we learned to see the water differently and we were able to do something amazing: float weightlessly.  Sure, I love college teaching, but I love it primarily as something fascinating in itself, not as a support system or security blanket.  I don’t have any fear of the non-academic life.  I’m still a writer no matter where I am.

Moreover, I find it interesting that we are encouraged to assume that there is a fundamental disconnection between the mundane and the extraordinary in our everyday lives.  Why is this?  And why do we support belief systems dedicated to showing us how monotonous and empty our lives can be?

As someone who has spent a good amount of time in academia as well as making a living doing somewhat unconventional self-directed things—freelance writing, teaching fiction writing online, editing, even surviving for a while in college as a professional tarot card reader—I’ve come to recognize the inherent strangeness and fluidity of so-called normal life.

As the linguist, Patrick Dunn, has written, we might legitimately see the world “not as a constant interaction of immutable laws—although often and in may ways it is—but as an ever-changing interaction of arbitrary and constantly shifting symbols.”  Realizing that we have a considerable degree of semantic control over our lived experience should make us pause and ask why we are living the life we’re living.  Shouldn’t it?

Thinking about this has opened a lot of doors for me, doors of perception, doors of experience.  When I ask what is the meaning of life? I only hear the echo of my own voice.  And I used to think that this meant life was essentially meaningless.  But I don’t think that anymore.  Now I suspect that looking outside myself for an answer is tantamount to expecting a fixed meaning from some immutable hierarchy of values.  All cosmological assumptions serve power in some way and very few of them are in place to empower or enlighten the individual.

Now I tend to agree with Viktor Frankl in Man’s Search for Meaning: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked.”  The echo that comes back is the answer: the meaning of life is in the act of interpreting it.  And so I think again about everyday life, about the experience of being alive in a dance of symbols and interlocking value systems.  It’s incredibly strange to see life this way—to drop the ancient fictions associated with fixed categorical thinking and instead see experience as a matter of Will to Meaning, of interpretation.

After I sent a response along these lines to the person who asked me whether I was really, truly, honestly living the writing life, she followed up with: “But doesn’t it bother you that you’re not famous yet?”

I’m not?

All the dogs in my neighborhood know me as that guy with the cookies in his pocket.  When the balance of my life is behind me, what will I care about: that my name wasn’t a household word or that I was able to say, life means THIS!

Cookie, anyone?

Cookie, anyone?