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THE HUMAN CONDITION


Yesterday I reconnected with a lovely friend I haven't seen in over 10 years. Dear Kelly is the ex-wife of my ex-best friend. But in this case two negatives add to a positive, because she's such a doll. During our several-hours-long walk along the beach in O.C. Kelly wondered aloud how I have managed to stay single so long. Remaining childless for nearly 4.5 decades hasn't been easy, and it has been a conscious decision. I often say having kids is the easy part. But finding someone I could tolerate long enough to raise them with? Not so much. 

But the truth is that looking around me I can only conclude that as a parent you become a hapless victim of consumerism gone wild. The saying used to be that Hallmark invented the holidays to sell cards. It seems that every other company under the sun has joined the smorgasbord, feasting on the collective credit card account. Why else do we start counting down Christmas at Halloween? Do you even know why we give each other gifts? I bet many Christians don't even know what the holiday actually commemorates. It's become a pagan ritual set to the tune of Jingle Bells at your local mall. It's easy enough to opt out of gift-giving and secret Santas and "white elephant." But if you don't buy into the spending spree as a parent you are branded a Scrooge and in some neighborhoods probably accused of child neglect or abuse. And so becoming a parent really means accumulating huge amounts of toys and clutter that your kid will play with once and then leave scattered around the house. I can take dirty diapers. Waste belongs in the trash and is biodegradable. But plastic toys aren't, and they're not cheap.

So, how to escape this? How to participate in conventional life without either being labeled an eccentric or losing yourself. How to be true to yourself and your personal preferences and the same time go with the flow, when it is pretty clear that society is headed towards a riptide at the deep end? 

Can a man marry and have children and still retain his manhood? I joke with my neighbor, Michael, who wants to write a how to get rich quick (in real-estate) book that he should write instead about maintaining manhood in marriage. I don't know whether he has even managed this superhuman feat himself. When I ask him how he's doing, he says not "living the dream" but "living my wife's dreams." Which means redoing the kitchen and leaving work unfinished (and bills unpaid) to run household errands. Such a book has not been written because it's impossible to achieve, or so it seems. Rather than lose their manhood, men divorce, usually by cheating. Witness my boyhood idols, Johnny Depp and Arnold S. And my father. And so many others besides. I wouldn't want to be that guy, and so I don't join the nuptial club.

If life is God's plan why don't I agree with it? So much is wasteful, useless, futile. And I'm not usually a curmudgeon. Yesterday in getting to Kelly I was stuck in traffic for two hours over the span of 50 miles. Once in a year of this gridlock does it for me. To think this is the average person's daily life. So many sorry suckers (and for years I, too, was one of them) are slaving away just to realize the American dream. Whose dream is it? The investment bankers'? The car manufacturers'? The one percent's? Surely not America's or the world's, since from the looks of the air pollution blanketing the Southland we are killing the planet and ourselves. The carpool lane was empty because everybody is driving a single-passenger vehicle. Including me. But how else to get to Costa Mesa? 

There used to be trains. But mass-produced cars led to companies' needing to unload all the new merchandise on the unwitting consumer, and so the artificial need for your own car was created, and now cars are toys and status symbols. A car commercial is one of every three commercials airing on TV (estimate mine). I don't want to leave the house because entering society is depressing to me. It used to be Skid Row was an isolated place. (And a great band, and how I miss the 80s!) Now the smog and smut infiltrate everywhere. Maybe I'm exaggerating. There still are trains, but the way streets are set up (the grid system in Manhattan is not present throughout LA), getting to the train station requires riding in a car, and possibly paying for parking, and so why not just drive all the way?

Since we're asking so many questions, ask yourself this: What is my purpose on Earth? Other than the general purpose to realize yourself and liberate yourself from the human condition by eradicating desire in your heart. But what was the desire that brought you here to begin with? Assuming the theory that our spirits exist before we take on human form is true, why did you want to be born? I ask myself this question quite a lot. And I don't have an answer. I really don't have any desires, other than the basic ones common to all (food, drink, sleep), and other than the desire that all the beings in the world be happy. So I conclude that I came to Earth to be of service to others, even to uplift humanity. But I'm the one who's depressed! And my efforts, nowadays centered upon these writings, are, judging by their scanty readership, rather futile. Life in a human body is tough. There are aches and pains and lines and spots that come with age. So, why the hell don't I just expire tomorrow? Because food tastes so darn good, and it sucks to be hungry....

I try to comfort myself with an analogy. In soccer, a sport I played through high school, the sweeper doesn't have a specific position. A more versatile type of defender, this player "sweeps up" the ball if an opponent manages to breach the defensive line. The position is more fluid than other defenders who man-mark their designated opponents. While not having a set position could by the spectator be viewed as inferior, it turns out that the sweeper is often the most skilled player on the field. He has to be swift, and to hone in on that area of the action where his skills are needed most. And so I view myself as a sweeper. Wherever I find someone in need, I lend a helping hand. Mindful that giving a person what he wants isn't always serving his best interests. Any parent knows that fulfilling her child's every desire at the supermarket would only result in a mouth filled with cavities. And so maybe we should buy fewer toys?

Ah, the human condition. How often we want what is not good for us. But why should so much bad stuff exist? Sugary sweets. Traffic. Plastic. And the like. Next on my reading list is a book by 20th-century German-American social philosopher Hannah Arendt. I came across it because the title Human Condition flashed across my mind as a nifty one to use for this post. Lo and behold, as with everything it's been done before, specifically as the name of one of Ms. Arendt's books. Let's see if she says all that I want to say, or at least answers some of the questions that sometimes keep me awake at night. Better them than a child's crying!

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