Take it or leave it.

Friday, June 2, 2017


"Do only what you feel like doing. If you find yourself compelled to do something, as from necessity or duty or boredom - or because if you don't you'll never hear the end of it from your wife - by all means act, but make it fun."

This is a maxim I coined some time in the late '90s. For years obeying it meant doing lots of things I wasn't inclined to do, like holding a job. And drinking. And I wasn't even married! I used to bring a flask to the ESL class I taught for a time in my late twenties, to "fortify myself with brandy," as Patricia Highsmith wrote of the talented Mr. Ripley. To pattern oneself after a fictitious serial killer is not behavior one should emulate, so don't try that at home, and definitely not while driving a car or having sex, for reasons I won't go into except to say Limp Bizkit. But a killer buzz does make even the most tedious drudgery somewhat tolerable. For this reason even funerals boast open bars.

I was thinking about why we do what we do, and how we make it through the day, recently when I read a blurb on Robin Pecknold. For those who don't know, and I didn't until I read the article in this month's Esquire magazine, Pecknold is the "hirsute singer and primary songwriter" for the band Fleet Foxes, a popular folk group I have decided I'm not into after listening to one popular song. Limp Bizkit they are not. Which may not be all that bad, perspectives being what they are. But to me their music seems like it should be played at funerals and makes me want to get drunk. I should say the band was popular, until their lead singer quit. After a dozen years of playing music, and after reading an essay on burn-out by 20th century literary heavyweight F. Scott Fitzgerald, the musician took a lengthy hiatus from music to study something other than music at Columbia University's school of general studies. He was in his late twenties at the time. Fitzgerald himself had felt "tired and wrecked," and struggled to find something to care about amidst the constraints and obligations of daily life, but he didn't write about it until he was 39. I'm 44 and really feel old.

Like my former self, the writer of The Great Gatsby had been known to toss back a few. Even more, he was a raging alcoholic whose death at the age I am now - possibly from ruptured esophageal varices, or dilated veins of the throat caused by a diseased liver - some have attributed to his drinking habit. Glad I gave that habit up. And I'm beginning to feel young again. Pecknold, like Fitzgerald, felt one-dimensional as a writer, and was moved by the Jazz Age author's quote that "the test of first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Opposed ideas as in writing is a useful endeavor, and it is also utterly futile. It's easy for opposing views, like opposing forces, to cancel each other out and result in inertia, or lack of movement, or my lying in bed on a Friday at noon. Like Pecknold, I too have been plagued by the feeling that "everything has been done before and I should do science." In fact I did science, for 5 years in my early 30s. Where did it get me: write back where I started, get it? The only difference being a few new gray hairs. Which I tweeze.

The interview concludes with Pecknold's advice for life, which is that "you have to delude yourself into thinking that what you're doing is valuable to have the vitality to keep doing it." And so he went back to making music. 

See, I don't agree with his opinion. Most people I have met nurture an inflated notion of themselves, including me, whom I have never met but thoroughly know. Who do you know that doesn't think he's always right, and what he's doing is far and away the most important thing in the world and vital to the planet's continued existence and general well-being? I can guarantee you Donald Trump feels this way, even as he stands behind an executive decision that to virtually everyone else seems guaranteed to launch the world headlong into imminent destruction. Headlong only because it is the direction we were already headed. One's ego (synonymous with perspective, or personal opinion) tends to self-deception, and a person can get so wrapped up in his own personal drama that every action is momentous and every set-back feels like the end of the world. If, in light of this exaggerated self-opinion, this grandiosity, you find yourself engaged in an endeavor your heart's not into, like Pecknold with his music and me with writing fiction, then do something else with your time, or for God's sake go lie down. Unless the endeavor in question is a job and you really need the money, which Pecknold probably does. Because Columbia University isn't cheap. Thus the band's new album, whose title, Crack-Up, is taken from Fitzgerald's essay. I just hope he's doing it for fun. Or going easy on the whiskey.

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