On the train into work this morning, I finished reading The Quiet Girl, Peter Hoeg’s first novel in about a decade. I adored the book (unsurprising given where Hoeg rates on my list of authors), but it was not flawless. Parts of it left me a bit cold. One part, in particular, was one of the passages I found least resonant in the history of literature.

To wit:

Shortly before Groucho Marx died, a journalist asked him to sum up existence. The great comedian had stripped the irony off his face like a latex mask; so close to the grave there was no time for anything less than the truth. “Most of us,” he said, “must try to compensate for our low intelligence with hard work. It’s all a matter of training.”

Really? Really? Groucho, you said that?

I’m on the verge of basically reinventing this post about the quest for challenge. That is not what I want to do here. There is something deeper or beyond calling to me at this moment.

If I were asked to sum up existence, I think I would say something about the challenge being to stay awake in a life where most everyone else seems to be asleep. Eventually one starts to lose the motivation for wakefulness, to wonder if sleep isn’t really vastly preferable, to ponder whether anything could even be done if everyone were awake all the time. One yawns. It’s a struggle. The struggle to keep caring, keep trying.

And maybe my summation is the same as Groucho’s, in some way. Maybe they’re flip sides of the same fence and Groucho really just had us all fooled. I feel like if I ever fool anyone, it’s with the notion that it really takes me a full day to do a full day’s work. You can do the math and check the post times. You know where I am now. And where I’ve been for many of these posts. And phone calls and e-mails and other things.

I can’t remember the last time I didn’t pace myself by trying to hold things back, to deliberately tank and sandbag in order to maintain a regular pace of tasks instead of finishing the race and just waiting around. Work is really no different than school in that way. Seneca was different, because it was live interaction… it was an entirely different world. Everything else, though, has been a struggle to avoid the debilitating feeling that one has to put time in the seat when there is absolutely nothing left to do and no reason to spend that time. So I make sure there are always a couple things waiting, and then get the little thrills of making sure I have just enough time to rush to complete whatever that is.

These are my highs. This is my drug. This is how I artificially maintain sanity in a world of impossibly low expectations.

I guess I often assume that everyone’s doing this, or something like it, unless I see glaring examples of their incompetence to the contrary. But I really don’t know. I have no idea. There are certainly some who I’ve talked to about doing this, but not many. It can be a dangerous topic to bring up when people are on the other side of the fence.


Of course there was another passage in the Hoeg book, less recent and thus probably harder to find, about how many have agreed that to the spiritually inclined, the world seems like an insane asylum, while asylums are tolerable or even pleasant. This, contrasting with the other passage, is one of the most resonant passages I’ve ever read. (Is it strange that I verbatim printed what I disagree with and am paraphrasing what I agree with? Maybe I’m still just an LO at heart.) Maybe this is why I want to go to Bhutan. And, linking the links, not that Bhutan is that perfect place, because I know there isn’t one. But maybe Bhutan is my comfortable madhouse.

When I told someone at work I wanted to go to Bhutan for a year and just think, he said it sounded very lazy of me. Lazier than working in America?! Surely there is nothing lazier than that.

(And here I should caveat against generalizations – there are people who work in physical labor in America who work “harder” in a day than most others ever work in their life. But still, how active is the mind in such cases? Also, we seem to have shipped most of those jobs to countries with less influence, maintaining America’s rank atop the lazy sector.)

And yet it’s often lazy in that exhausting way. That way that whenever you globally consider how many hours you’ve piddled away serving time in the seat, it becomes hard to even breathe. This pounded into my eardrums the other day. Life is not a drill. This is real, this is the one shot on this planet. What on Earth am I doing? Are most any of us doing?

This morning I gave Emily a ride to the train station for her day in Sacramento. On my way back up the hill, I cranked music and sang horribly at the top of my lungs and wound up in tears of humility in the face of existence. Of a sunrise. Of a morning. Of possibility and blessings. That was a scant four hours ago. Already I’m back ‘neath the weight of the prisons we entrap ourselves in, lined with ambivalent prison guards who play solitaire and smirk at what you care about.

The problem is our assumptions. Yes, they even go beyond the assumption of the shining challenge on the hill. We assume that there is an innate value to work (which may be true), but then we blindly accept society’s definition of work. Which is time in the seat for money. Which could be digging ditches or giving advice or playing games at a desk or playing games on a field or pretending to lead. Or solving the world’s problems. Or going to meetings. Or writing. Or reading. It’s freaking anything, regardless of whether it has work or value. But all of us (at least Americans, and I suspect this goes throughout most cultures) just can’t get over this strange predisposition that if someone gives you money to do something, it has value, and otherwise you’re slacking off. Even if the absolute reverse is actually completely true. Adam Smith, you have ruined all of our lives. The market solves nothing, except the problem of how to keep people in fear of being judged by their peers. A fear that keeps the wheels of meaningless currency spinning, and prevents people from pausing long enough to think about why everything they’ve ever been taught has been imparted with the intent to manipulate them.

It’s looking like it may be hard for me to get through the rest of this day. Maybe I should put off doing one more essential task to up that last-minute thrill-factor. I’ve gotta feel something.