Like most people, most of my days are conspicuously unspectacular. I wake up, check emails, read “The New Yorker” over granola, do a few work calls, perhaps write some snappy copy in my jammies — a luxury of working for myself. The day trudges on. I’ll eat my lunch while reading more “New Yorker” or might plop down in front of the TV and peruse my mid-day options. Ooh, Chopped! Come afternoon, I surf some porn, wash dishes, might prep dinner, do some more work, shower.
There’s something banal about the whole affair. I’m not depressed or excited. Occasionally, I’m antsy with a general sense of discontent as if I should be doing something more engaging, something that enraptures me. More often, I just do what I do with neither malaise nor vim. I might say there is an understated contentment to my days but I’m afraid that would give the impression of resonant peace. It’s not that. Nor is it that lack of that. It’s all just rather blasé.
Although I will say that, unlike many, I don’t have guilt about this lack of activity. It’s a common refrain I hear: I was so unproductive today! I feel so guilty! Me, I have no desire to be productive and hence don’t feel guilty about the lack thereof.
No, guilt is not my issue. I don’t have a work ethic and, frankly, I don’t respect this much heralded attribute. I know this will make my present and potential clients cringe. But it shouldn’t. When someone’s paying me, I do my work and I do it well. Which, now that I write it, sounds like a work ethic. But when I don’t have work to do, I have no desire to do any. Which sounds like the absence of a work ethic.
My issue, then, is not guilt about not doing something. What bugs me is something else. It’s not quite the banality of it all; I don’t need something extraordinary to happen, certainly not every day. That would be exhausting! I think what bugs me, what makes me feel like these days are not quite right, is that I am somehow disengaged from them. I’m not co-present with the world. I’m drifting but not heroically or stoically. I’m just drifting, being nudged by everyday needs — hunger, work, 3, sleep. I eat when I’m hungry; I answer emails when they come; I return phone calls. I feel used by the day.
Culturally, we talk about joy and we talk about suffering. But we don’t talk much about the everyday, about the humdrum drone of it. Sure, we have a narrative of the discontent bourgeois who, fed up with it all, shed the shackles to tackle life head on. There’s Albert Brooks in the hilarious Lost in America; there’s Morpheus, Trinity, and Neo in The Matrix. And of course there’s a whole literature of ecstatic living — Henry Miller and Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson Henry Miller and all that delirious life affirmation.
But was Henry Miller feeling that all day every day? Do you really think Hunter Thompson wasn’t crashing half the time, sitting there doing nothing, feeling nothing? Where is the literature of the everyday?
Michel de Certeau wrote an incredible book called The Practice of Everyday Life. But it doesn’t actually give us a practice; it tells us the political and philosophical implications of everyday actions such as shopping, reading the newspaper, and walking in the city. And, in its way, it infuses the everyday with a sense of power and possibility. But the fact that I defy Google maps to find a better route to pick up my kid from school, while politically more or less interesting, doesn’t do shit to make me feel like I’m participating in my life fully and beautifully.
There are of course the everyday things we do to feel enmeshed in our existence. We drink coffee, then booze. Oh, these are great gifts of the universe to help us catch up with the tireless cosmic stream. In fact, there’s an elaborate pharmacopia for negotiating the everyday — Xanax and Ambien, Ativan and Adderall, cigarettes and weed. I don’t mention all the other possibilities because, for most of us, they fall outside the everyday. We might love our acid or molly but as punctuations within the drone, something you might do once a month, more likely two or three times a year — if that.
And then there’s porn, one of the most insidious drugs: we get lost in the immediacy of that hard on, the utter banality of the day washed away — until we come and are evacuated, leaving us with a very special kind of horror.
Burning Man is upon us. It’s rising popularity, its growing crowds and mainstream acceptance, is testament to the collective desire of individuals to experience a break from their everyday lives. Give me something extreme! Take away my home! My TV! My shower! Give me beautiful drugs and beautiful people and beautiful sentiment and beautiful art! Give me something that’s not everyday! But still gimme the internet!
For most people, however, Burning Man articulates the distinction between the everyday and the extraordinary. People put their heads down 358 days a year to shepherd a brand for Google only to claim a week of naked desert release. There are many fantastic things about Burning Man but the ease in which it’s found its place in Bay Area tech culture is testament to our sense that the everyday shouldn’t be extraordinary. To me, the best thing about Burning Man is the too rare ways it extends into everyday life in whatever form.
I believe the rise of quality TV testifies to our desire for something to break the white noise of the everyday blasé. All day, all week, people eagerly await the moment when they can come home, stop checking emails and returning phone calls, stop talking to their equally bored significant other, and turn on Breaking Bad. And Vince Gilligan and crew give us something extraordinary — a strange, complex, pathos rich 57 minutes as we experience a respite, not from our suffering but from our banality.
I’ve been rereading The Way of the Samurai recently and I feel like I’ve had my first real understanding of what this phenomenally strange book wants. It loathes that sensation of lagging behind life, of being used by life. The samurai set their sites on death — and not just death but swift, brutal, absolute dying — and then put every moment at death’s service. Apply your rouge — to leave a beautiful corpse. Always use a tooth pick — to leave a beautiful corpse. The surprising thing about the book is that it doesn’t profess calm contentment. It professes mania: a will to madness that utterly, thoroughly, and violently dispels any wishywashy bullshit. For that is the one thing the samurai cannot stand: the everyday blasé. They transform the most banal actions into the service of manic death.
Me, I’m no samurai. I can’t live for the mania of death, for that moment where, in a matter of seconds, I hurl myself into the fray, wielding my sword from their belly to my own. That just ain’t me, not at this point.
So I find my everyday mania in other ways. I sometimes leverage that surge morning coffee affords and take to the day as a tepid, Hebraic samurai — writing what I imagine are poignant insights into Nietzsche in a deranged frenzy on this here blog, scrubbing my pee soaked bathroom floor (c’mon, a 43 and a 9 year old live here: he can’t aim and I dribble, so gimme a break!), buying adventurous vegetables from Rainbow Grocery.
Occasionally — nay, rarely — I nibble on a special brownie and take myself to the movie theater to see the latest David Lynch, Coen Brothers, Wes Anderson, or Harmony Korine film. And for those 100 minutes and the next few weeks, I feel vital, infused by the cosmos itself, as if I’d participated in the formation of a new galaxy. This can sometimes take a less dramatic, but still quite poignant, form as I watch an overlooked Godard or some other gem that makes my blood and soul and mind and loins surge.
Evenings are my favorite. As the sun sets, we get that exquisite gift of twilight which brings a wave of energy: the sun gives way to darkness, everything shifts, and the earth itself seethes. Don Juan says to be wary of this moment and often forbids Carlos from doing anything then. Me, I make myself an herbal concoction, pour myself a glass of gin on the rocks, and take to my computer to write what turns out to be this blog. This is my release, my Burning Man. It is a surging, a reckoning of ideas, of life, of memory and words, of the very stuff of the universe. At these moments, I do my darndest to catch a wave of cosmic surging, leaving all that humdrum noise in my wake.
Alas, my release is short lived. I am a sprinter and always have been; such is my metabolism. I burn hard and fast and then, once again, am face to face with the everyday blasé.
Now, sometimes, my everyday banality is infused. From afar, my behavior seems the same: checking emails, eating granola, making work calls, even surfing porn. But, from within, each event is not just done but lived through, enjoyed. At these times, I am not lagging behind my life; I’m not being used. On the contrary, I’m moving with the world, with my needs and desires, with the rings, pangs, and dings of life.
From the outside, everything seems the same. From the inside, it couldn’t be more different. Which leads me to believe that the what is not as important as the how. Sure, an event such as a concert or camping trip invites the spectacular. But we can certainly do such things without really participating in them. They become part of the humdrum, which is even more depressing. Oh, look, the Grand Canyon. Ho hum.
So the question remains: What creates this difference? How do I summon this infusion even while performing the same banal tasks? Is that what a yogic or Buddhist practice promises — an engaged participation with the everyday? Should I smoke more dope? I assume the answer to both these questions is yes.
Still, the what should not be underestimated. After all, we are fundamentally doers in a world that does; we are in motion with a world in motion. There is no pure how for we are always, necessarily, doing something. Breaking routine to do something different, something exciting, something challenging can throw oneself into the world with a mighty hallelujah. As Félix Guattari writes, sometimes it’s just a matter of turning the pillow over.