The other night, using my cell phone’s handy calculator function, I determined I had 676 months left to live, presuming lung cancer or a man willing to kill me for the unregistered Panera card I have in my pocket don’t drag me to the grave earlier than the average American lifespan would dictate. I’ve had an awareness of my mortality for some time now, albeit a cartoonish one: a perception of life’s finality that those who’ve watched family members waste away in hospital beds might scoff at. I can write the word over and over — death, death, death, death — and it still feels like the sort of thing that’ll happen to some other, distant version of myself, be it when I break to smoke a cigarette between this paragraph and the next or sixty years from now, surrounded by tiny (and, hopefully, less self-indulgent) versions of myself.
So while I might not have the stark perception of my own mortality that leads certain middle-aged men to exchange their cars and wives for newer, flashier models, I can vaguely conceptualize the finish line, and have used this conception as a sort of double-edged motivator. Take for example the hypothetical girl sitting six feet away from me. She’s wearing a Smiths T-shirt, which admittedly could go both ways — the Smiths being one of those bands that, like the Sex Pistols or the Ramones, work as both fashion statement and expression of personal taste. But of course I’ll never know if she’d swap stories about the first time she heard the Queen is Dead (I was 15, in the apartment of an Israeli cokehead and sex shop owner on the Lower East Side; I’d told him I liked Belle and Sebastian) if I don’t approach her and say “Hello my name is Daniel, I am a person, would you like to maybe get coffee sometime?” But there’s that ever-present fear: That she’ll laugh at me, say “That sounds truly awful!,” get her boyfriend to simultaneously make out with her and give me a wedgie, etc.
Which is where that cartoonish awareness of death, that timeless pop song trope, comes in handy. It becomes: You only live once, might as well talk to her. But it also becomes: Who cares if you talk to her, you are going to die. Broadening your perspective to encompass death makes everything in the foreground seem tiny, manageable — but it also means you can see the end, however fuzzy, however slow and unthinkable your progression towards it seems.
In a used bookstore a man I met on the internet told me a Borges quote to the effect of, “Life is too short to waste on books you don’t enjoy.” I can’t seem to find that quote, so it’s possible he made it up. But it makes some sense. Life is also too short to waste not asking strangers on dates, or fulfilling your dreams of owning a grilled cheese shop in Portland, OR, or thinking about how short life is. And maybe if I were more inclined to read actively unenjoyable books I’d have a more nuanced outlook on this whole “not being alive anymore” thing, but every hour spent untangling a particularly dense passage of Nietzsche (who I’ve never read, but who I figure talks about death, right?) is another not spent fulfilling your grilled cheese dreams, you know?