I read this book several years ago. Read it closely, marked it carefully, had every intention of posting a thorough and thoughtful analysis at the time. Life got in the way (and let’s face it, life is still in the way). But I was doing some reorganizing lately, and I saw several tabbed passages in the book, and started re-reading some of the portions I marked. And while I can’t remember the book in its entirety, the tabbed portions alone tell a story that is still close to my heart. Anyone else grinding it out in corporate America (or corporate anywhere, for that matter, or just grinding it out in life in general) will probably relate to at least some of these.
Speaking of people (particularly those working in advertising) finding themselves mid-career:
“They possess that hybrid of confusion and sadness at having awoken, well past their prime, married (or just as often divorced), with two children and a mortgage on a house in [fill in the blank with the name of a posh suburb full of McMansions nearest you] and thinking How did this happen? They never really figured out what it was they wanted to do with their lives, and so life took over, marriage came along, children, a home, massive amounts of ‘good’ debt, and, after mediocre sex on Sunday night, they lie awake and think about how much damage it would cause if they left their wife and traveled around the south of France for the summer…[will not go into detail about what all that would entail, but I’m sure you can use your imagination].”
Truth in Advertising, John Kenney, at p. 36 (emphasis added).
On doing what you love and loving what you do:
“The lucky ones have passion. The other ninety-eight percent of us end up doing something we kind-of, sort-of like-ish. The place where you show up for work each day for five, ten, twenty years is who you are. Isn’t it? And yet, from time to time, there is that small voice that screams, ‘Leave. Go. This isn’t what you want.’ Except that other voice, the one that calls you Gary, whispers, ‘But where would you go? And what would you do?'”
Id. at 81.
On human intimacy, not sex, but actual physical closeness and what a rarity it is in contemporary society:
“Unless you are married, unless you are in a relationship, unless you are at the dentist, it is very rare to see another person’s face close up. Something happens in that small space. Fewer words, perhaps. A more fully realized understanding of the moment, of time, of vulnerability and fragility. Of breathing. You see them differently. When they do speak it’s in a slightly different voice. Quieter. Intimate.”
Id. at 124. This sensation/perspective, which he describes very well, I know it, and love it, and find it central to the essence of what being and living is all about. In some ways I miss it.
“It will change. All of it. Imperceptibly at first. Then irrevocably. Thirty comes. Thirty-five surprises you. The prospect of forty stuns you. Once the money was a wonderful surprise. Now it is not enough. A restlessness creeps in. A wanting of something you cannot quite put your finger on. Stories of other people’s lives fascinate you. The idea of many things–a career change, a sabbatical, graduate school, a tattoo–seems interesting but you never do any of them….Someone changed the clocks, pushed them ahead when you weren’t looking. There is, occasionally (though more and more frequently), a small pit of anxiety in your stomach. You keep waiting for something to happen. And that is your mistake.”
Id. at 130. I am in the exact age window this passage describes. It is and is not a fair accounting of my frame of mind and that of many of my contemporaries.
There was a fascinating passage, which was too specific to the character in the book to be worth repeating in its entirety, but it addresses the concept of death, particularly of a parent, and some of the places our minds go. We picture them as young children. We picture them at our age. And perhaps most poignantly, we contemplate the meaning of this event in the context of our own mortality. “Where once time seemed to me to move slowly, languidly, now life seems to move much faster, a speed that frightens me at times. One day, someone will stand over me like this and do the same.” Id. at 167 (emphasis added). Time does speed up. It slips away.
On the fleeting nature of those rare joyous moments. In the story, the main character is with a woman. At a restaurant. He can smell her perfume, faint at the end of the day. And he says:
“I am intensely aware of this moment. Here I am, in New York City, in a restaurant, on a winter’s night, eating this food and drinking this wine, and I am alive for a moment, just a moment, before it flits away, I am happy, feel, in fact, overwhelming joy. And then, just that fast, as I try to hold on to it, to stay in it, the noise of thought pushes it away, like coffee spilled on a table, spreading out, covering everything. What have I been doing, why have I never been to Morocco, why don’t I speak Spanish, why can’t I kickbox, why didn’t I take a night course in philosophy/art history/Euclidean geometry…? I watch my mind come back to the moment, unable to pick up the thread from before.”
Id. at 198. Oh, this moment. I have experienced it. Not as often as I would like, but it is precisely this rarity that makes it so special. It’s like waking involuntarily from a dream, the moment you lose it. You can’t get it back.
(A funny line too, in this section, saying Olive Garden has a new tagline: “When you’re here, you’ve made a horrible mistake.” Id. Too, too true).
On routine and the days blending together:
“The days meld together. Moments of lightness , of meetings, walks down a hallway and nods and smiles to coworkers of five years, eight years. Wasn’t I taking this exact shower at this exact time yesterday morning? Or was it a week ago? What day is it? The subway and the coffee cart and the gym, the copier, the men’s room, the cafeteria, the void of time lost. We settle into a life. Maybe we made this life or maybe it simply happened.”
Id. at 205. In this same section, and I think very fitting, and familiar, he talks about looking out the window of his office building and seeing two men unloading sacks of flour from a truck. Each bag they set down emits a puff of white. They are in work boots. They are laughing and talking. “The job seems appealing from this distance.” Id. at 206. I have done this. Do this. With UPS men. Landscapers. Grocery store clerks. Why does it look so appealing? Is it just because it’s different? The path not taken? And were we to “throw it all away” and take up one of those jobs, wouldn’t that then become this? The drudgery? The monotony? Is this purely “grass is always greener” thinking, or is there something more to it?
So why do we keep doing it, if we’re so miserable? Kenney offers: “Everyone is working. There can be no stopping in the new world. We take pride in our busy-ness, our relentless workiness. You hear it every day. I’m swamped. I’m incredibly busy. I’ve never been busier. Work’s insane. It validates us. Helps us feel important. Helps us feel alive. If we were to stop, stand still, not do anything, we’d burst into flames.” Id. at 259.
So how do we break out of this? And do we? Can we? Should we? Is this just the reality of adult life, or is there more?
Okay, some of you might be thinking, “Geez, what a miserably depressing outlook. Why would anyone read that book?” But I don’t know. Reading it made me feel…understood? Less alone? There is some comfort in knowing I’m not the only one. It was familiar, but also funny. Because if we don’t laugh, we cry, right? The book was very good, very well-written, very thought-provoking. In a strange way, it made me feel better than reading Chicken Soup for the Corporate Drone’s Soul would have. Speaking of depressing…. Two enthusiastic if relentlessly overworked thumbs up.