Tuesday, April 20, 2010

The Great Book of the Couch

As I write this, it's 2:18 p.m. according to my Mac. Thus far today I've eaten two biscuits with gravy, half a link of sausage, two individual pizzas and three individually wrapped Reese's SnackBarz. Who knows what I will send through my stomach and liver before I finally take my sleeping pill and drift off into insomnia tonight?

I feel like the narrator of Saul Bellow's novel Henderson the Rain King, who tells the reader at the beginning of the book, "I'm a bum."

I could say I'm a slacker. But before I did that, I'd want to make clear that there's a long and great American tradition of literature about people who just kind of hang out and work little or not at all. Read the great 1960s and 1970s novels by Bellow, Norman Mailer, Walker Percy, Joan Didion (her essays too), Robert Stone, Marco Vassi, Thomas Pynchon, Richard Brautigan, Ronald Sukenick and on and on and on.

And all these people were working in the great tradition established by Herman Melville in the 19th century in his story "Bartleby the Scrivener." You remember Bartleby. He was the guy who answered every request (and order) with the phrase, "I prefer not to."

These books and stories are about people who've given up on that old American idea that you just have to show up and be ready to work and you'll be successful and happy. And the 1960s and 1970s fictional works were written in a time when Americans who weren't rich actually had some money.

So, having said all that, I go on to say, Call me bum. Call me slacker. If you ever see me with my mouth open, put a pork rind in there.

I used to blame my outrageously bad eating choices on stress. Now I think they're just habit. I don't feel right if I go to bed without having had at least two or three kinds of sausage during the day. And I go to bed early. Real early. Would you believe, say, 7 pm?

When I say I go to bed, I don't mean what most people mean when they say, "go to bed." What I'm referring to is not really going to bed; its going to couch. For me, the quintessence of slackerism and slackness is not eating biscuits and gravy with cracklins on top. It's lying on my couch doing nothing.
I thought I might one day follow in the footsteps of Ivan Goncharov, Samuel Beckett and John Kennedy Toole and write a book about a guy who did nothing but lie around all the time.

But then I decided there would be something not quite right about this. As I see it, my whole life has been a book about doing nothing. My life has been a long song of praise to lying on the couch, staring at the wall.

There are some who think doing nothing is a form of being lazy. That's a grave error. When I say I lie on the couch and do nothing, many, if not most, will assume I mean that I lie on the couch and watch television, or at least listen to music.

If that's what these people think, they and I are on two different pages. When I say I do nothing, I mean I do nothing. Absolutely nothing.

And thus it is demonstrated that what I do (or don't do) has no relation to being lazy. For if most people actually did nothing (as I do), they would immediately become unbearably bored. They would soon be in acute distress. They wouldn't be able to stand it. After five, 10 minutes max, they'd have to turn on a TV or grab a magazine or pick up the cell phone.

I'm light years beyond that. I lie down in absolute silence and I do not move.

Oh, I don't say I never get up and put a CD on the boombox. That happens once in a while. But I'll do such a thing only after a long period of deliberation about whether I'm up to doing it. And actually getting up off the couch will require a tremendous act of will. It'll be something I'll have to build up to. I'll lie on the couch thinking things like, "OK, Brad. You can do this. Come on. You can make it." Seriously.

Now someone reading this may think, "Why, this fellow's powerless to do anything. He has clinical depression!"

I'll go with that diagnosis as long as we both agree I'm suffering from junk-food-induced clinical depression. And if any person with the appropriate medical credentials is willing to give me free anti-depressants, I will happily take them.

But I don't want the basic nature of my life to change. I lie there on the couch, looking at all the books around me, thinking, "You know, Brad, you could get up and read one of those books." But then I think, "Oh no, not another book! You've read 10,000 and you've got another 10,000 to go. I'm tired of reading. Let's just defocus. Defocus. Ah. Now, doesn't that feel better?"

A book is a great project of diversion. And what is there about me that has changed after I've read yet one more book? I am, as the Floyd sang, "another day older and another day closer to death." All I've done is amuse myself for a few hours. And by the time I quit reading, it's time to go to sleep. There's no time left for just lying on the couch doing nothing.

I'm over half way through this essay and I still don't have the slightest idea what it's about. Let me just make up some topics out of the blue. Let's say it's about my perpetual tendency to do much, much less than could ever be expected of any American man. The idea of being successful, practical, ambitious; these things are inscrutable to me. The idea of staying active for the mere sake of staying active I find distasteful, and the idea of staying active because I'm expected to or supposed to is downright disgusting to me.

What about the idea that there's something wrong with me if I don't have a social life? I say, "Fine. Let there be something wrong with me. I'd rather have gangrene than have a social life." And the notion of taking steps to prepare for the future seems ridiculous. What? I'm supposed to prepare for the nursing home? That's crazy. I say let the nursing home prepare for me.

Even after I've trotted out and dismissed all those potential topics, the essay still seems a wee bit aimless. But that's OK. I have plenty of time to make up a topic before I get to the end.

What's it like to be the bum, the slob, the neurotic, the curmudgeon, the cynic, the introvert, the hermit, the underachiever? Well, I don't know if it's quite right to say that such a life requires a great deal of work. But it does result in a great deal of cognitive dissonance. To be such a person is to be a fish out of water. The moment I encounter a group of human beings, I'm lost. I don't care what anybody's children or grandchildren are doing. I don't care how cute anybody's baby looks. I don't bother about discussing current affairs because I know that if I do, the other people will just trot out their respective ideologies and shove them down my throat. And if I tried to initiate a discussion of philosophical ideas, why, they'd just look at me as if I were some kind of freak. And since they're already doing that anyway, why should I make the stupendous effort of forcing myself to say something they don't want to hear?

No, when I'm in a group, I just stand there, smile, look pretty, and think, "Make it stop! Make it stop! Make it stop!"

If I wanted to make myself sound better than I really am, I might compare myself to Sherlock Holmes. There's a Sherlock Holmes story in which a doctor tries to intimidate Holmes by showing off his physical strength and threatening Holmes. He insults Holmes' insular, intellectual, gentle life, calling Holmes "the meddler; the London busybody."

The doctor is macho; a man's man. I'd be scared to death of him and say, "No problem, sir. I assure you, you've seen and heard the last of me."

And in fact, Holmes says this is the most frightening case he's ever worked on — but not because of the doctor. Holmes is frightened by another aspect of the case that I won't mention here so as not to spoil the story.

Holmes defeats the doctor not through strength, but through his quiet, solitary Holmesishness. While the overconfident doctor strides around his estate like the cock of the walk, Holmes lurks in the shadows, waiting for the right moment, slowly and carefully working out all the right moves: an antisocial ninja of the 19th century British countryside who ends up snapping the manly doctor like a twig.

It would be a mistake to think that Holmes, for all his bitter pragmatism about humanity; for all his sideways, cerebral approach to experience; is really comparable to me in a fundamental way. You may recall that Holmes was driven; was only happy when he was working on a case. In that sense, he is a sort of mirror opposite, a sort of Janus face, to me — a person who's only happy when his life is free of work.

I could conjure up some kind of bogus philosophy of the couch, or actually try to write some sort of crudely lyrical paean to the couch. But that sounds an awful lot like doing something.

How much better it is just to type out the words as they come into my head. I type the words, I borrow money from my mother so I can pay my rent, my credit card companies charge me interest and the world goes round. What is wrong with this system? Well, there are a few things wrong with it. But it keeps me passive, so I like it.

And when I die, what will I, the consummate underachiever, have accomplished? What will anyone have accomplished? The ordinary person looks back over his or her life, and thinks, "I busied myself with this and that. And in the end, what did it all matter? What difference did it make in the general scheme of things? And now I feel it all drifting away. That's what I did. I busied myself with this and that."

As for me, I'll say, "I busied my self with this and that — only less so."

Like Holmes, I can take a certain pride in what I do. Yet again, I've managed to write a full length essay about absolutely nothing.

"Well, so what?" someone says. "Jerry Seinfeld put together a hit show about nothing more than 10 years before you wrote this."

Beaten to the punch again! An underachiever even at underachieving! I couldn't be more pleased.

When I leave this vale of tears, the great book of the couch will be complete. Floating on the astral plane, it will drift there, waiting for anyone who dares to plunge into this anti-epic story of the ordinary man who was nothing but what was in his head.

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