Tuesday, May 24, 2005
What I Live For
Book Excerpt: The final chapter of Home From Nowhere
Simon & Schuster, 1996
There are times I feel so fortunate that I wonder if I am making up this life as it as it traces its mysterious arc through time. Solipsism is not a very attractive philosophy -- especially in others -- but such good fortune as I've known seems improbable to one who otherwise doesn't believe in dumb luck. Were I beset by catastrophe tomorrow, I could still say that I lived 47 pretty good years. In terms of sheer bulk chronology, I've outlasted George Gershwin, Jesse James, Lord Byron, Wolfgang Mozart, Martin Luther King, Jesus Christ, Huey Long, Lou Gehrig, Stonewall Jackson, Fats Waller, John F. Kennedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one of the Beatles -- and a few of these characters were far more beset by troubles in their short lives than I have been so far.
The world is full of terrible places where life is everything Hobbes said and worse. For all the shortcomings I perceive about my homeland these days, I must admit it has allowed me to function freely in my vocation, which is saying a lot. The only conditions I value more are loving relations with friends and kin and a more generalized gratitude for being born in the first place. I am not religious, but I am aware of a spiritual dimension to this mysterious world. As Wittgenstein remarked, it is astonishing that anything exists. I believe we pass this way but once, and that this is the source of man's essentially tragic condition. Yet I believe simultaneously, perhaps incongruously, even obdurately and foolishly that each of us is an offspring of the intelligent and benevolent organism that is the universe -- though this model leaves a lot unaccounted for, from war to root canal therapy -- and that we remain part of it, in some fashion, everlastingly.
My ancestors were mostly Jewish -- the exception being my great-grandmother, a German Christian -- but my parents observed none of the Jewish rituals or holidays. They prayed to the Sunday Times crossword puzzle. In our house (or apartment following their divorce and subsequent re-marriages) there was always a Christmas tree, and up to the age of six I received chocolatey visits from the Easter Bunny, with no idea that he died in anguish on a cross for me. For all that, my parents are not the kind of Jews who pretend that they belong to the Swindon Hunt Club. They are cultural Jews, emphatically of the New York persuasion. A lot of yiddish slang is flung around, mostly for comic effect. "That forbissina face!" "What a farkokteh idea!" Anyway, Judaism is more about human conduct than eschatology. I was therefore raised in what might be described as a religion-free household. Strange to relate, as a result of my travels around the United States the past seven years, I begin to come to the disquieting conclusion that we Americans are these days a wicked people who deserve to be punished. The idea embarrasses me, but I nevertheless stand by it. I suppose this is what comes of a vocation that places one, for instance, in a New Jersey gambling casino full of overweight slobs pissing away their kids' college tuition in pursuit of "excitement." I therefore also believe in the existence of genuine evil, as embodied, in the Hannah Arendt sense, by the behavior of many well-known American corporations, especially those that prey on the aspirations of children.
Perhaps in consequence of my singular theology, I have rather robust notions about right and wrong. They proceed also from the issue of personal honor, which I define as meaning what one says and vice versa. To my way of thinking there are few personal virtues more important than being reliable in this sense. As for kindness and generosity, I suspect they derive as much from disposition as culture, and all it takes is a glance at the Saturday morning TV shows to see how these matters are treated at the cultural end in our time. Experience has disposed me to be kind in my personal dealings and severe in my professional ones. For instance, the culture of business, including the literature racket, has decayed in step with other things in America, and the common decencies are seldom observed nowadays. Phone calls are not returned, letters not answered, checks not sent, agreements not kept, and I get rather irked by all this. I squawk about it to the amazement of my associates and representatives. The idea that business relations might be regulated by standards of decency makes them howl with laughter. I believe that standards rise and fall in cycles and that the time will come again when personal honor means something. I hope I live to see it. Luckily, that is not all I live for.
I live in a little gray 1820s cottage with Jennifer Armstrong, an author of children's books. By the time this book is in print, we will be married. We have two dogs, a cat, and a canoe. Our house is about a two-minute walk from the town's main street, with all its wonderful attractions. My daily life is shapely and pleasing. I shape it by observing some self-discipline and am pleased by the results. I'm not a nut about it, but self-employment does call for a certain rigor. I believe Flaubert's dictum that if you want to be wild in your art, you must be bourgeois in your life. I keep regular hours. I commute 27 seconds by bicycle up the street and across a square to my office, which is a ground-floor apartment in an 1850s building that was once a hotel. I usually get in before 8:30, depending on the traffic, har har.
I enjoy writing. I don't suffer from blocks. I have enough ideas for books to keep me busy for the rest of my life. Yet writing is not easy. I struggle to produce three decent pages a day. It's like making bratwurst under an electron microscope. Nevertheless, I amuse myself. The operations of my own mind entertain me hugely. To avoid over-indulgence in that dubious realm, therefore, I get out of here around noon, rain or shine, summer or winter, and run three miles with the dogs. I eat a miserable, abstemious lunch of an apple and a banana as a weight-control measure -- since, in middle age, one develops the metabolism of a garden slug. I compose sentences and paragraphs all afternoon, sipping green tea. At five o'clock I bike over to the YMCA and swim a mile in the pool to sweep all the bratwurst scraps out of my skull. I am fortunate once again in not having to spend any portion of my day sitting in a car, commuting, as tens of millions of my countrymen do, including many of my friends.
I own a 1992 Toyota pickup truck, but it sits in its parking space on the street for days at a time because most of what I need is within a one-minute bike ride of both my home and office. I exercise a lot because I like to cook and eat. My idea of bigtime fun is to make dinner for eight of my friends and get a little looped on cheap champagne in the process. I almost never work on weekends or evenings.
I never made more than $15,000 in any one year until well after I turned forty. I arrived in this town 20 years ago on a motorcycle from San Francisco after dropping out of the journalism business to write books. I settled here because, before California, I'd worked for a year on the nearby Albany newspaper, and gotten to know Saratoga, and it seemed like a good place to be a starving writer of books nobody had asked to be written. Through the 70s and 80s, I worked a lot of odd jobs, from orderly in the psychiatric wing of the hospital, to digging holes for percolation tests in housing subdivisions. I lived on brown rice and onions for months on end. It was a stringent existence but there were many compensations. I had that motorcycle (and two successors) and a flyrod and beautiful countryside to ramble in, and I made a lot of friends in town.
Over the years I pounded out eight novels. All of them were published and all of them were commercial flops in any meaningful sense, apart from their literary merit. I picked up some Hollywood option money on most of them. My first novel was optioned thirteen times. The options amounted to a couple of thousand dollars each, spread out over two decades: chump change. None of my books were made into movies. These old novels still turn up now and again in the discontinued merchandise bin at the K-mart. It's like finding a beloved relative in the gutter clutching a bottle in a paper bag.
In 1987, I took a badly-needed sabbatical from fiction-writing and returned to journalism with a series of stories for the Sunday New York Times Magazine about land development issues. These led to a proposal for a book that would become The Geography of Nowhere. I had no particular credentials for the job, which proved to be an advantage, since so many problems with our everyday environment are caused by the over-specialization of trained specialists unwilling to look at the bigger picture beyond the narrow purview of their specialty. It was a worthy task for a generalist.
The Geography of Nowhere was moderately successful. It seemed to help people understand their feelings about a subject that had long bewildered them. I became something of a low-grade guru. I received many invitations to speak to civic groups, professional organizations, and colleges around the country. My initial reaction was panic that people were looking to me for illumination. What could be more natural than to feel unworthy of other people's esteem? I am aware that many successful figures secretly feel like frauds, including people far more knowledgeable and accomplished than myself. This is apparently a universal neurosis. Everybody feels inadequate. I've since formulated a social principle called Kunstler's Law, which states that in any room containing 100 people, 99 of them each think that they are the only one in the room who doesn't have his-or-her act together.
In the face of this I decided to take my role seriously and do my best to be helpful, accepting the risk of the public arena that some people will see me as an imposter, a blowhard, or a fool. I think I give a good lecture. I speak with conviction. I believe it is a sin to bore an audience. It happens that I majored in the dramatic arts in college and my training as an actor helps. I understand the nature of a performance. An audience doesn't hunger for the truth so much as for authenticity. They know the truth can be slippery. Their hopes and dreams are something else.
I believe that rhetoric is undervalued these days. My own generation had much to do with devaluing it back in the 60s, when all public talk seemed mendacious. Part of what I do these days is an attempt to resuscitate rhetoric as an honorable and worthy feature of public life in this country. I am sensible that rhetoric sometimes changes the world. It frightens me to be in possession of it.
As a writer, though, I see myself primarily as a prose artist, not as a retailer of Big Ideas. I think the success of The Geography of Nowhere was due as much to the shapeliness of its prose as to any ideas it contained. Sooner or later, I intend to leave this subject behind. I have other fish to fry.
It is mid-September as I write, one of the last days before summer's end, a time of year that feels analogous to the position of my little life in its orbit around a greater wheel of time. In a while, I will gather up my French easel and a newly-stretched canvas and head over to the Hudson River in my pickup truck with the canoe on the rack. The state is rebuilding the highway bridge at Schuylerville and there are several bright red work barges with cranes moored under it. I want to record the scene while all that equipment is still there. I spend most of my free time painting out in the open air. It is very important to me and I am very serious about it. When I am outside painting, I feel most in love with this world. I have a notion that writers burn out in their sixties but painters keep going to ninety or more. I love the idea of Monet pottering around the garden in his old age.
I feel an obligation to paint the landscape of my time, so I often paint highways with cars on them and even roadside monstrosities like McDonald's and K-Mart. I especially like the contrast between the artificial light of their electric signs and the natural twilight in the background. The result on canvas is oddly beautiful, but of course what's left out is the roaring traffic and the smell of exhaust fumes. One time a few years ago, I was painting a McDonalds with my easel set up across the highway in a bark mulch bed in the parking lot of Burger King. I was well underway when the manager bustled out and barked, "That ain't allowed here!" I dared him to call the police. I would have loved nothing better than to be arrested for painting. I assured him that the ensuing court case would be great publicity for Burger King, too. Eventually he skulked back inside to his fry-o-laters, and that was the end of it. Today, I'll happily forego that kind of amusement. I'm after tranquility, solitude, and fresh air. So it's off to the river on the most beautiful day of the year. Yippie.
This is the essence of my private life. This is what I live for. I want to paint some more pictures and write some more books. I want to make my girl happy. I want to throw more Christmas parties and put on more Saturday night feeds. I want to learn how to read sheet music. I want to keep running with the dogs. I want to live in a nice town in a civilized country. I want to remain grateful for being born.
Copyright © 1997 James Howard Kunstler