Sunday, February 06, 2011

faith without innocence

I’ve been reading More Than It Hurts You by Darin Strauss, which I’m not quite done with, and thinking about innocence. One of the main characters, Josh, is this charming thirty-something ad salesman who tries to see the good in every person he meets. He’s not one of those smarmy used-car-type salesmen: Like all really good salespeople, he believes what he’s saying. He prides himself on noticing little details about people, a quality Strauss must share because he’s so good at documenting the minutia of human interactions that, in the time I’ve been reading the book, I feel like I’ve become a way better writer. It’s like Strauss’ prose is this electric current I can tap into.

But whereas Strauss is interested in swinging his flashlight beam into the dark corners of our souls, Josh is not. Despite his keen observances, he also prides himself on knowing just enough to get by when it comes to many subjects and situations. The wrong kind of details muck up the smooth clockwork of life. This philosophy serves him well in sales but proves disastrous when it comes to his wife, whose dissatisfaction with their marriage plays out in very disturbing but covert ways.

Josh’s story is one of belated loss of innocence, which is, I think, the story of being in one’s thirties (this post being yet another chapter in my ongoing and surprising discovery that adulthood is not a big party at the finish line of youth). There are the universal losses of innocence that are well documented in fiction: loss of virginity, first broken heart, etc. But fiction would have you believe all those boxes get checked off by age 22.

So imagine my and Josh’s surprise to discover that the battle of early middle age seems to be how to maintain hope without nurturing false hope. Once you know how much the world can suck—when it’s clear that you’re probably not going to become a rock star with eternally low cholesterol and a devoted model for a spouse and 2.5 adorable, well behaved children who don’t get in the way of your rock star career in any way—how do you still live in it and love it? (And I ask this realizing that I’m still innocent when it comes to the direct effects of war and poverty—the really big stuff.)

The other night my sister was expressing some exhaustion with the dating pool, and I thought about how it’s something different for everyone. I could have given the same jaded speech but substituted “publishing” for “men.” It scared me a little because my sister is not a person I consider bitter or jaded at all. I know she’ll brush herself off in the same way I’ll brush myself off. But can you just do that endlessly?

Being a starving artist or a dreamy-eyed romantic when you’re 22 is charming. When you’re 33, it seems deluded. I’ve seen people my age with these attitudes and they weird me out a little. But who wants to be the chain-smoking hag at the end of the bar raining on everyone’s parade either? Sometimes the only appealing alternative seems to be being fabulously successful in everything you try. But that’s A) not possible and B) would make you kind of out of touch and insufferable in your own way.

So I’m trying to negotiate a fourth territory. I think maybe David Foster Wallace already did it with that one commencement speech, which I should probably reread every week. Of course, it’s hard not to be like, Yeah, but he killed himself, so his answer, which seemed to be the only answer, was not an answer at all for him, was it? I’m against reading too much into the suicide of a person I never met, but I do think a lifelong struggle with depression probably encouraged him to think about the question of how to have faith without innocence more than the average person.

Friday night AK and I saw Robbie Q. Telfer perform at Oxy. I wasn’t familiar with his work, but it gave me lots of hope. It was this fusion of poetry, spoken word and stand-up comedy that took all kinds of twists and turns. A piece would start out hilariously funny and turn dark and poignant without the record ever scratching. Then the end would tie it all together, not so much a neat package as a letter bomb (see his “Douche Bag” piece, and the way it weaves between the literal and the metaphorical like a stunt car on a closed course). Some of the college kids in the cafeteria auditorium finished their pizza and wandered out mid-performance, but Robbie Q. maintained his dignity. He’s only like 28 or 29, I think, so maybe he wasn’t thinking, Ignorant brats. Or maybe he was, a little, and just brushed himself off for now.


Tracy Lynn said...

I think, most days, that my faith is centered in the idea that I am not just here for myself. That maybe my presence here, still, after all that has happened and all that I have done, is somehow important to someone else, and that, even though I may never know the why or who of it, I can still believe it to be true. Or at least true enough to keep my head out of the oven.

darinstrauss said...

Thanks for the kind words about my book.
I agree about Wallace; his problem was chemical. He was feeling happy enough to go off his meds, and then -- when he tried to get back on -- they'd stopped working for him. I's a mistake to judge the work by the final act.

ANyway -- glad you're liking my book. My most recent one, Half a Life, is better (and very short!). Email me ( and I can send you a copy....

Cheryl said...

TK: I count myself among those very happy that you've kept your head out of the oven.

DS: Wow, I'm totally star-struck that you commented. Long live Google Alerts! I just finished the book this morning--it was one of those I was sad to be done with. I heard an excerpt from Half a Life on This American Life and liked it very much, so I will absolutely take you up on your offer.

Claire said...

The Interwebs are so cool sometimes!

In some ways I have more hope for myself as an artist now. When I worked in film in my 20s, I was chasing the idea of a sustainable creative career. The actuality was not particularly sustainable or simple and was full of compromises. I'd be better at it now but I'm not driven to do it.

My art at present is actually less sustaining than my film career was, but it's mine and that counts for a lot.

I keep faith by following the exploits of people like Amanda Palmer, a musician who's creating a life of performance through social media and the web. Granted her large fan base originates with the popularity of her old band, The Dresden Dolls, but now that she's free of her old record label, it's fascinating to see how she creates her life.

I never thought of adulthood as the "big party at the finish line of youth." I figured I'd be dead by 30. But here I am at 37, so woohoo!

The other way I keep faith is probably by being a recluse. My humble aspirations don't get confronted by much except my own occasional mental chatter for the most part.

Cheryl said...

I'm realizing now that this post made it sound like I was thinking specifically about success and lack thereof, but I was trying (without success--ha!) to get at a broader kind of disillusionment. Like, the realization that the world's sucky qualities are not just a dramatic backdrop. They have real and ugly consequences. Being a DIY artist is part of it, and I too have some keep-hope-alive tricks up my sleeve. But, yeah, even though I am very self-centered, this post ended up being extra so.

Jesi said...

i have come up with 3 kinds of depression: the blues, depression, and then the grave. if you've ever spent time in the grave, you don't even question why someone kills themselves, you just know. if you've never spent time in the grave, you will never ever know what it means to be severely depressed and why suicide is a viable solution.

i'm 38 and i still want to be a rock star. what does it mean to be a dreamy-eyed romantic or starving artist (although i do have a day job) at 38? i must be completely pathetic. i was miserable in high school and now i'm even more miserable. when does this miserable end? or does it? i don't feel i'm chasing a dream anymore but a lifeline. i need to be doing something in my life that will keep me wanting to do it (day after day after day) [and this is why i think it's so vital for me to have kids; kids will give me a reason to keep going]. and i don't think i've ever loved life, which is prolly why i'm always miserable. ha! (i laugh at my miserable self) so anyways, (sorry for the confessional) let me know when you negotiate a fourth territory, because i'm thinking i need one too. (i haven't read Wallace's commencement speech but will soonly.)

Jesi said...

btw, we're all self-centered. if you are human you are self-centered. just try and throw in some self awareness and humility every once in awhile.

Cheryl said...

I don't think WANTING to be a rock star makes anyone pathetic--it's more about the ability to see the world as it is and love it anyway. Some days it's easier to do that than others.

I do believe kids keep you going--or, more broadly, that other people keep you going--but it seems like a lot of pressure to put on one small person, don't you think? Like having a kid to save a marriage? I guess the key is to never let your kids know they're the only thing standing between you and the oven.