4.18.2013

Engineering Life

In 1996, I visited the Louvre — and I'm still nauseated. It's not that there aren't great things to see there; of course there are. It's that the place is overrun with lots of shitty, cloying art, as well. And, my god, so many romantic rape scenes. It's odd. Even in the fucking Egyptian room, they hang more rape scenes just to fill the space. It's a horrendous experience; I felt like I was being choked to death. Godard understands: do the Louvre fast.



I remember my good friend reading for his doctoral exams. He had to read hundreds of books on intellectual history. And, being a careful reader, he read them all. Oh, man, he was a mess — he got in two car accidents, would lose his keys with some regularity, was generally spaced out. The books were filling him up and leaving no room to think and function.  Me, I only had around 30 books on my exams; I knew my limits — on that occasion, at least.

Every day, all day, we are taking in the world. Think about it for a moment. Think about all the things you see, all the things you're seeing right now, right in front of but in your periphery, as well. It's an infinitely dense mosaic — the screen, smudges, words, scraps of paper, pens, old receipts, clothes, leaves, stray pubes, Post-Its, pennies. Frankly, it can be nauseating — all this stuff coming into my eyes no matter what I do. Oh, I close them for a moment now and again and then for hours while I sleep. And it is a welcome relief from the barrage. But even with my eyes closed, I still see all sorts of things.

Now, as if composing an impossibly baroque symphony, picture all the other stuff that's coming at you in the course of the quotidian — sounds, so many fucking sounds — amidst them, words which are the craziest sounds overflowing with meaning, allusion, memory; odors of sundry sort; sensations — the sun, wind, clothes rubbing, wearing, moving; pho, coffee, granola, chocolate, pad see ew, the water running down your gullet. 

We are engines of consumption. We take in and distribute and, in so doing, make ourselves. We are productive machines that take in air, sound, nutrients, ideas, sensations in order to make this — this me. Here. This. Scientists call this metabolism and such is life or, rather, existence (rocks, wind, even plastic knick knacks — especially plastic knick knacks — take in the world, take up the world). 

As we get older, we hopefully begin to heed out diet, noting those things that make us feel good and, more often, those things that make us feel lousy. Usually, this comes to us despite ourselves. I get the runs every time I eat cheese. Maybe I shouldn't eat it. Duh. Or: Hmn. It seems beer makes me burp rather grotesquely. Perhaps I shouldn't drink it. 

But we tend to be less discerning when it comes to the rest of our lives — activities, people, books, art, TV, movies, newspaper. To consume these things haphazardly can be destructive. Why do you think you're so tired? Anxious? Depressed? In a malaise? Or, for that matter, exuberant, vital, joyful?

We are not closed, hermetic beings. We have holes; we take in the world all the time in multiple ways. And we expend, proffer, put ourselves back out in words, piss, shit, sweat, love, anxiety, semen, sex, saliva.

And so if we are indeed engines endlessly making ourselves, then it behooves us to engineer our experiences to optimize our vitality: to engineer our best selves. This demands approaching experience knowingly, reflectively, and asking: Does this suit me? What me does it create? Am I more vital doing this, reading that, going there? Or am I debilitated, drained, sapped?

I, for one, found going to an office every day literally unbearable. I may or may not have a moral or political problem with work but I certainly have a constitutional one: going to an office every day almost killed me. It sapped my vitality so thoroughly I was sure one morning I just wouldn't wake up. You, on the other hand, might thrive on such structure. It's not a question of certain things being inherently good or bad; it's a question of knowing how these things go with you, affect you, shape you. 

Sometimes, it means making difficult decisions — quitting a job, not eating spaghetti, blowing off so-called friends, getting divorced. I changed my marital status after 13 years as I found the familial dynamic not conducive to my well being. I don't blame anyone. I don't see this as a failure. I see it as a shift in system conditions. A good friend of mine, now 50, went a different direction: he's about to have his first kid and be married and I can tell just by looking at him that it suits him. He's radiant.  Neither marriage nor divorce is a good or bad in and of itself: it's a matter of circumstance, of what's right for these bodies in this situation. It's a matter of engineering. 

I'm 43 now and have just begun to engineer my life effectively. 43! This is not to say those 43 years were ill spent; it's to say that it's taken me this long to begin actively to engineer my life. To hone my instincts as to what I should eat; when to leave the movie theater; the kinds of work I will do; with whom I spend time doing what for how long; the kind of family I want to have. And, of course, when to shut my eyes in a museum.  

5 comments:

Scott Sanders said...

Great piece. Dude you need to get back to lecturing.

Vacker said...
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Adam S said...

Daniel I've been reading your blog for the last few days and it has been a real pleasure. Great post. Great thinking. Great blog.

Adam S said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Daniel Coffeen said...

@ Adam: Thank you so much not just for reading and for the kind words but for taking the time to tell them to me. Truly — it is appreciated.