Models of Living

Think, for a moment, of all the people living in this country. And then all the people living in the world. Don't think of them as a swarm or as the masses, the public, or a people. Try to conjure them as individuals in their houses with the their tchotchkes and doodads; lying in bed with this and that streaming through their head; how they like to kiss, suck, fuck; the different friends they have; how they interact with their kids, their parents, their siblings. It's dizzying and gloriously so.

And yet, despite this baroque complexity, we have shockingly few models of what constitutes a way of living. There are these assumptions we make as we size each other up and then, in the deep dark night, size up ourselves.

For instance, it is assumed that out of high school you go to college (the passive voice in this instance seems apropos). If you do something different, you have to explain yourself at great lengths and defensively. You have to justify your decision. But to decide to go to college demands no such justification. It's just what you do.

This is the insidious nature of what Michel Foucault calls discourse. Something is decided to be true, to be proper. And everything else is categorized in some fashion or other as a deviation. The true is that which doesn't need explanation. Everything else does.

Now consider the discourse of growing up. After college, you get a job. And not only do you get a job, you choose a career. You're allowed to party for a while but at some point you settle down. You get married, buy a house, spawn. And then you cling to the end of your life with focused intensity, prolonging death through medications and breathing tubes until you become too expensive for your insurance or family and they let you finally die. 

Within this trajectory, there are accepted forks. Divorce, for instance. Divorce is a bad thing. The children of divorced parents are of course — of course — at a disadvantage. And, the story goes, we are a sad people because the divorce rate is so high. 

Do anything differently; act any way differently; believe differently and you have to explain yourself ad nauseum — and your words will still probably fall on deaf ears. Divorce is bad and how dare you feel differently? In fact, your elaborate justification is probably a defense mechanism so you don't have to deal with the sadness.

But echoing Louis CK, I gotta tell you: divorce was good for me. It's good for my kid. (I won't speak for my ex but I assume it's good for her, too.) It's good for the world. In fact, I don't feel like I got divorced. I realigned my family.

You see, it turns out that having to work all the time, live in some crammed up apartment, and raise a human kid is, for the most part, awful. We tried for years despite the glaring untenability of the situation. Why? Because that's what you do. Divorce is a failure. We felt like we were failing our kid. When I moved out, I cried for months with an overwhelming sense of guilt.   

Which is insane! We were simply tending to our lives. Why must it be cast as a failure?  Today, we have a beautiful thing you never see modeled anywhere: a distributed household, that is, one household, two houses. Stay in a marriage, stay living together, when everyone is miserable day in and day out — then you're not considered a failure. You don't have to explain yourself. You don't feel guilty. Google "divorce" and, right after the lawyers, you'll see coping sites for the children of divorce. People ask me: How's your son dealing with the divorce? But if I were to ask: How is your son dealing with you and your idiotic husband? I'd be an asshole.

These discourses, these models of life, are insidious, egregious, and soul crushing. When I was teaching undergrads, I never ceased to be amazed at the sense of entitlement. As the professor, I assumed these paying students who can choose any course they want, more or less, had decided to take my class. (When I taught a requirement, I went easy on the amount of work I assigned.) But, for the most part, freshman assume this is 13th grade so it's my job to hold their hand, as if I were in loco parentis. I am not accusing youth today; I was the same way. It's part of white middle class discourse: you go to college right out of high school. No questions asked because no questions need to be asked. It's just the way things are. 

And this sense of what's right continues throughout your life. Every time you consider deviating, you are put in a position to justify — to your friends, family, co-workers, yourself.

I've never really had a job job, that is, a place you have to go to every day except the weekend. I'm 43 and only worked a job job for, I don't know, three years all together (including when I worked retail as a kid). I contract often with marketing agencies. And, at some point, they try to figure out why I don't work for them full time and things tend to get a bit soured as if I must be judging them rather than affirming me.  

The same was true when I was teaching. Everyone assumed I was teaching adjunct while I looked for a so-called real tenure track professorship. But I never applied for an academic job because I don't really like academia and it pays shit, to boot. I like teaching, however. So I worked as a marketing contractor and taught adjunct. Meanwhile, to both the academic and corporate world, I was suspicious. Which doesn't matter to me except that I needed to justify myself to them which, alas, is exhausting. Why don't they need to justify their lives to me?

Now, if I went off the grid and became a farmer, there's a model of that (even if it's rarely portrayed and, for the most part, vilified). Professionally, there are no models for how I work — not quite square, not quite alternative. Of course there are other people leading lives that elude the same old structures. But I never see them modeled; they're not on TV or in movies and only rarely in books. (This is one reason I was drawn to Showtime's "Weeds." It offers a different model of family and parenting as she actually asserts her adulthood and sexuality.)

We are told the same old stories all the time and then repeat them to ourselves, to our lovers, to our families and friends until we actually believe them. We believe that getting divorced hurts our kids. We believe that the only way to be happy is to get married. We believe that owning a house is a good thing. And then, when none of these things work out, we consider ourselves failures.

What's insane is we've never seen any of these things work out. Look around. Does it seem like most people who have gone right to college, had a career, got married and had kids are happy? Isn't it achingly obvious that these models don't work, that most people are miserable, medicated, and angst ridden? Sure, some of you are saying, Hey, my parents are happy! Or: I'm happy. To which I say, That's excellent. But please note that I am not saying these things are inherently bad; I'm just saying they're not inherently good. And that there's plenty of evidence to back me up. 

Neither marriage nor divorce are good in and of themselves. They are good if they are good and bad if they are bad. (There are many more failed marriages than failed divorces.) We can not get married. We can be renters for life. We can not have careers. We can have multiple lovers and still love them all. We can raise kids without two parents, same sex or not, living in the same house.

In reality, people lead particular lives that navigate and negotiate the reigning discourses. What's so painful is that there are so few models and that the models that exist suck. So in turn we have to expend our energy doing this navigating and negotiating. Rather than affirming my familial realignment, I have to answer people's idiotic questions about how my son is dealing with it. Rather than affirming and enjoying my solitude, I have to explain that my not wanting to marry again is not because I feel I failed or because I'm jaded or because I'm not ready (oh, fuck, that is the most condescending comment I get). All this explaining drains my vitality. Which is why I lead a predominantly reclusive life. I don't want to explain and justify myself.

Sex is one place our culture does indeed offer a wide array of models thanks, in most part, to internet porn. Go online and within two clicks you can find hundreds of different models of pleasure giving and receiving. It's staggering, really. And, as a result, it's hard to feel weird today about your sexual turn ons. Yeah, I just like wearing diapers and being peed on. Cool? If only we had such a breadth and variety of models for work, dating, marriage, parenting, for living. 


Jan Robin said...

Did you seriously become a farmer? I'm a student from Germany and years ago found your Rhetoric 101 podcast from Berkley on itunes and heard it on my ipod during my social service year.

Also, wouldn't the argument be that the existence of models "sucks" than rather the existing models? There are no two similar individuals so it seems obvious that there isn't a single model that would fit both a hundred percent. Sure, we have social bonderies in which we move - or don't - but within those exists an almost infinite multitude of possible life models. (Or like your idea in said podcast, that doing the right thing, making the right decision is always bound to a point in time and space and never universal, thus rendering models claiming universal truth for themselves pointless.)

Personally I must admit that I find it somewhat difficult to ask someone who chose differntly than to go to university after school what he is doing without (at least to my own ears) sounding condescending.


Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for joining the conversation, Jan.

So, no, I'm not a farmer; I'm a fucking marketer. I don't really like being outside.

As for the question of models, the idea of no model is appealing but an ideal: discursive models exist necessarily. We live interconnected lives and, together, create rules, share assumptions, develop "truths."

My point is that of course there are more complex behaviors than models — thanks to the idiocy of media culture. Individuals are always making their way as they do and will. But they have to negotiate idiotic ideals along the way. I'm saying that I believe we can proliferate these models to make this individual negotiation less trying. And we can even proffer a model of models: a desire for new modes, models that are sui generis, absolutely particular and strange.

Unknown said...

Hi Daniel,

I just heard you on the Partially Examined Life podcast and really enjoyed your take on things. So I decided to check out your blog and I have to say, this post resonated so much with me. I'm 40 myself, and the one question I find myself wrestling with is how to live a life that is right for me. Perhaps an existentialist would use the word authentic. I'm not sure how I would characterize it, but I do know that in my own journey I find this constant running up against the social norms of what is acceptable/responsible/etc. The most disturbing aspect for me has been how much of these social norms I have internalized. The amount of justifying to myself that I don't want, for example, to devote countless hours towards running/growing a business. That I really wish to make just enough money to have time to spend either with my family, or in creative pursuits, or, perhaps most radically: in having time to think and ponder this big wide world.
There's more to say but in the meantime it's my pleasure to have found out about you and your work and I look forward to keeping in touch. Thanks for the inspiration today!

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