Monday, April 8, 2013

Something Universal

In books, I'm always searching for moments that reveal truths I've intuitively felt but have never understood clearly enough to attempt expressing. Sometimes you discover an author's more successful attempt to describe exactly that feeling you've always had but could never understand, and in hearing this thing from someone else, you realize it's something we all share.

I came across one last week in F. Scott Fitzgerald's short story, "The Rich Boy." The protagonist Anson, who has spent most of the story successful, drunk, enjoying wild nights out, and making out with hot girls, has reached his late twenties and finds himself alone in a New York hotel phone booth on a Saturday evening, reaching out to people from his old life [italics mine]:
Later he said that he tried to get me three times that afternoon, that he tried every one who might be in New York — men and girls he had not seen for years, an artist's model of his college days whose faded number was still in his address book — Central told him that even the exchange existed no longer. At length his quest roved into the country, and he held brief, disappointing conversations with emphatic butlers and maids. So-and-so was out, riding, swimming, playing golf, sailed to Europe last week. Who shall I say phoned?
It was intolerable that he should pass the evening alone — the private reckonings which one plans for a moment of leisure lose every charm when the solitude is enforced.
I've experienced this a thousand times, and I'm sure you have too. How often have you been overwhelmed with work projects, overtime, studying, classwork, family gatherings, or housework, dwelling first idly then intensely on all the fun or productive things you could do if only you had the chance: the novels you want to write, e-mails to answer, foods to cook, shops to check out, music to listen to, hobbies to spend more time with, or whatever else you'd like to be doing that you just don't have time for.

Now, how often have you been surprised with a free evening, a day off, a work vacation, or unemployment seemingly without end? You had a plan, but now it's gone.  The initial respite from stress turns into an excess of free time that becomes impossible to fill. What happens to our imagined projects then? They go from alarmingly real to frustratingly unfocused, or maybe we realize that we never wanted them that much at all. (Maybe we should have written them down.)

Fitzgerald knew this back in 1926, and little has changed since then. One could easily imagine Anson in polo shirt and Crocs sending text messages to everyone on his contact list and getting terse, negative responses, then reaching only voicemail as he became desperate enough to call. Fitzgerald describes this feeling using far fewer words than I've done here. We know what he's talking about; we've all been there. He's touched on something universal.

These are the things I think about when I'm stuck at home on a Friday playing Tetris instead of at the sold-out showing of The Room with Q&A by Tommy Wiseau. Damn you, UNH.

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