by JIM KNIPFEL
May 5, 2019
Life is Life, God Help Us All
I was talking to my old friend Derek not that long ago. It was a few weeks before his eightieth birthday, and he commented that looking back over his life, he couldn’t believe how much energy, experience, and emotion he’d crammed into the two-year stretch between 1962 and 1964. Since then, he said, there have been entire decades when he didn’t do nearly as much as he did over the course of those two years.
It’s something I’ve thought about myself. Looking back at all the stories I’ve been able to dredge out of the time Grinch and I spent running roughshod over and around and under Madison, Wisconsin, it’s hard to believe that, too, was only a two year stretch spanning 1985 and 1986. Every goddamn day could have been the basis for a novella. The things I’ve actually written about don’t even scratch the surface of all that was going on. Now, and I’m not insulting anyone but myself here, I think back over the past fifteen years and the whole period doesn’t seem to come close to matching, just in terms of cheap thrills and stupid adventure, what we were able to shovel into a few hours in the mid-Eighties. All the crime and large scale pranks and small scale pranks and punk rock shows and protests and just simple fucking around that somehow always seemed to end up on the evening news.
I think the three year stretch I spent in Philly was much the same, but different. I know a lot happened while I was there. Grand, crazy things. I had just started writing, needed things to write about, so went out and made them happen. They were good years, but the problem is I can barely recall them now. Much of my memory of that time exists nowadays as a collection of independent moments and scenes, a small stack of randomly shuffled, mismatched movie stills without context. But still I know those days were action-packed, with so much going on at the bars and shows and on the street. Again, they were daily adventures, if only I could remember what some of them were.
Taken together, that’s just five years, and not even a contiguous five years. Less than one-tenth of my life into which so much was crammed. Five defining years that represent the core of most of what I am now and the memories I cling to most fiercely (when I can recall them, anyway).
Of course the slow drift of the past two decades can be attributed to a number of things: aging, marriage, increased responsibilities, drinking, rent, and most of all blindness. As I’ve noted, it’s hard to pull off robberies when you can’t see what you’re stealing, and hard to run wild in the streets when you can’t see the lampposts and mailboxes and parked cars in your path.
This is far more than some banal youth-worship nonsense. If given the choice I would never be young again. It’s more an issue of perspective and attitude. Still, it makes me think of the passage from Thomas Pynchon’s V., which I (with good reason) used as the epigram for my third memoir:
How, the reasoning goes: how can a man write his life unless he is virtually certain of the hour of his death? A harrowing question. Who knows what Herculean poetic feats might be left to him in perhaps the score of years between a premature apologia and death? Achievements so great as to cancel out the effect of the apologia itself. And if on the other hand nothing at all is accomplished in twenty or thirty stagnant years—how distasteful is anticlimax to the young!
All this has me wondering, are most lives like this? Do most people think back to what amounts to only two or three years of their personal experience on this planet and think, “Yeah, that’s when everything happened, when I became what I am.”? And has the rest just been coasting onward to the grave?
Not long after I arrived in Brooklyn, still relatively new to this writing racket, I remember sitting on the subway. It wasn’t packed, but it was crowded enough. It was around seven or eight p.m., I was on my way home from one Manhattan bar or another, and I remember looking around at all those tired faces on the train—reading, dozing, talking, staring out the window—and in a putrid flash of uncharacteristic humanism, I thought, “Every one of these people has a great story to tell.” To have lived this long, some of them, they must have stories about brushes with death, or hair-raising adventures, dire accidents or illnesses, unexpected victories, horrible but ultimately comic mistakes. Anything, right?
Accepting as given that what we call “life” is nothing more than an absurd biological accident experienced over a period of years as a string of events, if you live long enough, you’re going to do things and see things you’ll never forget. Every one of them had to have at least one good story to tell, right?
That was my reasoning at the time. Maybe I was drunk or something, because in the subsequent years as I talked to more and more people across the board, people from all walks of life and at every socioeconomic level, I soon came to realize just how wrong I was. Forget asking them about a short stretch of time that turned out to be defining, it seemed most people stumbled through life in a daze without a goddamn thing happening that was worth recounting later. When given the chance, they would talk about their jobs, their kids, annoying health issues or things outside themselves like sports, politics or the weather.
I find that extremely depressing. What horrible, dull lives so many people seem to lead. No wonder opioid addiction is through the roof.
“So you’ve spent the last twenty-seven years as a regional accounts manager for Payless Shoes? What must that be like?”
“Oh, it’s okay, I guess.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not making fun of people with dull jobs, unless they allow those jobs to define who they are. The ironic thing is, I’ve also learned that some people you’d think would be an endless fount of crazy-ass stories—outlaw bikers, rock musicians, cops—are some of the most boring people on earth. At the same time I’ve been enthralled for hours by the stories I’ve been told by exterminators and postal inspectors.
Maybe it’s a simple matter of not bothering to look at your life in narrative terms, or lacking the ability to craft incidents from your personal experience into an entertaining story to share with others. I can understand that. I could never play baseball or do trigonometry or comprehend business, any of which might leave me looking pretty sorry in the eyes of people who find those things important.
But what if all these peoples’ lives really have been that empty and dull? If in the end our lives are measured by the stories we leave behind—not only those we’ve told, but those that others can tell about us—then what the hell do these people do?
My god, and what’s going to happen to all these people now, these Millennial types, who will look back on their college years and realize they spent that whole time staring at the screen of a hand-held device? Can you imagine years from now fondly reminiscing about that Google search that really had you stymied once, or that really funny video about the armadillo you saw on YouTube?
I’m reminded of George Pal’s final film, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao (and not just because everything reminds me of 7 Faces of Dr. Lao). In one scene a nasty old spinster visits Dr. Lao’s carnival and demands Greek philosopher Apollonius of Tyana (now having taken the form of a magic fortune-telling mirror) read her future.
“Tomorrow will be like today, and the day after tomorrow will be like the day before yesterday,” the mirror responds somberly. “I see your remaining days as a tedious collection of hours full of useless vanities. You will think no new thoughts. You will forget what little you have known. Older you will become, but not wiser. Stiffer, but not more dignified. Childless you are, and childless you will remain. Of that suppleness you once commanded in your youth, of that strange simplicity which once attracted men to you, neither endures, nor shall you recapture them.”
The spinster, understandably upset to be hearing all this, tells him he’s mean and ugly, to which the mirror responds:
“Mirrors are often ugly and mean. When you die, you will be buried and forgotten, and that is all. And for all the good or evil, creation or destruction your living might have accomplished, you might just as well never have lived at all.”
Wait, where did this column start out again? What was I writing about? Well, never mind.
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