"There's this old joke", A Brief History of Time, Albert Camus, Alvy Singer, Annie Hall, comedy, death, Diane Keaton, existentialism, Film, film review, Happy Birthday, Humor, If a woman is upset it's not because she's on her period it's because you're being a dick, Imaginary Time, Joshua Jammer Smith, Literature, Lobsters, Marshal McLuhan, Philosophy, Prime Numbers, reflection, romance, Romantic relationships, Science, Stephen Hawking, The Myth of Sisyphus, White Tower Musings, women wearing men's suits, Woody Allen, Writing
I’m told it’s best to start things off with a joke. But keep your eyes open for the one at the very end.
There’s this joke. A man works for five years writing for a blog, and after five years he remarks to himself, boy, this is really terrible. I spend hours and hours of my time and energy worrying and thinking about a bunch of writing that really hasn’t made any impact. I’ve also spent hundreds of hours that could have been spent on exercise, cooking, spending time with my wife, taking my pets for walks, masturbating,volunteering in my community, or learning a musical instrument to help me seem interesting. All in all there’s been a lot of time spent producing a handful of essays that, really, nobody seems to care about and haven’t brought me one real iota of long term happiness. To which the writer responded to this thought, “Yeah, and the worst part is there’s still so many damn essays I need to write.”
Well, that seems to be my lesson. Writing for five years, and publishing my work to little or no praise is miserable work, filled with nothing but suffering, misery, and agony, and it’s passed by far, far too quickly.
This is also, for the record, a cheap rip off of one of my favorite films Annie Hall, which also happens to have a character who happens to be a writer. His opening monologue is one which I have never forgotten, because it was one of those moments in life when one recognizes the voice that perfectly sums up what you believe and think perfectly:
Alvy Singer: [addressing the camera] There’s an old joke – um… two elderly women are at a Catskill mountain resort, and one of ’em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says, “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.” Well, that’s essentially how I feel about life – full of loneliness, and misery, and suffering, and unhappiness, and it’s all over much too quickly. The… the other important joke, for me, is one that’s usually attributed to Groucho Marx; but, I think it appears originally in Freud’s “Wit and Its Relation to the Unconscious,” and it goes like this – I’m paraphrasing – um, “I would never want to belong to any club that would have someone like me for a member.” That’s the key joke of my adult life, in terms of my relationships with women.
I’m not being cute or coy or hipster when I say this opening left me forever altered. Much like when I first listened to Slipknot’s first album, watching Annie Hall and listening to Woody Allen’s monologue was like discovering a voice I had always been looking for. Although Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese were gods to me, Woody Allen came in and gave me an actual working model to move forward. Alvy Singer was the character I more or less was, not so much what I wanted to be, or at the very least he was a voice that I thought I could be in terms of my writing.
I’m a rather gloomy, depressive, self-depreciating, neurotic asshole, and here was a gloomy, depressive, self-depreciating neurotic asshole.
It may seem pathetic, but the earliest truth of writing was write what you know. I wasn’t a gangster like Joe Pesci or a nameless Samurai-blade wielding warrior named Beatrix Kiddo, I was a nervous and depressed moody teenager dealing with a lot of self-deprecation that would eventually become a staple character trait.
My writing really started to mimic Alvy Singer, and Woody Allen in general, and so the character and voice began to form. That was about 12 years ago, and after about a decade of writing, five of which took place on this blog here, I’m still amazed by that opening and in many ways still paying tribute to Woody Allen who started it off with a joke.
But five years is half a decade to get over this self-depreciation crap and so I’ve been forced to reconcile the fact that dumping on myself and my contributions to humanity are simply going to be part of my aesthetic. It drives my mother crazy, it makes my wife mad, and at least three of my friends are planning on ways to kick my ass if I continue to annoy them with my bemoaning. I’m working on improving this condition, but habit dies hard damn it, and the case for mental instability.
All this lead in has actually been for a purpose however, so I’m going to attempt something novel: I think I might have actually done something. Or, to put it another way, I don’t think I’ve done nothing with these essays. I’ve just done a little. I haven’t wasted my time, or my reader, with my work, and while it’s not a grand demonstration of self-worth, life has taught me in recent months that it is the small, little, everyday gestures that build up into the larger narratives.
And unlike Alvy, I’m going to try and join, and stay, in the happy club, because life is far far too short.
It wasn’t fun watching Annie Hall the first time. In fact it was physically painful. I was moaning through most of the film, wondering how much longer I actually would have in it. I remember my mother and little sister in the kitchen talking, possibly working on homework, while I labored through the film.
Every few seconds I would lift the remote and hit the “info” button which would spring the title, time, channel information, and various other options like setting up closed captions and recording it to a DVR we didn’t actually own at the time. It seemed like the seconds were literally infinite as Alvy whined about death or accused Annie’s emotional state to her menstrual cycle.
One such moment was an actual animated scene and provides such an brief snippet of Alvy’s sentiment:
[Alvy fantasizes being in love with the Wicked Queen from Snow White]
Wicked Queen: We never have any fun any more.
Alvy Singer: How can you say that?
Wicked Queen: Why not? You’re always leaning on me to improve myself.
Alvy Singer: You’re just upset. You must be getting your period.
Wicked Queen: I don’t get a period. I’m a cartoon character.
At some point my whining got rather loud and I said in my pathetic and obnoxious adolescent voice, “When is this movie going to be over.”
My mother to her credit suggested, “If you’re not enjoying it, just change the channel.”
Common sense is an easy trait to recognize unless it’s coming from someone else. I can’t remember if I offered a rebuttal, but whatever the case I shut up, muttering under my breath about the intolerable quality of the film until the final ending sequences when I really paid attention and ALvy offered up a beautiful quote:
Alvy Singer: You know you try to make things come out perfect in art, because they rarely do so in real life.
The sensation of being young is discovery, because as you age you encounter people and ideas that, in truth, have been expressed over and over again throughout the entirety of human history. There’s nothing really novel in Alvy’s quote here, but when I wasthirteen that statement might as well have been made by Shakespeare or Socrates. They hit me in such a way that I was stimulated and I began to think about what art was, what it could be.
Of course my response to begin writing a novel about a group of angsty artists living in a nameless city who did nothing but talk about art. It was absolute shit, but it was the first push man. After that I was determined. Life was going to be made perfect in my art, because my life wasn’t anywhere near that term.
Writer’s never seem to be happy people and I’m not sure why that is. We tend to spend all of our time thinking about writing, and occasionally more time talking about writing. There’s much time and energy spent worried about words and their meaning andwhether or not we’ve really done something with them. And occasionally, after the third cup of coffee, in mid-afternoon, when our spouses and children are out shopping or playing, or just generally enjoying life while we’re worrying about similes and articles, a thought appears that just feels perfect.
And even after that perfectly expressed thought is made there is a deeper dissatisfaction because I know I’m never going to get another sentence that perfect ever again.
Alvy seemed to offer me something of a reconsideration of this fact however, as he was taking Annie to a bookstore.
Alvy Singer: I feel that life is divided into the horrible and the miserable. That’s the two categories. The horrible are like, I don’t know, terminal cases, you know, and blind people, crippled. I don’t know how they get through life. It’s amazing to me. And the miserable is everyone else. So you should be thankful that you’remiserable, because that’s very lucky, to be miserable.
A friend of mine recently committed suicide and I’ve spent much of the last month or so just recovering from that miserable bullshit. Learning more and more about Savannah’s personal life, and dealing with my own reaction to her suicide is something of a revelation, a word that I worry grows more and more meaningless with each new essay I write. But it’s fair in this case to use that word, because suicide is something I have spent a significant amount of time worrying about.
Though I should be honest, I also spent a serious amount of time joking about it. Suicide was a real compulsion, and often I would think about taking my own life. After a while it just got to be normal. I would picture my friends and family reacting to my death, wondering who would and wouldn’t care about my sudden absence. And this confession itself is it’s own sort of exercise because it demonstrates a real truth about depression which is namely that it is a form of narcissism.
I didn’t really want to die, I just wanted people to care about me. I wasn’t considering suicide to really think about the implications and the real world affect.
Albert Camus to my mind provided the most realistic explanation of suicide in his great work The Myth of Sisyphus:
There is but one truly philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest—whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories—comes afterwards. These are games; one must first answer. And if it is true, as Nietzsche claims, that the philosopher, to deserve our respect, must preach by example, you can appreciate the importance of that reply, for it will precede the definitive act. These are facts the heart can feel; yet they call for careful study before they become clear to the intellect. (3).
Camus came to the conclusion that life is worth living, and my friend did not. She was a frequently miserable person, and I’m not sure I could, I know I could not have done anything to stop her. And it’s a shame to me, because I never got to watch Annie Hall with her and see what she would have thought about the film.
I’m pretty sure she would have thought it was shit, but still, I would have liked to have been disappointed with her response.
Stephen Hawking died shortly before I started writing this year’s “Happy Birthday essay,” and before I get to that I want to address the fact that there are “birthday” essays. It seems like I’m trying to create a new genre of essays, which is ridiculous I’m really only inventing new titles. Anyone who think that they’re creating anything really new is so full of shit. I mean there’s only so many letters, so many words, and unless you’re J.R.R. Tolkien or the dude who made Cling-On you really haven’t made anything new in terms of language. An essay is a fucking essay end of story, I’m just reflecting year after year and trying not to bore people.
But anyway, Stephen Hawking is dead now, and at the Tyler Public Library we had a small display set up to remember him and his work, and while I was walking back and forth helping patrons I kept spotting a documentary titled A Brief History of Time. It was based on his book of the same title and I took it home having a moment of sublime inspiration.
There is this idea of Imaginary Time and it has revolutionized the very way I see the universe, time, history, reality, and everything in between. In essence the notion of time being something that just moves forward constantly until it ends has been, not rejected, just reevaluated.
Looking to the actual book then, Hawking explores this concept and, as always, manages to make what is quite possibly the most difficult concept for a layman to feel approachable, and, far more importantly, understandable:
However, the laws do not tell us what the universe should have looked like when it started—it would still be up to God to wind up the clockwork and choose how to start it off. So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. (146).
Though of course this brings me back to Annie Hall, for the film starts with Alvy’s childhood, and one scene in particular feels terribly relevant.
Doctor in Brooklyn: Why are you depressed, Alvy?
Alvy’s Mom: Tell Dr. Flicker.
[Young Alvy sits, his head down – his mother answers for him]
Alvy’s Mom: It’s something he read.
Doctor in Brooklyn: Something he read, huh?
Alvy at 9: [his head still down] The universe is expanding.
Doctor in Brooklyn: The universe is expanding?
Alvy at 9: Well, the universe is everything, and if it’s expanding, someday it will break apart and that would be the end of everything!
Alvy’s Mom: What is that your business?
[she turns back to the doctor]
Alvy’s Mom: He stopped doing his homework!
Alvy at 9: What’s the point?
Alvy’s Mom: What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn! Brooklyn is not expanding!
Doctor in Brooklyn: It won’t be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvy. And we’ve gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we’re here!
It’s far more likely that this latter argument will have more relevance to the reader. Beginnings and endings are what life are all about. Life begins, life ends. Relationships begin, relationships end. The concept that reality just is, and that it always will be regardless of our place in the universe is a concept that doesn’t sit well with people because stories are the foundation of everything. It’s how we reconcile the beginnings and ends of our own lives. One day my life will end, but at least so will everything else.
Alvy’s doctor almost assuredly never read the writings of Stephen Hawking, but he did at least give me a concept to work with as I wondered about whether or not it was worth it to write these essays down in the first place.
Five years. Five years writing and worrying and fretting and laboring over a series ofwritings, musings, philosophies, etc.. And to add to all of that it seems like more and more these essays seem less and less about myself. I can’t see myself in these writings as much as I used to. They seem more to be about my ideas and thoughts about great books and films that I appreciate.
Annie Hall is a film that has changed for me as the years go by however. It’s a film that I still love and appreciate, but five years on I no longer see it as this great, impressive font of wisdom. Woody Allen has, in recent years, become a bit of a creep and every time I discuss the film I have to acknowledge that the man is a real creep and the conversation usually stops there, which is unfortunate because the movie is beautiful on its own. What’s changed is that I’ve stopped looking to Alvy’s voice as a source of inspiration, or at least not as much as I used to.
Life is worth living. Not just because I’ve lost a friend. Not just because I’ve recognized my depression for what it is. Not just because I could be a father within the next year or more. Not just because life has begun to assume real shape for me. Life is worth living because it’s worth living.
I’ve assumed the mantle of the man who wants to experience the world and the life he’s living because I enjoy being alive. There’s books to read, coffee to drink, orgasms to experience, and of course there’s even more essays to write.
This blog, as I said at the start, does not always give me what I want, which, to be honest, I’m sure what that actually is. There’s satisfaction in finishing an essay, and having one more work up on the site. There’s a satisfaction in knowing that writing these every week I’m getting something of myself on the page. That knowing, that satisfaction is its own rewards. It’s an irrational feeling, but Alvy offers me one more anecdote for that:
Alvy Singer: [narrating] After that it got pretty late, and we both had to go, but it was great seeing Annie again. I… I realized what a terrific person she was, and… and how much fun it was just knowing her; and I… I, I thought of that old joke, y’know, the, this… this guy goes to a psychiatrist and says, “Doc, uh, my brother’s crazy; he thinks he’s a chicken.” And, uh, the doctor says, “Well, why don’t you turn him in?” The guy says, “I would, but I need the eggs.” Well, I guess that’s pretty much now how I feel about relationships; y’know, they’re totally irrational, and crazy, and absurd, and… but, uh, I guess we keep goin’ through it because, uh, most of us… need the eggs.
I myself haven’t been eating eggs in the morning anymore, but I am now calling Sunday my writing day. It involves sitting at my laptop typing away for most of the afternoon drinking my own weight in coffee and at the end of the day thinking about next week’s work.
Thank you for five years dear reader, and thank you as always for reading.
AND NOW THE PUNCHLINE…
I’m told it’s best to end on a joke. My wife pointed out to me that I started this blog the year we were married and so White Tower Musings is in fact only four years old.
If that isn’t a testament both to the sort of woman I married and my piss-poor inability to do basic math I don’t know what is.
Happy Fourth Birthday White Tower Musings.
All quotes cited from Annie Hall were provided by IMDb.com.
All quotes cited from The Myth of Sisyphus were quoted from the paperback Vintage edition.