Death by Trivia

I once had a dishonest landlord. Every time I talked to him, he would tell me at least one lie. I think maybe it was his way of staying grounded in landlord reality.

He did manage to arrive at an occasional truth despite himself, however, and one of those truths echoes in my head now. For some reason, I told him that I seemed to be spending a lot of time on trivial bullshit. To this, he had a sage reply: “Most of life is trivial bullshit.” It is a point worth pondering.

What is trivial bullshit? Possessions can be a part of it. By 1989, when I left New York to begin a simpler life in Colorado, I had become increasingly aware that I didn’t own my possessions so much as they owned me. It seemed like everything I had, or wanted to have, needed to be researched, purchased, returned, extended-warrantied, insured, cleaned, tripped over, worried about, shelved, dusted, maintained, broken, fixed, and/or ultimately discarded. Even then, it wasn’t done: someone would have to cart it off to a landfill — and there, someone else would have to move it, pile it up, pour dirt on top of it, and sometime in the near or distant future, dig it out, try to see if it works, and otherwise deal with it all over again.

There seemed to be this crap amplification — the technical term is “craplification” — effect, like in those movie scenes where our hero is trying to be quiet but somehow manages to bump something that will bump something else until everything is crashing to the floor in a tremendous din. You thought it was completely innocuous, to buy that pretty little item and let it enter your home. You did not realize that a physical asset will want to remain in your life and, for as long as you have it, will seek to make things more complicated for you. What we are talking about, here, is a step beyond the resistentialist steak knife that is merely desiring an opportunity to slice your finger. That is but one manifestation of the larger crapsistentialist dynamic of punishment for owning things that offend God’s plan for the world, whatever the hell that might be.

Crapsistentialism is not limited to physical assets. Intangible entanglements likewise strive to twine themselves around the legs of your life, tripping and befuddling your progress and your mind, until you become a living signpost for those who would aspire to follow in your ways: abandon all hope, ye who enter here. Your nice middle-class house, and everything in it, desires nothing so much as to clog and choke and drown you, mentally and sometimes physically, in its backyard swimming pool of dysfunctionalities and misunderstandings, resentments and frustrations — not to mention its monthly surcharges and service fees and overlimit penalties. A life in such a place entails the compounding interest of requirements and expectations and chores, charged to your time account, keeping it in the red, and leaving you to keep hoping and imagining and yet rarely if ever actually experiencing the life that, you were sure, would be the norm for someone blessed with your strength, energy, determination, intelligence, positive attitude, and good looks. You were sure that, in your case, if something can go wrong, it won’t.

Let’s not be vague about this; concrete examples abound. We are most likely to notice the big ones. For instance, I have recently finished a post exploring just a fraction of what was involved in my divorce. That post is 23,000 words long — because, it turns out, a divorce can be grossly overcomplicated and upsetting, on many levels. A different post discusses the things that can go wrong when you try to get your car repaired. That one runs to about 30,000 words — because it takes only one right mistake with the wrong mechanic, and then (speaking, again, from personal experience) you become one of those thousand-dollar transmission repair horror stories that people will share among themselves, shaking their heads.

And that’s nothing. Much longer would be the tale of the corrupt lawyers and judges and politicians and lobbyists who have given us a government and a legal system in which such nightmares are not only possible but actually pretty common — as in, for instance, my post on the gun control debate. Unlike the divorce and car repair scenarios, that issue hasn’t hit me personally yet — if you don’t count being held up by a man pointing a sawed-off double-barreled .410 at my face in the middle of the night; having a nice conversation with an angry man on the street in NYC who wondered aloud whether he should blow my head off; accidentally bouncing a BB off my brother’s jawbone; standing at the front door when Dad wheeled and fired his 12-gauge at the squirrel heading my way; or burying a .22 slug in the neighbor’s picture of his baby. (That one was a coincidence. The picture just happened to be in his living room, a quarter-mile away, at the precise moment when I missed the tin can I was shooting at.) Even more than a car or a spouse, a gun can actually be one of the great crapufactories of our time: such a simple thing, and yet somehow capable of turning so much so wrong.

Yet even a gun is, at worst, a local horror, not remotely on the scale of the system that fosters and perhaps even requires the gun’s use and misuse. One might assume those sorts of bureaucratic encrustation and malfeasance — the legal system, specifically, and perhaps the political system more generally — are the exception, the strange and exceptional embodiment of corruption in our time. They aren’t. Encrustation and malfeasance are what people do and have always done, in governments and churches and universities and corporations throughout the world and down through the centuries, whenever they perceive an opportunity to arrange things more agreeably for themselves. They tweak the system a bit, adding just a little more difficulty for you or your neighbor, to enhance their own power, wealth, or convenience. Over time, the bottom line runs a steady deficit: what used to be easy isn’t anymore; what used to work doesn’t.

And that’s the real story. It’s not usually the wars and catastrophes that get you, the major disruptions and impediments. It’s those little tweaks, the death by a thousand cuts, through which your ever-loving society bleeds you white. It happens financially, for many of us, but it happens to even more of us temporally — that is, in terms of our time budget — and psychologically.

The real problem behind the flood of trivia that wants to ensnare you is that you have no formal protection for the most important thing you own: your life, as expressed in the hours in which you could be living it your way. Your time is not guaranteed by any constitutional right; it is not guarded by any lobbyist or politician; there is no marketing expert researching ways to enhance it, no lawyer vigilant to preserve it. To the contrary, your time is the precious resource that these people want to take from you. They want the hours that you will have to work in order to afford what they are selling; they want to draw your attention toward what serves them, and away from what serves you or the important others in your life. They want you to fill out that extra form; they want you to listen to them, and join them; they want you to spend your time as they desire. And when this unwanted drain upon your mental resources makes you angry or frustrated or depressed, you become an unintentional accomplice in their depredations, helping to complete the time wastage they commenced.

That’s why most of life is trivial bullshit. There’s a big neon sign over the opening into your time on Earth. The sign reads, “Shovel it here,” and every random individual who can think of a way to impose upon your peace for a possible payoff is lined up for a turn. What are they shoveling into your space? Why, it’s the stuff that was hyped and the stuff you won’t be interested in, an hour after you buy it; it’s the stuff that goes bad too soon, and the stuff that was no good to begin with. And not just the stuff: it’s the fake news and the confused half-truths and the damned statistics, the tear-jerking glories of tales that didn’t really happen as told, and the deep anger at people who were actually trying their best. It’s all being shoveled into your lifeworld, coming down the chute into the basement you’re trying to climb out of, and all you can do is keep clawing your way atop one mound of junk so that the next shovelful won’t suffocate you.

This is the environment within which you are trying to have a life. I have telescoped it in the telling, reducing the outcomes of months and years into the space of a paragraph. But however condensed or drawn out, this is the net trend. It has been for a long time. There was a change, in American existence, a time when living an ordinary old sober life became less tolerable than being intoxicated or getting high or living in a fantasy or pursuing a cause or manipulating people — something, anything, to give us the kind of outlet, for ourselves, that we might compassionately wish upon those overbred chickens growing plump and perhaps insane in their cages. Because it was only when we got a buzz, through substances or fantasies or requited ambition, that we could feel ourselves to be greater than the sum of our minutiae, when we could remember that we are fun and capable and worth having around.

Your time is supposed to be your own. Someday we might have that constitutional amendment, telling the crapmeisters to back off, giving us mental space and practical respect for what we, ourselves, consider most important in our lives. Until then, it may be up to you, by yourself, to triage the torrent of time demands that would use up everything you’ve got and still leave you feeling inadequate if not hopeless. Like a TV channel with too many commercials, life in this environment sometimes demands that a person shut it off and go out for fresh air — or throw out the TV and reclaim your living room for yourself, literally or figuratively, allowing it to welcome the relatively few presences it can accommodate comfortably. Maybe you can evict at least some of the crap whisperers from your mind, some of the time, even if your own means are not sufficient to reconstruct a life in which the best people and things and experiences occupy the portion of your time they deserve.

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