The Slaves of Pragmatism

“Have we not done the job of becoming our best selves?” – Chang-Rae Lee, On Such a Full Sea

The year is 1999. I’m sitting in a dorm room at art school, smoking a cigarette and blowing the smoke out the window. There are a bunch of other people in this same room, and we are all majoring in different things. There are painting majors, acting majors, literature majors, film majors – all the kinds of majors one would expect to find at an art school. I’m a writing major, myself. But that’s only because I went to film school first and failed out, so the hope of making some killer movies had to change into the hope of writing some good books (which would, in theory, then be turned into killer movies by people that didn’t fail out of film school).

There is beer. We’re probably listening to Madonna (I don’t know why this is, but my memories of that year in art school involve lots of Madonna being played). I’m likely arguing with someone about a film or a book and everyone else is telling me not to be so assertive because my tendency to be overly opinionated offends people. There’s probably one person sleeping already. Someone is talking about how shitty one of their teachers is. Everybody is sexually frustrated even though everybody is simultaneously having good amounts of sex (it’s art school, after all). One girl is depressed and a circle forms around her, two people to hold her hands and tell her that she’s beautiful.

This is a typical night in our lives. We don’t like the same music (baring Madonna, apparently), we don’t like the same books, and maybe we don’t even like each other that much. But there’s something that brings us together, one thing that bonds us together the same way a family is bound by blood.

And that’s a complete and utter lack of any business sense. None of us know what we’ll do in the future. We don’t think about jobs or financial opportunities because we don’t know anything about those things. There’s an old adage about writing that says one should ‘write what {they} know.’ We hold that true in other aspects, too. We talk and think and spend our time with the things we know and only the things we know – independent movies, television shows, rap albums, industrial rock music, beat generation literature, pop culture, and, of course, ourselves.

While the world changes and technological advancements become the signature of our generation, we’re busy being not busy. Psychoanalysing ourselves and fighting over whether or not Pokemon is cool.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that time recently. It was interesting because it was a time for dreaming, yeah, but it certainly was not a time for dreamers. We all knew that the bubble was going to pop eventually, and that we’d have to turn our ambitions into something employable. We all had parents that reminded us of this on a consistent basis. Every triumph in writing workshop was, for me, undercut by the knowledge that there was a real world out there waiting to suck me into it. I probably wasn’t going to be a writer, so I had to consider doing something that involved writing. Maybe I could be an editor. That could provide me with stable employment, a paycheck, and the distinct air that follows one around when they contribute to their society like they’re supposed to, which, as I was led to believe, was the whole point of college.

The next year I dropped out of art school. I was too depressed to carry on. I’m not sure why exactly I was depressed but I was. I moved back in with my parents and got a job in a deli. Later I’d finish school and become a teacher. Now I’ve been teaching for over ten years. All of my friends from art school (the ones I keep up with, at least) have jobs and are – to different extents – incorporated into the real world. I don’t talk to them that much, but when we do talk, somebody almost always brings up my former roommate, who is now a working actor and plays the main character on a popular television show. He’s important to us, I think. When we talk about him, it’s clear that none of us are jealous. The tone is always upbeat. Because one of us did it, and as the rest of us slog through 40 hour work weeks, at least there’s some glimmer of hope left for future generations.

I’m writing this because something really struck me today – I realized that I have never, since I got my first full-time job is 2001, been without a job for any lengthy period of time. I’ve always been employed. How sad, I thought. I never moved somewhere and just let the pieces fall where they might. I never needed to get a roommate because I couldn’t pay the rent. I never had to take a weird job out of desperation, work as a cook in an all-night diner or something. This made me shake my head. I’ve always been at least somewhat comfortable, with money in my savings account and food in the fridge.

I thought about that and I felt a little bit ashamed. What happened to the dude in that dorm room? The one without a plan or a goal or any ideas at all? The one that cared so little about things like success and, um, well-being? How come I made the decision to never give that guy a chance?

The answer is that I, like a lot of Americans in 1999 or any other time, am a slave to pragmatism. I don’t want to be, but I can’t help it. In a way, it’s maybe what makes me feel the most conflicted. I always thought the oddball writer guy could co-exist with my second half, the provider side of me that would work and wear a tie and bring home salmon to cook. But in the end, the writer half has nothing to show. No books. No film adaptations that aren’t true to the source material. Nothing. All that’s left as my legacy, if there is one, comes from the pragmatist. The side that worked and, in its own reluctant way, found some sense of value in life.

So I’ll finish by asking a simple question: Did I allow myself to become the best self that I could have become? I’m not really sure. I think maybe if I could ask the guy in that dorm room he would say ‘yes,’ because I took good care of him and, deep inside, one only sacrifices a dream when they know it won’t come true.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s