This guest post is by my former co-blogger at Commonwealth and Commonwealth, Captain Colossal
For fifteen years I smoked a pack of Malboros every day. Then, a little over five years ago, I quit. After that I started exercising and also started taking Prozac. This was because without smoking the (pretty precarious) accommodations I had made with the world completely fell apart.
My life got better after I made these changes, exactly the way you would think. When I don’t want to go to the gym, I remind myself of how happy and triumphant and okay I feel walking away from the gym, totaling up the number of times I’ve worked out that week, reliving my most recent victory over the forces of inertia.
And I try not to think too hard about how that mechanism (wherein I feel better) works. There are real physiological analyses of the effects of exercise and Prozac on the mood, and it’s possible that we’re in the realm of the purely physical here.
But I also think about how much society endorses going to the gym. And not smoking. And although there are pockets of weirdness around Prozac, I would say in general society smiles on people taking active pro-social steps to address their mental health issues. And I wonder whether what’s making me feel better is the knowledge that I am living squarely in the sunshine of social approval.
I tell people I used to smoke and they say, “You did?” They say, “I never would have pegged you for a smoker.” I have always wanted to be a little bit mysterious and opaque and so there is something thrilling in that, and then also a little sad, because smoking was so much a part of who I was, and now it is not.
I think about social approval a lot with driving. I live in California, where driving is a thing most people do. And after I quit smoking and started working out and taking Prozac I decided to deal with the fact that I was too terrified to drive. And I took driving lessons and I bought a car and now I drive every day on the freeway and I’ve driven myself to Yosemite more than once and it’s great — it makes my life so much easier and grocery shopping is so much easier and also I never have to explain to a single person ever again why I don’t drive. And yet me driving is not actually a net gain for the world in the ways that you could argue (sort of) that my other changes are. I’m consuming more fuel and producing more pollution and taking up more of other kinds of resources because one thing that driving really makes easy is consumption of various kinds. And yet, being a driver rather than a non-driver makes me less of a conspicuous eccentric, and that in itself, without taking into account all the other ways in which driving is convenient, makes my life so much easier.
Once, before I made any of these changes, I was in a car being driven somewhere by a guy that I knew a little but not all that well. Because when you don’t drive third parties tend to bully other people into driving you places. Especially when you go to a picnic that’s all couples and people with children in Los Angeles. Those people often worry about you taking the bus across town; it makes them feel bad for you and concerned for you. I’m being a little mean here because I had such mixed feelings about it at the time. Part of me wanted the concern and the arrangements and the being-tended-to, and part of me just wanted everyone else to treat the way I lived my life as if it was normal.
So I was leaving this picnic filled with really nice people with really nice families and I was being given a ride by the one guy who was also single and we were talking about that and I was saying that it was a little hard for me to meet guys who wanted to date me, being as I was a smoker and having at the time really short hair cut in an ostentatiously unstylish way and never doing my dishes or cooking anything healthy and this guy said, “Look, there are a lot of guys who like exactly that in a woman,” and I knew immediately what he meant and I said, “Yeah, but those guys don’t want somebody like me.” And what I meant was that I had those attributes, but I wasn’t rebellious and cool in a way that would go along with them; I worried about hurting people’s feeling and I cared about being nice and I didn’t even jaywalk. And he thought about it and he was like, “I see what you mean.”
When I think about that conversation now, I think that I was not very good at understanding that we all contain multitudes, that what I was trying to say is that I was complicated and human and I was assuming that it was less than true of other people, who were either straightforwardly in compliance with the world or defying the world in a perpendicular fashion. And of course I was wrong about the other people.
But I wasn’t wrong in thinking that I was paying a cost in being weird. And I thought it was a cost in terms of opportunities lost but what I didn’t know, and what my current line of thinking suggests, is that it was also a cost inside my tangled self. And what I sort of knew then, and know clearly now but try not to think about too much, is that the value of being weird is directly related to that cost. Smoking is a bad thing, and I am glad I don’t smoke, and yet to the extent I am less visibly a weirdo now it seems like a loss of some kind.
Sometimes I dream that I am smoking. In the dream, I think, “But I quit! What am I doing? Now I’ll have the whole thing to do all over again!” And then in the dream I realize that I never quit, that I’ve been lying to people all along, that I am still a smoker.
So if we are so complicated how can we create an ideology about how we should be even if it will save the world?
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