The summer of 2007 was probably my favorite college summer (India I’ll shelve as a class all its own). I had just moved into my first apartment and lived with A. and T., with H. sleeping on the living room floor for the first month or so. We all had very different gigs — A. spent her days babysitting, T. worked at a French bakery, and H. and I worked at the library. Our days were very separate, for the most part, but in the evenings we coalesced and were mainly ecstatic about two things: (1) it was summer; and (2) we had independence, and our OWN PLACE. This semblance of adulthood was very thrilling at the time, so we tried to act as we’d always imagined we would. T. always brought home a baguette, and we made a lot of dinners both extravagant (handmade ravioli! gnocchi!) and haphazard (sticky fried rice with Sriracha?) when ingredients were low. Wine flowed, and I got really drunk for the first time. After our family dinners — served on a blanket on the floor for the first month or so — T. usually got his guitar and we sang “What’s Up” or “Foolish Games” or “Povo Que Lavas No Rio.” Or he’d sing one of the songs he wrote… the French one about his dad, or the one I liked so much I memorized it even though he forgot it (“You used to sing to me on Sunday mornings/Instead of church, a cup of tea”). A. and I learned some chords. We made candles. We went swimming at The Point. T. started Japanese classes and then shifted to Korean; I bought a Hindi textbook and taught myself Devanagari. A. and I read “Devil in the White City” and then went on a self-constructed World’s Fair/murder tour. I wrote.
There were lots of memorable things for the three of us about that summer, I think — me falling away from love and the other two falling toward it — but one thing that strikes me when I think about it is how much we made stuff. I didn’t have Netflix instant-watch or Hulu. Watching stuff online required us to go through a whole circus of wildly slow Chinese-language sites and then let them buffer for hours. We didn’t have a TV. We did have a guitar and wine and glass jars for iced tea and a lot of interesting conversations.
When I think about happiness, and what causes or takes away from it, I sometimes think it’s the productivity/consumption dichotomy that plays the most central role. Making food is better than heating it from a can. Making music is better than listening to it played. Creating stories is better than watching them play out in front of you on a screen. Running is better than watching a marathon. Painting is better than looking at a picture. Etcetera.
I don’t necessarily mean this in a holier-than-thou kind of way — that making things makes you a better, more qualitatively good person. Rather, it almost indisputably feels better.
The summer of the 2009, to contrast, I was in South Bend. I was really, legitimately bored, and became useless very quickly. I remember watching a lot of Family Guy; I think I even watched the first season of Heroes. I watched stuff, and tried, but often failed, to read. I started the summer cooking but got lazier and lazier until I started eating lots of prepackaged things. I didn’t know anyone in the area, despite looking for people to relate to. It was mildly pathetic.
Then one day I got really sick and tired of being so passive, so I went to an art supply store and bought a bunch of paints and some paper and came back to my place and set it up and started painting. I distinctly remember being surprised by one thing — how much I had to think. Having absorbed my surroundings after work with minimal energy for weeks, I was suddenly interacting with something, being made to engage and consider and create, even just with a sheet of paper I intended to show no one. I had stopped being a vacuum for the creativity of others because I could no longer rely on it; I had to switch gears and create something myself.
That thinking was a revelation shows how truly passive I was being in my free time, and it’s pretty extreme. But I’m not sure it’s that extreme, considering how EASY things are made to be, what with the myth that we’re all so BUSY (not busy: tired), too busy to interact with the world and create something… even tomato sauce.
I worry that I slip more and more toward this sort of behavior naturally. Lately I’ve been trying to counter it in small ways. Reading, running, cooking. That’s not a lot though, and there’s still way too much screen in my face.
I think there must be some ideal balance. We must consume to have material that informs production, of course. But what is the ideal? Should it be half consumption, half production, balancing out to some kind of nirvana plane of zeroness? Or would it be better to produce more? How should it be measured? Where does happiness live?
The longer you go without seeing a movie, the better the next movie you watch is. The longer you go without hearing a song, the better the next song you hear is. But how long should you go and when does it cease to be beneficial deprivation and does the satisfaction caused by creating also decrease in time?
All I know is I am now far, far short of reaching that point. I need to tilt the scales toward productivity. Does anyone want to teach me the trumpet?