In Search of Time For Proust
For a long time, I went to bed late, and woke up early in the morning. I subsisted on five to six hours of sleep a night, and it was grand. My Attention Deficit Disorder allowed for a boundless supply of energy despite so little sleep. So long as I wasn’t trying to solve the Rubik’s Cube or fill out tax forms, I could accomplish the work of several people in a day.
I can feel my need for sleep increasing ever so slightly, year by year. It’s another facet of aging that intensifies the state of time urgency and restlessness tormenting me since I was in my mother’s womb. Prenatally afflicted by the existential disease, I leaped out of my mother’s vagina five weeks early, poised to get a head start on life. It was the first and last time I was ever early for anything.
Lately, I am like a zombie when I get less than seven hours a night. I’ve been going to bed earlier to avoid walking into walls and stumbling into traffic. I have less time for everything, forcing me to be less profligate with my energies, which I pour like buckets into enterprises that rouse my passions. In the past, I said ‘yes’ to them all, as if there was infinite time. I never asked ‘if this, then what gives?’ assuming I’d enjoy the longevity of an Okinawan woman and die at the ripe young age of 117. It’s a half-baked modus operandus given much of my youth involved sitting, drowning neuroses with binges of shitty food, and leisure activities where the main attraction was kegs of beer.I have no regrets, to a degree. All that gluttony and aimlessness made me a well-rounded guy, figuratively and, for a time, literally. I had fun. I took courses in everything. I partied with legions of people in college before I got a job and got serious. If it was the nineteen hundreds I’d have been called a Renaissance Man; Falstaff in Elizabethan times. Now, the term de rigeur is man-child, which bespeaks our decline as a civilization; we once celebrated aesthetes and curious types. Would anyone call Benjamin Franklin or Henry David Thoreau a man-child? I think not.
The habit of keeping my plate so full has spilled over into mid-life, where it’s not as feasible as it was when I had no responsibilities, lived in my mother’s basement, and had the energy of a squirrel on four hours’ sleep. Now, it’s kept me perpetually short on time. With adult obligations and eight to ten extra hours a week drooling on my pillow, I am running out of ‘laters’ to count on. There are some things I will never have the time to do, not because I have thirty nine items on my ‘to do’ list, but because I’ll be dead. It’s a bummer.
If I am lucky, my death will mirror my life: arriving extremely late and brimming with serendipity. I envision myself harried and anxious, late for something, darting across the street without looking, and a speeding bus. It’s all so tragic and undignified, yet reassuring; it will be the first time I have a legitimate excuse for being late. The bus-riders traumatized from seeing me smeared on the pavement will come through therapy much better if they are assured I had a damn good life before its inglorious end.As long as I could, I set my alarm for six hours of sleep. Many mornings I’d leap out of bed before it rang ready to conquer the world. That is, until it became a delusional habit and left me dragging my knuckles through the day. I would saunter in a haze, barely cognizant of events in which I was an instrumental player; like Ronald Reagan in his second term, but without a team of fabulists nudging me awake when the cameras roll, hiding the fact I’m mostly sleeping under my desk, inches away from somnambulously pushing the button leading to world annihilation.
Many nights I get into bed with my partner and go to sleep. There is no boom boom in the night – other than from my snoring. I didn’t always snore in the past. When I did, my girlfriends would say it was endearing, like a kitten. Some nights my partner flees the air-raid bombardment beside her, whispering choice Italian curses as she seeks shelter in the guest bed. There is definitely no boom-boom in the morning, and I have to bring paint-thinningly strong espresso and buckets of biscotti the next morning as a peace offering.
Nothing about me will be as cute as a cat meme, at least until I am ninety-six, when twenty-something girls will think it sweet when I hit on them and flirt with me, the harmless, pervy old man. Hair is springing like bamboo from my ears, nose, and eyebrows, which makes me feel mothballed an un-sexy. My efforts to cling to a semblance of youth are as false as the hips and the pretense of cool at a Rolling Stones concert, but without the years of rock n’ roll glory to dignify the shabby facade. Like Mick Jagger’s face, my penis, a once pulsating tube of dilithium crystals, has turned into a shrinking violet from weariness. My nineteen year old self wants to punch me in the throat for the analogy.Facts can’t be denied: I can hardly think straight because I’m tired, not because I have to suppress a constant barrage of pornographic sexual fantasies energizing my brain at the slightest provocation. I needed that pent-up sexual angst to keep my Starship Enterprise at warp speed as I set a course for one aimless mission after another.
Where did the time go that I became this way? There were so many things I meant to do before I began to shrivel up. Learn to fly an airplane. Speak Mandarin. Get a doctorate. Travel more. Take a course at the Cordon Bleu. Build something with my very own hands. A bird-house is the closest I’ve come, and I still make a Bearnaise sauce from a package.
Worse, I still haven’t finished Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. I’ve barely delved into it. I read the first volume in college and never got to the others. Every once in a while I borrow the next couple volumes from the library, but grow tired of paying fines on the falsehood they are soon to be read. The first volume was a taste of exceptional literary foie gras and I’ve been waiting twenty years to treat myself to a second helping. It doesn’t seem decadent, in spite of the obligations I’ll have to shirk to see it through.
Except I can’t seem to unravel from the entanglements I’m ensnared in to free up time for more worthwhile things like reading Proust novels or building houses for the poor. I work as little as I can afford, but feel in my heart the balance still isn’t right. I want more time parenting, less time at the office. I grow resentful of work as I age, realizing more clearly how abjectly it monopolizes my time. There is nothing else I do to the same degree in a week, which makes me wistful because there are so many other things I’d rather be doing. We are fortunate to live in such wealthy, technologically advanced societies; why are we working more? It is senseless.
The value I once accorded career and accomplishments diminishes in inverse proportion to that of my outside passions the older I get. It’s supposed to be the opposite. I am far less practical now than I used to be. I don’t suffer fools as well as I used to, while I endure other challenges – relationships, children, family – much more gladly. In the past, I’d throw my hands up to the emotional undulations in my personal life and delve deeper into work and other shallow distractions.
There are other things: traffic, douchebags, political zealots bent on cruelty; unavoidable side effects of venturing out of the cave. I cringe at so much of what I see, no matter how much yoga and meditation I do to scrub the grime from my soul. I can’t un-hear, un-see, or un-smell the mean-spirits tearing at our social fabric. Opting in to all that seems like time so utterly misspent.
To quell disillusionment I troll bookstores and buy books by the truckload – ones that are shorter than Proust, of course. But there is a strong desire for escape in my fiction cravings these days. Anyone who has read ISLT will know it is many things, but it is not escapist. For the crime of being too clever and high-minded it is sentenced to a term of nimble-minded neglect.
“Oooh, it’s about time I read Love in the Time of Cholera,” I say to myself. “It’s less than five hundred pages. I can do that.”
I giddily read the first chapter in the store and resolve to set about finishing the Nobel Prize winner as soon as I get home, without delay. Good intentions give way to paying the bills and other obligations. I settle into bed at ten thirty, recently purchased book in hand, and a wilting motivation to stay awake. Within moments, my eyelids are heavy like anvils.
Soon I’m blubbering with a smile as I drift toward near REM-sleep. My dreams swirl with visions of riding ponies shirtless, with six-pack abs, a head of non-thinning hair tilting back to guzzle red wine from the cask, my belly filled with slices of all-meat pizza plucked from nearby trees in my Tuscan vineyard. The next morning, the dog-eared book, moistened by my perfunctory warm balls, is stuck to my inner thigh; cheapened after I spent a measly two paragraphs with it.Weeks later Gabriel Garcia Marquez settles into my bookshelf with Proust, Pynchon, Dostoyevsky and other ignored long-winded scribes in the literary pantheon. I give myself credit: I’ve read The Brothers Karamazov, Anna Karenina, and Ulysses. They were weighty tomes, but I got them finished. It was so unmistakeably worth the time and effort. They made me pine for the others, which I buy because of my unbridled optimism, curiosity, and foolhardiness.
They are mostly paragons of high-minded intentions mocked by the vagaries of life. After a long day, the well-meaning, urbane spirit trying to enforce discipline by cancelling the cable subscription is over-ruled by the Homer Simpson in my mind. He wants to watch television shows by the season on Netflix and treat the wounds of his wage-slave malaise with a salve of liquor and witless distractions.
Proust might do a body good after a day filled with office politics, but Simpson and his easily suggestible mind prefers something a little more titillating; a little less mentally taxing. Boobies, explosions, and people making fart jokes will jerk his chain and get him off with so little effort. You have to read fifty pages of Bellow or Neruda to get even close to the mental masturbatory bliss Breaking Bad can promise on-demand countless times in forty minutes. The show plots toward dramatic heights to effortlessly reach a climax again, and again, and again without fail, reminding me of my nineteen year old self.
I’m a flesh and blood male, conditioned since birth to crave gratuitous sex, stylized killing and maiming, cruelty, and blowing shit up. But I don’t want to go out like that; to die with one orange-stained hand deep into bag of Doritos and the other wanking to the action-porn of Fast and Furious 17. If I had those one hundred seventeen years, perhaps, but there are gadflies screaming into my fur-filled ears “death is nigh!”
I am thankful for the zest for life my ADD turbo-charged mind has given me, but it has gotten out of hand. I’ve gone too long without learning to assess the relative merits of one passionate indulgence versus the next. There’s no longer time for that; I have to work and I need more sleep.
Running from one thing to the next obscures the true nature of what we’re really involved in. It fuels the sense of time as a blur, as disappearing with the blink of an eye. Deep down, we all know better than that, but running is a hard habit to break. Well, there’s a bus with my name on it, so it’s best I sit myself down until those seven volumes are done.
Homer will protest vehemently; he will doze off, he will want chips, he will crave porn. He will yearn for the countless distractions he’s conditioned to believe, owing to the sheer act of seeking them out, add something of value to his life. They merely suppress his discerning mind beneath a scripted reality and make him daft. I will tie him to a chair and gag him with pages of Proust to shut him up if I have to.
The experience of time is altered when engaged in meaningful endeavours; it passes without regret. Instead of an existence premised on frenetic activity, the choice to immerse oneself in the sublime and beautiful changes the perception of what transpires. In the mind’s eye, nothing is lost, despite the passing of time, because so much is gained from the effort; something more closely resembling wisdom and truth.