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I have a certain amount of difficulties at parties, for a number of reasons. Chief among them is my struggle to answer the boilerplate question, “What do you do?”
There is no complete answer I could give, aside from a downright facetious one like: “I convert food calories into muscle and fat, and in doing so contribute in my small way to the heat death of the universe.”
According to the taxman, I am the proprietor of a number of struggling small businesses. By my roommates’ accounts, I am a generally fun guy who occasionally vanishes into his room for a few hours to do something inscrutable.
To myself, I am terribly few things at all during the cruel honesty of the day, but a veritable da Vinci in those precious moments of hallucination just preceding sleep.
Call it a protracted adolescence, that novelty of our time. It may be that I drank too deeply from the cup of praise during my formative years, and have remained drunk on the possibilities of my own potential. This has no doubt been a problem for the bright and lazy for centuries, but I think that our modern world creates the conditions for this disease of habits to become a pandemic.
This is why I consider myself a New Idler, certainly distinguishable from the Renaissance Man or the Victorian Amateur or the Parisian Saloniste.
For one thing, I am not landed gentry. I am not independently wealthy, or dependently wealthy, or even well-to-do. This must be the first time and place in human history when a young man with no skills, no income and no direction can not only survive, but thrive!
I have never been healthier, more romantically successful, or more full of zest for life than right now, and I can assure you that I am both penniless and unemployable. Oh, what wonders our age has wrought!
Secondly, there is that great equalizer, the Internet. Education and meaningful work once surely conferred a great social advantage on people, the ability to condescend. Whether they tried or not, the intelligentsia would simply have access to exciting new ideas, challenging modes of thought and fresh experimental data. Their speech would be condescending for no other reason than that they had all the facts.
Enter Radiolab. Enter BuzzFeed, HuffPost, the Daily What and, for that matter, the mandatory Twitter feeds of the greatest thinkers of our age. Not only is all the wildest new gossip from politics and the natural sciences completely available – for free if you happen to be one the 28 million Canadians living within walking distance of a coffee shop – but it is collated, curated and prepackaged into witty banter.
Every morning, while brewing coffee, I can stream a lesson in erudite, educated conversation that would make Henry Higgins sound like a backwoodsman.
So, with education and hard work appearing grossly obsolete, how else am I to define myself? That’s the central question for my epoch of wandering youth.
To be sure, the answer lies in bountiful possibilities of some vague, delayed tomorrow. To that end, I starting collecting lists of great books to read so I might improve my mind. The Modern Library, Time magazine, The Guardian, everyone had their say. My combined list currently has 1,028 entries, and far surpasses the number of books I could possibly read in my natural life, particularly since so much of my time is taken up with list-collecting.
I am on a trial membership with 12 different skills-building websites, each taking me right up to edge of the dedication and sacrifice it would take to make progress. I run so many free services that my laptop screen blazes and blares like a Times Square of squalid gratification.
These distractions slow down my already-glacial progress, of course, but it doesn’t matter! I have all the time in the world, and the joys of laying myself down to sleep, dreaming into the future where I am a concert pianist, a foreign correspondent, a Saturday Night Live cast member and Jonathan Franzen’s best friend, are all I need for sustenance.
In my mind, I am already there, and since a recent podcast informed me that time is unified and unmalleable, I am already there in reality as well.
The only thing that could defeat this vision of a perfect and masterful future is to collapse this superposition of histories and dedicate myself to one thing at the expense of all others. So this is the one path I must not take.
I would give up everything I have in this life, my pasta maker, my Bowflex home gym, even my ribbonless vintage typewriter, in order to preserve the dream that is me. I would sweep out every cobwebbed corner of my hobby-filled apartment to make room for more of that one truly renewable resource: potential.
Every night, I concentrate on a still more perfect future, and escape that much further from a still more banal present.
That is what I do, but this answer is a little too wide-ranging for casual party talk, so I had to spell it out for you here.
Steve Currie is an improvisor and poet in Winnipeg. In any other century, he would have died of consumption by now.
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