January 31, 2014

The American Unhappines Project

Last year I read a fascinating book called My American Unhappiness.  The main character, Zeke, navigates an empty post-modern landscape as he gathers stories for his Inventory of American Unhappiness Project.  The Project amounts to collecting responses to the question “Why are you unhappy?”  Via email, live interview, or otherwise.

One of my favorite parts was the explanation of what Zeke did when someone said: “What me? I’m not unhappy.” A short discussion or just a look was usually all it took to get a response to the question. It reminds me of a favorite passage from David Foster Wallace:

“The next suitable person you’re in light conversation with, you stop suddenly in the middle of the conversation and look at the person closely and say, “What’s wrong?” You say it in a concerned way. He’ll say, “What do you mean?” You say, “Something’s wrong. I can tell. What is it?” And he’ll look stunned and say, “How did you know?” He doesn’t realize something’s always wrong, with everybody. Often more than one thing. He doesn’t know everybody’s always going around all the time with something wrong and believing they’re exerting great willpower and control to keep other people, for whom they think nothing’s ever wrong, from seeing it.”
― David Foster Wallace, The Pale King

Below are some amazing (fictional) email responses to the Inventory of American Unhappiness Project from the book. Even though its fiction, they are so very poignant:

"Theodore M., 28 cable installer, Morris, IL:

Ideas. Ideas make me unhappy.  I get so many of them. I'm going to make a film about my great-uncle. I'm going to build a writing shed near the garage. I'm going to send a letter every day for the next year.  But I don't follow through on anything. And I know this about myself, so it drives me crazy that I keep having these ideas. I keep having ideas, but what am I doing this week. I'm re-watching The Wire on DVD. Starting over, season one.

Alexandria W., 23, waitress, Seattle, WA:

My boyfriend is a total dick.

Ron C., 24, waiter, Seattle, WA:

My girlfriend is a total bitch.

Wanda P., 37, sales associate, Cody, WY:

I guess when I see grownups dressed up for Halloween it sort of makes me unhappy. Unless they're real sexy sorts of costumers, like a slutty bee or a dirty cop or something. And I suppose its okay if they're with their kids, or at some drunker party or whatever. But I'm thinking about a secretary who dresses up as a witch, you know, standing there in the glare of an insurance offices' fluorescent lights? Or a used-car salesman wearing devil horns? Or a postal clerk dressed up as a cowboy or whatever? I can't abide by that. I can't think about it. Its about as sad as a guy who wears short-sleeve T-shirts and what he describes as "wacky" neckties. There are things adults must not do, you know?

Carrie, 33, legal analyst, Normal, IL:

These binders that line the walls of my office. They hold meeting minutes for every damn meeting from the last ten years; the paper falling out of them is yellowing and often printed in a font and I don't think it exists anymore. We're always in the process of getting ready for another meeting and making another binder to put on the shelves No one looks at the binders after the meetings are done, as far as I can tell, but we will never, ever, get rid of them. On some very fundamental level I don't understand why we make or keep the binders, and since it is my job to make the binders, this makes me unhappy."


Rabbi Sharon Litwin said...

Going to sleep alone at night and not knowing if that will ever change. Makes everything else that is wonderful about my life slightly more unhappy.

Rabbi Sharon Litwin said...

Going to sleep alone at night and not knowing if that will ever change. Makes everything else that is wonderful about my life slightly more unhappy.