When I was ten years old, I was assigned Mr. Nardovino, the most dreaded fifth grade teacher of the three my school employed. At the end of the fourth grade, when I told the other kids the news, they said, “Oh, I’m sorry” in hushed, pitying voices, like someone had died.
Mr. Nardovino made me and my classmates memorize all sorts of information I don’t remember an iota of now: the presidents; the preamble to the Declaration of Independence; the countries in North America, South America, and Europe (but, you’ll notice, not Africa or Asia) and their capitals; and the If poem by Rudyard Kipling (in particular, he liked the lines “And so hold on when there is nothing in you / Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on’”).
Mr. Nardovino would quiz us on this information. If we tested poorly, he’d make us take the quiz again and again until we received what he considered an acceptable grade. Once, a boy received a low grade, the lowest we could receive: a “U,” unsatisfactory. I remember he had sandy hair and very blue eyes. I think his name was Tommy. He cried, loud, heaving tears that made him hiccup and splotched his face red. Eventually, a nurse escorted him from the classroom. Even then, when getting an “A” meant receiving rewards from my parents—ten bucks, ice cream after dinner, a superfluous pair of new sneakers—I didn’t understand why anyone would get so upset over a letter written in red ink across the top of a piece of paper.
We are a society of overachievers. Every child must endure, at the minimum, twelve years of school. There, we drill what we have deemed the essential knowledge required to productively function in society into their heads through repetitive, busywork exercises that more resemble brainwashing than education. Twelve times twelve is one hundred and forty-four. Mississippi is spelled M-I-S-S-I-S-S-I-P-P-I. Memorize it. Rattle it off. Don’t think. You shouldn’t have to think. It should be second nature.
And no one gets off with just the twelve years. Anyone who wants to make enough money to stock their shelves with better food than packaged Ramen noodles and tuna for the rest of their lives must go to college. Graduate school helps, too. Anyone who wants to have even the most remote chance of being able to retire comfortably, must work, work, work all day, every day, is lucky to have a free weekend. And isn’t that ironic? We run around frantically, working so hard in our prescribed ways, like zombies doped up on Ritalin, all for the hope of being able to finally, one day, relax.
I must admit, I am extraordinarily lazy. Sometimes I am lying in bed around ten or eleven o’clock at night and I realize I haven’t eaten anything since three p.m. Shortly after I realize this, my stomach does, too. It will gurgle and groan and send sharp, pinpricks of pain shooting through my midsection. But I will not budge. I do not see the point. The fleece blanket is soft and warm against my skin. The movie I’m watching has just gotten to the good part. My eyelids are heavy. And the food is so far away, all the way down the stairs, twenty of them at least, and across the apartment in the kitchen. And once I get to the kitchen, I will have to prepare the food. At the very least, I will have stretch up onto my tiptoes to retrieve the cereal from the cabinet above the sink, find a bowl, pour some cereal into it, open the refrigerator, reach in and maneuver the quart of milk around the other containers—a pitcher of water, a gallon of Arizona green tea, eight ounce cans of coke—that would block its exit, uncap the milk, tip some into the bowl, repeat the process of retrieving the milk in reverse, repeat the process of retrieving the box of cereal in reverse, hunt around the shallow drawers for a clean spoon, then carry my meal all the way back up to my room. And this chronicle does not even take into account the amount of time and energy required to chew the cereal, drink the sugary milk left at the bottom of the bowl, and digest. Better to lie in bed, go to sleep, and eat a big breakfast in the morning.
I have no patience in life for those things we do because we are supposed to, because we should, but which bring no pleasure. Conventions, courtesies, obligations. Pooh! I avoid them the way a cat caught in a storm will skirt the rain, hugging the sides of buildings, slinking under their eaves. I do not iron my clothes. What does it matter, really, if they are wrinkled? I wash the dishes only when it becomes absolutely necessary to, when I am down to the last fork in the house. I do not exercise. If there is half a block between me and a bus stop as a bus pulls up to a red light beside me, I will not so much as power walk to reach it. I’d rather wait twenty more minutes than break a sweat. I do not often visit my friends. All those buses, trains, planes, needing to be at gate four at three-o-two or risk missing my means of transportation, all that stress—why? My friends and I can just as easily shoot each other emails to catch up. I despise small talk. When it can be avoided, I do not converse with strangers, waitresses, cashiers, classmates, coworkers, roommates, friends of friends. It is too much of a bother trying to arrange my face in such a way that it appears I care about sports teams, the weather, or what other people do for weekends, Christmas, and spring break. I dislike having a full agenda, moving in a rush from one task to another and then another endlessly without the slightest possibility of ever being finished.
All the social rigmarole we go through, the studying, the working, the constant, frantic scurrying, is ridiculous. Not because, or at least not simply because, I am lazy and find it personally repugnant, but because it makes us unhappy. It is insidious. Even when we step away from it for a moment, we aren’t able to enjoy the downtime. We lounge on the beach or stand amongst friends at cookouts, and think in the backs of our heads, I’ve got so much to do. I should be writing that essay. I should be preparing for that meeting tomorrow. Or we think, I should be exercising, I should be reading, I should be bettering myself?
Perhaps there are those who will say some people enjoy toiling, like a pinball bouncing bumper to bumper in its glass cage. I grant, sometimes I enjoy working. Sometimes when I am sitting at my desk inserting commas between compound words or italicizing genera, I think, What an awesome job to get paid to perform. But even then, it is a grudging sort of admission. Of all the possible occupations, if I must work, I am glad I get mop up other people’s writing for a living. But to say that I enjoy waking at seven a.m., cramming between other sleepy, sweaty bodies in subway cars, sitting at a desk in a cubicle, and staring out of a window at the Charles River while I am stuck inside every day, would be quite the exaggeration. If you believe people enjoy this sort of thing, I think you’re delusional. If you enjoy this sort of thing, I think you’re barking.
Some might argue, and it’s certainly true, that if everyone were as lazy as I am, nothing would get done. There would have been no Einsteins, Martin Luther King, Jrs., or Neil Armstrongs. In the movie Troy, a child sent to summon Achilles to a fight says to the warrior, “The Thessalonian you’re fighting…he’s the biggest man I’ve ever seen. I wouldn’t want to fight him.” Achilles responds, “That’s why no one will remember your name.” And that is true. It is for his superhuman achievements that we remember Achilles. It is for their extraordinariness that humanity remembers individuals. And we do so value remembrance.
Everyone wants to be a Shakespeare; everyone wants his or her name to live eternally in the memory of posterity. Perhaps, what we work so hard for then is something nobler than just the opportunity to relax. Perhaps we are always striving for this immortality. My tenth grade English teacher used to say that Macbeth’s problem was his “vaulting ambitiousness.” So, too, are we plagued by ambitiousness. Our mortality haunts us all our lives, so we compensate for our physical fleetingness by trying to leave lasting evidence of our existences. We aim to be the best: the best writers, basketball players, politicians.
I do not wish to condemn such attempts. Sometimes, I lie awake at night, tossing and turning, fluffing my pillows, flicking the TV on and off and on, shielding my eyes from the moonlight slanting through my blinds, unable to think anything except, What am I doing with my life? It’s just that when I think such things, a weighty enough dollop of cynicism follows that I don’t get up the next morning and run myself ragged trying to get out into the world and do something big. What holds me back is not just that such toiling would make me unhappy, but that it is pointless.
One night, perhaps a year ago now, I saw a show on the Discovery Channel about the classical sculptor Phidias. He created the statue of Zeus at Olympia, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. Not so much as a pinky toe of the statue remains now. And it was built a mere two thousand years ago, a speck of foam floating in the ocean of time.
I have sometimes spent entire weekends being decisively unproductive, playing video games, doing things like shooting feral ghouls in the face with sawed off shotguns. I consider it time well spent. If I had spent those weekends composing an opus or writing prolifically or devising a plan for world peace, no one would remember in a few thousand years anyway. What is important is that I had fun.
Sometimes, during my lunch break, I wander the halls of the Museum where I work. One of the current exhibits explores black holes. A kiosk shows a simulation of two galaxies colliding. The devastation is staggering. The galaxies warp, then fly apart. Solar systems, stars, planets do not survive such events. In the long-term, the way we reach for eternity is ridiculous, silly, and childish, like a toddler stubbornly holding her heavy eyelids open and insisting the adults keep paying attention to her. Give it enough time and she will fall asleep. Give it enough time and there will be no evidence that humans ever existed, let alone any single one.
That’s not to say that nothing matters. The truly amazing thing about the colliding galaxies simulation is that after the crash has obliterated both galaxies, the black holes at their centers pull the broken pieces back together. Out of the debris, stars, solar systems, planets, perhaps even life, forms once again. Life is so fragile, so improbable, and yet we live.
So if every now and then ten-year-old kids are less than perfect, if they come home with bad grades, I think it’s safe to wipe their eyes and give them ice cream.