Cynicism

I guess if I had a motto, it might be Google-esque: “Don’t be cynical.”

I try not to be. I think I’d even rather be pessimistic than cynical. I recognize cynicism as a defense mechanism, allowing one to continue on despite a situation that’s perceived as untenable yet inescapable. But cynicism also seems to be a kind of capitulation, as if you’ve no longer got the modicum of enthusiasm required to be disappointed in things. Pessimists are the soul of disappointment. They expect the worst, but their very negativity indicates that they WISH things were different. Can one retain ambition if one cannot be disappointed? Can one?

Politics Make Me #&$%! Cynical
Right now I’m watching “Meet the Press” with Tim Russert, one of those Sunday-morning political shows that really tests my resolve not to be cynical. Watching him interview Barack Obama, seeing Barack Obama backtrack on a statement he made in 2004 that he would definitely not run for President or Vice President in 2008. On the one hand, I want to think “well that’s what he thought then, and this is how he’s thinking now.” On ze uzzer hand (heh, I’m Tevye) I can’t help going “Why the Hell did he say that in such uncompromising terms? How contextually manipulative!”

And then the cynical me says, in its tiny, yet carrying, voice: “Typical.”

Now the “round table” is on, which is often a bunch of partisan hacks making sure their particular interests get enough play during the half hour. On this day they’re discussing the upcoming mid-term Congressional elections. The big news is that Democrats are ahead in almost all of the polls, and the president and congress’s approval ratings are down in the cellar.

The round-table’s consensus is that the Democrats will pick up enough seats in the House to gain control of that body, but that the Senate is too close to call. One comment by Robert Novak (why isn’t he in jail?) gave me the flashback deedly-deets. To paraphrase, he mentioned that even though all these polls say that the country has so little confidence in Congress, so little confidence in the President, that we’d be better off with Democrats in power, and despite the fact that so many of the races have the Democratic candidate ahead, despite all this evidence the pundits are still hedging and saying that it will be a really close election.

Novak’s explanation for this seems to play to his conservative benefactors, so I ignored it; can’t even remember what it was. Later on, he went on for a bit about how this is the least important election ever, which I think was just more partisan baloney for his sugar-daddies. Whoops, I’m being cynical.

Don’t we all really know why people are saying it’s going to be close? It’s because we were burned. In 2004, all the polls said Kerry was going to win. Zogby himself went on the Daily Show and told us in no uncertain terms that it was a sure thing.

That’s why for this election, we’d still be saying “yeah, maybe” even if the President and Congress had a 0% approval rating. We’ve had cynicism fairly ground into our skins by the mortar and pestle of experience.

I didn’t watch the Daily Show for almost two years after the election. Seriously. Not a single episode. Recently I’ve recovered my… whatever it is that you have to have in order to pay attention to politics. It’s recharged, and the Daily Show doesn’t make me bitter and sick to my stomach any more. Until November 8, that is.

Domestic Turmoil Encourages Cynicism
Of course my contractor isn’t doing what he said he’d do. Of course there’s a hole in my new comforter. Of course my sister’s dog shit on the floor, and then did it again the next day. Of course my cats peed on the carpet. Of course it costs an arm and a leg to have a tree removed, and then you wind up with a four-foot-tall stump in your back yard. Sigh.

I hired a contractor to waterproof my basement. That meant moving everything out of my basement. Which meant either renting storage space or putting a wall on my garage, and putting my stuff in there. So with help from my neighbor, I built a front wall on the garage behind my house, with a door and everything. I felt pretty un-cynical during the process, and was glad to have it done and to have my neighbor’s help. He’s a cool dude.

But surrounding that exercise in practicality and manliness are things that make me cynical. This list is a bit of a dangerous revelation, because it might involve you, dear reader:

  • My house, and its watery basement. It’s not supposed to do that. It is specifically not supposed to do that; it says so in my sales contract.
  • The waterproofing contractor I hired to fix the problem, requiring that everything be moved out of the basement. It would be so nice were they to tell me when they were coming, when they were going, when the work would be finished, and why they didn’t do what’s called for in my contract. Oh, I could go on.
  • Public Storage, a nearby storage facility that I refuse to use because of really terrible service.
  • My friends, who express shock that I know how to use a saw, or that I would have gotten up the gumption to do some kind of physical work, or assume that my neighbor did the work, and look at me askance when I assure them otherwise. How did I give them this impression of me? I grew up on a farm, for crying out loud. Maybe they don’t know what that entails. Let’s go bale some hay, see who peters out first.

Even when I’m doing something non-cynical, it’s surrounded by things that encourage cynicism. Is cynicism an inevitable result of modern society? Hmmm. I’m led to this theory by the New Yankee Workshop, believe it or not. The New Yankee Workshop is a wood-working show on PBS, and it’s about the least cynical thing in the world. This guy just basically goes through the steps of building something out of wood, using the tools in his workshop. Step by step, like CSI in reverse. Uh, and for wood-working.

But the New Yankee Workshop is presented like something out of time. It’s straightforward, pleasant, and without any trappings of masculinity other than that the host is a man and that we traditionally think of wood-working as a masculine act. What few tweaks of character they do add to the script are so vanilla you could make them into a wafer and dip them in a glass of milk.

It’s this timeless placidity, crossed with the inherent creativity of the act of wood-working that makes me think that more practical-minded times were probably less cynical. When you’re thinking in terms of “how do I get from A to B” you don’t have much time for thinking about how when you get to B it won’t have been worth it, but isn’t that just typical of B. Is cynicism a disease of the idle mind? Of a mind ill-at-ease with society?

Man, I fight that cynicism every day. I want to be positive. Positivity gets results, where a house is concerned. It gets a door on your garage, it gets the hole in your comforter sewn, it gets dog poo cleaned up, it gets your basement waterproofed.

Cynicism is how you wind up with an old washer in your front yard.

The Ladies, Oh How the Ladies Make Me Cynical
God, what a source for cynicism women are. I’m saying this as a man, who has trouble understanding them, and finds a great deal of motivation towards cynicism in the lack of understanding that I share with them. I’ve spent a lot of time, as you have, trying to understand women.

Actually, I’ve lately been feeling a heightened difference between the way I think and the way other people in general think and behave. I feel myself growing cynical about their responses to external stimuli. They’ll react selfishly, short-sightedly, unsubtly, stupidly, and they won’t see the things I see. God, what egotism!

Does egotism naturally accompany depression? Sometimes late at night I’ll lapse into that “nobody understands me” mind-set. I can get pretty maudlin, here inside my head. Does everybody do that? I’ve heard my sister saying similar things, loudly, at 4 AM, when she comes home “tipsy.” Nobody understands her except her dog. I guess that feeling is embodied in the cliche “Nobody ever really knows anybody.”

But when I notice those differences, when that egotism sprouts like a Giger alien from the loins of my id, I’m pretty sure it’s fertilized by girl trouble. Because when you’re in a good place with girls (or boys, if you’re gay, I’m talking male perspective here), all of a sudden it’s so much easier to be optimistic with regards to the entire human race. When you feel like you know where you stand, when you feel like there’s somebody on your team, when you are, in the words of Holden from “The Good Girl“, being gotten. Of course then you’re insufferable because you think you’ve got it all figured out and what’s the matter with that poor schlub crying in his beer?

How to avoid the cynicism that goes with woman-related angst!? It’s so hard! The effort alone makes one cynical!

Cynicism at the Job Site
Then there’s work, an area of life where people have made hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars exploiting cynicism. Most of them are named Scott Adams.

It’s so easy to be cynical at work. Feels so much better to be cynical than constantly disappointed, right? Not to mention that I work with computers– but cynicism towards computers is a good survival tactic. Everyone should be cynical where computers are concerned, I think. It would make everyone much more tolerant of the realities of technology.

But perhaps you’re more fulfilled at work than I am right now. Perhaps you are constantly challenged and intrigued by new projects, and perhaps your opinions and ideas are acted on and taken as seriously as you think they should be. Lucky.

Maybe you’re just an inherently sunny person, who wonders what’s wrong with me. If you are, please stop reading my blog.

My attitude towards work is like many things in life: pendulum-ey. (Pendulous isn’t right. Pendulish? Pendulastic?) When it’s busy I’m happy, then it gets too busy and I’m not happy, then it gets not busy at ALL and I’m even not happier, then it starts getting busy again and I feel better once more. Been like that for ten years, give or take a couple at the beginning when everything was new. The Internet that is. It was all basically brand spanking new, and we were all learning so much every day. But at this point a lot of my job is “been there, watched that flop” and tap tap tap here’s 1000 words on configuring your email program, let’s have lunch.

How do novelists, how do actors, freelancers of any sort deal with constant rejection and the failure to understand on the part of their fellow human beings, and not turn completely cynical?

Art – Cynicism = Suicide?
I feel rejected at work a lot, but it’s not usually in the course of my regular workload. It’s the extra things, the ideas, the theories, the stuff I do over and above in order to try and help– the company, my colleagues, etc. There are several reasons for this rejection (possibly including that my ideas just aren’t any good, I guess).

But my everyday efforts are rarely rejected. On the contrary, at this point I have enough experience that the majority of my work is accepted with gratitude. It’s what keeps me working, actually, that bit of respect.

So thanks, universe, for that. But what if I didn’t have that? What if I faced rejection at almost every turn? Rejection is part and parcel of being a creative freelancer like an artist, writer, or actor. Cynicism would seem the death-knell of an artist. How many great works of cynicism are there– which weren’t subsequently followed by suicide? True cynics don’t commit suicide. But I think there are many cases of cynicism masking despair, exposed like the inside of a skull, by suicide.

I feel that in my art. Yeah, art. I’m an artist. I’m making art right now, don’t you know, with this very word. And these. And I write songs. Did you know that? Your (yes, you) reaction to a song is one of the things I live for in life… finding that means to communicate something to someone else via music and verse. When you get it, and you TELL me you get it– even it’s not the message I thought I was sending– it’s better than sex. Or maybe it’s not that you “got” it, it’s that you got something out of it.

But artists, listen up. I have some advice here for you: Mostly, people won’t react to your art. They just won’t. Most people will be indifferent. The vast majority of your audience, if they appreciate what you’ve done, will make little effort to let you know. The people who love you will support you, but they probably won’t care about the ART, only about telling you how good you are for making it and how proud of you they are.

Indifference is hard to stomach, and it’s almost as hard to take that blind support from your loved ones. But the key to survival is, ironically, cynicism. Becoming cynical about The People’s general reception of art and the things you care about, without becoming cynical about the art itself is how you keep the shotgun out of your mouth. Live for the occasional person you’ve reached, but don’t expect to hear from them.

Or find the clues to your audience through other mechanisms. Downloads, sales, references on the Web, stuff like that. More subtle indications that you’re being heard/read/seen/etc.

You might wonder why I haven’t said artists should create art for its own sake. It’s because I think that’s bullcrap. Art is communication, and artists are trying to communicate SOMETHING to SOMEBODY. That’s my opinion on art.

It’s Fun to be Cynical about the Media
Remember, Goodies is a powder, so nothing gets rid of your pain faster. Richard Petty, pain-relief expert, just told me that. Everybody knows that powders are just faster. I mean, it’s a powder.

Yeah, it’s a television commercial. Speaking of which, let’s just not go there. Too much room for cynicism in all of the media. Besides, being ironically cynical about commercials is one of the great pleasures in my life. I choose not to examine this very closely.

But the amount of cynicism I feel towards the media in general and news organizations in particular is so powerful, so all-consuming, that it could probably land a man on the Moon. I basically don’t believe a word they say, and nothing they do can surprise me. I wish I felt more Disney about things, but it’s just impossible. They lie so much, and it’s just for money. Just for money. Ugh. Disgusting, but for some reason amusing.

Coping With Cynicism
One could write a book about cynicism, without even doing research. Just like, “Impressions of Cynical Motivators in Life.” Well, not a book anybody would want to read, but you could FILL such a book. Or a journal. If you wanted to focus on your cynicism to that extent.

But then, maybe that’s a good idea. There this book called “The Artist’s Way” which is kind of a guide to rediscovering your creativity. It’s a bit spiritual for my taste, but in a realistic sort of way. One of the primary methods for rediscovering your creativity (according to the book) is something called “the morning pages.” Basically you wake up in the morning and fill three pages of a spiral-bound notebook with everything that you’re thinking about. It’s meant to get all that crap out of your system, and the book mentions making your worries and cares part of your writing.

The morning pages make me think of National Novel-Writing Month, also known as “NaNoWriMo,” because it’s basically writing without thinking too much about it. Just spewing the words out in order to fill your quota. Literary gurgitation. I’ve thought of attempting NaNoWriMo this year (November is NaNoWriMo), but cynicism rears its hoary head and I frequently feel like I shouldn’t bother. Maybe. I have to decide soon. I’ll let you know.

There’s a scene in Chuck Palahniuk’s “Fight Club”– actually, it’s in the movie, I haven’t read the book– where [hey, spoiler alert] Ed Norton sticks a gun in his mouth and surgically removes his second personality, embodied in the movie by Brad Pitt, somehow. You know that scene in Fight Club where what’s his name uses the gun on himself. I’d like to do that, somehow, to my cynicism. Figuratively. I’m pretty sure the gun thing is a bad idea.

Final Section Header Goes Here
If you’ve reached this far, congratulations. Remember what I said about art and disinterest towards same? There’s a movie, “Me and You and Everyone We Know,” and in this movie a lady artist sends a lady curator a video, which the artist hopes the curator will add to a collection to be shown in a museum. The video is a piece of art, and yeah, I have trouble with video as art too, but it’s a really good part of a REALLY good movie. In the scene where the curator is watching the artist’s video, there’s a point in the video where the artist speaks directly to the curator. She asks that, if the curator has watched the video that far, just to call and leave her voicemail consisting of just the word “macaroni.”

I’m not going to ask quite so much of the Internet that someone reading this should go to the trouble of picking up a telephone and dialing some number I come up with to leave me a message. But if you have read this far, first of all, thanks. Second of all, I hope you found the piece interesting. And third of all, would you do me the favor of leaving a comment? It can be anything you want. It can just be a word. Say, “macaroni.” If you’ve read this far, just leave the comment “macaroni.” You don’t even need to leave your name.

Reading through this post, editing a bit, it seems kind of dour and sad. 3000 words on “cynicism,” egad. Two references to suicide. Eesh. I’ve basically been writing this thing all day long, with breaks to go bowling, paint my shed (note to self, avoid oil-based paint in future), and see “Marie Antoinette,” a film which didn’t really help my mood (although I think I liked it quite a bit).

Someday soon I know that I’ll look back on these words and wonder what was in my head. I can’t wait until I can’t understand the place I’m at right now, although I hope I’ll remember that such a place exists, and kind of the way to get here. Then maybe I can figure out another route. If only I had a map.

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4 comments

  1. Kraft Dinner.

    Please keep writing. I find it nstructive to peek inside other people’s heads every once in a while. I can relate to some of what you write about, and I appreciate having something like this to react to. Let me know if you end up doing NaNoWriMo, and if you want a reader. I’ve never done it but sometimes I like keeping up with the progress of friends who are doing it. My uncle wrote a novel recently — he’s a retired lawyer and just up and wrote a legal thriller. He hadn’t done anything of the sort before. There was something that really impressed me about that. It’s not highly cerebral, nor is it selling like hotcakes or putting him on the cover of the NYRB or anything, but anyone who manages to get something as substantial as a novel out from inside of them gets a lot of props from me.

  2. I forgot you had this blog until you linked to it on YOY. So I’m catching up.

    I think I used to be more cynical than I am now. But I think most people are basically good and are trying the best they can to do the right things. When people hurt me through action (or more commonly, inaction), I can usually chalk it up to them not being aware of their actions. If it is pointed out to them, they are usually surprised, and I am probably sometimes guilty of this myself.

    People say that cynics are romantics at heart. Those people are right. Cynicism is a reaction to things not being they way you expect them to be, when you imagine how thingsought to be. Life, love, sex, work, all of it – it doesn’t play the way we were led to believe it does. Sometimes this is for the better, sometimes not. But if you believe that everyone and everything is conspiring to let you down, eventually they will. Cynicism is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Only through the love of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, can we… heh, sorry. This Pollyanna rant just wanted to head there.

    Anyhow, you’re going through a bad patch now, but you’ll be okay. And things will be better. Maybe better than ever. It’s like the weights that batters put on their bats before they hit. They won’t be on there forever, and when they come off, it’ll be much easier. Eh, anyway, that’s enough from Dr. Shane. Friday nights still suck without you. No one else made Congo jokes while the Blood Diamond preview was playing. Fuckers.

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