Essays About


Observing teenagers—their self-doubt and theatricality, the earnestness of their flirting, their bleeding desire to be seen, to be loved, to be in love—I envy adolescence. Granted, I am far happier in my early thirties than I was at seventeen, and would not trade places. My teenage years were at sea, which is to say were typical, but in the decade since, I have made landfall, gotten a wife, a career, a home; I have set my lands in order. I have attained much of what I then felt sick with desire to have. But though happy, I am happy within the limits of possibility, whereas my teenage imagination was ignorant of limits. Adolescence attracts me not for the happiness I had, but for the happiness I believed I could have. Desire, not happiness, tastes of the infinite. I felt most alive in those years I would least relive.

I prefer for no one else to want what I want. In high school I loved discovering the flaws of attractive girls, because flaws made them more attainable, without making them less desirable. I hoped the competition would be turned off, leaving the uncontested prize to me. Similarly, in traveling, I place a premium on obscurity, favoring second-rate scenery with solitude over first-rate scenery with hordes of tourists. Picking a career, a restaurant, or a neighborhood to live in, I try to follow not my strongest but my strangest desire, the longing that leads to the least crowded enjoyment. The easiest odds of happiness lie not with what we love most, but with what we love most uniquely.

Everyone seeks their soul's good, even in seeking their body's pleasure. Hedonists hope their material enjoyment will reach inside and touch the marrow of their being. Is this not what saints are seeking, by alternate experiments? A middle-aged rich man in a red convertible, cruising the Amalfi coast with a model half his age, is merely another kind of monk, whose spiritual discipline is indulgence. Every mall is a monastery where the initiates seek beatitude, not by selling everything before they enter, but by buying everything before they leave.

The pursuit of happiness is doomed to fail, not because no one can be happy, but because no one can be happy by trying to be. Each new land that Alexander the Great conquered, instead of satisfying him, merely widened the circumference of his desires. Meanwhile in Macedon, his servants kept the stables, made love to their wives, and never dreamt of Persia's riches. Happiness is the pursuit of nothing.

Each stage of life greatly pleases us, but unfortunately not while we are in it. The young are eager to be adults, adults look forward to being retired, the retired envy youth. Daters crave marital stability, the married miss the thrill of dating. College students and graduates would swap places. We possess the pieces of a happy life, too bad we cherish them out of sequence.

When I need to think, I think out loud. Silent reflection is a lonely interior affair, whereas saying one's thoughts audibly splits the self into speaker and listener and turns monologue into dialogue. Nor is any dialogue quite so enjoyable as a dialogue with oneself. This is not a matter of vanity but compatibility. Who else besides me always and unfailingly desires to discuss exactly the same subjects I do? We start from shared premises, hold equivalent interests with equivalent passion, get bored at just the same moment and, without the awkwardness of hinting, simultaneously move on to another topic.

Each of us is our own perfect match.

I am a better reader now than when I was in graduate school, because I read with less enthusiasm. I can stay with a book from cover to cover, whereas in graduate school I could scarcely finish anything, because I wanted to read everything. Ten pages in, I was craving the next book. My patience was insufficient for novels, so I mostly read poems and essays. To visit libraries paralyzed me with my options. I sampled tables of contents endlessly, but an excess of hunger prevented me from eating.

I knew a friend in college who behaved similarly toward people at gatherings. Spotting you from across the room, he would curtail his conversation and weave through crowds to greet you, but as he shook your hand, his eyes were already scanning for the next friend he craved talking to. His hand and eyes, his having and wanting, were always out of sync. He liked so many people that he scarcely knew anyone beyond hello.

Too much desire is self-defeating, wildly overrunning the thing it wants. Passions need a pinch of apathy to slow them down to the pace of enjoyment.

To do what one likes requires free time, money, and health. Children have health and free time but no money. Adults have health and money but no free time. The old have money and free time but no health.

Though I hope all humanity will get to paradise, I wonder what single place could be paradise for us all. The peace, light, and love that would please some would make others miserable. Could a fallen Special Forces Marine be happy to wake in a heaven of harps? If he could, then death is life's lobotomy, and what survives after death is not the Marine. He would be happier in hell where he could wage eternal combat against the devil his master. For all to be blessed, some must be damned.

On a ship there is both more room and less room than on land. We can see to the horizon but cannot walk past the ship's rails; we have wider thoughts but stiffer legs. The mind's very spaciousness exacerbates the body's claustrophobia. On land we accepted working all week in a cubicle, because its walls obscured the world beyond, but now that our eyes extend to earth's edge, a ten-story ship feels as cramped as a clam shell. Our souls would surf the hemisphere of waves, but matter shackles us. At sea I see why Plato cursed the body.

Inlanders going to sea are like shoppers looking at catalogs: we were happy before we knew how much we wanted.

Most people daydream of wealth as a marble staircase to happiness, but on a recent tour of the Biltmore House in Asheville, North Carolina, I was disappointed to discover that money does not buy a different life, but a larger portion of the same life—a somewhat roomier finitude. Instead of two or three bedrooms like most homes, the mansion has thirty five. Yet still, what can one do in them but sleep? By the time I had seen the fifth sitting room, each with innumerable chairs and sofas of countless shapes and upholsteries, I realized that wealth gives no help for ennui except a choice of which chair to be bored in.