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Cosmic Questions? Forget Sartre, Read Junebug

August 26, 1993|Jim Washburn | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who contributes regularly to The Times Orange County Edition

The other night while eating a typical bachelor meal of cold cereal and Trader Joe's stuffed grape leaves, I had the realization that I am accomplishing more now than Vincent Van Gogh did when he was my age.

Of course he'd been dead a year, but I think we're allowed to cut ourselves a little slack when stacking our lives up against the great masters. By most other measures, though, particularly my own, I've fallen a little short of the mark. I'm never going to be President, unless things really loosen up, and I'm way too old to become a rock star.

About my only option left is to write a book, which, unlike those other two jobs, requires work, dedication, a big slobbery dog and a bad haircut. I don't know the reasons for the last two, but almost all male writers have them: In extreme cases the writers wind up with big slobbery hair and even their dogs have problem 'dos. It's unavoidable, and such will be my fate if I follow that course. (So far, I'm taking the same approach to writing that I have with my bagpipes: A teacher said it would be two years before I can get music out of them, so I'm just putting them aside for two years.)

I have no one but myself to blame for being stalled so late in life. It may be too late for me, but if any kids are reading this, let me give you some heartfelt advice: No matter what the peer pressure is, no matter how "cool" it looks, stay the hell away from existentialism.

Somehow when I was in junior high I caught on that life has no meaning, that no matter how vast the universe nor how minutely you might peruse the atom, there wasn't a speck of ultimate purpose to any of it. Even if there was a creator, what created it? And then what created that, and whatever for ?

I tried to imagine infinity reaching ever outward, with no meaning to any of it. Then I tried as hard as I could to imagine the nothingness that should appropriately be there instead. Once I caught on that consciousness can't conceive of the dimensions of nothing--it's neither huge black void nor the teensiest dot--I came to think that as senseless as existence was, the real burden lay in being cursed with the consciousness to have to be aware of it. Which sure takes the luster off prom night.

In high school, I wore a T-shirt I'd customized with a quote of Goethe's--"Life is the disease of matter"--and thought the impersonal bleakness of Vonnegut's "The Sirens of Titan" was the cat's meow. In college I read Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard, et al, and found them altogether too jolly. After they established the meaninglessness of life, I thought it was a cop-out for them to then say that man should create his own meaning.

I turned in a term paper with cover art that recast Camus' "The Stranger" as a Charles Atlas-like comic book ad titled, "The Insult That Made a Man of Meursault." I got an F, which, of course, meant nothing to me.

I pretty much went through the '70s in that frame of mind. Since nothing mattered, I wasted whole years watching really atrocious television. We're talking "Battlestar Galactica" bad here, and if that and "CHiPs" reruns won't convince you that life is senseless, nothing will.

Then one day I realized that perhaps the two most important words we have are "So what?"

Life's a senseless joke? So what? Tell a better joke. Buy a unicycle. Sartre was probably saying the same thing, and if he'd used two words to get it across instead of 342 pages, I might have gotten it a decade sooner.

Life's been a lot more fun since then, although I have been slipping into something of a dark luau of the soul lately thinking about all the years I wasted, and the years it may yet take to create some work I might be proud of.

In the meantime, I've been trying to figure more effortless ways to lurch out of mid-life malaise. The easiest way to shake things up might just be a new name. There are quite enough Jims already, so I'm looking at Junebug or Honeyboy, though I'm also starting to like the way Howlin' Washburn sounds.

I already bought a new car a few months ago, if you recall the Saturn saga recounted in these pages, so I ordinarily wouldn't be able to further spiff myself up in that department. Fortunately, nearly the whole Saturn line has been recalled recently for a little problem some of them seemed to have with the engine compartment catching fire.

So all I need to do is delay taking it in to the shop and I might soon be tooling around town in distinctive style in my own hurtling fireball.

I've also upped my exercise regimen, which typically consists of buying a new exercise book every six months. I used to have an "Exercise Along With Arnold" record that had some marvelously Germanic quotes from his formative Conan days. My favorite was where he explained, "Zis iz a gwate ezurcize fwor ze bwuttucks . . . ." If I can find the album in the garage, we'll try to get this on TimesLink for you.

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