There are sad things you can do that, as long as you do them on purpose, aren’t sad.
One of the saddest things you can do is buy fast food, park your car, and then eat the fast food while listening to an improving podcast. I mean improving in the sense that Jimmy Gatz used it when he sought to read “one improving book or magazine per week.” It’s media you consume in order to become a better person.
Eating chicken tenders with sweet-and-sour sauce in a parking lot, alone in your car, is sad because it’s lonely and self-destructive. Listening to an improving podcast while doing this is worse, because your pattern of recent choices is proof you’re not actually trying to improve yourself and probably can’t picture even the vaguest lines of the road to improvement.
If you happen to find yourself eating fast food in your car while indulging the fiction that you’re improving, it’s sad. But if you do the same thing on purpose, it’s funny. Or, at least proportionally, it’s funnier than sad. The sadness is there like sea salt on caramel, defining the limits of the sweetness and making the remnant feel like something you earned. It tastes sweet in spite of the salt.
Not too long ago, my wife’s dad died. In the week of his death, combining the upheaval of recent events with the gray sheet of funeral preparations and moods, I found myself both bereft of a lunch and hopeful that eating something irresponsible would make me feel better.
When I’m recovering from difficult times—beset by man’s suffering and final end—I’m overtaken by the desire to eat a gross burger.
My younger brother, Gabriel—the angelic allusion has not escaped me—has a quiet intelligence about important things, like which foods are the most self-destructive. And it was he who tipped me off to A&W.
Maybe you live in a place where A&Ws are popular enough to stand on their own. In our town the A&W hamburger joint stands like a proud beacon, drawing the human consumer like a moth by the power of its own light. The light of our A&W is refracted through a gas station and convenience store. Gabe believes that the synergy of hunger, an empty tank of fuel, and a strong desire for a variety of conveniences may draw weary travelers and needy inhabitants alike—and that this shotgun method of urban development may yield a fruitful harvest.
I added to this the idea of sitting in the parking lot and eating burgers in a car that smelled like a war between stale cigarette smoke and an air freshener (vanilla) had registered substantial casualties on both sides, and neither had won. But only a fool would bet against cigarette smoke.
I said, “It’ll be fun, because it’s a sad thing to do.” Gabe, who is wise even in his youth, recognized that this would be fun. With some people you might say this and they’d cock their heads and look at you and make a face like someone poured bitter herbs on their toothbrush without their knowledge or consent. But Gabe’s expression was one of instant realization, as though I’d poured delicious caviar on his toothbrush. I said, “Doing something sad can be fun,” and Gabe understood this, and I accounted it to him as righteousness.
So we went through the drive-thru and parked, and much faster than you’d have any reason to expect, I had already finished my fries. Frenzy over, in my right mind, I felt a twinge at the knowledge that this isn’t how adult males ought to behave. I know that somewhere men who had killed an animal, whose faces darken and lighten according to the fire’s whim, are enjoying their meal, and although they eat with their hands, they do it decorously, because they have self-respect.
The inheritable traits available to Gabe and me, in terms of simple genetics, are all variations on self-deprecation. That’s why, in the moment that I say, “I’m a worthless human being, partially because I just ate an entire bag of fries in under twenty seconds,” I believe that exactly then I can take pride in the person I am, because I’ve become a person who doesn’t take himself seriously, and who can stand back and enjoy the cosmic joke that is man. The setup is that he is spirit, and the punchline is that he’s animal.
Eating my hamburger took thirty seconds. Eating a hamburger in thirty seconds requires focus similar to that required in the execution of a high-wire act. When eating an A&W hamburger, a sudden, errant consideration for life and limb can bring about a disastrous self-awareness. If you stop to think, you might also stop eating the hamburger. If that happens, you might be spared various levels of intestinal distress, and your mind will be free to roam its pastures of melancholy, hands in pockets, eyes cast down.
I was lucky enough to drown the better angels of my nature for the half a minute it took to finish my burger.
There are meals that come in courses. Meals that use broths boiled for 24 hours, cuts of pork kneaded daily for a week. Meals in which humans share their humanness and become open and vulnerable with one another. You could call my hamburger a meal, but then you’d have to call piss marks in the sand a work of art.
This burger is not the only step in my grieving process. I’m not a complete idiot. It’s a quick home remedy that I’m indulging this once. But now I’ve consumed a meal in less time than it takes to prepare any other known food, except perhaps the noble cheese-stick, and it doesn’t feel funny or fun or hilariously self-aware.
Then I look up, and my brother, Gabriel, is finishing his burger, too.
The relief I feel as I see this and realize I’m not alone—and the recognition I see on his face as he realizes I’ve just done the same completely disgusting thing he has—fills me with fraternal warmth. That hamburger, in that moment, becomes a meal, as the patient miracle of eating together accomplishes all of the things it’s supposed to.
In A Moveable Feast Hemingway recalls drinking white wine and eating oysters and feeling empty: “As I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.”
That’s how it was for me, except I wasn’t alone.