Thursday, January 26, 2012

If It Makes You Happy, It Can’t Be That Bad…

                As a child, I hated salad. And you know what? I hated that I hated it. I wanted to like it so badly. I knew it was healthy and I was supposed to like it. So, I decided to make myself like it. I forced it down with a cup of soda for every bite. I ate it in public so I couldn’t spit it out. I ate it with tons of dressing then with none at all. I tried everything short of eating it while standing on my head. (Feel free to psychoanalyze me later) That little neurotic experience has never left me and this week it’s been on my mind as I’ve been asking myself, “Can you learn to love what’s good for you?” The answer: The Accidental Tourist by Anne Tyler.

                This book has haunted me for months now. I racked up enormous overdue library fees trying to figure out why it bothered me so much. I'll fill you in on why, but let me catch you up. The main character Macon Leary is a middle-aged man who writes travel guides for businessmen who travel for work but wish to “pretend they had never left home”. He tells them where to find a McDonalds in Italy, what hotel in Spain has the most American-looking bath towels, etc. He's the perfect picture of boring and yet somehow also complex and mentally unwell.

                In the novel, he has two love interests. The first is his wife Sarah who leaves him early in the novel because he seems to be living his life on autopilot since the death of their teenage son. He opens up to no one…not even the reader. Reading it, I often felt like I was watching a person who had no emotion at all. I guess I don't blame Sarah for being completely fed up with him... (That’s probably another reason the book haunted me)

                His second love interest is Muriel who is, to say the least, eccentric. She works about 5,000 odd jobs, is half of Macon’s age, and has “aggressively frizzy” hair. At first, Macon seems annoyed by Muriel, which is exactly what you would expect since his personality is so opposite of hers. He shuts her out just like he does everyone else. But her persistence pays off, and slowly we watch Macon go off autopilot.

                Now, what bothered me so much about this novel? I never decided who I wanted Macon to end up with. I know the “right” answers. Ethically, he should end up with his wife. And yet, Muriel seems to make him happier. What was “good” for him? Logically, Sarah is good for him. She is constant. She's married to him. She's stable and devoted. And yet... SPOILER ALERT: Macon doesn’t choose Sarah in the end. He makes efforts to go back to Sarah. He even breaks up with Muriel near the end of the novel, but he can't deny that with Sarah he returns to his "business as usual" self. He wants to learn to love what's good for him but can't.

                Can you learn to love what's good for you? Macon couldn't. In general, I don’t think there’s a yes or no answer my question. But what I only recently realized is this: Learning to love what’s good for you is much easier if you don’t know what you’re missing. Had Macon never met Muriel, maybe he could have learned to love Sarah again. Had I never eaten a cheeseburger, maybe I could have forced myself to like salad. Maybe that’s why businessmen read Macon’s travel guides. They didn’t want to risk seeing a life they wanted more than the one they had, a life that might not be as “good” for them but was more compelling. But what kind of world is that? Doing only what is “good” for you and not what you really enjoy---what you really care about? Is living life with blinders on really a living life?

                I’m not trying to endorse infidelity or to discourage salad-eaters, but I think it’s worth asking ourselves what is worth the fight. Choking down lettuce to satisfy your vegetable quota probably isn’t worth it. Especially when maybe, if you’re really lucky, there is a vegetable somewhere out there that tastes good and is stuffed with Vitamins A & C, too. One day, perhaps I will have my salad and eat it, too.

“You’ll know the emptiness was there when something comes along to fill it” –Lark Rise to Candleford

Writing Music: “Use Somebody” by Laura Jansen and “Rewind” by Stereophonics