How Do You Spend Your Summer Day?

It was ninety degrees in New York and everyone was happy. Vivacious kids shouted at a cheery vendor for cherry ice and the hearty proprietor waved his hand, ushering the kids beneath his canopied shade as he carved out bright granular chunks into pristine cups. A shirtless man with a ratty straw hat angled at a hard random slope strummed a banjo in the park and attracted admirers. Not long before, I ambled past the crackling reports of men slamming dominoes onto the artisanal concrete of fixed outdoor tables sprouting from a brick sidewalk. Even the squirrels were decent enough to leave people alone. It was the kind of summer day where the humidity stops just short of uncomfortable and the sweat feels more like a comforting film and the heat peals a pleasant melody into your pores. And there’s really nothing to complain about at all.

I was walking around Lower Manhattan with a big smile on my face. I had just bought David Lynch’s new book and had read the first few pages and was caught in a very giddy daydream, thinking about some funny characters on a story I’m now working on. That’s when I spotted one of my archenemies, one of the old ones from the literary days. She had once publicly announced that she would throw a fulsome fete if I successfully managed to kill myself (and she had never apologized for it). That couldn’t be her, could it?

The sun was pleasant and the laughs were infectious and my ears picked up the hilarious snippet of a woman describing her hookup from the night before on the phone. And the warm rays kept me giddy. No matter. Not important. Let my archenemy stray away. Now about this barbeque scene! Oh, my actor will love that twist! And if I make that narrative move, oh man, this is going to be so much fun to produce and edit!

And I carried on walking and I looked around and I listened and I marveled and I felt truly blissful. My smile did not wane. How could it? I was still in an incredibly marvelous mood. I’d had a very fun weekend, probably the most fun I’d had all summer, probably among one of the best summer weekends of the last five years if I had to be honest, even if I had not slept much. Wonderful people, everyone friendly, banter with good friends, strange and unreportable adventures. The sight of my archenemy dissipated from my mind completely.

That’s when I looked up and saw my archenemy go way out of her way to cross twenty feet through a thick throng of people, approaching me like a stalker who flouts a restraining order. She was gunning at me with an especially forced and artificial smile. It was the shit-eating grin of someone who wanted to announce that she was a conquerer, but who lacked finesse. I didn’t find her threatening or intimidating in the least. But I did see a sad look in her eyes that her fury could not entirely occlude, the lonely look you often spot in a bully’s adamantine gaze. I still didn’t know if it was really her. And I honestly didn’t care. I mean, I was just happy, truly happy. The hell of it was that she could have spouted off the nastiest invective in the world and I would have (a) probably been very congenial and (b) easily welcomed an opportunity to patch things up.

Finally the moment arrived. What did she say? She said, “Excuse me.” A soft voice. No plan. She didn’t say her name. She didn’t say mine. She didn’t acknowledge what she had done. Or even the many other times she dehumanized me. She didn’t even have the decency to cry “J’accuse!” and declare me the villain. What she probably saw was a very abstracted man lost in his own felicitous reveries, which seemed a damned strange target to impugn and which defied her easy thesis about me. I walked to the right. She then heaved her way there. And we faced each other and I said “Oop!” in the way that Nicholson Baker memorialized in The Mezzanine and we somehow walked past each other. And then I realized that it had been her.

Why had she done this? Well, that question is unimportant. That question is not the right one to dwell on.

What I felt at that moment was not anger, but compassion and pity. One of us was committed to natural connection, to embracing life’s funny knack for resembling a dreamstate. The other saw an enemy she had never had the guts to talk to and zeroed in and went well out of her way to act on a tepid hate. Something about seeing her do this made me realize that only one of us had grown and the other had stagnated. One of us was committed to wonder and positivism. The other was looking for a fight. And when people look for a fight, they are often doing this because they haven’t found the guts to confront their own fears and to stare down hard truths and to finally love the totality of who they are so that they can, in turn, love the totality contained in others.

And that’s the thing about happiness. It is a close cousin to maturity in the way that it sneaks up on you without warning. Months pass and you commit yourself to fully embracing who you are and you suddenly find that you can take more hits on the chin or even forgive someone who had been nothing but nasty and hateful and vituperative to you. And you wonder just who in the hell this new person is. Yet this is a self-examination that’s really not worth going into. The takeaway here isn’t that you’re better when you’re happy, although there is that. It’s that you’re kinder and stronger, kinder and stronger in ways that the unhappy bully never can be. And happiness really is the thing to chase. I really believe that this is the quality that will eventually restore America from its often harrowing fascist trajectory. It may take many years, but we will do it.

As I sauntered into the end of a glorious July afternoon, I knew now that only one of us considered the other an archenemy. I also knew that one of us would enjoy the summer and the other would not. Sometimes it’s just a question of how you decide to spend your summer day.

Notes on the Artistic Egotist

There is a type of person you encounter in every branch of the arts who believes that he is too cool or too good or too big or too important to deal with the peons, with “peons” often broadly defined as anyone else. We are not talking about people who are harmlessly lost inside their own heads, who may be initially misperceived as egotistical but who you come to know, once you get talking, as essentially bighearted neurotic oddballs. We are speaking here of the artistic egotist.

You see this with some midlist writers in publishing. You see this with certain flailing actors. You see this with some people on social media who have a large follower count. You see this with bestselling authors and big time performers who are never satisfied with their success and who don’t seem to comprehend the concepts of humility or plenitude. An artistic egotist may actually believe himself to be an artist even when he isn’t producing any art. A real artist will reach out to other artists and find beauty in their work. An artistic egotist never looks anywhere but inward. An artistic egotist will often prioritize money and audience reach above all other concerns, but the real artist will sometimes be baffled when he is compensated. Because he’s going to be making art no matter where he’s at or what the world says about it.

An artistic egotist almost always sees the worst in other people and often masks this with a sanguine or “nice” disposition, but the ego is pretty easy to suss out. What are some of the artistic egotist’s tools of the trade? Microaggressions, gaslighting, the casual slandering of other struggling artists who would never harm a fly, the wholesale denial and condemnation of entire perspectives and even new ways of making and creating and thinking about art. An interpretation of a difference in opinion as a threat rather than a possibility to have a healthy conversation. A failure to offer the common courtesy of a response or the dignity and grace of a polite consideration. You’ll see that look in an artistic egotist’s eyes as he coldly assesses you within minutes, ranking you on where you stand in the pecking order, performing swift calculations on just how your work and presence can be advantageous to him. Because in the mind of an artistic egotist, his way is the only way.

Don’t be this person.

If you are this person, don’t think we can’t suss out your solipsism. Don’t think we aren’t paying attention to the way you behave. Don’t think we’re not talking about it with our peers — not out of malicious gossip, but because we really do care and are truly baffled by your unfathomable deportment. Wondering why your career is stagnating? Look in the mirror. Wondering why you keep getting passed over? Look at the signature on your rent check and you may find your answer.

The one thing you learn very fast in the arts is that there’s always someone out there who is better than you. The artistic egotist sees such a person as a force to be stubbed out. The smarter type sees that person as an opportunity to learn and know and understand and be more connected. If the smarter type becomes a serious artist, he will usually be perspicacious enough to understand that wisdom comes from every corner and from every level. The smarter artist who endures realizes that every other artist is a person and treats him not with dehumanization or contempt or derision, but with the decency and respect that all human beings should be afforded.

You are not here to be praised. You are here to make art. You are not here to be the best. I can personally guarantee that there is someone out there who is better than you. You are here to hold your work to very high standards and, once those standards have been met, you must find new ones. And then, only after years of hard work and limitless passion and care to craft, you may very well be a serious artist.

Ego has no place in this journey. Connection, however, does. If you’re connecting with other artists because you want to make yourself feel better, you’re doing so for the wrong reasons. If you’re connecting because you think another artist and his work are pretty cool, then there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not an artistic egotist.

But if you rebuff connection because you think you’re above it, then I urge you to reconsider your priorities. I beseech you with every fiber of my being to seek and court possibility. Every career trajectory, no matter how successful, is marked by ups and downs. You may very well be crushing it right now, but if you cleave to this temperament, then there will come a day, maybe tomorrow or maybe years from now, in which you will very much need other people, big and small. And they won’t respond. Because they remembered how you treated them.

Hold yourself to high standards, but never be an artistic egotist.