Being single provides optionality (i.e., having the right but not obligation to take action.) In other words: freedom. Yet, singles often fail to consider their freedom and pursue a conventional life – valuing the same things and living similar lifestyles as their partnered counterparts. Last week’s episode examined how garnering financial freedom gives rise to freedom more generally. This week’s episode examines giving up power (or opportunities to pursue power) in order to gain freedom. Peter McGraw speaks to Timothy Krieder, a writer and cartoonist, about how he has avoided the power to dedicate more time to his artistic endeavors (or simply sit in a bar and talk to friends, which fuels his artistic endeavors).
Listen to Episode #86 here:
The Power Of No Power
As you know, I believe that being single provides optionality, which is defined by economists as having the right but not obligation to take action. In other words, freedom. Singles often fail to consider the freedom they have and end up pursuing a conventional life, valuing the same things and living similar lifestyles as their partnered counterparts. The previous episode examined how garnering financial freedom can give rise to freedom more generally. This episode focuses on how giving up power or opportunities to pursue power can help gain freedom.
I speak to Tim Kreider, a writer and cartoonist about how he has avoided the power to dedicate more time to his artistic endeavors or simply to sit in a bar and talk to friends, which happens to fuel his artistic endeavors. I particularly enjoyed the part of the conversation in which he discusses his artistic hero, Director Stanley Kubrick and Kubrick’s maniacal approach to making art while minimizing editorial interference. I hope you enjoy the episode. Let’s get started.
Our guest is Tim Kreider. He was born and educated in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of three collections of cartoons and two collections of essays. He was a cartoonist for the Baltimore City Paper for twelve years and is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Medium.com and many other publications. He lives in New York City in an undisclosed location on the Chesapeake Bay. Welcome, Tim.
How are you?
I’m great. I’m thrilled to have you on the show because you made it difficult to get you on the show and I’m impressed by that.
Not intentionally. How so?
I’ll explain that in a moment. This episode comes on the heels of an episode that I did with the Thriftygal, a woman who has found financial freedom. She has retired early. I want to talk to you about another form of freedom and one that you wrote about in an opinion piece for the New York Times that has had a profound effect on me. The title of it is Power? No, Thanks, I’m good.
Let’s note for the record that writers never get to title their own pieces.
It’s still solid.
It’s perfectly fine.
What was your original? Did you have one?
I don’t even remember. I knew by then that I wasn’t going to get to title the piece, so I don’t think I bothered. It’s got the clunky utilitarian sound of most internet article titles.
It’s not a title that’s easy to read. It’s a title that stands out on a page because of the question and answer.
It’s more of a marketing concern than an aesthetic one and I understand that.
It worked on me.
I don’t hate it. I just didn’t write it.
A lot of people don’t understand how heavy-handed editors can be especially at The New York Times.
I have no complaints about my usual editor there but the titles, I’m not even sure those are his department.
I was being cheeky when I said you made it difficult and the reason I say that is I’ve read your article and was influenced by it. As I got thinking about freedom, one of the things that I think is common to singles is that they have a level of freedom. It’s what I would call optionality. It’s one of the benefits of being single. I went to reach out to you and on your website, it says, “Here’s my PO Box.” I wrote a letter saying, “Tim, I’m impressed by your article. I want to have you on the show.” I didn’t hear anything. I wrote back. You sent me an email. For someone who cares about freedom, one great way to have it is to be difficult to get ahold of.
I’m not all that difficult to get ahold of normally. If you use US mail, you can get in touch with me. Our correspondence was thwarted by Donald Trump and Love Joy’s efforts to sabotage the US Postal Service in advance of the election. I got your first letter second. I’m having my mail forwarded from Maryland but even so, that’s unconscionably late. I keep the PO Box. I’ve done that since I was a cartoonist back in the ‘90s. For a while, I had an email address where people could contact me back when I was a cartoonist. Once I started publishing in places like The New York Times, I realized I didn’t need to hear from the public. I didn’t need to make it that easy for the public to get ahold of me. If someone wanted to lash out and insult me 40 seconds after they’d read something of mine, they couldn’t. If they wanted to sit down and write old-fashioned hate mail, they could do that but they’d have to mail it.
Not usually. Once in a great while. Years ago, I had written a piece for the Times and I got a letter that begins, “You realize, of course, that liberals always.” I stopped reading. You don’t need to hear the rest of what that guy has to say. I already know everything he thinks. People will rarely go to the effort if they’re pissed about something they read on the internet. It’s a hoop they have to jump through. If someone wants to get in touch with me and writes me a letter, I’ll always write back.
You were kind enough to do that. I was impressed and not insulted. In my book, I talk about Bill Murray’s 1-800 Number. I don’t know if you’re familiar with that. If you want Bill Murray in your movie, you can’t call his agent because he doesn’t have one. You have to get ahold of his 1-800 number, which means you have to convince someone who has it to give it to you. You then have to call it and you get an answering machine. You have to leave a message with your pitch so to speak.
He sends you on a mythic quest.
There are several steps to it.
You prove yourself worthy.
You might get a response not from Bill himself but from an assistant saying, “Mr. Murray is interested. Please write a one-pager and mail it to this address.” You might get another call to meet. If it all goes well, this culminates in a dinner with Bill in which you have a conversation about the movie. As I like to say in my talks, if you’re lucky and good at the end of the meal, he says, “Let’s make a movie.” The only exception to this is Wes Anderson. When Wes calls the 1-800 number, Bill immediately says yes. They have a synergy. They’re able to make magic together. You are on par with Bill Murray in my eyes as someone who’s protective of his time, energy or emotions.
I’ve been second-guessing that a little. My original conception is that I would be a cool reclusive writer like J.D. Salinger and Thomas Pynchon. I realized too late that it probably helps to be famous before you become a recluse. If you become a recluse and you’re a regular guy, you disappear and no one cares. I realized too late that I liked hearing from the public a little more than I let myself know. I miss some of that dialogue. It was more fun when I was a cartoonist and as Spinal Tap’s manager says, “The more selective audience.”
It’s easier to change it in the other direction if you want.
I have friends who have booked contracts for the first time in their lives and one of them asked me about royalties. I laughed a Mary tinkling laugh and told her not to worry her pretty little head about that ever. I said, “You lure yourself through the hubristic process of writing a book with all these delusions about what will happen, which is, it’ll be a best-seller and you’ll be famous.” None of which will happen. What does happen is more interesting than that. It invites people into your life. People write you. People get interested. I’ve made some dear friendships out of people who wrote me because they read my books or they read an essay of mine. I tell my friends that it is like you’re beaming messages into space, like putting that record on the Voyager probe. The odds are, it’ll be lost in the abyss and you’ll never hear anything but you’ll never know. You might look up one day and it’s the mothership and they’re like, “We heard your message.”
The contrast with my writing, which I do much less of than you do, is I tend to have that experience not with my readers but with my collaborators, interviewees, the people I connect with as part of the writing process. Whether that be someone who I profile or maybe even some professional help that I get, I end up picking up friends along the way in that sense and it’s rewarding.
I don’t have collaborators. One aspect of maintaining control is to keep your work collaboration-free.
This is a perfect segue into this topic. This is coming on the heels of talking about how money can lead to freedom, the idea of FU money so to speak. You get to do what you want, when you want and how you want because you don’t have to say yes to things that you don’t want to do. I had never thought about this notion of power before. Saying no to power and how power, while it’s held up as this important thing, this mark of achievement and yet you highlight in this article the downside of it. If I can read you back to yourself, I like this line that you had. You said, “Doing what I want and not being made to do things I don’t want to do has been one of my main priorities in adulthood. The principle around which I’ve structured my life.” I’m wondering how that came about. That idea, that priority, is there an origin story to it?
I’m not sure that that’s an unusual wish, “I wish I had a cooler origin story.” I’ve structured my life to resemble as much as possible the life I had when I was fourteen, except without school. I would sit in the study of our house, barricade myself in there and listen to records on our stereo and type on our Olivetti typewriter and read. That was what I liked to do. I was becoming a writer, an artist. To the extent I’ve been able to manage it, that’s still what my life is like. The world conspires against that and most people. I don’t think it’s a virtue of mine so much as a luxury that I’ve mostly been able to contrive to arrange my life that way, to maintain that structure where it’s me in a room being left alone, listening to music, reading books and writing.
I did a series on solitude and the benefits of solitude. I talked about this on the podcast about Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own and how she makes the case for how women artists have been held back in part because they never had a room of their own. They never had that freedom to do what they want and how they want to do it because they were too busy tending to the needs of men.
I saw the Alice Neel show at the Met. I regret that I’ll probably have to paraphrase rather than quote her but she talked about the problem of being both a mother and an artist. She called it a dreadful dichotomy. A friend of mine, Myla Goldberg, who’s a novelist, got interested in this question because she is a mother and an artist herself. She’s serious about both things. She got interested in how women who were driven and ambitious artists managed this throughout history. She read a lot of autobiographies and biographies of female artists and also memoirs by their children. One very popular solution has been to be a terrible mother. This is true of male artists as well but it’s more or less taken for granted that they’ll be terrible fathers, whereas women get castigated for it. It’s difficult to manage.
You’re not a father, is that correct?
That is correct.
That is, one, what we call a degree of freedom that you have in terms of the remaining fourteen.
Fortunately for me, I never wanted to have children. It’s not like I had to forfeit something important to me to maintain my autonomy.
If I may, you said you never wanted to have children. Were some of it because of this fourteen-year-old artist who’s now a middle-aged artist and that always crowded out everything else? Was there something else going on that made this a less appealing prospect to be a dad?
I’m doubtless there are other things that are going on psychologically. I never saw the appeal of it. There was nothing about it that ever looked attractive to me. I couldn’t figure out why everyone seemed to want to do it. I’ve had occasions to regret that as when I loved someone very much who wanted to have children and would have liked to say yes but couldn’t make myself want to.
I’ve been in that same position.
It’s not great.
It’s better than the opposite.
You seldom hear people talk about regretting having children. Presumably, someone does but you’re not allowed to say so. Most people seem to regret nothing even though it makes their lives much more difficult, much more complicated. It also adds some other dimension, which they are famously inarticulate about describing but assure us that it makes it worth it. I believe that but it’s quite a leap of faith to take in advance.
It’s difficult to articulate that you regret having children because it’s unpopular to say it and it can’t be undone. In many ways, it is implicitly hurtful.
It’s not a nice thing to say if your kids are going to hear it.
I have two quick stories about that. We can get back to the power stuff but this is interesting and relevant to the topic of the show. When I talk to an Uber driver or Lyft driver, if it’s a guy, I’ll often say, “Do you have a family?” I’ll ask about that. A lot of these guys are working a second job to support their families. For many of them, it’s not their full-time thing. It’s what they do after their regular job. Invariably, they asked me and I say no. I don’t have a record of this but my hunch is about 50/50. I get either, “You should do it. It’s wonderful,” or, “Don’t do it. You’re lucky.” It’s this private moment between strangers, which, in some ways, enhances authenticity and honesty.
You have some pretty good strangers on a train conversation with cab drivers.
That’s the one where I have men who don’t say, “I regret it.” In some ways, they’re saying it implicitly, like, “You shouldn’t do it.” The other one is I went out on a date with a woman who is divorced and has a couple of kids. She got a little tipsy. In many words, she said in a raw moment, “I’m not sure I would do it this way again.”
It’s not quite the same thing as wishing your children out of existence. Everybody harbors regret and second-guesses themselves like that unless they are incapable of introspection and have to protect themselves with false certainty. I wrote a whole essay about that called The Referendum, how everybody eyes one another’s life choices with either jealousy or disapproval. It’s threatening to consider the lives we did not choose.
My stance on this is completely non-prescriptive. As I like to say over and over again, marriage is overprescribed. As a result, children are overprescribed. I’m not anti-marriage. It’s a matter of letting people best sort themselves into marriage, non-marriage, children, or non-children category without the world putting it up for referendum.
Anyone who’s ever had kids knows this already. I was astonished during the time that I was considering whether or not to have children by how free everyone feels to advise you on the most intimate primal possible matter on which no one should ever venture an opinion.
It’s funny you say this. I have an episode on only children. One of the characteristics of someone who has an only child or at least either be temporarily or permanently is how comfortable people are at telling that parent or parents that they should have a second.
My friends who have had children were initially shocked to discover how many strangers felt free to weigh in on their parenting.
It’s like child-rearing is a communal business. Everyone feels they have a stake in it and some wisdom to offer on the matter.
As a preview, I have a forthcoming episode that I’m taping with solo parents. Parents who have been divorced and are raising a child on their own or have chosen to do the child thing without the husband thing. This is a matter of sorting. I’m pretty prescription-free when it comes to these things. The world though tends to funnel people into certain categories and it’s not always a good fit.
It’s a problem that there seems to be a boilerplate relationship contract. Anytime you go out with someone, you have inadvertently signed your name to this thing that turns out to have quite a lot of sub-clauses and fine print. I don’t know who wrote it. It’s a palimpsest that’s accumulated over decades or centuries. I never quite felt comfortable with it.
I’ll give you a term for it. It’s called the Relationship Escalator. This is something that we’ve covered in previous episodes quite a lot. Your intuition is spot on. There are criteria associated with the relationship escalator. They’re often not discussed. They’re assumed. It causes problems. The more traditional your set of beliefs are, the more it causes problems when one of the two people wants to deviate from one of those.
A friend of mine went to something called Logic Bootcamp years ago. Some logicians felt that the problem with the world was that people were too illogical.
When you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
One of the things she learned about was what was called, in logic, priors, which are not things you need to prove. They are the givens that you start with to prove something. She said that the source of most major conflicts in a relationship is what we might call priors. Things that people have not discussed because it never occurred to them there would be any need to discuss this. They thought that it went without saying but it turns out people’s priors are wildly different.
When there are a common set of priors, if you deviate from those especially, it causes problems.
It makes it much simpler if you live in some rigid culture where everybody has the same understanding of what constitutes, let’s say, a marriage. Although those cultures are incredibly stifling for the people who simply don’t fit into them well.
One of the things that are striking is that the more you can make a culture unstifling. The more you get a variety of different paths that people walk including not getting married, not having kids. It’s a diversity of even things like pursuing artistic endeavors rather than commercial endeavors and so on. In this op-ed, you said, “I would define power as the ability to make other people do what you want. Freedom is the ability to do what you want.” As a result, one of the things about this is you contrast a barber with the president. While a president is powerful, they’re not necessarily free. While a barber may not be powerful, they are often free.
Often the more powerful you are, the more constrained the use of that power is. I also wrote there that power and freedom appear to be different things. The same way acceleration and gravity do but they’re the same thing. You have to exert quite a lot of force to resist the control that the world wants to exert over you. That in itself, getting things back to zero takes a Herculean effort. Let alone exerting your will over other people.
Let’s talk a little bit about that. It seems like you have been successful in this. It sounds like you started young wanting to maintain this freedom, to be able to sit in a room with books and a typewriter, now with a computer and be an artist. The fact that started early in your life, did that inform how you were able to push against this tendency? I would call it human domestication.
Are we talking about domestication in relationships or by the job world?
Not relationships, per se but more about the world in general. It’s like, “Tim, it’s time to grow up. It’s time to put away those childish things.”
The truth is, I never liked any of it. When I drew up a plan for my dream house when I was twelve, which is going to be circular and have these glass water columns and so on, some girl in my class looked at it and said, “Where does your wife go?” It hadn’t even occurred to me. That was more because I was fourteen and still pre-sexual. I didn’t think about family in the future. For one thing, it’s because I assumed I would never be able to afford that. Also, I always hated school. I never wanted to get a job of any kind, which I define as you go to a place at a certain time and they’re allowed to yell at you but you don’t get to yell back at them. It’s pretty much what school is too.
I wanted to be left alone. I don’t think that’s an unusual wish. I see a lot of people on the internet fine to live in a cabin in the woods with a lot of books. That’s a common fantasy. I would call it more luxury, luck or privilege rather than virtue that I’ve been able to pull off to the extent I have. It’s a good thing for artists to be upfront about finances if only for the benefit of younger aspiring artists to understand that the world does not make it easy for you.
My parents were well off and I didn’t have to worry about money for the first part of my life, for a couple of decades. By the time the money ran out, it was too late for me to become the person who was competent or concerned with money. There were some years where I had to put together a life on the fly and was not sure how I would make money from month to month. A lot of artists have come from money. I don’t think that’s a shameful thing. It matters what you do with it. By the time I was no longer able to do that, my temperament and personality had more or less solidified. Also, I had nothing on my resume for a stretch of about twenty years. The idea of sucking it up and getting a day job was no longer an option.
I assume that you live a simple life then.
Simple in some ways. It’s complicated to explain in tax forms. I’m talking to you from a much more successful friend’s apartment. She’s a professor. This is a subsidized faculty housing. She left when the pandemic struck. She went back to her real home, which is far away and rural. I stayed on here. I’m paying her rent but it’s considerably less than what this place would be worth. It’s a spectacular, swank apartment, which I could not afford. Sometimes I tell her, “This whole place seems to me like a repudiation of all my life choices. She said, “You’re the one living there for practically nothing. Maybe it’s a repudiation of my life choices.”
I’m a professor. I know what she put herself through to have the luxury of a subsidized apartment in New York City.
I’ve watched her grade the papers.
I had the opportunity to be mentored by incredibly successful people in the field, including a Nobel laureate. The thing that I noticed and feel is to be truly the case in academia is there’s a sweet spot about the level of success. Sadly, too many people don’t make it. The numbers are against them. The challenges of finding a tenure track job and then being able to get tenure and so on. A lot of people get left out, the have-nots. Among the haves so to speak, the folks who climb that mountain, the ones who do it best reap rewards and benefits. They have higher salaries and they get access to better jobs and more resources and a lot of psychic benefits. People compliment them, like them. They get lots of interesting offers and stuff.
At some point, it’s a crush of requests. Requests to review papers, to give talks, to collaborate on papers, for advice, to sit on committees and on and on. These are powerful people. To get back to this essay, they run labs, they have staff, they have graduate students and they have all these things. I’ve been aware of that because I’ve lived both sides of it as an academic where I’ve been lean. It’s me and a couple of other people working on stuff versus also having big labs, running lots of committees and so on.
Running committees sounds horrible.
Any faculty meeting is as bad as you think that it is.
I can imagine.
This idea of power is striking. One of the challenges though is that often power and economic opportunities go hand in hand. You talk about your artistic hero, Stanley Kubrick, in the essay. I’m going to quote you and also, you’re a wonderful writer so it’s fun to do this.
That’s kind of you to say.
“Because I lack either the ruthless business savvy or the Napoleonic charisma of a Stanley Kubrick, I’ve tried to solve this problem by keeping my own artistic endeavors low in overhead, devoid of collaborators and is free from editorial interference as possible.” Can you talk a little bit about how you and Stanley Kubrick are different and how you’re alike?
First of all, I admire his actual art. How you first come to someone is through what they’ve done.
On the off chance to someone who’s reading doesn’t know who Stanley Kubrick is.
He’s securely in the pantheon of the great directors of world cinema. He made a relatively small number of films, somewhat like Andre Tarkovsky but almost all of them are considered masterpieces. They are beautiful and austere. They have a fairly bleak view of human nature and they tend to address big questions. They’re beloved by geeky people because he was himself an arch nerd. He was fascinated by technology like science fiction. Their movies are to think about and to puzzle out. People love endlessly puzzling over them. They also have another quality that’s less easy to talk about, which is what you might call oneiric or mythic. There’s a level on which they’re not reducible to some rational analysis or interpretive reading.
These are like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket.
Barry Lyndon, The Shining, Eyes Wide Shut. Also, an adaptation of Nabokov’s Lolita and Dr. Strangelove. That’s almost the complete list.
It’s home run after home run if you’re a film person.
Although most of them were poorly received when they initially came out.
So was Led Zeppelin’s fourth album.
I got obsessed with him when I was a teenager. I read Michel Simone’s excellent book about him and got interested in how he had determined to live his life. I describe him as having a Napoleonic will. He was a huge admirer of Napoleon. One of his great unfulfilled ambitions was to do a film about the life of Napoleon. One of my great time-wasting projects was that I compiled and illustrated an edition of Kubrick’s screenplay for that unmade film on my own while I was supposed to be writing a book. It was what I did instead of my work.
Michael Herr, who collaborated with him a couple of times, wrote an excellent long essay/short memoir about his relationship with Stanley Kubrick. He said, “Just because you’ve known a few control freaks, don’t imagine that you can know what Stanley Kubrick was like.” He talked about his money pathology as well. He did not have a sentimental view of the man. He worked with him. He said, “If you are collaborating with him and you are only in it for the money, you might come away feeling ill-used.”
He had money. What made him able to make these movies on his terms?
He didn’t come from money. His father was a doctor. I don’t think he inherited any real wealth. He was working as a photographer for Look Magazine when he was seventeen years old. He didn’t have good enough grades to get into college. He was a shrewd businessman. I’m bad with money. I’ve not even able to follow the history of how he was able to secure his financial independence. I know that he was a producer on most of his films. He also kept his overhead relatively low, 2001’s budget notwithstanding. He worked with small crews. The main luxury he secured for himself was time enough to get it right. This was something that people were endlessly frustrated by but also valued in collaborating with him. You are not going to go home from the set feeling like, “We didn’t quite get it right now.” You are going to do it as many times as it took to get it not just right but to get something unexpected and maybe miraculous.
There’s a famous story of him working on The Shining with Shelley Duvall. By the end of the scene, she is worked up. She’s distraught. She’s emotional. I don’t remember the exact details of it but it seemed borderline abusive.
There’s been a lot written about that working relationship. Shelley Duvall herself spoke of it appreciatively later, although it was not an easy experience for her. She developed mental illness for unrelated reasons later on. Kubrick’s daughter, Vivian, made a documentary about the making of The Shining. He’s not particularly nice to her on set. She seems fragile and harried.
It’s a character she plays also.
He hired her partly because he thought she had an interesting nervous system. The way she was put together, she seemed like a fragile, high-strung person. They did long and repeated takes. He, at least, felt that she only approached a believable level of hysteria in the higher take numbers, which may indeed have seemed abusive. I wasn’t there. I don’t know what happened.
You can’t quote me exactly. I’m going by a faint recollection of these stories. It is interesting having you talking about Kubrick. What it does is it nicely differentiates the process for an outcome and what is it that you can set up in terms of the process about both the freedom of the artistic choices that you have, your ability to exert your will and your vision for the project. What’s fascinating is you get judged primarily by the outcome. As a result, he is in the pantheon.
There’s a passage in Michael Herr’s essay where he talks about how there’s this Hollywood legend about Stanley Kubrick and actors and other people in the industry who say, “I’d give anything to work with Stanley. He’s such a genius.” If they do get the opportunity to work with him, it’s hell like nothing their imaginations ever prepared them for. He’s a maniac. They can’t believe the things the man demands of them. They’re frustrated and exhausted by the end of it. They spend the rest of their careers wishing they could find someone else to work with who cared as much and who would drive them as hard in the same way.
I’ve paraphrased that to some of my students who were a little abashed by how densely I marked up their essays with line edits and comments. I was like, “I promise you, no one’s ever going to read you this closely again.”
We’ve covered a couple of the things. I’m going to switch gears here in a moment. We touched on meetings briefly when we’re talking about faculty meetings. I take it that you don’t have many meetings.
I don’t have a lot of what you would call meetings. I did teach for a while. I loved teaching. I evaded any faculty meetings but there were still orientation meetings when I first started there. I didn’t even know how to arrange your face during meetings. One of the things I learned in school was how to make the paying attention face. You looked very intelligent and intense, meanwhile, you’re just sitting there thinking about breasts or Star Wars. If you’ve got the face on, you can get away with that if you’re good at it. I was like, “How does that face go again?” Inside, you’re panicked with boredom.
What ends up happening is that people are ambitious. They want to make money. They need to make money. One of the ways to do this is through leverage, to have people reporting to you. Suddenly or not suddenly, your calendar is not even your own anymore. As an academic, I’ll never be a dean. Here’s why I’ll never be a dean. When you’re a dean, people can put things on your calendar. That is terrifying to me. If some person can put a meeting on your calendar and you show up and you’re like, “I have a meeting at 3:00,” no matter what you were planning to do.
There have been a lot of blank days on the calendar because of the pandemic and quarantine. It was pretty much a whole blank calendar year and that’s been hard in a lot of ways. Also, I still cherish the odd day when there’s absolutely nothing scheduled. I don’t even have a Zoom conversation with anybody. There’s nothing. Even though those days often end up being boring and lonesome, I savor them in advance. It’s nice when you’re lying in bed coming awake and reviewing in your mind, “What day is it? What happens today?” It’s lovely when there’s nothing.
It’s a good change of pace. One of the things that I have made and I hope will be a permanent change is that I have stopped scheduling anything early in the day. That helps my sleeping and it helps me start my day relaxed and energetic.
I suggested morning or early afternoon for this conversation. You were talking about power as a means to securing money for one thing and also autonomy. I wanted to get back to money. My friend, Tom Hart, is a superb cartoonist, graphic novelist. He did an interview that I am going to paraphrase poorly. He was being asked about cartooning, maybe a half step above poetry in terms of its lucrativeness. How do you balance the life of an artist in a purely penurious form with being a husband, father and trying to run a school? He said, “You can always be poor.” It was a Gordian knot slicing answer.
Not to romanticize poverty, it doesn’t ennoble anyone. It’s not good when you have to be worried all the time. He said, “You don’t have to choose success as defined by the world either.” Studies have shown that happiness does correlate to wealth up to a point. It depends on the cost of living where you live. It’s under $100,000 a year. It’s enough money that you don’t have to worry about. Beyond that, it makes people unhappier or at least does not increase their happiness to have more money. People wanting to continue to pile up wealth beyond that is probably a matter of pathology. Deciding that you’re not going to make a lot of money is a way of securing some freedom for yourself.
Sacrifice is a strong word but you have to then give away or give up some material luxuries to have the luxury of time, energy and space.
Richard Yates wrote Revolutionary Road. Rick Russo, in an introduction to a book of his short stories, was saying that he thought it would be a good idea for Yates’ tiny Spartan apartment above a diner to be preserved as a museum where you would take aspiring young writers on field trips to show them. It’s like, “Are you prepared to live this way? This is what you’re signing up for. If you truly wish to devote yourself monastically to an art form and become adept at it on the level of someone like Richard Yates, this is probably what you’re looking at. A tiny one-bedroom apartment above a diner with not a lot in it.”
It reminds me of another Kubrick story. Michael Herr was telling Stanley Kubrick about a dinner he had gone to probably with Francis Ford Coppola working on Apocalypse Now. He didn’t name the director. It was a big dinner with all these people. They never got around to talking about the film in question. They left about twelve open but on undrunk bottles of wine on the table after it was over. Kubrick said, “Michael, those people don’t know how to live like monks.” Kubrick was quite comfortable but his wealth was utilitarian.
I don’t want to be preachy. What I would like the reader to move away from this or take away from this conversation is what is it that you’re trying to optimize? What is it that is going to be good for you? Let’s be honest, as we were talking about human domestication, we’re talking about how the world says, “This is the path that you should walk.” It is often a path that features a lifetime partner and children but it also features climbing the ranks of an educational ladder, a corporate ladder, a government ladder.
There’s a ladder. What often goes as you move up the ladder, you have more and more people under you. Thus, you have more emails, more phone calls, more meetings, more headaches but you also have more prestige and status. One of the things that’s cool is that the cool people in the world forego those traditional forms of status. They carve out a different type of status, this coolness thing. To do that, you have to break the rules of society. You have to be deviant. You have to do it on your terms. Yates is cool in the sense that he chose that life and thus made this incredible art that has a lasting impact on the world.
Luckily, there are plenty of templates, role models and idols for young people to read biographies of and aspirants to emulate along those lines, a bohemian artist. As with what Herr was saying about how people fantasize about working with Stanley Kubrick and then discover the reality of working with Stanley Kubrick. What you envision when you’re fourteen, thinking of being a writer who won’t be answerable to anyone, is not exactly what it turns out to be like in real life. As with any life path you choose, there are forfeitures, compromises and plenty of occasions for regret and second-guessing. You wouldn’t be a sane human being if you didn’t sometimes wonder, “Was this all a big stupid mistake?”
I want to pivot and talk a little bit about your book. Before I do that, I have a Slack channel for the Solo Community. People can sign up for it at PeterMcGraw.org/solo. I said, “I’m going to be talking to Tim Kreider. Here’s a link to the essay that I’m interested in exploring. Do any of you have a question for him?” I feel like we’ve answered this at least implicitly but I want to ask it anyway. “Tim, what do you do for pleasure and purpose?”
Is that pleasure and purpose or pleasure or purpose?
They may be one of the same. I often find that purposeful pursuits aren’t pleasurable. Maybe your purposeful pursuits are. If you choose to answer it as an and or an or, it’s going to be useful.
One of my favorite things in life is sitting around in bars and talking with my friends for hours. I enjoy the art of conversation quite a lot. To a greater extent than maybe even I realized, that is part of my job. I say maybe more than I realized because, in 2020, I haven’t been able to do that and I’ve also written almost nothing.
I would have thought it would be inverted.
No. It’s quite the opposite. I was writing for Medium.com until July 2020. Since then, I’ve written about nothing at all. Part of the problem is that there’s been no input.
Tim, that is a huge insight to have.
I heard a story on NPR about the correlation between prohibition and a drop in patent applications. During the years of prohibition, patent applications were down anywhere between 5% and 15%. It’s because people were not getting together disinhibiting their brains with alcohol and tossing ideas back and forth, some clever, some stupid that they would do it on cocktail napkins or whatever. They weren’t fomenting ideas in the same way.
You’re highlighting what is one of the downsides of remote work. There are many upsides, people not having to spend money on work clothing, having a dreadful commute, having to fake paying attention in meetings. One of the ones is what happens when you get a group of people together formally or informally to talk about stuff and what magic can happen there?
Thinking further about the question, I don’t know that this is unique to me or even unusual. I always feel torn as to whether spending my precious and limited time in the world producing lasting work that is writing or drawing cartoons or whatever is the important thing or is it spending time with people I love? You only get so much time to do either of those things. I’m of the opinion that nothing matters in any objective sense. You got to decide. It’s difficult for me to decide day-to-day. It’s deluding yourself to imagine that writing anything is likely to outlast you. Even if it does so what?
Woody Allen says, “It’s always great if critics are talking about you 100 years from now but you’ll meanwhile be in an urn somewhere.” Conversation with friends in bars is one of the rare areas where the Venn diagram overlaps. I’m maybe doing something that will ultimately be constructive. A lot of my essays are edited transcripts of ongoing conversations with my smart friends. It’s hard to decide because I’m a very lazy person. Ideally, I would not mind sitting around talking with friends and drinking beers forever.
We have the same agent.
It’s a small world. We talked about solitude. One of the things that were striking about these great artists, scholars or scientists was that they had bouts of alone time where they were completely undistracted. They then would often release themselves and then do social things whether it be with family, friends or even fellow artists. What you’re highlighting is a real thing is those two things feed each other.
I certainly require both of those things. I’m not sure I believe in the extraversion-introversion spectrum but there are some people who haven’t minded quarantine one bit. They’re perfectly happy to be left unmolested by the rest of the human race and do whatever they want in solitude. I’m not one of those. It’s been extremely hard on me, psychologically, to be isolated even though I have spent whole summers at my undisclosed location, which is a cabin on the Chesapeake Bay where I don’t see anybody else I know 5 out of 7 days and that’s fine. I certainly require 2 out of 7. It’s an essential mental nutrient.
It’s a matter of the right ratio. Whether it’s happening within a day, a week, a month, depends on the individual. One of the fascinating things that I’ve discovered and I didn’t even know about this before I was working on the show. We’re focused on loneliness and the challenges that loneliness provides but there is a flip side. It’s aloneliness. That is people who lack enough solitude and how stressful that is. Getting back to your point about parents, often, that is a family. You are a husband or a wife. You have children. You have parents. The pandemic has made that a problem also for some people. Imagine being trapped in a house with a traditional nuclear family.
I know people who have been doing it and it’s hard on them. I’m talking about people who are happily married, love their kids and it’s too much. I remember on my mother’s 80th birthday, we went on a family cruise. I had never been on a cruise ship before. It took a day or two to remember that the way that this would not drive you crazy was that you would not spend all your time together. I remember, we never did that when I was a kid. You go off to school. Your parents go to work. You come home. You eat dinner, watch TV and talk about your day. Eventually, it’s what we settled into as a routine on the cruise ship. We go do our own things and get together for a trivia contest, drinks and dinner in the evening. That’s a sane amount of time to spend with family. Being locked, imprisoned in the house together, 24/7 is not natural. It’s not great for people.
Chris Rock has a joke about how his parents were married for 40 years but they only spent about sixteen years together when you do the math on it. When he was married, he would leave the house and by the time he got to the end of the driveway, there’s a text message from his wife. How those changes exist.
I remember a thing that I saw more than once when I lived in Baltimore was old retired guys who would go out and sit in the cab of their truck and listen to the radio and smoke cigarettes all day. It was clear that this was a treaty they had with their wives who were also used to being left alone all day to do the housework and so on. They weren’t going to their jobs anymore but they needed to get out of the house.
It’s healthy to have that. It’s finding the right balance, knowing that it’s some normal distribution with few people who want to be surrounded by people all the time and few people who want to be surrounded by no one all of the time. The question is what do you do with that solitude? It sounds like artistic endeavors, in my experience, are especially amenable to that solitude.
Sometimes you’re going to goof off and waste time. That constitutes a significant percentage, maybe over 50% of working on art.
You’re doing your visualization of Stanley Kubrick’s screenplay.
It’s a thing of beauty. I worked on it than on my book.
Your book is called I Wrote This Book Because I Love You. It’s a collection of essays. It’s interesting when books are collections of essays. It makes the essays special when you put them into a collection and you publish them.
There are some essays that I would like to be less evanescent than online essays are. Everything sticks around for eternity online but it commands people’s attention for maybe a week and then fades into the background radiation of the internet. There are some essays I’ve written that deserve to last longer. I want to enshrine them between covers. Also, long essays are not a thing you can get published online easily. A book is about the only place for an essay that’s twenty pages long. You want them to have some interrelationship too like the songs on a mixtape.
The order that you put them in is not arbitrary. I’m going to quote your dedication in the book, “For my sisters, adoptive, half and chosen.” What’s the story behind that dedication?
My first book ended up, not by design, being a lot about male friendships. For the second book, I dove what felt like deeper into the history of my romantic relationships, which was even less fun to write about than the first book was. It ended up being more about my relationships with women, which had a wide variety of shapes. There are friends with benefits in that book. There are exes who are closer to you than most girlfriends are. That only is obvious in my case because I’m still single. People refer to relationships or marriages as if those words denoted one thing. In fact, they’re all fantastically varied underneath the surface. People have a lot of different deals worked out.
I do have several sisters. There’s my sister who I grew up with. We were both adopted. We’re not genetically related but I don’t think that ever made any difference to either of us. We’re brother and sister. We grew up close and hating each other’s guts and fighting. We’re close to this day. Our mother is quite old and in decline. There’s no one else in the world who can share that experience with us like one another. We’re closer now than we’ve been probably since grade school.
I also turned out to have two half-sisters whom I met in midlife when I went in search of my biological family. At that time, I discovered the power of genes. I was blindsided by an unprecedented love for those young women. They remained dear to me. There are the sisters I have deliberately or inadvertently chosen throughout life, either people I went out with or befriended. It often happens because our culture only gives us one way to interpret extremely intense feelings of attraction towards someone of your preferred gender. You mistakenly go out with someone you’re supposed to be good friends with.
There’s so much overlap in what makes those people appealing.
I’m close friends with several ex-girlfriends. You can interpret it any way you like. Maybe it was a mistake to go out and you were supposed to be friends or maybe you were supposed to go out for exactly as long as you did. It lasted for eight months or whatever.
That’s important to see. One of the sad things about the relationship escalator is that it judges the success of a relationship based upon its length of time, its duration.
If you subscribe to this model that the whole point of life is you get married and have kids then it makes any relationship that doesn’t end that way seem like wasted time, which I don’t think is ever true.
Sometimes the perfect length of a relationship is eight months.
I can’t remember if it was 2 or 3 years. I also don’t remember where that accolade comes from.
The answer is there is no ideal length of a relationship. It’s what’s ideal for those two people at that stage of their life.
Even friendships turn out to have a natural lifespan, which you don’t realize when you’re young. It seems deeply hurtful when what you thought would be a lifelong friendship comes to an end through no one’s fault. One person drops the other or you find that you don’t have much in common anymore.
One of the people gets married and has kids and that crowds out the friendship. The last thing I wanted to ask about is your late cat. I bring this up because I do a little bit of bonus material sometimes that I put on that Slack channel. In it, we tackled the myth of the crazy cat lady. I read your essay about your cat. One of the things that struck me is about men and cats. One of my previous guests, Kevin Nalty, divorced and has a cat. You say something in the essay that I have thought and I’ve never had anyone else articulate it.
You said something along the lines of this recognition, “An animal lives in my house.” Pets, specifically dogs and cats, are such a normal part of American life that we don’t even question and think about it. Yet there is another creature living in your house and not only just living in your house but it becomes completely entwined with your life, your other relationships and so on. First of all, I enjoyed the essay.
Thank you. They’re not the only animals that live in your house. There’s any number of animals who live in your house but most of them try to keep a low profile. They’re domesticated or, in the case of cats, semi-domesticated ones.
First of all, animal ownership is on the rise. It’s especially on the rise among single people. Many times, animals serve as a replacement of sorts for intimacy, affection, warmth and so on. You had this cat for a long time.
My cat lived to be nineteen. Sometimes I had to spend a season apart from my cat, which I now regret forever. Maybe I was subletting a place that didn’t allow cats so I dropped the cat off at a friend for a few months. It’s in my top ten regrets that I wish I’d never done that and spent all available time with my cat because now she’s gone.
You had a special bond.
I don’t know if it was any different from most people’s bonds with their animals. People get attached to them. It’s a painful thing to befriend something that is going to have a much more limited lifespan than you inevitably. A lot of people memorialize their pets online. They hold on to their old collars or keep a whisker as a keepsake. I was attached to that cat. I doted on her.
You talk about how beautiful the cat was.
She’s an attractive cat. I still think it’s my favorite type of cat where you’ve got the black and gray tiger stripes on top and this velvety white underneath, green eyes and pink nose. It’s a very attractive animal. I’m attracted to my cat. We didn’t consummate the relationship or anything, I’d like to emphasize. She’s a beautiful animal. There was a little tune that I used to play on. Back then, it was a miniature pump organ I owned and the cat knew that at the end of this tune, it was her job to look at me and meow. It is part of the song. I still play it to this day on the piano I have in this apartment. At the end of it, the cat does not meow and I’m sad every single time.
We’re talking about how the world wants you to have children. There are no children deposits for apartments.
They’re weird because they are so much more destructive than animals.
You can’t ban someone from having kids in an apartment. You can ban them from having pets. I want to point out that incongruity.
We’re taking them on airlines. A child-free airline would make money hand over fist but I suppose it would violate anti-discrimination laws.
Tim, I look forward to this. This was worth writing. I would have written a third letter in hindsight.
I’m sorry about the difficulties with the mail.
Please don’t. I’m impressed by it. I do think that this is a useful message. This one never gets talked about. I want to thank you again for writing that thoughtful essay. People can find it in The New York Times. I want to appreciate you taking a little bit of time from your perhaps day that had no other meetings on the calendar.
It does have something else in the calendar but not to worry. There are plenty of days with nothing.
Thank you kindly for your interest.
- Tim Kreider
- Power? No, Thanks, I’m good – New York Times article
- Love Joy
- A Room of One’s Own
- The Referendum – New York Times article
- Episode – The Only Child
- Relationship Escalator – past episode
- Revolutionary Road
- Mason Currey – past episode
- Daily Rituals
- I Wrote This Book Because I Love You
- Kevin Nalty – past episode
About Tim Krieder
Tim Krieder was born and educated in Baltimore, Maryland. He is the author of three collections of cartoons and two collections of essays.
He was a cartoonist for the Baltimore City Paper for 12 years and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times, medium.com, and many other publications.
He lives in New York City and at an undisclosed Location on the Chesapeake Bay.
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