We Learn Nothing

Essays and Cartoons

by Tim Kreider

We Learn Nothing

Paperback, 240 pages, Simon & Schuster, List Price: $16 | purchase

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Hardcover, 221 pages, Free Press, $20, published June 12 2012 | purchase
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Book Summary

New York Times political cartoonist and writer Tim Kreider presents a collection of his most popular essays and drawings about life and government hypocrisy. We Learn Nothing asks big questions about human-sized problems: What if you survive a brush with death and it doesn't change you? Why do we fall in love with people we don't even like? How do you react when someone you've known for years unexpectedly changes genders?

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Tim Kreider's We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons is a remarkable collection. There were points in every one of them where I found myself nodding in agreement and wondering how he could so consistently express my feelings, and express them so much better than I ever could (or ever have). There are essays on how hard it is always to be appreciative of simply being alive (personalized by recounting the days, months and years following the time he was stabbed in the neck and almost

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: We Learn Nothing

We Learn Nothing

Reprieve

Fourteen years ago, I was stabbed in the throat. This is kind of a long story and less interesting than it sounds. A lot of people have told me about their own near-death experiences over the years, often in harrowing medical detail, imagining that those details—how many times they rolled the car, how many vertebrae shattered, how many months spent in traction—will somehow convey the subjective psychic force of the experience, the way some people will relate the whole narrative of a dream in a futile attempt to evoke its ambient feeling. Except for the ten or fifteen minutes during which it looked like I was about to die, which I would prefer not to relive, getting stabbed wasn't even among the worst experiences of my life. In fact it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.

After my unsuccessful murder I wasn't unhappy for an entire year. Winston Churchill's aphorism about the exhilaration of being shot at without result is verifiably true. I was reminded of an old Ray Bradbury story, "The Lost City of Mars," in which a man finds a miraculous machine that enables him to experience his own violent death over and over again, as many times as he likes—in locomotive collisions, race car crashes, exploding rocket ships—until he emerges flayed of all his Christian guilt and unconscious longing for death, forgiven and free, finally alive.

I can't claim to have been continuously euphoric the whole time; it's just that, during that grace period, nothing much could bother me or get me down. The horrible thing that I'd always dreaded was going to happen to me had finally happened. I figured I was off the hook for a while. In a parallel universe only two millimeters away—the distance between my carotid and the stiletto—I had been flown home in the cargo hold instead of in coach. As far as I was concerned everything in this life was what Raymond Carver, in writing of his own second chance, called "gravy."

My friends immediately mocked me out of my self-consciousness about the nerve damage that had left me with a lopsided smile. I started brewing my own dandelion wine in a big Amish crock. I listened to old one-hit wonders much too stupid to name in print. And I developed a strange new laugh that's stayed with me to this day—a raucous, barking thing that comes from deep in the diaphragm, the laugh of a much larger man, that makes people in bars or restaurants look over for a second to make sure I'm not about to open up on the crowd with a weapon. I don't laugh this way all the time—certainly not when I'm just being polite. The last time it happened was when I told my friend Harold, "You don't understand me," in mock-wounded protest at some unjust charge of sleazery, and he retorted: "No, sir, I understand you very well—it is you who do not understand yourself." The laugh always seems to be in response to the same elusive joke, some dark, hilarious universal truth.

Not for one passing moment did it occur to me to imagine that God Must Have Spared My Life for Some Purpose. Even if I'd been the type who was prone to such silly notions, I would've been rudely disabused of it by the heavy-handed coincidence of the Oklahoma City bombing occurring on the same day I spent in a coma. If there is some divine plan that requires my survival and the deaths of all those children in day care, I respectfully decline to participate. What I had been was not blessed or chosen but lucky. Not to turn up my nose at luck; it's better to be lucky than just about anything else in life. And if you're reading this now you're among the lucky, too.

I wish I could recommend the experience of not being killed to everyone. It's a truism that this is why people enjoy thrill-seeking pastimes, ranging from harmless adrenaline fixes like horror movies and roller coasters to what are essentially suicide attempts with safety nets, like bungee jumping and skydiving. The trick is that to get the full effect you have to be genuinely uncertain that you're going to survive. The best approximation would be to hire an incompetent, Clouseauesque hit man to assassinate you.

It's one of the maddening perversities of human psychology that we only notice we're alive when we're reminded we're going to die, the same way some of us appreciate our girlfriends only after they've become exes. I saw the same thing happen, in a more profound and lasting way, to my father when he was terminally ill: a lightening, an amused indifference to the nonsense that the rest of us think of as the serious business of the world. A neighbor was suing my father over some property dispute during his illness, but if you tried to talk to him about such practical matters he'd just sing you old songs like "A Bird in a Gilded Cage" in a silly, quavering falsetto until you gave up. He cared less about things that didn't matter and more about the things that did. It was during his illness that he gave me the talk that all my artist friends have envied, in which he told me that he and my mother believed in my talent and I shouldn't worry about getting "some dumb job."

Maybe people who have lived with the reality of their own mortality for months or years are permanently changed by it, but getting stabbed was more like getting struck by lightning, over almost as soon as it happened, and the illumination didn't last. You can't feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever—or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living. Before a year had gone by, the same everyday anxieties and frustrations began creeping back. I was disgusted to catch myself yelling in traffic, pounding on my computer, lying awake at night worrying about what was to become of me. I can't recapture that feeling of euphoric gratitude any more than I can really remember the mortal terror I felt when I was pretty sure I had about four minutes to live. But I know that it really happened, that that state of grace is accessible to us, even if I only blundered across it once and never find my way back. At my cabin on the Chesapeake Bay I'll see bald eagles swoop up from the water with wriggling little fish in their talons, and whenever they accidentally drop their catch, I like to imagine that fish trying to tell his friends about his own near-death experience, a perspective so unprecedented there are no words in the fish language to describe it: for a short time he was outside the world, he could see forever, there's so much more than they knew, but he's glad to be back.

Once a year on my stabbiversary, I remind myself that this is still my bonus life, a round on the house. But now that I'm back in the slog of everyday life, I have to struggle to keep things in what I still insist is their true perspective. I know intellectually that all the urgently pressing items on our mental lists—our careers, car repairs, the daily headlines, the goddamned taxes—are just so much noise, that what matters is spending time with the people you love. It's just hard to bear in mind when the hard drive crashes or the shower drain clogs first thing in the day. Apparently I can only ever attain that God's-eye view in the grip of the talons.

I was not cheered to read about psychological studies suggesting that most people inevitably return to a certain emotional baseline after circumstantial highs and lows. How happy we can hope to be may be as inalterable and unfair as our height or metabolism or the age at which we'll lose our hair. This is reassuring news if you've undergone some trauma, but less so if your own emotional thermostat is set so low it makes you want to phone up the landlord and yell at him. You'd like to think that nearly getting killed would be a permanently life-altering experience, but in truth it was less painful, and occasioned less serious reflection, than certain breakups I've gone through. I've demonstrated an impressive resilience in the face of valuable life lessons, and the main thing I seem to have learned from this one is that I am capable of learning nothing from almost any experience, no matter how profound. If anything, the whole episode only confirmed my solipsistic suspicion that in the story of Me only supporting characters would die, while I, its first-person narrator and star, was immortal. It gave me much more of an existential turn when my vision started to blur.

I don't know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best, crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria. We dismiss peak moments and passionate love affairs as an ephemeral chemical buzz, just endorphins or hormones, but accept those 3 A.M. bouts of despair as unsentimental insights into the truth about our lives. It's easy now to dismiss that year as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you'd feel after getting clipped by a taxi. But you could also try to think of it as a glimpse of reality, being jolted out of a lifelong stupor. It's like the revelation I had the first time I ever flew in an airplane as a kid: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold on to when you descend once again beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather.

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