John Tarrant’s “Escape Arts in Delusionville”: My Average Life

Q: “What is the Way?”

A: “Ordinary mind is the Way.”

I like finding features of popular culture that point the way out of the mind’s prison. It is as if a trail of breadcrumbs had been left where least expected.

Sometimes these features are influenced by Buddhism, sometimes they are just rhymes. I find the rhymes intriguing because they indicate that someone has found a method for hacking the mind, and that the mind likes to hack the mind, which is where Buddhism came from.

Viedemerde.fr (VDM) is a French site devoted to the truth that life is suffering. Vie de merde means — well, use the Babel translator. In the French way, VDM is devoted to offering the truth of suffering as short, tight exemplary narratives that are classified by subject — Amour, Argent, Enfants, Sexe, Travail and my favorite, Unclassable.

Viedemerde often has a rueful or droll touch:

Today I brought my lingerie home from my boyfriend’s place and found some that did not belong to me.

Today I had a big argument with my girlfriend who accused me of being narcissistic. Leaving home, I decided to write a text message to get her to forgive me. Lapse or inattention? I signed off with “I love myself.”

When you post on VDM it is rated with a little benediction: “It’s true it’s a VDM, it’s confirmed.”

Since Americans wanted to celebrate the Buddha’s dark diagnosis of the human condition in their own language, FMyLife.com arose. FMyLifes are postcards from Delusionville, narratives of failed hope, more emo and histrionic than Viedemerde.

Sometimes FMyLife is a miscellany of simple complaints, but the ideal post depends on a mapping problem, an irretrievable misreading of a situation:

Today, I was waiting in the car while my mom went into a store to get beer. A few minutes later, some random guy was knocking on my window telling me to open the door. I started cursing him out, thinking I was getting attacked. Turns out he worked there and was putting the beer in the car.

Today, my brother came out to our family as being gay. My mother starting crying because “She wanted grandchildren.” I told her that I was planning on having children. She started crying harder.

Today, I was on the bus home and on the phone with my best friend discussing my sex life with this new guy I’m seeing. I was telling her all sorts of raunchy sex things we’ve done until someone taps my shoulder and says “I’m sure he doesn’t appreciate you saying this in public.” It was his mom.

The site is intended to prove and even relish the idea that the cards are against you and your life really is a soap opera.

FMLs are rated by clicking on the message, “I agree, your life is f***ed,” which is perhaps taken as empathy, or clicking on “You deserved that one.” FML provides a dose of despairing chaos in case that is what you need to tune your day, your job, your mind. You could say FML’s purpose is consolation by diagnosis — Things are out of whack, dude, which is the first noble truth of Buddhism.

So, that’s the story so far — the human condition: we’re all messed up, tough cookies. Then, crawling out of the swamp, as web consciousness evolves, is another possibility. MyLifeIsG was created by a couple of undergraduate UCLA programmers as a response to the question posed by FMyLife.

Instead of depicting delusion — in the throes of which we are helpless — MyLifeIsG offers experiences in which for no deserved reason, life rocks. It records common moments of the goodness of life, a domestic version of Walt Whitman’s garden variety epiphanies. MLIG has a user rating system like Digg, which moves popular stories to the front.

The ideal post is specific in a novelistic way, and perhaps really small:

Today, it was someone else’s birthday. My teacher made cupcakes. I ate one, and it was awesome.

Sometimes there is a domestic discovery:

Today, I decided not to let my parents fighting affect me personally.

Daisies are my favorite flower & I got some a week ago, They’re still alive & fresh & there for me to wake up to everyday.

I haven’t gone grocery shopping in the longest time, and began to think that I had no food left. When I threw together all the ingredients I had, it was absolutely delicious.

The other intended path was to record things that are rarer, such as unsought gifts:

Today some stranger put money in my meter while I was gone, to keep me from getting in trouble.

There is also a certain amount of wistfulness:

Yesterday, I convinced my sister to come home from college. I miss her.

Today, everyone in my family was at the dinner table, including my father.

and sometimes, the miraculous –

Today, I successfully grabbed a stuffed tiger from one of those plastic arcade boxes with the robotic arms.

The site’s inventors say they intended it to be funnier than it currently is. People post:

My boyfriend loves me very much

Or,

Today I had sex for the first time today

…which is OK, but not the original and more interesting idea of noticing the goodness in the small and present things, moments that carry their own justification with them. MyLifeIsG situations leave you with a goofy grin because they don’t matter too much, and yet they are great anyway.

As a further exploration of the original MyLifeIsG impulse, one of the MLIG designers then started MyLifeIsAverage. It parodies other social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook and readers vote on the entries (again as in Digg) and the site organizes itself in that way.

There’s a Zen story in which a student asks,

“The teacher down the road walks on water. Do you have a miracle?”

“Yes I do.”

“What’s your miracle?”

“When I’m hungry I eat, when I’m tired I sleep.”

That’s the spirit of MyLifeIsAverage. It offers depictions of spectacularly ordinary life. As it says, “This is a place to post the mundane things in your life, and read about what makes life normal for other people.”

Today was a day like most other days, except that I wore a flannel shirt I found under my bed.

The joke is that there isn’t a joke and especially that it isn’t emo, or gothic; the moment of blood, terror, betrayal, or humiliation doesn’t appear. MyLifeIsAverage deconstructs the heavy significance of our emotional reaction to things. It’s an anti soap opera, in which anticlimax has become a desirable thing.

Today, I didn’t have sex. But I’m 14 so it’s okay.

Today, when I woke up my legs were black. But that’s OK, I was born that way.

The student who started the site is Guru Singh Khalsa, a Haight Ashbury kid who went to UCLA. He says, “I am convinced that the reason that I find these so funny is a Zen thing. I started it for no reason in particular, other than that I liked it enough for me to feel pleased with it even if no one visited the site.”

Lots of people visited it though. MyLifeIsAverage was on servers that were intended to deal with 500 hits an hour. The tech writer for the Washington Post picked up the site when it had been in operation for a couple of days and suddenly it was getting 7000 hits an hour and Pepsi was calling about sponsorship. This is possibly too exciting for an average moment — heading back into MyLifeIsG territory.

The excitement indicates the paradox that people are happy to be welcomed into the world of the ordinary. The core point is realizing that pretty much everything people do can be an MLIA and there is a profound hilarity implied by that.

There is also a kind of ground clearing for appreciating events:

Today I went to the kitchen to make a PBJ sandwich. I went to the cupboard, but I was out of jelly, so I ended up making a peanut butter only sandwich.

It’s not so far from this to Walt Whitman’s moments of eternity in common life –

Now I will do nothing but listen…

I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clatter of sticks cooking my meals.

The simpler the better:

Today, I sent a text to my girlfriend. She replied with “What…?”. I realized my text didn’t make sense so I re-worded it. Then she understood.

Today I made a batch of 18 cupcakes out of a recipe meant for 24. Some of my cupcakes came out too big. They taste fine.

The heart of the site is how simple things endure even in difficult times. There’s a freedom in noticing what’s warm and alive. So there you have it: a bread-crumb trail out of Delusionville on a social network site.

John Tarrant is the author of Bring Me the Rhinoceros and Other Koans to Save Your Life and The Light Inside the Dark: Zen, Soul, & The Spiritual Life. He directs The Pacific Zen Institute, devoted to koan study and the arts.  For more from John, visit his website, or view all his SunSpace posts.

Comments

  1. jacqueline Kramer says

    The magic of ordinary moments in this piece touches me. Something about the combination of youthful zeal combined with ordinary moments gives the moments a glow. I remember how, when I was a teenager+ hormones created a natural glow over everything. Even the greys were grayer and the blacks blacker. How peculiar that ordinary moments can bring back that glow!

    • says

      That is cool. I had a funny thought that I didn't put in the piece which is that the usual progression might be to move from vie de merde through fmylife then my life is g and then my life is average. Then you would become famous for being average and go back down the scale, get a Maserati and marry a star—my life is G—and have a messy divorce. fight over the kids and the money, and then you have fmylife and end up ruefully at viedemerde. Then you go into rehab and start all over.
      I'm very interested in stories that don't do that of course—how people can live in the world and be happy and have a rich inner life, which is what I see escape arts as being about.

    • says

      One of the reasons I like the company of teens is that I get to experience their unique, fresh authenticity..by turns rueful, comical, acutely observant, stripped of artifice, full of true feeling. I was about to say this is a general observation, but in trying to think of exceptions, couldn't come up with any. FML,MLIG, and everything in between, they seem to roll with it all. How do we manage to lose that openness along the way to adulthood?

      I think of ordinariness as the awareness of whatever shows up in the moment: "oh, this is what is happening now", emo content notwithstanding.

  2. says

    It seems to me that Whitman transforms 'ordinary' moments with language, the creative act validating the commonplace while simultaneously exalting it.

    "Now I will do nothing but listen…I hear bravuras of birds, bustle of growing wheat, gossip of flames, clatter of sticks cooking my meals."

    Certainly he is not doing nothing when he takes observation into writing. Does the ordinariness change when we observe it? When our imagination entangles itself with the moment does something happen to the moment? Certainly 'bravuras of birds' is more poetic than a bunch of birds singing. And yet, I'm often caught up short when the crows, discovering that an eagle is too near, break into a cacophony of caws. I don't need language for that moment anymore than when the dog kennel down the road erupts with a chorus of howls at feeding time. And yet, a 'gossip of flames' lingers longer, sends me into internal visual immediacy, pleases and opens me more than had he said something more mundane.

    • says

      Yes Whitman puts a lot of spin on the ball. I do think that point is true, the one you are making and MLIA is making I think, that the simplicity of things has its own beauty. You know, how at a retreat people will wander in with an epiphany and put a rusty can on the altar because it is so beautiful. And they are right.
      And the "gossip of flames" takes that one step further into the beautiful connections that having consciousness makes possible. I just love that sort of connection, it makes my chest happy. I think it depends on the simplicity as a kind of foundation,
      cheers

  3. says

    F my life is really funny… I don't speak french so I have no idea about VDM, and as far as My life is average… I think it's a good site… but I don't think these two are as good as fwhyme.com

    • says

      Fwhyme seems pretty much the same as fmylife. I see a lot of those sorts of things, and honestly they get old. I've spent nights rolling over myself laughing at fmylife, but nothing keeps me going back to them. Life is ridiculous, and the way things go wrong is too, but I believe I fundamentally don't like the way people think on fmylife. I'm not sure what exactly it is, but after too long reading it it's seems almost like it's encouraging melodrama, like a proanorexia site but based on humor.
      Melodrama can be great, but it doesn't hold my attention.

  4. says

    I like the site MyLifeisG. I like that all the focus is not on the dark side. That is not to say we should ignore or pretend there is no dark side. It seems the starting point. but it isn't all there is and ordinary life is FULL of joyous opportunities as well as opportunities to create suffering. It's almost as if there were an invisible swinging door that we can walk into either through, but we don't realize we have a choice. We are ALWAYS making that choice. And if ordinary life is NOT where joy and awakening are found, where would one find it?

  5. kudzu says

    "Today I had sex for the first time today" Well, I guess even tautologies can be illuminative. Let's follow of in 6-8 weeks.

  6. kudzu says

    I think MyLifeisG is just as delusional as VieDeMerde, perhaps more so. There is something insidiously deluding in the "look on the bright side" method. We may prefer bliss to misery, but these are both temporary problems, and which is which often depends on your point of view. What about not having a point of view?

    • says

      I think MyLifeisG is only because people are taking it wrong. Many of the posts seem people are trying to convince themselves, "Today, after feeling really bad about myself, I realized that people love me" etc. Whereas really beautiful moments in life don't seem to be about realizations, they're more about appreciation. MyLifeisG today because I had strawberry rhubarb pie. This does not mean my life would have been horrible if I hadn't, or that I came to a great realization about my state of rhubarb-pie lovingness. Of course, writing that sort of sentiment easily isn't an easy thing to do. Positive self-expression without sentimentality, hm? Tough.
      Only truly enlightened beings can do it.

  7. calmday says

    black, white , gray….sleep dream, awake, unconscious,….doing, not-doing, doing nothing,….
    seeing, not seeing, all seeing…..getting out of bed, newness, timelessness….again and again and again….."sun shine came softly through my window one day…" on and on YES isn't it superb!
    calmday

  8. says

    While I was in process of getting divorced, my then wife (Amy) and I opened a joint credit line to pay for the costs. We went to the bank to sign the final papers and…SURPRISE!! we won a trip to Hawaii – a romantic getaway is how the loan officer described it. The folks at the bank had an impromptu party for us, leis, group photos. They were a little perplexed why seemed subdued. Then the two of us went outside and looked at each other, shook our heads, got in our separate cars and drove off. Amy and our daughter went to Hawaii, had a great time.

  9. Jon says

    Loved the review and commentary, John. These websites seem to span the whole arc of human existance; and as you suggest above, i am surprised the 7,000 strong are not cycling through each of the websites every hour . I wonder if the attractiveness of these short notes–tweets with soul–lies in their brevity. Like with haiku, too much detail would make these everyday experiences boring. Instead they draw out understanding and empathy because of what is not said.

  10. Jenny says

    John I find it hard to understand why anyone would want to aspire to be average.

    • says

      All of the happy moments in my life are average. Sipping coffee, walking through the city streets, being awoken by my cat jumping on my face, playing texas holdem biweekly with the same group of friends. Whenever I seek happiness, I look for averageness.
      That said, I haven't managed to aspire to be average either. I'm still pretty ambitious; I'm American.

  11. norm deplume says

    Lagom means being average is sustainable? It's a Goldilocks solution…not too hot, not too cold, just right. Odd thing for a famous writer to celebrate. But then, we're in a time of transformation.

    Would you trade your celebrity for a small bucket of mud?

  12. says

    From FMyLife today: "Today, I was offered to attend a Buddhist ceremony by one of my regular customers. Not wanting to offend the couple, I made an excuse about have a project for oceanography. Surprise, the husband is an oceanographer and wants to help me with my imaginary project. Karma much? FML"