Two years ago I found myself in a state of profound financial desperation, so I did what desperate people often do: I made a deal with the universe. I had racked up what at the time felt like an unmanageable, unsurmountable debt—something in the area of $36,000—so I conceded my powerlessness before the cruelties and complexities of late capitalism and promised fate that if I could return to a state of relative middle-class security I would indefinitely forego dreams of being rich.
I entered into a shady debt consolidation program, gave up all my credit cards and sold my stocks. This abandonment of the stock market had tremendous symbolic significance. The stock market doesn’t just represent an opportunity to link one’s financial future with those of various corporations and economic entities. No, the stock market represents hope. It represents optimism. It represents faith in the fundamental saneness, kindness and dependability of capitalism. It represents the opportunity to better your lot in life not through the dreary drudgery of honest labor but by aligning yourself with society’s winners, with riding the unsteady waves of capitalism to a place of prosperity and comfort. Beyond that, it represents an opportunity to make a fuck-ton of money simply by clicking the right buttons on a computer. Vacation money. Retirement money. Fuck you money. Money money. If there’s something sinister about that kind of economic voodoo, there’s something powerful about it as well. By opting out of the stock market I was ripping up my metaphorical lottery ticket in favor of something less intoxicating, but saner.
But it went beyond that. When I was struggling mightily to finish my fourth book on musical subcultures, I made another deal with the universe: If it would just allow me to finish this impossible book, this weird exploration of fan subcultures equally devoted to the fanbases of Phish, Insane Clown Posse and my own nervous breakdown, I would promise not to even think about writing another book. Since I signed my first book contract, I have lived in a state of perpetual hope that I would somehow stumble upon the curious magic that transforms a hungry young author from one of the anonymous hordes desperate to make an impression in a Darwinian marketplace to a bona fide contender. I was looking for the opportunity and the book that would break me, that would transform me from a nobody to a somebody, from being one of the 90 percent of authors whose books lose their publishers money to being part of the 10 percent whose voluminous profits make the publishing industry possible. I lived in hope that the next big break was forever around the corner: the blockbuster This American Life appearance that would endear to millions of NPR tote-bag-toting, Starbucks-shopping book consumers, the TV appearance, or, dream of all dreams, the Oprah Winfrey endorsement that would instantly elevate me in the public imagination from, “Who is this weirdo and why is he being allowed to publish books?” to “Where can I buy this charming young man’s tomes?”
I was in love with literature and the romance of putting out books, but I also desperately craved the rewards that went with them: the money, the book tours, the attention from strangers inexplicably interested in you and your curious endeavors, the possibility of getting paid huge sums of money to travel around the country discoursing on your art to adoring college students.
The possibility, however remote, of attaining that dazzling existence, of grasping onto the big brass ring and holding tight was simultaneously exhilarating and crazy-making. Abandoning that dream was liberating. The minute I decided to stop worrying about book number five a huge weight lifted off me, but there’s also something inherently melancholy about abandoning a dream. What the hell is an American without a dream?
The universe more or less kept up its end of both bargains. After getting sued by American Express and realizing what a terrible mistake I’d made in getting mixed up with debt consolidation folks, I managed to pull myself out of a vast ocean of debt and come to a place of relative financial stability. And I finished that fourth book after all, and have been pleasantly surprised that it was met with kindness and compassion and not universal contempt, as I had feared.
But dreams die hard and ambition is a tricky mistress, as I learned this last Sunday when I attended a rooftop party at the home of a friend of a friend. The home was massive and filled with books and photographs of the absent home owner with President Obama, but that didn’t impress me half as much as the toilet in the main bathroom, a fantastic contraption that doesn’t give everyone who sits down upon it a genital massage complete with a happy ending, but came damn close.
The toilet was a thing of supreme beauty, a masterpiece of design, technology and service that featured an internal heater and separate sprays of soothing waters to gently massage the testicles and the anus. This miraculous contraption transforms the ugly business of rudely excavating one’s bowels or unleashing a fierce torrent of urine into an obscenely sensual experience.
Sitting down on the toilet the first time (ah, you never forget the first time) and futzing with the buttons I experienced an experience so intense and overpowering it frightened me: I wanted this toilet. No, I needed this toilet. This toilet would fill the eviscerating darkness at the core of my being and make me whole. This toilet would make me happy.
This goddamned toilet exposed the grasping, desperate hunger at the core of my being. I may have aspired to a state of Zen serenity and appreciation after my financial and psychological woes, but this infernal, magical shitter betrayed that I was a man who wanted things. Craved things. Needed things. And not just anything, no: This toilet betrayed that somewhere deep within me there was a robber baron who felt entitled to the very best life had to offer, who saw no reason why a trip to the john couldn’t be as exquisite and elevated as a visit to the Lyric Opera or a gourmet restaurant.
I did not need this toilet. No one needed this toilet. That was its peculiar, aspirational genius: it was better than anyone deserved. It was absurd. It was ridiculous and in that moment, it was something I wanted more than anything in the world. I wanted it, I suspect, because it was so ridiculous, because it was the antithesis of the humble, honest life I had laid out before me, in which I would derive tremendous satisfaction just from being able to pay my bills and provide for my family.
This toilet made me feel shallow. It made me feel superficial. It made me feel like the hard lessons about perspective and appreciation and gratitude could all be washed away in an intoxicating rush of warm water to my nether regions. It wasn’t until the next day that I realized that the danger with this embarrassing desire for the greatest toilet ever created wasn’t that I felt such an intense craving for something so preposterous and luxurious and unnecessary. No, the danger lie in putting too much importance on things that are preposterous and luxurious and unnecessary.
Of course, it was okay to dream about a world where, against all odds, I would become the possessor of such a luxurious contraption, just as it’s okay to dream about being a best-selling author and a big macher. The danger lies in imagining that my life had less value or meaning because I didn’t currently possess these beautiful, glittery, shiny, hypnotizing, utterly unnecessary things.
The problem lies not with hope or optimism or dreams or all the other fanciful emotions necessary for a good life but with placing undue importance on material things or professional accomplishments. The trick isn’t to transcend desire. I am far too American and ruled by compulsions for that. The trick is being able to put things into a proper perspective, to be able to delineate between what I want and what I need.
I do not need this magical toilet. No one does. Richard Branson doesn’t need it. The Queen of England doesn’t need it. Hell, the guy who owned the toilet I visited for a few conscience-clouding minutes didn’t need it, but it sure was a nifty thing to have. So maybe, just maybe, if I ask politely, the owner of this toilet will let me visit it every few months so that I can sit briefly upon my abandoned throne and daydream about what might have been.
Nathan Rabin was the original Head Writer for The A.V Club, a position he held for sixteen years. He is currently a staff writer for The Dissolve and the author of You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me a new book about musical subcultures focusing on Phish and Insane Clown Posse.
Photo: Alan Cleaver