I look up to see a weathered, semi-toothless female face beneath an untidy nimbus of dull white hair. Her eyes are glowing with spiteful pleasure as she watches me struggle to avoid hitting the side of her very large truck with the door of my very small one. She’s parked about five inches over the line, and things aren’t much better on the other side—whoever parked the giant SUV on my passenger side also cut it too damn close, and hauling everything off the seat so I could slither across it to get behind the wheel—multiple books, a full backpack, and a notebook full of sketches–would be no less a hassle than trying to wedge myself around the driver’s side door.
So I spent an awkward several moments trying to wriggle sideways into the driver’s seat. After barely getting inside the door and sliding my butt into an iffy perch on the outer edge of the seat, I realized that I had no room to raise my knees high enough to get my feet onto the floor boards. So I grabbed my pants legs to finish hauling myself in—thereby bringing nasty joy to the person whose truck I was trying not to damage.
There’s probably a long, much truncated, and very specific German word for the particular satisfaction that that old gal got out of my situation. Schadenfreude comes to mind—the shameful pleasure that all of us feel at some point at the sight of someone else’s misfortune. But there was more to it than that.
Somehow, I think she was one of those people I’ve only occasionally, actually seen, who sneak a copy of the National Enquirer into the grocery cart just before they check out with a loaf of white bread, a pack of non-deli bologna, and a six-pack of the cheapest lite beer. But I know those people must exist in considerable numbers; along with such staid, innocuous pleasures as Ophra Magazine, Southern Living, and Better Homes and Gardens, there are racks of screamingly garish tabloids at most grocery cash registers, and they are replenished regularly while print journalism in its more respectable forms isn’t doing well in the digital age. The National Enquirer, The National Observer, The National Examiner– they’re pretty interchangeable in terms of name, appearance, content—and appeal. They appeal, primarily, to envy.
They are the go-to for those who revel in the misfortunes of the successful, the powerful, the famous, the talented, and the beautiful as a counterweight to their own too-ordinary, ineffectual and anonymous lives and selves. It’s no accident that when their photos grace the covers of these rags, the handsomest men and the most beautiful women look like hell. And when the famous relationships hit the emotional rocks upon which any coupling can founder, the details are picked over with all the gleeful delicacy of a flock of vultures squabbling over a zebra carcass. The vultures rejoice when the beautiful are fallen.
Envy is one of The Seven Deadly Sins—a concept that even Protestants embrace, although Catholicism seems to have standardized the list. Pride, sloth, gluttony, anger, lust, and avarice, along with envy, do pretty much cover and describe the worst of human behavior—although I’ve often thought that some additions could be made. Cowardice and cruelty strike me as serious contenders for eight and nine with willful stupidity a definite tenth. But whatever the case, I have always found envy puzzling as well as ugly, since it rests on an impossibility.
Wanting to have or be what someone else essentially has or is involves an impossible wish. It just isn’t possible, outside the movies, the pages of comic books, and certain literary genres, to trade part or all of your own life and/or self for someone else’s life or self. The envious hatred that the plain feel for the pretty, or the low born for the pedigreed, is irrational and comic, pitiable, and absurd. Ultimately, frustratingly, enragingly impossible.
It’s my guess that that old woman who got such a kick out of the problem she’d caused me with her sloppy parking knew that her age and mine weren’t much apart. But her approach to aging and mine are markedly different, and she was stung by the contrast.
I’m not a gym rat, and I certainly weigh more than I did when I got out of high school. But I do, dutifully, get on the weights and into a serious work out on a regular basis. The grey in my hair is as much as I’m likely to get any time soon due to my heredity, but I’m fine with it–always thought it was a good look. Even as I pinch pennies and look for deals on the tools and equipment that I need to become at last a fully functional working artist, I know that the most critical and irreplaceable tool I’ve got is the one that I always want to shave five pounds off of. And despite time and wear, it’s still a pretty good piece of gear– the temple of my soul, the seat of my mind, the doorway to all perceptions. The fact that it never promised me a place on the catwalk or the runway or the cover of Vogue never seemed to me a serious cause for regret, considering the ephemeral nature of female beauty–and the stubborn longevity of thoughts and words and ideas.
How far the road will stretch for me I cannot know. But whatever burdens I will carry on it of hope or loss, need or ambition, this one of the seven I will especially refuse, whether to harbor or to suffer. Getting what I want will be hard enough. Wanting the impossible is pointless–and this particular impossible is especially ugly, especially pointless, especially nasty and vile.