What Life Is Like

Find the meaning of life-no charge!-at Happy Ending.

Blaise Allysen Kearsley

Photograph: Jon Boulier

For the past year, the How I Learned reading series (Happy Ending Lounge, 302 Broome St between Eldridge and Forsyth Sts; 212-334-9676, howilearnedathappyending.blogspot.com; 8pm, free) has functioned as a CliffsNotes for life lessons learned the hard way. On the fourth Wednesday every month, curator and host Blaise Allysen Kearsley welcomes three to five speakers to freewheel about how they figured out something important—topics range from the absurd (I Might Be Obsessed) to the universally specific (My Adolescence Was Over) to the utterly arcane (What Everyone Else Already Knew). Alums include The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman and author Jami Attenberg. On Wednesday 24, Kearsley will debut what might be her most esoteric iteration of How I Learned yet: What Life Is Like. In existentialist anticipation, we asked four slated speakers to tell us a bit about how they arrived at their secrets to existence. “I think sometimes when people hear 'reading series’ they think, Snooze. But I want people to feel like this isn’t just another reading series,” says Kearsley. “It’s something different. Especially if you like a little humor with your literature.”

Who taught you what life is truly like? And what’s the greatest lesson he or she imparted on you?
Julie Klausner (I Don’t Care About Your Band): I’d have to say the Monopoly man. Some days you’re the iron, and sometimes you’re the top hat. And also, you should always wear a monocle to the beach.

Stefan Merrill Block (The Story of Forgetting): In Annie Dillard’s book on writing [The Writing Life], an aspiring writer asks Dillard where to find a teacher. Dillard replies, “the page, the page.” That has always seemed right to me. The blank page could be anything, but to become something you have to worry and daydream and, most of all, focus.

Justin Taylor (Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever): I have to respectfully but firmly reject the premise on which the question is framed—namely, that I have any idea what life is “truly” like.

Daniel Nester (How to Be Inappropriate): A man we’ll call Sam, who was the janitor at my old church. I worked as his assistant janitor when I was in grade school, mopping up bathrooms and vacuuming classrooms. He taught me that there is no shame for a man to shave his armpits.

Do you think that the best stories come from fact, fiction or something in between?
Klausner: The best stories obviously come from your childhood. It was probably uniquely awful or crazy, so you should definitely make sure people know that.

Block: The stories I love best are stories about stories, about how we must endlessly reform our meaningless succession of facts into shapes that make sense of us, give us comfort, let us share our private pain and allow us to escape.

Taylor: In the best case, a story is infused with the force of true feeling, and this is more important than whether something is fact. This would seem to peg me as a “something in between” guy.

Nester: For me, the best stories come from fact, since I lead such an interesting life. [But] the place in between fact and fiction—we’ll call it the sweet spot, the taint of inspiration, if you will—is really where all great literature blooms.

To whom would you most like to teach a life lesson?
Klausner: Somebody who virulently hates education. [I’d let them know] that not all books can be bad—some are just dirty! So stop burning them. Go burn a flag if you need to burn something.

Block: Beyond revenge fantasies of taking our last President on a tour of the misery his decisions allowed, I guess the person that I’d most like to give a talking-to would be my past self. “Focus on what moves you most,” I’d like to tell him. My present self could probably use that lecture too.

Taylor: When I teach English 101, I tell my students...that better writing begets better thinking, by which it is also begotten, and better thinking will in turn yield better writing. This cycle will perpetuate itself perpetually if you allow it to.

Nester: I would like to teach the staff at Other Music how to enjoy the Outfield’s Play Deep and a couple of book reviewers how to read and write. I would also like to go back in time and tell my former self that I should learn Quark rather than PageMaker, WordPerfect over WordStar and that there is no need to buy a Zip drive.

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