The latest Mad Men episode, “The Flood,” got me thinking about escapism – that temporary panacea that most of us turn to repeatedly, since our intentions in doing so are easily camouflaged behind simpler motives. Don and his son Bobby go to the movies, amidst the chaos of MLK’s assassination (not to mention Don’s ceaseless internal chaos and Bobby’s growing frustrations with everyone’s least favorite mother, Betty Draper). “When people are sad, they go to the movies,” says Bobby, hitting the point home. I believe that most habits and interests function as diversions from the harsher realities that are central to our lives, but certain pastimes are especially irresistible in times of confusion or distress, movies being high on that list. Herewith, an endorsement of dispensing with reality for the sake of dodging mental collapse, brought to you by my own dalliances with some favored escapist pursuits.
Books. During spring break of my freshman year of college, I was nursing a broken heart and general disillusionment with the human race. It was a heavy load, and with the remnants of my high school-borne cynicism refusing to dissolve, I knew I needed to engross myself in something entirely unrelated or some form of breakdown would seize the day (see: the next chapter). Smartly, (though some may argue this, too, was lacking in sanity) I decided I would read one entire book every day of the break, and that I did. Why be pragmatic, when you can be productive? I believed. Faulkner, Gide, and Hesse licked my wounds for me, and filled my brain with ideas much more profound than my preferred concentrations of self-pity and romance-is-dead-ism. If you find your thoughts bordering on the pre-adolescent (and we’re all eight years old, deep down), do pick up a book with words and ideas that will put your trivial convictions into proper perspective. Life is hard, but many protagonists have it harder.
Film. I spent all of last summer commuting into New York City for a daily eating disorder treatment program that consisted of stacked meals and not much else. I had lots of free time between the carbo-loading but nowhere to go when my relentless food comas struck. To get my mind off what I believed to be my growing likeness to a pregnant woman, I went to the movies with the same dedication of a drug-fiend seeking their fix. The amount of money I blew on this obsessive hobby was questionable, but numbers aside, it was worth it. My favorite theater was Lincoln Plaza, the much-loved locale of octogenarians who I had much in common with at the time – we were both battling the woes of thinning hair and a lack of nutrients (see: booty) by imbibing the chalky cure-all that is Ensure. LP also happened to have the most thought-provoking selection in the area, and I had learned quickly that most archetypal blockbusters failed to do the trick of diverting attention from my budding thighs, as most of them featured poster-children for starvation. When my emotions did bubble over (I’ve always cried at movies – something I forgot to factor in initially), it was therapeutic but in a less aggressive way than the sessions I was used to at my treatment program. I spent the latter half of Beasts of the Southern Wild sobbing in the back row, completely unsure of where the tears were coming from, but easily persuading myself that they were purely for Hushpuppy. Though this may have been close to denial, or deflecting, I left the theater with less bloat-driven aggravation and cookie-triggered rage, and for the moment, that was enough.
Television. Everyone who’s known me for most of my little life knows that I originally harbored an abnormal distaste for television. Even at the ripe age of six I turned my nose up at people (see: my brother, Zachary) who preferred to melt their brains in front of the screen for hours on end. Channel surfing, especially, really made my blood boil (always concerned with the big problems, I was!) Instead, I liked to use my imagination to create invisible worlds that I would dip in and out of throughout the day, desiring that surreality over all the rest. In the last few years this arrogance has entirely faded, and lucky for me it has coincided with television’s rise as a much-admired art form, with many arguing that it’s advances place it above and beyond contemporary movies. But, even so, television should be wholly appreciated for its dual-brow (high and low) gems. I found myself so invested in Homeland during my recovery that my family became genuinely annoyed with my insistence on analyzing the plotlines as if they were an actuality. “Not everyone can be as intense about it as you can,” my mom would tell me, frustrated, like we were speaking about the AIDS crisis in Africa. I hung up on my brother twice when he started pointing out the show’s flaws. Okay, so perhaps that was a bit much – but I needed to hurl my pent up energy (the result of subsisting on an amalgam of carbohydrates and healthy fats – or brain foods, as they say) in some direction, and I found that a TV series was precisely what I needed to take my thoughts off the less-pleasant intricacies of my current reality. With the rise of episode reviews (my favorite being those by New York Mag), I’m clearly not alone in this dissection-obsession. When I was feeling less brainy, more brazen, I shamelessly turned to the Kardashians. My feelings for that show never came close to my ardor for the coupling of Danes-y and Lewis, but I was wholly invested in Rob Kardashian’s sock line and general wellbeing. Though most people scoffed at my interest, his outpouring of feelings in the midst of an oft-robotic family was striking and resonant with the type of reality that isn’t branded. Lastly, I support anybody in the public eye who hasn’t succumbed to size zero standards, so felt it was my duty to back the Kardashian ‘kause.’ I’d recommend embracing television, but that would be redundant, as I was certainly the last man standing in the TV-chaste arena.
Shopping. The essence of getting dressed, decorating your home, what-have-you, is that of forming your identity. Shopping is the vehicle. Like most habits that can evolve into addictions, buying things is a means of filling the various voids in our lives – sometimes the literal ones (underwear, toothpaste, toilet paper), but more dangerously, it can work to fill the less tangible holes (insecurity, anger, sadness, etc.) I can’t count the number of times I’ve felt shitty and been subsequently overcome by an urge to go shopping. Though I’m usually not conscious of it in the moment, I often seem to convince myself that if I just had that shirt, those shoes, that overpriced candle, or that coffee-table book, I would be happier…an all-around better human being. The downfall here is, of course, that this idea is a farce, and that money doesn’t grow on trees. Ultimately, we cannot buy our way out of our pain, as much as we’d like to at times. It can certainly succeed as a pick-me-up, but it is incredibly fleeting, and much less enriching than the aforementioned escapes. While I embrace the former distractions, in moderation (because facing-your-feelings is a worthy cause too), I’m hesitant to advocate for shopping-spree-as-salve. Though it seems much more innocent on the surface, shopping calls for the same check-yourself-before-you-wreck-yourself attitude that you must secure before hitting the bottle (pills, included) whilst in a funk. As I’ve learned the hard way, buying a shitload of minimalist clothing that Queen Phoebe (née, Philo) and King Kanye would approve of, won’t minimize your very real baggage.
There are many more pastimes I could add to this pro-‘scapist list (like running—but my love for that deserves it’s own entry—or cooking), however these strike me as the most universal. The irony latent in the first three, of course, is that when done right, they tend to bring forward the issues you’re trying to ignore. Rather than creating more of a mess, however, they can deliver some much-needed empathy and help you to navigate your own bedlam by following someone else’s. Sometimes it’s best to avoid the extremes (denial, confrontation) by encountering life’s difficulties through a lens less bent on ego than your own.