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  • Ken Ilgunas

What I’m consuming #2


Esther Perel’s Where Should We Begin? Seasons 1 & 2 – This podcast is full of good, practical relationship advice. (One helpful tip from Perel: When discussing a problem with your partner, put your partner’s complaint into your own words and ask her if you got it right. This way, everyone stays on the same page.) Also, her intimate therapy sessions with couples are extremely entertaining.

WBEZ Chicago, Making Obama – This series — about Obama’s meteoric rise — is riveting. If I have any criticism, it’s that the show should have followed Obama all the way to 2008, when he gets elected. Instead, it ends somewhat anticlimactically when he announces his candidacy for the presidency. (It was so good, I wanted more, so this is hardly a criticism.)

The young Obama is someone with great ambition. He was always thinking big. He was thinking years ahead. He was thinking of how he could apply his unique talents to the world. He was brilliant and tactical, but he was also lucky. In different circumstances he could have just been a successful lawyer, professor, or state politician in Illinois. What if he never met Michelle? What if Carol Moseley Braun had blocked his path to the Senate? A few unlucky events could have made the Obama story unfold in a different way. But ultimately his gifts, tactics, and luck worked together, and he got to live life as optimally as a human could.

I sometimes wonder if I’ll ever live a more optimal life. Is this the most I’ll ever be—a modestly successful and never-exactly-satisfied writer? I wonder: If I was raised somewhere else, was better educated, was born in a different century, or was just really lucky here and there, could I be something bigger, something that suits me more? Perhaps a colonel in a war, a revolutionary, a politician, a business leader, a South Pole adventurer? I don’t know who I might be under different circumstances, but I do sense that, right now, my qualities as a human being aren’t being optimally utilized, perhaps because nothing is calling for them to be properly drawn out and put into action. Obama likely would have been perpetually dissatisfied if he sensed his qualities weren’t being fully utilized, but he lucked out and made it happen.

This podcast made me think of other historic figures who were lousy in ordinary life but amazing in a specific set of circumstances. I thought of Ernest Shackleton and how many people thought that he, in ordinary life in the British Isles, was immature and irresponsible. But Shackleton’s journey to the South Pole provided him with a task that was so enormous and demanding that it became “a touchstone for his monstrous ego and implacable drive,” writes biographer Alfred Lansing. Suddenly Shackleton’s qualities — his ego, his drive, his physical stamina, his leadership — had opportunities to fully express themselves. And Shackleton thrived. We see the same thing with Ulysses S. Grant—an amazing human being who probably would have led an unexceptional life if it wasn’t for the Civil War.

What is your Civil War? What is my South Pole? I speak of the circumstances that would ask the most of you, that would make you the most necessary and useful and effective human being you could possibly be.

Many of us may never get our South Pole, or even imagine our South Pole. I’m guessing most people never get a chance to realize their full potential. They never get to live the life they were ideally born to live. Instead, they get stuck in a cubicle when they should be a colonel, or they’re gathering nuts with their forest tribe when they should be computer programming. This is the Grant who never gets to fight his war and ends up living an undemanding family life. This is the Shackleton who never gets the funding for his expedition and rots away, resentful, in his rocking chair. Think about all the would-be presidents and doctors and writers and architects who never had the chance to achieve because they died young in wars. Or all the women, who, up until recently, weren’t allowed to study alongside men in colleges. Or think about the millions who grow up in poverty, who get a lousy education, who never meet the right people, or who don’t get the right breaks. I have a vague, and perhaps mistaken, sense that I could be uniquely useful for something more, but I’m just not sure exactly what, and I have no idea if I’ll ever happen upon my own “South Pole.” Obama found his South Pole in the presidency. Ideally, I’ll find mine (as I am visited with strong callings here and there), but given the good chances of never hearing another clear calling, I think it’s okay to set up for yourself a good secondary life — the life Obama might have had if he’d never risen above a respectable professor or state politician — centered on family, community, and respectable work.


Netflix, Mindhunter – I enjoyed the first few episodes, but I gradually lost interest and quit. The fun was in the psychology. The serial killers oftentimes had illuminating things to say. And I suppose I liked how the overall story was about the creation of an academic discipline. I quit because of all the window dressing—the boring romance, the sterile setting, the so-so dialogue, the not-so-great chemistry between the two leads.

Annihilation – I gave up about halfway through. Perhaps I’m missing out, but I like sci-fi that grapples with big questions and makes me think (Ex Machina, Black Mirror, Arrival, Interstellar) or that at least thrills (Gravity). Annihilation seemed like a cheaply made, poorly acted, and badly conceived B-movie that did neither.


Hunter S. Thompson’s The Great Shark Hunt – Even though this book of essays is set in the ’70s and even though it’s largely about out-of-date Nixonian politics, the writing, surprisingly, retains its readability and humor. It’s just rough and raw. His prose has an aggressive nature—it’s as if his words are bullets flying out of the barrel. Thompson does not dither or play word games—he is always on the attack, and it’s hard to look away.

The Atlantic, Ta-Nehisi Coates, “The Case for Reparations” – I just finished The Best American Essays and Travel Writing series for 2016, and Coates’s piece was one of my favorites. I love big, radical, progressive ideas of any sort, and I admired Coates’s approach, which was more history than Op-Ed. By the end, I felt pretty convinced that the idea of issuing reparations to those affected by the legacies of slavery and systemic racism is actually quite reasonable. But I’m also reading Ramp Hollow, about how the Scotch-Irish were run out of their countries, and then their homes in America, and then their jobs in West Virginian coal country, and many are still suffering from generations of poverty today, and it makes me wonder: Don’t they deserve reparations too? The same could be said for any number of groups (regardless of race) who’ve experienced generations of inequality and injustice, even if their struggles were comparatively less severe than African Americans’.

Practically speaking, I wonder how reparations would go over with the angry white percentage of the population. Will reparations end in more equality, or will it end in more racism, more anger, and more Trumps that will spark a blowback that will lead to even more inequality? Whites already (wrongly) claim that blacks are getting the bulk of the social benefits. What happens to the state of race relations when blacks do indeed get more when the reparation checks are cashed? Overall, I sense that reparations wouldn’t help the country, even if reparations are indeed right and just. I suppose that probably means I lean conservative on the issue, though I’m all for pouring resources into disadvantaged communities, which is a vague, though weaker, form of reparation. These, though, are just initial thoughts to a big idea. I’m still openminded on the issue and could be talked into it with the right facts and nuances.


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