There’s a package of personal skills that I’d call “being good at life” – some combination of being open-minded, open-hearted, honest and adventurous. Here I’m not trying to define exactly what’s in the package; I’m just saying such a thing exists, and you know this when you meet someone who is good at life. These people glow with contagious energy, you can feel it within a minute in their presence, and in half an hour you are imbued with some measure of their magic. They are so good at life that the irrepressible force of life overflows the boundaries of their bodies and penetrates into the lucky souls nearby.
This happens in the two-episode story arc completed this week on Louie, which is very close to entering my pantheon of favorite TV shows over the last decade (in chronological order: The Sopranos, Firefly, Deadwood, Battlestar Galactica, Mad Men). If you don’t watch Louie CK’s brilliant show, and you don’t want to know what happens in it before you watch it, then you shouldn’t read the rest of this. Just go watch Louie – the first two seasons are on Netflix, the third is available on Amazon Instant Video.
Louie is a bit of a sad sack – divorced, out of shape, mid-forties, and haplessly looking for love. In the first episode of this story, he goes to a bookstore to buy something for his daughter. He turns down an offer of help from the first salesperson who inquires because he sees the other beside him, a librarian-sexy woman played by Parker Posey. He mumbles about finding a book about flowers for his daughter, and she really engages with the request, asking questions about his daughter and suggesting something that seems just right. It’s not a perfunctory execution of her task as a retail drone – she brings authentic humanity to a routine interaction. Louie’s days are filled with dross and here is a pure rivulet of gold.
Some time later, he’s back at the store panning for more, and she remembers him, her greeting lighting up his heart immediately. Finding a book for his other daughter, she draws on the shared personal history of being a girl just starting to grapple with life and femininity, and suggests another title that will surely be perfect. Truly infatuated now, Louie returns to the store a third time and stumbles out the best possible pitch for a date that can be made by an overweight balding older man to a vivacious younger woman. She says yes.
It’s wonderful … and in some ways it’s the high point of this relationship, as this moment is on average the high point of all possible relationships – the moment when both people think there might be something there, when the entire history is nothing but short sweet vignettes of warmth and attraction, when none of the best things have happened yet and all of them seem possible, when none of the worst things have happened yet and none of them seem plausible.
In the next episode, Louie picks her up at the bookstore at the end of her shift, and almost immediately, certainly inevitability, the reality of the person fills out differently than the fantasy of the dream. She actually is a wonderful person – vibrant, compassionate, authentic, funny and adventurous – and their date quickly becomes a classic New York journey, the city so alive that it’s almost like the third wheel in their evening, a meandering trawl through a bar, vintage clothing store, gourmet delicatessen and spectacular rooftop views. Parker Posey plays a woman who is just so damn good at life that it’s bursting from her seams, and the magic of her performance is how she shows the dark beauty of those seams and the fragile stitching that holds this woman together. She’s good at life because she has to be, because she’s learned to be, because it’s the only way she can survive.
Being good at life is a learned skill, no one is born this way. Some people learn from a blank slate, or even better from a foundation prepared well by a loving family and fortuitous circumstances. But some people learn in order to recover from misfortune, from illness or abuse or poverty or genetic disadvantage. For this group, being good at life is a survival skill, a necessity more than a blessing, medicine to cure a fatal condition.