Sin in the Wild Outdoors, June 1997
Envy is the adolescent sin that we try to immunize ourselves against by thinking about the Unhappy Rich and the terrible price to be paid for fame, the miserable deaths of rock stars, the epic self-absorption of tycoons, and the aimless lives of their children. But those aren't the people that we envy, exactly. I went fishing for salmon on a commercial boat out of Juneau, Alaska, one cold summer morning years ago, and sat in the pilothouse and watched the captain as he maneuvered out of the anchorage and up the fjord, kept one ear on the radio, pointed out mountain peaks to me, and watched for whales and porpoises. Suddenly I was attacked by a greenish yearning to be him and have a boat like his, to have his laconic cool, his weather eye, his immense nautical style, his stiff-legged grace, his always knowing what to do next, the unflappable unrushed nature of a man who deals with the sea. His squint on life. I'm from Minnesota, and a deep-sea fisherman is a large figure to me, a Ulysses. Luckily, the fever passed when I got back to shore. Otherwise I might be stuck with one of those 40-foot fiberglass tubs that men who are overcome with envy buy. A lousy investment, because it wasn't the boat they wanted, it was the cool, the squint, the walk.
Envy is such a creepy sin that few will confess to it, except in reverse, under the guise of moral outrage, the kind you use to smite the people you envy. The itchy Republican envy of the counterculture that gave us the war on drugs, which has cost billions and destroyed lives and accomplished next to nothing, for instance. The envy that older white males in Washington feel for Bill Clinton, which keeps the Clinton scandal industry bubbling along. And then there is the envy that we midwesterners feel for the people on the coasts, who don't carry the same clunky moral baggage we do, who seem not bound by the same cautions and taboos we grew with, not so inhibited by modesty, who take unabashed pleasure in their talents, their possessions, and their good fortune in being who they are.
I think of a man I met once in Los Angeles, a writer who cranks out TV shows in which unattractive people snarl at each other to the accompaniment of a laugh track. He is 34 and lives atop a hill in Malibu in a big rambling sunny house with umber tile floors and rattan carpets and white gilded furniture, where you amble out into the balmy February twilight, a glass of wine in hand, and gaze down at the blue Pacific bathed in sunset tones. I envy him. Envy his house, his wardrobe, his slender waist, his risotto, his dreamy photographs of South America, where he's been and I haven't — what a golden deal this flannel-brain has made for himself. The guy is a flabby writer, a creator of unrecyclable trash, and he is jetting down to Brazil and Peru and climbing the Andes and canoeing into the rainforests and having more fun than I do, especially when I sit here and envy him.
I am not proud of myself for this, but I do entertain hopes that he may experience interesting mishaps on his expeditions. I wish he would aim his camera toward that distant cloud-wrapped mountain and step forward and fall off the ledge and into the slough and be bitten by a fish and have to be carried for three days by people who loathe him. From the bite he would contract a rare fish-transmitted disease that leaves the victim feeling lethargic and stupefied and takes 16 months to run its course. I would send him a note of sympathy. Charity is the antidote for envy, but one must have an occasion for charity. His brave struggle against a fish-transmitted stupor would clear up my envy completely, I'm sure.
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