While we were in college (Dana at Wesleyan and I at Yale), Dana came to New Haven for a semester to live with Megan, who was one of her best friends, and me. So we became friends. Afterward, Dana and I lost touch, but we reconnected years later in New York City.
In the intervening time, Dana had become a well-established artist, a photographer.
I’d gone to law school, and while there, I happened to see a friend (okay, it was the Big Man, while we were dating) throw a newly purchased, never-opened package of cheesecake into the garbage—an action that doesn’t sound particularly significant, yet it shocked me profoundly.
I was so struck by this episode that I decided to try to write a law paper to figure out why—contrary to conventional economic expectations—owners might choose to waste their own property, and why such actions are so disturbing and thrilling.
My curiosity deepened when, after I asked a prominent property professor to supervise a paper on the topic, I was told not to bother because “People don’t deliberately waste their own possessions.” Oh yes, they do. I gave this phenomenon a name, profane waste, to explain actions like:
o For decades, a concentration camp survivor carried a sandwich in his pocket each day, and nothing gave him greater pleasure than to toss away the sandwich each night.
o Movie producer Don Simpson’s determination to wear each of his identical pairs of Levi’s only once required more effort than rotating the same few pairs of jeans.
o In the movie Titanic, Rose neither wears nor sells the diamond necklace she’s kept for decades, but casts it into the ocean in tribute to her long-dead lover.
I did write a law paper on this topic, and even wrote a long, bad novel about it, but neither satisfied me. I kept collecting examples of profane waste wherever I saw them.
Then Dana and I crossed paths again. Energized by visiting her studio, I hoped we could collaborate on a project. Then, over coffee one morning, after Dana had read my essay on profane waste, we decided to grapple with this subject together.
And so I wrote an essay, and Dana took a series of photographs. But we made the classic creative mistake: producing something we loved without a clear vision of what exactly to do with it. And so the profane waste project stayed on the shelf for some time.
Then—and here’s the crazy Oprah-like touch—I was talking to a friend from law school, a guy who is hugely knowledgeable about contemporary art. I knew he collected Dana’s work, and I mentioned that we’d done this project together. Well, it turned out he was starting an art publishing company, and he was interested in considering publishing our project.
We presented what we had done, he was interested, I re-wrote and expanded the essay, Dana took many more photographs, we went through editing, book design…and tonight was the book party.
The Big Man threw that piece of cheesecake into the garbage in June 1992. Now it’s almost June 2006, and my long obsession has reached a gorgeous culmination.
I was thrilled tonight at the Profane Waste book party, of course. But not as thrilled as I might have expected. My happiness came along the way, while I was making progress toward the goal, not at the moment I reached it.
Hitting on the name “profane waste”…grasping its three variations (heedless waste, defying waste, defiant waste)…hearing that an Economics NOBEL LAUREATE was going to write a book blurb…meeting Dana for coffee to talk about the project…learning about book jacket design…these were the stages where I felt happiest.
Researcher Richard Davidson infelicitously calls this “pre-goal attainment positive affect”–the happiness that comes from progressing toward a goal. It’s much greater than the moment of hitting the mark.
Shakespeare was right: “Things won are done; joy’s soul lies in the doing.”
(The full text of Profane Waste, though alas, without Dana Hoey’s photographs, can be found here.)