Dan Zevin is a Thurber Prize-winning humorist who has written for the New York Times, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, Rolling Stone, Salon, Real Simple, Parents, and The Wall Street Journal, and as a comic commentator for NPR.
His latest book and YouTube series is Very Modern Mantras: Daily Affirmations for Daily Aggravations. I love aphorisms, proverbs, koans, paradoxes, teaching stories—and mantras! And Dan’s mantras are very, very funny.
I couldn’t wait to talk to Dan about habits, happiness, and humor.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Dan: It’s a tie between working out and drinking coffee, not necessarily in that order. Actually, definitely not in that order. In the reverse order. Coffee first, then exercise. And before coffee, espresso.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Well, I just did the quiz and I’m a Questioner. How did you come up with such a cool quiz? Do YOU think I’m a Questioner? Are you also a Questioner? How can I be sure I’m a Questioner?
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
Yeah, my brain. In meditation, they call it “Monkey Mind,” meaning your mind runs all over the place like a monkey. I myself have Gorilla Mind, which is why I suck at meditation. I try to focus on my breath, and, within seconds, I’m focusing on the deadlines I’m missing or the emails that are piling up, or this skin condition I just read about on WebMd that I’m now convinced I have, which means I need to make an appointment with the dermatologist, and how am I going to get to the dermatologist while I’m sitting there trying to focus on my breath? I’m just not cut out for meditation. That’s the whole premise of my book, actually. I call it Immediate Gratification Meditation. I wrote all these visualization exercises to help you maintain your sanity when you’re in line at Starbucks and the person in front of you is spending twenty minutes custom-building their cappuccino. Or when your GPS is giving you the world’s worst driving directions, or you’re at the gym, and the grunting guy who used the treadmill before you left it soaking wet with his sweat. It’s aggravation-specific meditation. Mantras On Demand.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
I have two quotes from my father stuck to the refrigerator so I see them every day.
The first is “Eliminate aggravation.” The other is: “I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.” Gretchen, you should really interview him because he is pathologically happy, content, and optimistic. My father is not just a glass-half-full kind of guy, he’s a glass-all-full guy, a glass-overflowing guy. Like I said in one of my other books, Dan Gets a Minivan, “Lately, all my friends are worried that they’re turning into their father. I’m worried that I’m not.”
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
As a humor author, it’s always bugged me that booksellers tend to think of my genre as a second-class citizen. I mean, when you walk into a lot of stores and try to find the humor section, it’s usually in the wayyyy back, next to the bathroom, and we always get the bottom shelf—the Shelf Of Shame. It also doesn’t help if your last name starts with a Z, since they alphabetize it. Just talking about this is stressing me out. I need a mantra! Give me a minute. Okay, how’s this: “Today, I will take comedy seriously.”
Ah. I feel better already.