The Passion of the Zeitgeist

Have you ever faked it?

“PASSION IS A CROCK,” said my old friend Wally Kidder, the noted scold and table-slapper, when I bumped into him at the coffee shop the other day. I looked up from my laptop screen and saw an expression I knew well: dilated eyes, flared nostrils, outthrust chin. The weight of the chip on his shoulder had tilted him noticeably to the right. His clenched hands and tensed forearms rested twitchily on either side of his coffee mug. He looked like Popeye during a spinach embargo. ¶ “You’re dissing passion?” I said. “What’s the matter, has your wife pointed out your deficiencies in the marital-bliss department again?” ¶ “Funny,” he said. “Hilarious. Like you’d ever hear about it if she had. Which she hasn’t, okay? Ever. For the record.” He tightened his scowl a notch or two and said, “What’s your deal, anyway? Why do you always go straight for the personal attacks?”

“Must be my passionate Scando-German blood,” I said. “Either that or I hang around with you too much. But listen—what’s the outrage du jour? To what do I owe the perplexing prospect of your pugnaciously pursed piehole?”

Wally groaned theatrically, muttered something unprintable about alliteration being the last refuge of dorks, and whipped from his pocket an ad he’d torn out of a newspaper. It announced the grand opening of a new podiatry clinic. There was a photo of two doctors (one smiling, one not), an anatomical sketch of a healthy foot, and a slogan: “Bunion and hammertoe care is our passion!”

I chuckled. That was a mistake.

“It might be funny,” Wally said, “if it wasn’t so sad. If it didn’t reveal the extent to which the word passion has been degraded in our culture. If it didn’t just about break your heart—the thought that these hard-working healers had to resort to such cheap emotional appeals in order to convey their dedication to treating the ills of humankind’s lower extremities.”

I was about to tell Wally he was taking this way too seriously when a faint aroma of rat wafted into my consciousness. “Wait a second,” I said. “ ‘Break your heart?’ ‘Healers?’ Do you have money in this foot-doctoring operation?”

“No,” he said with a guilty grimace. “But my brother-in-law is the sour-looking guy in the picture.”

“Ha!” I said. “So this rant is personal.”

“You’re missing the point. It’s not about this one ad. It’s about how this ad came to be inevitable.” Wally snapped his fingers. “Gimme your laptop,” he said.

I slid it across the table. “I’m Googling the phrase is our passion,” he muttered, typing, as he always did, with his two middle fingers. “Here we go: 389,000 hits. To mention but a few: ‘Corn is our passion.’ ‘Marketing is our passion.’ ‘Wedding photography is our passion.’ ‘Customer service is our passion’—lots of people claim that one. ‘Fundraising is our passion.’ ‘Radiant heat is our passion.’ ‘Product testing for everyday requirements is our passion.’ ‘Representing women only in divorce is our passion.’ ‘Automation is our passion.’ ‘Manufacturing labels and tags is our passion.’ ‘Property in Turkey is our passion.’ ‘Help-desk software is our passion.’ ‘Your potential is our passion.’ ‘Your delight is our passion.’ ‘Your obsession is our passion.’ ‘Your passion is our passion.’ ”

“I get it,” I said. “There’s lots of passion out there, but you’re not buying it. So what?”

“Passion has become the great validator. No, check that. Claiming to have passion has become the great validator.” Wally’s voice was rising; people around the coffee shop were giving us looks. “Last fall, during the governor’s race, when Mike Hatch went into bulging-neck-vein mode about that ethanol gaffe, his explanation was Hey, it’s not that I have anger issues—I just have passion, man. It was too little too late, but he understood that self-proclaimed passion covers a multitude of sins.” Wally stopped to hyperventilate briefly. “You can’t open an oil-change shop, much less a medical practice, without claiming it was destiny that led you to this pneumatic wrench, that your soul sings the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ every time you glurp a load of 30-weight into somebody’s Camry. Everybody talks about passion. Nobody talks about expertise.”

“The claim of passion is meant to convey expertise,” I said. “If you’re passionate about Pennzoil, presumably you’ll be compelled to learn everything there is to know about the, uh, glurpage thereof.”

Wally looked at me as if I were a particularly stupid puppy that had just soiled his favorite shoes. “Dude, you are one credulous knucklesucker, aren’t you?” he said. “If someone says they have a passion for help-desk software—well, is that a recognizable human being? And when was the last time you dealt with any entity—a company, a store, a government agency—of which you could even contemplate saying, ‘Man, those guys are all about customer service’?”

“I like my dry cleaner,” I said.


“Because it’s a mom-and-pop joint!” He smacked the table; I’d been wondering when that was coming. “They probably do have a passion for sprucing up your toasty woolens and remembering the precise concentration of starch to apply to your preppy little shirts. And they have the class to not make a big deal about it. They don’t have a mission statement about passion posted on the wall. They don’t go around yammering about how a properly cleaned cashmere sweater makes a luminous frame for the human spirit. They don’t claim that waking up to the prospect of a full day of Martinizing fills them with a quiet yet powerful sense of purpose and cosmic rightness. They don’t make commercials in which (a) the steam from the big presses appears to be golden mist from a rain forest peopled by cleanliness elves, and/or (b) the expression on the face of a worker who finds a lost button falls somewhere between post-coital bliss and the rapture of a religious martyr.”

“Maybe they would if they had the money.”

Wally sighed glumly. “Probably. Phony passion does come with success.”

“How do you figure?”

“Oh, come on. We all love to think—whether or not it’s true—that America was forged in the flames of glorious, noble, selfless passions. But now we’re fat and happy. Well, fat and comfy. We have eight-way-adjustable heated car seats and backlit flat-screen plasma TVs and, pretty soon, no doubt, GPS fobs for when we lose our keys. And yet we long for the fresh, crisp, bracing wind of a genuine passion. So we claim to have passion up the wazoo. Apparently we’re so desperate that we’ll take it any way we can get it. Your passion is our passion. But we’re just going through the motions. We’re saying, ‘Oh yeah, oh baby, oh my God, customer service you’re the only one for me,’ but we don’t mean it. We’re all faking our passiongasms.”

“That,” I said, “is the most idiotic word you’ve ever coined. And how’d we get from dry cleaning to the heartbeat of America?”

“Go ahead, pick nits,” said Wally. “But here we are in a war, the ice caps are melting, and what do we seem most passionate about? Looking up Britney Spears’s skirt.”

“Okay, Wally. So what’s your passion, other than perfecting the art of the well-caffeinated rant?”

“You mean what don’t I have to fake it for?”

“Sure, if you want to put it that way.”

“You mean what is it that fills me with a purity of purpose, an honest sense of self-worth, an energy not explicable in terms of normal mammalian metabolism? What is it that makes me light up like the dashboard in my old man’s ’61 Olds?”

“All of the above, Wally.”

“I’m not going to tell you,” he said. I began to protest, and he cut me off. “If I put it into words, it will be irreparably cheapened. Haven’t you been listening this whole time?” He smacked the table again, softly this time. “It’s an oyster. It’s a truffle. It’s a child. It needs to be nurtured in a supportive darkness for a while.” Wally leaned back and folded his arms with a QED finality. “I’ll tell you one thing, though—it ain’t customer service.”

“No kidding.”

He cackled and stood up. “Time to head home and walk the dog,” he said. “It’s not something I’m passionate about—but he is. And he’s not capable of faking it.”

Contributing editor Jeff Johnson has a passion for—well, never mind.