That’s the thing about me that you don’t get. You see the plodding office career–eight years spent at the same company, three years at the non-profit, and then rarely a full year at a company or agency after that. You see the story of a man playing it safe, and you are right, but you don’t see the whole picture.
I knew that I had a bunch of crap I needed to fix on the inside before I could do anything really brilliant. I still do. I waited around for things to change, I meditated, I tried to write my soul sickness away, I spent hundreds of dollars on subscriptions to personals services that I would abruptly cancel and then retry. I spent thousands of dollars on booze.
I was always writing. That’s definitely something you don’t see. I never shared much of it with close friends and family. I didn’t want to hear their rejection of my writing, but even more strangely, I didn’t want to hear their approval and validation of it, either. If these same people who had urged me to trade in my thrift store clothes for polo and button down shirts and khakis, and to craft the perfect resume and go interview at offices all over in Austin–if these same people approved of my writing, then it would mean that my writing was no good.
I didn’t feel good about calling myself a writer. A writer was some college priss who perfected his craft in creative writing workshops, creating endless drivel that detailed the minutiae of his relationships. I began to learn. I learned too well. I used to just write and fix the spelling later, if I ever bothered. Now, I’m a priss. I stopped this entire train of thought to go find how to spell minutiae properly.
Writing for me was something akin to bathing. It wasn’t absolutely necessary, and I could go stretches without it, but I started to feel weird if I wasn’t doing it.
Now, I am frantic to try to recapture some of the endless freeform spontaneity that was in my early writing.
I don’t really understand what happened during the years I was 25-35. I can piece together my work history, my relationship history, and some of the things I was trying to do. And there are plenty of journalistic entries for this period. But, it still runs together as a great blur inside my head when I call up these ten years–basically the first decade of this century.
I started off with a lot of big plans, good intentions, promise, potential and even friends.
In the year 2001, as I was moving out of the house I’d just purchased with the lady who’d moved down to Austin with me, I still thought that anything was possible, and that I would likely just put in a two-year stint at Ahmis Communications before moving on to bigger and better things in SF or NYC. One thing they don’t tell you about when you get out of college is just how damn easy it is to be distracted by the people and events around you. If you aren’t jealous of your time and your vision of who you are going to be, there are always going to be ten people waiting outside your door to take you along in their direction.
Austin is not a bad city, but it is not a great city, either. The people who love it will play it up like it is the best city in the best state in the best country, and then they will be enraged when ten thousand people come down to live in the best city. Most of those ten thousand will either spend years fooling themselves into thinking that they too believe it is the best city, or they will get the hell out and never look back.
For me, the primary thing Austin lacks is a real art museum. A city of its size should have at least a very general, large museum of fine arts. Kansas City had an excellent one, and I regret not visiting it more often when I lived there. Austin has its own take on a Modern, which is just a single floor inside a downtown skyscraper building. You go in expecting to see a collection that will at least approach San Francisco’s modern, and you walk about one single floor that mostly consists of a traveling exhibit. The Blanton is the only museum that approaches a true fine arts museum, and it is where you end up going every other month because there is nowhere else to go in town. The Blanton has a few pieces from Abstract Expressionists, a small collection of Dutch and French masters, and the occasionally good visiting exhibit. But, if you go too often, you will get the impression that nothing has changed.
And now, I live in a town that boasts no art museum aside from a tiny one on the college campus. I live just as far from the Ft Worth Modern and DMA as I do from the Blanton, so I don’t drive down to Austin much anymore to see what has changed.
I didn’t understand that this was the most important thing for me when I was in my late twenties. I thought that Austin had some kind of great, mystical culture that would just require a little patience to penetrate. I had adored Stevie Ray Vaughn in high school while living in Missouri, and had absorbed the mythology of the Austin nightlife. By the time I arrived in 1999, everyone was saying all of the best nightclubs had just shut down, and what was left were technically flawless, soulless showmen who would play any SRV song note for note on 6th St to the passing tourists who imbibed overpriced, watered down beer in little plastic cups. That year, Office Space came out, and it gave you a picture of Austin’s other mythical culture — the tech office. You could go work at Dell, IBM, 3M, Motorola, Tivoli, NI, and any number of dot com startups like Living.Com, Garden.com–or work for an ad agency next to Whole Foods. At least you could if you had a CS or Engineering degree, or had done an internship or three in one of these offices.
I ended up at Ahmis Communications — of course the name is fictionalized, I have no need for any of my fellow alumni finding me right now, and digging into my life. This was a sad little shop that had been around since the late 1960s, and was full of these cranky science editors who were too rough for a real corporate job and too lazy to publish and work in academia as professors. I’d gotten an offer to work at Living.com by way of the employment agency I was using. I would be writing descriptions of furniture online. I turned it down because Karen Winthrop, my future boss and future strange friend sounded almost like she was begging for me to come work at Ahmis. Nobody had ever made me feel like I was almost being courted to work at a place. I let my ego get the better of me.
When I was 28, I finally began to extricate myself from the tangled web I’d gotten into. Karen was someone I’d desperately wanted to have an adult, summer-long relationship with, but she was clearly going to keep me at arm’s length and let me be her sidekick while she romped about with the men she met at the bars we frequented. Instead, I dated Vera, a big-boned Texas girl who could go from intense bitchiness, to cute smiling happiness, to crying petulance in a matter of seconds. Because Vera worked at Ahmis, I felt like if I broke up with her, that I would fall out of favor with everyone there, who seemed to love her.
I had reached a point where I felt impossibly bound up with these people, even though I owed them nothing. On top of this, my parents had retired to the area when I was 25, and so I felt like I would be a piece of shit if I just up and left.
At 28, I had broken up with Vera, gotten an apartment that wasn’t just up the hill from Ahmis, had gotten my dog back from the ex-girlfriend who had stolen the house away, and she finally got a lawyer to separate my ties to the house for good. I was ready to find true love.
While still dating Vera, I’d finally succeeded in locating my high school crush, who turned out to be married with a child. Nonetheless, she seemed interested at first to talk to me back and forth through email, but then stopped. She posted a cryptic message about self-mutilation on her blog, that I somehow suspected was directed at me, though I was never quite sure. Susan Parker’s obsession with the new internet technologies like video and blogging made me realize that I, a self professed web guy, had a lot of catching up to do.
For the next year, I lived this fantasy that I was becoming a somebody because I had a website. On my website I posted songs I wrote and recorded, journal entries, and past novel attempts. I thought it would be only a matter of time before someone discovered me and made me an overnight celebrity. Because I’d pretty much disbanded from the Ahims group, I didn’t really have any bros or wing men to speak of. I never was much of a bro type, and going down to a night club by myself scared the shit out of me. My friend from high school, James Keese, had told me a long time ago how he’d found more than enough romance using personals services, and so I figured that was going to be the way to go.
I was horrified to discover that almost none of the women I contacted would even bother to write me back to say “no thanks.” I posted what I thought were some of the best photos of myself, and carefully vetted my profile for any red flags. I tried to like as many of the same things that I thought a really cool woman would like. Finally, after a few really uninspiring dates that ended in no follow-up communication whatsoever, I met Lucy. Lucy declared that she was still in a relationship and just wanted to walk dogs and be friends. Lucy would be my on and off partner for the next three years.
During all of this time, I kept starting anonymous blogs and stopping them. Only once since 2004 have I tried to resurrect my own website with a blog that wasn’t anonymous. After everything I’d learned before, I was reluctant to write much of anything, and quickly took it down. What you soon find if you post under your real name is that pretty much the only people who read what you write are close friends and family. Then, they will repeat something over and over again that you wrote on a bad day or a day when you were pausing to recall something.
At Ahmis, I tried being a web designer, CMS and email developer, a writer, and ad designer, a salesman, etc. While there, I also volunteered full time on a political campaign. I tried my hand at songwriting, singing, photography and videography. I wrote a novel and started a million more. I started and stopped at least four blogs. Then, I moved on to the IAH–a well-known local non-profit. I was their webmaster and email marketing person, but I had big dreams to become a great community organizer and champion of the poor. I ran half marathons, I taught ESL, I spent a summer taking Anatomy and Physiology and a Medical Terminology class in hopes of becoming an EMT. I went back to church a few times before I finally forced myself to get focused on one for the sake of being in church and that was when I met my wife. I devoted a summer to courting and dating her. It was the best summer I ever had in Austin, and it was going to be one of my last.
At the end of that summer, I’d worked up the courage to fly to NYC and visit it. I was pretty certain that I was going to ask my wife to marry her, and figured this would be my last chance to go visit a big city by myself. Other than business conference trips, I’d only done this maybe twice before my entire life–once to SF in 2009 for a week and once to DC for a day when I was 19. It’s funny how much courage you get to do these things once you know someone has your back. I suppose for people who travel all the time by themselves, and frequently make exotic excursions to places off the beaten path in South American, Africa and Southeast Asia, what I’m saying seems completely impossible to understand.
I have become quite agoraphobic several times, and each time I’ve been in utter denial of it. The first time came after the terrible trip to Jamaica with Karen Winthrop and Dean Rogers from Ahmis. That was when I was still 25, and I didn’t go anywhere outside of Austin until I turned 29, and got up my big courage to fly to SF and attend a conference on Ahmis’ dime.
Imagine that–almost four years. At one point during this struggle, I was proud of myself for leaving the South/Central Austin area and going to a park in the Northwest part of Austin. I was simply unwilling to admit to myself what a fearful coward I had become. The world scared me a lot after 9/11. I listened to too much Alex Jones. I drank a lot.
I ran up credit card debt to nigh bankruptcy two times over the course of this ten year period, and I would blame my credit card debt on why I couldn’t travel. The truth was, my drinking was making me more agoraphobic, not less. When I wasn’t drinking or drunk, the world was a terrifying place, and people were better left to be strangers.