There is a persistent notion inside of me that time ceased to function properly after September 11, 2001. There is this feeling that the world I’ve been living in has not really moved on from that day, and that time itself had really started to wind down after January 15, 1999.
I have days where I feel like one of the characters in the movie Inception who are inhabiting someone else’s unconscious mind, and all of the members of that mind start to turn on them because they know that person shouldn’t be there. So many days go by where I feel like a took a wrong turn for good, and have been slowly descending into hell.
I’ve never been especially good about setting my own goals and sticking to them. I can occasionally work toward a medium-sized goal, like running a half marathon, but even that was mostly driven by the hope that some lady would learn of my achievement and fall madly in love with me for it. After getting engaged, my ability to be motivated to do much of anything for the long term pretty much ceased altogether.
So, I think part of my struggle with time after 1/15 or 9/11 has to do with the broader relation of my own life to these dates. Up until I graduated from college, I had a clear series of milestones I needed to hit. It was almost impossible not to hit them. I had to work really hard to miss a milestone. Therefore, time was easy to keep track of in discrete packages. There was pre-K, K, 1-6, 7-8, 9-12, college. I could look back on life and measure time according to the events that transpired on a yearly basis.
After college, it was kicked wide open. I had a vague idea that I would live with my parents, pay off my debt, save up some money and go to NYC or travel the country. Then, I met Olivia, then, Roy died. Then, I moved to Austin, then I broke up with Olvia. Then, I got mixed up in the Ahmis drinking crowd. Then, 9/11 happened, and the world seemed to grow dark.
I stopped setting any real goals of value. I had vague notions of suddenly becoming successful at something, or stumbling upon a job that paid so much more than Ahmis did. By then, I was in the kind of debt that would have sent most people into bankruptcy, and I had no real course set up to work my way out of it. I spent a total of eight years at Ahmis Communications, before finally going on a binge of mini-goal setting around volunteering and seeking work at a non-profit.
I felt like I’d accomplished something great, but I was really just doing the same shit as before, but at a non-profit and making less money at it.
It never occurred to me to take a step back from everything, set clear goals around going back to school or carving out a career, or finishing a novel and getting it published. It has only come to sink in slowly just how easy life can pull you away from whatever path you try to put yourself upon, when you are no longer under the watchful care of mommy and daddy.
I started to put a stake in the ground this past month, that I would quit my full-time job completely, and take freelance jobs here and there, and begin working on a novel and taking care of my newborn son when he arrives. Immediately, my boss called me and tried to talk me into getting a raise, and staying on, even working part-time through the first few months of my son’s new life. I almost fell for it. My boss sounded pathetic, and that’s always going to make me a sucker over someone yelling at me or telling me how I could be doing better and taking more responsibility for myself. He praised and flattered my ego. And, I was ready to move forward with staying on with my current employer part time. But then, he went on vacation, and suddenly all of the reasons I don’t want to continue to work for a company made themselves manifest. All of the little cooks in the kitchen with their little fiefdoms thinking they know what’s best to make the company successful–and all of them telling me to shut up and just push out the emails.
And I realized that I was allowing, yet again, somebody else to make me stray from my dreams. The last phone call I had with my dad certainly didn’t help, either. He was his usual overly cautious self, clearly skeptical about my decision to go freelance right before the birth of my first son.
I had this pithy insight just now while walking the dog as to why things were so different after college.
The milestones of completing grades and various blocks of grades were all practically set in stone. The milestones of what happened after getting the Bachelor’s degree were not, although they appeared deceptively so at first. I think I had in my head, unshakeably and persistent even after the notion was refuted time and again, that finding my wife was just going to happen–ideally, some fall or spring morning on the campus quad, I would just bump into her and it would be effortless. Fate would bring us together, and I would hit the mileston of marriage within two-three years after college, after hitting the milestone of the summer European backpacking vacation and the internship at a creative agency in NY or SF.
I became desperate in my quicksand of reality when I realized that such milestones weren’t going to just happen, and they weren’t complete givens the way finishing high school or college had been. I began to claw every which way and sink even further, faster, as I tried to get out and get back on some semblance of a track.
I think I have never even completely faced the fact of how comforting it has been to finally meet my wife, and again be hitting “set in stone” milestones, like engagement, marriage, first home together, and now first child. I also think that I am utterly bewildered as to what my own personal milestones will look like between now and the age of retirement. For, aside from the inevitable ones that will come with the raising of the child or children, everything else is still up to me.
If I don’t figure out how to set a hard milestone that is truly etched in stone around completing this novel, it will never get written. And, I honestly have no idea how to do it. I can create schedule-filled spreadsheets that look like GANT charts with the best of them for how I should spend my time to complete it, but I can also tell you that I will stop opening the spreadsheets within three days, and it will all go out the window. I have never developed the ability to formulate a persistent belief in my head that completing a project I create for myself is just as inevitable as the ones that life and other people create for me.
The truth is, I have already had so many days over the past week where I’ve veered off course. I’ve started to place the mostly unrealistic idea of me creating my own business out of my freelance work as top billing in my mind. I’ve even flirted around with the thought that maybe I wasn’t “made” to write this novel, but I should be teaching myself to play piano or getting back into painting with a fully serious notion that I will one day be good enough to have a gallery opening. Thankfully, I haven’t gone so far as to descend into the arena of pretending that I could and should learn computer programming skills and get a high paying job as a Python/Hadoop big data wizard at some financial company.
But, I’ve definitely had more than a few moments where I’ve allowed the sense of the inevitability of the birth of the novel to almost completely fade away.
The problem is one that I’ll attempt to analyze in further detail.
1. I relied almost exclusively on external events and other people to dictate what I was supposed to be doing with my time, from the age of 0-22.
2. Even after getting some indication that I needed to take my own initiative to derive success in life, the picture wasn’t completely and painfully clear until about the end of 2001–and I was now 25 at this point.
3. Even then, the fact that I was now in the driver’s seat wasn’t enough–the mere existence of the fact didn’t enlighten me as to the HOW of changing myself to fit this new role.
4. Today, the words of others can still have more of an impact on what I do next than the words inside my own head. It is too easy to hear the naysayers more loudly and clearly, and make decisions that I hope will please and quiet them, than to actually produce a crystal clear voice, ie, my own true voice, letting myself constantly know that I am, in fact, a writer first and foremost when making any professional considerations.
It is a tough road to walk because I have never had my writing validated by others to a degree where I can write away without any doubt whatsoever as to the rightness of my undertaking. I can’t say for certain that I won’t die and leave behind a pile of words that history treats as the work of a writer manque or hobbyist writer, or even more terrible: a mere graphomaniac.
I’ve kept my writing mostly hidden in the workplace, only producing a professional blog entry or white paper when absolute necessity dictates it. At first, this was completely due to a fragile ego, and then it became a serious mission–to keep what I do in the temporary professional arena separate from my one day profession and true calling. I wanted my marketing and web design work to be no different than the series of odd jobs struggling writers of the past took on to make ends meet until they got their break. But now, things have come full circle, especially as young people without these kind of principles enter the workplace and gladly take on any writing or editing job thrown at them. Having my writing or creative input heavily critiqued or even worse, completely ignored, seems to sting my ego all the more. Having people fifteen years younger than me send me copy that I am told to shut up and cut and paste and send out is utterly unsatisfying.
I think that my opportunity to write as much as I would like, and dive into dozens of novels I need to read to get back into the groove of writing fiction, may be less available to me than I would like to think it will be. If my wife decides that she doesn’t really want to go back to work, then I’ll have to accept a full-time job doing this kind of work I’ve come to hate, but can make money doing. However, I also think that I’ve come to allow too many windows of free time to pass in states of ennui–drifting in and out of a nap or TV coma while pretending that I was meditating or researching American culture.
I like this under-explored notion of seeing the birth of my novel as being inevitable, so much to the point that the existence of it becomes as much due to my efforts as the existence of my own son will be. In other words, I plant the seed, I tend to the Muse who is nurturing the novel, but she does all of the work. I get the “baby’s room” ready–I prepare the way for the novel by researching the best editors to contact when you are completely unknown and take the time to reach out to them. But, at the end of the day, once the novel is birthed and released into the world, he is his own living thing apart from me, and only mine in the sense that he carries some of my DNA and ideas and beliefs.
As much as my parents raising me and teaching me things was about me being conditioned to be an acceptable mate for someone so that I could pass on the family DNA, so has been my conditioning and “training” in life for the moment when I am finally ready to seriously put forth a work that comes from the metaphorical loins of my mind. Perhaps that’s too much metaphor in the wrong direction.
But, I do want this to seem inevitable. I relish the idea of the inevitable. I think that I am often too easily caught up in creating situations for myself where I think: okay, this is it, from this moment henceforth, I will never again X, Y or Z. And then, I find myself backsliding, quitting, giving up and completely changing course. I remember that the initial reason for my volunteering on a political campaign was to give me something to put on my resume after I completed the prerequisite courses at the local community college and was filling out the applications to get into one of the top public policy schools for my master’s degree. This was back when I had just turned 30. But then, the undercurrents of life, plus the headiness of the political campaign, got the better of me, and I suddenly found myself being fired from my sales job I’d talked myself into at Ahmis, and making the tough decision not to schmooze with the friends of the candidate at a much later date after she inevitably lost (she was a Democrat running for statewide office in Texas).
I had completely lost site of taking the prerequisite classes at the community college, forgotten about the goal of getting the public policy degree, and suddenly, the only thing that seemed inevitable was that I would continue to fall in and out of love with the lady I was off and on dating, and I would hopefully find my way out of Ahmis but for good. In other words, there were no great milestones of inevitability ahead for me, but simply ones of hoping that the negative stuff in my life would eventually go away. I also made deals with God during that period, that if he would heal my mom of cancer, then I would stop some of my more unsavory vices. Of course, I couldn’t hold up my end of the bargain for more than a week, and I guess God decided not to hold up his end, either.
I’ve never had a stronger sense of inevitability about me walking away from any sort of appearance of having a career in Marketing or Sales, than the sense I have of it today. My vision of the legacy I leave behind is one where all of the years I worked for these companies and the non-profit will mostly be a side note to the substance of my life work. I have this sense that much of what has happened with web companies in the past twenty years is ephemeral to the nth degree, and yet so much of it seems to be the same rehashed thing on a new platform or device that everyone rushes to try. I understand that there is a solid shift in our way of living and thinking brought on by these technologies, and a few of them will be around in a hundred years if there is still civilization and an economy to support them. But, for me, the act of writing just feels more permanent and trustworthy than the act of designing a web page or creating a piece of marketing collateral or engaging with a new app or device. I have no pretensions about writing using old tech–for me, it’s whatever works. But, the act itself is now at least five thousand years old, if not many more years than that. The moment of seeing what was simply a thought in your head appear etched in some kind of physical medium is still a moment clothed in power, magic and mystery.
Nobody who thinks they knew me over the past twenty years would guess that I am such a traditionalist. The older I get, the more I love things that are classical and have held up to the test of human history and fads. I seek out books and stories that communicate universal truths–truths that I can still relate to today, and see men still relating to a hundred years from now. I have no idea how much of the new technology and trends of the past twenty years will be around at the start of next century. I couldn’t even begin to guess. But, I do know that any website or piece of marketing collateral I created will be long gone. Even stuff that was created last year is generally considered extremely old in my business. People crave everything that is brand new, because they want to be a part of something the way others were a part of past tech companies at the height of their success. It’s perfectly understandable, but it’s also damn tiresome. By the time I finally got a handle on making a decent website controlled entirely by DIVs, CSS and sitting on a 960 grid, responsive design was just a few years around the corner.
I can feel deep inside that I’ve reached that age where I really am becoming the old dog that doesn’t want to learn new tricks. Especially when the new tricks look a lot like the old tricks, but gussied up in new terminology and pretty new clothes. If I really had my way, I would go back to building websites to be so stripped down to just text and the occasional image, hand coded in kindergarten HTML, and missing any flash or pizzazz.
I’ve found that I probably use about 30% of my smart phone for what it’s worth. I use email and internet, and might download the occasional news or weather app. I would be quite content to simply placing a few bookmark icons on the home screen to sites if I could–if I wasn’t constantly bombarded with requests to download everyone’s useless app. I almost never text message, and only use the camera when I’m on vacation. I could get by on having a phone that had only the internet, text messaging and camera in addition to the phone itself, and not miss any of the other apps.
I wonder what all of these older Millennials will think when they turn 40, and the younger Millennials and kids from the next generation are up and coming with ideas for apps and technologies that they can’t or won’t keep up with? Naturally, a selection of them will do their best to pretend they aren’t getting old, and a fair number of them will probably just be lost altogether.
But, the area of being a traditionalist that I never really thought I would explore is the one that I think I need to examine the most. It has nothing to do with new vs. old technologies, or new vs. old morals and values, but it has more to do with the deep need to have life where I’m taken care of by my community, my family, my institutions, my expected milestones. When I turned 30, I began to get scared about never finding my wife, and never having children. Now that I’m almost 40, I’m terrified about being close to retirement age when they go off to college. Where I live now, my being out of sync with the expected milestones is even more keenly felt. In Austin, you could throw a stone and hit ten Peter Pans who were entering their forties and not married yet. In this small Texas town, I find that being 30 and not married with children is odd.
You have know idea how much I wish I could go back to college and join more of the clubs, and sing the fight song at more games, and attend my graduation ceremony. The feeling of always having missed out on something certainly didn’t start in college, but it always seems to land back on that time period when I start to have it strongly. Night after night I dream about being late for a class or test, or having missed out on most of the class throughout the semester, or I’m returning to college to finally complete my degree or get a “real” degree.
In part, I was utterly overwhelmed to the point of being catatonic when I started college. I was so terribly excited at all of the possible nights of partying, drinking, sex and epic college experiences, that I couldn’t really get myself together. I was feverish with anticipation at being in such a large city for the first time on my own (Murphy Falls had 2500 people when I graduated and Columbia has about 35000) — Columbia had a Mosque and an Asian food market. I might as well have been dropped into London or NYC for what it was worth. I spent a lot of time just wandering about town on my own, hoping to catch the eye of some girl, or stumble on to some kind of multicultural happening. In truth, I was utterly terrified and felt like I was a six year old dropped into a world of grownups.
In some ways, at least as social experiences were concerned, I probably was about six years old. I had never attended a school dance, and could only boast of two girlfriends, one of which had gotten semi-serious. I had never had to walk up to a group of guys and make them see that I could be a good, solid heterobuddy, or bro as they now say. I was 100% convinced that religion was going to get me nowhere, and alcohol was going to take me everywhere I wanted to be. So, I ignored my mom’s endless pleas to go to one of the church events where they were giving away free food to incoming freshman and offering something lame like a volleyball game or cookout. I was ready to be a man of the world, damnit, and I was certain that once I got a little drunk, the world would open up for me.
The idea of creating a hard milestone that I stick to, one that is wholly generated by myself, seems to be an utter impossibility. I can look back and see that any achievement I had while in school or at work, or the success of finding a wife and starting a family–all came from me deciding to stick with the program. But, the milestones were rigidly implanted in me from the outside at an early age. The inevitableness of marriage and children, of work after college and leaving a current workplace for a better opportunity comes with the territory of my culture. But, a hard goal like–I will run a marathon in one year from now, or I will be fluent in Spanish in one year, or I will publish my novel in one year–these are hard goals that remain on the surface and are easily run over by life itself.
In order for such a goal to take, I have to figure out how to plant it somewhere deep inside of me so that it feels inevitable. I think they got a lot wrong in that Inception movie, and one thing they really got wrong was that the idea had to be his idea in order for him to carry through with it. I tend to think for a lot of us, it’s just the opposite. We want to do something if it smacks of fate. If I know that it’s inevitable that I will publish a novel, then my habits and routines start to change to align with this inevitable thing. On days when the last thing I want to do is get up and write, or do the more important research to create believable characters and dialogue, if I am resigned to my task with a sense of fatalism on those days, then I will continue to work when I least feel like it.
At the very least, I am working to get rid of all the things that are terrible that I tend to feel are inevitable. Like, oh, it’s inevitable that I’m going to lose my temper, do that vice, find myself in another shit job pushing buttons. Same old same old. Why not create in my head a sense of fatalism about a bunch of good things? Well, it’s inevitable that I’m going to be rich in the next few years and have to live in a swank apartment overlooking Central Park. It’s inevitable that I’m going to be traveling a lot, and speaking to rooms packed with adoring fans. I better start getting ready for it, because it’s coming whether I want it to or not. Well, I guess I’m resigned to my bank account full of money, and all of the responsibility that comes with having to spend my money on good food, clothes, scotch, travel, etc.
Now, I realize that there is a potentially dangerous path that can be taken if I am not really aligning my every day actions to dovetail with the future state of being successful. In other words, I fall into an oft-repeated habit of spending money I don’t have because, “who cares, I’ll be rich enough to pay this credit card off ten times over here in a few months!” I guess there is a difference between living like success is one day inevitable and living like it already happened. If I’d attempted to run away from home at the age of 14 and live in a big city as if I already had my college degree and I was 22-23, I probably wouldn’t have been able to pull it off.
People tend to accept you as you are, but if you feel too much like an undeserving fraud, it will inevitably come through, and your actions won’t align with your words or with your body language.
I don’t want to believe in Time as an objective contsruct. I don’t want to believe that aging and death are inevitable. I’m not ready to yet. If Time is an objective contstruct, much the same as the table my foot is resting on, then why can’t it be traversed or circumvented in like fashion? I’m too old, though, to really believe that I could potentially go to bed tonight and wake up in a different time period of my own life, or somebody else’s life. I’ve never experienced even a hint of evidence that it could be so. But, I still hold a glimmer of hope somewhere in the back of my mind, in case there is a tiny possibility.
I have long since lost the kind of mystery and awe that comes with experiencing new things in the world. I hope to vicariously get some of this back when my newborn son arrives. I do have to wonder just exactly what God had in mind when he made the world the way he did. It can at turns seem utterly obvious, and then become confusing and frighteningly chaotic.