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Thursday, August 17, 2017

Le Petit Mort (Part II)

Growing Old Before You Grow Up

I’ve never really quite fit in with my surroundings. It can probably be attributed to a fair extent to being exiled from my homeland at an early age, but late enough that I had already passed the cut-off for the establishment of in-groups. When we left, I had just started becoming aware of concepts like Belonging and Friendship, and by the time we settled in Santa Fe, most of the kids my age had already established their sense of cultural inclusion. So a major psychological challenge I’ve faced from the days of my earliest memories has centered on trying to manufacture a sense of fitting in, which most people develop from scratch on the foundation of their geographical home. I’ve never had one of those. In fact, around the time most kids start subconsciously laying the groundwork for things like Purpose and Confidence – a strong sense of one’s “place in the world” – my family moved between four or five different countries on three continents every 3 to 15 months for about three years.

At the time, it wasn’t a big deal. I cried a fair amount, but I don’t remember being genuinely sad about the loss of comfort zone for more than the few days leading up to and following an international journey. It’s only now, over two decades later, that I realize how fundamentally my childhood differed from just about everyone else I know. While I had the loving support of my nuclear family everywhere I went, none of the relationships I developed from age 4 to 7 lasted more than a year or so. The effect of this was two-fold, and is still perceptible in me today: I got really good at making friends quickly, and I developed a certain protective emotional callous to keep me from missing anyone too much when we inevitably severed ties upon my moving. I’ve further perpetuated the patterns of my early to middle childhood by, now of my own accord, moving at least every 18 months for the last 10 years. As a result, my twenties have made me into something a few friends and I joked was best described as a Modern American Nomad.

But as my twenties draw to a close, and more of my friends – now strewn about the country – are getting married, settling down, procreating and buying property, I’m starting to feel the alienation brought on by my lifestyle more persistently and intensely. Folks my age are making more long term plans, and being less spontaneous. They’re hedging their bets, anticipating fewer major lifestyle changes, from place of residence, to profession, to hair styles. Maybe that’s just what happens when your generation starts sliding into their 30s, but despite feeling my age as much as anyone in this position, I’m experiencing a striking dissonance between the lifestyle I’m drawn to establishing, and everything I know about myself as a person to date.

Call it a crisis of identity. I can’t keep living like I’m 23. But I don’t know any other mode of being.

The Return of Jenny Luna’s Couch

Daniel and I have known each other since preschool. We met, and can both remember playing as friends, at an earlier date than either of us can attest to my having a functional command of the English language. We then didn’t see each other for 12 years, and re-established what has since been a lasting friendship in a matter of weeks. The last time I wrote about Denver, he came into the story at the end, as a sort of psychic anchor, to reel me back in as a combination of alcohol, pot smoke, and despondency over the death and commercialization of the only culture I ever considered my own threatened to send me over the edge of reason. And honestly, that pretty well describes most of his role in my life to date.

The first month or so I lived in Denver, I stayed with his wife, Liz, in their basement, while Daniel was in Africa, studying the Zimbabwean traditional music of the mbria – a lifelong passion of his. I never considered it before, but we seem to share this rare trait: a calling to a form of expression that is not native to our culture; I in what is essentially a foreign language, and he in a musical style from halfway around the world. We both discovered them early in life, and both used them as safe harbor in difficult portions of our burgeoning adulthoods. And they’ve both seeped into, if not largely formed our perception of the world around us. Many a night have we sat up on some porch, deck, or patio, staring into the darkness and sharing observations on the many peculiar intricacies of living a human life from a first-person perspective in the sort of universe in which we find ourselves every morning. You can’t have those kinds of conversations with everybody. It’s rarer still when you can communicate what’s beautiful and integrally connected to the fundamental hum of existence about your passion to someone who doesn’t share it. What’s truly special is when that happens organically without either party doing it on purpose. I only have a few similar friendships in my life, but it’s something I would find totally heartbreaking if every human didn’t get to experience at least once in their lives (and some don’t).

We had one such evening the night Daniel came back from Zimbabwe. In the weeks before, Liz and I had played the prodigal roommate game, where our opposing schedules brought us into contact for about an hour or two a day, if that, despite the tight quarters of their home. I was usually preparing dinner and aiming at sleep by the time she got home, and long at work when she got up in the morning. But the night Daniel came back was my “Friday,” and she had taken the day off work, so the three of us found ourselves sitting on the back porch, as the midsummer sun sank behind the houses on the other side of the alley, watching bees circle and prod the massive bush of Datura, as it bloomed in the deepening shade. If you pay close attention, and anticipate the timing right, you can watch them *pop* open as they unfurl past the point of tension. If you’re standing close enough, you can catch a whiff of sweet aroma, which, perhaps just through the power of suggestion, almost hints at the plant’s dangerously psychotropic effects.

The specifics of the conversation escape me now, but I remember it feeling like a continuation of another similar night, months earlier, when I was visiting Denver for a few days, to see if I could live here, and suss out if the romantic impetus that drew me here was substantive enough to make the move a wise decision. On that occasion, we sat on the porch much later, and hashed back over long suppressed emotional geysers we'd both been bottling up for ironically the same reason: we were convinced our fears and discomforts were unique. Turns out they’re just different brands of the same internally manufactured genetic poison. We just happen to be at the point in our lives where we’re starting to retrospectively understand the faults in our parents that were hidden from us, by starting to understand our own underlying social and psychological shortcomings. It’s easy to throw around the word Depression like everyone will understand what you mean, but it’s something else entirely to try to describe to someone else the particular shades of terror it teaches you to paint in your own mind. If it weren’t for friends like Daniel (and Liz, and Chelsey, and there are at this point in my life dozens of people, whom I would be terrified to list for fear of forgetting a few, and also at risk of boring the few readers who don’t know me personally), and the perspective they’ve bestowed upon me, both by sharing their most intimate traumas, and by allowing me to verbalize mine (sometimes you gotta say shit in order to write it down), it’s hard to imagine life being an exercise I’d want to take part in. It’s the closest thing I’ve ever known to “home.”

We have a running joke, Daniel and I, from years ago, at a party at Jenny Luna’s house, where we found ourselves on her couch, listening to Tinariwen. And it suddenly became clear to us both, in our decelerated mental state, that on some cosmic level, we always had been and would always be sitting on Jenny Luna’s couch, listening to Tinariwen. These porch evenings were just a continuation of that. I can’t attest precisely to which memories come from when, but it all happened under similar circumstances and in the same setting, so the timing is about as relevant as the color of Jenny Luna’s couch. I remember marveling, as I often do, at what past versions of us would think and say if they knew of our present situation. We agreed younger versions of ourselves would probably be proud and excited by all the right things – the accomplishments, the decisions of gravity that moved the plot along – while still harboring a certain self-righteous indignation over the inevitable side-effects of becoming functional adults. Daniel and Liz bought their house shortly after getting married a year ago. They aren’t what I’d call yuppies, but they’re now the leading spear-tip of gentrification in their neighborhood. They’re not looking to drive up prices and chase away the mostly Black and Hispanic families that have lived here for the last 50 years and longer. But the house was in their price range then, and has only risen in value since. Our teenage selves would be furious. We can dismiss that as jealousy, but it still smarts.

They chose the neighborhood because it’s not gentrified and trendy. But at the same time, there’s no escaping the inevitability of rising property values, and everything that comes with them. It’s sort of like Santa Fe, where Daniel and I grew up. The majority of people are living right above the poverty line, in that uncomfortable zone of marginal respectability that 30 years ago was called the lower middle class. And just on the other side of an invisible line is the unflinching march of “progress.” In that way, it’s probably a lot like anywhere in America. The influx of money doesn’t always (or even, really often) bring jobs and opportunity to the existing members of a community. The legalization of recreational marijuana didn’t make everyone in Colorado a millionaire. It brought a bunch of millionaires to Colorado. And as demand for high value real estate rises, incentive to renovate, sterilize, and gentrify does as well. And with the “progress,” comes the washing away of everything that made an area homey, and friendly, and real. Those in the Denver and Boulder area who already owned most of everything were the ones that made the most lucrative investments when the pot boom became the real estate boom. They’re living the capitalist dream, but they’re doing it on the backs of those who have lived there for generations and never had the option of buying into that dream beyond three square meals and roof over their heads.

And the grim reality of this situation is that we’re part of that problem. Daniel and Liz moved here for a school/work combo opportunity Liz had at the University of Colorado. I moved here for love. None of us want to be contributing to the plight of those most affected by the influx of outsiders, but we are. Liz and Daniel have the added guilt trip of profiting from it by owning their house. Are we bad people? Do we deserve to be here? We’re not actively contributing to gentrification. We know the ugly side of it. But we’re caught up in a system. We have to live somewhere while “pursuing happiness,” as it were. Would the honorable thing be to get out of here and go somewhere else? Where? Wouldn’t we then be visiting the same imposition on the long term inhabitants of that area? Or in putting our heads down and joining the herd in the place of most profitable opportunity, are we simply behaving in the most natural, survivalist manner one can in a capitalist society?

Black Sheep

I was still grappling with these dilemmas the next day, when Liz invited Daniel’s two cousins and their spouses over for a BBQ. They hang out from time to time, maintaining a typically English, cordial closeness that, from what I gathered, isn’t far from what the relationship between their fathers had been like. The cousins are financially quite a bit better off than Daniel and Liz (and certainly me), and that made for an interesting evening, when juxtaposed with the discussion from the night before.

I won’t go into the detail I originally envisioned retelling this evening in as it was occurring. These aren’t bad people, but I feel like I’d have a hard time describing them without implying that. I just felt like I was talking to TV stereotypes; like they had just stepped off the set of Good Morning America. I suppose part of me feels like they are the sort of people who are responsible for a lot of the problems we have in our society, but I can’t put my finger on what about them I don’t like. It’s not their cars or their clothes that put me off. It’s not the visible pretentious disdain with which they surveyed Liz and Daniel’s modest living room. It’s not even the matching robots they got to rock their children to sleep, or the fact that one model has a feature where you can select the music it gyrates to from your phone… from the other room, if you prefer. I think more than anything it was the realization that they don’t see anything wrong with their lifestyle, and the fear that if I had that lifestyle I wouldn’t notice the difference either. It wasn’t the European vacations they were planning or reminiscing about, or the fact that their family’s affluence allowed them the luxury of pursuing jobs they love and enjoy, as opposed to just something to keep the lights on. It was the fact that they didn’t perceive any of those things as luxuries and seemingly couldn’t conceive of the notion that most people don’t live like that.

Towards the end of the evening, upon consuming the beer after what should probably have been my last, I caught myself mocking one of these people in a way that was just subtle enough I might have gotten away with it. It happened when the subject of Socialized Medicine came up, and he scoffed incredulously at the notion that any investment in public healthcare is a slippery slope to Communism. I replied, “Well, if I had the capital, I’d probably be a Capitalist, too…”

He didn’t laugh, so I laughed loudly and excused myself.

But as I said, the thing that bothered me most about the evening was the reminder of what I would possibly be like given the opportunity. Like the white, cis, hetero, male privilege I was born with somehow wasn’t enough, and a part of me was as self-loathingly jealous of these people who let their iPhones comfort their children to sleep as 17 year old Daniel would have been at his present shrewd real estate investment.

We’re trapped in this moment, on the cusp of a decision we’re making unconsciously with every morning that we wake up and perpetuate the circumstances we set out the day prior. At the same time, we’re becoming our parents by and through the very hesitation we have in becoming like everyone else in our parents’ generation, and now our own. We were raised by people who never completely grew up in small ways, just so they could keep feeling alive. We don’t want to walk their same paths, but are starting to recognize that their fatal flaws were possibly the roots of what made them our heroes.

And this, as I mentioned in Part I, is another example of moving to Denver being a perfect geographical and socio-economic analog for turning 30. Because a part of me feels like it’s dying, and the rest is trying to figure out how to go on living after it dies.

Part Three will likely cover, but possibly only allude to:

  • Tips for moving when you just want to sleep
  • Further self-righteous and hypocritical outbursts regarding money
  • Dying of thirst, and other American pass-times
  • The trouble with complaining about quality of life in a world full of nuclear bombs and Nazis