Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Street Scenes

Yesterday I was sitting in my (parents’) car at a stoplight on University a few blocks south of Broadway. A line of cars was crossing the intersection from my left. Just before the last one entered the intersection, a young black man on a bicycle (poppin’ a wheelie the whole time) crossed in front of the car. (It was an SUV or something like that.) The SUV screeched to a stop and the guy on the bike kept going, laughing like a hyena.

My immediate, vocal reaction was, “Whoa, he shoulda fuckin’ run that guy over.” Not a great thing to say, even to oneself, but that’s how pissed off I was. The SUV driver just saved his life, and he’s laughin’ his damn fool head off. Maybe he enjoys the adrenaline rush, because he clearly saw the SUV coming.

In the evening, I nearly got run over while using a crosswalk in Cedar-Riverside. As the car approached me, I put up my hands, hopped mostly out of the way and said, “Whoa, whoa!” The middle-aged lady at the wheel didn’t react much. I think she was embarrassed and ashamed, but maybe I’m just projecting, because that would be my reaction. I’m just glad I responded as quickly and forcefully as I did. It’s taken a long time to undo the middle school conditioning of pretending like nothing bothers me.

It made me sad to think the guy on the bike apparently places such little value on his own life. But I was still mad at him. That kind of behavior makes those of us who care feel like suckers. It’s like the panhandler conundrum: to give or not to give (a fuck). I googled it and found a The New York Times editorial citing Pope Francis’s advice.

He recommends giving, even if they use the money for alcohol. (Street drugs don’t seem to exist in the Pope’s world.) Whatever they buy, it will make them happy. He also says you must look them in the eye and touch their hands. That sounds good, but the money still presents a dilemma. If they use it to buy drugs and then die of an overdose, what then? Don’t you bear some responsibility for that?

Last week I got panhandled by a black guy outside Calhoun Square. (As Uptown has continued to gentrify, the number of panhandlers seems to have risen.) I looked him in the eye (like I usually do) and said, “Sorry.” He didn’t hear me, so I repeated it, just before opening a door to the mall. He acknowledged it and then added something like, “Ya don’t hafta frown at me just cuz I’m black.”

I turned around and glared at him for a moment as he walked away. “Yeah, thanks for callin’ me a fuckin’ racist,” I thought. “I’m sure black people just love gettin’ panhandled.” I know he was lashing out from despair, but it still sucked. There we were, sniping at each other, while the Fat Cats looked down from their penthouses and laughed.

Monday, November 13, 2017


Before I launch into another bitch sesh about my First World Problems, I’d just like to say how shallow and self-absorbed this feels. I should probably be lamenting the plight of the people who made my clothes, or the people we’re killing in Syria and Afghanistan and Somalia, etc., or whatever else is making Baby Jesus cry today. But I need to get this shit outta my system, and for some reason that means sharing it all with you.

I was able to stop for a minute today and relax. That might not sound like much, especially for someone with as much money in the bank as I have. But it was probably the most relaxed I’ve been since I moved in with my parents 8 years ago.

Since then, I’ve only had fleeting moments of real peace and tranquility. The other 99.9% of the time I’ve been suspended on tenterhooks of shame and anxiety. When you’ve been on tenterhooks for that long, you get used to it, but you also forget how it feels to be truly relaxed.

Out of self-preservation, I repressed the pain until it became background noise. I’ve been floating along on a cloud of ambivalence for years now. Because I was blocking the pain, the joy was blocked too. I didn’t take much pleasure or displeasure in anything. It’s getting better, but I’m still keeping the world at arm’s length most of the time.

This has resulted in "The Shadow Realm" effect, feeling like I’m not really a part of the world or that the world isn’t real. I thought I’d found my condition (by accident) online when I was looking up Adam Duritz of Counting Crows on Wikipedia. (I don’t remember why I was looking him up. I’m not a fan of theirs. I assure you my motives were benign.)

He apparently suffers from Depersonalization Disorder, which sounds a lot like “The Shadow Realm.” My last therapist called it “detachment.” It was a relief when she said that. I didn’t wanna have something serious, and I didn’t really wanna have that much in common with Adam Duritz. (Like I said, I’m not a fan, although I do like “Mr. Jones and Me.”)

I’m grateful for my material comfort and security. My parents have been great. But that only gets you so far. I still need friends. It’s taken me a long time to get to this point when I feel worthy of new friends again. So hopefully I can take advantage of that.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Space Princess

I’ve decided to take a stab at sci-fi. I’ve long had a wish to write a Hitchhiker’s Guide-type satire. I liked the Hitchhiker’s Guide series, but I thought I could do better. It may be a delusion of grandeur, but I think that’s usually what it takes to make great art. So, here goes:

The spires of Havamegnish City spiraled up to the sky. It was a gleaming pin cushion of silver from horizon to horizon, and somewhere amidst all the grandeur was a beautiful princess named Ambrosia Gentilicus. (Don’t ask me why they still have royalty in this galaxy. It’s a pretty backward galaxy. The whole idea of basing your government on heredity is ludicrous. But, hey, not every space-faring civilization follows the same path of political development. So deal. Besides, we all know who to blame for the persistence of this trope.)

So, anyway, this Princess Ambrosia- (Seriously, though, what is it with Star Wars having a princess and a queen in the movies? Why no princes or kings? I mean, maybe there are some in the books and video games and shit, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t any in the movies. What are you tryin’ to say, George? That women can only attain positions of authority through heredity? Do better, man. Do better. But I digress.) As I was saying, Princess Ambrosia was meandering through the back alleys of the galactic capital planet of Encendior. Seriously, that’s how big this Galactic Empire is. It takes a whole planet to run the darn thing.

But Princess Ambrosia was roaming around the ghetto, because that’s just the kinda girl she was. She liked slumming with the common folk, the Salt of the Earth. Not that she was a Woman of the People. No, far from it. But she liked getting her hands dirty sometimes just to remind herself she was alive.

She walked up to a door in the deepest, dankest, darkest back alley she could find. A video screen over the door flickered to life. A menacing, male face appeared with a crazy makeup job and no hair. Think Kratos from God of War. In the gruffest, scariest, deepest voice you’ve ever heard, he asked, “What’s the password?”

“The password is open the fucking door before I shove this phaser so far up your ass you’ll be sneezing rainbows.” Her voice had the cool calm and steely nerves of a street-smart hustler. She didn’t take shit offa nobody. She was super-sexy, but still tough enough to appeal to women.

The door slid open and the princess entered, just before the door slid shut again. She walked down the hallway. The walls were dirty, formerly white and bathed in fluorescent green.

That's all I've got so far. The problem is I don’t really care about the plot. I just wanna make jokes and write dialogue. That seems like it could be an impediment to writing fiction.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Video Game Memory Lane

Last year, they opened an arcade bar in Uptown called Up Down. (I think that’s pretty clever, but apparently it’s a chain, so I guess the neighborhood pun is a coincidence?) I’ve gone a few times, always solo. It’s one of the few places where I don’t feel super-self-conscious about being alone in public. (Actually, my self-consciousness about that has declined precipitously in the last few years, no doubt due to extensive, recent experience.)

The walls are covered with a collage of pop culture from the 80’s and 90’s: The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Eazy-E of N.W.A., the Ultimate Warrior (wrestler) and Suzanne Somers with the Thighmaster. It’s a delightful trip down Memory Lane for a child of the 90’s like me. The TV’s show pro wrestling and movies from the era, like Demolition Man, Ghostbusters and Independence Day.

I’ve never been very good at video games. Despite my pleas, my parents didn’t get me a video game console until I was a junior in high school. At that point, I was too old to get addicted. (The window of video game addiction is different for everyone, of course.) I just played sports games by myself, not finding anyone to play with until college, and even then it was rare. But my high school and college friends weren’t really into video games, which was just as well.

The game I’ve played the most at Up Down is probably R.B.I. Baseball. My best friend in elementary school had a Nintendo and regularly kicked my ass at that game in the late 80’s. It was hardly fair, of course, since he was a wily veteran and I was a rookie, but I still took it as a sign of my inferiority. He was happy to reinforce that notion, as were many of my peers.

It’s my own damn fault for being friends with the guy. There were nice guys I’d been friends with before him, but they weren’t cool like he was, and I needed cool friends so I wouldn’t feel so vulnerable to getting picked on. One of those nice friends had a well-to-do friend with a Nintendo and Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!

I was enthralled just watching them play. I’ve spent far more time watching other people play video games than playing them myself. This is a pastime I’ve indulged more recently on YouTube with Battlefield 1 and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. I generally prefer the voyeuristic aspect of video games to the participation. That must be why I’ve stuck with my first love: television.

Part of the reason I’d rather watch than play was my fear of failure. But that has faded as I’ve matured, so I’m more interested in having the controls in my hands now. Unfortunately, there hasn’t been anyone to watch me at Up Down. I actually got my name among the high scores on Super Sprint, but I think that was due to a glitch in the game. Even though I wasn’t winning every race, it let me play for like 45 minutes on 1 quarter.

Track & Field offers a surprisingly aerobic workout. You have to hit two buttons in alternation to run in the sprint, the javelin, the long jump and the hurdles. (That’s as far as I’ve gotten.) In order to beat the computer, you have to mash those buttons with seemingly superhuman speed. The javelin and long jump also require you to time your release or jump to the last possible moment before crossing the foul line. I remember playing that back in the day. At least now I can advance in a few events, even though I felt kinda lame pounding on the buttons like a lunatic all by myself.

Another favorite of mine is 1942 or 1943: The Battle of Midway. You’re an American fighter pilot fighting the Japanese in the Pacific during World War II. It’s basically you against the entire Imperial Japanese Navy, so you’ve got some weaponry at your disposal that isn’t historically accurate or, strictly speaking, real. I read up on this video game series on Wikipedia, because that’s what I do with my free time (i.e., make the most of it). In the course of my research, I had a startling realization: The people who made these games were Japanese.

Does it seem strange to anyone else that Japanese people made games in which their own ancestors are the Bad Guys? I mean, sure, I guess they were the Bad Guys of World War II, but they must’ve been tempted to make a game in which the Japanese were the Good Guys and call it something like Kamikaze: The Divine Wind.

Hell, we’ve already got a wildly successful video game franchise based on an alternate history in which the Nazis won World War II (Wolfenstein). Why don’t the Japanese get that treatment? The Nazis have an even worse reputation than the Imperial Japanese military. They’re considered the ultimate historical example of evil in the West.

So why no alternate-history video games for the Empire of Japan? It’s not like there are no apologists for Imperial Japan. They still have shrines to people whom the Chinese consider war criminals, although that seems a predictable response to Japan’s post-war status as an American client state.

Did you know the U.S. military wrote the Japanese constitution? It’s true! How would you feel about having another country set up the structure of your government and laws? I’d be pretty pissed. Sure, they did some really bad shit, but so did we. I think it would’ve been enough just to slip in that part about renouncing war forever (and never making video games in which you’re the Good Guys in World War II) and then let them handle the rest.

While in Hawai’i for my sister’s wedding, we went through an exhibit at Pearl Harbor about the history of U.S.-Japan relations. It started with Admiral Perry showing up in Edo Bay with 4 warships in 1853, one of the signature events of America’s “gunboat diplomacy” of the 19th Century. Japan had been shut off from the world for 250 years by an isolationist regime, but Perry was able to convince them to start trading with us.

The exhibit ended with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as though it had taken us almost a century to follow through on that initial threat. Upon reaching the end of the exhibit, I thought to myself, “Am I the only one who sees the connection between those two events? Am I only the one who can connect the dots?”

At the time, I thought I was one of the few who had made that connection. But now I think the creators of the exhibit probably had that somewhere in the back of their liberal, peacenik minds. What would’ve happened if we’d just left Japan alone? Would they have become one of the Bad Guys? Are we partly responsible for the atrocities they committed in World War II?

Sorry. That was a pretty long tangent. I usually try not to get too political on this, my personal blog. (For political shit, check out my other blog, Riding the Rubicon.)

Well, in conclusion, Up Down is a pretty cool place to kill some time and, if you’re a child of the 80’s or 90’s, take a jaunt down Memory Lane… if you dare!

Friday, October 6, 2017

Withdrawal Weekend

My sister, Theresa, invited me to visit her family to celebrate my 40th birthday. I enthusiastically took her up on it, as I hadn’t seen my 16-month-old nephew, Patrick, in almost 2 months and had started going into baby withdrawal. (I was never a baby person before, but since his birth I’ve become a bit baby-crazy, although I still don’t feel the need to reproduce.) It was also nice to get away and not hafta turn 40 at my parents’ house. They’ve been great, but that’s not really how I wanted to commemorate the Big 4-0.

Thanks to my unemployment, I was able to fly to South Bend, IN (directly) on Wed night and stay through the weekend. (Theresa’s husband, Craig, is a professor at Notre Dame, which also happens to be my dad’s alma mater.) I got in too late to see Patrick that first night, but I was up (late) the next morning to say hello. He was much chattier than the last time I saw him, which Theresa said had started just a few days before. There were very few recognizable words in his babble, but his tone was upbeat and endearing.

It took me until about the third day to really get back into “Best Uncle Ever” mode. (Theresa and Craig got a mug conferring me with that title.) I think it was his growth that threw me off. The little baby I once knew was now fully a babbling toddler whose demands were clearer and stronger. Most of the time he’s a darling, but sometimes, like most kids, he can be a handful.

I played with him quite a bit on Thursday and Friday. Theresa works from home, so she took care of the essentials and when Paddy wanted his mom, which was quite often. But after a while he’d bring me books to read and climb into my lap, which was great, obviously. Unfortunately, his Elmo book has become a gateway drug for TV. Reading it made him want to watch The Furchester Hotel, an Elmo vehicle on Netflix that they let him watch. He turned on the TV once on his own, and, after watching a few minutes of another PBS show, Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, in rapt wonder, I turned it off, which sent him into a crying jag.

He has a lot of toys and books. By the end of each day, the living room was a mess and, after putting him to bed, we’d clean it up. He also has a play area in the basement. There are 2 balls that light up when bounced, and he threw those around the room for a long time. With most of the basement lights off, it looked like a mini-rave. There’s also a table with buttons that make noises and play songs. He hit the buttons in rapid succession, before the songs could finish, as if he were an EDM DJ. It was like his own little dance club down there.

Friday was my birthday, so Theresa picked up a cake (chocolate with chocolate frosting, natch) and balloons, which Paddy loved, grilled up some steaks and asparagus, and we had a delightful dinner. After Patrick had retired, we stayed up late talking politics and jobs. I laughed harder than I had in a long time, so hard that I fell into a few coughing fits. It wasn’t just the hilarity of my companions, but being more relaxed than I’d been in a long time.

I should mention that “Paddy” is my nickname for him. (I wanted to double-down and whip out “Paddycakes” for special occasions, but then I heard about the new indie film Patti Cake$ and thought better of it.) His parents call him “P” or “Mr. P.” Theresa said she doesn’t like “Paddy” and has apparently managed to break Craig of the habit of calling him that. But he’s gonna need something credible for the playground, and I don’t think “P” is gonna cut it. It could, but that’s not usually how the playground, at least for boys, works. Granted, “Paddy” sounds just like “Patty,” a far more common girl’s nickname, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Besides, he’s not old enough to go by “Pat” yet.

There’s another option, of course, which would be to just go by “Patrick.” But that’s a rare situation for boys, and it seems like all boys who go by their given name have something wrong with them. Either they’re nerds or wusses or upper-class twits.

Moms have something against nicknames for their sons, it seems. My mom didn’t like calling me “Mickey.” She was afraid I’d get picked on for having the same name as Mickey Mouse (which only happened once, as I recall). My friend named her son “Thomas” and refused to call him “Tom” or “Tommy.” How ya gonna call a baby “Thomas”? It’s not like he’s the Dauphin.

I discussed this with my Aunt Kate, and she thinks moms are very attached to the names they give their kids and generally loath to abbreviate them. You don’t know what you’re doing to your sons, ladies! Don’t saddle them with their given names! Unless you name them “John” or “Hal” or “Rutiger”, yer gonna hafta let go of that nomenclature, except for when you’re really mad at them.

I got up around 10:30 on Saturday. (But Indiana is on Eastern time, so it's not as bad as it sounds.) I had just enough time for breakfast before Theresa and I took Paddy to A-mazing Acres. It’s a farm out in the boonies with a bunch of children’s activities. As Craig and Theresa said, the place has no concept of liability, because they’ve taken virtually no safety measures. But that just makes it more magical.

The first stop was the Corn Box, which is like a ball pit but with corn kernels instead of balls. It took Paddy a while to grasp the concept, but he eventually crawled around in it. We checked out the mannequin-like bunnies in Bunnieville and a coop of slightly more active chickens. There was a (stationary) wooden train that he loved crawling through and the Apple Cannon, which you could use to fire at large pictures of insects. I didn’t know if these insects were the enemies of apples or what. One was a grasshopper, so I doubt it.

We managed to make it through one of the Corn Mazes, which was my first time going through one of those. Our final destination was the coup de grĂ¢ce: a huge inflatable trampoline in a barn. It was basically a bounce house without the house. Theresa went onto it with Paddy and made sure he didn’t get knocked over by the other kids. He had a ball, mainly watching the kids run and jump, but also crawling around and standing a little.

We were there for maybe an hour-and-a-half, although I’m sure to Paddy it seemed like no time at all. Through watching him play, I’ve come to realize the joy of watching kids have fun, especially when you know them. It feels stronger than the joy I felt playing as a kid, which was quite strong.

I think it’s because I’ve reestablished an emotional link to the joy of my childhood, free of the baggage of adolescence. It has unlocked my generosity. Now I get more joy from giving than receiving. I can once again draw on the deep well of love that my family gave me. I no longer need to be an emotional miser. I have care to spare.

The weekend took a slight downward turn when we returned from A-mazing Acres. I started feeling dizzy, and I knew why. I’d forgotten to pack my paroxetine (better known as Paxil, an anti-anxiety, anti-depression medication). Since I’d be going 4 days without my meds, I figured I’d experience symptoms of withdrawal at some point.

I lay down on my bed for an hour, which renewed my energy a bit, but didn’t diminish the dizziness once I got up. I joined the fam in the living room. Craig had been tailgating with some co-workers and friends. He had a ticket for the Notre Dame football game, but decided not to go. He got me a ticket too, but I wasn’t interested either.

He was sitting on the couch, watching college football on the TV. Theresa was also on the couch, working on her laptop. Patrick was shuttling between them and his toys, having a grand old time. Craig brought out a hunk of cheese and pepperoni slices. To Theresa’s consternation, he let Paddy take the cheese and gnaw away at it. Internally, I usually side with Theresa in their parenting disputes, but I try not to insert myself. My sister and I are more cautious than Craig. It’s a classic Midwesterners-vs.-Australians situation.

Paddy looked very cute carrying around the hunk o’ cheese and gnawing on it. Then he got his hands on the cheese cutter and tried slicing the hunk. He was surprisingly successful, but it was worrying to see him handle such a sharp object.

Three friends of theirs who were in town for the game came over that evening to hang out on the patio. The woman in the group wanted to sing Paddy a Polish song as a lullaby, so she went upstairs to his bedroom when Craig was getting him ready for bed. I was too out-of-it and dizzy to socialize extensively with strangers, so I went down to the basement and watched the first few episodes of Garfunkel and Oates on Netflix. They were quite good.

My dizziness continued on Sunday. Theresa, Patrick and I went out for brunch. Theresa’s first choice, the American House of Pancakes or something, looked busy, so we went to Perkin’s instead. We were seated in a high-traffic area, and people kept squeezing by Paddy’s high chair. He’s an avid people-watcher, so that kept him distracted for a while. But the food took a while to arrive. Theresa had to go to the entertainment of last resort: the Elmo videos on her phone. Once the food arrived, he was fine, chowing down on the bits of Theresa’s meal she gave him and people-watching.

By the time we got back home, there was only an hour left before I had to be at the airport. We spent it in the backyard. Patrick has always been enamored of the outdoors. Theresa took some pictures of us, but he wouldn’t sit still long enough to get a really good one.

To my surprise, I was getting choked up, to a degree that I hadn’t in at least a decade. My emotions intensified on the car ride to the airport, while playing with Paddy in the backseat, and I alerted Theresa to my state. She assured me that I could always FaceTime with her and Paddy and we’d be seeing each other again soon. I explained that it had more to do with the fact that I haven’t had a really good cry since starting middle school. A lot of the sadness and tears of the intervening 27 years had built up. I told her I’d been trying to cry for years.

“So this is a good thing?” She asked. “Yeah,” I answered. It felt good, but it also felt really awkward and embarrassing, like the way some men (John Boehner, for instance) have of crying that makes you want to prohibit all men from crying in public. As I told Theresa, I was rusty. When we got to the airport, she proposed a group hug. Patrick has recently learned to hug, but I couldn’t tell if he joined in. I held him for a while and kissed him repeatedly on the temple. He seemed to enjoy it, because he didn’t move. Also, Patrick loves to rub heads, so he was probably enjoying the experience on that level too.

I waved goodbye and proceeded into the (small) terminal. My emotions were still exposed, but it still felt good, even though I was reluctant to exhibit these feelings in public. I approached the breaking point a few times, but I wasn’t able to go into a full-fledged bout of crying. In the line at the ticket counter was a man with a military tote bag and a group of people seeing him off. Some of them were misty-eyed, and it seemed like other people in and around the line were too.

It felt like an emotional breakthrough. I’m not sure how much of it had to do with the Paxil withdrawal. But I’d hoped to open up to Craig and Theresa that weekend anyway, so it wasn’t a total shock. Being around Paddy may have been the real trigger, stemming from the aforementioned reestablished emotional link to my childhood.

I think I fell so hard for Paddy because of his innocence (and his super-cuteness). I’d come to think of Life as a long, slow march from Cuteness to Non-cuteness, or, put another way, from Innocence to Guilt, or at least Complicity. It seemed like each year brought another moral compromise. I thought of him as a chance to start over. Maybe my life had gone horribly off-track, but I could still steer Patrick away from the rocks on which my ship ran aground.

But mine is no longer the story of the prodigal son. My personal narrative is now one of redemption. All of my hardships have been justified (for now). I seem to be a lot closer to being the person I want to be. Even though there are sure to be more twists and turns, I may finally have the emotional resilience not to lose the plot.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Growing from an Artist into a Person

The main problem with "funemployment" is staring into the existential void every day, that bottomless abyss where my job used to be. I’ve mostly bought into our cultural programming that says one’s job is the primary source of one’s self-worth. Therefore, each jobless day becomes a quest to justify my existence for another 24 hours.

The first time I tried to escape CorpWorld, in 2008, I thought I could write my way out, so I worked (hard) on my writing almost every day. But I failed in that endeavor. Of course, I wrote a sketch comedy revue for the Fringe Festival, so the odds of hitting the big time were minuscule to begin with.

I’m still writing, but I’ve been starting my daily session a few hours later in the afternoon this time around, and it’s a much harder slog than it used to be. Although I’m trying to write essays now, which are a lot harder for me than sketches. So maybe I should cut myself some slack.

At some point between then and now, I lost faith that my artistic genius would save me from the fate that befalls most people, namely, having to work boring, everyday, run-of-the-mill jobs. That precipitated a crisis, because I could no longer discount the present.

I could no longer convince myself that the shittiness of today would be redeemed by a glorious tomorrow in which I had my dream job, acting as a vessel of the Universal Soul, delivering The Eternal Truth to the world by way of comedy sketches, sitcoms and/or films. I had to find work in the meantime that actually provided meaning (and money).

This revelation was facilitated by the tightening job market, which refused to provide me with the kind of easy data-entry gigs I found in the 2000’s. The new meaningless corporate jobs were taking up more and more of my brain and, more important, my emotional bandwidth. I couldn’t just plug into music or podcasts and space out all day. I actually had to give kind of a fuck, and that wasn’t what I was looking for in a 9-to-5.

At the same time, I had moved in with my parents, which, ironically, gave me less license to be immature. Somehow, lazing around all day watching TV seemed even more wasteful, lazy and juvenile with my parents around.

It became more difficult to justify these “quirks” as the typical growing pains of an artist when my artistic career was virtually nonexistent. My immaturity was also losing a lot of its sheen. Artists have to remain childlike in order to be creative, staying open to the wonder and absurdities of life. But, by this point, I had become more childish than childlike.

I doubt my immaturity was the reason my friends drifted away. (I tended to be my least immature around them.) But I had to accept that, if I wanted things to improve, I would have to grow up. I couldn’t just hide behind my artistic-ness or the tragedy of my friends’ abandonment anymore.

I’d always thought of myself as a Good Person, but I began to realize that I hadn’t done much lately to justify that belief. So I started behaving better and stopped calculating actions just to benefit me. I realized a Good Person wouldn’t only be friendly with people he thought could provide something for him. A Good Person would be friendly with everyone. I didn’t realize how much of my old Good Person had been lost in adolescence. (I also may be idealizing my boyhood self just a bit.)

Instead of blaming my parents for my adolescence and my current predicament (which seem inextricably linked), I became grateful for their support. Instead of harping on the shittiness of my various jobs, I appreciated the benefits, such as exercise, human contact, sense of purpose or cool co-workers, depending on what each job offered.

Because of that gratitude, I can feel a really amazing joy now in being an uncle and sharing that experience with my family, the people who continue to stand by me even though I’ve often been a pretty big asshole to them. And that’s something no amount of money or professional success can provide.

Monday, September 11, 2017

After the Flood

By any conventional measure, I’m a huge loser. I’m 39 and have been living with my parents for almost 8 years. I haven’t gotten laid in 7 years (although, frankly, I’m impressed that I managed to get laid at all after moving back home). In that time, I’ve had 2 or 3 dates. I’m a clerical worker with a degree in English. I have one friend, that is, one person I could make plans with IRL ("in real life" for all you olds).

But even now that I’m back in the ranks of the unemployed, I don’t feel ashamed like I used to. It helps that I was let go from this job instead of quitting. Also, I realized that I shouldn’t be shamed by the conventions of our society, because it’s a really messed-up society. But the real reason I’m not ashamed anymore is because I finally feel like an adult and a Good Person again.

Back in late October of 2009, when I moved in with my parents, I was in a tight spot. My cousin was moving back to Chicago after a year of being my roommate. My bank account was empty after bailing on a shitty temp job a few months before. And my friends were virtually nonexistent after drifting away over the previous few years.

I’d had enough of mainstream society. The plan was to find an intentional community (i.e., commune) where I could live in harmony with Nature and also have friends I could count on. My parents’ house was supposed to be just a waystation in that transition.

I spent a week at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage in remote NE Missouri in the spring of 2010. The people there felt like kindred spirits, but my anxiety flared up. I thought if I chose to stay there I would have to spend the rest of my life there. It was a dumb thought, but the reality was I felt very insecure, and the idea of spending any significant amount of time with strangers was terrifying. I needed to unburden myself totally of the years of pain that had built up, but I didn’t know in whom I could confide.

My parents were the only ones I had any faith in, so I stayed with them and returned to the corporate world. But I didn’t have enough faith to fully unburden myself to them, and I resented them for it. My anger toward them grew. I hung out with a few people, but they weren’t the people I wanted to hang out with, so I wasn't open to everything they had to offer.

I moved out in 2011, but that lasted about 2 ½ weeks. It was a house near Uptown Minneapolis, the neighborhood I’d previously lived in. There were 4 other residents, plus a dog that I didn’t remember the landlord mentioning [considering my brain was on the fritz, I might’ve forgotten, although it’s not something I would’ve forgotten in the old days (I’m not a dog person.)], and one resident’s 2 kids spent their weekends there. (I was sure the landlord hadn’t mentioned that.)

Notwithstanding those mitigating circumstances, I clearly wasn’t in the right head-space to handle roommates, certainly not 4. One woman was in NORML and asked if I wanted to smoke up (out? blaze up? I’m getting old.) with her on a weekend afternoon. I remember thinking, “No, I wanna get shit done.” She said not all varieties of marijuana will make one tired. Even so, my college experiences with pot had left me groggy and giggly. I didn’t find it enlightening; it didn’t open my Third Eye. (Or maybe I’m just Third Eye Blind! Hey, hey! A 90’s joke!)

There was a guy in his early 40’s who was quite friendly. He had just gotten in “the best shape of his life” on P90X. He definitely looked like an “after” picture. A woman about a decade younger spent many evenings with him, but he insisted they were not romantically involved. I wasn’t sure who was more delusional: she or him.

What convinced me to leave was the loud movie-watching (You thought I was gonna say “love-making,” didn’t you? Well, he was with a lady, so I’ll award a half-point.) in the bedroom next to mine. I knocked on the guy’s door twice one evening to turn it down, and he did, but it still kept me up. I moved out shortly thereafter, believing I wasn’t yet ready to be on my own again.

This gave me a better appreciation for my parents. I’d learned that there were worse places to live than home. My gratitude for them grew. My corporate job, however, was grinding me down, and I started getting anxiety (or panic) attacks, which I’d never really had before. I finally threw in the towel in March 2014.

(I’ve noticed a seasonal pattern in my mood. March tends to be emotionally fraught. Maybe that’s what Shakespeare meant by “Beware the Ides of March.” But I doubt it. Also, my anxiety seems to peak every 3 years, going back at least to ‘02. I can even remember getting my first taste of severe anxiety in the spring of ’99 as a junior in college. I thought it was just fear of the future.)

This brought me to my emotional nadir. For the next 2 months, I haunted Uptown, floating from the gym, to the coffee shop, to a restaurant and often to a movie, freakishly alone and self-consciously failing at Life. (Even remembering those feelings now is difficult. I’m afraid of getting sucked back into that vortex.) My parents were going on a Rhine river cruise that June, and the thought of being utterly alone for 2 weeks was horrifying.

With 2 weeks to go until their departure, I confessed my terror to them. They snapped into action and booked me a spot on their trip. Immediately, my anxiety ebbed. I think it was seeing them go to such extreme lengths (fiscally) to try and help me. But I also started taking medication after being extremely resistant to the idea for years. Such was the depth of my desperation.

The river cruise was very cool. (It deserves an essay of its own.) I started feeling better, esp. when the summer ended. (I’ve never been a fan of that season.) I got a part-time job shoveling snow for seniors. It was sporadic. I only worked after significant snowfalls. But that morphed into a lawn-mowing job in the summer (of 2015), which gave me about a dozen hours of work per week.

The work was physically demanding in the heat and mostly solitary, except for some chit-chat with my clients. Unfortunately, I had to quit when my back wouldn’t allow me to lift the mower into and out of my parents’ Honda Accord anymore. That sent me into another tailspin. I had to get back on the medication, which I’d come off of a month or two before.

I was alone for 2 weeks that August when my parents went on vacation. I spent a lot of time with my 99-year-old neighbor Harry, the only person I could find who was as desperate for companionship as I was. That helped me through, but it was still a rough patch, which for some reason got rougher when my parents returned.

I muddled through the fall and winter, attending local storytelling and spoken-word shows, StorySlamMN!, The Encyclopedia Show and The Moth, performing a few times. During the summers, I was volunteering with The Food Group. During the non-growing seasons, I was volunteering with Land Stewardship Project as an envelope-stuffer and data-entry dude. This helped give me a sense of purpose and brought me in contact with a bunch of cool folks. But I didn’t form any strong friendships in the sense of hanging out regularly, which is what I was looking for (in addition to networking, I guess).

What started to break me out of the rut was going to Oaxaca, Mexico in March ’16 with a Land Stewardship Project delegation coordinated by Witness for Peace. (I documented my personal experience of the trip thoroughly on this blog.) That gave me the confidence to try working at Goodwill, taking in donations through the drive-thru.

After just over a month there, I gave my two-weeks’ notice. It was a much more stressful job than I’d expected, and I was almost solely dealing with upper-middle-class folks (“my people,” basically) donating their extra stuff instead of dealing with people in need. But it was the first time I’d ever given two-weeks’ notice instead of quitting on the spot, and I served out the full term in spite of an extremely strong temptation to walk out many times.

That’s when my recovery actually went into overdrive, because I became an uncle. Technically, I became an uncle 3 months before, but August ’16 was when I finally met the little guy. His name is Patrick, and he is quite possibly the cutest nephew in the world (not least because he resembles his uncle).

Through Patrick, I’ve rediscovered the tenderness I used to have that was (mostly verbally) beaten out of me in adolescence. The key was expressing that affection in front of my parents and sister. They were the ones I’d withheld it from the most. By breaking down that barrier, I’ve reconnected with emotions I’d been holding back since I started middle school over 25 years ago.

Last October, I snagged a corporate temp job at a large financial company in downtown St. Paul. My co-workers were very nice and funny. I got over my fear of conducting business over the phone, making many calls each week and actually coming to enjoy it. I was able to appreciate the courtesy and consideration of the people on the other end of the line, instead of focusing on the bad or awkward calls. (I was also lucky: Unpleasant interactions were rare.)

The fact that it came to an abrupt, unflattering end after 10 months was distressing, but I’ve managed to hold it together, even enjoying the downtime to work out and write. I think that’s a result of “growing up.” The concept of maturity is nebulous, so I’m going to try and elucidate what I mean. In this case, it means I’ve taken responsibility for my situation and stopped blaming my parents, my friends and society in general. This doesn’t mean that those people and outside forces don’t bear any responsibility for my situation, just that, if I want a better situation, it’s ultimately up to me to make the changes necessary to bring that about. It’s a utilitarian conception of self-determination. (Actually, now that I’ve articulated it, it doesn’t seem that nebulous.)

For the last 8 years I’ve been trying to hold back an ocean of shame. Living with your parents is the ultimate failure of middle-class American life. That’s rock bottom. The mental effort of walling off the shame center of my brain chopped and screwed my memory and often made me poor company: anxious, peevish, distracted.

I didn’t think I could handle being inundated with all that shame. I didn’t think there was any (available) person who could comfort or guide me through that process. My best friends had gone, and I didn’t trust my parents to see me through that flood. I figured I could just hold it off until I moved out and got back on my feet again.

But my jobs were too stressful to allow me a sense of security; I didn’t think I could keep them long-term. And my attempts to make new friends came up empty, leaving me without the social network I thought I needed to make it in the world. I had to take a hard look in the mirror and see what I was doing wrong. I realized that it wasn’t living with my parents that made me feel immature, but the fact that I was acting like a teenager (or “failson,” for fellow listeners of Chapo Trap House).

I’ve come so far in repairing my relationship with my parents and developing gratitude for what I have instead of focusing on what I don’t, that I don’t really feel like a loser anymore. Sure, the waves of shame still lap at my feet now and then, but I think I’ve earned my place in the world as an adult and a Good Person.