Sundance 2017

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I’m at Sundance again this year. The annual tradition that is as close to a college reunion as I’ve ever had in my life. I could write pages on the effect that the gathering has on my psyche: the calming, medicative jealousy of a life not lived.

The problem is that the movies I’ve chosen this time have brought me a costly type of introspection. Whether fictional or biopic, I’ve found myself resonating with the most depressing characters. So many drunk reclusive writers! It’s like a genre unto itself. Seeing everyone’s mental turmoil makes mine seem much more manageable, maybe even normal. But does everyone have to be so defective? So unable to deal with the world as it is?

In reality, I have very little in common with J.D. Salinger. I’m no Holden Caulfield. Our frustrations with the world come from dramatically different places. But the slow degradation is real, everyone cracks-up in their our own ways. The commonality being that the world, regardless of the age, becomes harder and harder to reconcile. And then there’s the longer-term fear that the wish of being alone, that you said you wanted for so long, will actually come true.

The trick seems to be to not let the world become alien. When you get past the tech, things don’t really change. You change. And so I look on the bright side: I have a pen full of ink, a notebook with clean paper, and I’ve learned what will make me feel “ok”.

New Old Memories

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I’ve started digging out my old ALA posts from years ago. I had started to republish them earlier, and then became distracted in completing line edits for a novel. The years through 2010 should be easy, they were already on the old site.

What surprised me in reading this small stretch of time between leaving Prague and getting settled in Chicago (approx June 2008 through August 2008) is how restrained the posts are. I was clearly going through a quarter life crisis and frantically grabbing at anything that could keep me afloat, and yet in the writing I come off as (somewhat) under control. Specifically, the part about the cruise through the Baltic is almost coy. Yes, I did threaten to give someone who worked on the ship rabies, but that was a fragment of those weeks.

It was a rich geriatric cruise and I did my best to relieve the boredom by terrorizing the ship: falling asleep wasted in various beautiful rooms filled with expensive books and artifacts, saying insane scripted shit for a reality tv show the Travel Channel was filming while the director screamed “The camera loves you!”, disappearing with people into secluded bathrooms, and finally on the last night bribing Polish workers for champagne at 4 am in the morning and drinking on the deck with the only young girl that didn’t hate me by that point. These are the actions of someone on the verge. It was a dire to establish some sort of adult life after Prague, and having no idea how to go about it. That feeling continued for a year.

If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home By Now

Memory

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I think only time, and begrudging acceptance (and hopefully eventual appreciation) will be the way that I can accept my relationship with memory. Even now, the anxiety I felt over my lack of control of my own memory has started to subside. It’s obvious to me now that you can’t call on it when you need it. It will return to me of a volition that is out of my control, and the context that it returns under will be fragmented, at best: scattered memories, without a before or after, just moments existing outside of time.

In some ways that’s beautiful. It is still maddeningly frustrating. But I’m beginning to understand why it has to be this way. Forgetfulness was a cost and a gift that needed to be accepted. You can’t live the way I’ve lived, running so hard from your past that you think your lungs are going to collapse, and still expect to remember things. Not looking back was one of the most necessary decisions I never actually made. I knew appreciation for forgetfulness, before I knew nostalgia, what’s to say that appreciation isn’t a cycle?

Raged Harder

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I’m in my hometown again to visit my grandmother. She continues to have slipped further away every time that I return. Her pride has remained though; she fought and raged against this world harder than anyone I have ever met, and that continues even now. I admire, empathize, and am repelled by the way she approached this life. Ninety-six years, however you get there, is an accomplishment.

Most of this last year with her has been in the rest home. Even here her pride refuses to let her eat with the other residents, and yet she remains cheerful and funny with the nurses. She swings wildly between an uncompromised attitude toward life, and a resigned attitude towards death. For someone who has told me for so long that she wants to die, has expected to die, she is on a fundamental level a survivor. This however is coming to an end. Even I can see it and feel it. Someday soon her prediction will be proven right, but she will have been wrong for so many years, that she’ll remain the most fucked up role model I will ever know in my life. And I will love her forever as a kindred spirit.

ROA

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When I was 15 I saw the movie The Rules of Attraction. Incomplete and meandering, it’s an easy movie to hate. And yet it held me like no other movie before. It was for me, the most revolutionary thing I had ever seen, and so in that sense it accomplished everything that it set out to do. Where other movies were escapism from reality, this was a promise of a future to come.

I still vividly remember the basement I sat in when I watched the movie, and the looks of revolt on my friends’ faces at the debasing crisscrossing storylines. I once heard the director say it ‘was a movie about college, if you had a terrible college experience’. But I didn’t see it that way. In the darkness of the story, there was freedom, and an escape from the relentlessly boring and cruel small town life I had never been able to comprehend. I was a good kid, but the world wasn’t, and I couldn’t make sense of it. This brand of relentless darkness offered an alternative, it made it all seem humorous and absurd. After it finished, I quietly told myself that I would find that life.

The promise of the future became more important as the years went on, and my life became more desperate. ‘Just wait for college,’ became the rallying cry to get out of bed in the mornings, to not break apart in the middle of the day, sometimes it was the only thing that kept me upright. And when I visualized college, I visualized The Rules of Attraction.

And like most things in life that I dreamt about enough, wanted enough, it eventually came true. But of course, not without it’s costs. Those are costs that are easily ignored in the desperation of youth and loneliness, but are still very real, and paid for in their own ways.

The Blue Line

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As I’m watching the de-icing of jets on the Frankfurt airport tarmac, wrapped in a music playlist I put together a lifetime ago in Madrid, a strange realization comes over me: I don’t have a desire to live in Chicago again. I love that city so much. But in this moment, my time there feels complete.

The soft spot will remain, but I’ve carried around the regret of not choosing to move back there when returning to the US for years, possibly for as long as I’ve lived in Colorado. The beauty and grime that mix in the most uncontrived way possible has always captivated me. The other great American cities are actually great city-states, unique cultures in their own right. But Chicago, more than any other city, represents the good and bad of America: the friendly welcoming nature, excitement, opportunity, modern beauty, and livability, while also contributing the violence, wealth disparity, obesity, isolation, and god-fearing weather, that I’ve come to associate with the country where I was born.

Chicago is unmistakably American. And so it’s strange that here of all places, in this clean and sterile German airport, that my thoughts have returned to the Second City. Chicago felt comfortable in a way that few places ever will. I’ve wanted to relive my life in Wicker Park and Logan Square: slowly crawling down the blue line from The Whistler, Rainbo Room, Big Star, Violet Hour, until finally, inevitably, ending at Empty Bottle. But I’m not that man anymore, and I’m ready to feel that connection with someplace new.

Technology is not Culture

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In the airline seat I grow restless. I watch as the teenager next to me purchases wifi to rip through Instagram, and then Snapchat. He moves faster than I could ever consume the information. When I was younger, and people would talk about their disgust for technology, it always revolved around the speed of things: shortening attention spans, more information, less human interaction. That’s how the fear of technology was explained to me.

I always thought I would be fine, that the fear wouldn’t find me, because even if I couldn’t keep up to date, I believed that I could empathize with the desire to move faster. But as I watch him, I realize that it’s not the speed at which the photos and videos fly across the screen that weighs me down, but the sheer inanity of the content: in every one it’s a picture some has taken of themselves, or a video they’ve taken of themselves. I can’t hear what they’re saying, which usually gives me solace, but in this case strips out any of the distractions. It’s one endless stream of selfies, monologues, dancing, singing, staring at food, drinking water, faces framed in landscape, cameras being passed from duck face to pouting face, and blank stares. It’s overwhelmingly repulsive, and I realize it’s not the technology that people struggle with, but the reconciliation of a culture that leaves them feeling empty and severed. And then the sadness sets in when you realize that the culture didn’t change, you did. You could have consumed this five years ago, but now it’s at best a curiosity, and at worst a terror. Culture doesn’t change, you do.

And yet technology is not culture. But it is the most effective mechanism of delivery. And in that effectiveness lives the fear, because it accelerates the alienation. And so what do I do with my repulsion? I get out my notebook, and write about myself, the biggest hypocrite of them all.

Closing Doors

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It’s raining, but pulsating with light, when I wake up. I walk towards the glow of the window, and look out across the patio, and into a courtyard that seems slapdash and tight. The buildings surrounding me are all about the same height, and all I can see rising above the skyline are the cranes of new construction.

As I wake, I realize I’ve never seen San Francisco in the daytime. I’m embarrassed of the fact, given the industry I’m in, and my love of film noir. I need to find a map to get my bearings, as the hills and the flat height of the construction, make it impossible to find any landmark from the apartment.

I haven’t been here before because it doesn’t fit my endless travel trajectories, and as a result my corresponding life. I go East now: Minneapolis, Chicago, Kansas City, New York, Amsterdam, Germany, not West. The next ten years, at least, will be an exercise in moving further and further East. I want that to happen, because I want to be closer to my daughter. However, I like it here. Not just San Fran, but the entire Northwest: Portland, Seattle, Vancouver.

I know what it’s like for a closing door to feel like a gift, but it doesn’t in this instance. I’m sad that I wasn’t able to spend more time in these places, or maybe it’s a more base sadness that the opportunity has been pulled from the table. I don’t know if I could have made a life here, but I have the feeling that I could have been content for years.

Yet that limitation is a small price to pay, and one I give willingly, to have something so meaningful as a life with my daughter.

In This Moment, I Know

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My daughter is sick. We go to the zoo but she refuses to walk, and so I carry her on my shoulders. She won’t speak, but only points at things she wants. Eventually she points to a bench, and we sit down. She sits a few feet way from me, but as she get more and more tired, she slowly closes the distance between us. Finally, she rests against my shoulder, and closes her eyes. I pick her up, and hold her in my arms. Instinctively her hands burrow into my coat, and she falls asleep almost instantaneously. As she breathes, I rest my cheek against hers, and I realize this is the best part of the trip. This moment, even if it’s one she won’t be able to remember, means more to me then anything else that has happened since I arrived in Germany. And because of that I know that I am happy.

A Defense Mechanism

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My thoughts return to a repeated question: are we born to be happy, or is it a learned behavior? I don’t want to know from some study of lab rats, or by analyzing people who have suffered traumatic brain injuries. I simply want to know anecdotally, in my own life. I remember being happy, and I remember being sad, but then when I dive into the memories, I can barely recall either. There is a prevailing sense of anxiety slipping through everything, as if I were throwing a caffeine pill into each memory, simply to watch the shearing effect it would have. But feeling happy, and feeling sad, are so rare it strikes me as artificial.
And if that’s the case, then why do I feel so fucking guilty when I’m happy? Not to be left out, I feel guilty when I’m sad as well, but that feeling of guilt seems more appropriate, given my relatively positive circumstances. But happy, happy just about kills me. Because happiness ends, and even when I can acknowledge it, and live in the moment for as long as possible, it still doesn’t seem worth it. Given that my most obvious memories of happiness come from my childhood, it’s likely that I’ve actively trained myself to avoid it: a defense mechanism to a naturally ever-progressing world.