Sunday, July 18, 2010

Relief Map

I remember standing around a relief globe in some elementary school classroom or other. Aside from outdated textbooks, the relief globe was my portal to the world, the real world, beyond the confines of New Carlisle, Ohio. Was it really confining, did it seem that way to me at the time? I suppose not. I remember the physical symptoms of anxiety and dread I associated with the raw social environment of public elementary school in my small Ohio town, the vice around my throat, the fluttering in my chest when I would awaken and, knowing the walk to school, wonder which portly bully would accost me that day. They never harmed me physically, they just liked to intimidate. I was an easy one to intimidate because I was smart but not a good student, small, not really good at things I had been told I was good at. I found a kind of solace in books, from Time Machine adventures to the Hardy Boys. My parents bought me a Hardy Boys mystery novel for Christmas in 1983 and my father read a chapter every night for 20 nights (each of the 58 original adventures weighs in at 20 chapters, 180 pages). I resolved to read all 58 books and so I did, out of loyalty to the gesture of my parents and because I liked what I was reading. At my peak, I would read in classes, in empty periods, shuttering away the down time that never led anyplace good. I could read a book in a day.

The relief map was different. I could run my fingers over the Himalayas and try to make sense of Nepal, a country-sized cliff. I could see such bizarre countries as Jordan, named perhaps after the basketball star just then ascending, or Niger, which caused my classmates to giggle (and me, too, because I was immature and possessed no spine), or puzzling Chad. We joked about other names that might pass for countries. James. Matt. Jon. Charity. Nighthawk.

I remember actually trying to imagine life in those places, and I remember wanting to see…life, in those places, in all sorts of places, all around. I remember feeling, for the first time, the swelling of the world. It was large; I was a pinprick. I wanted to spread myself around. I remember wanting to live in one of these places—I sensed somehow, without any context I can call my own, that visiting was one thing, and taking up residence completely another. It dawned like I say as a sense, but today I can give words. I wanted to see the day to day, the way things worked in a place like Jordan or Chad, how the people went about their days. Their days must be so different from mine—the world was not New Carlisle, right? And I didn’t and don’t hate where I’m from, I’m not ashamed. But it was confining and constricting. Like a depressed person, I would fake an illness to convince my parents to let me stay home. They weren’t fooled, but often they relented. I loved the mornings alone, before the day aged and I began to feel the tug of company again, the weight of the next day, the obligation to act as though I’d recovered from an upset tummy. I always felt the nagging question of what the world held in its palms between fingers with pinpricked tips.


Friday, July 02, 2010

Where I Was on December 31, 2009

I’ve always been a sucker for anniversaries, key dates, passages through time. Of a certain variety. I can’t tell you when my parents were married or when they divorced. I have a hard time remembering if they split in 1984 or 1985, and, for reasons that probably reveal a lot about me, I’ve never asked either of my parents to clarify.

For me it’s birthdays, New Year’s Eve. The trite rituals of reflection, the year-end People magazine best-ofs, the montage of celebrities dead over the past year, set to a string quartet. These appeal to me. I like my own trite rituals of reflection, the sucker they reveal me to be, the boxed-in, unimaginative thinker attached to a cultural nostalgia he didn’t invent and doesn’t understand. That’s me.

Take New Year’s Eve 2009. I felt connected that night to every other New Year’s Eve I could remember. I thought about the turns and twists and circumstances within and beyond my control that had brought me to the Ace Club in Maadi, Egypt, to the Scotch in my hand, to the tableful of Irish and British acquaintances with whom I was seated, to Amanda, my companion for almost ten years and my constant companion in Egypt (except for the sunset weeks of summer 2010). It’s hard to explain how the Brits of Egypt celebrate milestones, except to say: hard, with lots of sun-seared faces, garish mascara, Asian trophy wives and imported spirits. The air stunk of smoldering woodchips and the hint of gasoline, as it always does around Cairo, but this air was redeemed by the alcoholic smells of perfume, beer, Scotch. We were seated in a darkened corner near the brick wall that separated our party from Midan Victoria and the rest of Maadi; we watched a cat slink along the fence and leap onto the branch of the tree under which we sat. The cat came to rest where the trunk held the branches; he looked like he was caught in an alien’s palm, clutching digits. Across the dark rows of tables, wedged between the toilets and the door to the inner bar, a deejay spun and spotlights transformed a concrete terrace into an impromptu dance floor. Our hosts, Vicki and Neil, were there, dancing slowly, chatting with other dancers as their orbits overlapped in the packed space. The Sudanese men who operated the kitchen and the bar slithered between the revelers, holding aloft trays of drinks. It didn’t worry me that they might graze a dancing couple, that the drinks might topple and crash on the concrete. I have learned in Egypt not to worry about such things; or, if I do worry, to create a new space for that worry, a special burden between the shoulder blades that you can learn to carry without even noticing.

And so I actually felt self-satisfied to be there with Amanda, with our friends, and with a bunch of British folks finding extroversion through alcohol. I enjoyed sitting in the dark and murmuring beneath the music. I liked the subterranean feeling; I wasn’t entirely there. I was thinking 10 years earlier. No act of imagination at that time could have placed me in Egypt, in suburban Cairo, in a nest of drunken, reveling Brits counting down the final minutes of the best decade of my life so far.

At the end of 1999, I was only a year and a half out of college and the ceremony that had branded me “educated.” I remember walking with a now ex-friend on the Wittenberg campus in May 1998, as he proclaimed that we would now and forever have B.A. attached to our names. He liked that sort of stuff, perhaps more so than me, but his observation had resonated, first as a thrill and then as a burden. In that moment I felt a tremendous levity; I was ascendant. I was engaged to be married; I was coming back for a year to work at the campus where I had earned my undergraduate degree; I was going to apply to M.F.A. programs in creative writing and, naively, I felt certain I would be accepted.

None of that happened. By the end of 1999, I was renting a room in a house in a village outside my hometown. Grad schools that year wouldn’t have me. One school had taken the extra measure of personally phoning in my rejection. This experience had engendered the suspicion that I was a pretender, a writer of some consequence for a few years in college, but nothing more. I was learning a hard truth. I was being weeded out. I would become one of the legions of undergraduate writers who abandon the enterprise after college—and I can say, twelve years after graduation, that a lot of artist friends have fallen by the wayside for one reason or another. I used to hold their choices in low regard, seeing them as defections, but anymore I don’t do that. Everybody makes choices; I’ve made mine and they bring their own risks.

There had been other spectacular flame-outs that year. There had been a disappointment in love, so to speak, and so I was single. I had flailed around looking for purpose, leading to a botched journey to England on a work visa. I traveled all the way to Ambleside, thinking what I needed was the Lake District’s idyll to salve my wounds, to recover and rebrand and return home with shaggy hair, a beard, confidence restored, a one man Peace Corps operation. Unfortunately I ran out of money. And so I returned home and had to ask my father to borrow his rickety Dodge Caravan, powder-blue with wood paneling and a non-functional heater. This is the car I would drive throughout the winter from my waiter job in Yellow Springs to my rented room in North Hampton, shivering beneath an insufficient coat. For this privilege I had to submit to a berating lecture from my father, who also did not quite know what I was doing with myself. And anyway he had problems of his own. I felt keenly his lack of confidence in me, for it combined with my own lack of confidence, compounding into something near panic. My ex had moved on, and in a few months she would marry someone else, begin a real career. She just seemed so together, so composed. And I seemed so fractured, disassembled. How had this happened, and with such speed? I don’t compare myself to her very often, but at the time I saw all this as evidence that our split had been a great development for her and a disaster for me.

What I remember thinking on December 31, 1999 was trying to come about, to steady myself. I would reapply to grad school, but with an adjustment, adding a couple of M.A. programs. The ex-friend from earlier spoke highly of his current program in Ames, Iowa, and so I would apply there and be admitted and eventually earn my M.A. from Iowa State University. And this choice would bring with it a fresh round of disappointments, of a different variety: the disappointments associated with getting what you want. But it would also transform my life in incalculable ways. I would make new friends, work with a writer I admired, know my own limitations in starker ways than I knew them in 1999. But I did not know that then. I knew that I would apply to grad schools. I did not know that the parents of my roommate, the Boop family of North Hampton, would generously allow me to enter their home when it was empty in the afternoons so I could write, and print, and prepare my applications. The actions had seemed so futile at the time, signifying nothing, without possibility. I falsely believed that this was no legitimate path. If I learned anything in 10 years, I learned that I know how to blaze a path and I learned about the power of small generosity. But I did not know that on December 31, 1999; I did not know that yet! It’s hard for me to conceive now what I did not know then, how nascent I was. It’s almost an embarrassment to admit, until I remember that generosity can extend to the self and keep you from feeling shame and disappointment all over again, and that you can forgive your past selves for having been so dumb.

On December 31, 1999, I made a few basic decisions. I remember pacing around the North Hampton house, spelling them out. In a year, I would be in a better location, one that believed in the things I believed in, that had a literary community that I could join, that gave me a chance to make my way. A friend had offered to share his Portland hovel with me, to help me relocate on the cheap, and I was going. If I got into grad school, then I would go. But I was not going to wait until April or May, until admissions committees had made up their minds about me, again. I would be in a better place a year from now. I would set up shop in Portland, if necessary, and make my way from there.

It was a small decision, but I remember the shift in thinking, the moving ahead with plans and not waiting. I remember how dispossessed I felt and how my choices seemed to lack consequence. I feared that they didn’t matter. I feared that I was not at the right platform and that, because of this, the choices I made were not going to matter. But they did matter, for I went to Portland in March, taking the Greyhound to Portland via Charlotte and St. Louis, to visit friends. And in Charlotte a friend was having his own difficulties, and in St. Louis I said goodbye to a certain way I had been friends with another person—and then I went to Portland where I slept for ten weeks on an air mattress and worked 38 hours a week at a Plaid Pantry convenience store, at a location where a cashier had been murdered the year before, right where I stood for all those hours, alone and unguarded and worth $6.50 an hour. And then I came back to Ohio, because I was admitted to Iowa State and I needed the summer to move. And I went to a bar near campus with a new friend who had taught me a kind of aggressive generosity of spirit, and I remember feeling, if not restored, then relieved. As I told him then, all I wanted was a chance. And now I had the chance.

I didn’t know that on December 31, 1999, but I remembered it on December 31, 2009, as I drank in the sordid air and watched Neil take the microphone and count down the final seconds of the decade. I was among strangers, in a strange place, well beyond any setting I could have imagined for myself a decade earlier. How unlikely, I thought. So I kept close to Amanda, experienced the satisfied warmth in my mouth and my belly from the Scotch, mulled over it. At heart I’m very much a golly-gee Midwestern rube, mouth agape in wonder when I encounter strangeness, a sense of being far away. My childhood voice had the soft edges of Appalachia like my parents, but now the soft edges have been ground out. They return in modest ways when I go home, and, on a night like tonight, when I am half-drunk and warm and glad and happy and relieved, thinking of ten years ago to the day and the years of mediation between, I find myself thinking in that voice, dropping my g’s, compressing my sentences by a half-breath, like an accordion player practicing a provincial anthem, getting it wrong, trying again.