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Over Again

Daniel Johnston (the late, great) wrote in a song once that his life was starting over again. Over again. And maybe he meant it, but his life didn’t and ours won’t either.

This space, if I understand the person who created it correctly (and as it was I who created it, just a few years ago, I probably should understand), was an attempt at keeping alive parts of a past that were not so bad, and adapting and applying them to a present, and a future, that may be not so bad again. It’s hard to say what has happened here has achieved anything, but at the very least, the posts that have made their way in here have stuck to the theme. And it’s strange to think that has happened, since it was never a conscious decision.

But let me step back, so as not to produce a retread of the last entry, which was just a navel-gazing explanation of why I don’t write as much these days. (That is not to say that what I wrote in that last entry was wrongheaded or should be taken lightly—I deride myself as a form of protection, one of many misguided such forms.) Let’s step back to life and how it cycles in ways that you want, desperately, to control, for you can’t restart. It doesn’t work that way. But here’s what I’m learning: Life, as uncontrollably as it happens, becomes about one thing only. And that one thing is acceptance. And if there’s a second thing, it’s moving on from those loci when acceptance is so critical, having accepted whatever it is that you needed to.

Now, none of what I’ve written in that last paragraph is understandable without some context. So let me try to provide it. I’m not good at accepting things as they are, at “living for now,” at keeping my mind in the present. I don’t know if I ever was, but even trying to figure that out diverts my mind from the present, and further undermines any effort I might be making to “live for now.” For much of the recent past, I’ve hidden from the present for reasons I could explain at the time—unhappinesses that worked their way into my daily life and took over, like crab grass in a summer lawn. At first it’s a minor annoyance, but then it spreads to such a degree that it leaves you with a choice: accept, fight back, ignore (which is different from accepting), or reinvent.

And, as you might expect, at various points, having been unhappy for different reasons, I have adopted some of these strategies to some degree. I didn’t like myself as a public policy student, so went back to the drawing board, came up with the idea of journalism (reinvention). I fell in too deep with the wrong girl, was stung when it didn’t work out, then started working out, like a madman, until I had punished myself so much that I started to feel good again (fighting back). As for ignoring, no one example suffices, but let’s say I’ve spent many of the past years trying to ignore the things that have bothered me. You’ll have to take my word on that. (I was recently asked how, if I always shy away from conflict, I ever get what I want. My answer: “I don’t get what I want.”)

You’ll notice that acceptance wasn’t among the examples I offered, and it’s a telling omission. I know, as I mentioned before, that life and happiness and all the best parts stem from accepting what you are, what you have, and learning to be okay with it all in some way. That’s not to say complacency should be condoned, or that there shouldn’t be some level of striving for something better, because those things are equally as important, but cutting yourself a break once in awhile isn’t something to shirk. For me, acceptance is still a lofty, unachieved goal. I worry about things that don’t really matter, that are certainly beyond my control—those cycles I mentioned above, I don’t let them play themselves out as I should, but rather fight, ignore and fret over them as they happen. And all of this takes place despite my knowledge that accepting the present as it is, giving myself some leeway to feel shitty or happy or tired or anxious, all of that is the key to moving forward and ultimately breaking the cycles without even having to realize that I’m doing it. But, what it comes down to—what it’s always come down to for me—is that no matter how intently you understand that something is true, it makes no difference, if you can’t somehow will yourself to believe it.

I guess this long, abstract digression brings us back to reinvention, to Daniel Johnston’s song about starting over again (it should be mentioned here that Johnston is not, in fact, dead—the “late, great” reference above comes from the title of a cover album of his songs). Some do opt for reinvention, but I’ve always balked at the notion that, because you’ve left one place or one group of people behind, you’ve somehow earned the right to turn your back on what you were before. To my mind, if you consciously choose to be something you weren’t in the past, then you’ve become something artificial, something made up. But there’s also potential to go too far in the direction that I’ve gone—to over-compensate and let the cycles wash over you and take too firm a hold, let them thwart you from being what you are or what you could be. Because even without reinvention—without starting your life over again—there is room to grow, to improve, to be something that isn’t different from what you are, but is a natural, and better, extension of what you used to be.

The way I see it, that’s where acceptance comes back into play. You can’t move forward if you don’t know where you are.

*     *     *

As always, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of the other.

The Fountain is Rusted Out

This isn’t the start of some new trend. Despite my greatest hopes, I won’t be promising to update this space more often. I won’t say I’ll be checking in once per week or per month. I won’t say for certain I’ll ever write here again. I won’t make those promises because they are ones I cannot keep. But I’m here now, for whatever that’s worth.

Since I’ve been go so long, I could think of no better way to return than to take a look at the absence in at least some detail. So this return is bound to be a look inward at the reasons I have not written one of these posts (or memoirish essays, whatever you want to call them) in such a long time. This will be thrilling, I’m sure, for the two or three you who try to make through at least half of these things.

There was a time not too long ago, maybe two years or so in the past, when I needed the release or whatever the feeling was I got from producing something like one of these posts. There were long emails to friends, too, and personal journal entries that no one but I have ever seen (I’ll put a note in my will and people can look at them once I die if they care to). The personal journal has been the only of these forums that has remained mostly intact in recent years. That is, I’ve stuck with those–they were never regular either, and never really as long, because, let’s face it, when is the last time you wrote anything more than, say, 50 words by hand? It’s tiring. But these blog posts have obviously dried up, become few and far, far between, and it’s sad to say it, because they once meant so much to me, the emails have largely disappeared as well.

Maybe I should take a step back even further. Let’s go to 2003 to 2006. I said in the last paragraph that as recently as two years ago, I “needed” to write things like this for some reason or another. But that isn’t true. Two years ago, I was hanging on to something that had been far more necessary beforehand, in the 2003-2006 era. Back then, I both enjoyed and needed–really needed–to write. I would sit down, and have fun doing it. That’s strange to think about, the idea that putting words on a digitized piece of paper could put a smile on my face. But that’s how it was, if I’m remembering correctly. I can go back and look at those years, because they’ve been stored in the annals of Livejournal and Blogger and all these outmoded websites, and remember some approximation of the feeling I had at the time. Back when it was that I still had feelings.

I’d say sometime in late 2006 into 2007, 2008 and 2009, the tone and desire took a turn. Those were the years that chipped at my happiness, which had been so impenetrable in the years before. (Let me step in and call my own credibility into question here. I now choose to look at those years, the 2003-06 era, as a time when I was unerringly cheerful. But if I’m honest, and I do try to be, a real look back would show warning signs of things to come–chinks in the armor, if you will, that later cracked wholesale and made me what I am today, which, if you don’t know, is, “less happy than before.”) In the 2006-09 era, the emails ticked up in length and seriousness, and the blog posts did too (though, probably not as dramatically, because this is still the World Wide Web and I’m not an exhibitionist). During those years, I was searching for answers to questions I had to start asking: who I was and what I wanted and all those things that seem so important to someone in his young twenties (which, as it happens, are unanswerable at that age…and, probably at any age, but that remains to be seen). The word “need” is probably a correct description, but it seems not to have enough of the urgency that attended those long blog posts and those tome-like emails. Depended, relied on, needed, whatever–they were important, that’s the point. And there was a strong desire that came along with that importance.

Now, as evidenced by the lack of recent posts here and drop-off in emails to friends, that desire, the need, seem to have dissipated. The question is what happened? And the answer is probably far too complex for me to tell here, or for me to even know in its entirety, but I do have some guesses. The first is that writing–though, admittedly, not this kind of writing–is part of my day-to-day now, and has been since I started graduate school (a date that just so happens to be a little more than two years ago). Of course when something avocational becomes your job, the desire to do it is going to slip a bit. But that answer is far too simplistic and it takes no account of a much larger issue that seems to be at play here (and everywhere else in my life).

That issue, namely, is that I don’t want to do anything as much as I did before. And when I joked above about a time when I used to have feelings, well, that wasn’t really a joke. Through a spate of events taking place over the past couple years, I’ve gone numb, mostly because the alternative was to be really, really, painfully not happy. And that was a reality nobody should want to deal with. And one that I chose to avoid by any means necessary. I had to stop dissecting myself–which was, in large part, what I was doing in those emails and memoirish blog posts–because I was getting down to the bone and if I hadn’t stopped, there would have been nothing left to examine. I realize all this sounds like melodrama, and maybe you think I’ve exaggerated for effect, but in response, I’d say, What would be my ulterior motive there? Why would I do a thing like that? What could I stand to gain? With that said, I should add that I’m not unhappy, exactly. I’m pretty content to be honest, more than I have been in a long, long time. But content and “not unhappy” are not the same as “happy,” something I hope everyone can appreciate.

*          *          *

I may not write as much now, and this may not be the start of some new trend, but some things will never change. And one of those things is that I frame my thoughts in terms of song lyrics. My favorite Bon Iver song, “Re: Stacks,” the title of which I think refers to a library (though I really don’t know–I’m not convinced that any of his songs mean anything at all, but he puts a lot emotion into them, so I’m swayed), has a line that applies here: “This is not the sound of a new man, or a crispy realization. It’s the sound of the unlocking and the lift away.”

I hope the desire comes back to write posts like this more often. I hope I need this again. I don’t just hope it because my love of writing was arguably the most important facet of my formative years. I don’t just hope it because it’s still my future, and hopefully always will be. I hope it because I don’t seem to want anything right now. I don’t have any desires at all, writing-related or otherwise. And that, to put it plainly, is sad. If the writing bug came back, if I started to need it again, then maybe I’d start to need other things again too. Maybe I’d want, again, to find new people to share my life with. Maybe I’d start to care more about the ones I’ve already got around me. Maybe I could get back on track, start trying again to answer all those unanswerables.

*          *          *

When you lose yourself, you lose it all. Not just parts of it. But what I’m starting to learn now is that when you find yourself again, you don’t get all of it back at once. In fact you’ll never get all of it back. It comes in pieces, and I just hope the most important ones are those that I find first.

As usual, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk, with one foot in front of the other.

My dad once came up to me and said something I didn’t expect. I think it was a form of advice, but it didn’t come across that way. He told me, “There’s something I read recently and I think you should hear it: ‘The Irish are a tragic people.’”

It’s hard to say, without access to his thoughts, why he decided to share this with me. But it had to have been a combination of his coming out of a post-retirement malaise and an acknowledgment that his youngest son was struggling. That was his way of saying, I guessed, that I was predestined to suffer and would have to fight it, everyday. At least that’s what I heard.

And it’s true—to the extent that I can define, while keeping a straight face, any “pain” I’ve felt as suffering—I’ve suffered in many different places. I’ve been miserable in Australia, Texas, Upstate New York, Washington, D.C., Boston. My mental health has worried my friends to different degrees and depending on my location—for instance, I have some friends who tell me the webcam videos I “produced” while (possibly in the throes of misery) in Texas were deeply concerning to them.

Strangely enough I look back on my days there, and my time in Australia, which was equally as difficult in some ways, fondly. I loved those places, or I learned to, and I learned to like myself while I was in each spot. I don’t know how, or why, or whether it was deserved, but I did learn. Aside from Boston—which I’m not nearly well-equipped enough to broach at this point—I’ve learned to love all these places, despite the hardships. For every fall day full of 40 degree rain and mud in upstate New York, there was a 65 degree day in May with the grass green and the trees just blooming that you made forget that the place could ever be damaging. For all the hours spent eating peanuts in my dorm room in Australia, there were my solo trips up the mountain behind the dorm, or bike rides along the gravel path by the brook with the black swans, and the over-aggressive ducks, and the willows weeping over the banks. And, of course, for every night spent overeating in my apartment in Texas, there was a trip to a rock show or to the local trail system on a 90-degree day for a mountain bike ride.

One place I was never sure I loved, though, was Washington. In fact I hated the place for a long time, and I may go back and hate it again, but for now, for today, I’ll explain what I learned to love about the place and why. Though it’s not the sort of love most people derive from a place, to warn you upfront. Maybe love isn’t even the right word. Maybe connection is better—I’ve connected with the place, and not because I liked it or myself while I was there. In fact, for the exact opposite reasons.

I’m a color reporter, but the city’s been bled white.

That’s the opening line from an Elliott Smith song called “Bled White” that I never really understood until a few months ago. I’m not sure where I was, probably getting off the Metro at the Farragut West stop in downtown D.C., walking either to my internship at the magazine or, more likely, to the office building that housed my graduate program. I’m not sure I was listening to the song at the time, but for whatever reason, the lyrics came to mind and I felt as though I had a grasp on what they meant, or at least what they meant to me, for the first time.

I was just starting to see myself as a reporter, allowing that self-identity to take hold. And I was starting to feel that it was something I was all right with seeing myself as, because I’m predisposed to eschew any identity that could possibly apply. It’s why I never thrived in team sports. So it was new to me. But at the same time I was struggling with the place, and my place in it, trying to come to grips with the chance that I might be there for awhile, living in my brother’s basement for free rent until I paid off my student loans.

But that day, walking to school—feeling like I could potentially give myself to an identity that had me say, “I’m a reporter” and mean it more as an indentifying trait than simply saying, “I work as a reporter”—I realized what it meant for a city to be bled white. And I know Elliott Smith was not talking about D.C., but if there’s any example of a place that exemplifies that notion better, I’ve never come across it. From what little I know of the city’s history, it was a center for middle class black folks and their attendant culture. And the places where one can still see the vestiges of that culture—near Howard University, the U Street Corridor, and so forth—those were the parts of the city that I most felt I could possibly belong in. But that thought—the idea that I could someday live there and be content—was more of an identification with a legacy than with the present reality of those neighborhoods. Because they’ve been, like much of the rest of the city, literally bled white, meaning that they’ve been co-opted by young white folks and the culture—happy hours, dimly-lit restaurants with rotating menus, rock clubs with no “teeth”—that supports them.

It’s sad, of course, to think of the loss of a vibrant middle class of black folks because they were pushed down into lower classes or into other neighborhoods or the suburbs. But that’s an unfortunate story that’s not limited to D.C., and one that’s become even truer with the recession. I admit, though, I don’t know enough about it to dwell much on it here. What I do know is that D.C. hasn’t been hit, on the whole, as badly by the economic downturn as compared to many places, but the black population there and around the city was hit quite badly in comparison.

Despite that, I was willing, by the time I left, to grab on to those vestiges, and hold them for dear life. They were the shreds that would have kept me sane had I stayed, the ones I would have sought out more. The jazz clubs, the other remnants of those days—I would have looked to those to counter the happy hours and business casual and staid conversations I heard daily.

 Happy and sad come in quick succession,

I’m never going to become what you became

That’s of course another line from “Bled White.”

With D.C., probably more than anywhere else I’ve been, I had this feeling that I could never surrender to the place, that to do so would be surrendering too much of myself. The way I saw people interact there, and heard them talk to each other on their commutes back to Foggy Bottom or across the Potomac to Arlington, it made me uneasy in a way that I can’t quite describe.

In fact I’ve only tried to put it to words a few times, both with people I knew while I lived in D.C. and whose judgment I came to respect and value. And both of whom, for some reason, seemed to get exactly what I was talking about despite my inability to explain it in any way that made real sense. One of these people—a friend that, in her own way, got me through that first stint in the district with once monthly meet-ups at a bar or a trip to the movies (or a viewing of American Psycho under the influence of some Woodchuck Cider)—I consulted when I had made it back to D.C. a second time. I had spent a few months there already, and though I went in with a conquering mindset, I could feel the place wearing me down. To try to stem the tide, as it were, I reached out to my past commiserater and asked a question half-in-jest: How, in the world, did you ever last those several years in this God-forsaken town?

In an earnest response—more earnest than I could have hoped—she wrote an email to do her best to provide some advice. Though, by her own words, she didn’t feel equipped to help because, “D.C. killed my soul,” she said. She went on to put into words something I had noticed about the place and its people—that no matter how much headway you ever felt like you were making with someone, however many times you hung out and felt some sort of connection, you’d run into them later and realize: Well, I’m just back to square one with this person, it’s as if we never had that late night chat, or that revealing conversation over lunch. The people there seemed wired to reboot every day, and so lasting friendships are not part of the norm.

I talked this over with another person I knew, who I spent time talking to the second time I launched myself into D.C. living. I didn’t meet her until I was, in truth, at my nadir (and, I would usually make some sort of self-effacing joke here, but I’m not joking, I was in rough shape, rougher than I care to recall), sometime in October, and it took me awhile to getting around to having any sort of conversation with her that meant anything to me. But I brought up, toward the end of my stay there, and thus the end of my days conversing with her, what I guess could be called my past disdain for the district. We shared a moment (it was an unusual sort of connection, the kind I only usually have with the best of my friends) in which we were both talking about the exact same thing, and knew that our understandings of it were deeper than either of us could explain.

The conversation went something like:

Her: “Yeah, Washington is…tough.”

Me: “Yeah, it is.”

(Repeat two to three times) 

 

It may not seem quite right,

But I’m not fucked, not quite.

One day during the summer, I was sitting at my magazine job, not having much of anything to do, and trolling the Internet for something to read. I came across a piece by one of my favorite writers about social and educational issues, Paul Tough. Except he wasn’t writing about those things that I usually turn to him for—instead he had written about a band I love called The Weakerthans, who come from Winnipeg in Canada and write many songs about the place and its people—giving them a sort of romantic sadness that I identify with in ways I can’t quite express.

In some ways it was appropriate that I found this article in D.C., because I got into the band while I was living there the first time. There’s a song with a line that goes, “I’m weary with right angles, abbreviated daylight, waiting for a winter to be done,” that I will forever associate with my walks to Union Station after work that winter of 2009 when I was there. I had gone through tough winters before, but for some reason that one, which was cold by D.C. standards, but not by many others, got to me. Paul Tough’s essay on The Weakerthans is, on its face, about the band and about his going to see them in concert in Winnipeg, where Tough’s sister lives. But it becomes a meditation on the meaning of home and the love of place, and how you can feel, in the words of the band, “I love this place, the enormous sky and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by. So why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled ‘home’?”

Tough wonders about that distinction—how can you love a place and hate its buildings at once—and he finds it difficult to reach a conclusion because he’s moved around so much, chasing his career, that he’s never felt so steady in one place to really feel what it means. He ends up, however, arriving a conclusion—it’s one that I understood the first time I heard those lines by The Weakerthans, but one that, when I saw it in print, stirred some of those emotion things in me. Here’s what he said: “It’s the deepest relationship you can have with a place, I think: hating it and staying.”

My friends might have had more concern when I was in Australia or when I was in Texas. But I’ve never been more worried about myself than I was in D.C. I lost interest in almost everything—I stopped running first, then riding my bike, then reading, then listening to music. All I had left were sitcoms, and I nearly managed to let those run their course as well. But, maybe worst of all, I tried to carry it by myself, the sadness, the aloneness. When I left the second time, ultimately bound for the one place on this earth I knew I’d love, New York, a sense of peace fell upon me. I hadn’t come to love D.C., I hadn’t come to forgive its buildings, but I knew that if I had to, I could stay. I had, with the deepest scars of near-defeat scratched into my skin and my psyche, conquered the place in a manner I never thought I would.

There’s a line in a Pink Floyd song that I first took note of while I was in Texas, but it’s one I have a distinct memory of listening to driving around Arlington, Virginia on a too-nice late fall afternoon with my window down. The line goes, “Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” and I always think of it whenever my dad’s advice—that the Irish are a tragic people—comes to mind.

We were born to suffer, to die alone, maybe. But maybe not—maybe we were born to be happy despite the predispositions.

Bled White ends with the last two lines italicized above. So too my time in Washington ended, both times I was there. I left not quite fucked but not quite right either. I’m sure it’s because it was not a place I wanted to be. But now it’s not a place I can’t be. Not anymore.

It’s been too long, but I can (sort of) explain. I’ve moved since my last entry here. I’ve started a new job. I’ve done many things since I’ve moved and started a new job that I haven’t had the chance to do for awhile. These things have come in the way of my posting here, but the time for delay has now ended. Starting today, I’m going to try to add some discipline into my regime and give the world a little Painted Curbstones maybe once per week, if I can muster it. It’s been hard, though, and let me tell you why. The new job, the move—they’ve combined to give me a schedule that keeps me out of my apartment until 8 during the week and makes me sleep until noon on weekends. Now that’s not an excuse. But it sort of is.

For awhile, though, it wasn’t the schedule keeping me from coming back and posting an update of some sort. It was more that I couldn’t think of anything to share. I don’t like bragging, and being happy hasn’t come naturally for awhile, so when I moved to New York and suddenly had friends again, and a day-to-day that didn’t suck me dry, I must have been in a state of shock, mild maybe, but certainly there. Maybe I’ve emerged from that, maybe not. But I figured it was time for me to come back here, test out the first person again.

I had planned, at first, to write some tome-like retrospective look back at the year and a half I spent in total in Washington, D.C. I still may do that—though it won’t be much about me, but the city and how I grew to love it, though only in the way that you love someone who consistently lets you down. Love may not be the right term, but it’s some sort of caring.

But forget that plan for now, because why should I be serious when it’s much easier to make fun of myself? For today, for my (triumphant?) return, I’m going back to my online roots—back to the days of my original Live Journal—when I would use my words to describe the absurdities around me. Those absurdities were just rare enough where I grew up that it made sense to write about them the way I did then, as if nothing as crazy had ever happened before. Now, however, I live in New York, and writing about the city’s oddities seems passé or something. I’m not going to be treading on any new ground there. Plus, isn’t one mark of becoming a “real” New Yorker being able to walk down the street and not turn your head as you pass the guy who is yelling, not out of malice, really, but just because, as he makes his way to wherever he’s going? I’ve almost mastered that skill, but old habits die hard and I like to shake my head at things that make no sense. I always will. To get back to the point—I won’t be writing about the city’s strangeness today, though I can’t promise I never will. Today, I’ll be turning that old standard Live Journal approach on its head—I’ll be telling you three stories about absurd acts that I’ve done, that is, of my becoming the yelling pedestrian. I’m tempted to tell you that the two months in New York have rubbed off on me and are to blame for what I’m about to describe, but in fact that time has nothing to do with these things. It’s just me being me, in a new locale.

Here they are, in chronological order (also, just so you know, the third one is the best, so don’t stop reading…):

1. The Nylon Sock Oxford Shoe Incident

I recently purchased new shoes. They’re suede oxfords, made by the company Clark’s, and they aren’t as trendy as they sound. Instead of a leather sole, they have a rubber one, with grippy treads that look akin to teeth on a saw blade. You don’t have to picture the treads, and I’m not going to spend time describing what they look like, but know this: they are designed so that if I were to step on the corner of a stair, it’s pretty unlikely that I would lose traction and slip down to the step below.

One day, after I had moved, I decided to buy new socks. (I bought the suede shoes while I was still living in D.C.) These were low-cut, below the ankle bone style socks, and they were black. They weren’t made of cotton because I was told at some point that synthetic-based (think nylon or something along those lines) materials make better, less sweat-absorptive socks. I’m not sure if that’s true, but I like the way the synthetic ones feel, so I usually opt for them, especially for socks I plan to use working out or wearing sneakers. Since the socks were new, and I had yet to wash them, I decided I would wear a pair each day until they were all dirty and could go to the laundry. This worked well for a time. If I recall correctly, I wore a pair some Friday night, then maybe made my way through two or three on Saturday and Sunday. But, at some point, the work week began anew, and I faced a choice: wear dress socks, or try to wear the low-cut athletic socks with my suede oxfords.

For most of the week, I wore dress socks, and they interact well with the insoles of my Clark’s—very little slippage, they make the fit feel just right. Sometime later in that week, maybe Thursday or Friday, I decided I’d take my chances and wear the athletic socks with the shoes. I noticed on my walk to the subway in the morning that my foot appeared to be slipping a little more than usual—the athletic socks being a little thinner, newer, and generally a little sleeker seemed to be the cause. But no matter, I thought, I’ll just get myself through the day and this is the last totally new, unwashed pair of socks. It felt like I was doing something worthwhile. I had a purpose, as strange or inconsequential as it may have been.

The day passed, and, as it was early in the days of my new job, I left the office feeling pretty worn out. The torpor lasted through the subway ride home, and I made my way up the stairs on the receiving end, and passed through the exit turnstile, prepared to climb the last flight to bring me to street level. The subway had been crowded that day, and there were a slew of people within a few feet of me as I began to walk the second set of stairs.

I walked up three-quarters of the stairs without a problem, but when I put my right foot on one of the treads shortly after the three-quarter mark, I had the distinct impression that I had misstepped. I had landed too little of my forefoot on the stair and was pretty convinced that I was slipping. So, to compensate (I don’t think this was the best way of handling it), I slammed my left foot down securely on the stair and kicked my right foot back to get balance. Although, as I mentioned, several people were right near me and as my right foot made its backward motion, it went right into the leg or the gut or some other soft portion of the person behind me. Perhaps because of the noise of my left foot’s slamming down, the sight of my flailing, or just the fact that I had come to a complete stop in the middle of a crowded stairway, everyone on stairs ceased moving and looked at me. I apologized to whoever was behind me, and walked the rest of the way shaking my head.

Here’s the kicker (pun intended): When I made it to street level, and felt as though I was close to disappearing into obscurity, I replayed the incident in my head and realized I hadn’t been about to slip at all. What happened, in reality, was that my right foot was simply sliding to the back of the inside of the shoe—as I said, the new socks were slippery—but my right shoe itself was never in danger of giving way. The stairs and my sole were bonded quite well. The foot slam, the reverse drop kick—all overreactions. Let’s just say my head did not stop shaking for awhile after that one.

2. The Thai Food Delivery Shower Incident

A couple weeks ago, I was home alone on a Saturday night. I had no plans to go out, and was possibly going to watch a movie or something else low key. I’m not sure what I did during the day—probably a whole bunch of nothing—but I remember thinking at some point around 8 p.m. that I should order some food and take a shower, because if nothing else, those would both have been productive acts.

And so I did—I ordered some Thai food online, clipped my nails and set off into the bathroom to take a shower. I had been told to expect the food at some time a little before 9 p.m., and I hit the shower around 8:20, figuring I would have plenty of time. I decided that I’d bring my phone into the bathroom with me, although in retrospect, it’s hard to know what I imagined this would accomplish, since I hardly ever know my phone is ringing unless it’s vibrating in my pocket.

As I made my way through the shower—did some soaping and poured some shampoo into my palm—I heard something that sounds an awful lot like a phone, but much louder. It took me a second to realize what was going on, because I had only heard the sound a few times before. I soon figured out that it was somebody, presumably the Thai food delivery guy, trying to get me to buzz him into my building. Which, of course, I would have been happy to do if I were not sopping wet, naked, and about to put Head & Shoulders in my hair.

I acted quickly—scraped the shampoo off my palm, turned off the water, grabbed my towel, started drying off and ran to the intercom speaker. I was too late, the ringing had stopped, but then another ring began, this time on my phone. I ran my finger over the screen to accept the call and had a short, tense conversation with the delivery guy.

“I rang the bell but no one answered,” he said.

“I know, I tried, but I’m talking to you right now on the phone. I can let you in,” I replied.

“But no one answered the bell.”

“I know, I know. Just hold on, I’ll come get you.”

I tore into my room, put on some pants (no time for boxer shorts), tried not to pull any muscles as I worked the pant legs over my still wet human legs, and grabbed a sweatshirt and a hat and ran down to get the food. I thanked the man several times, came back upstairs and finished drying off. I never did get to finish shampooing until the next day, though.

3. The Lady Gaga Incident

At my office, I sit at what is almost like a cubicle, near to at least ten other people. We can hear each other make phone calls, we can hear clacking keys, and, since we don’t really even have half walls (they’re more like the dividers your middle school teachers may have used to use to prevent cheating on tests), we can even see each other. Yet we remain solitary, eyes locked on our computer screens, mind on our work. Only something extraordinary can break the (mostly-non-existent) walls. Recently, something worthy of an attention break did happen.

On this particular day, I was working on a story about a lawsuit involving the music publisher Sony/ATV. Remember that. Two new reporters had started the day before, and sat within five feet of where I do. They were still in the middle of a training period, and were both away from their desks when what sounded like a cell phone started making noise, presumably coming from the desk of the new woman who had started. Her apparent ring tone was some country song, and it was loud, but it eventually stopped. For two seconds. Then another song started—possibly, I thought, the tune she had chosen for her voice mail. During the first song, those nearby started to laugh, make some comments, look around. During the second, an informal investigation began. I, being a good fledgling New Yorker, was unperturbed and kept my focus on my work. Then a third song came on—“Born this Way” by Lady Gaga—and the investigative team seemed to be ruling out the possibility that it was coming from the new woman’s cell phone, which didn’t appear to be left anywhere in the vicinity of her desk.

I was unaware of the collective clue-gathering, though. Though I never reacted outwardly, I sat there thinking, “Wow, this is rough. It’s the girl’s second day, she’s got these really embarrassing cell phone ringtones, and she’s not even here to turn the thing off.” Then came:  Just love yourself and you’re set*, and I remained in the dark that the clues turned up by informal investigative team were pointing in my direction. I’m on the right track, baby, I was born this way*. Then, “It really sounds like it’s coming from your computer,” the HR director, who had come in to help conduct the search, said. To me.

It all hit home—Sony/ATV, Lady Gaga, Baby, I was born this way—I had gone to the music publisher’s website and it must have had a built in audio player. I told the HR director, “Oh, crap, you’re right,” turned to the guy who sits next to me and said, “Wow, that’s really embarrassing, I was convinced it was a cell phone,” then turned to my neighbors, most of whom I had never said a word to, and tried to explain to them that I really don’t listen to country music and Lady Gaga in twenty second clips for fun, and that it was work-related. I’m not sure they believed me. I’m not sure I would have believed myself.

* It’s going to be hard to ask this, but I request that you believe me when I say that I had to look up the lyrics to the song to write this part. As shot as my credibility may now be, I really didn’t know the words before tonight.

*          *          *

So there you have it, I didn’t yell walking down the sidewalk, but I might as well have. One silver lining here is that really only two-thirds of the absurdity happened in public. The other upside is that I’ve grown so accustomed to looking the other way when I see others acting like imbeciles that I’ve started to do the same for myself. With the exception of the last story, I can honestly say I didn’t feel even a twinge of embarrassment at any point during these mishaps. Although, I did take some time to have a long, hard think about what I had done, and as I mentioned before, that led to a lot of head shaking.

 

Until next time, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of the other (and trust your sole).

Early Saturday morning (sometime around 1 a.m.), I was mistaken as a burglar by my brother. The reasons for this mistake are simple. He and his wife thought I was home, in the apartment I have in their basement, and so set the house alarm and went to bed. I came in a few hours later, and the second I cracked the door the siren started wailing and I rushed to turn it off. The only thing was, it was so dark in the small staircase that leads to their level of the house, and I was in such a rush (and was in a very slightly-impaired state, which I’ll explain later), that I couldn’t find the doorknob, which I’m sure made me appear even more nefarious. There I was, pushing against the door, scratching around trying to find the knob in the pitch dark. Meanwhile, my brother was bolting out of his bed telling his wife to call the police. Eventually, my fumbling led to success, I ran to the closet where the alarm is housed and punched in the code to turn it off. Then I heard, “Scott?” from upstairs. I apologized to my brother and he returned to bed and I made my way downstairs.

The next day I learned that he had had few drinks that night and, possibly because of that, when he heard the alarm thought, “Okay, this is the real deal” and sprang into action. (I didn’t ask, because I didn’t have the heart, but I have to wonder, if I had been a burglar, what the next step of his plan would have been.) His wife, who had not had as many drinks, told him, clear-mindedly, “Call the police? It’s got to be Scott.”

As it happens I had also had a few drinks that night, though not enough to mistake an obvious misunderstanding for potential armed-robbery. I had also been told by a homeless man that “It’s not that cold out,” after I walked by him with long-sleeves pulled over my hands. The man, who was black, continued, “Aren’t you from one of those European countries? Aren’t you supposed to be used to this?” That made me laugh, but not quite enough for me to walk the six feet back toward him to give him a dollar, although he certainly would have deserved one.

I’m telling you all this because last Friday, into Saturday morning, might have been the most interesting few hours I’ve had in, well, a long time. I attribute that mostly to the fact that I left the bubble I’ve inhabited lately and went out into the “wild.” What I mean is that I went out where there were actual, real-live, other people. And these other, real-live, actual people happened to be at a rock concert, which is the reason for my encountering them. (I was going to use the word “interacting” in that last sentence, but that’s a little strong—I didn’t really interact with anyone, although I was near people who were interacting with each other, which is about as close as I come these days to sociality.)

This may happen to everyone, but I only know for sure about myself. When I’m tired of feeling too old for my age and too alone for my disposition, I find a concert to go to. Maybe other people go to a sports bar with some guys from work or join a running group that meets on Saturday mornings. But I don’t want the burden of any of that. I prefer the illusion of “having fun” without the responsibility of having to talk to anybody. So, for me, it’s concerts.

By dint of the types of bands I like—I don’t want to give the impression that I go willy-nilly to see some group I’ve never heard of, just because I’m feeling lonely—I usually end up at some rock club in one of the “hip” parts of town. These rock clubs, from what I can tell, are the same everywhere. (I’ve only been to them in seven or eight distinct cities, but there seems to be a trend.) There are usually a few male bartenders with tattooed arms, maybe some unique facial hair, and trendy glasses (or, in this case, all three, plus what the internet has told me is known as a “military hat,” though I know it better as the type worn by the lead singer of Fall Out Boy). There may also be a few female bartenders, one with a man’s army shirt and another with a tank top that shows off the tattoo she has of birds flying across her chest. The bar itself is almost always worn-out wood, either because the club has been rocking so hard for so long, or because the proprietors want everyone to think that way. The Black Cat in D.C., where I was Friday night, has this gaudy black and white tile floor and exposed pipes in the ceiling. I’m not sure the best way to describe the atmosphere, but the word grungy comes to mind.

This grunge is a contrast to the clientele—even in one of the “hippest” places in the city, there are still a fair share of yuppie types, and then hipsters who, we all know, are just yuppies in wolves’ clothing. I used to think that when I went to a live music show, I could count on two things: some sort of positive emotional response,  and falling in love with some random girl in the crowd whom I’d never talk to and never hear utter a word. Maybe because of my hypersensitivity to yuppie-types or my growing dissatisfaction with most people in general, these two axioms are less likely to be true nowadays. Which is kind of a bummer in some ways, but it also makes me feel as though I’m maturing, so it’s not all bad.

One thing that I still count on is a supreme clear-headedness in a place like the Black Cat. I almost never used to drink at concerts and now I do a little bit, but it never gets to me. It’s weird because places like this are almost inherently tipsy from the start—what I mean is that everyone in rock clubs seems to operate in a haze, because the music is so loud and disorienting and most people drink much more than I would and often the performers themselves are under the influence of either some controlled substance or just their own eccentricities. Because of all that, because I’m surrounded by it, my mind goes into counteraction-mode and swings to the opposite extreme. There’s no haze to be found between my ears.

When I first got to the Black Cat, it was still about an hour until the first opening band would take the stage. This, I have to say, is the biggest downside of going to a concert like this alone. If you go to a show where you have an assigned seat it’s never quite as isolating. But having to stand in a sparsely-populated, open room with a bar on either side and a sound board in the middle is a terribly lonely feeling. (At least it is for me, but if you believe my mother, I may well have social anxiety disorder, so you can’t trust me completely on this.) So, I pretended to check my phone and made my way to the bar, because what better fix is there for loneliness than a stiff gin and tonic?

As I was sitting at the bar, trying not to race through my drink, I saw two young and, from I could tell, attractive women walk in (a mirror lined the wall behind the bottles of liquor, so I saw their reflections). One of them sidled up next to where I was sitting, leaned in and ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, which was, by far, the cheapest drink on the menu (they were selling 16 ounce cans for four dollars). The other girl, when it was her time, told the bartender, “I need a minute.” She engaged her friend in some conversation, trying to figure out whether she liked any of the beers they offered. (It was pretty clear, though, that she probably didn’t drink beer very often and seemed like maybe she was trying to fit in with her laid-back, PBR-drinking friend, who knew exactly the right drink order in a grungy place like the Black Cat. I don’t know for sure, that’s just the vibe I got as they talked over my left shoulder.)

After all this, the poor girl tried to order a ginger beer, which was one of the samples lined up alongside all the bottled-beers they had for sale. (They had ginger beer in stock, mostly, I think, because hipsters like a drink called a “dark and stormy,” which mixes ginger beer with some alcohol, maybe rum. But, unmixed, I can’t really imagine drinking ginger beer—it’s like the soft-drink equivalent of those ginger strips you get with sushi. It’s strong, and maybe only good for cleansing the pallet or fighting nausea.) Bless his heart, the bartender told her, “You know that’s like a soda pop, right? It’s not a regular beer.” And she, flustered but trying to save face, said, “Oh. Well, I guess I’ll just have a Yuengling then.”

About twenty minutes later, one of the yuppie-types, a guy this time, ordered, “A Bass and a Ketel-tonic.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those orders. I personally like Bass on occasion, and while I’ve never had Kettle One vodka, I have had vodka tonics and they’re fine. But, it was something about his tone and the way he ordered the “Ketel-tonic” that really rankled me. It was probably because if I were to order it, I would say, hesitatingly, “Could I have a Bass and then, also, a vodka tonic, with Ketel One vodka?” He, of course, was more direct—commanding the bartender to give him these drinks instead of half-heartedly requesting them—and I’m sure, as a result of the attitude he’s adopted toward someone like that bartender, he has a much easier time navigating through life than I ever will. But in my mind, he paid five dollars more than he needed to and sounded like an asshole doing it, and I kind of hoped that someone would bump into him on his way back to his friends and that he would spill that top-shelf vodka all over his stupid collared shirt. (What this really comes down to is not that the guy was an asshole. He probably was not. It was that he wasn’t a young, attractive woman, and that I was anxious because I had been sitting at a bar by myself for 40 minutes and no bands had yet started. So, I wasn’t in the mood to cut anyone any slack.)

The two openers did eventually play. They aren’t worth many words, so I won’t talk much about them. The first band was horrendous, in that they were the sorts who used their rock band as a means to display some stilted, testosterone-heavy persona, full of yelling and saying things to the crowd like, “Thank you guys so fucking much.” I don’t remember much about their actual music, except that I kept thinking the lead guitarist seemed not to know the difference between playing two notes really quickly and “shredding” a solo. Really, though, I couldn’t pay attention to the music because the lead singer had a ridiculous haircut, shaved everywhere except the eight-inch long tufts at the left-side of his bangs and the right side of the back of his neck. The second band was stilted in a different way. It comprised two girls, one who was tiny (but, admittedly, very pretty) and one who was normal size (though kind of mean looking), and both of whom pretended to have some sort of massive, over-sexualized chip on their shoulder. (They also, as it happened, seemed to be train-wreck-level drunk, as they were passing around a large bottle of whiskey and taking swigs from it before the show and ended up finishing their set early, apparently because of a perceived slight from the crowd.) Their songs, from what I could gather, mostly talked about getting in fights and banging dudes. (You know, real heady, intellectual material—not at all the stuff of bratty, disaffected, teenage girls.)

Neither band seemed to grasp two important traits of successful musicians: 1) That personas and affectations are fine only if you’re preternaturally talented, which none of the band members were, and that the people who always make the best music are those whose words and instrumentation are direct, genuine expressions of who they truly are at their core; and 2) That if you want to sell your music, you need to make it so that it’s not painful to listen to.

Through all of this—the bad bar orders and faux-angst-filled rockers—I was still holding out hope that those two axioms of my response to rock concerts would hold true. I kept wondering when I’d see that girl across the room with whom I could fall in love. The light would hit her just so, and her hair would flip as she turned to a friend, and I’d see the pretty features of her face. I was also still waiting to be moved—that is, waiting for my spirits to be lifted. I really expected those axioms to hold true, even though their veracity has been chipped away at the past few times I’ve seen a live show. I don’t fall in love as often these days and I’m not moved to joy as easily.

Still, the hope lingered as the headlining band, The Lemonheads, started their set. They were there to play, in its entirety, an album of theirs from 1992, called “It’s a Shame About Ray.” The band now is not what it was when it released the album—the only remaining member is Evan Dando, the lead singer and creative force behind the group. I knew some of the songs were great and I was also hoping that later on, they’d play some music from an album they put out in 2006, which I used to enjoy listening to when I drove a van for a community service group at college.

Early on, I could feel the old familiar euphoria coming back. My lips uncontrollably curled into a smile as they played the opening lines of “Rudderless” (“Waiting for something to break, left my heart out to bake”). But then the drummer and bass player left the stage for a few songs. These were quieter songs, a little slower, to be played by Dando alone on his guitar. They weren’t ones I was familiar with, but that made me want to hear them all the more.

I would find out later that Dando has a strange past. He was singled out as a poster boy for alt-rock in the 90s, and The Lemonheads were signed by Atlantic Records, a major label. Much of the reason for this, from what I could gather, had to do with his physical appearance (he’s the son of a fashion model and has, to this day, a lean figure, chiseled jaw and an enviable head of shoulder-length, light-brown hair). He would be the gorgeously melancholy rock star. But to me, it seems like that must have been a strange fit, given his personality, or at least what I could tell of it from watching him perform 20 years later. Even at 44, he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin, and had a habit of looking awkwardly up into the ceiling as he was singing. At some point in the 90s, he started doing crack, which derailed his career for awhile (there’s no indication, I should say, that his drug addictions had anything to do with his feeling miscast or having too much pressure on his shoulders, that’s just speculation on my part). Then he married an English model (they’re now separated), put out a couple of critically-panned solo albums (these were, in one review I read, seen as “rebuilding years”). He reformed The Lemonheads in 2006, and put out the album I listened to in the van, which was received pretty well by critics. (One review had the tagline, “Alt-dude from last century fails to embarrass himself,” which would be damning, but then the record was given a six out of ten. So it seems it’s more a case of rock critics being dicks, as virtually all of them seem to be.) The band was composed of a supporting cast, but honestly, it sounds to me just like anything they put out in the 90s, although it’s maybe a little heavier and Dando sounds a little more world-weary, although he always had the melancholy thing down pat.

Anyway, without knowing any of his back-story, I was trying to make sense of Dando through his performance of these songs at the Black Cat. I started to sense the melancholy that Atlantic Records had tried to exploit, and I noticed his eccentricities, and then something happened that surprised me: I became really sad. There was Dando, 44 years old, someone who has created a musical aesthetic that seems so genuine to who he must be, and he was playing to these people in the second-tier rock club in Washington, D.C. (not exactly the hotbed of music appreciation to begin with). What was worse was that only half the crowd was listening at any one time. I was there on the verge of a breakdown because all of this meant so much to me—music like this, that’s good and honest and a guy like Dando still enjoying and working at his craft after so many years—and I looked to either side and there were guys drinking Miller Lites and yammering on about whatever, and girls in skirts not seeming to understand what they were hearing. And that just pushed me closer to breaking down.

I made it through the concert, and past the homeless guy, and dealt with the house alarm and my brother’s thinking I was a criminal. But at some point in that show, right around the time the drummer and bassist left the stage, I had the sort of crushing realization that made it hard for me to laugh when the guy asked me why I was so cold and when my brother told me the next day how he had been “ready for action.” That realization, of course, is that as much as I like other people and have compassion for them, I don’t feel connected to most of them, and it’s for the simple reason that to most people, talking through a rock show—even one in which they’re seeing someone with real, and genuinely-directed talent, and who they may only see perform once in their lifetimes—is not a huge deal. I’m okay with that—people don’t need to care as much about music as I do, and I can’t expect them to. But if I do care that much about it, and about the musicians who create it, and most other people don’t, what leg do I have to stand on with those other people? What common bond do we share?

So my axioms failed again. I’ll probably keep going to rock shows, even if I have to go by myself. I won’t hope to fall in love or to be moved to bonhomie, but those feelings were always fleeting anyway. It’s a loss, yes, but not one that hasn’t happened to me a million times over as I’ve turned myself further inward these past few years.

As it turns out, however, live music can still move me, just not in the same direction. Late in the show, The Lemonheads did play one song from the 2006 album. It’s called No Backbone, and it’s about a guy who’s unhappy with his love life, which is full of one-night-stands with women he has no real feeling for. It wouldn’t have jumped out as one of my favorites, but it had a surprising effect on me Friday night, and I’ve had trouble getting it out of my head since. The first few lines go: “It’s dawned on me again, I can’t balance in-betweens. It’s no longer familiar to me, it’s become routine.”

***********************

As per usual, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of another.

Sometime this summer, the floor started swaying under my feet. I noticed it first at work—I’d be waiting for the elevator to take me to the lobby and all of a sudden, I’d have the strongest sensation that the floor had turned into rubber. The feeling was always brief, lasting only a few seconds, and seemed early on to be tied to how little I ate on a given day. But that association broke down after awhile. Then I thought it was maybe vertigo, since the floor turning to rubber and dizziness tend to make natural partners. My ultimate theory, the one I’m sticking to now, is that my mind was slipping and this was the physical manifestation of it. Partly, or even mostly, because of this, it’s been a strange summer. Strange and long and wobbly in every sense of the word. But as strange as it’s been, it got a whole lot stranger today. All my imagined floor shaking and my theorizing about it disappeared, or at least turned moot. That’s because the ground moved, literally, right under me this afternoon.

Before now, I didn’t know anyone who had lived through an earthquake. But I imagine for most people who do experience them, they have a semblance of expectation before they ever face their first. What I mean to say is, people who come up in California, for instance, must hear stories from their parents, must have to rehearse response plans in school, and must live with the expectation that they someday may experience one themselves. And, for those people’s first earthquakes, while they must feel alien, they at least know, or can make a reasonable guess based on the stories, warnings and expectations, that they are in the middle of one.

I, like many of those around me this afternoon, had no such upbringing. I expect thunderstorms, nor’easters, even the occasional hurricane. I would say earthquake was last on the list, but that would be a lie. It didn’t even make the list. Which is why I must have been so confused today when one actually struck, as I was sitting in the food court of Union Station in Washington, D.C.

But before I get to the confusion, let me take a step back and explain the exact circumstances that brought me to that seat in the food court. I had spent most of the day listening to people affiliated with Boston University explain things irrelevant to me. I was told to respect the dormitory rules, though I would not be living there. I was asked to consider my roommates before leaving a mess in the kitchen, though I would not have any roommates. I was briefed on classes I would not be taking. The afternoon, while still irrelevant, at least promised to be interesting—I’d be going with other students to visit the U.S. Supreme Court chambers (although there was some question as to whether the actual courtroom would be open—apparently it needed cleaning).

Ten of us loaded onto a Metro train from Dupont Circle and arrived at Union Station some minutes later. We made a plan to split up for lunch and meet back at a particular stone archway at 2 p.m. Of course, 2 p.m. wouldn’t arrive in the usual way, but we didn’t know that yet, as it was only 1:30. After a trip to the restroom, I decided to get my lunch from a place called Chop’t. Chop’t isn’t a place I’d ever go back to. It’s a place that offers a variety of salads, but instead of just making the salad for you in the way most salads are made, they make it at least three times more difficult than it needs to be. When I ordered, one person took a little card, circled “Caesar” and “Grilled Chix” on it, then another threw a bunch of lettuce into a plastic tub, added some chicken and croutons and sprinkled a little cheese on top. Then it was passed down the line to another person who called me over. He dumped all the ingredients out of the plastic tub and brandished a banana-shaped knife with a rounded blade and handles on each end. Then he started to do something that I did not see coming—he started chopping (I should say, about 10 seconds into this, I realized this must be how the place got its name). Now, I’ll remind you in case you’ve forgotten that lettuce is easy to rip into small pieces by hand, and that this was a Caesar salad—usually, there’s no chopping required. I’ll also tell you that the chopping process is not a gentle one. It involves shards of lettuce flying this way and that, bouncing off cylinders of dressing and the chopper’s apron. From there, he took a flat blade, scooped the chopped ingredients into a giant metal bowl and added dressing until I told him to stop. Then he put everything back into the plastic tub.

After witnessing all of this, I was really surprised when I managed to pay without fainting. I was still perplexed as I walked out to find a seat. I saw a group of three people affiliated with my program (one other graduate student, and two young staff members) sitting at a small, circular table by the door. It’s possible the table could have fit a fourth chair, but after seeing all that lettuce flying around, I figured I should probably be alone for a few minutes. So I walked down a wide, marble staircase to the ground floor food court, and took my seat.

I sat there for a little while, eating my salad, marveling at how large it was, wondering why the hell someone created a business model that made salad-making so labor-intensive. Then my thoughts darkened a little. Before any of this salad mess, I wasn’t feeling well, in a spiritual sense. As I said, the summer’s been wobbly, and today was no exception. I was in a low spot, and I had somehow justified something blatantly antisocial (not bothering to sit with those three BU affiliates at their table outside Chop’t). Then something remarkable happened.

I had just put a bite of salad into my mouth, and was still staring down at the plastic tub when I heard, “Excuse me.” I looked up, and saw a woman standing near me, leaning over another table. She was maybe late-20s, had light brown hair and she wore a gray suit. She had button-cute facial features and smiled as she continued, “Where did you get that salad?”

She must have been a visitor to D.C., if I had to guess, I’d say she was leaving town on an Amtrak train after a work meeting, but I can’t be certain. I said, mouth still half full, “There’s a place upstairs, called ‘Chop’t.’”

She said, “Chop’t? Upstairs?”

“Yes.”

“Cool, awesome, thanks,” and she flashed another perfect smile.

As she walked away I had three thoughts. The first was that it shouldn’t have taken me so long to realize how beautiful she was. And she was beautiful. The second was that this may have been the one time in all my life that I was rewarded for my misanthropy. The third was a fantasy—maybe she would come down after ordering her own salad and sit with me.

I took my phone out and tried to put all these thoughts into a form that would fit in a standard text message, but shortly after, this effort was replaced by another. The floor started waving and shit started falling from the ceiling and smashing on the marble floors around me. It was no longer time to text a friend about a brief encounter with a beautiful woman; it was now time to climb under the table I had been sitting at, and hope that the Coca-Cola emblem that composed its surface would protect me from whatever the fuck was making the floor shake and causing loud noises to reverberate through the food court.

I don’t know how many of those reading have ever experienced something like this, but I will admit, it was intense. If I had been at my apartment or in a store somewhere else, I’m sure I would have had at least some spike in adrenaline. But I also would have more swiftly understood that what I was experiencing was, indeed, an earthquake. Being in a large public area a block or two from the U.S. Capitol building clouded my judgment. My first thought, after deciding to go under the table and protect my head, was that this must be an attack of sorts—the shaking and thwacks of ceiling debris hitting marble could have been the result of some artillery shelling of the outer portion of the station. Or maybe a bomb went off somewhere nearby.

But after a couple seconds I mostly dismissed that, because the floor shook in a way that didn’t make sense for a bombing. Not that I really know what that would be like, but I assume it doesn’t involve a marble floor turning into a water-park quality wave, with perfect buoyancy. So I was pretty sure it must have been an earthquake when I stood up to see people screaming and running up the wide marble staircase, skipping steps as they went. But then I looked around to the other parts of the food court, saw dust clouds in some corners, smashed stone near the bottom of the stairs, and soft black things floating down from above. These could have been the markings of some explosive—dust clouds and what looked like black ash floating from above—but really they were the markings of the quake. The black debris must have been from underneath the ceiling tiles and the smashed stone must have been the tiles themselves.

I have to say, though, in either scenario, the majority’s response made very little sense to me. If it were some attack—maybe a little far-fetched, but not beyond plausible—blindly running outside before gaining an understanding of what had happened seemed like a good way to get myself mowed down by masked gunmen. If it were an earthquake, well, those have aftershocks, for one thing. For another, if tiles were loosened by the shaking, causing them to smash down from the ceiling, wouldn’t it have been possible for a few stragglers to smash down shortly after—ones that were loosened but not totally unmoored?

So, needless to say, I didn’t run out screaming. I stayed put, surveyed the situation, making sure I was in close range of a table in case things continued falling. I made sure I had my phone (I’m not sure if I had it with me when I went under the table or if I left it resting on top—not all the details of this stage are clear, I was, literally, a little shaken up). The black debris covered my bottle of water, so I left it behind. At first, I thought my salad was safe, as I couldn’t see any black mixed in among the green, brown and off-white, but then I thought, “Well, when are you really going to eat this anyway? Plus, it was really too large a salad in the first place. And, shit, it wasn’t good enough to warrant all the work that went into making it.” So I threw it out on my way to the stairs.

When I went outside, I happened upon a few of what would have been my Supreme Court tour group, we tried to make calls on our cell phones, unsuccessfully, found all the stragglers, and then decided to walk across the city to Dupont Circle, where we’d come from (it didn’t seem like public transit would be running anytime soon, and I’m not sure any of us wanted to go back into Union Station anyway). Later, after we’d walked across the city and hung around in the building that will hold our classes, everyone decided it was time to go. They went to their dormitory; I walked down 18th Street to Farragut Square to try to make my way to Arlington, Virginia on the Metro, which had just started running again. Strangely enough, I had to wait only five minutes and a completely empty train arrived. It was the first time all summer I’d had a seat on my commute home.

As it happens one isn’t supposed to evacuate during an earthquake. One is certainly not supposed to scream and run, everyone else be damned. One is supposed to beware of items falling and find a sturdy object under which to take cover.

I wasn’t raised in an earthquake zone and I never learned the proper procedure. But my first instinct was the right one, and the adrenaline pumping through my veins was somehow not strong enough to cause me to stop thinking about what made the most sense. I’m not sure what any of this means, but I am sure it would have sucked to have a piece of ceiling tile knock me out this afternoon. It would have been a precipitous drop from thinking some out-of-town beauty in a business suit was about to fall in love with me over my choice in salads.

Still, none of this can explain why the ground started giving way under me this summer, why, as Ben Folds put it, the floor has suddenly become a moving target. Just because I’ve made it through an earthquake with my person and dignity intact, I can’t imagine my life will wobble any less.

 

As always, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of the other (just make sure the ceiling isn’t falling as you do).

A couple weeks ago, being a dutiful member of the online generation, I signed up for turntable.fm. The site allows folks to join a room and listen to music played by “DJs” who are really just other users. Each room has a “stage” where five of the DJs, represented by little cartoonish avatars, play music for the rest of the folks there. If you’re listening, you have the chance to say a song is good or bad—too many bad votes for one song means it gets skipped. Also, if one of the DJ slots on the stage opens up, anyone else in the room can jump up and start playing his or her own songs.

On my first visit, a couple weeks ago[1], I spent a few minutes figuring out what was going on. I’ve already called myself a member of the online generation, but what I meant to say was that I’m a member of the “most adaptable” generation[2], which is the title I think should apply to people my age. This is mostly because we’ve had almost every imaginable technological advance thrown at us over our quarter century here, and we’ve adapted to every one of them. (We’ve had to, though, so I’m not sure we really deserve much credit.)

Anyway, since I am, indeed, part of the adaptable generation, I managed to get up to speed with turntable.fm in decent time. I should clarify. I managed to understand what was happening on the website, I did not, however, understand what it would mean to take part as a DJ. But that had nothing to do with the technology. It had to do with me, and it’s what I’d like to explain now.

I—or, my avatar—was sitting in the room, half paying attention to the songs playing, when one of the DJ slots opened up. I had set up my queue of songs, and I was all set to click on the little yellow bubble that said, “Play Music” and would have taken my avatar up to the DJ stage. But as I went to move my mouse, I froze and I was brought back to a different time, a time when turntable.fm didn’t exist. A time, too, when my social life was of utmost importance. The time I’m talking about is middle school.

What about this online DJ party website, exactly, would make me feel even one ounce of what I felt like back then? It’s a good question, one that I doubt most people using turntable.fm would ever have to ask themselves. But for me, it was a question all-too-present. When that little yellow bubble popped up, any of the self-confidence I’ve gained in the past ten years[3] slipped away. I was no longer over six feet tall and slender; I was shorter and chubbier with wider gaps in my teeth and a bowl haircut. And I was at the worst place in the world for a chubby kid with no self-esteem: a middle school dance.

The parallels aren’t perfect, but bear with me. When I was given the chance to play my own music, a torrent of questions ran through my head, though all had the same basic premise: “What if they don’t like me?” This is probably the same reason I never asked anyone out in middle school. I knew I wasn’t secure enough in my own body to have the kind of swagger needed to pull off a move like that. The fear of embarrassment was always greater than the reward that might have come had I taken a risk.

And, apparently, it still is. Although now that I think about it, could the stakes in either situation have been any lower? Honestly, how much of a blow is it, really, if some 17-year-old girl on the internet labels your favorite song, “Lame?” And, in a related question, how awful would it have been if some tween girl turned me down when I asked her to dance ten years ago?[4] In fact, in the long run, I would have been much better off asking several tween girls to dance, having them all turn me down, and still going back for more. It would have given me wonderful personality attributes: persistence and the sort of confidence that comes when you no longer fear rejection. But I didn’t do that then, and I didn’t jump up on the DJ stage a couple weeks ago.

Around the same time I signed up for turntable.fm, Google’s social networking site Google+ came out. Being adaptable and all, I signed up for that as well. And, like Facebook and Twitter and Tumblr before it, I’ll learn how to use Google+, because, as I said before, we need to adapt to these things when they come. If we don’t, the tweeting world will go by without us. The arguments for adapting have been made well and often, and always boil down to the fact that the change becomes such a necessity that it’s not worth resisting all that much. You might as well get on board.

This isn’t to say that no one has ever questioned all these changes. In Bowling Alone[5], Robert Putnam laments the loss of civic engagement, pointing out that people spend more time in their own homes or in their inner friend and family circles, instead of bowling leagues and the Elks club. Earlier this year, Malcolm Gladwell made a case that the person-to-person connections necessary to pull off something like the sit-ins in the 1960s south were so strong that they could never be replicated in the Twitterverse. (The title of his essay was something like, “Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted,” which pretty much sums up his point.) In a subtle way, this Toyota Venza commercial makes the same case. If you don’t care to watch the ad, it depicts a set of parents who, according to their teenage daughter, are not being social enough because they only have a handful of Facebook friends. (She has 600 something[6].) Meanwhile, the parents are out mountain biking with their real-life friends and the daughter is in her room, alone, looking at pictures and saying, “That is not a real puppy, that’s way too small to be a real puppy.”

Personally, I don’t know what to make of those arguments, that the ties formed by social networking sites are not really ties at all. Some days I’m on board with them. When Google+ came out, for instance, I’d be lying if I said that this thought never crossed my mind: “Oh, great, another way to be lonely.[7]” But then I started using it, and had a video chat with four of my best friends, all of whom are scattered in different cities along the east coast. Google+ let me see and speak to people I almost never have the chance to. It’s hard to complain about technology when it lets you do something that remarkable.

But whatever is the “right” side of that debate, there’s another issue it completely ignores, which brings me back to the middle school flashbacks brought on by turntable.fm. I may not be more alone because of the internet. I also may not be less alone. But I am less confident because of it, and that’s because the internet has found a way to shine a light on my diffidence.

For people who crave constant approval (a different brand of low self-esteem from my own), the internet, a place like Facebook for example, provides an outlet. They can post inane status updates and count the number of “likes” they get. Or they can do something like the guy in a story a friend once told me. This guy sat in a college class and spent the entire 50 minutes refreshing his browser to see if someone new had posted a birthday message to his wall. Then, there’s me, and I imagine there might be others like me, who don’t crave approval, but still live in utter fear of rejection[8]. The thing is, I don’t really care, in a direct sense, if someone doesn’t like me[9]. But, I did care at some point when I was younger. And I cared a lot—definitely too much. So I care now about this sort of thing indirectly, not because I want to like me now, but there was once chubby kid at a middle school dance, totally unsure of himself, who really did want people to like him. And since that chubby kid grew up to be me, I’d hate to see him face the rejection he so fears. I know that kind of rejection will make yet another dent in his already flimsy self-confidence, and that he’ll be stuck with that dent more than a decade later.

If someone were to say that a song I chose was “Lame,” nothing in my present life would change, but the foundation on which it’s built would start to shake a little. And given that the foundation isn’t all that sturdy to begin with, I figured it was probably safer to remain in the crowd, leave the DJ table for someone else. For me, hiding has always been much easier than seeking.

***********************

Keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk, with one foot in front of the other.


[1] I’ve been back another time since the first, and what follows doesn’t accurately represent that return trip. I was hardly as worried, which may have been a result of alcohol consumption, or the fact that the other “DJs” that second time were all people I knew in real life.

[2] Maybe I should come up with something catchier and write a book about it—it’ll be my response to Tom Brokaw’s, “The Greatest Generation.” We twenty-somethings will become “The Adaptablest Generation.” Or “The Chameleon Generation” (but not the “Karma, Karma, Karma Chameleon Generation”).

[3] Please don’t laugh too hard at the idea that I have gained self-confidence. I admit it was a low starting point, and the gains have been marginal, but resist the urge to be cruel here. It’s not cool to laugh at people with low self-esteem.

[4] If I asked a tween girl to dance now, and she turned me down, then the answer to this question would be much different. For many, many, many reasons, that scenario would be very, very bad. Not so much because she turned me down, but because I was, for some reason, asking.

[5] This, I think, predates this social media stuff, but I think he’d still say civic engagement isn’t what it used to be, and that social media isn’t helping, although I could be wrong, since I haven’t looked.

[6] I wonder what she’d think of my 217 after seven years of being on Facebook.

[7] I hope when you read this, you imagined Eeyore from Winnie the Pooh saying it, because that’s exactly what I sound like when I think things like this. (Also, thanks for noticing me.)

[8] It’s sad to admit this, because I’m 25 and should be past this by now.

[9] Chances are I probably dislike them a lot more than they dislike me.

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