Wednesday, December 16, 2015

On My 35th Birthday

Two hundred years ago, life expectancies were shorter and "35" was synonymous with "middle-aged."  Now, it's more like the late morning of youth or the final entrance into adulthood.  I don't feel old, but when I talk to my 18-22-year-old students I sense a distance.

I spent yesterday evening at a dive gay bar in Portland.  It had slot machines and strippers.  I saw a middle-aged woman walk in, lose a solid amount of cash on the slots and then leave.  There were half has many strippers as there were customers and they were hungry for work.  One came over and leaned into me.  He had terrible breath and an irritating personality.  I looked at my phone and realized that I would be 35 in one hour and somehow all of my previous 35 years had led me to this particular bar.  I went back to the hotel.

I spent today driving down the Oregon coast.  It was rainy  I stopped periodically and contemplated the high waves.  On better days and in better seasons, I could have spotted some whales.  I also would have been surrounded by crowds.  I liked the way I spent today.  It was peaceful.  I always liked the winter more than the summer.

There's a lot I could write about, how little I feel I've accomplished so far in life, the disappointments, the friends I wish I hadn't lost contact with and the missteps.  Right now, though, I'm thinking of the accidents in life that lead someone to be in a certain place at a certain time doing the work that he is doing, being around the people he is around.  Ten years ago, I was up for a job as an arts editor at the Honolulu Weekly.  I was one of two final candidates.  They gave the job to an islander, and so instead of moving to Hawaii, I took my savings and went to Eastern Europe.  I worked for a few months for a newspaper in Bulgaria and then for a year for a newspaper in Latvia.  While in the Baltics, I wrote profiles of a Latvian animator named Signe Baumane and an Estonian animator named Priit Parn.  This led me to apply for a Fulbright to study Hungarian animation in Budapest.  I spent a year in Budapest and came home right at the time of the financial crisis.  What to do?  I applied to grad school, and now I've spent two years doing an MA in Iowa City, and four years pursuing a Ph.D. in Seattle.  My first peer reviewed article, based on interviews I conducted in Budapest seven years ago, will be published this spring.  If I had gotten that job in Hawaii, I would be in a very different place right now.  

There are the things you can't control.  There are the things you think you can.  Last year, around the time of my 34th birthday, I made a list of all the things I would tell my 15-year-old self.  I sent them to a friend of mine.  This is a slightly edited version.

1.     Everyone has prejudices.  That includes you.      
2.     Most people don’t know what they’re talking about.  That includes you.
3.  You have no idea how many of your beliefs will change over the years.  Your 35-year-old self will still support the Democratic Party, still be in favor of gay marriage and still be pro-choice, but he won’t recognize the attitudes you express on a day-to-day basis. Outside of murder and rape being wrong, cancer sucking, and no war being a good war, never stop questioning.  
4.     Smoke marijuana, but don’t do it more than three times/month.
5.     Get drunk at least once.  You are a lightweight.  This will never change and that’s okay.  Many people enjoy getting drunk, but you don’t.  That’s okay. 
6.     Any given person’s political/religious beliefs are usually uninteresting.  A person can have uninteresting beliefs but still be interesting.
7.     You never have to get an A.  Let me repeat that.  YOU NEVER HAVE TO GET AN A.  Nurture your talents, but don’t be afraid to rigorously pursue subjects in which you will never earn more than a D plus.  Your 35-year-old self practices yoga almost every day and is trying to learn a Slavic language.  He’s terrible at both.  People tell you to always try hard.  The better advice is to increase your tolerance for humiliation.
8.     All status is bullshit.  There is no binary between success and failure.  There’s no such thing as a “loser.”  
9. You know nothing about any country until you’ve visited it.  After you’ve visited it, you’ll know even less.
10. Your high school is a very small place, but there’re more interesting people around you than you realize.  Seek them out.  There will always be more interesting people around you than you realize. 
11. Dress well.
12. Go hiking.
13. Get a real job in the summertime.  
14. Learn to like children.
15. You’ve hurt more people in your life than you will ever know.  You’ve also helped more people in your life than you will ever know.  This will continue to happen until you die.
16. On that note, people say awful and hurtful things about you, often without any malice.  Everyone is guilty of this crime, including you.  
17. Only 10 percent of the people you meet have an opinion about you that matters.   
18. Read Philip Roth, Ursula Le Guin, Samuel Delany, James Baldwin, Edmund White, Nathanael West, Walt Whitman, Philip Larkin, The Forever War, The Brothers Karamazov and Cancer Ward.  Jane Austen is better than you realize, but it’s okay to put her back on the shelf and pick her up again in 10 years.  Most people who say they like James Joyce are lying.  Most people who say they like Virginia Woolf are telling the truth.  It’s cool that you dig Faulkner, but you’ll like him more in college.  Read more history and books that explain science to a lay audience.  (You are always the lay audience.)  One of your brother’s college friends has a huge collection of alternative comics.  Raid it.
19. Country music is fantastic.  So is gospel.  Get every Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash record you can get your hands on.   There’s a box set of Ray Charles’s country covers.  Mahalia Jackson.  The Louis and Ella recordings.  Miles Davis’s Porgy and Bess album.  Old Elvis is better than Young Elvis.  Keep going with the Dylan obsession.  In a few years, all music will be free, but you won’t enjoy any of it the way you enjoy it now.   
20. All those things you want so much right now?  You'll get a lot of them in the future, around the time you stop wanting them.   

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