Tuesday, September 30, 2014

36 and Counting

 Every year—or as much as I try—on my birthday I sit down and write unimpeded and without pause or editing for one hour.  It is now 1:03 a.m. EST as I sit down with my faithful beirstein next to me to begin typing away in my apartment in Washington, D.C., a city I have never quite loved but that is now my current home.  My exercise every year on my birthday is to just simply sit, expound upon my thoughts, see where my pen…er, keyboard…takes me, reflect, meditate and otherwise turn inward upon myself in an attempt to see where I am, whereupon I have been, where I may yet be going.

To say that year 35 was one of great transition, change and uncertainty would be putting it mildly.  In the past 12 months I have moved twice, once to Illinois and now here to the nation’s capital.  My time in the Midwest was both excruciatingly testing but also far more fulfilling than I might dared have imagined.  After a quarter of unemployment, my career took me to the college town of Champaign-Urbana, certainly no place I had ever dreamed I’d be, nor one that I expected could hold me for long—which proved to be the case.  But perhaps it was fitting that my life took me to the middle of the country.  As a Jersey boy and creature of the east, I am thoroughly a Northeasterner, no matter that 15 years saw me as a California resident.  But half of my family is from the Land of Lincoln.  My mother grew up on the west side of Chicago, and many of her relatives remain there still. 

Living in Champana was unlike anything I’d ever known, and before moving, my mother said to me, “Eric, you’re going to meet the ‘real’ people.”  I freely admit to being an East Coaster and an urban snob.  From the land of Chris Christie I went directly to Los Angeles at age 17, and had lived in a major city or greater metropolitan area ever since.  To move not just to the Midwest, but the middle of the Midwest…well, that was a premise heretofore uncountenanced. 

Quite honestly, if I’d had any other possibilities, I would have gone elsewhere.

But as fate and necessity dictated, to central Illinois I went.  I’d made many, many trips to Chicago over the years, especially as a kid when my grandparents were living and still in reasonably decent health.  But Chicago, for all its promise and urbanity and populace, comprises just one small sliver of the overall area of the realm of the all-but-vanished Illini.  Below and away from Chicagoland are millions of areas of corn.  And wind. 

Oh, the wind.  In my memories of Champana, it is always there—howling in background, swaying the slats of my Urbana apartment windows to and fro, awakening me from naps and demanding attention as the gusts scream across and down the Great Plains.  It is, as its name implies, the “middle” of the country, if not the geographic center.  Many times during my five months as an Urbanian did the words of a Neil Diamond strike me:

“Nowadays I’m lost between two shores.  L.A.’s fine but it ain’t home.  New York’s home, but it ain’t mine no more.” 

Fifteen years was I an Angeleno.  One summer, in 2011, I was a New Yorker.  Neither do I reside in now—or then.  My snobbishness needed some humility.  My sense of urbanity as the true nature and epicenter of American existence was in dire request of modesty.

My mother was right: My experience in Illinois indeed taught me that there—as in, hell, most of America—is where the “real” people live.  The salt-of-the-earth, down-home, conservative (although not necessarily politically so), traditional folks who are the backbone of this experiment in democracy.  Not only that, but the most welcoming, wonderful people a wayfaring stranger from the east by way of the west could ever hope to encounter. 

From week 1, I was welcomed.  I went to a Meetup for bar trivia at the Blind Pig in Champaign on a typically blustery, shivering December Sunday night.  Joe was there, the “grand poobah” of the CU Social Club (operating then under another name).  The categories of trivia that night fell into my wheelhouse, not the least of which was a round of Rolling Stones questions—all of which I aced.  Our team won the evening…the first time the CU Social Club had ever done so. 

I was told I was never allowed to miss trivia again.  By week 2, I was one of them. 

A professor friend of mine, briefly an instructor at the University of Illinois, told me that life in Champaign-Urbana revolved less around “going out” than it did involve hanging out at people’s houses.  This I found largely to be the case.  If the gang wasn’t out at a bar, we were chilling at someone’s home.  More often than not, mine.  I had the largest apartment, the biggest TV, perfect for hosting. 

I liked hosting.  As Walter White said, I was good at it.  I did it for me.  As much of a recluse as I can be, I get off on throwing a good party, on having the place that people come to for a good time.  That was my stead in Champana: I hosted the Super Bowl, the opening of the Winter Olympics, the Oscars, movie viewings, general getogethers. 

Sometimes, I’d just say to my peeps, “Come over and get drunk and high and watch movies until we pass out.”  Sometimes that’s the best.  It’s fun just having folks over to get stupid and watch TV until the sun comes up.  It reminds me of the good times I had as a teen with my buddies where we’d do all of that minus the substances. 

I didn’t need to be popular, but it was nice to be wanted and included.  The circle peeps would call me several times a week.  They found out about things in my life before I’d told a soul!  For a large campus town, it was remarkably closed and close.  Everyone seemed to know everyone else’s business.  There were no such things as strangers. 

The town’s most famous son, Roger Ebert, founded a film festival there, which screened “overlooked” films at the amazingly antiquated Virginia Theater in downtown Champaign.  Ebert left right after college for the Sun-Times in Chicago, but he never forgot where he was from.  No, not Chicago, but Champaign-Urbana was the natural choice for his festival: his hometown, his alma mater, the place that gave him rise.

“Remember where you came from.”  That’s something my sensei, Ray Salapka, always used to say and imparted to his students in Jersey Bushido Kai.  It’s something I’ve kept with me always…a mantra that is applicable in nearly all situations.  Sensei meant it mostly in terms of how higher ranks in the dojo should treat inferior and less experienced karatakas.  “You were once a white belt too.”  “I wouldn’t ask you to do anything I can’t do myself.”

In January Sensei Salapka passed on after a lengthy illness.  It was my first trip back to New Jersey since moving west.  When my father picked me up from Newark, I remember being so awestruck by the hills of my home state in gross contradiction to the flatness of my then-current living situation.  The funeral was difficult.  Sensei had been a giant in my mind.  Not only was he a formidable man physically, but his spirit seemed indomitable.  When I first saw him cry amidst a painful divorce in 1991, part of my young world shattered.  But he recuperated and moved on.  He fought on and put off the cancer as best he could until there was simply nothing left to give.  I spoke to him one final time just before Christmas last year, his voice weak and broken.  I wanted to thank him, to say anything other wishing him a merry Christmas, but my words froze.  We spoke for less than a minute.  It was goodbye and I knew it. 

He taught us to adapt to any situation.  I could whine and push back against the flatlands of the Midwest with what I saw as an “uncultured” backwater vibeology, or I could go along with it and just be with them rather than trying to be above them. 

I am from the East Coast and I lived in California.  This is all beneath me…

Never once was I made to feel an outsider, yet doubtless I projected that upon everyone else, if inadvertently.  Joe, the grand poobah, offered to loan me money within my first two weeks in town when I feared I might not make bills.  My relatives three hours north in Chicago, whom I had heretofore seen once a year if lucky, were now accessible several times a month.  My visits to Chicago were finally unrushed.  I could see as much as I wanted to on an easy time scale stretched out over however many weekends it might take to enjoy. 

Furthermore, with map in hand I was able to visit Springfield, the state capital, working home of Senator Abraham Lincoln and final resting place of later President Lincoln.  There was a trip to St. Louis to see a Cards game; Milwaukee for same. 

Above all, the friends.  They were my circle and my world and my source of joy, of arguments, of sorrows and reconciliations.  Never before in my life had I experienced such a close-knit social circle.

And yet I left.  Yes, I left.  Partly, my pride and my provincial attitude had been seeking a way out from day 1.  I hungered desperately for a city and a coast.  I pined for the ocean—Atlantic or Pacific.  I missed topography: mountains and hills and valleys. 

That fucking wind.  Ever-present and hounding me at every turn, indoors or out.  Even as the worst winter in decades faded and gave way to a tenuous spring, the gusts blustered on.  Lake Michigan howled and furied its way south across the Plains.  All was ice and snow and subzero chill for months on end.  Then the wind would blow me sideways as I biked from Urbana to nearby Champaign in spring. 

I missed good sushi and “culture.”  Rather, sophistication…or as such as I defined it.  As welcomed and at-home as I was made to feel, still I knew I did not belong. 

The Washington Times came crawling back.  I’d interviewed for a job at the Universal Desk back in October.  There was a hiring freeze.  Then a budget cut.  Then layoffs.  Finally they were ready.  Would I still be interested?  Yes, I said, but the payoff would need to be well worth my while to uproot again within the same six-month period. 

They made it worth my while.  Very quickly it came together.  I had an offer in hand to come back to the eastern seaboard.  To come to the nation’s capital.  To be a newspaperman.  To engage in work I would actually enjoy.  To be closer to New Jersey.  Within striking distance of three major airports. 

It was an easy decision professionally.  It was the right move.  It was the logical next chapter.  No matter that my increased salary would be swallowed whole by the District’s inflated rents and taxes.  No matter that I’d still have to work a second night job just to get by (forget getting ahead). 

I’m a Libra, and all life is a tradeoff.  I left behind my friends of the Midwest for the relative anonymity of the Beltway.  It’s a larger city, yes, and has far more going on…but I work swing.  My nights are occupied by my job.  I have made few friends.  Most of my non-work hours are spent in solitude. 

My friends from Illinois call and text regularly to check on me.  I get home to New Jersey once or twice a month.  Airports are proximate for trips elsewhere.  But the lion’s share of my day is spent alone.  I am beginning not only to feel more at home in solitude, but protective of it. 

People bore me more nowadays.  I get impatient quicker with pointless anecdotes and self-interested narrative.  At work I listen to my headphones and only take them out at the end of the day when we need to make final corrections to page 1 of tomorrow’s paper.  I have an absolutely amazing boss who fought hard for me to get the gig, who treats me like a fellow professional and not as a subordinate, who is a colleague first and foremost and a friend outside the office.  I’m lucky.  I found a great situation professionally and an atmosphere that not only do I not hate, but where the hours melt briskly away. 

And I get to write for them sometimes too.

All life is balance and tradeoff (again, I’m a Libra).  My move here was great for my career but a kick in the teeth of my social life.  To date I have had less than 10 visitors to my apartment whereas my Urbana apartment was patronized by dozens.  I enjoy my work here in the District of Columbia of a magnitude beyond my work in Illinois that is difficult to express. 

But I miss my friends—both those in Illinois as well as those in New Jersey and California.  I haven’t yet “found my way” here.  When I’m not working, which is seldom, I’d just as rather have several drinks and watch TV.  Or read.  Or just be alone.  Even dating has gotten tedious.  Most of the time I long for silence and solitude. 

Last year at this time I thought a lot about my own death.  Not in terms of wishing it or hurrying it, but rather in the scheme of I felt like I had done most everything I’d ever wanted to do, so might this not be a good time to check out?  Alas—or nay alas—I remain.  I regret not that I’ve “survived” yet another turn round this mortal coil.  I’ve learned much and experienced so much more.  Moving to the Midwest got me out of my comfort zone.  “Adapt,” Sensei would have said.  And I did.  Now I’m in yet another unfamiliar place with few friends.  I am adapting…mostly by working.  Because I’ve been broke for well over a year.  Because every dollar I make belongs righteously to a bank or a creditor.  Tomorrow I will pay off my 2010 Scion tC, which I bought in July 2010—my first new car.  That money can now be spent elsewhere, toward paying down my burdens.

Or, more likely, toward fixing the fucker.  An estimate handed down from a local mechanic calculates $440 for a busted water bump.  At least now, if I can’t pay it, they’ll come after me and not the bank for the lien.

The depression remains, albeit in moderation.  This past summer I am positive I received a bad batch of my antidepressant.  I was not myself.  I thought of suicide frequently.  I knew my brain chemicals were off.  A later batch evened me out, and I have been better.  The anxiety is far less than it used to be.  More often I get down in the dumps than anxious.  I spend more time alone.  My Achilles’ heel was hoping too much—setting my sights too high, setting myself up for disappointment.  I’m working on it.  I’m better at it, but that leaves, as the inverse, the notion that I don’t hope or care as much.  It’s a shitty place to be sometimes: in betwixt the death of hope and the futility of aspiration. 

I know nobody cares about things that I do.  I know my friends don’t yearn for the company the way I do.

So I remain silent, more isolated, more alone.  Doing things for myself and making plans for one.  It’s sometimes better that way.  I don’t care about disappointing anyone else, only myself.

I don’t believe in regrets per se, but I have a few.  Je Ne Regrette Rien.  Personally, I believe that every negative experiences teaches us something.  So while there might be a few things I’d do differently given the chance to do over again, I don’t “wish” to be back there in those younger years.  You couldn’t pay me enough money to be 18 or 24 again.  I like where I’m at…life really does get better after 30.  You know yourself better, you appreciate yourself more and have less patience for the moronicity of others. 

But…although I don’t believe in regrets, as I say, there are some things I’d do differently.  Or rather, that I still carry around as the yoke of guilt.

In 5th grade, back in 1988-1989, I remember once yelling at a girl named Michelle in gym class for some foolish reason.  She had hitherto been nothing but kind to me in school.  I lost my temper and screamed at her.  She said, “Well, soooooory,” and, to the best of my recollection, we never spoke again.  I wish I could apologize to her, although I’m sure she’d have no recollection whatsoever.  But I carry that with me.  It was uncalled for and unneeded.  And cruel.

In 1987 my mother took my neighbors and I to see the (horrible) Spielberg film Empire of the Sun.  For some immature reason I was furious that she brought alone the next-door neighbor girls, so much so that I refused to sit next to any of them, moving myself up five rows ahead of the pack.  When the film ended I excoriated my mother for wasting several hours of my time.  It was childish and stupid.  And she rightfully said, “You couldn’t even sit next to me.”  Mom and I have seen countless films in the intervening years, and yet still that experience haunts me.  I’m almost too embarrassed to bring it up with her.

The only other regret I can countenance is not going to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers perform at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles on The Last DJ tour.  Jim Ladd, he of the eponymous title and nightime jock at KLOS, had been playing the songs for weeks in the fall of 2002.  I loved it and wanted to go…but simply couldn’t spare the expense.  I was broke (duh) and had already purchased Stones tickets.  A few weeks later, while out jogging, Mr. Ladd broadcast live from the Wiltern as Petty and the boys played the album front to back followed by the classics.  Never so much in my life had I wanted so badly to be in a place I could only hear. 

I own the album, given for Christmas two months after the fact, and played it so often that I feared the laser would no longer read.  It became my favorite album of all time, and one that seemingly few else cared for or knew about.  I’ve seen Petty not less than four times now, and he has never once played a track from that album.  I wish I could have been there.  I wish I could have heard The Last DJ live. 

Regrets are nothing more than anger turned inward.  I harbor too much anger.  I wish for too much instead of accepting what is. 

We all have work to do.

I’ve done OK.  I’m getting better.  Women like me, yet more often than not I prefer to be alone.  Like now.

It’s 2:04 a.m. on September 25, 2014.  Today I am 36 years old. 

Today is another day.