Friday, July 29, 2011

Deja Vu All Over Again

I’ve always written about personal things. I realize it’s not the smartest move, that opening the doors to the deepest, darkest corners of my world might convince some people that I’m a deranged lunatic who shouldn’t be walking among the general population. But it’s an outlet for me, a form of therapy without a per-hour price tag that allows me to ramble and vent and gain clarity on what I truly think and feel.

It’s also what I know. I’ve never understood how writers and commentators can sit from afar, critiquing and judging others, spewing their opinions as gospel when they have no idea what it’s like to be the person they’re attacking. That takes some kind of arrogance, and I’m thankful I don’t have it. My life is the only thing on which I’m the planet’s premier authority, so I typically try to just swing at pitches in that strike zone.

Of course, the downside is that interesting topics can be hard to come by. I keep a notepad with me should anything worthwhile flash through my mind, but oftentimes, the only “good” ideas I have are things like turning down the air conditioning when I leave the house or opting for Double Stuffed Oreos over the standard version.

Last week, though, I was sure I had something. I’d just found out that my dad was buying a new car, and that I was going to get his. Considering my Toyota had over 175,000 miles on it, and its “Check Engine” light had become the world’s most costly popup, this was a much-appreciated development.

(As a side note, auto companies should change this warning light to just read “$1,000”, because that was inevitably the cost for every Johnson Rod that broke.)

But as I was preparing for the vehicle’s arrival – calling the insurance company, researching the titling and registration process, scoring Valium for my looming trip to the DMV – I couldn’t help feeling embarrassed. I was ashamed that my father was giving me a car, that at 33, I was still getting some sort of allowance.

The whole fiasco reinforced this sense I’ve had lately that my life seems to be lagging behind, that my progress doesn’t match up with my age, and I figured it could be something worth writing about. So I spent some time with it, brainstorming and outlining, certain I could make it work.

But the deeper I got into it, the more I felt that something was off. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I kept pushing forward, hoping it was just the labor pains of the creative process. And then it hit me:

I’d already written this article.

On August 8, 2010, I posted Waiting for My Real Life to Begin. I’d been struggling with my writing at the time, and it had occurred to me that those difficulties were the perfect metaphor for my life in general. Things weren’t stacking up the way I had hoped, I wasn’t achieving what I wanted to achieve, and time was slipping away. As depressing as most of the article was, it did end on a positive note, leaving the reader – and me – to believe that I’d gotten a newfound perspective, and I was now ready to get out and get going.

Yet here I was, almost a year later, not having moved an inch.

The symmetry was sobering. What had I been doing for the last 12 months, running on a treadmill? How had I not made any progress? What was holding me back? And above all else, why was I continually struggling with the same issue?

And when I thought about it some more, I realized it wasn’t just this one issue that’s still giving me trouble. There are a lot of them, battles I’ve been fighting since I was little, since the age when it was fashionably acceptable to tuck my Underoos shirts into their matching grippers. Fears, anxieties, doubts…the list goes on and on. But for whatever reason, I haven’t been able to break free of them.

When I was in college, I was fortunate to be a part of a great group of friends, guys from all over the country who were smart enough to recognize that there was no better town in America in which to go to school than Austin, TX. And we took full advantage of it.

There were about a dozen of us, and we all lived within a five block radius of each other. When we weren’t in class (which was often), we’d pass the time watching TV or throwing the baseball around or discussing what disgusting lengths we’d go to for the chance to be with that month’s Playboy centerfold. Then we’d head downtown to 6th Street to whatever bar was serving $1 beers. The whole experience was surreal, and those four years were some of the best of my life.

But even through all of that, through all of the camaraderie and great times and drunken slices of pizza, I struggled with insecurity. I could never fully relax, always unsure if the real me would truly be accepted. Was I cool enough? Were my jokes funny enough? Did they even like me?

It was all absurd, and in the 11 years since, I’ve often kicked myself for feeling that way, for allowing that once-in-a-lifetime experience to have been jaded, even just a little. I think about all of the energy I wasted and the fun I missed out on, and I vowed that going forward, I would no longer give into that nonsense.

So a couple of months ago when one of our friends was getting married, I was ready for redemption, convinced that I’d shed the weight of my immature insecurities. The wedding weekend set up perfectly, with a great hotel on a beautiful beach overlooking the ocean, and my only responsibilities were to sit in the pool, drink frozen cocktails with umbrellas in them, and hang out with my best friends. I couldn’t wait to get there.

But the moment I walked off the plane, something shifted.

It was like I’d hit 88 MPH in Doc Brown’s Delorean, and I was suddenly back in the year 2000. Any self confidence I’d had was immediately overcome by a wave of doubt. It didn’t matter that I was now 33, or that there was over a decades’ worth of evidence proving that, yes, my friends did like me. I still felt like that 22-year-old, uncertain and unsure of himself, just hoping to fit in.

Now, I know it’s natural to revert back to an old version of yourself when you’re around particular people. The President of the United States may be the most powerful man in the world, but when he gets around his mother, there’s a chance he’ll feel like a little boy again. But I don’t know…for me, there’s something more there…a pattern. I go through an experience, I reflect on it and admit to my hang-ups, and I promise myself that, armed with some hard-earned wisdom and insight, I’ll jump right over those hurdles the next time.

But then the next time rolls around, and I end up facedown again, bruised and battered, picking asphalt out of my teeth.

I’ve been doing everything I can think of to try to snap this cycle, from weekly therapy sessions to self-growth seminars. I’ve dug deep into the past, down to the core, revisiting and reliving all of the defining moments in my life, the different occurrences and instances that had a lasting effect on me, to try to get a grasp on why I am the way I am.

And what I’ve found is that my problems weren’t caused by these defining moments themselves…they were actually born out of my interpretation of them. And from those interpretations, I drew conclusions – that I wasn’t good enough or smart enough or whatever – which became the foundation for how I interact with the world, and I have lived from those conclusions ever since. To me, they are the absolute truth, regardless of the fact that I can now see that they’re ridiculous, that they were derived out of the logic of a toddler or a teenager. So when I’m faced with a stressful situation, I’m processing it and reacting to it from that same point of view.

In other words, my life is still being controlled by the mind of a 3-year-old.

What’s frustrating is that, on paper, there’s absolutely no reason for me to be struggling. I was blessed with gifts that anybody would kill for, and I grew up in a loving home, with loving parents who showered me with nothing but praise and support. So the fact that I’m having these problems at all has been a double whammy – I struggle with my issues, and then I beat myself up even more for simply having the issues in the first place.

And thus, the pattern continues…

Outside of leaning on cheesy clichés to make a point, one of the main things I try to avoid in my writing is repetition – not just in the overarching subjects, but from paragraph to paragraph. I’d be completely lost without the “Synonym” function in Microsoft Word. In this article alone, I felt like I was using the word “car” too much, so I almost slipped in an “automotive transportation mechanism” to mix things up, but it just messed with the flow.

Yes, I know that I hit some of the same themes at times, and yes, I know I frequently reference particular events and periods of my life. But when I do, I always try to approach them from a new angle or use them to convey a new message. To steal a line from Will Hunting, what I don’t want to be is unoriginal.

(And yes, I recognize the hypocrisy of that last sentence.)

I guess I just have to figure out a way to translate that originality to the rest of my life, so that the same issues don’t keep showing up for me again and again. I’m not really sure how to do that, but as much as it pains me, the answer could probably be found in one of those cheesy clichés. After all, those sayings become clichés for a reason – there’s truth in their meaning. And now that I think about, there is one that fits this whole debacle perfectly:

Actions speak louder than words.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Total Recall

With its steady integration into living rooms everywhere, High Definition television is now being lauded as one of the greatest inventions of our generation. Everyone who has it raves about how it’s opened up a whole new world of viewing pleasure, with its startling clarity and lifelike images. The technology is even considered to be – at least in part – responsible for why people are staying home more and going out less, resulting in decreased attendance at places like movie theaters and sporting events. That’s the type of impact it’s had.

After all, if you can get virtually the same experience from your couch that you can get from the stands, why go somewhere that you have to use a trough as a urinal?

And while I’m in favor of avoiding public restrooms as much as possible, I personally don’t get what the big deal is about HD. Yes, the picture is clearer, and yes, I’m glad somebody came up with the improvement, but ultimately, it hasn’t changed my TV watching experience that much. It’s not giving me any specialized viewing angles or new perspectives or anything like that. When I watch a football game, for instance, I still can’t see how the safety is aligned…I can just make out his nose hairs when they show a close-up.

To be honest, I equate watching HD to going to a strip club – it’s cool for about 20 minutes, but once the (insanely awesome) novelty wears off, you’re not seeing anything of consequence that you haven’t seen before.

The Digital Video Recorder, on the other hand, has revolutionized the way I watch TV. With its rewinding and pausing and recording two shows at once, I have all sorts of freedom. I can answer the phone or play golf or do whatever and still see everything I want to see – all without commercial interruption. It simply doesn’t get any better than that.

A couple of weeks ago, though, there was a program my girlfriend and I wanted to watch that was going to be on while we were flying back from out of town, so we set the DVR in advance. But when we walked in from the airport, the red “Record” light wasn’t on, despite the fact that the show was airing as scheduled.

Sitting there, frustrated and fuming, my evening plans shot, I tried to make sense of it all. Had the DVR developed a mind of its own? Had it begun haphazardly deciding what it would record and what it wouldn’t? I mean, this machine was my rock, my anchor, and I trusted it to capture and hold onto what was important to me. How disorienting would my world become if I could no longer bank on being able to call up what I needed when I needed it?

Needless to say, the whole fiasco was somewhat unsettling. But what made it even worse was that it meant that there were now two storage devices in my life that couldn’t be counted on.

The other would be my memory. For some time now, it just hasn’t been as sharp as it used to be. Dates, phone numbers, Seinfeld lines, you name it…none of these things come to me like they once did, and what I’m sure I’ll remember one minute is gone the next. I don’t know if it’s age or the sleep apnea that plagues me or what, but my mind feels like a darkened closet, where I have to stumble around and stub my toe before I can find what I’m looking for – if I ever find it at all.

Just last week, the local sports talk was discussing a basketball player who had made headlines for one reason or another. His name sounded familiar, and I knew I should’ve recognized it, but I couldn’t quite place it. Where did he play? What was his position? How many illegitimate kids did he have? These were all facts I’d been accustomed to recalling instantly, but now, I saw nothing but blurriness.

After about 45 seconds, I finally connected all of the dots, but the incident became another example in a long line of examples of my ever-increasing amnesia.

Not surprisingly, I don’t really remember when these issues first started. I want to say they cropped up last football season, when my beloved Texas Longhorns were slogging towards a disastrous 5-7 record. My guess is that, out of self preservation, my subconscious tried to shut down the “UT Fan” wing of my memory bank, but the lines got crossed, and the entire network was knocked out of whack.

And while it’s been nice to not remember every fumble and dropped pass – and every missed tackle and interception and blown assignment – this lack of recall has negatively affected the other areas of my life. Whether it’s at work or in my average day-to-day, I’m always on edge, worried that there’s something that I’m not doing. It’s like I’m perpetually loading my suitcase into the car, convinced that I’ve forgotten to pack my boxers.

My biggest fear, though, is that I’m eventually going to reach the next level of forgetfulness: not realizing that I even forgot something, because I have no recollection of what it was I was supposed to do in the first place.

In other words, forgetting that I’m forgetting.

It used to be that I never had to think twice about remembering something, nor did I have to keep notes or write anything down. Everything that happened to me – from the smallest of moments to the deepest of conversations – got filed away, and I could replay and relive the experience whenever I needed to.

And as a writer, this really came in handy. All my time is spent examining and evaluating and picking apart the world around me, and I’m constantly stockpiling “What does it mean?” observations in hopes of finding a good story idea or an interesting angle to explore. So having access to these musings, no matter how long ago they had occurred, made my creative process that much more effective.

But now, I have to scribble out nearly every thought that pops into my head, knowing that if I don’t, there’s a good chance it’s going to disappear into the darkness.

Where are Dave Chappelle and his home stenographers when you need them?

The worst part of all of this, though, is that I don’t feel completely like myself anymore. I don’t feel as smart, and I don’t feel as self-assured. The inside jokes I share with my friends aren’t as fresh in my mind, and some of the seminal moments in my life, like my first kiss or when my hometown Houston Rockets won the city’s first title or the first time I got drunk (okay, so maybe that’s not the best example), are more fuzzy than in-focus.

And so are the emotions that went with them.

Our memories, in a sense, define who we are. Without them, we’re just a blank slate, a hollowed-out version of ourselves. They are the record, the evidence of our lives. They store all of the critical data – what’s happened to us, how we interpreted those events and what we can learn from them. They maintain our connection to the past, and they provide context and meaning to our present. They can transform a mundane task into a hard-fought accomplishment, and they can serve as a reminder of where we’ve been and where we want to go.

So losing touch with that, even if just a little, has been disheartening. I’ve tried to keep the deterioration at bay by doing things to stimulate my cerebrum – mixing up my route to work, solving Sudoku puzzles, flipping the bird with my less-dominant left hand – but nothing has done the trick yet. And my guess is that, as I get older, the battle will become that much tougher.

Which brings me back to my DVR…

It turns out that it hadn’t gone rogue at all. That show my girlfriend and I wanted to watch? It didn’t record because it was a rerun, and the DVR was set to only tape first-run episodes.

Not surprisingly, the designers of the DVR were smart – they knew that their invention would have a finite amount of storage, so they equipped it with options that would allow it to secure and save whatever its owner deemed most essential.

My hope is that my memory can figure out how to do the same. Ever since these lapses started, my world has been a hazy mess, like I’ve been squinting through the fog. But if I can somehow learn to parse out the nonsense so that I can hold onto the meaningful stuff, then maybe I can get back to seeing life the way it was apparently meant to be seen:

In high definition.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Great Divide

I’m a mama’s boy. Always have been, always will be.

Don’t get me wrong…it’s not like my mom hand-feeds me chicken or anything. We just share a special bond, and no matter where I am or what I’m doing, I know that we are connected.

We used to talk on the phone every morning during my 30 minute commute, but then she saw another segment on Oprah or Good Morning America reiterating how unsafe it was to use your cell while you’re driving – hands-free device or not – and that was the end of that.

(By some miracle, my mother always seems to be tuned to whatever show is running a story about how damaging cell phones are, how harmful sitting closer than six feet from the TV can be, and how scientists have now discovered that every piece of food I’ve ever eaten is completely void of any nutritional value. Really, it’s like her remote control can sense when one of these pieces is going to air.)

Ever since, our daily communication has come via instant messaging. This is no small feat, mind you, given my mom’s lack of technological savvy. She’s not the most patient person when it comes to the computer, and it’s not uncommon to get called in from another room because the machine “isn’t working,” only to find out that she simply hasn’t given it enough time to load, and there are now nine Internet Explorer windows open.

To my surprise, though, she’s been able to IM without many issues, and we’ve gotten into a nice routine. We catch up while she checks her email, and she doesn’t have to worry about me veering off into a tree. So far, it’s worked out well.

But a few weeks ago, our session ended on a troubling note, even if she didn’t know it. We’d been chatting for about 20 minutes, and everything was going along fine. But as we were about to sign off, she typed three words that really caught me off guard:

We miss you.

This threw me for a loop, not because I couldn’t grasp the concept of my parents missing me, but because it touched something inside of me, something I suspect that had been bubbling for a while, and it took reading my mom’s words to bring it to the surface.

See, when I graduated college, I wanted to get as far away from my hometown of Houston as possible. To that end, I spent the subsequent years pin-balling around the country, trying to find my own little place in this world. I’d load up my car and drive off into the sunset, hopeful that this time I’d get it right.

Inevitably, though, I’d end up back on my parents’ door step, bruised and battered, wondering if things would ever work out for me. Each failure felt like a false start, pushing me back further and further, and thus being in Houston grew to be synonymous with my lack of progress and achievement.

So a few years ago, when the opportunity to move to Washington, D.C. presented itself, I jumped on it. Rationally, I recognized that this would be a major shift in my life. I knew that I was going to be in a different time zone from my family, and that I would no longer be able to have a standing lunch date with my father or eat Friday night dinner with my parents while watching Chris Hansen bust unsuspecting pedophiles.

But honestly, as cold as this sounds, I wasn’t really thinking about any of that. At the time, I’d been in Houston for four consecutive years, working an unfulfilling job, and I felt trapped and restless, and this was my way out. My focus was on me, on my life, and I had to do this for myself.

And in a lot of ways, my relocation has worked out well. I met a great girl within the first two months of getting here who I am still with today. I’ve had a number of wonderful roommates. I’ve successfully used public transportation (a completely foreign concept in Texas). I even got to spend four hours at the Maryland DMV trying to get my new driver’s license.

Plus, just being in the nation’s capital has been a cool experience. For the first time, I live somewhere that my friends want to visit. There’s an energy, a juice to the city that you only find in towns like New York and L.A. and Chicago. You can turn on the TV or a movie and recognize places where you had lunch or where you sat in traffic for an hour-and-a-half. You can go downtown and watch tourists walk around with their maps and fanny packs. And obviously, there’s history everywhere you turn. Just on my drive to and from work everyday, I can see the Capitol building, National Cathedral, the Pentagon, the Washington Monument, the Kennedy Center, Watergate, and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials. That never gets old.

But while people may pay a lot of money to come from all over and experience all of this, I’m beginning to wonder if I am not somehow paying an even higher price.

After all, my family has now become just an entry in my email inbox and a voice on the other end of the phone. Before I moved, I probably took the time I spent with them for granted. It was just so common, a part of my normal routine. We were close-knit, and it was what we did, and I never had to think about.

Now, if I want to see them, it’s so premeditated, so planned out. I can’t just get in my car and go if I get the urge. Airfare is outrageous, and I typically have to take a day or two off from work. And to get the most bang for my bucks, I have to strategically pick the weekends when everyone is around, while also trying to calculate what big occasions are coming up, so that my trips end up being evenly staggered throughout the year.

When I do actually get there, my visits go by so quickly. There are just barely enough hours in the weekend to see my extended family, hang out a little with my friends and eat at my must-eat barbecue restaurant. Before I know it, I’m back at the airport, hugging my parents while holding up traffic, as we try to figure out the next time we’re going to see each other.

I treasure these quick, don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it reunions, but they are equal parts bitter and sweet. And it usually takes until I arrive at work the next day for all of the bitterness to fully subside.

Of course, I might need to toughen up a bit, because my mom recently told me she’s over my departure in about 15 minutes.

When you’re a little kid, life feels like it’s out “there,” like it’s all in front of you, and it seems as if what you’re going through and experiencing in the present tense almost doesn’t count, like it’s some sort of prelude or warm-up for the real thing.

But I’m 33 now, and life doesn’t always feel that way anymore. There are moments when I’m hit with that cold reality that my story is being written, that the scoreboard is on, and that time is continually dripping away whether I choose to acknowledge it or not.

And it’s in those moments when my mind can’t help drifting to my parents and the rest of my family. Sure, everyone is healthy and fit and active, but the adult in me now realizes that none of us will be here forever.

There’s an old saying that talks about living every day as if it’s your last. And in a world that demands that you have money and groceries and a plan for tomorrow, that’s as big of a challenge as there is.

When I do envision my final hours on earth, though, I picture doing certain things exclusively for myself, like playing a round of golf, preparing a list of who-killed-Kennedy questions for when I get to heaven, and backing up a juicy steak with a yellow cupcake covered in chocolate icing.

But I also see myself surrounded by everyone who is important to me, laughing and reminiscing and coming up with ways for my spirit to positively affect Texas Longhorn football games after I’m gone.

Given all of that, it would be nice if I could strike that balance before my time is almost up. It would be nice to have the perfect job in the perfect city with the people I love close by, but unfortunately, that’s not the case for me. The state of my union just isn’t aligned that way right now, and it leaves me torn and wrestling with what to do next. Do I stay? Do I go? I honestly don’t know, and I could really use some comfort and guidance.

For my sake, let’s hope my mom can get her computer turned on tomorrow morning.

About Me

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?