wise up

I. Lessons

It’s not
what you thought
when you first began it.
You got
what you want
and you can hardly stand it though
by now you know
it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop ‘till you wise up.

It is fall of 2005. George Bush is approaching the midpoint of his second term in office. American troops are approaching the midpoint of the third year of the American occupation of Iraq. So many political obscenities have come to pass, I’ve lost track of all the details. The worst are full of intensity. The best…what ever happened to them?

My only brother and his wife had their first baby last month, a beautiful little boy who looks right at me and smiles and it makes me feel so clean and new. My brother has also gone back to school, is now starting nursing school, and is carrying a 4.0 GPA. There was a time when we worried about him finishing high school. Later, there was a time when he was living on my couch, drinking all day, tweaking all night, and planning to kill himself. I was so afraid for him. None of us knew what to do but pray. I guess we did something right. Or our prayers were answered.

M and I have been together for just over a year. This is different than anything I’ve experienced before. Sometimes it’s hard. I help him a lot. I’m glad to do it, but to be honest, I’ve lived most of my life as a completely selfish bastard, and this year has been a steep learning curve.

Yesterday, I helped an old friend pick out a new computer. He and I dated, briefly, sometime around 98 or 99. I don’t really remember. It was after I became a cokehead, but before I got sober. I was so in love with him. Or…in something. I thought it was love. He’s 6’5”, handsome, in the Air Force, and could flash a smile that would make any little gay boy in his early 20’s buckle at the knees. God, how I wanted him to think I was brilliant and funny and sexy. That’s what I thought I was, after all. I was so sure that if I just had him (or someone substantially similar to him) to take care of me, life would be perfect. That hollow feeling in my chest would fade. I would be okay.

Lessons learned?

1. The hollow feeling in my chest was mostly about me and my relationship to the ground of my own being. No one could fix that for me. 2. Real love is a lot harder, but stronger too. I could never have imagined M in my future, back when I was thin and brave and knew everything. I had a “type”, and it wasn’t someone shorter than me, deaf, and connected to a gigantic family. (My best friend S used to always say that the perfect boyfriend would be an orphan, because you’d never have to deal with his fucked-up family.) 3. The fact that we don’t really know what will be best for us in the long run is just one more argument for approaching life without an overarching need for control. I’m still friends with my tall, hot soldier-boy, but I’d be hard-pressed to name a worse romantic match than he and I. M, on the other hand, and quite to my surprise, make me think about the long-term. I could build a life with him.

II. Consolations

You sure
there’s a cure,
and you have finally found it.
You think
one drink will shrink
you to you’re underground
and living down but
it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop ‘till you wise up.

So here I am. I’m sitting in my apartment watching cartoons in the dark.

M is visiting his parents in Brownsville this weekend. (Brownsville’s claim to fame: “America’s southernmost city!” I’m here alone, and free to do things like sit on the couch in boxer shorts and watch cartoons late at night with all the lights off, eating chocolate pie out of the tin. This probably doesn’t sound so great unless you’ve also lived with depression, in which case you may recognize a fellow depressive’s characteristic way of consoling himself.

Not that I’m depressed today. Not by a long shot. My depression is well-managed by a pink pill I take three times a day. It comes creeping around the edges sometimes, but I haven’t had a major can’t-leave-the-house-for-two-weeks episode in years.

Still, you remember what felt good before. You don’t forget how you hung on.

So in the same way I return every night to the same (now slightly sunken) spot on mattress, I love to come back to this, sliding through the long silent hours on cartoons and infomercials. Stephanie and I used to get so stoned we could hardly move and sit there in the peaceful darkness of our living room, bathed in the cool light of the television. Martin and I used to come home all coked up after the clubs closed, and dance until the sun came up. Neither of them are here anymore, but I am here. This still comforts me. I am still awake.

I like my life, for the most part.

If I could go back and do it again, I’d have paid a lot more attention to my career. I’d have dicked around less with school, which was ultimately really easy for me. I’d have gone to graduate school. I wish I’d started saving for my retirement when I got my very first paycheck, and learned how to manage and invest money from the beginning.

I wish I’d kept up with friends who moved away. Or just drifted away. When I was young, it seemed like friendships just happened. But it turns out that they’re astonishingly fragile, and I couldn’t begin to count how many have slipped away through mere inattention.

I wish I’d made fewer big plans and made more preparation for “come what may”, because I really don’t want any of the things I thought I would want. The ability to change directions as you grow is more valuable than I would have ever guessed.

I wish I hadn’t bothered being angry so much, even when my anger was fully justified. It so rarely makes a difference, but it takes its toll.

III. Preparations

Prepare a list of what you need
before you sign away the deed
‘cause it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop
it’s not going to stop ‘till you wise up.

None of this is complaint, though. I don’t regret anything, really, except the hurt I’ve caused. No, this is about how…different things are. Different from what I expected. Different from how they said it would be, whoever ‘they’ are.

When I was little, I somehow got the idea that life has fairly rigid trajectories, and if you put your little train on the right track, you necessarily end up exactly where you thought you were going. Later on, I started to see that your choices matter, and figured it was more like one of those river-raft rides at a theme-park. Depending on which way you lean, your ride might be rough and you might get soaked, or it might be smooth and dry….but you still end up where you set out to go.

But it turns out that our rafts are adrift in the middle of a sea that stretches to the edge of the sky. It turns out that the course we set can save or doom us, and that there are no guarantees. It turns out that if we want to stay together, we have to stick together – to lash our rafts together securely, and hang on.

And much to my surprise, there is no path, no set destination. There is only the brilliant and infinite horizon.

Every day I wonder at the sheer luck of my life, and every day my heart breaks a little. And nothing…nothing turned out like I expected it to. Not the exigencies of my personal experience, and certainly not the cultural and political context in which my own little drama as played out. In the realm of the political, things have now been done that cannot easily be undone, and the triumph of liberalism that once seemed inevitable looks in retrospect like a pipedream of foolish children. Telos consists of nothing more than hope, it seems. So far, what I want most is for us all to be safe, and for everything to turn out okay. There was a time when that seemed to go without saying, but there’s nothing less certain today.

So lash your rafts tight to each other, friends. What lies ahead isn’t the Sargasso Sea of history’s end, but storm clouds towering on the far horizon, the unimaginable future of us all.

(lyrics to “Wise up” by Aimee Mann, 1999)


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