Treading Water

I pulled in to the gas station on my way here today, having listened to the first twenty minutes of Count Zero, the follow-up novel to Neuromancer, on my way down the hill. I caught my reflection in the glass as I walked in the door, hair still wet it was in a tight ponytail and clean. The humidity had a ways to go before it actually won out over the conditioner I’d left in it.

I thought about the whorls of social activity going on around me as I walked to the cooler to pick up my standard pair of diet Dr. Peppers and energy drink, one of those insipid monster things with lots of caffeine, zero calories and no doubt extra cancer to make up for it.

I made some small talk with the locals on my way out of the place and stood, before getting in my little Tacoma, looking out at the ebb and flow of customers, pumping gas in the heat, walking in and out of the place, ball caps, printed t-shirts, shorts, and beards.

I’m treading water here. I am not of this place and it is not home. I am, as they say, “in it but not of it.” It never will be home.

Home.

It’s been a long time since I’ve been fooled in to thinking I’ll ever have such a thing. It’s something I’ve grown accustomed to. I am my home.

“China is in the heart, Jack. Wherever I go, she’s with me.” Egg Shen said as he walked out of the movie, his work done.

That’s not a matter of despondency. Not the way you think. But I do realize that culturally, I’m sinking here. The people are nice and good on the surface and no worse internally. But there’s something missing from them which I find tough to quantify. There’s a level of complacency, of pacivity and somnambulism that infects this place.

It’s anathema to me.

I had an edge to me once. It was a kind of an edge, it had a life to it. But even as I think that I wonder if it’s not the pretension of the past creating the authenticity of the present.

In the late 90s, more now than twenty years ago (a realization that shortens my breath for a couple beats) I would take a notebook on Saturdays and go to the little mocked-up garden in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, right off the Chinese Calligraphy exhibit. It was never very crowded, no matter how many buses of tourists were weaving about the Arms and Armor or Egyptian exhibits. It was either in an obscure corner of the byzantine complex (not to be confused with the Byzantine complex) or it was simply not sexy enough for the prolitariat at large. I would sit on a bench there and write, fantasizing that I was a writer.

In 2018, after my father died and I’d lived in Nashville for three years, I went back to My City and met with my sisters to… “settle his accounts.” I took a few extra days and, Saturday morning, left my hotel with my notebook and went to the Met, walked the architectural mandala of the museum to my exhibit, my garden, my seat, and I sat there and poured myself on to page after page after page, pausing a moment to marvel at how I’d so unwittingly created my present through those past pretensions.

So it may be that that is the only way we create authenticity, by creating a persona that we can fit in to later. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe that’s a clever phrase that I’m hoping is an example of itself.

I thought about the people I know and who’s company I quite enjoy. I thought about what they want of and for me and how, in the front of their minds they really think they want the best for me, and how easy it is to forgive the advice they’re giving themselves through the mask if giving it to me.

I stood there in the sun and humidity and just watched those people move about. Three of the same exact car in the parking lot, five or six of the same outfits. I thought about the conversations I’d had with so many of them, or so many like them, not quite sure there was a difference. It all seemed so small, small habits, small lives.

I looked down: Red t-shirt, a bit large, jeans, too big given my weight loss, black sneakers, a bag in my hand with 2 24oz diet Dr. Peppers and a Monster Energy Drink. $7.68. I knew that. After all, it’s what I always get, as stop there every Thursday on my way to the cigar lounge where I sit and write for a few hours before bible study and the drinking afterwards.

Small habits. Small life.

Treading water.

When I catch myself thinking like this I have the presence of mind, given a few minutes of distance, to consider exceptions. After all, if it’s true of “everybody” then it’s you, not them. And it holds as true now. The exceptions stand out glaringly in my mind’s paging through the past. No. I’m right.

“Oh, you don’t impress us.” Nate said, a couple weeks ago. I stared at the side of his head for a couple beats as he looked down to fiddle with his cigar in an expression of practiced disinterest.

“Bitch please.” I said. He cackled, breaking the mask.

“Yeah I was trying to get through that with a straight face.”

But what is it about this place? These people? Why do they seem just so…different?

It seems to me that they aren’t pushing very hard at life. Oh, there are exceptions. There are always exceptions, are there not? But even the high neurotics at least push against themselves. I’m not sure I’ve met a single artist since I moved up here from Nashville proper. And if I have and haven’t noticed it serves only to accentuate rather than dismiss my point.

Even those people I know (and there are more than a couple of them) who I’d consider exceedingly successful seem to have found a track and are just racing along it at a pretty leisurely pace. They’re good people and I am nothing short of humbled to have people of that quality that I can now call friends, and I can only endeavor to be worth the appellation.

But it’s absolutely maddening. Not an overtly exploratory spirit in the bunch. Oh there are some who have an interest in new things. But not in the way I mean.

I wonder briefly if it’s a matter of age. It seems to me that the twenty-somethings I know at Johnathan’s have a bit more fire in their bellies than the people my own age. Now, there are other problems with that. They’re still figuring out their place in the world, and suffer from the problem of thinking there is ‘a place’ where they’ll fit. I don’t understand that motivation at all. But at least it’s THERE.

I don’t want A Place. I want to be moving forward. I want my Place to be a fight that I’m winning a bit more than I’m losing, “fall down 7 times, get up 8” and all. I don’t want life to be something that I settle in to.

At this point I’m afraid I many questions and few answers and no startlingly clear revelations or quippy endings.

“You are the average of your five closest friends.” The horrible quipwisdom teaches. But there’s an element of truth to it. It seems to me that I need to find the group of people I’m looking for, hinted at above. Otherwise the task of maintaining myself will always feel like I’m trying to ice skate uphill.

I need to find the artists. Badly.

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