9/11/2003: Epilogue/Prologue #2: The Life

I’m hoping I didn’t completely shoot my wad on #1.  The day is long and I want to get this out.

I’m a relatively obsessive journaler.  I have boxes of pages from all manner of media.  Wire bound journals, printed out e-journals, typewritten pages (using an old 1930’s Royal typewriter), for a while I was using fountain pens and well-crafted parchment.  These complete books (complete as in fully filled out, not as in complete depiction) span my life from slightly more than the last 20 years.  On a day to day basis I’ve always got at least one notebook on me. Though if you count those little shirt-pocket 3×5 card wallets there are a couple, and if I have my messenger bag on me there are a whole lot more.  Don’t even get me started on the number of pens.  If a writer tells you they don’t have a pen, they’re either lying or the world has gone horribly wrong.

Writing is the only thing that has been able to perfectly the dispel depression and malaise that I’m fairly regularly inflicted with.  In my darkest moments I’ve always known that if I could somehow will myself to get pen to paper (not always a foregone conclusion) I would “write it out of me”.  Often times the self-involved nature of depression makes it exceedingly difficult to make this happen.  But that’s life.

Over the last 5 or so years I have made an annual ritual of spending New Year’s Eve reading the entirety of the year’s journal entries and using that to help me recalibrate the differences between where I thought I was and where I ‘actually’ found myself.  It wasn’t quite a full Castenadan recapitulation. But it’s helped me kick myself back in to play when my life has gone awry more than a couple times.

As you might imagine, this got a little weird in 2001.  But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

In the era B-9/11 I was a pretty typical computer geek.  I passed it off in public a bit better than most, but all the signs were really there.  I had a deathly fear of people and interactions with them.  An indeterminably large part of my motivation for being good with computers was that they are arbitrarily intricate as well as being NOT PEOPLE which, if I’m being honest was a virtue in that I could never fail in their judgement, segfaults notwithstanding.

I was afraid of calling for pizza.  Indeed any interaction with people that I didn’t know very well was a harsh and abrasive affair  Why?  Who knows.  I’ve stopped worrying about why.

The way I figure it you get to about 22-23 years old before you’re no longer allowed to blame your existence on your childhood and parents.  After that your life is your fault.  Strictly speaking it happens before that. But in today’s culture I’m inclined to let out some rope.  Of course if you can’t make that deadline there’s a far better than even chance you remain prisoner to those excuses.

I didn’t date and instead relied on friends of friends methods of meeting women (I dated a fair number of friends of my sisters.)  My friends primarily came from other people’s friends.  Most people I knew I had met from hanging out with my sisters.  I didn’t leave my apartment much, played LOTS of video games (especially with the advent of MMORPGS.  I could pretend I was interacting with people from the comfort of my computer.)

I kept to myself unless you already knew me.  I had very few friends and fewer acquaintances.  I didn’t socialize with people where I worked.  Nothing.  It was a lonely self-induced existence.

On one hand, I learned to be fairly emotionally self-sufficient.  I am my own person and don’t (and never have) relied on the presence of others to feel relaxed and complete.   But rather than call myself an introvert I believe it would be more accurate to say I was a frustrated extrovert.  Once I felt at home in a situation (a state that could either come through many years of friendship or several glasses of alcohol) I was golden, and people would express a fair amount of disbelief (as mentioned above.)

On December 31, 2001 I read through my journal entries of that year, trying to figure out what was wrong.  9/11 had left me with some horrible survivor guilt, coupled with a certain kind of loneliness it made for a dangerous alchemy of poisonous self-worth.  Once I started hearing about the phenomenon of “survivor guilt” I exercised enough self-awareness to understand it for what it was and pull myself up by my own bootstraps.  I was quite thankfully able to compartmentalize the feeling when it came up.  “No wait that’s just this phenomenon. Let it be and abide the timeless wisdom of urologists everywhere: ‘This too shall pass.’”  So it never really became the chronic problem that it has been for some people.  I suppose all tolled it was really bad for about 3 months.  But the weight of it all forced my eyes at my life and demanded that I take objective (sic) inventory, throw out what needed to go and replace it with what I wanted it to be.  Life is only short if it’s misspent.

The critical realization was that with some obvious exceptions I only really remembered about a dozen days of 2001.  Oh sure, there were events that I could recall, things that had happened that I could place in time more or less.  But that year was simply not otherwise noteworthy.  If it hadn’t happened my life wouldn’t have been appreciably different.

My new year’s resolution became “Get a Life” (no no… literally.)

A few weeks earlier I had been in Barnes & Noble on Astor place, and next to the magazine racks there was a rack of 5×7 advertisement cards (these are tough to describe if you’ve never seen them, but they’re pretty ubiquitous in Manhattan.)  One caught my eye from a company called “Social Circles”.  They planned events, dinners, outings, trips, etc.  for people who didn’t have the time to do it themselves, or who were new to the city and didn’t really know what to do (NYC is pretty damn daunting that way.)  It’s “not a singles thing”, which was good.  I didn’t really need that kind of pressure.  Just a bunch of people doing stuff.  Of course every thing that organizes groups of people is a singles thing for the singles involved.  But there was a nod and a wink about it all.

I sent them an email immediately.  They were closed on 1/1, but I scheduled an interview for the second.  The fact that they required an interview caused me to hold in a half breath.  But they explained there that there are enough trolls in the world that it makes sense to interview for a social club.  So the interview wasn’t memorable, I wrote them a check (a big check if I remember correctly) and it took 2 weeks to get everything processed.

Their schedule is furious.  Every day there are multiple events.  You sign up via email, get a confirmation, and they tell you where to show up and when, who the “check in” person is and bill your credit card (unless it’s a normal dinner-like event, then everybody decides how to handle the bill on the spot.)  VERY convenient.  In the first 60 days as a member I attended 63 events.  All while working.  It wasn’t cheap.

I painted pottery, saw Blue Man Group, went Ice Skating (for the first time in 27 years) rock climbing, took weird classes (tai chi, book binding, meditation, fencing) went to some great restaurants I would  never have found otherwise and I went to a couple happy hours.  There were between 8 and 20 people at each event (sans the happy hours, which numbered in the hundreds) and probably about 10% overlap.  The total member count numbers in the thousands.

In February, not having been a member for a full month I went to my first “New Member Mixer” where hordes of people attend and are given cute little questionnaires to fill out (name 4 attendees with the same star sign, etc.)  More than once someone would grab their friend, pull them over and say “This is Mike, that guy I told you about who does EVERYthing.”

I threw myself into these situations where I knew NOBODY again and again and forced myself to become fluid, engaging, gregarious and comfortable.  And I succeeded.  It was exhausting and glorious.

I signed up for the two international trips they held that year (Costa Rica and Galapagos.)  I did all kinds of stuff.  I couldn’t show up at an event any longer without knowing several people there.  And it was good.

On another front in my life I by chance, discovered the nerve.com personals.  I thought I’d flip through them just for kicks and I saw one I HAD to respond to.  However, in order to respond you need to have a profile up.  So I filled one out (dangerously tailoring it to the one I’d found.) And I responded.  I had a damn fun dinner but she was getting involved with someone at the time and didn’t want to jeopardize that.  (No no, it wasn’t an excuse.  Those came later from others.)

But I started looking at others and responding to them.  I had backed off a bit on Social Circles events and really just redirected my energy in nerve.com land.  I went on a whole lot of first dates.  Lots of seconds, and even a few thirds.  The first few were really tough.  Sitting across a table from a complete stranger trying to decide whether or not to get to know someone while selling yourself and while they’re doing the same is really tough.

I learned a great deal from that.  There really are a disproportionate of money-hungry husband hunters in the world (or at least in the city.)  Frequently (it ended up happening a dozen times during 2002) I received the following email “I had a really great time with you, but I unexpectedly got back together with my ex-boyfriend this past weekend.  Can we still be friends?”  It took me FAR too long to realize this was the excuse of the day.

There were a couple times when it was not, there are now a couple amazing human beings (by any reasonable estimation) who I am blessed with whom I’ll be friends for many dozens of years.

My experiences were as varied as they get from the online dating scene.  There’s the “play Misty for me” (look it up) that STILL calls and hangs-up, completely unaware of the wonders of caller ID.  There was the freaky casual sex (which is “almost” always over-rated), there was the “that could have been a relationship if I had seen the forest for the trees then.” (ah well.)

After I left work in May I toned everything down a bit.  But now and again I will walk into a bar, cold, knowing nobody, and be completely comfortable interjecting myself into a running conversation and somehow be accepted into it.  I don’t have to get “completely wrecked” to have a good time.  I flirt really well and love giving compliments to women on the street that I’ll never see again (almost as much as to ones that I will.)

I really did it.  I molded how I behaved to the person I know I am.  There’s progress to be made, always of course.  But the people I know now with whom I spent time on trips, at dinners and events; people whom I’ve dated, etc.  They don’t believe I was ever afraid to pick up the phone and call for pizza.

Now I rub my hands together and maniacally ask “Hmm… what ELSE am I afraid of?”  Yes.  There’s still a great deal.  But I’m listing those things and working through them.

And I really have 9/11 to thank for that.