The phone has replaced geography. I can look at five and a half inches of black glass in one hand and keep up perfectly with the ins and outs of UK politics, either from the BBC’s website or their podcasts or just Twitter snark. I can listen to Bluegrass Country from WAMU in DC, or the Midnight Jamboree from the Ernest Tubb Record Shop in Nashville, live on WSM, or stream a big-band station with the broadcast watt power of a hair dryer to anywhere I happen to be. A couple weeks ago, I watched the local ABC affiliate in Birmingham for four hours from my Silicon Valley living room, watching James Spann do what he’s done for forty years and marveling at how much has changed with the precision of tracking and the measures you’re meant to take when the tornado comes barreling through. I watched the Winter Olympics from Beijing via Hulu from a fire pit in South Lake Tahoe. I commiserated about idiots and morons in Ottawa with someone in Ottawa in real time.
It’s not just the the phone is a camera and a television and a bookstore and a stereo and a GPS and everything else you can imagine all in one, it’s that it defies the geographical constraints of being in range of the broadcaster or in the distribution area of the newspaper or in the neighborhood of the bookstore or the record shop. It makes you post-geographical. It creates a layer of participation in the world that works from anywhere, as long as it depends on bits and not atoms.
Set against this, geography becomes more important than ever, because of the things that the phone cannot do for you. The phone can provide you the avenue for belonging, but if you live somewhere in which who you are as a person is wrong, it can’t solve that. If you’re black in suburban Alabama, or transgender in Dallas, or too old for Shallow Alto without retiring or entering VC, it cannot change the circumstances around you. All it can offer is a momentary escape, and when you resurface, your world around you is as it was before.
Watching Chloe Zhao’s underrated Eternals – which was ill-served by the necessity of being a Marvel movie – I remembered well how much I felt like a secret mutant superhuman in Alabama, trapped by the world around me, and how much I aspired to get into a wider world. I didn’t have time to wait for the craft brewing and the pervasive wireless and persistent live pro sports downtown and an internet that would bring all the same bits to Birmingham as you could get in Mountain View. And it occurred to me that at some level, I was defined by being a mutant, and that once you move to someplace where what you are is all right, you have to fit in and make it on the merits, and it’s easy to get lost in the sauce – especially when your otherness no longer provides you with an affinity group to protect against the world around you.
Thing is, if I were in Birmingham now, I could have the downtown loft, have tickets to the Legion and the Squadron and maybe even the Barons, I could drink at Good People or the Garages, eat my way through the food trucks and the State restaurants and the places name-checked in “This Or That” on the new podcast by Iva Williams III. And I could see the same things on Disney+ and Netflix and Hulu, eventually catch the same Marvel blockbusters in the theater, order the same LC King jeans and 3D-printed Nerf blasters and non-alcoholic craft beers to my doorstep. But I would still be in Alabama, in a place where the legislature will blithely let anyone carry a concealed gun without a permit and declare any group of people a “riot” and spend 2022 trying to bring back 1962. California has plenty of its own discontents, but at least you don’t have to wonder if today’s the day that the California Legislature makes it mandatory to out gay kids or force trans kids into their chromosomal bathroom or outlaw books that suggest there was slavery in the United States. Who I am as a person is fine here. Who I am as a prospective employee may not be all that desirable, but what are you gonna do.
I don’t think there’s any disputing that the 40s have been the least rewarding decade of my life. Sure, we did more international travel, and I’ve gotten my salary up, and getting *stuff* is not really a problem, and I can generally make it through the days…but in terms of the things that make the arc of your life pleasant and enjoyable, it’s hard not to feel like this has been the decade, as was said to Indiana Jones, when life stops giving you things and starts taking them away…
The only problem is with trying to find the solution is that this time, there isn’t one. At some point, you have to find a way to acknowledge that shit happens, that life is full of randomness and it doesn’t always work out or even mean anything, that we live in a world of chaos and entropy – and you have to find your own light. And for someone whose worldview has always depended on consistent rules and logical solutions, the real world is ever more difficult to cope with. And thus we get to where I am now. I have an amazing wife, and a good solid job, and a nice house and a pretty good car. I have 12Mbps broadband at home, and HD television, and a lightweight laptop at work and a miracle of a cell phone in my pocket. I have a little bit of a reputation as a Vandy blogger, and real-life friends and acquaintances that serves me for a social life of sorts. I have a routine, and a place to lay my head, and I try not to think too far down the road. The goal is to live in the now, in the moment – free of both the tyranny of memory and the trap of expectations.
-Feb 28, 2012
Everyone moved away.
My surrogate sister moved from Burlingame to Santa Cruz. In fact, most of the Castro Street Dining Consortium moved to Santa Cruz, except for the ones who moved to Seattle or Colorado or Austin or London. My cousin moved to Texas, then Nashville, then Kazakhstan. My old coworkers moved to Los Angeles, or the Central Coast, or Nevada. The actual locals, people who lived in the same town, moved to Pacifica part time or Reno full time or Norway and Berlin and back to Norway with my closest local guy friend of the last five years. Even my in-laws moved to Heaven, by way of Denver, if we ever get around to delivering the ashes.
The first month of the pandemic was the best month I’d had in six or seven years, when it hit – because suddenly the whole world was locked inside, and Zoom was the only way to socialize, and suddenly it was as easy to hang out with people in DC or Nashville as it was to take the light rail one stop to the pub in the before times. And for about two or three weeks, I was essentially teleporting around the country for happy hour. And then the fatigue set in from working on a camera all day, and real life caught up in places that were less serious about beating the virus, and it all went by the boards. And to add insult to injury, because I was trying to be serious about stopping the pandemic (and so was California), even the methadone substitutes of Trials or Lilly Mac’s on a weekend night were no longer available. Pub night at home became ever more important, and ever more jealously guarded, because that’s all there was – no travel, no live sessions, no going anywhere or doing anything.
The social ramble couldn’t be more restful. There aren’t even Cal events I can plus-one my way into. And that’s the frustration: I have abjured all these things for two years in aid of trying to help beat back a pandemic that has killed more people than the Civil War, while actual Confederates have been fighting for the freedom of the virus almost since it arrived on our shores. I have given up on birthday parties, basketball games, or just posting up at the bar for a quiet pint for a couple of hours to try to pretend everything will be OK, and it has all been for naught because fucking rednecks wouldn’t take eight fucking weeks to acknowledge that there are other people. My patience, and my sympathy, are completely exhausted – as well they were before CoV-SARS-2 even appeared.
The chaos, entropy and evil went macro.
The first sign that things had gone seriously badly wrong – like, worse than usual and worse in ways that shouldn’t have been possible any longer – was when Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman, a redneck who wanted to need his own gun and found an excuse, and was subsequently let completely off the hook. Said redneck created a situation in which he, a civilian, would have the opportunity to kill, and seized upon it. Not unlike how Kyle Rittenhouse would do the same a few years later, and get completely away with it. The last decade has been one in which the lowest sort of ignorant dickhead has been empowered – not only with legitimacy, but with righteousness.
And it only got worse. That was the leading edge of a wave that has over the last decade attempted to roll back what little progress has been eked out over the first forty years of my life. Apparently a Black President – a re-elected one, at that – was a bridge too far and made it legitimate to do whatever was necessary to preserve white hegemony. If that meant putting a gun in every pot, so be it. If it meant electing a senile reality-TV bigot to the Oval Office, so be it. And if it meant rallying behind opposition to the very vaccines that could have ended the pandemic – and by extension, the very vaccines that saved them all from polio and smallpox and measles and mumps for the entire Baby Boom – then so be it. This is the last dying gasp of the Old Ones that I thought for sure were done for in 2012, when I said it would no longer be possible to win an election with only white votes. I was right. What I did not expect was for the entire machinery of conservatism to then be bent on reducing the electorate to a point where white votes alone could still be sufficient for victory.
You’ll notice I didn’t say a word about politics ten years ago in that paragraph, but that’s because it wasn’t a constant pile of dynamite stored in a hot room back then. And yes, the pandemic has made things worse – but the main way it’s made things worse is in how it’s added fuel to the fire of selfish ignorance as the highest ideology. Not even a death rate in the Omicron wave orders of magnitude higher for the unvaccinated has been enough to end that. Travel, delayed. Outings, deferred. The world, reduced to a couple thousand square feet and a quarter mile walk on most days for the last two years and counting.
The pandemic didn’t help, but it was obvious from at least the beginning of 2016 and possibly 2014 that we might not get away with this one – that the world had turned in ways that were fundamentally unpleasant. From this end of my 40s, I am profoundly grateful that I didn’t have kids, and I don’t know how my loved ones who did found the strength to try. As it is, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t also profoundly grateful to be in California, where circumstances now suggest that I won’t be obligated to leave California if I retire. I don’t dispute that this place has racism or a rotten value system – Silly Con Valley will rapidly disabuse you of both without ever spending time in the Central Valley or Orange County – but as it stands today, I do not have to worry about the agency of rednecks. I don’t have to worry about the state of California burning books or outlawing “critical race theory” or preserving Confederate monuments or redrawing the district lines to keep people of color from having voting power. The Golden State has its problems, to be sure, foremost among them a ballot initiative system that makes it easy to buy yourself loopholes – but that’s largely an issue of unchecked wealth. And there are ways of checking that. The bigger problem is the extent to which California money goes to federal taxes and in turn underwrites the low-tax-high-racism shithole states of the old Confederacy, which is in the long run an untenable prospect.
I have never thought California should secede from the USA. Not once. But the sixth-largest economy in the world and capital of the future should not shirk from seceding from the CSA. And if that means this is my forever home, I can live with it.
I don’t really have a groove any more.
We moved house a few months ago, and have finally closed all the deals and paperwork. It’s nice. The creak of sixty year old wood floors is comfortable and feels like a permanent cabin camping weekend, especially given the quarter-acre back yard and the propane fire pit in it. Everything is on one level, the ramp and the grab bars for my in-laws are still in situ, and in almost every way, this is a house in which we could easily age in place for another thirty years – and things being how they are, we could stop paying the mortgage in fifteen years and take out a reverse mortgage instead that would see us through to the end of our days with brass in pocket and a fairly cozy retirement.
But it meant giving some things up. Sure, now I am free from hacker house neighbors, or a meddling HOA, or Teslas doing 30mph in parking alleys – but now there’s no hot tub or gas grill that someone else maintained, and no light rail steps away with easy access to downtown or transit, and no more easy walking to the convenience store or the deli or a cheap haircut. I can walk to Starbucks, sure, or to the grocery store or pharmacy at a pinch, and maybe that will be useful, and it’s not like I’ve been able to go down the pub on the train for a couple of years – but there’s a big difference in “I can’t but maybe when this is over I can” and “I can’t any more.”
And the other part of it is – if I ever have to go into work again, it’s going to be a car commute. No bus, no trains. And I don’t know how long I will continue to be let to work from home in this job – assuming I can even keep this job, because the lesson of the last ten years is that my employer does not value the work I do or the knowledge required to do it. Everything from salary to hiring practices to the fact that they outsourced us all to the fact that things we did surface again six months later as new initiatives invented from first principles – every bit of it boils down to you do not matter. That was a hard thing to take at age 20. I’ll be damned if I take it at age 50.
But then what? A career change? To what? Something that imperils the dream of maybe being able to retire before age 70? As much as I want a fresh start, I’m terrified of it – of having to learn new systems, new best practices, a new culture, of having to prove myself all over from scratch to new co-workers and new managers and new customers. And I resent having to do that, because it feels like admitting that I wasted the last ten years and that the aggregate value of my effort and experience is nil. But then, if my current employer values that at nil – it’s a wash, isn’t it? So if your scars and treasures are worthless, why keep wasting your time trying to make the stones worth counting if you can go somewhere that gives even a vague sense that they want you and would receive you with positive expectations? But how do you even find a place like that any more? Especially when the new world of remote work means they won’t even hire in the Bay Area, in order to keep the costs down? What do you do when the thing you do is something they only want done somewhere else?
Over the last few years, I did come to terms with the two fundamental traumas I cited ten years ago – partly because Vanderbilt gave me a way of fishing some of my past out of the black hole, polishing it up, and repurposing it for more than it’s worth – but instead of the tyranny of memory and the trap of expectations, I found myself inadvertently revisiting my oldest and most foundational trauma: life in a milieu that diminished my value as a person. The same thing that made Birmingham-Southern a misery, that made being gifted in the 80s South a millstone, the original damage from which all the other damage ultimately stems. And at some level, it goes back to the same thing you were told as a child: who cares what other people think, you should be your own person, you are not defined by what other people think.
And…yeah, okay, but we live in a society. We live in a wider world. Unless you’re willing to become an anchorite and wall yourself in a cell forever, you have to interact with others and have to be part of a larger community. Which leads to finding whatever subculture works for you, ultimately, with the caveat that the predominate subcultures for white, male, Southern, notionally Protestant, middle-aged goateed men – in tech or out – are in fact the very subcultures currently engaged in destroying the world and making me miserable.
Ultimately, that’s the great disappointment of turning 50: I thought that I would still have more of the things that really matter in life. Have I been very fortunate and very lucky and very privileged? Yes. Have I underachieved? It’s hard not to feel that way. Have I been successful? By what metric? Metrics are an easy substitute for understanding, which is why management loves them so, because you can just put up a PowerPoint slide and say yes it worked or no it didn’t. How do you actually measure the success of a decade? Of half a century? Measured out in long solitary drives and French fries and the largest soda the drive-thru offers, in hats and jackets and mobile phones, in the mental gymnastics of trying to somehow demonstrate that the ship actually came in after all, in trying to assemble enough of the jigsaw pieces of your life to make a clear picture of who you are?
In the end, if I had a goal for my fifties, it wouldn’t be that different from what I hoped for from my forties: nothing to prove to anyone, least of all to myself. If I can look back in ten years – a full decade that I am very acutely aware my father didn’t get – and say that I am happy with how I’ve lived my life, that some local part of the world beyond the front door had received me for who I am, and that I’d found a way to live with the rest…
Wouldn’t that, at long last, be enough?