The nature of friendship has been the subject of my musings of late, and a discussion on the theme with an old housemate led me to recall an experience from almost 15 years ago.
I had made a financial mistake.
I’m still not sure exactly what it was, but I think I subtracted one from the tens side rather than a two, or a three, or a nine, and it plunged me into a week of chaos.
I realised it right before I was due to head off for a weekend away. I did the sums in my head and, to my horror, discovered that not only had I bounced a cheque to my housemate, but also that until Friday morning, I had not a penny to my name. Actually, that’s not quite true. The cup of change by my bed had about £1.74 in it.
In hindsight, that seemed fitting. For about six months, I had been doing a temp job that barely paid me above minimum wage. This was good because it taught me how to live in London on what was essentially an ox’s salary. It was bad because, well, stuff is expensive in London. There had been times of such intense poverty that my breakfast, lunch, and dinner consisted almost totally of the free biscuits and coffee at work.
But I had just taken on a new part-time job, and even though it hardly made me rich, it was certainly a welcome step up in salary. I was starting to imagine what it would be like to live as a normal human being. It was something I had been looking forward to: a job with a living wage. I was so close.
My first payday was to be that Friday. I somehow had to make it four days until then. One last week of being one of the great unwashed.
I did an inventory of what I had to survive one week. The list read something like:
£1.74 in change.
A handful of winegums. (Not even Rowntrees … some cheap brand!)
Half a box of cat food.
Endless cups of hot coffee (courtesy of work).
One package of digestive biscuits.
That was it. I had no money for a travelcard, so after work Monday, I headed out into the cold London evening and walked from Russell Square to Hendon, where I lived at the time. I’d always been curious how long it would take me to walk that far. This was as good a time as any to find out.
One of my favourite books when I was younger was The Long Walk. It was written by Stephen King under his Richard Bachman pseudonym, published decades after it was written (when King was still in college, which is just depressing). It concerns a competition in the “not-so-distant” future in which 100 young men simply begin walking. They are required to walk a minimum of four miles an hour. If they go under four miles an hour, they are given a warning. They have an hour to walk off the warning. If they receive a fourth warning, they are shot.
There are stilted political implications in the story, though I can’t for the life of me remember what they are. But the story fascinates me still. I mean, it’s simply walking. Anybody can do that, right?
From my workplace in Russell Square to where I lived in Hendon is, according to Google Maps, about seven miles. Not an overwhelming distance and, as I mentioned, I’d been curious about walking it anyway. This final week of poverty seemed like an ideal time to finally go forward with the experiment. So, after a long day at work I packed up my bag and turned onto Great Russell Street at 6:02 p.m.
I walked fast. It was exciting, really. Why don’t people do this all the time? Up, up, I went, along Eversholt Street, past Euston Station, past the Koko nightclub and Lyttelton Arms, through bohemian Camden Town with its weird and wonderful people, past Stables Market and Cottons Rhum Shop, and into Chalk Farm. I moved at a steady pace, passing all the office workers and meandering shoppers. It was I who could not be stopped; it was I who was on a savage journey. Four miles an hour? Please. I’d double that, backwards, blindfolded, walking on my hands.
Belsize Park is an area of London where I have spent much time (I later worked in the area for five years), but I have never really understood it. An old girlfriend lives there, and, like her, everything is a little too precious. I had barely been back to the area since we’d parted ways, and I was reminded why; people in Belsize Park can make you feel like you don’t bathe often enough, like you’re this swarthy minion swooping up from the city’s underbelly, lurking in to sully their happy, lily-white pseudo-suburbia. The whole area makes me want to drink six cans of some cheap, nasty lager, and then fart. Preferably in a crowded Starbucks.
That said, when I walked past Tapeo, a lovely tapas restaurant where the ex and I had spent a lot of time together, the pangs of envy were overpowering. Nobody here chooses what they have for lunch simply on the basis that it’s only a pound-fifty.
Plus, my feet were starting to hurt. I’d noticed it as I went past the Sir Richard Steele pub, which, all considered, isn’t bad. But I was only three miles into my journey and had another four to go. It was 6:47. Not bad time, I thought, but a pace I was unlikely to keep up.
I felt the blister just after going past the Everyman Theatre. I walk on the backs of my feet, something you’d think would help my posture but doesn’t. Right there, on the base, right under my ankle, it started to swell. I kept wondering if it would squish as I moved forward, soaking my sock. But it wouldn’t. Just a squersh, squersh, squersh, as it shifted with each step. But, nevertheless, on I walked. I had declared to my housemates that I would make it back to the house by 8 p.m., and time was wasting.
Through Hampstead, down past Queen Mary’s House on the western side of the Heath (7:23… good pace still) and into Golders Green with its kosher butcher shops and Middle Eastern restaurants.
Speaking of which, it occurred to me that I was starving. I hadn’t eaten all day, which, sad as it is to say, wasn’t that highly unusual a situation for me as it probably should have been. But I was expending energy now, starting to slow perilously toward that 4 mph threshold, and it was beginning to look like calories might not be as wretched as I’d always believed. But the compiled change (up to three quid now!) in my pocket was to be used for tomorrow’s bus rides. No food could be had.
It dawned on me that I was a complete idiot. When people heard that I was broke for the week, I received a surprisingly high number of offers to help. Here, Dave, let me order you a pizza; hey, what’s your bank details? These entreaties were kind, warm-hearted, and downright touching. But, to me, they missed the point. This was a test for myself, one last week of struggle, something to never forget, something to put in the pocket of an old coat and discovered years from now with a fond smile. This was a project. This was life as art.
As I trudged up Highfield Avenue toward Brent Cross station, six miles into my journey, “life as art” was starting to look like a tremendous load of bullshit. I was hungry, cold, and, to my alarm, my calves were starting to cramp up. But, at this point, what choice did I have? I couldn’t exactly waste the whole trip by hopping on the Tube now and wasting valuable pennies. I had to make it home. Wait… is that a hill? Jesus! When did we get hills around here?
If I had been in the Bachman contest, I would have been shot somewhere around the Brent Cross Flyover.
But past the shopping centre I went, almost home now, so close. In the distance, my house. I glanced down at my right shoe. The sole of it was flapping aimlessly. “Come on, matey… hang in… almost there.”
I put my key in the lock. I heard a “Wow!” from one of my housemates. “We weren’t expecting you until 9, at least!” It was 8:11.
Weary, I forced a weak grin. I wanted to curl up on the sofa in front of the telly, and not think about how hungry I was. I shuffled to my room, peeled my shoes off, crowbarred my socks onto the floor, and shuffled back. My housemate, to whom I had accidentally bounced the cheque that had started this whole mess in the first place, was standing outside my door.
“Dave, do you want some food? We made you a pizza.”
They had. It was most wonderful.
This week wasn’t even half over. And all it took to wear down my “I don’t need help, this is for me, I must prove myself and remember and make it last” was an oven pizza and two warm housemates on an old battered sofa, administering a Cosmopolitan mag quiz (“What Kind of Lover Are You?” I think it was), huddling up in blankets, staying safe.
Because your friends, the ones who are there for you, they would have no place in the Long Walk. If you slow down, they don’t shoot you. They crouch beside you, offer you their shoulder, take your arm gently, rub your back, and tell you, “I’m here.” Then, once you’re up again, you carry on down the road, together, scarred but stronger, ready for the larger, fiercer battles ahead.
I have just this moment finished reading Off the Road, the autobiography of Carolyn Cassady, where she tells in unrelenting detail tales of life with her writer husband Neal, novelist Jack Kerouac, and poet Allen Ginsberg in their prime, when their chief objective was ripping shit up, putting it back together, tearing it down again, and then gracefully elucidating the glory of it all just when they were about to become too insufferable to withstand any longer. It’s a fascinating book, not just because of her observations — as the most lucid, sane pseudo-participant, which was no great feat really — but also to see how the trio was a pack, the boys, like-minded in the important ways, fundamentally distinct in the tragic ones. The three of them pushed each other, farther, into the gorgeous nether of madness and chaos and beauty, and back again. They were each other’s muses, and burdens, and inspirations, and anchors. They struggled together. And it seems like they never really questioned themselves. But they did, because they must.
There’s something wonderful about the notion of a pack, particularly for literary folks. Who among us has not felt that our friends, ourselves included, are somehow the most enthralling people on the planet whose peculiarities and eccentricities must be chronicled for future generations to understand and appreciate? This is why we have friends. They’re interesting. I have met people in this world whom I would have thought it impossible to exist in real life. And yet, there they are.
These are the people we want to throw all caution to the proverbial wind with, the people with whom we just want to jump in a car and do something crazy. We just want to experience life with them, record their perceptions, expand on our own, try to make some sense of this constant pandemonium that swirls endlessly, find the absolute peace and splendour we all perceive is out there, somewhere, somehow, it has to be, right? And we love people just as nuts as us. People who see the world the way we do; as scary, beautiful, enchanting, aloof, full of awe, something to be tackled and dealt with, however we deem fit.
Man, I love these friends. Something about them makes me feel like I’m a part of something bigger than myself, that we are a troupe, that we are sages, seeing the world like no one else does. I’ve had many of them over the years, and just thinking of them gets me fired up. It’s the one aspect all my closest and dearest friends – male and female – have in common; they are all seekers. They are introspective, questioning, inspiring, alive. They are wild bulls of souls, unleashed, rampaging onward, trying to find the meaning, the truth.
But I am romanticising them, I realise now, as I sit here watching the bright, waxing moon. They were all those things. They are all those things. But they are not just all those things. They are real people. At the end of the day, Neal Cassady had to make a living. We live in a different time now. My friends are not in school anymore. They are grownups. They are married, or they are getting married, or they are worried about the mortgage, or the direction and financial security of their companies. I blinked, and they all became regular people. Somewhere down the line, they saw where they fit in in the universe, and they adjusted accordingly. They saw one path leading to mental destruction, and they chose the other, healthy, wise one. It is to be a visionary to question this whole existence; it is to be an adult to shut up about it and make sure the bills are paid and the trains run on time.
And I am still out there, adrift, wondering which way to go.
Can I simply be? I wrote a Facebook message to a group of old friends the other day, one of those impersonal, hey-look-you-were-included-on-my-closest-friends-list type of things. It was a pithy little comment on how I was doing something particularly domesticated that evening, full of self-mocking and look-at-what-it’s-come-to faux irony. One friend responded to the list saying, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, that I was right, David had become a blissful little suburbanite, he’s going for walks and cooking and watching the Olympics and buying Nike and voting and all the things you’re not supposed to do if you’re the outsider doggedly resisting social mores. It was funny and played into my joke. Then another friend responded to him, hitting a little closer to home:
(I’m paraphrasing) “Which do you think he likes more? Being domesticated, or the fact that we’re all sitting here talking about him being domesticated?” And he was right, of course. I’d always enjoyed being the little ugly duckling that everyone looked at as the peculiar one. His words disturbed me greatly, because he was so right. Did I really still want to be that guy? Why didn’t I shut up and play ball, live like a normal person? Nothing all that special about me. Nothing all that special about any of us.
Another example to prove my rapidly shifting point: I was talking to another friend who knows me as well as anyone the other evening. She met me several years ago here in London, at one of my many self-congratulatory birthday parties. She was a friend of a friend, so on, and I was still relatively new to the city, not that long removed from island life. That birthday evening, I was the new guy in town, telling my tales of the Caribbean, of ex-girlfriends and beaches and journalism adventures and self-doubt and romance and transcendence and insanity and the loss of God and anything else that would make it more likely this gorgeous girl in front of me would continue to listen, and she was staring at me, weirdly fascinated. She told me the other evening that she was compelled that night not so much by my stories — who could be? — but the fact that I had been somewhere, that I had done things. “I was looking at Kim [her other friend] and was like, ‘Er… we went to Mexico for a week once. We live just down the road from each other.’”
And I had been nowhere, really. I had done nothing. It is all relative, and ultimately, like everybody else, I’ve sold out. Real curiosities, the true lost souls of this world, will forever be roaming, searching, struggling, dreaming, wondering. I’m beginning to feel I don’t have it in me anymore., that it is no longer worth it for me. That I want to play ball.
In the end, I was far more like my friend than the weirdo whimsical outsider I once wanted people to believe I was. I am a dreamer, but I am also a human being, one who just wants happiness and serenity and a comfy chair to prop my feet up at the end of the day. Calm.
I might never again just hop in a car with a cohort and drive across the country for assorted aesthetically realised misadventures, I will never be nuts again, I will never cut all ties and just go go go GO, man! Not anymore. I like my flat too much, I like my monthly salary too much, I like my comfort too much. I am tied to this world, in a way the true visionaries never were. I cannot step outside it all, pretend that I am Neal Cassady, just not giving a fuck, ambling about, seeking seeking seeking seeking seeking. No longer. My peace is to be found in a flat that’s clean, in bills being paid, in the overseas family I can call at the end of the week. I didn’t think that’s where it was found. But I think it might be. This doesn’t make me any different than the rest of humanity. It is who I am. It just took me longer than most to realise.
So where does this leave me, or any of us who are starting to understand that, after a while, it takes too much energy to try to be the special unique snowflake all the time? That being normal has its advantages? That there’s a reason people choose comfort and relaxation and playing the game the right way? That’s OK, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
But, Dave, you say, this whole series of incoherent ramblings seems to have been focusing on some sort of final goal, some sort of intangible Meaning Of It All. We want some sort of resolution. The answer to this whole thing, it’s not becoming a corporate drone, is it? Is that what this all means? Do you conquer the demons and figure out what it all means? Do you find a way to be yourself in this universe without becoming what you’ve always fought against? Well, I’m afraid, this story has a rather mundane, mediocre conclusion. I’m just a regular guy, a squirrel trying to get a nut. I have a boss, and rent due, and bills, and a recently-acquired goldfish that needs to be fed. I have visions of a life I go home to every night, with a girlfriend or wife, and neighbours from whom I borrow tools, and membership in the golf club, and maybe a dog. I hope to get there someday. I am not Neal Cassady. Far from it.
I recognise… What is pulling me back to earth here? What has made me see the notion of settling as something that ain’t nothin’ to run from no more? Is it an inherent islander’s desire to have a home, happiness, tranquility? If that was what was important, why would I have ever left the Caribbean in the first place? Or was I just fooling myself then, thinking there was something else out there? Does it even make a difference? I just don’t want to run anymore. I don’t want to search. I just want to be normal. I want to work and go home and have a drink and relax and listen to music and watch sports and not be so damned peculiar and hungry for answers anymore. Is that so wrong? Is it? Seriously. Is it?
But no matter. Worry not. In a week, I’m sure I’ll feel the exact opposite. I am crazy, you know!
For some reason, when I talk to friends from home about London they all ask me about the parties. Without fail, anytime they call me before noon on a weekend, they’ll say, “Sorry to call you so early, man… I know you were probably out last night.” This is partly because I’m an alcoholic, of course, but they seem to overstate my ambitions.
Chances are, more likely, that I went to bed at 11 after heading to the local pub by myself to sit in a corner and read the new Haruki Murakami book. But they don’t get it. They’re aware there are plenty of parties here, but they never seem to understand that they rarely involve me.
I’ve always been slightly uncomfortable at parties and large gatherings. (I’d say I’m more of a one-on-one person, but I’m not really that either.) True, I’ve got better over the years, but something about them has always bothered me; I arrive, and everyone is already having fun, like they didn’t even know I was coming (had they known, maybe they might have toned it down a bit). It’s like coming into a room just after someone has told the best joke, the type of joke they’ll keep referring back to the rest of the evening. Everyone’s laughing their heads off, hee-hee, ha-ha, and they’re all in on the joke, enjoying it together. Except for me.
The more banging the shindig is, the less at ease I am. Especially when people are dancing. I’m not big on dancing. At least, not in public. At home, in private, I dance along to whatever music is on with total abandon. But ask me to dance in public and, yes, I will try, maybe even give it my all and everything, but in the end I really just move from side to side. Occasionally, I can fake it, especially when I’m out with people who can’t even do that – they either look like a chicken pox-infected person having an epileptic fit while being struck by lightning, or they look like a 10-year-old who really has to pee, standing straight up, hopping ever so slightly, eyes dodging around everywhere, hoping nobody notices. It’s highly amusing, to be entirely honest.
To these guys, because I was usually drunk and throwing myself around with little regard to propriety or safety, I could dance. But to the general public, the people who actually dance for fun rather than dancing because their alleged “friend” shamed them into it so he could take pictures and mock them, I’m a disaster. I jump around like a moron, move my hands wildly left to right and eventually morph dangerously into a shimmying, jiving “Walk Like an Egyptian” movin’ fool.
It’s horrific. I’ve had two ex-girlfriends actually refuse to go to any kind of dance club with me. I remember one of them used to drag me along for one purpose only: to hold the table and make sure nobody stole the bags and beer while she and her friends were all dancing. I usually tried to remember to bring a book.
I’m not sure why it is. I consider myself quite a sociable person. But when you’re at a huge party with people bumping into one another and no more than negative-6 inches between you and some 7-foot-tall fella with a lot of body hair who’s sweating out the average rainfall of the Amazon Basin all on his own, you tend to become a bit withdrawn.
Inevitably, I end up playing Pinball with the crowd – for some reason, I insanely insist on saying “Excuse me” and “Sorry” when I bump into someone at huge parties, which only happens every half-second – and ricocheting outdoors, where I sit in the corner and try to siphon off a cubic foot of space in case there’s a fire or something. Intermittently, I’ll start laughing out loud at nothing in particular, in case someone is planning on punching me and needs to be scared off by an appearance of insanity.
If someone I know comes by to say hello (or, more likely, to ask me a question about computers), I’ll make some kind of joke about being knackered from all the booty-shakin’ then wait the requisite 10 seconds – tops – until they notice some random person in the crowd, yell “Anna! Hi!” then scamper off. Then I go back to my random laughter.
And that is how I party.
Went to a party last Saturday night (Didn’t get laid / I got in a fight / Uh-oh, it ain’t no big thing. Sorry… I couldn’t resist that one!). Actually, it was a few weeks ago and it was actually more than a party. To me, it was a “rave,” you know, like those underground parties you only hear about through some secret network. (I was later told that it did not actually qualify as a rave. I’ll let you decide.)
Now, I should have known that I’m getting too old for this shit, but the whole “rave” thing, with all the “kids” “raving,” “having fun” and “enjoying” their time at a “rave” was a new experience to be had, so I was willing to give it a shot. I’d never been to such an event before, and well, I’d heard a lot about them, and, shit, they seemed totally crazy. A mate of a mate was going to be DJ’ing, and they were much cooler than me, so I figured, if just by osmosis, maybe I could have a good time.
We arrived, and I noticed straight off that this thing was going to be a struggle. Everyone was all decked out in what I decided was “dance” garb, or they weren’t wearing much at all (one girl, clearly under the influence of some kind of stimulant – probably coffee – danced topless with black stars painted on her nipples for what seemed like several non-stop hours; later on, she was lying down, staring at the ceiling, eyes wide wide wide open, and I was scared shitless because I briefly thought she might be dead and had visions of the coppers showing up and arresting us all). They were all grooving around in a trance, dancing with each other and themselves, oblivious to anything but the beat (that beat, that incessant beat). But… they were serving good rum at the bar.
I legged it to the garden outside, finagled my way into the corner and sat down. I got up once, waited half an hour for the bathroom, left the loo, realised I had to go again and stepped back in line. Another half hour. Back to the garden, save for a quick stop at the dance floor, where some guy (I swear) was digging his fingernail into his cheek. I stayed at the garden from then on before calling a cab and making my hasty escape. If you saw me, it might have looked like I was dancing for a moment, but I just tripped on a rock.
I’ve been thinking of having a party recently. Maybe I’ll invite all those friends from home, show them what a real London party’s all about. Of course, it’ll just be laughing to myself and tripping over rocks, like always, and it’ll be extra tough to do that “Anna! Hi!” trick, since, well, I’ll know everybody there. Probably won’t work.
Maybe the only person I’ll invite is me. And the neighbour’s cat. I think the cat can come.
Some friends of mine and I have a game we play any time we all go to a party together. We don’t really have a name for it – it definitely needs one – but we pattern it after the television coverage of a major sporting event.
A big football match is the most apt corollary. When the game is on television, the channel showing it inevitably carries hours of pre-match coverage, featuring countless commentators looking at the major storylines heading into the big game. Which player must have a big game for his team to win, which manager is most likely to have a go at the fourth official, which poor bastard is the most liable to miss a sitter at a crucial moment. Then, when the game is over and the plot has played itself out, the same commentators gather to dissect every aspect of the contest, who played well, who didn’t, so on, poring over every little detail, singling out amusing or critical points, the ones that will be remembered, the ones that will go down in history and/or infamy. These analysts have studied the game in and out, beforehand and afterwards, and they know every move, every player, every strategy, every technique, and why it mattered, why it was important.
In our party game, we’re the commentators. Beforehand, we chatter about who’s going to be there, what kind of parties the host usually has, what time is appropriate to show up, laying out the plotlines, who’s going to avoid whom, who’s going to try to hook up, who’s going to sit in the corner and not talk to anyone. But the real fun comes in the post-match report, where we connect the dots of all the people we know, reflect on what we’ve learned about them, gossip and chatter and mock people and venerate others and, namely, try to make some sense of it all. We’ll go on and on.
Man, Mike really was drunk tonight. Katy’s boyfriend is a bit of a moron, isn’t he? I hadn’t noticed, but Dan seems to have gained a little weight since he quit smoking. It’s good to see Joe and Rachel so happy. Gives you hope, doesn’t it? Greg’s such a socialite. You can just wind him and watch him go. Can you believe Karen was there? I haven’t seen her in years. She looks great. What’s the name of that one guy, the tall one with the stupid hair and big nose? Jeff, that’s right. I can’t believe I got stuck talking to Andy for so long. One of you guys should have saved me. What did they put in that cocktail, anyway?
The chatter is alternately catty and admiring and self-centred and idiotic and everything that’s great and tragic and pointless and hysterical. It is our common language, brilliant commentary that only we understand. And these people, my friends, all those who play the game and those who use the Average Formation Map to describe their moves… these are all people in my circle, in my tribe, the ever-widening and contracting coliseum of my life, and their lives, the ongoing story, the never-ending jam session. A bunch of clamouring cicadas, bumping into each other, making connections, drifting apart, supporting characters in everyone’s Oscar-winning role.
That’s what it is, actually; it’s an ongoing play we’re constantly rewriting, crumpling pages that didn’t work out right, starting anew, but always, always, writing on. And what keeps us going are our friends, those who know us, those whom we irritate and love us anyway, the ones, when the city goes dark and you’re adrift and can’t contact anyone, you naturally, seamlessly gravitate back toward. The ones who take you in and hand you a drink and ask you how your sister’s doing. The ones who tell the same jokes over and over. The ones who can’t keep a relationship going and can’t figure out why, even when it’s obvious to everyone else. The ones who are always there. They are your family. There’s no other word for it.
Look at that friend you emailed or texted just now. What connects you with that person? How’d you meet them? What keeps you two connected? Do you even think about it? Do you even need to? It’s as natural as breathing, the background static that we don’t notice but keeps the phones working, the lines open, the trains running on time. Without them, we are vapour, wisps, a record with no needle. They make what we’re doing matter. They are more than a crutch; they are our very spine.
Several years ago, I spent some time in Miami with two old, old friends who had just got engaged. My then girlfriend accompanied me, and I did what I could to describe her beforehand, what she liked, what mattered to her, why I liked her… what they should expect, essentially. We spent the weekend, and she left a day before I did, leaving the three of us with one last night.
That night, we bought four bottles of wine, turned on some music and had our post-match report. They know me as well as anyone does; they know where all the bodies are buried, better than I do, really. They compared and contrasted her with women in my past, placed her in a certain context, pointed out how I had changed over the years, why they liked her, why I looked happier than I’ve looked in a while, and then off we went. We told old stories, sure, but it was not merely wistful reminiscence. They’re as current as they’ve ever been. They know me the way I know them; from a genuine, kind place that just can’t wait to see what will happen next. It was our story, and we were telling it. We were getting it wrong in places, we were jumping to conclusions, we were exaggerating details for our own amusement… and we smiled and laughed and felt eternally at home. Which is where we were. Which is where we are.
It is a treasure to have all these people in my life, both old and new. I am so lucky. Allow me this moment to tell them: Thank you.
Tomorrow I turn 40.
There… I’ve said it!
For months, it’s been there, creeping up on me, peeking out from behind the corners of my consciousness, shimmering silver from beneath the receding black, etching a bit deeper into the smile lines. On the one hand, I’ve been dreading it, thinking, “Oh shit, here we go with this interminable passage of time thing. Twenty-two years since I left school? Seriously?” And on the other hand, I’m thinking, “Wahey! Hold on for the ride!”
Now, as I sit here in the final quiet hours, contemplating that today is the last day of my 30s before I tumble headlong into a new decade, the transition just feels arbitrary. Indeed, part of me rebels against the societal expectation that I should be feeling or doing something BIG. Counting the passing of days as meticulously as we do is so uniquely human. Yet, like New Year’s Eve or Valentine’s Day, I do sometimes wonder if birthdays were constructed to encourage people to consume. But equally, I know that if I don’t acknowledge this in a way that feels meaningful to me, I’ll regret it. Arbitrary or not, tomorrow I turn 40 and I need to process that fact in a way that makes sense to me, even as a flotilla of memories travel like logs down the river of my mind.
And so I write. I write because that is the way my soul makes sense of life. I write as I’ve always written – throughout my childhood in my little red school notebook, with poem titles like “Rover” and “The Flaming Immortelle”; throughout my angst-ridden teenage years when I was desperately trying to define myself by the externals of good looks and good grades; throughout my 20s – the thrilling journalism years – when I did it for love and a living even as the panic and anxieties of life grabbed me by the neck, before the diamonds inside the anxiety finally started to reveal themselves; throughout my 30s as I settled down in a new country, started a new career and a new way of life, loved deeply and lost bitterly… each time being turned inside out by the transition.
In my heart I carry all those people I’ve been before. I’m all those versions of myself, four decades of transition.
And speaking of transitions, as I turn 40 I can also feel myself shedding parts of my personality that are no longer serving me. For example, I was recently chatting with a friend about how people – ourselves included – often put up walls around themselves. I later mulled this over well into the night, and by morning I felt a palpable shift. The part of me that tries so hard to connect with people that aren’t open to connecting – work colleagues, acquaintances, neighbours or supermarket cashiers – fell away. I realised with total certainty that it’s not me. If someone isn’t open to connecting when I approach them with a genuine smile and real interest, it’s not because I’ve said something offensive or done anything wrong, it’s just walls. And just like that, I stopped caring so much about what others thought of me.
It was like stepping a little further into my true self, a little bit wiser, a little bit stronger and calmer than I’ve ever felt, a little bit closer to my calling in life, whatever that may be. It was like I suddenly recognised the freedom I had all along to choose how I “do” life.
Tomorrow I turn 40.
There is a pang of grief as I let go of a familiar number; a twinge of trepidation as I wonder what lies ahead. But mostly, surprisingly, I feel joy, gratitude and excitement. I have much to be thankful for. I’ve survived the challenges of my twenties and thirties and now know how to stay true to myself and what I hold dear. And that’s something worth celebrating as I continue to experience, to feel, this glorious thing called LIFE.
So farewell dear Thirties. Now bring on the next adventure!
When I played football as a child, there was this guy on the team named Joe Alvarez. You could go to every practice, read all the names on the team-sheet and play countless matches together, and of all the kids there, Joe was the one you’d notice the least.
He was quiet, sure, but lots of kids were quiet. (I, alas, was not one of them.) Joe just happened to look like every youngster. He was normal height, normal build; his cap sat too far down over his eyes like every other guy that age. Absolutely nothing exceptional existed about Joe. He wasn’t cuter than anyone else, he wasn’t fatter, he wasn’t any more talented, he wasn’t any more anything. No one really hung out with Joe, but no one ever made fun of him either. Joe was the type of guy who would play in every game and never score a goal. Joe was just simply there.
Joe was a year older than me, so when he moved up to the next level, any thoughts I might have happened to have of him vanished. He had rarely entered my mind in the first place, and once he was out of my severely limited circle of awareness, he might as well have never existed in the first place.
Which is why it was strange when my mother took me aside after dinner one night, when I was 10.
“David… you remember Joe, the boy from your team?” Mum had an odd look on her face. She wasn’t sad or anything, or at least it didn’t seem like it, but her eyes were pinched, narrowed, serious. It was almost comical the way she looked. I hadn’t seen her look that way before; it must have made an effect, because I remember it all these years later.
I told Mum I kind of remembered him. “He played on the wing, right?” But Mum wasn’t thinking of Joe’s position in the field. “Listen, David… Joe had an accident. He wasn’t feeling well, and it turned out, something inside of him burst, like a balloon. They took him to the hospital, but it was too late.” I asked her what it was too late for. “David, Joe… Joe died. He died.” She didn’t cry. She just stared at me, as if I were about to make a vital decision about something. It seemed as if I was being tested.
Here is where my memory fails me. I have no idea what I did next. Did I cry? Probably. I would cry if I got benched back then. But I wouldn’t have been crying out of grief. I think I would have been crying because that’s what I assumed I was supposed to do. The next part, I do remember. I went to bed early that night and stayed awake for hours, trying to think. I wasn’t thinking about death, or if I could die, or if Mum or Dad or one of my siblings could die. I was thinking of what I remembered about Joe. I didn’t come up with much.
But Joe suddenly became a centerpiece of my life. I found myself scouring my brain for little details, a certain hat he wore, his place in the team, the number on the back of his shirt. In life, he was one of many; in death, he rose up, a singular entity, worthy of studious remembrance and commemoration. Joe was no longer an anonymous face in the crowd; he had become the crowd.
It occurred to me that if I had known him better… it would have been unbearable. But that didn’t stop me from trying to make friends with every single teammate I had, from then on.
As I have grown older, I have faced more death, and more loss, and more suffering. Each and every time, it seems impossible to grasp. They were here a moment ago, and they’re not now. What left? Where did they go? I should have been nicer to them, I should have sent them a Christmas card, I should have not been so busy all the time. I should have known a day like this would come, sometime.
I’m not sure why I suddenly thought about Joe again today. But the thing about sudden tragedies, you see, is that whoever has been lost has a tendency to spring from the depths of your brain to the forefront. Every interaction with them, every second you spent with them, whether it was to tell them you loved them, to fight with them over the last chip, or simply to provide them, a passing acquaintance, the woman you see on the train once a week, with a “bless you” when they sneezed, the memories seem to gather the gravity of scripture. It all takes on a glow, like they were followed by this white gleam shining beneath them, a pale, endless spotlight. You don’t even need to have met the person; when they’re gone, even passing conversations about them seem etched in time. It was like they were the most significant part in your life, though you never could have known it.
If there is a better reason to celebrate life while we have it, and everyone we come into contact with in our cluttered tunnels, I haven’t found it.
I’m on the job hunt these days, and a friend of mine just quit the one she’s had for two years. This piqued my interest because hers was the sort of role that I always found interesting and even coveted. But she insists that I’d be a fool to go for it. “I quit this job to go into the job market, as tough as it is. Doesn’t that tell you anything?”
She has a point. Right now, even the rats in London are claiming benefits. I tried to explain to her my own situation and why I wanted – needed – to move on. She wouldn’t have it. She said the job was demeaning and demoralising and degrading and any other progressive adjective with the de- prefix, save for maybe detoxifying. It will break your spirit, she said. It’s a bunch of delusional balding men trying to hang on to their waning libidos, she said. You’ll hate it there just as much.
Then she paused. “Well… you’re a guy. It might be easier for you.”
I knew immediately what she meant, but I can’t figure out whether or not to agree with her. I know what she was trying to get across: that it was a work environment that perhaps isn’t as accommodating to women as it is to men (which I think is classified as “illegal,” but hey, never you mind). And I wasn’t sure if I should be insulted by the implication. Would I be complicit, a willing party, if I benefited from an environment that excludes women? (And seriously, boys, the Mad Men days are over. You can’t even smoke in the office anymore.)
These are all fascinating questions, really – they are, honest – but, me being me, her comment got me thinking about myself, and myself only. It affected me less on the Should-I-Take-This-Job-If-Offered front and more on the Wait… I’m-A-Guy? front.
The concept that there is some fundamental difference between the sexes, something deep down, ingrained, either through nature or nurture, a little pink or blue dot in the middle of our brains that determines how we see the world, is one that has always frustrated me.
It’s always been my belief – and feel free to mock here, because everybody does – that men and women are essentially the same. We all just want happiness, and peace, and comfort. We might go about it differently on occasion, but shit, we’re all on the same team here. But no one ever agrees with me.
I missed the blokes’ handbook they evidently handed out in primary school, along with the What’s Happening to My Body? book. I don’t think of myself as some member of an enormous fraternity, a man before I’m a human. I mean, I can barely grow a decent mat of chest hair, I really love Meryl Streep and I often talk to little babies and small, furry animals using words like “cute yiddle puddy wuddy.” If I’m supposed to be a representative of some guy culture by my very existence, I think I’m doing a very poor job. Shit, sometimes, get this, I even talk about my feelings.
But the rest of the world doesn’t seem to see it that way. And I wonder if I have a choice. I will admit, there are most certainly benefits I have received only because I am a guy, most of which I’ve never noticed and likely never will. But I didn’t sign up for this. I’m just a person, like everybody else.
I fail the Bloke Test in almost every way. Sure I talk meaningless shit about girls with the guys – and sometimes to the girls, which usually gets me in trouble. But that’s all it is to me – meaningless shit. I’ve never been in a real fight. I own no weaponry. If pressed, I’ll confess I prefer cricket, and maybe even tennis, to football. Wrestling and Formula One confuse me. I don’t spit in public. I worry about my weight. I’m not sensitive about my penis size (OK, maybe a little).
These are all stereotypes, urban legends, myths passed down through the generations. (When did they become hard, real ways to live our lives?) But I’ll never be able to live them down.
Put it this way: I was out with some friends the other evening, and one of them, a post-grad student, mentioned that she was working on a paper. She asked everyone she knew a question: If you found out your partner had developed a deep emotional attachment to someone of the opposite sex, would it bother you more than if he/she had meaningless sex with someone he/she hardly knew?
The student claimed that of the 50-something-odd people she asked, every single woman said she would be more bothered by the deep emotional connection, and every single man said he would be more bothered by the sex. She revealed this after she’d polled us, and, lo and behold, her postulate proved accurate. The four women didn’t care so much about the sex, and the two guys (myself included) did, quite so. The student was quite pleased with herself, convinced she’d stumbled across a universal truth.
I dissented, strongly. Listen, I calmly explicated, the reason I give that answer is not that I’m a guy. Don’t we, as humans, have the right, no, the duty, to develop as many “deep emotional connections” with as many people as possible? If I recognise someone as some sort of kindred spirit, male or female, why is it wrong for me to pursue a relationship – and by “relationship,” I mean an exploration of another person’s mind and thought processes, not anything sexual – with them? Isn’t it inherently flawed thinking to limit ourselves to enjoying the company of only one person, female or male? Would a girlfriend of mine object to me making a new male friend? Isn’t the real betrayal sex, and cheating, and lying?
For not the first time, the group of women laughed at me. “Guy,” they said. “You’re just a guy, and you’re full of shit, and you know it.”
See what I’m up against here?