Embracing Uncertainty: Why I’m No Longer Scared of Fucking Up

I will be thirty years old in May, and I have a secret to share:

I don’t really know what I’m doing with my life.

I say “secret” because for as long as I can remember, people have pinned me as someone who has it all figured out. I whizzed through school from elementary to undergrad; I have traveled widely and learned languages at a young age; I have excelled at most things I’ve tried my hand at; and I have never in my life had a substantively negative performance review (though I will probably be late to work for the rest of my life). I’ve also always had lofty, albeit sometimes nebulous goals that no one has ever disabused me of.

But as the big 3-0 approaches, I must admit that I really don’t have a clue what the hell I’m doing. Once I recognized the general ineffectiveness of the United Nations, my interest in being an interpreter there was DOA. Though I loved (and still love) the craft of acting, my desire to be a TV/film actor crashed hard up against the shallow and often soul-crushing realities of life in Hollywood. And my dream of being a novelist (though still alive and well) has come up against the fact that writing takes time, and that having time in the midst of the capitalist American rat race is not an easy undertaking; bare necessities like healthcare and any level of financial stability are always tied up in jobs that want the whole of your being.

On the one hand, I am clearly a victim of my own idealism and naiveté. But on the other, I am also struggling to find my way in a world that encourages and values specialization, which works well for people who have a thing they like and want to do for the rest of their working lives. Or, I suppose, people who are willing to sacrifice their varied interests in exchange for a single career path/life plan that provides them with the security and stability they need to, for example, start a family. The renaissance wo/men of the world need not apply.

But now, on the freedom side of student loan debt, with a whole world of possibilities ahead of me, I am not prepared, nor do I intend, to make such a sacrifice at this time. As I watch many friends lean headlong in a sort of manic rush toward marriage and domesticity, I can’t help but wonder if this is the life that they want, or simply the life that they’ve accepted they will live. This is not to demean such a choice, but in a world where no one knows what they’re doing I know I can’t have everything, but at the moment, my spirit needs a heck of a lot more than 40+ interminably predictable hours a week slowly dying under the sterile light of fluorescent bulbs. If this species of mundane predictability is a sign of having it all figured out or a benchmark along the way to “getting one’s shit together”––I’ll pass for the time being.

Full disclosure: I’m still kind of scared of fucking up. As I step onto the road less traveled by, I have no idea whether I’m headed toward the adventure of a lifetime or an untimely end at the bottom of a ravine. But luckily, life is not some fragile thing that I’m going to shatter with a misstep or a wrong turn. Even people who choose to step aboard the conformity train are just figuring it out as they go along, and no one has a magic window into the future. Marriages end. Tragedy strikes. Circumstances shift. I take comfort in the knowledge that the life I’m building for myself will be one that I can be proud to call mine. I don’t think I’ll ever escape this sense of trepidation, but as long as I don’t let fear of fucking up intimidate me into inaction, then I’m winning.

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America May Be Dead to Me

Since I left the east coast in 2014, almost four years ago, I have been waxing poetic about the beauty and wonder of the northeast. The cities are close together, I said. Public transit is a thing!, I exclaimed. People from all walks of life rub shoulders in the melting pot of the metropolitan center, I moaned, ecstatically.

These things are, of course, all true. I really do feel that if this country was 150-200 years older, all of the major cities would be more similar to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, etc. than some of the sprawling nightmares that instead flourished under the power of the American automobile industry (Phoenix, Los Angeles–I’m looking at you). We’d mirror the human-scaled cities of Europe; our national train system probably wouldn’t be in such disrepair; and we’d have a greater respect for public amenities that bring members of a community together in other countries.

All this being said, I have arrived in the northeast, temporarily at least, with absolutely no sense of affinity for what is going on here. Philadelphia, in all its early spring charm and wonder, rolled out a red carpet of doom clouds, rainy weather, and yes–snow!, that immediately reminded me why I left the northeast in the first place. Interminable grey winters winters were something I simply couldn’t do anymore (or ever again, it seems). This mood, like so much of my emotional state, is surely a reflection of all the things going on in my life right now, but another more bittersweet (and dramatic) explanation has also presented itself: America is dead to me.

Or at least it’s dying to me. Between the current political climate and my overarching sense of dissatisfaction with the state of American life, I always thought that my only choice was to seek refuge in one of the few American cities where I could lead something approaching the kind of life I wanted to live. New York offered a wildly imperfect first choice, but other smaller cities seemed, from afar, to be potential runners up. But the reality is that after three years on the west coast, seven in the New York, and a great deal of research, I was convinced that The City of Brotherly Love held the key to my future. But I’m afraid now that I have no choice but to try my luck abroad. Perhaps my ideal combination of seasons, sunshine, culture, and a functioning social contract will actually be within my reach elsewhere in the world.

As I prepare to move to Spain in mid-August, I am always cognizant of the fact that “wherever you go, there you are,” but I’m hoping that the version of me that exists in Madrid is less crazy than the guy I’m living with right now.

Chicken Little’s Big Adventure

Before the IED-like results of this year’s presidential election and the chaos that has ensued, I was prepping myself for a big reveal that I planned to develop through the medium of this blog over the coming year or so. With Trump having won the election, I was forced to pause for moment to consider what it means to be American, how my own apathy may have contributed to his victory (don’t worry, I voted for Clinton!), and what my responsibilities are for the coming years. After several of weeks of intensive self-care and introspection, I have decided that honoring my original intention and moving ahead with my plans is one of the most important things that I can do for myself right now. In many ways, I will serve my country better as a more fully realized version of myself than the one that has been floating around since I moved to California. I may express some of my internal hopes and fears (for the world and for my country) in a later blog post, but for the moment, just know that I am still processing the election results and trying to figure out where I fit in, like so many others of you.

As the title of this post would suggest, I am in the midst of planning a BIG ADVENTURE for myself that I’m looking to embark upon between next fall and the following spring. Ideally, this adventure will start in Australia, continue on to New Zealand, up through southeast Asia, and on to Europe. There is no projected end date; I’m looking to travel as long as I can comfortably manage to do so. But I would also like to situate myself so that resettling in Europe is a possibility. Berlin, Brussels, London, Madrid and Barcelona are on the list of candidates.

Since coming to Los Angeles, I have had to ask myself what it is that I really want from life. What is it that speaks to me? What makes me feel alive? I’ve returned time and time again to the most formative and existence-affirming moments in my life, and most of them include travel. I love navigating the unknown of distant lands, stumbling through and then easing into foreign tongues, and relishing the sensation of otherness being thrust upon me in beautiful and sometimes challenging ways. I think of how fortunate I was to have spent time in Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Rabat (Morocco), and Tel Aviv between the ages of sixteen and twenty-three. I think about how awake I felt on those adventures, and how much of the last couple of years have felt a bit like sleepwalking. Since sleepwalking seems to be the norm these days, particularly in a town like Los Angeles, it is hard to escape such a mindset in this environment.

In order to make this adventure a reality, I need to establish for myself a couple of streams of income to ensure that I don’t starve (or have to come home early). Right now, the things that seem most reasonably likely to keep me housed are:

  • Hospitality work (restaurants, hotels, cafes, bars)
  • Clerical (word processing, data entry, proofreading, etc.)
  • Teaching English
  • Writing (essays, articles, this blog, and my books)
  • Ceramics

Since I’ve tried teaching English abroad without any prior experience, I’d like to get trained/qualified before trying to do so again. This will take a little time and money. The last two items on the list are, perhaps, the most farfetched, simply because it generally takes a while to get people to pay you for your writing, and I would need access to a ceramics studio, which will not always be possible.

The other thing I have to think about is budget, factoring in the things I’ll have to buy or pay for before I go. I’d like to have about $10,000 saved up before I go, and I’ll need to factor in the costs of:

  • A good hiking backpack (recommendations welcome!)
  • Storage unit for whatever I can’t or won’t sell
  • Virtual phone number
  • A new external hard drive to back up computer
  • A new iPhone for pictures/social media management
  • TESOL/TEFL certification

So many other factors will probably come into play over the next year, but I with the right amount of discipline, I know that I can make something happen!

Chicken Little, signing off.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem

Didion was among the first to crystalize the dull realization that you are not the red heifer you thought you were, and that as much as you love New York, she does not need or want your sacrifice

I never read Joan Didion in college. It’s a shame, really. I didn’t know that her essay “Goodbye to All That” was the archetypical farewell letter to New York City. I could see with my own eyes the countless numbers of artists that come to New York to offer themselves up to to The City’s merciless, loving arms, ready to be burnt offerings on the altar of her bosom. I was unaware, however, that Didion was among the first to crystalize the dull realization that you are not the red heifer you thought you were, and that as much as you love New York, The City does not need or even want your mundane sacrifice. For many who “come out of the West,” as Joan says, the metropolis is too much, and most are not rich enough, and cannot stay young enough, to bear its weight indefinitely.

So I left. Following the tide-like pull that once lured settlers into the unknown of the Wild West, I carried out my own Manifest Destiny. I was certain, like the gold miners who came before me, that I would find my fortune. But like many of those same starry-eyed young men and women, I was disappointed to find my hands grasping at pyrite and glitter. The state I had abandoned at the age of eighteen has not much changed since my youth, and my relationship to it, after having seen the wider world, is that much worse for the wear. Ways of being and worldviews that I once accepted (and even ascribed to!) as a younger man have become thorougly repellent to me, and analogs for the various types of people I went to high school with are now my colleagues and neighbors and are even more irksome to me now than they were then.

For months after moving to LA, I pined for my beloved metropolis. On the worst days, I simply couldn’t understand or remember why I’d left. The crowding and cost of living had certainly begun to take their toll, but in exchange, one received the vibrancy that comes with living in a big city, and the special brand of magic unique to New York City. When compared to New York on these points, Los Angeles is something of a dusty backwater masquerading as an urban center. Everything that people from east coast kvetch about regarding Los Angeles (the traffic, the subpar nightlife, the languid pace of life) are true, but what makes things more infuriating at times is that (A) this is not the image of glamour and refinement that Hollywood projects to the world, (B) the natives refuse to acknowledge these shortcomings, and (C) things don’t have to be this way. There is enough money and enough space for the city to be and aspire to better. But the truth of the matter is that people here, despite holding onto their urban fantasy, do not want the city to change. They like things just the way they are. I would argue that LA has more in common with Oklahoma City than it does with New York, Paris or London, and it is apparent, despite municipal efforts to bring LA into the 21st century, that that will not be changing any time soon.

What is the thesis of all this? For one, my grasp of the narrative essay is weak at best. Also, I’m an elitist asshole. (I’m working on both those things and will try to provide updates on my progress.) Secondly, I have actually found my sojourn west to have been invaluable in my discovery of self despite my severe frustrations. I have not gained any great appreciation for Los Angeles or California more generally, but I know now, in no uncertain terms, that the grass is not always greener, and that humility is a dish best served repeatedly and under duress (not unlike water-boarding). Additionally, the kindnesses that Angelenos have shown me despite the ill will I harbor toward this place is really nothing short of amazing, and it’s more than my little Grinch’s heart deserves. I need to get out, ASAP.

I fled New York thinking that my quality of life would improve, but although I have access to all the sunshine and pho a boy could want, I am probably more stressed and less happy than I was at any time during my eight years in New York. I make more money, but ironically I have less of it to spend. I have a car, but nowhere I really want to drive to. I have paid vacation days but little energy for vacations (combined with the sick but pervasive fear of using up all my days and being trapped until my next accrual). Worst of all, I am in something of a creative hub but have never felt further alienated from my own creativity. In short, this is not the place for me, and it is only a matter of time before I need to hit the road.

Bird by Bird

Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write. It was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my  brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.”

Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

For most of my life, endings have come pretty easily to me. I think I owe this to the number of sad, tear-soaked goodbyes that dotted my youth. As I moved from city to city, school to school, friendship to friendship, goodbyes became par for the course. Ask anyone I know well, and they will tell you that I am most unsentimental when it comes to the ends of things. This could actually be a sign of severe emotional detachment, but that, I think, is a story for another post. Today, I want to talk about beginnings, because for me, and for many people, beginnings are hard. Continue reading “Bird by Bird”

Home

Over the course of the last two and a half weeks, I have had six panic attacks. Six terrifyingly oppressive and exhausting panic attacks–and they’ve all been about my upcoming return to New York.

Surely, you might say, I should be very excited to go back to New York. I have, after all, been trying to do just that for a sizable portion of my time in Los Angeles. And you would be half right in your assessment. I am, indeed, very excited to return to the world that I have inhabited for the largest portion of my adult life thus far. A world where I will once again be surrounded some of the most educated people from all walks of life. A world where I know that I can, if I choose, avoid talking of auditions and casting agents.  I am excited to return to the realm of the cosmopolitan and escape some from L.A.’s relentless sub-urbanity.

However, New York is not some mysterious unknown into which this adventurer is now diving. For all that I love that city, I no longer harbor any romantic ideals about what it’s like to live there. Life in New York is, in a word, exacting. It is probably one of the most relentlessly grinding places that one can choose to be. “Anything after New York would be–a pleasure cruise,” as the song goes. It is a really fucking boring pleasure cruise–but many a former New Yorker has been driven from their abode, perhaps for Portland instead of Santa Fe, but the sentiment remains. So many things that normal Americans take for granted are labeled luxuries in New York. Personal space? Access to nature? Solitude? New York has managed to commodify each of these in such an intense way that great sacrifices must sometimes be made in order to obtain them. And having lived in California for the last 18 months where those three things are abundant, I will admit that I balk a bit at re-surrendering myself to the concrete jungle. I’ve gotten awfully comfortable in my 1 BR with parking.

And as I make the decision of whether to live with another person or willingly raise my own budget for rent an additional $300-$500 dollars every month (an amount that would rent an entire two BR apartment with parking in other places), a tiny voice creeps in and asks me what exactly I think I’m doing. I know how hard things can get. I know the depths I can sink to. I am at something of an impasse, and all I want is to find my way home.

What is a home? They say home is where the heart is, so it makes sense that my poor, fragmented heart is so confused about what that word means. Having bounced from town to town as a child, then state to state and country to country as I reached adulthood, I have given pieces of my heart to so many people and places over the years that my compass has no north. There is no guiding star to lead this voyage, so it often feels like I am simply adrift at sea. My parents live in different cities, both far from the town I fled to go to college. My host families in Japan, Argentina, and Morocco are living their lives without me. The entire country of Israel, which I love with reckless, wild abandon that you can only have for first loves of a certain nature, is too fucked up to consider returning to any time soon. So for now that just leaves New York with the largest portion of my heart: home to 8 million crazy, ambitious, intelligent, beautiful, wonderful monsters — who have not paused or slowed since my departure, because they are too busy trying to stay afloat themselves. I am one insignificant grain of sand on a shoreful of souls who have come to and left New York. And much to my chagrin I know that I will be leaving little pieces of my heart here in L.A. with the people here who have unexpectedly become like family.

All of this is to say that home is where the heart is; I just need to find all of the pieces of my heart.