Friday, March 07, 2008

Memoir of a Half-Life: Introduction

When we are small children, there is very little we actually know. Most of the world exists in the realm of the possible. We know that people make sense of the curled scratches written on pages. They know how to make sense of clock faces, the pattern in which to tangle their shoelaces. They know how to drive and how to procure cars. Sometimes we are baffled that they seem to know more about unimportant things (accounting) yet have forgotten critical stuff, like which dinosaurs are the most bad-ass. For children that which can be imagined is very little different from that which is known. Once they get the hang of it, children realize that they may learn to fly, grow up to be a dog, visit Mars, or (they worry) master accounting. In the childish mind, it’s all the same.

(When I was about five, I was going to grow up to be Franco Harris. Literally—not so much a pro football player, but Pittsburgh Steeler running back Franco Harris.)

Our childhood sense of anticipation shifts a bit as we ripen into adolescence—some of the fantasies have run aground on the hard rocks of childhood cruelty and loss. (Who hasn’t experienced the brutal homicide of Santa by the time they’re ten?) But into this burgeoning sense of tangible reality, we begin to associate some of our more likely dreams with our identity. The punky music kids see themselves as outre; the smart kids begin to imagine lives of success and praise.

One of my friends, who taught both middle school and grade school in hardscrabble, working-class neighborhoods, said he preferred the younger kids because none of them yet knew they were doomed. He knew this because he once asked his older kids to raise their hands if they planned to go to college. A hand or two. But the younger kids, equally as disadvantaged, who would in a few years time see their sunny horizons darken, all raised their hands.

College becomes a costume shop of identity. We get a degree at the end; while it should be considered provisional at best, a souvenir photo of us dressed up in the garb of our imagined future identity, instead we relate to it all the more firmly. We exit in a dreamworld not a lot more sophisticated than the one we created at 15. I don’t doubt there are variations, but American culture nurtures from a young age the identification with work as self. Other measures of selfhood—happiness, family connections—are emphasized less in America than most cultures. We are what we do and, by extention, accomplish.


When I was about twenty years old, I had a distinct sense of being exactly at the fissure between childhood and adulthood. A part of me had reached its full potential and was about to change irrevocably, but in that moment, I could regard it, like a perfect bloom of childhood, as if fixed. For that fleeting moment in life, I could imagine disappearing into either world—the carelessness of youth, or the responsibility of maturity. I spent a week or two enjoying the sensation, which carried with it the luxury of fantasy as I tried on adulthood without worrying about the drudgery that actually accompanies it.

What I was not able to witness were the imminent changes to the dreamworld with which I had been busy populating my future selves. Dreams flourish in the absence of information and youth is uniquely unaware of adulthood’s realities. Our world is tabula rasa, but the moment we take the first step toward one of our future selves, countless others grow dimmer. We don’t perceive the gravity of our trajectory, experiencing only the sense of open horizons; we charge off, fearlessly, failing to recognize the deaths of all the potential selves we abandon in our enthusiasm to get started.

Another twenty years has passed, and another interstitial moment arrives. The dreamworld of youth is disappearing irrevocably. I have been wearing several layers of psychic clothing that appear increasingly insubstantial. The act of dreaming that has governed much of my mind for 40 years is fading. Dreams are dying—some because I can’t accomplish them (Franco Harris), some because I already have.

It turns out the act of dreaming has been a mistaken endeavor from the outset.

The childlike understanding of possibilities at some point gave way to the identification with the dream. One goes from a verb to a noun. I have cultivated dreams not only because they form a structure for my life to follow, but because they have helped create my self-image. But of course, self-images require at least the appearance of external support. The older we get, the harder it is to find any meaning in the labels we give ourselves—anyway, I do. I can call myself a writer or not, a Buddhist or not, a researcher or not. After a time, it has become clear that all of these dreamy self-images depend on some external umpire to make the call. At 40, I find it extremely difficult to continue to believe in this umpire. This is why the accomplishment of dreams always results in a sense of dissipation—I was not involved in the dream for the satisfaction of accomplishment, but the result I thougth it would afford. I saw my name published and … nothing. I wrote a novel. So what? So, I have spent a life coveting, but the wrong thing.

At forty, I’m having a simultaneously destabilizing epiphany: on the one hand, I’m deflated to realize that the benchmarks against which I have secretly been measuring myself don’t exist; on the other hand, I’m left with a sensation of being rudderless. My dreams were foolish, but at least they gave me direction.


This 40-year-old vertigo can't be unusual. One of its causes is the failure to look back at the path and see where I've come from. The experience of forty years doesn't feel like much, but sifting through the actual years, and it stretches pretty far back into prehistory. There are wonderful treasures there to be revealed, if only to myself. Look, there's Fryer's Quality Pies, that dive on 23rd filled with blue smoke, punky kids staying warm on a single 50-cent coffee, and neighborhood elders, some of whom were born in the previous century. There's a funny old woman standing in the living room talking about "peaching" President Nixon. There's a couple of tow-headed kids riding in the back of a pick-up truck driven by a man drinking beer.

What does it say to have been born in America in 1968? What do my experiences say about the larger world? How has the larger world created the person who now sits typing these words? How does one get born into a hunting, fishing, working-class Christian family in suburban Boise, Idaho and end up a liberal, Buddhist, pacifist in urban Portland? Memoirs, to the extent they have value, bring the personal and the epochal together. Over the next weeks and months, I'll try to do just that--bringing answers to these questions together with the larger context of time, place, and events that we all share.

Next post: 1968, Part 1

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