Monday, July 23, 2012

800 Words: I Need a Vacation

In recent vintage, the posts on this blog have gotten darker and still darker, more and still more self-revealing, less and still less well-advised. I’ve tried to make it a rule for this blog to keep some kind of balance. Something dark must be followed by something light, something serious by something frivolous. If it can be helped, no writer, and no person, should ever edge too far in any mental direction without returning the other way. If you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you; if you avoid the abyss, the abyss no longer gives a shit.

Even as I’ve felt no less happy in the last month (if anything, rather happier than usual), I’ve found my thoughts on these pages gravitating toward bleaker and still bleaker sentiments. The longer an anxious person goes without feeling anxiety, the more he feels anxious about the anxiety to come. And the more premonitions he has, the more likely he is to allow them to come true.

I’ve had two separate friends tell me that this blog is coming to resemble a Dostoevsky novella, one of whom said it weeks before I even mentioned Dostoevsky here. Lest you think I’m being overly egotistical by bringing this up, please understand that I often seriously question whether Dostoevsky is not an absurdly overrated author – and I don’t doubt that they meant it in precisely that same spirit. I can love Dostoevsky for fifteen minutes at a time, and then invariably get absolutely tired of him. But the sentiments in Dostoevsky, the long-windedness, the narcissism, the constant hysterical confessions by total strangers, the glorification of suffering, the proto-fascist longing to be told what to think by a higher power….those sentiments are all beginning to sound a little too familiar... I never wanted to write bad Dostoevsky, I wanted to write bad Chekhov and bad Pushkin. Ideally, this blog was meant to house well-proportioned writing which mingles every possible emotional state at a length that never outstays its welcome. Blogging, like life, seems to aspire to a state of Chekhov but ends in a state of Dostoevsky.

But all good blogs are good in the same way, all bad blogs are bad in different ways (I know, I know, that’s Tolstoy). When this blog is good, I like to think that in its small way it gets the whole flavor of experience. From day to day, I have new ideas for all sorts of subjects whose thoughts seem to write themselves, and they run the gamut from serious to silly, sad to happy, heavy to light, smart to stupid. When this blog is bad, the mental acuity slows, and I very much feel like I’m agonizing to think of every word. When that happens, the emotions gravitate more toward one end of those scales and forgets the other. Needless to say, lately it’s been gravitating more toward seriousness, heaviness, sadness, perhaps even stupidity…

Fortunately, the past year of writing’s experiences far number more in the former category than the latter – I’m damn proud of the writing I’ve done here, and would never take back a word of it (except the grammar mistakes). Like any writer who finds the process easy, in my best moments I don’t feel like it’s me who’s writing. It’s only in my worst moments when every individual word feels as though it must be sucked out of my brain and I have to tap into things which I probably shouldn’t’ be sharing on this blog in order to keep the writing at a pace.

I do not regret becoming what many bloggers call an ‘oversharer’. If you want to write, then to a certain extent you have to draw on personal experience – where else can you draw? If people want to understand each other, then they unfortunately have to expose information to one another that might not be well-advised to expose. My red flags used to go up instantly when I saw someone share the private details of their lives online, as though somehow that was indicative of a person being particularly volatile or insane. But then I realized, who the hell am I to pretend that my bodily emanations don’t stink? And what the hell do I have to lose? I’m not particularly special, I’m just a nerdy kid from Baltimore who in his own way has led a fairly interesting life.

And then I remembered, this is what most if not all decent writers do – no matter how well a writer conceals the details of his life, all writing, even all fiction, is a variation on autobiography. Even if your unconscious dictates your material, that’s autobiography; even if you’re inspired to write something by what you read, that’s autobiography; even if you’re inspired by the details of someone else’s life – a friend, a famous person, a person you meet at a bar – that’s autobiography. In each case, it's you who has to process the information, and at least in that sense it's happening to you as much as it's happening to anyone else. Some writers are clearly more upfront about this process than others, and it makes little difference to the quality of their work whether they conceal the details of their lives in their work or share them – different processes work for different writers. But so long as human beings do the writing, we can only write based on what we perceive.

I’d like to think my perceptions are about to change rather drastically. Tomorrow, I’m headed to France and England for a month. This will be the biggest vacation I’ve been on in thirteen years and the first time I’ve been back to Europe in eight. Eight years ago, I lived in London for a summer – and in so many ways that was the summer which defined all the choices I’d made since then. It was in London that I began writing a blog, and blogging has been the most consistent activity I’ve had since then. I had the most horrendous internship with a British musical organization imaginable (not telling which), and it’s soured me towards office work ever since (not that I’ve successfully avoided it in recent years). I was in what is still my favorite city in the world, yet all I could think of was how much I missed my friends back home – friends who are still among my closest. Every night I heard new pieces of music and theater that made me want to stay in this city forever, and it made me broke three separate times during that summer – a financial state I became intimately acquainted with as the years went by. 

Like all Americans of some cerebral bent, I still put a cache on Europe that probably isn’t entirely deserved. To Americans, Europe is the place where fairy tales are reenacted. It’s less true than it once was, but Americans don’t understand history. The idea that we are who we are because other people got us here is completely antithetical to an American self-image. We believe we are masters of our destinies, hatched from our mothers’ wombs sui generis, and view the entire world as an orange to be squeezed. America has always been a vast, uncharted space of opportunity – a blank canvas on which we can all paint our own mural. Europe is a collage on which millennia’s worth of people already made their own forms. European cities seem as chaotically organic as any natural forest, on which thousands of years of growths collide, clash, and overtake one another – each generation splattering a new seed and pollen into the ecosystem. American cities are like planned forests, in which the buildings seem like trees planted in a straight line – no American city is more than 300 years old, and it’s impossible to obtain the diversity of style and spirit which each age added to the most mythical European cities.

Americans view Europe with a confused mixture of intimidated awe and the irritation with which young people have for nagging parents who try to shame their children in an unconscious effort to stop the kids from achieving more than they ever did. But Europe is even more confused by America, and their stereotypes are hilariously inconsistent. Americans are fat, yet obsessed with health. Americans are lazy, yet obsessed with work. Americans are warm and friendly, yet could not be more obnoxious. Like an older generation viewing a younger one, they dotingly observe everything about their ‘kids’ yet can’t understand a single thing they see, and just like when old people try to imitate the habits of the young, their oft-made attempts to be more like Americans are rather hilarious. To take some famous examples, no American would place the value the French do on Jerry Lewis, or the Germans on David Hasslehoff, or the Russians on McDonalds. Every person interprets other people through their own filter, and Europe and America continue to talk at each other in a series of blackly comic misunderstandings that grow more unstable every decade. Once upon a time, German physicists were imported to Chicago and New Mexico to work on a nuclear bomb; today American physicists tele-commute to Switzerland work on the Higgs Boson particle research. From the new American liberalism of Roosevelt partnered the imperial conservatism of Churchill, the Atlanticist political relationship evolved into the imperial conservatism of George W. Bush partnered with the old American liberalism of Tony Blair. Fifty years ago Americans flocked to movie theaters watch the Hollywood-influenced artfilms of Truffaut and Fellini, today Europeans buy DVD’s by the gross to watch European art-film influenced TV shows made for American cable in their own homes. Europeans once envied Americans for their social programs and efficient government…you know the rest…

Europe is different than America. I plan on enjoying every one of those differences for maximum contrast and updating this blog as often as I can to chart precisely how weird it is to be an apple pie American again on the strudel continent. If posts have gotten quite dark lately, I have a feeling (though can in no way guarantee) that balance will be restored, because the tone is about to get lighter in kind.

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