Every 25th post, darkadaptedeye takes a planned break from normal business to plumb the shallow depths of its author’s psyche and/or overtly explore the locked attic of memories it only ever really dabbles in otherwise. You might think of it as a pit stop, or maybe a soft reboot. In “Danse Macabre”, Stephen King termed his own such digression “An Annoying Autobiographical Pause”, which I choose to think was kind of charming. Please know I take seriously the challenge of making patent self-indulgence interesting – actual results be damned – and I appreciate you being game. We’ll return to our irregularly scheduled programming shortly…
In retrospect, one of the smarter things I did when laying out the architecture and modus operandi of this blog was to build in a venue, with every 25th post, that allowed me tacit approval to traffic in explicitly personal matters. I knew from its inception that I wanted DAE’s focus to be on the music, movies, and assorted other passions that are such an integral part of my life, but I never imagined that meant I could keep the wolves of self-possession at bay indefinitely. The idea of a “personal” 25th post incentivizes me, at the very least, to keep track of how many I’ve published, which is a fun, purely self-serving benefit. I hear near constant tell of actors who proudly or sheepishly proclaim that they never, ever watch themselves on screen. I may be a tiny voice in the howling void, but I laugh at the notion such reasoning could possibly extend to authors. Even if I string two sentences together, I’m still personally invested in making them the two best sentences (so, 100 words approximately) they can possibly be. “Oh, but once it springs forth, your performance belongs to the world, and to the ages!” Yeah. On the occasion of this admittedly proud personal milestone (100 posts! They, which is to say I, swore we’d never make it!), I must admit just how regularly I have to beat back with a very large stick the many denizens and representatives of “the world” frothing and clamoring to take possession of all my goofy, wordy musings. Really. If you’re not writing for yourself, first and foremost – with the hope that eventually people might take the right kind of notice and enjoy it, even periodically traveling alongside you – exactly who are you really writing for?
I started reading and rereading my own (non-academic) material almost as soon as I began generating it, in my college journal. Those were some heady and hazy days, friends, my first really prolonged and non-stage managed exposure to new people and ideas, and also my first tentative attempts at expanding my worldview. Journaling became during this time a vital, delightfully invigorating new component of my existence. Unbidden, I wrote and wrote, for literal hours on end, unleashing reams and streams of consciousness that no one else would ever read, and I was elated. In the days before thumb drives and cloud storage, or ubiquitous personal laptops, I lived in my college’s writing lab. I filled up floppy disks with well-meaning, theoretically meaningful, highly personal ephemera and watched with a mixture of happiness and bemusement as my insular work accumulated until it finally overspilled the bounds of one diskette and spread to the next like some sub-literary plague. I never had a paper journal, nor remotely wanted one. Once, marooned at a horse show during my late high school days, I spent six or so fevered hours scrawling out some faux-Stephen King horror piddle longhand. With a pen. I can hardly contemplate such lunacy today. It was fairly excruciating work, but, by the end, I found myself with seven single-spaced handwritten notebook pages, an aching, ink-stained left hand, and a semi-permanent grin. I’d never been so proud of anything in my life. Whatever its basis in fact, I’d long understood from my teachers that I had at least a modicum of writing talent. I’d just never before so understood the bliss of employing it.
Today, over two decades and close to four hundred miles away from where that boy was at that time, the larger pattern still holds. I now have a dedicated writing platform that I dearly love and even something of a regular schedule, but, as ever, I tend to work hard instead of working smart. I write and I rewrite, and I procrastinate and I binge. To the degree that I’m developing any sense of professionalism, it lies in the ability to finish, polish, and post pieces by a self-imposed deadline. The pieces themselves are just as grand, just as flowery, very often just as meandering, and, on a good day, just as pleasingly representative of my thoughts and, hopefully, enjoyable to read, as they ever were. The idea is to put increasingly less published space in between the good days. I like the places that DAE year two has taken me thus far. To that end, the twenty-fifth post functions as something of a release valve, which is fortunate, given my tendency, often to a fault, toward circular self-analysis. Though I might reflexively feign modesty and am naturally quite reserved and understated in social situations, I also, historically speaking, really like talking about myself. This, like so many other personality traits, springs, I imagine, from my youth spent largely as a latchkey only child of divorce. When you have no one with whom to compare notes or share moments, you tend to retreat inward somewhat. My journaling experience crystalized in me a serious need I hadn’t before been able to express or actualize. I became both author and audience, and, on many occasions, therapist as well as patient, and began tweaking the writing style I still employ today. As it turned out, I could dig appreciably deep and self-indulgently navel-gaze with equal facility,* and, when developing my first ever public writing platform, the thought gave me serious pause. I’m not here to disparage any blogs that focus with laser precision on their authors’ psyches, souls, heartaches, struggles, pleasant diversions, and day-to-day digressions. I know the woods out there are thick with them, and, when blessed with the right convergence of author and subject matter, they can be absolutely riveting to follow. My own passions proceed in messy, multiple directions, however, and I instinctively cringed at the thought of ever being “limited”. As I first proved to myself in college, I can write forever on at least one subject, though I could hardly expect anybody, with the one established exception, to read forever. The trick was to find other topics and attack them with similar verve.
*I’ll now misappropriate/mangle a Nietzsche quote to hopefully further illustrate my misgivings: “If you stare too long into your navel, the abyss also stares into you.”
Some people measure distance in miles, others in time. For example, I know precisely how long it takes to drive from Columbus, OH to Bristol, TN, though I have to enter both into Google Maps to find the exact mileage (approx. 350) every time. I’ve made that round trip dozens of times over the last fifteen years, and each new one brings with it a cavalcade of emotions. When I moved to Columbus from my hometown in late 1999**, it was in long-delayed response to a child and young adulthood spent in general philosophical tension with, if not outright opposition to, my surroundings. That I played my own dramatic part and that Bristol wasn’t at sole, singular fault were matters with which I wouldn’t come to grips for another decade or so. Another part of growing up a latchkey only child of divorce is that you’re forced to find your bearings in pretty short order. By the time I was twelve, I was reading voraciously and devouring just about every cinematic diversion I could, balancing offputting levels of self-regard with a staggering deficit of self-confidence, subtly rebelling against one parent while unhealthily lionizing the other, keeping largely to myself otherwise, and hiding from bullies and other well-wishers in a semi-permeable world powered by slights and daydreams. I already knew that nothing in my young life was or would ever be as important to me as music. I looked in the mirror at my fat, frumpy, fairly nondescript features, ever-present dog-eared paperback, and black Iron Maiden shirt, then saw in my hometown, the self-proclaimed “Birthplace of Country Music”, NASCAR hotbed, and proverbial “buckle of the Bible Belt”, a creatively, emotionally, and intellectually stifling enveloping force, so I openly disdained it and secretly plotted my escape. In retrospect, I overreacted by a wide margin, but I was young, and you reason with a twelve-year-old at your own peril.
**So intent was I to turn the page to a new chapter in my life that the timing of my move had specific symbolic meaning. I arrived in the largest city in Ohio, and the fifteenth largest in America, just in time to experience Y2K, the now quaint and silly-sounding all purpose techno-geddon that nevertheless had half the country convinced that the prospect of rolling outdated computer infrastructure back to a system date of 1/1/1900 at the stroke of the new year might simultaneously deposit America back into the stone age. We brought my DVD player over to my roommate’s sister’s house and watched a couple of movies (“Clue”, if memory serves, and also Kevin Smith’s “Clerks”). When midnight came, the five of us dutifully held our breaths for a pregnant second, waiting to see if the power went out. When it didn’t, we cheered heartily. It was a great New Year’s.
When I first told people in Ohio that I had moved there from Tennessee, their reactions ranged from comically delayed to pleasantly quizzical to mildly interested. “Oh, I drove through Memphis once!” I heard on multiple occasions, despite the fact that my hometown lies in the extreme opposite corner from the Home of the Blues, and, at a conservative eight hours by car, was a road trip I’d never even contemplated. A Beale Street pilgrimage does seem a worthy future investment of my time, especially now that B.B. King has sadly left us. I should note that the number of Ohio license plates spyable on any trip down I-75 to the Knoxville area, particularly during summer, always surprises me. I imagine many of these travelers are bound for the folksy tourist traps of nearby Pigeon Forge, where I spent some of the most theoretically unforgettable days of my childhood. You can’t beat the scenic beauty there, at least, or the people watching. When I first told folks in Tennessee I was moving to Ohio, their reactions were far more dramatic, though some of that might just have been concern for my general wellbeing instead of ill-founded fears I’d be assimilated into a sinister new culture, which was my interpretation at the time. I still looked more or less like a kid, and, for better or worse, I had never fully embraced southern culture to begin with (Southern Culture, however, is another, happier story). Some people flummoxed me outright by telling me how brave I was being (it might’ve been impulsive and risky in retrospect, but still only a little), and how they could never have conceived of doing something similar. It occurred to me later that what they might’ve been referring to was their own blanket inability to leave home in the abstract, or to leave Bristol, which as the sign on State Street asserts, is truly “A Good Place to Live”, or, on a larger scale, to leave the South, where regional identity and connections forged over a lifetime are often as deep and strong as the roots of a dogwood tree, assuming, of course, you’d been open to receiving them in the first place. I was a clear disappointment in that respect.
My conception of Tennessee as a whole is, unsurprisingly, unmoved by popular perception, and is instead comprised of my lifetime of memories and experience in three particular (and very different) towns situated in its farthest Eastern swath – Bristol, Athens, and Knoxville. Athens is a quaint little hamlet, equidistant between larger towns Knoxville and Chattanooga but also removed from them in a great many ways. It has an idyllic, Mayberry-esque quality to it that I find incredibly appealing even as prolonged exposure makes the city kid in me a bit fidgety. It’s so warm and inherently relaxing, the kind of town where not only does pretty much everybody know one another but that is also a demonstrably good thing. I know I romanticize Athens because so many beloved family members lived or at least sprang from there, and because it was the de facto vacation destination of my ramshackle youth. I never felt quite so loved and accepted and, above all, safe as I did in those halcyon days, in that town, with those wonderful people around me. The older I get, the more I tend to idealize that aspect of my youth, because in so many ways it was ideal, but also because I can feel its wisps of memory slipping irretrievably beyond my grasp. I still visit when I can, but those times, and my time, is unfortunately necessarily limited. Knoxville, of course, is the humming and vibrant seat of the University of Tennessee, the wellspring of my general distrust in sports terms of the color orange (though I happily root for UT athletics to do well now in a way I never allowed myself back then), and sort of a practice session/precursor to the rabid college town in which I currently live. When I was growing up, however, Knoxville, with its population of just under 200,000, was unequivocally “the big city”, as much a treat as a destination, and one I always looked forward to. Knoxville was the place to which so many people with whom I went to school, including my best friend, ended up moving to start their lives. I always thought I might follow them. I know that was what I was supposed to do.
Bridging the gap between Athens and Knoxville – larger and more plugged in than the former, nicer and less hectic than the latter – is my hometown of Bristol, TN, with which I’ve always had a frustrating and unnecessarily complicated relationship. I feel like most kids probably have a bit of a love/hate thing going with the places in which they grew up, but I felt mine in my very bones. Make no mistake: I’m beyond fortunate to have grown up where I did, with the parents I did. My upbringing imprinted upon me so many positive qualities that I still carry and reference. I am nothing that is the least bit reduceable to a lazy shortlist of stereotypes. Neither is Bristol. Yet I wanted to leave my town, and, by subconscious extension I guess, the South, almost from the time I realized “somewhere else” was a remote possibility. Even in later years, when I could see Bristol in more dispassionate terms, I still reflexively thought it held next to nothing for me, though part of me would feel a moment’s peace each new time I nestled into those Appalachian foothills, communing with the folks I’d come to visit. I outlasted my expiration date in Bristol by several years, in part because I fell so completely in love with playing music and had a situation I wouldn’t abandon – even though none of us could ever quite bring ourselves to go all in (which would’ve required leaving town anyway) – but more out of fear, even of something I’d so childishly and desperately wanted. I feared leaving, right up until the point that I didn’t, which came when a good friend of mine, following his fiancée back to her Ohio hometown, suggested it as a destination. .01 seconds of careful, considered deliberation and the die was cast. I didn’t look back, at least at first. Co-workers imagined I was being brave, friends shrugged and said they understood, whether or not that was the case. My family generally encouraged me and said all the right things to my face, though I’m sure my mother, whose bottomless depth of feeling is one of those personal inheritances I feel so privileged to have received, felt on a stark level that I was betraying her and my home. I took that idea with me to my new town, where it and uncertainty roiled inside me until, four months gone and now toxically homesick, I resurrected my journal. The freshly fractured but stubbornly hopeful man now writing his torrid reams was not merely years but light years (and 350 miles) removed from the boy who’d once waxed tragic and rhapsodic during his school days. I just felt terribly different, though things felt eerily the same. Both realizations terrified me. Slowly but surely, at times painfully, I began to settle in.
Though I enjoyed it early and often, it would take years until I fully embraced Columbus as my home, and even more until I felt the true sense of connection to it that I now do. Home, after all, is an elusive concept. I’m still a few years away from having lived in Columbus longer than I once lived in Bristol, but that gap is shrinking by the day, a piece of trivia that never fails to surprise me. The same revelation would probably make my mother want to jump out a window, so I tend to withhold mentioning it during our regular phone conversations. Moving away was the best decision I ever made. I credit it for greatly expanding my worldview and opportunities even as it made me truly and deeply appreciate, for the first time I’d ever care to admit it, the lovely place and people I’d left behind. There are myriad tactical advantages to living in Columbus, of course, its size, growing regional and national prominence, and central location chief among them. As I’d hoped and imagined, my access to diversions cultural, culinary, and, most importantly, musical grew approximately 10000% the instant I moved. Despite sustained and furious efforts to the contrary, I almost certainly still saw more concerts in Columbus during the summer of 2000 than I did in my four years attending East Tennessee State University combined. I made new friends and rose professionally to a humble but rewarding tech position that would’ve been very difficult to approximate had I stayed…though the truth is that I never would’ve stayed. It would’ve hurt, but I would’ve moved to big city Knoxville, or to bigger big city Charlotte, NC, which was my fantasy landing spot for some reason back in the days before I finally realized the only thing preventing me from leaving not just the state but the region was the lack of a firm destination. My eventual departure was inevitable, but didn’t come without its silver lining. It took leaving Tennessee and experiencing someplace wonderful and new for me to finally grow enough to appreciate it.
As an entity, as a state of mind, as a perceived way of life, the “South” has taken a few body blows of late. Some have seemed entirely fair and, frankly, overdue to me, while others felt like needless piling on. Just because I steer almost entirely clear of politics and religion with this blog doesn’t mean I am un- or underinformed, or that I have no dog in the hunt. While I celebrated with friends and family members on both sides of what the late Robin Williams once flippantly called “The Manson-Nixon Line” over the Supreme Court’s recent decision to make marriage equality the law of the land, I also knew this put my opinion directly at odds with a great many people, good and good-hearted, that I’d known my entire life. I can’t lie and say that my predominantly liberal and non-evangelical viewpoint wasn’t a huge component of my desire to leave my ancestral home, but I also think of the fortitude and intelligence and empathy displayed by so many of the people who stayed, who never had my misgivings, and sometimes I feel like the worst kind of deserter. These past several years have been among the best and happiest of my life, and I’ve come to love Columbus dearly, but no situation is perfect. I’ve had the opportunity (I certainly wouldn’t call it a privilege) over the past fifteen years to hear the occasional slights and epithets flow both ways with impunity. When I hear a northerner disparage the South, it seems mean and ignorant to me, whatever degree of truth it might reflect. When I hear a southerner disparage the North, it seems short-sighted and arrogantly reductive to me, and in both cases, I often find myself having to bite my tongue. When I lived in the South, I actively felt like I didn’t belong, in spite of the presence and influence of some truly wonderful people. Now that I live in the North, I sense acutely the things that it lacks, and grow wistful from time to time, though I still recognize that, all things considered, I’m where I both need and want to be.
It hasn’t been easy striking a balance between these two geographic poles of my being. The Fourth of July holiday weekend is thick on the horizon as of this writing, and, with it, my latest trip home. The physical distance separating here from there is damn near unbearable at times, no matter where the hell I am. I just finalized arrangements for only my second face to face meeting with my father this year, for example. I’m looking utterly forward, to that plus my requisite time with Mom, and, hopefully, an opportunity to catch a glimpse of my remaining high school bestie left in town, now a proud new father. He never left Bristol, and look at his life now. Because of my facility with circular self-analysis, it’s just another occasion, or excuse, to ponder. My mother recently lamented an instance on the phone when she caught me using “home” to refer to Columbus rather than Bristol. It struck me sideways in that moment, even though the indisputable fact is that both cities are my home. More often than not anymore I use the term interchangeably, and whichever town I’m not in currently is the one that gets the added descriptive boost. It’s never done to hurt. Increasingly, it’s not even done to draw meaningful distinctions between the two, since those are all so much personal shorthand for me by now. I’ve found myself growing slightly dissatisfied with Columbus of late, feeling listless and increasingly stagnant while my friends have seemingly all gotten on with the business of living their lives. I’m not on the verge of moving, not by the longest shot, in part because even though a piece of me would surely revel in the opportunity to forge a third act of my life in a strange new place, I know myself too well. I couldn’t handle a third hometown. Two has thus far been plenty, and continues to be. The marvelous Kurt Vonnegut once told the tale of Billy Pilgrim, a WWII veteran who, in his words, had “come unstuck in time”. Not to draw or invite unflattering literary parallels, but I sometimes wonder if the same condition could be possible in terms of place. Sometimes I wonder if I belong – truly belong – anywhere. And I wonder how I might ever find the answer to that stupid question without upending and possibly wrecking my life in the process. I just finally got the place looking more or less like I wanted it to, after all. More or less.
So the wayward son carries on, along an all too familiar stretch of road leading perpetually away from one home as it winds toward the other, and the hours tick by. Who knows when or where it stops? At least I was lucky enough to live both destinations for a time.
Previously on ABC Family:
Post No. 25: Powder Burns and Uncertain Terms
Post No. 50: Iron Maiden saved my life. (Abridged)