Monday, October 10, 2011

A Slightly Lonelier Lonely Planet

When I was twenty-eight I moved from a rented house with a front yard and a back yard in central Minnesota, to a 1,000-unit gated apartment complex in suburban Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Let's just pause for a second to aerate that mental image, before moving on, shall we?)

There were many things about these new surroundings that I didn't like much -- with apologies to Fort Lauderdale -- but for eight months I stuck it out down there (in the deluded hope that I'd eventually come to love a job I'd started without a stick of furniture in my office, and an apartment complex with snotty neighbors and human turds floating in the pool). During this time, I had but one oasis: I'm not proud of this, but as a newly-arrived recipient of 300-channel cable TV, I became hopelessly addicted to an hour-long television show that aired on The Travel Channel every weeknight, called Lonely Planet. ...And yes, that's how sheltered I'd been before this moment. I didn't even know that the show was adapted from the guidebook series of the same name.

Night after night, week after week, month after month, I'd stagger through the front door of my cheerless little poured-concrete cell, pile my lump of parking-garage-access-cards in a careless heap on the kitchen counter, and flip on my television -- thence to watch the impish twentysomething limousine-lefties from Australia and Scotland and Harrisonville New York traipse around in places as diverse as Vietnam, London and The Congo. "Looks like a lot of fun," I'd said to myself so many times that I began to say it out loud. "Looks like they're not too overburdened with stuff, or really in all that much danger," I thought. And then, after a pause to take another pull of beer, "You know, I could do that, too."

The next summer I quit, taping my meager belongings into second-hand boxes liberated from a dumpster behind the neighboring liquor store, and moved to Gainesville, Florida -- for no better reason than it seemed like a smart-thinking and possibly even liberal oasis, bang in the middle of a state I'd come to view as warm, in a country I'd come to view as ordered, but neither of them particularly self-redeeming otherwise. I turned thirty the following year and, in consequence, my father Kerry O'Gorman gave me a very large amount of money with which he'd hoped I might travel across Europe, and which I instead (to his certain disappointment) used to backpack my way across southeast Asia.

I was away for fifty-seven days, missing both Tiger Woods' grand slam and the crash of the Concorde, among rather a lot else. What I didn't miss, on the other hand, was Bangkok and Ko Chang and Saigon and Hue and Nha Trang and Chiang Mai and Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. I rode elephants and crashed motorcycles. I was robbed at knife-point and driven around unconscious in the back of a cab. I ate, I threw up, I kissed, I fooled around, and I made many trips back and forth to the water closet. I went to hospital emergency rooms. Twice. And if I told you that I didn't imagine myself narrating the scenery for the benefit of a Lonely Planet TV-audience at least once on every single one of those days, I'd be an even bigger liar than I am, generally.

This was, I hasten to repeat, eleven and a half years ago. And in that time very much has changed -- about me, about southeast Asia, and about the people I love. Indeed it would not be a million miles from true to say that the life I have now would be unrecognizable to that doe-eyed greenhorn who kissed his mother on the cheek at the Orlando Airport and waddled down a concourse beneath the crippling weight of his preposterously over-packed bag.

In the years afterward I changed in just the sorts of semi-unexpected ways in which people change over a period of so much time. I grew semi-disillusioned with romantic love, discovered major disappointments at the hands of those who'd been my friends, took a job teaching at the local community college,
bought a house, left my job to try my hand at the university, went back to the college when the university situation proved ridiculous, published a single short-story, became more disillusioned with romantic love, said goodbye to my best friend who passed away from complications of cystic fibrosis, dabbled in a couple of minor heart attacks, got some cats, completed five full-length written manuscripts, none of which is even remotely publishable, became even more disillusioned with romantic love, signed assorted letters of reprimand being carbon-copied to the H/R department of my long suffering employers, wrote a handful of movie reviews, had a vicious and in some ways pointless falling-out with my father (with whom I have not spoken since), got sued for defamation and settled out of court despite not being even remotely guilty, re-discovered my childhood love of baseball, and watched lots, and lots, and lots of movies.

In a way it's the movie-watching that occupies us here, since in 2003, having found myself so consistently less productive with my own writing than I wanted to be, I had my cable disconnected. I've not had a television signal running in to my television in the ensuing eight years, and I haven't missed it more than a handful of times, most of them involving baseball. What I've done with my television instead, is watch movies. Lots, and lots, and lots of movies. At last count, well over 1,000 titles in just the last five years alone, an average of slightly under two-thirds of a movie per night, every night, in that time. And the thing is, you might not find it surprising that a person could grow weary of movies, but I did. No matter how much one adores the motion picture arts, it would seem, there comes a night in every film-buff's life when he just can't face another two-hour-plus investment into freshly challenging and ordeal-strapped characters. At last, earlier this semester, with all that was competing for my negative energy, I just couldn't watch another movie for awhile. I needed a break.

No worries, that: It happens that my local library is improbably well-stocked with DVDs of one-hour programs, most of which had originally aired on public broadcasting. Thus it was that, after my beloved New York Yankees were bounced from the playoffs, I found myself browsing the documentary aisle of the library's DVD archives, gently fingering the spines of Michael Palin BBC productions, episodes of The Prisoner, archaic National Geographic specials and, wait, what's this? Lonely Planet episodes.

I couldn't believe my good fortune: In one fell swoop I'd steal a much-needed reprieve from my self-imposed internment at the Schick Center for Movie Addiction, and relive one of the most joy-inspiring guilty pleasures of my adult life. Grinning un-self-consciously I tipped the entire available assortment into a hand basket and brought them home, not even bothering to feed the cats before dropping the first, randomly-selected disc into the player and pressing PLAY.

So what happens when a man who was twenty-nine the last time he saw one of these programs, watches them again at forty-one? Bad things, that's what.

It's a tautology to which we must all arrive in our time, with our own triggers, but as human beings we do, actually, get older. Televised experiences that we thought at age twenty-nine would be nothing but intrepid, story-inspiring fun, look at age forty-one not just unpleasant but needlessly so. A post-baccalaureate-aged host walks us down a long corridor in Amsterdam, turns a corner, and enters a room with four sets of stacked bunk beds, and the forty-one year old (who remembers not just the scene, but how it made him feel when he saw it the first time) lets out a literal, audible yelp. Another host buys a used car for two-thousand Australian dollars, drives it from Sydney to Adelaide, then later piles himself into a coach-class seat on the most venerated passenger train in the world because he doesn't have the money for a sleeper, and the forty-one year old (who added a neck pillow to his checklist when he saw the scene the first time) lets out an even louder yelp. Everywhere I looked, every episode, every host, every region of the world, I was reminded not of a playful youth spent savoring the joys of austerity and improvisation, but of how alienated and cranky these things would make me feel now, and -- let's be honest -- mostly made me feel even then, anyway.

And that's the thing, really: It's not that I'm so old now that I wouldn't enjoy coiling myself on the floor of an overnight train so that my seatmate can do the same across the seats; it's that I'm now too old to pretend any longer that I'll ever re-invent myself as someone who would. I watched all of those programs in the late nineties, and took the resulting trip to southeast Asia not once or twice but four times, not because I was one of those kids, but because I desperately, cripplingly wanted to be.

For my entire life I've felt the biting and self-inflicted consequences of being this stuffy, old-before-his-time-yet-simultaneously-immature grandstander who takes himself and everything that happens to him too seriously to enjoy such basic human staples as spontaneity and faux deprivation. And for my entire life I've been convincing myself, over and over again, that the next big thing I tried to fix it -- a move, a job-change, a trip to southeast Asia -- would turn me 'round the corner of becoming the person I've always wished that others would think I was: self-effacing, gregarious, unsinkably good company. Watching those programs again the other night I realized not just that I never will turn that corner, now, but that each new failure to do so has only made me crankier and harder to get along with. I'm richer than I've ever been; I've got better friends; I have a job that takes me twenty-five hours a week to do and a three-thousand title movie collection. And I'm angrier, and sadder, and lonelier, than at any previous time I can remember.

Some of this, I hasten to add, is outside of my control. It's difficult to stay entirely sunny and gregarious when the country is sliding down a steep, dark precipice into fascism, one's home electrical system has eaten $20,000 worth of stereo equipment, and one's career is being "progressed" into one great big correspondence program. But that doesn't make the sting of who I've become, when compared with who I'd thought I'd become when first I saw those Lonely Planet shows a dozen years ago, any easier to swallow.

It's not too late, of course -- it's never too late until a person lays down for good. Accentuation of the positive, here, demands recognition of the facts that (a) I'm better at staying on task and putting things away than I was in 1999; (b) I'm (slightly?) less inclined to monopolize conversations than I was in 1999; (c) I've enjoyed a small but gratifying reception as a writer of (thus far uncompensated) film reviews and political analyses and other assorted column-length detritus. I've proven that I can grow in ways I wish to grow, and I've done so by precedent.

But none of that is really the point. The fact that I am not who I wanted to be in some ways, and am in others, or that who I am isn't as nice as I'd like -- all of these are subjects for another column if not a therapy couch. The point is that, watching those same Lonely Planet programs with those same puckish young hosts again over the past few nights, I realized once and for all that, no matter what else I can learn and grow and change and develop about myself, I'll now officially never be one of them, if for no other reason than I'll never be that young. What I will be, for a few more days, is forty-one. And then, for a year after that (if I'm lucky), I'll be forty-two. And so on, hopefully for a while.

And as long as this is true, it's my responsibility -- not just to the self I am now, but to the self I was then -- to do everything, everything, everything in my power, to fulfill as many of the goals I've set forth for myself. In other words, to quit fucking around and watching baseball.

It's quite possibly the oldest, tiredest cliche in all of cliche-dom, but it's true for every moment with which we gather in our next breath on this rock: Today really is the first day of the rest of our lives. And we, and the selves we were before (assuming for a moment that we kinda like those people, and I have to admit I kinda like that guy watching those shows in that awful Fort Lauderdale apartment), deserve to see us make the absolute most we can, with what we have.

Starting right now.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida


Margaret said...

"In other words, to quit fucking around and watching baseball."

But Dave, it's the World Series!

This is a good kick in the behind for me. Thank you.

skymiles said...

Am just amazed! Your non-fiction is so incredibly read-able and gripping. Wish you'd spend more time in that genre.
Personally, I have never felt that you were anything less than a super person who deserves to live in a house with someone less critical of him!
Anyway, after tonight, you can stop watching baseball for awhile! hahahaha.

Prof. Handel said...

More readable (or at least accessible) than "Let us go then, you and I"