Fads are often silly from the start, and yet they grow even sillier with age, some of them degrading entirely to pure nonsense (think tight-rolled jeans). One of the sillier fads I embraced as a kid was the lifeguard tank top shirt. It must’ve been about 1984, give or take a year–the start of a period which, spanning the entire second half of the eighties, I’m realizing was seminal in the development of who I am. The seeds of lifelong interests were sown in those roughly five years. Memories I have from that time rank among my favorites. There was a magic in that long corridor between ages eight and thirteen that I didn’t identify then–though I certainly felt it–that is becoming clearer with age. An innocence on the verge of experience. The mystery of girls deepened, resulting in some killer crushes. Music became a vehicle for any emotion or memory I might have had, and it did so with increasing intensity–any music I was into, in fact, from Huey Lewis and the News to 3rd Bass to Guns N’ Roses. What I now know to be a budding self-consciousness, was to me then an expansion of the horizon itself, and the awkwardness and heartbreak were as necessary as the triumphs and thrills.
At that age, I also became increasingly image-conscious, which sounds a little shallow to the present me, but at the time, it somehow fit: blissfully ignorant of social class, the idea I could wear a certain shirt and be part of a certain group held a charming simplicity. I didn’t know any better then; I see the folly of that view only in reflection. What I did know was that the world (for me) was getting bigger; that the teenage years looked exciting and grownup; that things were now either “cool” or not, and to be “cool” was everything. Even if it meant traipsing sunburnt down Panama City Beach in a tank top with the word lifeguard printed on it in red letters.
This is what life feels like: out of the four or five different roles I play in a given week, two distinct minds arise most often: that of the experienced man who’s endured a few roadside ruts, and who’s ever tempted by cynicism; and that of the optimistic-leaning kid who feels the burden of life to be light and its outcomes mostly good. The older I get, the more the cynical man shuts out the optimistic kid, but I did notice a tendency toward the latter while staying up late last night watching Fred Armisen on the Netflix comedy special, Standup for Drummers.
Armisen is more endearing than outright funny, and I found that I wanted to keep watching him the same way I’d want to keep listening to a quirky and amusing friend. It was obvious the room where he performed was feeling it, too. The audience’s faces reflected affection rather than incredulity (like what you might find at a Dave Chappelle show, where the common reaction is “I can’t believe he said that!”). Where many comedians depend on outrageousness, Armisen exudes friendly irony; he could be Kurt Cobain’s mild-mannered and sanguine half-brother–just as capable of snarling social commentary, but with a delivery that wouldn’t be out of place on NPR.
Fred Armisen analysis aside, there was a feeling I had watching him (not exactly sure why) that felt like youthful optimism–a feeling that people are generally well-meaning, that there is still room for civility and lightheartedness among those who may not agree on everything but still place one another’s humanity first–first before, even, the need to be right, and while respecting each others’ capacity for figuring things out themselves. But then waist-deep in this blog, the old man (my other mind) comes slogging through, grumbling about the impossibility of this fragile scaffolding we call society. And all I can do is turn up my music and stare at the clouds.
Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.
It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.
Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?