Year One

I often think I should have kept that copy of Pnin I took from a bar in Heidelberg. I’m not sure whether I stole it or whether it was more of a “take a penny, leave a penny” kind of situation. One night after several Hefeweizen, upon spotting it among an odd assortment of books in the back of the bar, I was seized with want. The small, uneven line of paperbacks was an anomaly beside the darts board and beneath the flatscreen TV, playing whatever soccer (ahem, football) match was demanding the continent’s full attention.

ImageThis sort of half-assed lending library was in the back of a sort of half-assed bar called The Brass Monkey, named for a nearby statue and Heidelberg landmark. The bar had been the site of one or two orientation events for international students, and had proclaimed itself “the” international student bar in town, probably mostly for its weekly Tuesday International Student Stammtisch.

Whether “the” or merely “a” bar, it had also been included on one of those cursory, touristy “Things To Do” lists, printed on loud yellow or green or magenta paper that welcome wagons are always handing out. (Also on the list was the thoroughly inexplicable i-Punkt, a club whose name seemed to mean literally nothing, and whose nightly playlist frequently included, inexplicably, Stevie Wonder’s 1981 single, “Happy Birthday.”)
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Two months ago I received an invitation to my five-year high school reunion. I threw it away immediately. I didn’t even look at the date or the schedule of reunion events—something about a parade, something else about a bar. I saw a picture of four guys I never cared for pointing at a sign that read CLASS OF 2007. What I wanted to throw away was the idea that five years ago I was a high school senior. Stinky! Stinky! Stinky!

Hefty! Hefty! Hefty!

I can’t decide whether 2007 seems impossibly long ago or impossibly not-very-long ago. Somehow it’s both, in that funny perspectival way of conflicting emotions. So much has happened in the intervening years that I shudder to think how old I felt at eighteen. Perhaps I really was old, and now I’m simply older. Or, perhaps age is a function of foreshortened time, hard lessons learned and losing battles fought, that taken together bring about a general resignation to a growing number of things, the exhaustion of which just makes us feel old. I don’t imagine I’ll be sure for another five years, or maybe five years after that.

Part of my hesitation about my impending reunion, I told myself, has to do with an aversion to conversations with near-perfect strangers that begin, “So…what are you up to these days?” This is a well-known opening act for the better-known headliner, “Well I’ve been…” from whoever it is I’m stuck talking to. Perhaps I’d be more inclined to participate if I were living abroad, or the star of my own TV show, or a mule running used paperbacks to Kandahar. Living at home and looking for jobs don’t quite seem schmoozeworthy.
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At the gym this morning, I was on the elliptical watching muted, close-captioned news (with that, like, ten second delay between moving lips and scrolling words that really only bothers me when I try and watch The View and Elisabeth Hasselbeck won’t shut up.) when I saw an ad that caught my eye. It was a commercial for CNN’sAmerica’s Choice 2012.”

iVoices, iChoices.

iVoices, iChoices.

AMERICA IT’S TIME TO CHOOSE flashed on screen in an attractive, flag-themed graphic, followed by a few YouTube-style talking heads, unmistakably homemade in that poorly-lit, too-close-up sort of way. Following these appeared CHOOSE YOUR ISSUES. Then, CHOOSE YOUR VOICE. This was followed by brief shots of Americans, existing, then more talking selfies, more Americans presumably utilizing their Chosen Voices to voice their Chosen Issues. THE ONLY SIDE WE CHOOSE, the ad concluded, IS YOURS.

I thought about this final assertion for a moment, and it struck me as nonsensical. How could CNN (of all entities) claim to choose everyone’s side? It stunk of that sort of lame agreeability of young relationships, the sort where you say, “I want to watch whatever you want to watch,” when really you’d sooner stare at the wall than watch another episode of Whitney. This line of thinking distracted me briefly, causing me to lose my elliptical footing so that I found my ellipses(?) ellipsing in sudden, awkward reverse.
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It’s not pretty, but it’s true.

Once a week I drive forty-five minutes or so to a suburban town much like my own to tutor middle- and high-school Spanish. I make twenty dollars per student, per hour. A friend of mine got me the job in October on naught but a kind word, and having just left New York and what had then seemed like the promise of a promising career, I was up for anything.

Now, let me be clear: I have taken exactly two semesters of introductory Spanish, both in my senior year of college, and both entirely on a lark. I’d figured it was my last chance at any bought-and-paid-for whim, so why not prepare for the future in what promises to be the Bilingual American Century? In my nigh nine months as an estudiante I learned to conjugate regular verbs, describe my and others’ plans, and speak generally on the facts of the past as I saw them. With mild prodding I might have found inclination to comment on things I used to do, or would do, someday, but grammatical poverty and a philosophical aversion to Regret prevented me from opining on anything I would have, should have, or could have done.
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As a college student, I frequently met the question, “What do you want to do when you graduate?” or, even more generously, “What field do you think you might want to go into?” or, more often in my senior year, “What are your plans?” As a graduate, the Future has dropped off the face of the Present, and the questions have been reduced to the disappointingly broad and immediate, “What are you doing?”

No longer afforded the luxury of plans and the grace of aspirations, the graduate’s future is happening, now. No longer is it a matter of choice and planning, but rather one of presence and stasis. Where are you now, and what are you doing?
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My dad once told me never to write anything down that I wouldn’t want read back to me in court. It was rather a startling note of caution to offer a twelve-year-old on AOL Instant Messenger, but the point was well taken. From that point on, typing anything anywhere online felt like a gamble with infamy. Fast-forward to 2011, and my worst fears of 2001 seem very nearly realized.

Baby’s First Status

The slow, wall-by-wall encroachment of Facebook’s “Timeline” feature has for many of us brought the past five or six years to a harrowing present. Now, suddenly and without preface, the Facebook pasts of friends, friends-of-friends, and Facebook-official loved ones lurk in a single sidebar—every wall post, every status update, every damning e-flirtation ever issued, all collected chronologically in one place. Be still, my mouse.
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