My twenties. I learned some things. One thing I learned for sure: for every minute counting backwards from today, I was a bigger idiot in exact degree to the distance from right this instant. That insight informs most of what I learned from my being twenty-something. (You’ll note that this means that when I’m forty, I’ll look back at my thirty year old self and consider him ten years more of an idiot than my then-present self).
When I turned twenty, it was about two weeks after September 11th. I was living in a tiny “two” “bedroom” apartment in the Tri-Taylor neighborhood, doing a mediocre job of wrapping up my philosophy major so I could do a mediocre job of finishing up my History and English majors. I was weeks away from starting my first blog, Pretty Howtown (named after my favorite poem). I was angry all the time. I was mean-spirited and took a lot of things for granted. At the same time, I was fairly certain that I was smarter than everybody else, particularly insofar as I was sure that I could do anything I ever wanted and nothing bad would happen to me.
My twenties, more so than my teens, were a decade full of brutalizing disappointments and failures, almost all of them self-made. The first place my mind goes when thinking back over the last ten years is to the women I was with over those ten years. Viewing my twenties through that lens, one things becomes very obvious: I was insanely lucky.
To All The Women I’ve Loved Before
When I think about the amazing women who for some reason decided to keep time with me during my twenties, I almost get to feeling suspicious. What the hell were they thinking? Why did they put up with me? When I think of myself, then, this is the picture that emerges: I was selfish, withholding of affection and attention, so deeply insecure that I was constantly trying to impress everyone within shouting distance of me, and impossibly rude to their friends (and sometimes family) though, to be fair to me a little bit, usually without intending to be.
This isn’t true for all men I’m certain, but I think the privilege we have in deciding how we’re going to relate to the opposite sex–the fewer social constraints we have–means that we’re kind of like Baby Hueys, with immense power but no wisdom and less maturity. So what you’re twenties are good for are getting bludgeoned into maturity. Bludgeoning doesn’t come in the form of discipline, but in the form of heart break. I had my heart broken, seriously and deeply, at least twice in my twenties, and about two or three other times to lesser degrees. In each instance, looking back anyway, I’m certain the majority of the problem lay with me. The women I dated I hurt, generally by way of omission rather than commission. And given my lack of maturity and experience, there was really no way for me to learn to change my behavior other than through the shock and trauma of heartbreak.
It’s like playing spades (or Concan, for any Assyrians out there). Go take a look at the Wikipedia article about spades. The explanation is intensely complicated–and just by reading this article, you would never be able to really teach anyone how to play if you’d never played before. But if you’ve ever sat down to play spades, you know that it’s a game you can pick up within minutes, internalize the strategy within a few deals, and get reasonably good at after a few games. No amount of wisdom from a mentor–and no amount of guidance from a partner–can make you better at being in a relationship. You can only learn by doing it. My fortune was that I lost people so amazing and special that I had no choice but to reevaluate myself and my own behavior, because I knew that I would only have so many chances to be with such amazing people. And that I never wanted to feel hurt like that again.
As is weirdly so often the case, Al Swearengen put it best:
My biggest debt is to a few particularly spectacular human beings who loved me despite my glaring, ridiculous failings and who were strong enough to finally tell me to hit the bricks and grow up.
Everyone’s an Idiot but Me.
One of my favorite lines of dialog from The Sopranos–the greatest television show of all time–I actually constantly misremember. In my memory, AJ is briefly living with Tony after Carmella kicks him out, and he’s grumbling about how the maid buys the wrong kind of cereal. “Yeah I know,” Tony says, rolling his eyes, “Everyone’s an idiot but you.”
In fact, what he says is, “Yeah, I know, everyone’s an idiot to you.” The sentiment is the same, though. In the way he delivers that line, with a sort of knowing exhaustion, Gandolfini sums up older people’s exasperation with know-it-all youth so perfectly (also, how about that furious scowl? Why would you mouth off to this man?). My twenties can be pretty well understood through Tony’s exasperated dig at his kid. It’s not that I thought everybody was an idiot, but rather that one way or another, I had all the answers; and my attitude towards those with whom I disagreed was certainly as dismissive as AJ is to the maid. Maybe I didn’t know the answers in their specifics, but if I wanted to, I easily could, and those who disagreed with me did so because they just didn’t get it. Everyone’s an idiot but me.
The thing about this time of your life is that the very vicissitude that most defines it is both most readily identifiable by your elders, and most readily attributable to them, too. This is because a lot of people–particularly the loud, influential know-it-alls people in their 20s gravitate towards–never grew out of this mindset. For me, a number of public intellectuals, politicians, and various and sundry colleagues seemed so sure they had all the answers that I took what they said as gospel, and when I didn’t I aped their attitude. As a petit liberal, a partisan Democrat, a New Labor activist, I was sure I knew the score and, if I didn’t, I had ample access to oracles who did. Whoever didn’t buy the exact party line I followed (though I never would have characterized it that way) was choosing to eschew the readily apparent truth, and therefore worthy of scorn. Sound familiar? If so it is because you are familiar with dogmatism.
I started a blog in October of 2001, a few weeks after I turned twenty, which means that the internet has recorded the personal, emotional, and intellectual evolution that took place throughout my twenties. If I had aspirations of running for office, that’d be a dreadful thing; but thankfully, I grew out of that insane impulse a while back. In fact, I’m grateful that my maturing opinions are public; and that I took so, so many beatings at the hands of better informed and, better, more generous intellects. I am proud, not embarrassed, that I’ve held asinine, naive, and simplistic views that I had to constantly reevaluate and change–and best of all, admit to. Thankful as I am for my formal education, the vast majority of my intellectual growth was self-taught (or -inflicted) and required an enormous amount of work and painful evasion of, and surrender to, intellectual honesty.
Having gone back to school, and in my work as a writer on government and politics I have the wonderful opportunity to meet so many young, brilliant people. As brilliant as they are, they would do well to internalize the fact–not the possibility, the fact–that they actually don’t know very much at all. The world is wider and deeper than mere instruction can convey. The intellectual landscape is wider and deeper still, and only time and real dialectic–confrontation of beliefs and worldviews in situations that count–can force your hand and change your mind. Brilliance is a capacity, not a score. This doesn’t mean being older means you know more per se; not at all, not even slightly. It simply means that maturation just will not be rushed but by external circumstance. Make your stand, but prepare for the day when you’ll be standing elsewhere.
And when you’re an average intellect desperate to understand (like myself), you’re punished for each outbreak of pride, only the instruction goes hard. I’m thankful for every beating I took. Right, Al?
What’re You Looking At?
Walking to a friend’s birthday party in 2004, I passed by a couple of guys loitering outside a gas station. We made eye contact, they didn’t break off, and then smirked. I asked what the fuck they were looking at, we started jawing, and we got in a fight. It broke off after I got knocked down by a hard, but mostly glancing, blow just over my eye. This is because it caused a gash that unburdened my head of quite a bit of blood in an instant. I finished the walk to my friend’s party, at Innjoy on Division Street, with blood streaming down my face. My friend, who should’ve been celebrating, helped clean the blood off my face in the dirty little bathroom. Everybody had stared at me as I wobbled through the bar, blood all over my face and hands. I was proud of my mannish defiance at the time. In retrospect, how fucking humiliating. There are so many ways that meaningless altercation could’ve turned out that would have ended with me dead, permanently injured, or in jail. And for what? Why was I so angry?
That incident was one of many–a couple years earlier, they had been more frequent and considerably worse. What scares me now to think about was how little I cared. It wasn’t that I was fearless–I wasn’t, at all–but rather that I didn’t care if the worst happened. My attitude towards life itself was blasé. Precious existence, which we’re so fortunate to hold for an instant, like an instant of lightning bug brilliance at dusk, and I couldn’t be bothered to appreciate it.
Much of that time I remember as a red haze of rage and insecurity. I would have rather thrown everything away than admit to any weakness, to swallow any insult, or to express vulnerabilities that could actually be used by others.
What catalyzed the change? I’m not sure. I do know that in my mid-to-late 20s, I read an amazing couple of essays by Bayard Rustin. “Non-Violence vs. Jim Crow” and “Twenty-two Days on a Chain Gang.” The former was particularly affecting. Everyone learns about Gandhi and Martin Luther King and the “tactic” of non-violent resistance in high school history class, but Rustin’s short tale of actually putting it into practice pulled a noble abstraction into vivid visceral reality. Rustin tells of sitting in the forward section of a bus in Louisville headed to Nashville. The driver and other passengers hurled obscenities at him. He didn’t ignore them–he responded calmly. When they told him he had to sit in the back because it was the law, he recounts, he simply replied, “My friend, I believe that is an unjust law. If I were to sit in back I would be condoning injustice.”
When finally he was pulled off the bus, he offered no physical resistance. He said out loud to the officer, so that the other passengers could hear, “There is no reason to beat me. I am not resisting you.” When he was tried a few days later, one of the other passengers showed up as a witness, having been moved by Rustin’s stout refusal to react.
Rustin’s stories made stark the details that hadn’t occurred to me about non-violent resistance: first, that it did not mean defying injustice silently, but speaking up, candidly, about what was right, even when it was uncomfortable–or dangerous. Secondly, while I understood non-violent resistance, I never stopped to think what it must have been like to take abuse, verbal and physical, while actively suppressing the very human instinct not only to fight back, but to offer any resistance whatever. This is precisely why Gandhi bristled at the characterization of non-violent resistance as “passive resistance.” It was not passivity; it was in fact an act, one requiring an immense exertion of personal strength.
In “Twenty Two Days on a Chain Gang,” Rustin talks about his experience in a work camp prison after being convicted for violating Jim Crow bus seating rules. The prisoners had shoddy little personal lockers that were easily jimmied, and were constantly thieving personal items from one another–pencils and paper, stamps, and razors in particular. Rustin had been given a number of these items from friends before surrendering to service his sentence, and so was a popular target of the thieves. His solution was ingenious: he took his things out of his foot locker and put them in the middle of the room, announcing that anybody could use his things, and that if they could, they should either return them when they were done, or replace them. His act shamed the other prisoners, who put their own items in the communal pot; eventually, he writes, the problem became inverted; prisoners would pressure one another when it was suspected they had taken something without sharing something of their own. Rustin tells the story modestly, but his immense personal courage shines through.
Years of conditioning suddenly came into clear focus for me. Anger, violence, and resistance are not acts of strength, they are acts of weakness. Understanding that we all of us suffer from the human condition, from insecurity and fear, it is a short step to realizing that openness, love, and vulnerability take real strength and courage. That’s all very flowery and pretty to say, and of course I’d heard it before, but Rustin’s stories provided some empirical evidence, under conditions unimaginable to me. He showed me the how and why of it. Suddenly, everything I’d mistaken for toughness seemed so childish and pathetic. And embarrassing.
Over the years that followed, I tried putting these things into practice. Here’s a wacky idea: telling people your various feelings, because maybe feeling a feeling doesn’t mean you’re a wuss. Expressing disillusion with wrongs however unpopular that may be. Refusing to respond to baiting. The results have been pretty great. The most shocking thing is the efficacy of this day-to-day satyagraha. It is effective in changing how people relate to you, of bringing down barriers and encouraging others to be open and vulnerable. Not always. But that’s why it’s not easy.
Long Live the Idiot
In your twenties, everything starts to count for realsies. Where in eras past you were expected to have a family and a job by the time you were fifteen or whatever, the modern economy has moved this transition to autonomous adulthood a little later. As a result your twenties are both wildly fun and persistently terrifying. Suddenly, stupid things you say and do can’t be attributed to youth. If you do something illegal and get caught, you’ll go to jail. And if you’re only worried about yourself, you’ll hurt people and they’ll be right to hold it against you.
And here’s the worst part: I’m certain once I get through my thirties, I’ll look back at my behavior through that decade and think, “Wow, you were such an idiot. A bigger idiot each minute counting backwards from today.” And that this entire post, if it still exists, will be yet another data point on the graph of my embarrassing stupidity. And the best part: what tiny bit more I know of the world now than I did ten years ago, is sure to make my thirties a lot of fun.
Onward and upward, my fellow morons.