This one’s massive, and much more personal-introspective than I tend towards on this blog. I’m happy with it, though, and I’m willing to share if you’re willing to read.
I haven’t been in stasis. The forces which act upon me are neither equal nor opposing to those which I myself exude; I am not at rest. Idleness is a clever, metamorphic beast, and it can be equally as dangerous to confuse it with calmness as with freneticism. What I mean here, in oh-so-many-words, is that it’s not always (ever?) straightforward for enterprising folk to draw a clear distinction between purposeful tranquility, the illusion of progress, and actual forward motion.
We’re talking severe second- and third- and fourth-guessing: what level of calmness is acceptable? Are nights in inherently better or worse than nights out? Does turning down social invitations indicate strength or weakness of character? How many bleary high-heeled sunrises and/or marathon application sessions are permissible before it becomes excess? Is actively electing to light candles and snug up with the Kindle for hours con- or de-structive? And whatever happened to exploring the city? Does it establish a sense of ownership of place to return to the same wine haunts, the same olivemonger, or is it merely a lazybones cop-out?
Is all this nothing more than a re-hash of the now more than a year old “From whence have you come, and where exactly is it that you think you are going?” self/princess-flagellation? Am I pleased with where I am with regards to a year ago, to two years ago, three? Where will I be in a year, in six months, next week? Why don’t I know, and shouldn’t I be panicking? Have I submitted a sufficient quantity of applications, have I looked into an appropriate number of nooks? Am I having the requisite amount of fun?
These past few months have been lived experiments in ways, ranging from the everyday aesthetic (What happens if I don’t bring my iPod on my commute? What happens if I don’t listen to my own music whatsoever?) to the corporal (How will my energy levels change if I work out 4-5 times a week?) to the academic (Can I pick up basic Italian in 30 minutes a night? Allora, capisko un po adeso). I’ve shifted 98% of my food purchases away from the big supers and now have an established cheese guy, fish guy, veggie guys (buncha Bangladeshis who quickly caught on to me coming in once a day… admittedly twice on occasion). Yeah, the olive guy too.
Today, the sun elects to peek attractively out from behind its oppressive winter blanket, making the idea of a citywalk not so entirely grotesque as it has been lately. After solo pesto lunch (another experiment there, Become At Ease With Eating Alone) and post-pesto black chai (and another: Drink More And Better Tea) I tossed on a skirt (Gussy Up For No Reason), set my mind on postcards (Do Unexpected Nice Things For Others), and emerged into the afternoon light (Get Up And Go). None of these are written down, mind you; I have no Master Capitalized List. They’re concepts, possibilities, stray potentialities. You never know until you try.
Northward, quick steps becoming more languid as I settle into a proper wander. Have given up iPodlessness, have pleasing soundtrack, begin to make occasional eye contact with passerby. It’s a pleasure trip. Cross the boundary of Atocha and into Huertas, older crowd here, placid pizza-munchers and families, Plaza Santa Ana’s nicer tourists doing their midday Spanish Tapas in the company of busking accordions. Pop out into Sol and its delirious bustle, the blood donation bus still makes me beam, slip up Montera as I prefer skeeze to shoppers, and no, I don’t have any friggin’ oro.
Traverse Gran Via and up Valverde, into Malasaña’s maze, all hills and cars and bars, ecological pizza here, retro-everything, Carnaval weekend’s brought pirates of all ages to Plaza San Ildelfonso. I pick up my postcards from Nest, contemplate calendars, remember recommendation of gourmet olive oil Chueca location from Spicy Yuli shopkeep, and the need arises to peruse their specialty products, right now. Arrive just as they’re re-opening from siesta, though, and decide to take a jaunt around the block so as to not appear overly eager for artisanal olive oil soaps. Go south and remember request for checking Cisne Azul hours, look but nothing’s displayed from the outside and it’s closed in the late afternoon, so let feet continue until something else occurs – what do I know that’s nearby? And then’s the ah-ha moment: that audiophile store. HiFi 25.
Ask For What You Want, Even If You Think You’ll Sound Like An Ass has been a damn difficult one for me, even with the linguistic cushion that being a non-native speaker provides. But the weeks of practice propel me, and I enter proclaiming bluntly that I want something simple and portable that will make my music sound syrupy, rather than the current setup, which is horroroso. I get a bit of a (merited) look for the adjective, but I also get precisely what I’m looking for: a demonstration of a two-piece JBL Duet speaker system that blows my belabored ears out of the water.
I buy them. In cash. I’ve wanted speakers for years now, years. I’m rounding up on my 25th. I’ve decided to stay here. Why not buy a nice thing for myself? Something not practical, something purely for enhancing my everyday sensory experience. Something middlingly expensive, something that I’ll take care of. Something far from temporary.
These speakers, man. They weren’t purchased as symbols, but as I write about them, they’re transforming before my eyes. My eardrums, really. They sound SO GOOD that I find it difficult to concentrate on the words, wishing to simply meld with the depth of sound swirling about my head. Feliz cumple indeed.
As I waltz back homeward, speakers in tow (I did poke into the olive oil outlet, but wasn’t called by it for my own uses. They might make nicely packaged foodie gifts for back home), there comes to me one of those stray concepts again, but this time linking things into a before-unseen potential pattern. I think I’ve been saying yes to absolutely everything for so long now, been so dedicated to the idea of openness and the new, that it’s come at the cost of much valuable specialization.
I’m not sure whether or not that rings true from an external perspective, but it certainly connects many dots from this end. I recall NYC amiga Alex’s visit back in October, and our long talks about futures and directions and directionlessness and turning 25 and adulthood, and me saying something to the effect of not being willing to choose due to a fear of excluding an even better possibility. I remember shock at hearing myself express this, as well as a fair degree of uncertainty as to what it was that I meant.
Somewhere along the line – we’re talking years ago, now – I think I decided that I hadn’t experienced a wide enough range of Whatever, and somehow, a Just-Say-Yes switch got flipped, and has simply remained on, and on, and on. I don’t think this is entirely a “bad” thing, or actually even negative in any sense – it’s lead me to delve into an enormous variety of activities over the past three years. I’ve grilled chipotle burgers for a crowd of 50 and started a food blog and regularly purchase specialty spices. I taught myself basic German and Italian, and also Photoshop and acrylic painting, and how to have a sense of direction while navigating a city. On New Year’s, I’ve glammed golden overlooking Bangkok and I’ve crunched whole fried fish in Sevilla and I’ve curled up with the Kindle in Evansville. I’ve met so many people from the internet, opened up my home and been invited into theirs, connected digitally across the wild miles, taken ill-advised risks that paid off gloriously. I’ve run the gamut from Fulbright to fulanita, from preened Official Model UN Logistics Representative at the NYC conference to curly-haired hippie hitchhiker just trying to catch a ride before nightfall. I’ve walked the Camino, twice, I’ve performed slam poetry in front of an audience, twice, and I’ve danced and I’ve danced and I’ve danced.
I don’t think I need a comprehensive/cohesive personality, or that it ought to be simple, or – worse – fixed. I don’t plan on a sudden cessation of the new. This isn’t a declaration so much as a recognition, a validation of choices made and anticipation of those soon to come. Specialization, becoming that expert I claim to value, and from there allowing self-respect to feed upon itself and flourish. Being okay with limiting myself to a narrower spectrum than Whatever, calling it “focusing,” and believing it, and living it.
The speakers reflect this, see – so does the freshly ground coffee from Cafés Pozo that bubbles through my cafetera each morning. And the metro rides when I lose myself alternatively in Kerouac and Franny and Zooey, and the ginger-apple-cranberry crisp I made this Saturday morning for my housemates, and the Ribera Del Duero–Campo Real ritual that I reserve for myself each night along with Italian practice. It’s there in the CCT project for certain – yeah, the big one that I’m not quite ready to reveal yet (!) – and in the gym membership and in the black rice obsession and in the upcoming weekend jaunt to Lisbon. In the plans to re-paint my walls and in the multiple colors of pen constantly on my person. In Thursday afternoon sixth hour in the office, alone and Photoshopping and drinking enough tea to send both my heart and bladder into overdrive, and feeling it, doing this thing, riding this wave.
In Bangkok – that behemoth of a writing project hasn’t been shelved, by the way – I feel I learned to get by with very little. The real lack of wealth was not in terms of time nor possessions nor social power nor even money, really, but rather in terms of investment in self. Prizing spontaneity and the apparently innovative above absolutely any kind of continuity led to, ultimately, a great poverty of character. Of course I learned/gained/experienced/blah blah; look – this isn’t to discount the period and its players, nor to disparage the enormous personal strides I made as a result. But I do feel I took away a conclusion of false liberation from it, one that could be achieved through detachment from the Valuable, reveling in that which is base and exciting and immediately available. We had so many visions, we painted them on our walls, but we never manifested a goddamn thing.
Be Purposeful. Invest In Self. Turn down the contrast, for crissake – extremity doesn’t equate with substance, with what Robert Pirsig called Quality:
“Quality . . . you know what it is, yet you don’t know what it is. But that’s self-contradictory. But some things are better than others, that is, they have more quality. But when you try to say what the quality is, apart from the things that have it, it all goes poof! There’s nothing to talk about. But if you can’t say what Quality is, how do you know what it is, or how do you know that it even exists? If no one knows what it is, then for all practical purposes it doesn’t exist at all. But for all practical purposes it really does exist. What else are the grades based on? Why else would people pay fortunes for some things and throw others in the trash pile? Obviously some things are better than others . . . but what’s the betterness? . . . So round and round you go, spinning mental wheels and nowhere finding anyplace to get traction. What the hell is Quality? What is it?”
Plato’s Socrates has the perfect response:
“What is good, Phædrus, and what is not good… need we ask anyone to tell us these things?”
We don’t. We just need to live it. There’s my macroplan, to live with intention in the name of that which I value. It’ll keep shifting, and so will I, and I’ll keep writing it, and I just hope these olives come with me.