I went to Stephenville, Texas to help my sister pack. The house, compared to my house in the city, was filthy. The dog kept tracking mud from the rain that had been relentless these past few days. I used trash bags to empty my sister’s closet. I would count seven or eight hangers and then group them together, folding them into the bags. After loading my car with as much of her belongings as I could manage, I began making the return journey. On the ride home, I could hear in War & Peace that a similar situation was playing out in Moscow. Napoleon and his Grande Armée were coming. The Rostov family at first were debating how to pack the china, with witty Natasha opting for combining them with the rugs to ensure security. It was all for naught: some soldiers came by and begged to be taken with them in two of the Rostov carriages. Many of the wounded were being left behind. The Rostovs unloaded their wares to make way for these soldiers. Unbeknownst to Natasha, her lost lover Prince Andrei rode among them. Sonia and the Countess, Natasha’s cousin and mother, chose to keep it a secret for as long as they could. Imagine the love of your life dying not two hundred yards away, riding alongside you without your knowledge.
Moscow was a ghost town. All the assumptions of aristocratic Russia were made victim by the continuous wars with Napoleon, and Tolstoy managed to expertly converge all available plot lines to this one apocalyptic moment. Here, no character remained unmarked by the realization that history maneuvered through them, and their choices were contracted into what was provisional, what was fate.
My sister is not the only person moving back with family. I have heard many of those in generations after us have chosen to move back into the homes of their parents. Everyone is worried about inflation. Everyone is worried about lumber, or steel or concrete, or any other manufacturing good caught in between the pandemic and an economic crisis. In my entire life, I have only felt perhaps two or three moments of widening opportunity. And I know that I am not a poster child for millenial living, quite the opposite. But there seems to be no party waiting for us, or our children. Every step is a landmine. Yes, everyone is preparing to shed a few financial pounds. Selling the house, selling the car. Selling the items we would rather wish we kept in silly little garage sales. The sad and dusty plastic blanched by the sun, rendered brittle by time. Napoleon has been outside our front door for 30 years.
Students were going into an elementary school as I went on my run this morning. On the sign it read, “STAAR testing May 11th through 14th.” I could not believe what I was seeing. These students marched in with their parents, donning masks, zombie-like into a school for the purpose of taking standardized tests. What I have heard is that these tests “will not count” towards deciding on passing or failing, but they are still required to take them. A month ago, high school students crashed servers with the high volume of standardized test takers. How could we have learned so little during this pandemic as to continue a horrific habit that is far from inevitable? Our lack of ability to adapt does not make us look modern; it makes me feel ancient. Ancient, that is to say, because each news story forces me to imagine our time in a history textbook, mocked by the future for being so naïve, for being so cruel, to our future generations. We order and number our students as if they were entering a concentration camp. The gas chamber has become their lives.
That is what I mean when I speak of a contraction. I do not mean only in the obvious ways we have in the present, but of the possible lives in the future foreclosed because of our decision for profit over anything else. I can no longer see with any optimism the remainder of my life. I can see us holding onto one another, and I can see parents moving in. I can see in-laws moving in. With the wretched state of nursing homes, and the baby boomers retiring, I can see everyone moving in. Oh how I dread the prospect of entertaining my parents each day.
Public parks were invented to avoid family.
We had dinner with my parents on Mother’s Day in a steak restaurant, and my father felt betrayed by the current economic situation. “In previous generations,” he said, “you could count on the market carrying you through retirement. Now?” And he took a drink from his iced tea. “Everything is so volatile.” I could not help but consider the strange paradox of us having this conversation in an elaborate and expensive restaurant, my father holding a six-figure job, and receiving offers under the table on his house and land. As they were looking to buy, it had become a perfect storm for buying houses. Fewer houses were being built, demand was higher, and Texas’s population was swelling from places like California. And yet they were worried about their future retirement. I could see that the security in the world we are promised is a tepid arrangement, that for most of human history and most of even the modern era, there was no guarantee that the story of our lives would play out in the suburban wasteland of golf courses, country clubs, and BLT sandwiches. Or, perhaps, the expectations for a secure society are far higher. Right now, I am typing on a laptop looking out of a window to another gray May morning. I would not have dreamed of this moment as a child. I can listen to an audiobook through a cell phone, and I have over twenty on the drive. I believe my parent’s version of retirement is an aggressive one, full of spending. They waited too long, I concluded, for them to enjoy their life. Now they are over sixty, and are old, and they lack the willpower or the health to spend their money in the way they see fit. Perhaps they are having it spent for them without their consent, in medical bills, my sister’s tuition, and they are becoming aware that their investments kept up, but their appetites outpace their ability to realize them. To me it comes down to an unwillingness to understand themselves.
If only they had become well-acquainted with the people they are, used to be, and hope to be in the future. They want everything, and so much of it. Vacations, hunting and fishing, land, gardens, cookouts and summer lounging. They have a vision. They have a big stomach. I can see now that any sort of hobby that is not free is one in which the American citizen is being swindled. Buying a boat or a membership, entering the yacht club or going hunting, is a recipe designed to rob you of your money and your common sense. We realize our aspirations in the products or experiences we buy, at least that is what we are told. To me, none of these things has offered the rich depths of the healthy imagination. Natasha imagines her Andrei, though he rejected her, out on the planes of the battlefield, and also imagines his demise. Both seem simultaneously better and worse for the princess. The truth reveals itself in its plainness, but coming to terms with his death did not help her. It cannot help you. The difference between cultivated imagination and hobby is like comparing a fantasy to a prostitute. Yes, the sex happens, but it could hardly reach the same plane of enjoyment that the fantasy promised. The same holds true of buying our aspirations, which stand on every street corner and convince us that they are worth pursuing.
I have found in the past year that many of the toys I would have been willing to spend money on make me appear boyish, with less self-respect that I wagered a man should have. As a result, I believe that every man should demand to contract of their own volition. This should not be mistaken with austerity politics. I am not suggesting that a government should expect this of their citizens. Social welfare policies should be provided and expanded. That unfortunately is not the case, and countries have given up on their promise to assist their citizens. Instead, I am speaking from the perspective of those arcane yet universal languages of myth and religion. Gaining the soul and losing the world involves the willingness to cultivate our being, to live with a library card and cherish the simple pleasures that contracting can no longer touch. And if there exists a future where libraries no longer exist for those who live in the imagination? Suicide is the ultimate contraction, and I do not judge the person who opts out.
When Gertrude Stein pleaded with the boys Hemingway and Fitzgerald to stop their drinking and reckless partying, perhaps this is what she meant. Her ascetic turn enabled her freedom through that discipline. Of course, if we are measuring outcomes by success, both of these authors maintained a healthy readership to this day. But they also came to bad ends, and too early for our taste. We missed the world of enjoyment for its own sake. And once again we find ourselves back on the path of worlds created or destroyed in a future, either opened or shut based on the actions we take today. Foreclosed. “The party’s over now,” Noel Coward sang. Understatement: the party’s always over.
Originally published at https://theroyleline.blog on May 15, 2021.