All the years of building a persona. All the years of constructing a character.
All the laborious Saturday nights, alone, with bottles and stacks of books and music and films gathered from the library. Obscure stuff, of course. Edgy stuff. Artsy and avant-garde stuff that nobody but me, I imagined, knew about.
By Monday, I wasn’t a transformed man. But I hoped to be a bit different. Minutely altered by all the art and ideas ingested over the weekend. Somehow a bit more enlightened. A bit more cultured. A bit more refined. A bit more attuned to things above and beyond the double-fisted dullness of the bourgeois.
Back then, it felt good, except for the loneliness and the hangovers. The hangovers didn’t last like the loneliness. Back then I was young and physically resilient, easily able to bounce back from that sickness. Somewhat emotionally and psychologically resilient too, since I never tripped into the pit of absolute, irresolvable despair. Maybe that’s it. Maybe the project of creating the persona was enough of a distraction to keep a person off that trail to utter and abject despair.
There were the sicknesses, but it was okay. Their counter was the feeling that something was being built. Something outside the norm. It felt good to be the product of something willfully constructed to appreciate things outside the shit my relatives accepted from the TV, newspapers and radio. It felt good to be evolving into something that had outgrown all their small town bullshit.
Today, I saw and heard the kids in the thrift store. I was one of them once, too. I was one whose every article of clothing needed to mean something. Every tag, every brand, every image printed and proclaimed on a t-shirt or patch or pin or sticker said something about me. It all needed to reflect something about my project of self-construction.
It all meant something.
The music. The foreign and indie films. The literature and poetry. The art. I ingested them. They were building blocks, just like carbs and proteins fuel and build the body. They meant something. It all so succulently seemed to mean something.
It felt good to be a rebel. It felt good to be defiant against a monotonous, monochrome culture that needed defying. I felt like a fucking explorer, digging through all the rubble of a milquetoast culture to find the gems buried in its mantle.
That was twenty-some years ago. Not that long ago, really.
But now, it all seems like nothing. It all seems like it was a terrible waste.
Sometimes I see kids proclaiming the same things on their t-shirts and on bumper stickers as I did.
I see and hear them in places like thrift stores and I think to myself, “I know you.”
Sometimes I wonder if I know them better than they know themselves.
Sometimes I wonder if I know them better at my 51-years-old than I know myself at 51.
Sometimes I scroll through an endless variety of entertainment available for free. I see old foreign films that I may have gone out of my way to obtain years ago. I see gems of cult and obscure films I had to travel to other towns to rent on VHS. Or, fuzzy, sixth generation dubs we had to order from Cleveland. Bootlegged, shitty quality copies we had to pay a premium to see. And since I’d gone out of my way to acquire them, they somehow seemed special. Now, it’s as available and readily obtainable as all the other worthless shit we effortlessly waste our time scrolling through.
Now I see the things I once sought – what once seemed precious or unique – scrambled in with the millions of other pieces of cultural waste. There’s nothing special about them anymore. Nobody cares about them. Even I don’t care anymore. Kurosawa. Ozu. Rohmer.
All those guys replaced by a younger generation, I suppose. But I’m so culturally disconnected I don’t really know by who. Eggers? Von Trier? Carruth?
See, I even had to look that last guy up. I can imagine he’s worth knowing about. But I don’t know about him. And, in some sense, that’s a shame. I’m sure there’s still nuggets of culture worth knowing about. I’m sure, but I don’t know what they are.
All that precious shit back then that went into forming the persona. It all seemed so important since something important was being crafted out of it.
Now, I realize, the only thing being crafted was the persona.
At this age, less and less of that persona exists anymore. And with it, so too has the importance of most of what once comprised it.
Now, there’s nothing.
There’s nothing left to be crafted, which leaves all that old shit stale, bland and mostly useless.
It’s a shame, in a sense, since it was nice having things that felt important. All the books and films and music. It felt like they were part of a formula for creating something interesting. Something unique. Something special. Something that someday might reap a reward. There was a vague glimmer of hope that there might be some kind of ultimate payoff.
Now I realize those efforts were all in service of constructing a persona. A constructed and contrived personality that got me nowhere. The only fucking thing that’s gotten me anywhere is a decent work ethic, some brains and a few flimsy morals. But all that other shit – the films, music, fine art, poetry, philosophy – it never amounted to shit, except for a girl it helped me attract once. An English major who thought it was a cool reflection on herself to be dating a guy taking art classes and reading poetry. But she dumped me for a hillbilly, so none of it matter in the end – except for the lesson it taught.
Now, all these years later, there’s nothing left but the person. The person no longer in need of the accessories necessary for the construction of a persona.
I know people who’ve never evolved past their persona. As older men now, they remain comfortably stuck in most of what defined them when they were uncertain and anxious young men.
I get it. It’s hard to wantonly discard what a person’s spent so much of his lifetime constructing.
In a way, perhaps, they’re to be envied. They haven’t given up on the construction. Or, at least, the maintenance of that persona. There’s still the music, the graphic novels, and the horror films to be acquired, not unlike replacing an article of tattered clothing with a new one, so that one never goes naked.
There’s meaning, I suppose, in the pursuit of those articles and artifacts that still maintain the persona. There’s meaning – there’s direction – in the maintenance of that lifelong project of forming and preserving the persona.
For, without the pursuit – without the attainment and preservation of the artifacts of the persona – what else is there?
For most normal men, there’s family. Or, at least, a pet or two.
For the abnormal men, there’s the things from their youths they refuse to let go of.
And then, for the most abnormal of men, there’s not even that.
There’s just what you are at fifty-one. The thinning, grey hair. The wrinkles, sags and flab. The growing apathy. The cynicism. The disconnect from most of contemporary culture.
But there’s also an acceptance within this evolution (devolution?). An acceptance that wasn’t present 30 years ago. Back then, there was a drive to be more. To be different. To become something other than what I already was.
Now, instead of creating, the aim is discovering what we are below or beyond all the creating. Discovering that and accepting that for what it is. Accepting it, but without nihilism or an acrid fatalism. Accepting that perhaps we are complex compounds comprised of very few, simple elements. Understanding that complex and necessary compounds can be composed of very few elements, once we accept ourselves as oxygen, hydrogen and carbon. Plenty of useful, even glorious, compounds can be constructed from 3 simple elements once we accept them for what they are. Once we accept them for their limits instead of fucking around like we’re also composed of astatine and gold.
I don’t hate those kids in the thrift store with their rainbow colored hair and striped socks stuffed inside this season’s coolest brand of shoe. A brand that that will struggle, like the rest of us, to maintain its relevance beyond one or two or three seasons of rotating trends. I don’t hate them for their clunky, designer eyeglasses and Ramones or Danzig t-shirts. I don’t hate them for their ever-present radars perpetually attuned to what’s both ironically and unironically hip or cool. I don’t hate them for their proudly displayed tattoos that I was too cowardly to flaunt at their ages. I don’t hate them for their slanted, perhaps even jaded, attachment to culture.
No, I can’t hate. In fact, I sorta respect. I’m sorta envious since they’re still in a stage of exploring a culture that, for them, still seems worth exploring. I respect that, for them, there are still interesting finds in Kurowsawa or John Waters or Jodoworski. In D.H. Lawrence or Hermann Hesse or Gogol. In Maus and Ghost World. In Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee. In Nick Drake or The Softies. I respect that, if you dig deep enough, there’s still treasure to be found for the young and uninitiated to Rudy Ray Moore, Lucio Fulci and Eugene O’Neill. Truly, I’m a bit envious of their curiosity and willingness to explore, most of which I lost a while ago.
I don’t hate. I can’t. Because, for all it’s frivolity, in it’s way, it’s better than the nothing older age forces us to accept.
It’s better, in many ways, than our old-ages forcing us to accept ourselves for what we are, mostly stripped of the persona constructed from all that shit.
I don’t hate. I can’t hate, because I have an idea of what’s in store for them. Sure, their details will vary. But, predictably, it’s no fantasy. It’s no joy ride. All those adolescent dreams of an unsuppressed, unrepressed adulthood predictably turn out to be something less than imagined. Naively, we’d all hoped for an endless Christmas. But we’re lucky if we end up with a handful of Labor Days.
We should have known. We should have learned from the examples of our parents. We thought they were stupid since, in many ways, they were. They were stupid, so we thought we could do better. We imagined things being different for us. We imagined we could do better. Sometimes we can, a little bit. But it’s impossible turning all – even most – of our days into Christmases.
So, goodbye, persona. It’s a bittersweet departure. Like a child that sheds its baby teeth- you’re mostly gone. Like an adult with the same limbs it once used to crawl but now uses to run. Like a voice that evolves from an infant’s babbling to coherent speech. It’s still the same voice, but it isn’t, too.
Yes, my dear persona – my old friend – you’ve become something else, while parts of you will always remain.