is not romantic. No.
It's a fact of life and still
we aren't inured.- Adrienne Rich, "Four Short Poems," Fox
It's the beginning of a year which seemed impossibly distant in the future to me for much of my life. I've been reflecting on the past, and thinking about the future, both with hope and trepidation. These fragments leap out at me.
In 1985, I was a silent, too serious eight-year-old with a habit of staring intensely at objects for entirely too long. The year before I had been cheerful, gregarious, ready to talk to strangers at length about any topic (my mother insists that extroverted, smiling child I was is my "true personality," as if the introvert who hates asking for help will one day slough of his skin and revert to a sunny-tempered innocent who effortlessly befriends people. I doubt it). I was now withdrawn and sullen and always walked as close to the walls as I could manage, sometimes brushing my elbow against them. I was in a Highly Gifted class in a magnet school in Los Angeles. Our teacher, a strange, big-haired Texan named Miss Van Deusen gave us an assignment: we were to write what life would be like in 2025 and how it would feel to visit ourselves.
I wrote a pair of stories. The first was unremarkable. I wrote the standard childish fantasies about wealth, power, robots and flying cars. The only notable thing about it was that wealthy future-me didn't have a wife, even at the impossibly old (to an eight-year-old) age of forty-eight. The second story was more interesting. I travelled to the future only to find that I didn't exist. There was no record of anyone with my name. This future was still full of robot butlers and flying cars, but it was a less friendly place where people spoke in whispers and kept dark secrets. Time-travelling-child-me, full of the bravery of boy adventurers spent most of his time desperately trying to track down his future self and running into obstacles. The story ended with boy adventurer-me taking a trip to the moon and finding myself at last, preserved at the age of nine, deep asleep in a crystal tube.
I got a better grade on the first story.
The next January, the classroom watched a live broadcast of the Challenger shuttle. Twenty-three fascinated children were glued to the television thrilled with the idea of an ordinary person, a schoolteacher going into space with a crew of astronauts.
Far too late, Miss Van Deusen lumbered across the room and turned the knob on the television, switching it off. There were tears in her eyes, as she tried to regain control of herself and the classroom.
It would be three years before I would write about the future again.
In 1989, we had a short story assignment for English. My frustrating, brilliant English teacher gave us no more guidelines than this: the story needed to fit into five hand-written pages. In my tiny, cramped script, I wrote six pages about a Rick Selner, PI, a stereotypical hardboiled detective hired to protect treacherous femme fatale Donna Lasagna ("Oh, those saucy curves") from her multi-billionaire husband. Rick, who was not nearly as stupid as Donna had hoped, uncovered a vast conspiracy of murder, lies, and betrayal and nearly had his life ended by an industrial laser.
My teacher loved it, except for one thing. "On Page two, I see you introduce a futuristic element. I'm not sure this is necessary. You should remove it."
In 1990 I had my first kiss. It was on the top deck of a cruise ship. A boy I had been running around with all week leaned over as I watched the moon's reflection trail across the black waves and kissed me, hard on the mouth. It was nearly perfect, and then ruined a moment later by him laughing and saying, "I just wanted to see how you'd react."
I was leaning over to kiss him back, and pulled away and back inside myself at his words. I smiled and laughed without humor, and hugged myself and looked at the moon.
In 1992 I was on my way home from school on the city bus when I overheard people in the back angrily discussing the Rodney King trial. The officers had been acquitted, they shouted. I chuckled to myself, thinking that they must have the information wrong. At fifteen, I had a near-religious belief in the inerrant course of Justice. The world was ordered and purposeful, and things proceeded the way they must, I thought.
The thing I remember most is how the next morning everything was covered in ashes.
In October 1996, I sat on a Greyhound bus with my face pressed against a cool window. I was on my way home from Minnesota, clutching a book of Anne Sexton poetry. The moon broke out behind a cloud over a Nebraska cornfield. I broke out my notebook and began to write. As if I could write out heartache.
In 1999, I worked in downtown Los Angeles for a company that supplied a significant amount of water to Southern California. My job was to document all of their plans and efforts to avoid a catastrophe at the beginning of the year. I organized and managed physical files and a database that catalogued their efforts to avoid a breakdown in the water supply due to the dreaded Y2K bug. Despite being able to read increasingly fantastic scenarios of chaos and destruction that their engineers had come up with, it was ultimately a very boring job, and I spent entirely too much time staring out my window at neighboring Union Station, watching trains.
In the summer of 2007, I attended Clarion West, an intensive six week workshop that focuses on Speculative Fiction. It was the end of that exhausting, wonderful period, and at the last party, I was announced as that year's (and actually, the first) Octavia E. Butler scholar. Hugged by my classmates and my Samuel Delany, and applauded by the party's attendees, I broke into tears, grateful for the kindness and faith that everyone had shown me. My classmates cried. And overwhelmed by the warm feelings and attention, at the first opportunity I snuck into an upstairs room, laid on the floor by myself and stared at the night sky over the big, rambling house in the Queen Anne neighborhood. In a few moments, I would recover, go back downstairs and smile and mingle. But I remember intensely that feeling of opportunity and fear that transfixed me as I let moonlight wash over my prone body.
Last October. Drunk. Holding hands with the boy I love. Walking through the wet grass in Glasgow Green. I stopped to try and take pictures of the People's Palace, its greenhouse lit up with soft white light. The pictures didn't come out. As we turned to go back, he laid his head on my shoulder, and the moon broke through the cloud cover. I thought to myself "This. This is my future."
This morning I received news that a friend of mine who had been in a coma for much of the past month had died. We hadn't kept in touch much during the past few years, and it had been much longer since we were at all important in each other's lives. But it was still sad news. His thirty-sixth birthday had been a week before, and he spent it insensible. I had been irritated most recently by his insistence that the Mayan prophecies spelled the end of the world. And I reflected in the bath that for him, 2012 had been the end of the world. It wasn't funny, but I laughed and laughed for minutes.
Then I went out for a run and tried to put things in perspective, and thought about my past, and came home and read Adrienne Rich. The future is stranger than I could have imagined. And there are things to fear that I never considered as a quiet, bookish boy. But there are also things that are precious to me, and more wonderful than I ever would have guessed. I am both optimistic, and cautious, but above all grateful at the way the weird world keeps surprising me.