During my stay in Blacksburg studying for my graduate degree, I had a favorite radio show that played new jazz or classical compositions at around bedtime. I recall one time even the announcer being surprised at what just played wasn’t really music but was a story teller using some incidental music to go along with the story. I was introduced to Celestial Navigations with story telling by Geoffrey Lewis. The first story broadcast was The Wall, just the story to provoke a “what was that?” response. I was hooked.
I always admired story tellers and this was a very well crafted mix of music and story that seemed to work well together. At the time, I was thinking maybe someday I’d become a story teller, and if I did I would like to have appropriate background music to go along with it. I wanted to do exactly what Geoffrey Lewis was doing and I realize I lack the vocal control he has and I lack the musical talent of his musicians. So instead I just listened.
The station eventually played the entire CD one track at a time, I think the tracks occurred about a week apart. I looked forward to the stories even though my intention was to listen to music.
I’m the type of person who really prefers to listen to music without any human voice, or at least nothing that has words. I always prefer just the sound of the music without trying to follow the lyrics. Perhaps a rationalization is that I hear people speaking all day and I like to just have a time with some music without any talking. Despite that preference, I actually looked forward to the next story telling installment of this newly released CD (at the time).
It would be a few years later before I would by the CD and by that time he had recorded a couple so I got them all. Among the first couple CDs, I thought the first was the best.
In any case, one of the stories in that first CD was one called The Loser. I hesitate to call it a story, but it was fun in its own way. It ends with the statement “living through life backwards”. That phrase just seemed to come out of nowhere. That statement was applied to someone who had accomplished a successful life and now had it made in retirement. The suggestion was that that somehow was backwards.
That little statement kept bothering me for a long time. It bothers me even now. What on earth was the narrator trying to say that retirement after a successful career was living life backwards? I recall thinking whether he was suggesting we should get retirement out of our system early and then pursue a career. What kind of advice is that? We retire because we are exhausted from all the earlier effort, or at least we would be too easily exhausted if work so hard later in life.
Thinking back on all the stories, I think the reason I liked his stories was that each one had the narrator making some very counter-intuitive statement and yet spoken with confidence. His stories are fun to listen to for their own sake, but each one has a kind of looking-glass quality of inverted reality. I could probably write several posts where each post inspects one of his odd messages.
This post is about living life backwards. Despite what I wrote above, I was surprise to hear spoken aloud what I had already been thinking up until then. I already felt like I was living my life backwards. I even used the same words, but not the same meaning used by the above narrator (I still don’t understand what he meant by that).
For some context, I resumed graduate study at Blacksburg about 5 years after getting my undergraduate degree from Illinois. In the interim I was employed in a Pheonix job that I quit to spend a winter unemployed in Arlington when I imagined would be a start of a writing career, but resigned to returning to a job locally that eventually convinced me that I should get some more education (for various wrong-headed reasons).
The important period in the above timeline was the six months of no job and not looking for a job in an rather expensive place to live. I benefited from the generosity of a college buddy to allowed me to sleep in the living room rent free. Our theory was that maybe we’d come up with some robotics business together. It wasn’t at all a very well thought out plan. It was no plan at all, in fact. I did spend some time thinking about what kind of robotics would be feasible as a business at that time (mid 1980s) but we might as well have been drawing up blueprints for a trip to Mars. We had some good discussions. That’s about it.
I spent most of my time taking long walks in the surrounding Arlington neighborhoods during the day, and writing fiction throughout the night. I wrote in pen and paper short fragments, too short or incomplete to even be stories but they probably would have made decent blog posts. I would write furiously until my hand started to cramp and then I’d go to sleep, usually sometime around 4 am.
I arrived in Arlington during the last months when the metro line ended at Ballston. I recall in particular being able to get to the station and there would be an idle train waiting with the doors opened waiting for its run time. There was no trouble finding a seat and once seated it would be a few minutes before the train would start its route.
Then one day the line extended out to Vienna station. It seemed on the very first day of that extended line, the train would arrive with standing room only. Maybe it took a while for it to be that popular, but my recollection was that it was immediately popular. My job was in Rosslyn and it got to the point where I just preferred to walk rather than to squeeze in a packed train for the four stops.
First, I’m somewhat claustrophobic and agoraphobic. Second, I really did prefer to walk.
During this time, Arlington was very unlike it is today. When I arrived, I liked what I saw in Arlington and thought it had potential, but people my age were the minority. I can safely say the same thing today but for the opposite reason.
The Wilson Blvd strip that now is so dynamic was totally different back then. Even several years later I had a coworker exclaim he wouldn’t dare walk through Clarendon after dark, although I did so regularly without much concern. Clarendon was mostly Asian businesses who mostly served the local Asian community (Viet Nam and Cambodia). The space between Clarendon and Court House was apparently vacant buildings and at places not well lit. I suppose it might have been a little dangerous late at night, but I would be walking at the end of the work day that would be dark during the winter months.
I say I enjoy walking but that is misleading. What I really enjoy is the thoughts that I entertain while I’m walking. Walking is just an engine that liberates my thinking. I would think about a lot of different things all of which would have nothing to do with any form of employment or money schemes. I’m not even sure I could give examples of what was going through my mind at the time. I’m sure it was some spin-off of some current events but in a nature that would not be in any way productive. I was coming up with material for debates that no one was debating.
Anyhow, during those walks, I began to resent the fact that I had to have a job. I actually enjoyed the job during the time while I was working it. The problem with the job was that it strictly observed a 5 pm quitting time. It wasn’t until much later when I would get involved in software permitting me to keep busy indefinitely.
I was about to say I resent the job because I would prefer to be free to think without regards to what a boss wants. That was probably incorrect. I resented a job that did not fill the entire day and week. I like something that keeps me busy all the time. I’m not very good at switching from work to play so I would rather be busy with just one continuous activity.
As a reminder this was the period between my undergraduate and my graduate degree. I was not fully introduced to computing (software writing) until graduate school where I found I had to get up to speed very quickly. My job in Rosslyn was technical, but it involved reading documents and solving mathematical formulas. The documents had to stay in the office and although it was possible to stay late, the office got very empty after 5 pm. If I hadn’t been so bone-headed to avoid computers during this period, I probably would have found more to do during my spare time.
But instead I had to switch between working and doing something other than working. I resented the fact that I couldn’t do just one or the other.
This is when I got the idea that I would find some way to be able able to be responsibly unemployed: meaning that I would not have to burden anyone’s generosity. Even in this pre-boom period of Arlington, Arlington seemed like an ideal location because it had everything needed close by. In fact, I lived over a decade without even owning a car. I walking most of the time, and I took a bus to Tyson Corner area for a couple years. The point was to focus on living cheaply and cutting the cost of the car was significant. Even my rent had a discount because I didn’t need a parking spot.
The idea was to at some point be liberated from the job and be able to fill out my day as I see fit. It took time to build up to that point. At the time of the mid 1980s, I conceived of a 20 year plan of getting to that point. 20 years later, I pretty much met that goal.
But there were two problems. The first problem with a 20 year plan is that it takes 20 years. The opportunities that seemed possible 20 years earlier no longer seemed possible. There were new opportunities to be sure, but that wasn’t the point of the 20 year plan. The 20 year plan was to pick up where I left off 20 years earlier. That wasn’t possible. I was 20 years older and so was everyone else I knew at the time.
The second problem was that I got entangled in a job I couldn’t easily walk away from. I was entangled by my own innovation that became popular with the client during a critical time for that client and I stuck with it.
I finally disengaged from that effort, but now it is 30 years out from my original concept. I’m not sure I really even remember what that concept really was. It had something to do with writing. It had something to do with being creative. It had something to do with being mentally liberated.
The evidence of this blog is that I have been doing those things. What is lacking is that I forgot why I thought this would be such a good idea. Or, more honestly, I remember exactly what the idea was but the time for that idea was 30 years ago.
Back to the Celestial Navigation “The Loser” story. In it the narrator is talking about his friend who finally had it made. The narrator complains that despite all that his friend accomplished, his friend “never did the main thing” that made him so excited so long ago. I heard that story some 25 years ago. And here I am, sitting hear, staring out into space, never having done the main thing.
It reminds me of the science fiction story of an older version of a self traveling back in time to express some wisdom to his younger self and that younger self would not be able to comprehend what that wisdom was. Maybe that is what the narrator meant by living life backwards.