Hello new visitors. It’s quite possible you’ve found this site because of the Newsweek article. If you haven’t already read it, I recently wrote about 10 Cities/10 Years for Newsweek’s “My Turn” feature, which is a space for people to share their unique life experiences. In the article, I discuss the details of the project, what I learned about myself through doing it, and what I learned about America in general.
It was an honor to write for the feature and I’m quite pleased how the article came out. You can read it here:
City living is a great way to be reminded that America is uniquely complex, that there are millions of Republicans in “blue” America and millions of Democrats in “red” America. One of the silliest notions I’ve ever heard is that there is a “Real America.” According to many politicians, because I grew up in a town of less than 80,000 people, I’m from “Real America.” This concept, that “Real America” exists in the heartlands of the country, outside of our main metropolises, led me to wonder: What does that make the over 15 million Americans I lived among, in big cities, from 2005 to 2015?
After Donald Trump won the presidency in 2016, I heard frequently about the “liberal bubble,” but that never fit with the country I experienced. In the cities I lived in—many considered liberal strongholds—I met all kinds of people whose views fit more neatly in the “conservative” box. There was the transgender woman in New York who adamantly defended the U.S. government’s use of torture on terrorism suspects after 9/11. There was the co-worker in Nashville who assumed, because I am an atheist, that I “sacrificed” children—her interpretation of abortion. For that matter, there were all the residents of so-called liberal cities who went to church every Sunday. I encountered all types of political and religious views over my 10 years; rarely did they fit in an easy category.
If you’d like more background on what exactly the 10 Cities project was (and continues to be), there’s always the About section. If you want to read some stories from the road, you can check out “The Book” section (scroll down and start with the Prologue). You can also check out other Press coverage. Or just take a look around the site; you may stumble across something I’ve totally forgotten I wrote.
Whether you’re a regular reader of this site, someone who used to be a regular reader and is just checking in, or someone who came across 10 Cities/10 Years because of the Newsweek article, I’d love to hear your thoughts: on the article, on the project, on life, on the 1962 Chicago Cubs, whatever. Leave a comment, show some love.
Cheers from Madrid,
P.S. Anyone who is interested in keeping up with my ongoing adventures, including my life in Spain and future publications, can add your email address over on the righthand side.
P.P.S. If you live in Madrid or are going to be in the city in mid-October, I’ll be doing a talk about the project and my writing at The Secret Kingdoms, a recently opened English-language bookstore in Barrios de las Letras. Get tickets here.
I’ve been known to indulge in my share of excavating. As I prepare for my next big move, I’ve been looking back, not only on the decade-long 10 Cities/10 Years, but also on my youth and even more recent history. Writing these chapters from my life has been rewarding, allowing me to scrutinize my memories and re-examine pivotal moments in my history, recontextualizing my history as it relates to my present. But there are other ways to explore the past.
One of my favorite tools for documenting my life in real time is Last.fm, a website I’ve mentioned not infrequently in these pages. It’s the simplest of ideas: the website tracks the music you listen to on your various devices and compiles that information into charts and data points. It’s extremely nerdy and entirely unnecessary, and I love it.
I started using Last.fm just a few months before I set out on my decade of travel, so I have a document of all the music I listened to throughout the entire journey from day one: my ups and downs, my relationships come and gone, my periods of depression and moments of hysteria, all of it soundtracked. It’s the kind of thing that I can nerd out over for hours, and often do.
I decided it would be informative to look at my Top Songs charts for the various years of my 10 city project to get a sense of the tenor of each year through my musical obsessions. I’ve taken a snapshot of my Top 5 tracks, so now, if you’ll indulge me, I’m going to take another look back at my project, this time through song.
How predictable. In my first year of traveling, I was still mostly listening to the artists who had gotten me through college, so Radiohead and Rufus Wainwright had been getting heavy rotation for a few years by this point (and still do). “Fake Plastic Trees” was my go-to favorite song for years, though its stature has diminished some over the years.
In terms of evolving musical tastes, The Decemberists were one of the many new artists a friend introduced to me while I was living in Charlotte. Especially in those early days, the Pacific Northwest band was known for their whimsical and eccentric mix of British folk and sea shanties. I was besotted with “The Engine Driver” which has this one verse:
I am a writer, writer of fictions I am the heart that you call home And I’ve written pages upon pages Trying to rid you from my bones
It’s the kind of melodramatic sentiment that I absolutely adored back then. (Eh, still do.)
Not much had changed in terms of favorite artists, though I was definitely listening to a more varied selection. “Come Pick Me Up” is my all-time most listened song and has never lost its “Favorite Song” status, but by this point I was starting to seek out more obscure artists. Mirah was another new discovery from my year in Charlotte, and she rapidly ascended into the realm of favorites. Though I’ve only followed her career intermittently recently, I was fortunate enough to see her play live just a few months ago at an intimate benefit show for LGBT youth. She was lovely.
Ghosty, for those that don’t know, is (was?) a band from my hometown in Kansas. They played a set at the famous World Café in Philadelphia and I saw them perform. Staying after to talk with the guys, I was surprised when the lead singer said that he actually knew me because he had seen me read poetry back in Lawrence. That was wholly unexpected and kind of cool.
For a time, Beirut was the musical artist I felt most spoke to my increasingly disparate tastes in music. I used to say that if I had any musical talent (I do not), I would make music exactly like Beirut. It’s interesting how, as especially so-called “indie” music has expanded in form and genre, the once unique Baltic sounds of Beirut have become just another common trope. I still enjoy Beirut, but my fervor has lessened considerably.
Starting to see some more female artists gain prominence in this list, though none of these three particular artists would be in my favorites. Still, Beth Orton’s Central Reservation did receive considerable play for a few years. “Concrete Sky,” which is off of a different album, features one-time Orton beau, Ryan Adams, so that probably helps explain its high chart position here. It’s also just a beautiful song.
“No Children” is, for me, the perfect song about a doomed relationship, that kind of love where the two people are terrible for each other but still work in a twisted sort of way. John Darnielle is a storyteller, and the entire Tallahassee album is arguably the best novel he’s ever written (though his two actual novels are worth a read).
My fifth year was, at times, arduous, as you might recall, so it’s not really surprising that the songs that got the most airplay in that year were in large part downcast affairs. I adore Neko Case’s entire oeuvre, and I consider her song, “Star Witness,” to be one of the defining songs of 10 Cities/10 Years (I’m frankly shocked at its absence on these lists). Although “Don’t Forget Me” is a Harry Nilsson cover, she definitively makes it her own.
Yeasayer’s “Tightrope” stands out from the other songs on the chart with its propulsive and infectious rhythms. It appeared on the Dark Was the Night charity compilation (along with Iron & Wine’s “Die”) and was basically the standout track from two discs of excellent but mostly similar sounding indie rock and folk music. Worth tracking down.
In the wake of a bad break up in Chicago, Nashville’s list consists of a lot of old favorites; comfort food, I suppose. Ironic that the one Adele song that I was really into that year was actually one of her more upbeat tracks. Also, “Dear Chicago”? How on the nose could I be? (Granted, it’s a fantastic song.)
Ryan reclaims the top track, but this time with a song that was never officially released. Both “Karina” and “Angelina” appear on the famously unreleased 48 Hours (bootlegs are available, obviously), which was scrapped in favor of Demolition, a solid but ultimately less cohesive album. I’ve said this elsewhere but, after Heartbreaker, 48 Hours is Ryan’s greatest album, and the fact that it has never officially been released is a tragedy (a few songs appear on Demolition). “Karina” is his most sympathetic and piercing character piece and deserves to be loved by millions.
Otherwise, this list clearly reflects the counter-intuitively sunnier times I was having in Seattle. Also, funny to note just how much Childish Gambino has evolved as a writer and performer since those early days. “Freaks and Geeks” is still a banger.
This was another hard personal year, but still a year with a lot of partying, which is nicely exemplified in the dichotomy of Justin Timberlake and a pair of The National’s bleakest songs. The Divine Fits’ “Shivers” splits the difference, an old school proto-punk cover with the lyrics:
I’ve been contemplating suicide But it really doesn’t suit my style So I guess I’ll just act bored instead And contain the blood I would’a shed
Considering my state of mind that year, the song was clearly speaking to me. (The song also includes one of my all-time favorite lines of shade: “My baby’s so vain / She’s almost a mirror”.)
I’d been a fan of Death Cab for Cutie since college, and yet, somehow, I had never bothered to acquire their most critically acclaimed album, Transatlanticism. I rectified that in Boston and soon after became enthralled with the eight minute centerpiece. I was also still obsessing over Hurray for the Riff Raff, a folk/mixed genre band from New Orleans that you should also be obsessed with. Get on that.
(Also, yes, Justin Timberlake made the list two years in a row; no shame.)
And then came Brooklyn. Kanye West is an asshole. Kanye West is too full of himself. Kanye West lacks impulse control. All true. Also true: Kanye West can produce some amazing music. When Boston roommate, Emily, helped drive me to my tenth and final city, “Power” literally started playing the moment we passed the city limit sign. There couldn’t have been a more thematically appropriate song for that moment.
I had a brief fling with a French girl when I first moved to Brooklyn; my infatuation with The Stills’ french-language “Retour a Vega” lasted much longer. At the same time, I fell absolutely head-over-heels in love with HAIM’s debut. Their latest release is very good, but I still play the hell out of Days Are Gone.
Goddamn right JT threepeated.
Notably, while many of my favorite artists are represented in these lists, there are plenty of others that don’t appear (no Sufjan Stevens, no Elliott Smith, no Spoon, no Rilo Kiley), while a number of artists who I barely listen to anymore (Night Terrors of 1927, really?) showed up.
I could have done this kind of list with my Top Artists or my Top Albums and gotten some very different results. For instance, these were my top albums from my year in Charlotte:
All five albums came out between 2005 and 2006, yet only one, Picaresque, is represented on the most played songs. I suspect that I was still getting to know these albums and thus listening to them straight through instead of just cherry picking my favorite tracks.
I chose to look at my top songs instead of albums or artists because I think they reflect my moods in those years more accurately. The album lists lean heavily towards recent releases, and my top artists stay pretty static from year to year (Radiohead and Ryan Adams are almost always in the top spots). By contrast, my ever-changing top song lists across my ten year journey illustrate not only an evolving musical taste, but they also provide insight into my mental state in those particular years.
Perhaps this sort of thing is only interesting to me (if so, you probably aren’t still reading, so who cares), but if you have a Last.fm account, I recommend taking a gander into your own past. Maybe you’ll learn something about yourself.
For the completists in the continually dwindling crowd, I’m including my second and third year lists from my time in Brooklyn. As I’ve written about previously, the music of Songs: Ohia carried me through a very difficult post-project year, hence The Lioness charting so many tracks. And then, this current year’s list is a result of my concerted effort to seek out more diverse artists and voices, in particular more women.
Brooklyn (Year 2)
Brooklyn (Year 3)
Ideally, the list will continue to evolve every year because I will continue to evolve. In that way, these charts serve both as a document of the past and a challenge for the future. Who knows what my playlist will look like after a year in Spain? I look forward to making fresh comparisons next August.
Eight years ago, yesterday, I launched this blog with a post entitled “Count the days.” At the time, I was already four years deep into my project, one month out from moving from San Francisco to Chicago,so I decided that it was about time I started documenting the journey. Well, sort of.
From the very beginning, my blog posts had a schizophrenic inconsistency, covering a whole litany of topics and themes (my second post, published the same day as my first, was apoemI’d written about two girls merged into one composite character). Truly, it was a blog in the most tedious, cliché sense of the word. Good thing it’s gotten so much better since then, right?
Last days are never as profound as they appear on TV. People don’t confess their love in airports or spend one final day doing all the things they always dreamed of doing but never did. Goodbye parties, of which I’ve had my fair share, have become increasingly subdued over the years, especially as the thought of waking up hungover before a flight has grown unappealing. I’d rather show up to the airport well rested.
People leave; life goes on.
Some years back, I began a tradition, one of many small affectations-turned-habits I’ve picked up over the years in an attempt to create a faint sense of constancy and purpose in my otherwise pointless life: On the night before I leave a city, I go to a bar by myself, a joint I’ve never been, usually in a neighborhood I hadn’t gotten around to exploring. I sit down, have a few drinks, maybe chat with someone, maybe not. Then, after an hour or so, I pay my bill and leave. No grand affair.
I could justify the tradition with some post factum literary explanation: it signifies how I came to the city alone and will leave alone; it reminds me that no matter how long I spend somewhere, there will always be somewhere I haven’t explored; it’s preparation for my reemergence into solitude.
The real explanation is so much simpler than all that: I’m tired. A lot of work goes into making a move, and a great deal of energy is expended in the gauntlet of goodbyes. I’m grateful for a chance to see people before I take off, but it takes a toll. Holing up someplace where no one knows me or cares if I sit in absolute silence is restful. It’s my Irish Goodbye to the whole city.
I will miss New York City, both a final city and a first. It has been my home for longer than all but my birthplace, and its inexorable glow has been my guiding light for as long as I’ve held dreams for the future. From the moment I set foot in Brooklyn, this city has tested and resisted me.
The very first time I found myself running late here, I had a quintessential New York experience: Without explanation, the train I was on shut down and held in the station. After waiting nearly ten minutes in confusion, a man came rushing past the car, not an MTA employee, just a fellow passenger, and bluntly informed the lot of us that there had been a shooting in the next station. A typical welcome, I suppose.
No wonder I love this town, I’ve always been a sucker for a lady who plays hard to get.
I don’t mean to imply life here is always a challenge. There are great pleasures to be had in this city, both cultural and personal. From a sunset rock concert in Central Park to a vibrant, surreal burlesque/musical/fashion show in an unmarked theater in Bushwick, the city has indulged my cravings for new. I’m a boring person in a city that expels boredom.
New York makes a lot of promises; it’s up to you to see them fulfilled.
When – if – I come back to the US, I don’t know to which city I’d return. New York is the obvious choice, but it is exorbitantly expensive and its capricious social circles will only be harder to pierce with more years on my back. Chicago? Fun and pretty, and friendlier than NYC, sure, but also just a smaller version. Seems like stepping back. Seattle still holds a part of my heart, but who knows if it would be the same nearly a decade on. Of course, there’s always Kans…. haha, nope. Couldn’t even finish the thought.
I’ve had many homes here in the States, but I wonder if they would still feel like my homes if I returned to them. For that matter, will the United States? Granted, there are still massive portions of the US I’ve never seen, so I could always find some new corner, maybe a secluded cabin in the mountains, a babbling brook and towering trees for neighbors.
Who can say?
I’m a man of fleeting desires, though, so all I can speak to is how I feel in this moment, and right now, my heart wants to see the world, to cross borders and time zones and watch sunsets from lost horizons; to not look back.
“I don’t know” is a phrase I’m using a lot lately. I have left behind the realm of long term goals for an open road. With each new endeavor I set out on, there are fewer signposts to provide me guidance. Potential calamity, a constant companion throughout my ten year project, remains reliably by my side, and we’re packing light. Everything else is up in the air.
Thirty-one. As I have done somanytimesbefore, I’m counting the days until my next departure, both overwhelmed by the long list of things I have yet to do (and would like to do), and filled with anxious excitement for the unknown. Thirty-one days is a lifetime; also, merely an instant.
[Warning: This chapter deals with sexual assault. Names have been changed.]
We didn’t last.
We could hash out the reasons for months – and we did – but in the end, perhaps it was inevitable: a transient soul meeting an intransient heart.
Chicago brought its share of challenges for Selene and me, financial and personal, but whereas in San Francisco there were common foes to unite us, now it was just the two of us sharing a single bedroom apartment in the North Side neighborhood of Buena Park.
There was much to love: the city, the neighborhood, our apartment. Within walking distance of Wrigleyville and Boy’s Town and right off the vital Red Line, we were just minutes from the Loop. We also had “our” bar for cheap drinks and billiards whenever we needed a casual date night.
Selene was able to return to school to finish up her senior year (a main reason for choosing Chicago) and my job search lasted a mere two and a half months instead of five. Granted, my job was as a sales associate in the cavernous Forever 21 on Michigan Avenue, but it provided a paycheck. Bills were being paid, life was being lived.
Unfortunately, our visions of the future were not in alignment. Over the year in San Francisco, Selene transformed from a shell-shocked new explorer to the woman who traveled to Chicago ahead of me to make arrangements. She was stronger and more resilient. Just because someone can move, though, doesn’t mean they want to.
As the months passed, Selene dropped hints about backpacking Europe together. It was an appealing idea – the classic travel narrative – but to do so would require staying at least another year in Chicago to save money. It’d mean abandoning10 Cities/10 Years.
Other factors were leading to our dissolution, as well. There were the usual abrasions that build up on the body after two years together, exacerbated by our abnormal circumstances: Suspicions of infidelity and apathy, fights and spying, the subtle but inevitable erosion of passion. We took each other for granted, only seeing one another from the corners of our eyes.
I pulled the trigger. One March night, Selene once again brought up a European divergence, now more of an urging than a suggestion. I could no longer deny the inevitable. I felt incensed because of what she was asking me to give up, but also mortified because of what I was forcing her to forgo: a life of her own.
We argued through the night, much of it in tears. When the sun arose the next morning, we were sharing a bed but no longer together.
Neither one of us could afford to move out. Overnight, our apartment had suddenly become claustrophobic. It was late March and my move wasn’t until September. We had five months ahead of us, cellmates in a rented prison.
Some days, we were utterly miserable. Others, we found equilibrium. The fact of our underlying incompatibility was always there, but with that out in the open, we were looking at each other straight on again. At times, it felt like love; that is, when it didn’t erupt as hate. After everything else fell away, we still had passion. You can’t have the warmth of fire without destruction.
Four months after our break up, Selene moved out. She was staying in Chicago and had found a new apartment with a roommate who’d arrive from Philadelphia in a few weeks. Though we were cycling through one of our regular bouts of acrimony, I helped her move across town. That was to be, more or less, the end of it. We were both alone now.
I can’t remember the last time I slept uninterrupted through the night without the aid of intoxicants. There’s always a device by the bed, a tether to consciousness, to an unsettled world. It’s nigh impossible to disconnect.
It was late and I was asleep, but only barely, when a familiar chirping stirred me. Grabbing my phone in the dark, I read the glowing words.
“I was almost raped.”
I shot up in bed. Selene’s message sent shocks through my nervous system, that word exploding like napalm from every synapse.
In a fog, I texted back.
“Where are you?”
When she didn’t respond immediately, I called. She answered through choked sobs.
“He’s in my apartment,” she said. “I left.”
I knew who “he” was. Tommy, her friend, was stationed on a base north of the city and had come down for a Saturday night movie with Selene. I confess, Tommy had previously been a cause of discord between Selene and me. They weren’t romantic (he was married), but theirs was a charged, flirtatious friendship. I had never met the man, but jealousy preemptively bred hate nonetheless.
After the movie, Tommy went out with his buddies for drinks. Ostensibly too inebriated to return to base, he called up Selene and asked to crash at her place. She offered him her couch. What happened next is a common chapter in the stories of far too many women.
Tommy came to Selene’s room and made advances, which she rebuffed. She closed her door. Soon, he came back and attempted twice to force himself upon her. She fought him off and, with no other choice, abandoned her new apartment.
These details I learned later, but at that moment in my darkened room, all I knew was that he was still in her apartment and Selene was somewhere alone.
“I’m heading over there!” I yelled, already dressing.
“Please don’t! I need somewhere to go. Stay at our apartment. Please!” Fighting every instinct, every screaming, wrathful cell in my body, I complied. Selene’s stricken voice was drenched in tears. I stayed. I waited.
When she arrived, she was pale, her eyes sallow and red. She lied in our former bed and I pulled the blankets over us as she cradled into my body. It was like our first night in San Francisco all over again, except I never fell asleep. I wanted to be of comfort to her, but my body was so tense with fury that it must have felt like hugging a statue.
I worked the next morning. I imagine I must have offered to call out and stay with Selene, but for whatever reason I still went. I hadn’t slept, my body was sore from clutching Selene to me all night, and my anger hadn’t subsided. It was a Sunday morning, so the train was, thankfully, mostly unoccupied. I found an isolated seat in the corner, curled up against the glass as tight as I could, and wept. Bitter tears burnt my face.
At work, I managed some semblance of composure, but it must have been obvious that something was seriously wrong. Don, a jovial, good-hearted friend approached and asked what was wrong. He hadn’t been the first to ask how I was doing that morning, but I had brushed most inquiries off with the usual prevarications. When Don asked, though, I could no longer contain the anger.
“Jesus. What are you going to do?” He asked.
“I’m going to kill him,” I promised. Don coughed a slight, nervous laugh, realizing there was no humor in my tone.
I pride myself on eschewing macho male stereotypes, but in this situation all I could think of was fighting. I craved a violent solution.
The problem was, I had little recourse to enact revenge. This wasn’t a movie, I wasn’t going to sneak onto a military base and display some heretofore unseen fighting acumen. Any hope of punishing Tommy required he return to Chicago. I also needed help.
The following day, I found Tommy’s private email address and, creating a fake account, sent him a message with a simple subject line: “Careful”
I opened the missive by laying out what I knew had happened between him and Selene. I put it in exacting detail so that there could be no question of “interpreting” events differently after the fact. I warned that I knew he was married and I could contact his wife easily.
Then I made my demands:
You will come back into the city, Chicago, at a time that is convenient for me. We are going to meet face to face, man to man.
I ended with:
You will not tell Selene you are coming here. In fact, you will not talk to her at all, ever again. Forget you ever knew her.
Meanwhile, Selene didn’t want to return to her apartment, so she stayed with me. Around her, I hoped to be a calming presence, but I was nothing but boiling agitation and rage. She knew I wasn’t letting the matter go, but I kept her in the dark about my intentions. Tommy couldn’t go unpunished. I had to prove – to her, to myself? – that this crime would be met with sufficient vengeance.
Our SoCal friend, Kate, vowed to fly out and “beat the shit out of” Tommy, but I assured her I was taking matters into my own hand.
At work, I enlisted Don and another friend, Aidan, to my cause. Knowing most of the details, they offered their tentative support, not entirely sure how seriously I intended to pursue my plan. Trained as boxers, both men were muscular and intimidating in all the ways I was not. I can’t discount the racial component either: they were black men and I was planning to rendezvous with Tommy on the South Side.
I had no devious master plan, no Machiavellian revenge plot: I wanted Tommy in my presence and I wanted to hurt him. Only his blood would pay for his sins.
But Tommy didn’t respond to my email. Two days passed before I sent another taunting email. I tried to sound threatening, in charge, but the truth was, if he didn’t respond, there was essentially nothing I could do.
He responded. No denials.
I know i was so very wrong for this, i wish in so many ways i could reverse my actions, not because Selene turned me away, but because it was a darkness within me that i have been fighting for so very long.
It wouldn’t hold up as a confession in court, but it was enough for me.
Over the next few days, we exchanged a half dozen emails. I gave him a date to meet me. He provided excuses why he couldn’t get away from the base. I told him if he didn’t show, I’d forward our email chain to his wife and his CO. Meanwhile, Don and Aidan were, judiciously, backing out of my plan. They understood better than I that no one was making it out of this unscathed.
Finally, Tommy sent one last, clearly rattled email:
I have told my command and my wife what truelyhappened, they have all read your e-mail. I was given a direct order to tell you such and that i will no be meeting with you under any circumstances.
I attempted to goad him out of hiding, but he didn’t respond. So, through a fake Facebook account, I sent his wife our emails. And there it ended.
I have no idea what became of Tommy. I don’t know what he meant by “what truely happened.” Maybe his wife never read the messages or didn’t believe them if she did. If nothing else, I wanted the people in Tommy’s life to learn the kind of vile man he truly was. I suspect some already knew. I can only hope his “darkness” was never unleashed on another woman.
Without resolution, my anger wouldn’t abate.
A week after escaping assault, shaken but not broken, Selene returned to her apartment and a life that would continue in Chicago without me.
For the remainder of the month before I moved to Tennessee, Selene and I feinted at an amicable friendship. I wish I could say our final parting ended with hugs and fond reminiscing set to an acoustic song like some treacly TV series finale. Alas, our last meeting ended in rage-fueled tears – mine.
Still holding onto resentments from our relationship, I laid blame at her feet. I accused her of leading Tommy on by flirting with him. I did what so many before have done, what too many continue to do: I implied that a woman who dares display her sexuality gives up her right to bodily autonomy.
This was Selene’s struggle, and I had made it about me. I thought it was my war to fight, that I was Selene’s soldier. What she really deserved was an ally.
The Chapter Ends
We’d been good and bad together in equal measures. We had the singular ability to lift one another up, and tear each other down.
I left Chicago in a daze, 100% certain I would never see Selene again; 100% sure I would. I was halfway through.
Selene was no longer the girl I’d met in Costa Mesa two years earlier. So much had happened to her since moving to San Francisco – to both of us – and she’d been transformed. She couldn’t be the person she had been even if she wanted to. Change – positive, negative – is the inevitable result of stepping out one’s front door.
It was September. After two hard years together, our roads now diverged.
When I started, my beard resembled a mess of pubes glued to my face; now white hairs spike out from it (the beard, not my pubes). If you need a less hirsute way to appreciate the time span, think about this:
The best selling album of 2005 was by Mariah Carey. The show Supernatural aired its 1st episode the same year. David Letterman was still on television! (Crazy, I know.) No one had even heard of an iPhone when 10 Cities / 10 Years began.
It’s, quite literally, a different world than it was in 2005.
I’ve been doing this a long time, long enough to feel simultaneously old yet fresh to the world. I’m relearning how to think about life in terms longer than year blocks, but I have no idea what sits ahead of me even a few months from now. I remain, to my core, a stranger.
Currently, I bartend, and I find myself listening with quiet bemusement as people rant confidently, definitively about this nation from the singular, narrow perspective of their hometown. As if the whole world could be seen from one window.
People ask me where I’m from, and I say Kansas, because, yes, technically that’s true. But when it’s said back to me – “Oh, he’s from Kansas!” I hear whenever someone mentions the Midwest – it rings false. “Kansas” (or any small state) is essentially code for “Inexperienced rube.” To city-dwellers it’s quaint; to hippies it’s idyllic. In reality, it was neither.
I grew up in Kansas, sure, but in a more accurate sense, I grew up in the United States. I discovered how to be on my own in Philadelphia. I learned how to survive famine in San Francisco. I found out how to recover from heartbreak in Nashville and then thrive on isolation in Boston. My perspective is not born of one town, one city, one state, but one country.
In that way, it’s still limited. The map is vast and I’ve only explored one corner of it.
Most people define themselves by where they’re from.
For a decade, I’ve defined myself by where I’ve yet to go.
I’m not done yet. My year in Brooklyn officially wraps at the end of August, meaning that there is still 3 more months until this project ends. And even then…
I turned 22 exactly 2 weeks earlier and then walked the Campanile at Kansas University a little more than a week before leaving. I spent my last few days in my hometown bidding adieu to friends both old and new and, with the help of my brother, I ditched my blue Ford Escort on the side of the highway (taking the license plate and any personal effects with me). Then I left.
On the first day of June, I arrived in Charlotte, North Carolina with my college girlfriend. The relationship had been strained for some time, but we had agreed to live together during the summer and there weren’t a lot of options otherwise. So, for 3 months, we made the most of what would, ultimately, be an unsustainable endeavor.
A few days after she left Charlotte to return to her collegiate life, roughly 3 months into my year in Charlotte, I ended the relationship over the phone. Not the last break up I would have to initiate. Not even that year. Thus began, in earnest, 10 Cities/10 Years.
I can’t pinpoint when I first believed I would actually spend a decade of my life (the majority of my 20s) in pursuit of this silly undertaking, but I know it wasn’t that early on. I didn’t want to stay in Charlotte all my life, that I knew, and I was still rather hellbent on ending up in New York (even though I’d only ever been there twice), but the future was hazy. Some fervent demon whispering in my ear was convincing me that I had some larger ambition to pursue.
So persistent was this wild dream that, once my year in Charlotte had come to an end, I left behind a whirlwind romance to move to Philadelphia, even though I had no idea what lay ahead of me.
Almost A Decade
For 9 years, I have made my way from one U.S. city to the next, making friends, finding work, getting by. Getting old. When I started this project, not a single episode of How I Met Your Mother had aired and Neil Patrick Harris had yet to ascend to the role of everyone’s favorite gay man (sorry Anderson Cooper). Speaking of which, when I started this project, same-sex marriage was only legal in one state (Massachusetts). Now it’s legal in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
A lot can happen in almost a decade. The nation changes. The world changes. My life has changed, in large part because of the people I’ve come across along the way. I’ve made dozens and dozens of very close friends over these years, and each one has shaped my evolution as a person.
I’ve given up friends, too. Most of the people who have met me over the years have either known me exclusively as the guy doing some crazy project, or they’ve been the friends with whom I’ve experienced my various cities. For the former, when I left I was merely a person whose story they could recount to strangers, something cool worth a few minutes at the bar. For the latter, though, they had become integral parts of my story, and then because of the dictates of my project I left them behind, possibly never to meet again.
In the age of Facebook, Twitter, Instragram and whatever else, it’s possible to remain linked to most everyone I’ve met, but that doesn’t mean that genuine relationships are easy to maintain. Friends have remained behind, gotten married, had children, accomplished artistic/business success, and I have been, quite frequently, only able to respond with a ‘like.’ And for 9 years, I’ve had to trust that that was enough. Even when it wasn’t.
No matter how far I depart from my Christian upbringing, I can’t escape the notion that we should all live with a grander purpose. Religion doesn’t hold the monopoly on meaning.
Perhaps ‘purpose’ is the wrong word. ‘Ambition’ is probably more descriptive. A ‘purpose’ suggests an end game, whereas ambition drives us forward without needing to know how everything will conclude. This project merely provides a vague direction and a hope that when I’m done with this decade of my life I’ll have gained something, even if it’s nothing but a unique collection of experiences.
And there has certainly been no shortage of experiences. I’ve documented a number of them on this site over the years, but sometimes the most life-changing experiences are those that, in the moment, seem insignificant. Certainly, minor happenstances and random chance have played as big if not a bigger part in the direction of my life than the major events. I don’t know how this is all going to end.
When I look back from the vantage of 10 years, what will the story be?
How long have you devoted to a single goal? Maybe 4 or 5 years for a college degree? Another 2 or 3 for a Masters, and then longer for a doctorate. Perhaps you’ve been working at a job for a number of years, working your way up the corporate ladder. Or maybe you’ve been playing in a band, touring and recording, all in the ultimate pursuit of signing to a major label and arriving on the national stage.
I’m entering the last year of my pursuit. With 9 years behind me and 1 ahead, I suppose I feel like anyone who’s given substantial years of their life for a dream. I feel like I’ve accomplished something of note, but I can’t say what if anything will come of it. So, really, it’s not all that dissimilar to graduating.
I guess that kind of makes this the beginning of my Senior Year. One last year to relish every new experience, one last year to acquire all the knowledge I will need for the next stage of my life. A final year to put all the pieces in place and hope the puzzle looks something like the picture on the box.
And who knows, maybe this will be the year I finally ask the head cheerleader to prom.