I keep encountering remnants of my former life.
It’s no secret that when you stop doing something, you may fall out of practice. In English there’s an expression – “like riding a bicycle” – for something that, once you learn, you never forget.
I, in fact, once forgot how to ride a bicycle. I remember it quite clearly – I had learned to ride without training wheels one year, by the end of the summer, but the next spring I seemed to have lost the knack for it. I think it only took me a few attempts to remaster the skill, but the point was made. For some skills, it’s use it or lose it.
On my second morning back in New York City, I had another such personal failure. I utterly failed to fry an egg. The problem was twofold – one, I forgot to oil the surface I was cooking on, and two, I had overheated said surface. The egg instantly adhered to the cooking surface and began to burn. I had to turn off the flame, scrape the ruined egg into the trash, and try again. The second time I got it right – it wasn’t pretty, but it was at least edible.
In the space of one year, I have gone from cooking eggs for myself practically every morning, to cooking eggs once in a while, to not having cooked an egg for myself in well over four months. Time to re-learn very basic skills and re-make very basic mistakes. But my life in Georgia just doesn’t involve frying my own eggs. There’s no bagels, rolls are weird, bacon is inferior and the only widely available cheese doesn’t suit fried eggs at all. Everything involved in making delicious fried eggs or a delicious omelette is difficult, expensive, or both. Scrambled eggs or french toast work out better; they have become my breakfast staples when I cook for myself. Plus I found the right flour for crepes on only my second try. And anyway I’m a fried egg heathen – I like mine over-hard.
You know, I used to be a professional chef – I worked at a bar and grill for four years, working my way up from short-order cook to head chef to general manager before quitting due to the stress of GMing a high-volume beer garden and grill (which happened to have five owners each with his or her own unique personality). Since then I’ve also been directly or peripherally involved in various other food service endeavors. Nothing really gourmet – my specialty was turning out very simple but high quality food at high volume in a fast-paced environment, as befits a beer garden – but now I’m purely amateur. Cooking is something I used to do – something from one of my old lives.
At Buckswood Summer School I found myself being consulted to provide a sound system for the weekly dance parties (referred to, hilariously, as “discos”). After several attempts to use consumer systems to provide funky beats for 140 teenagers, I finally convinced the camp director to let us use the prosumer system – two powered speakers and a small eight-channel sound board without sufficient peripheral materials to even hook up an iPod properly. I made do with what we had, but since it was a very non-standard hookup I had to fiddle a lot to get any sound to come out at all, and the sound that does come out can’t be adjusted using any of the board’s features (so, for instance, we can’t turn up the bass or fine-tune the sound for the echoey room we’re in) and in addition to that, because of the way the wires are we have to go out from the aux outputs which means we don’t even get to use the main volume slide to control volume; we have to use the mono/headphone volume dial instead.
Whatever. I got the thing to work. It reminded me of my days running sound at various venues in Brooklyn – always having to do creative troubleshooting or fiddle with somthing to make it work, often lacking the tools to do the job properly and just making do with whatever was around. Back then I even took to carrying my own set of cables and adapters around with me just in case I needed them; they came in handy more than once, I can tell you.
Now, not so much. Now I don’t even own a fully-functioning iPod, let alone carry around a set of cables that would allow me to properly connect one to a professional sound system. I used to run sound for bands at rock and jazz shows and for dancers at a burlesque bar. I’ve even run sound for college and off-off-broadway theatre. I used to do lighting design as well – plotting, hanging, focusing, and running – for college and professional theatre. I was technical and safety director for a haunted house, once – in charge of fixing malfunctions in mechanical, electric, and hydraulic systems on the fly in between groups of patrons. I’ve been involved in almost every behind-the-scenes aspect of theatre and performance art that I can think of – director, stage manager, technical director, lighting designer, playwright, sound engineer – and I’ve even scored paid work in a few of those fields, which is not as easy as it sounds. I used to carry black and white gaffe with me to every job. Now the closest I come to that life is trying to explain, to a person who speaks no English whatsoever, that it’s not a good idea to pull a speaker cable out of a sound board while the speaker is plugged in and turned on.
There are things about that life that I miss – meeting lots of people, hearing lots of music, and just making things sound good – and then there are things that I don’t miss – like a complete lack of benefits, steady work, or prospects of improvement or advancement in the future. I didn’t want to be still running sound for indie bands in Brooklyn when I got to an age at which things like health insurance and job security became important. Still, it’s nice to come across a remnant of that particular life from time to time.
There’s more, of course. I used to do CrossFit a lot – I was even certified to train people in Crossfit exercises and nutritional practices – and yesterday a friend asked me for advice on how to improve his kip so he can work his way up to a muscle-up on the bar, and I was happy to try to advise him. I used to bartend, and of course that comes up a lot – from my tendency to always have at least one corkscrew or wine-key, to my continued knowledge of drink recipes, to my vast experience in dealing with drunk people. I used to be an anthropology major, which partially explans why I know things like what a strepsirhine is. I used to be an internet libertarian, which means that every once in a while a friend will google my name and come across an article that I wrote in what seems like another life about something like how the US government is ruining American higher education.
I reinvent myself a lot. I went through a series of majors and minors in college, with majors including Computer Science, Math, Hebrew, Theatre, and Anthropology, before settling on Political Science with minors in Linguistics and Gender Studies. I’ve had jobs in various fields – in addition to what I’ve listed above, I’ve also done a bunch of semi-skilled labor, construction, roofing, some data entry, cafe/barrista stuff (that’s where I picked up my latte habit), a tiny bit of retail, some web design, and probably some other things I’m forgetting about.
I guess the thing about being in Georgia for so long is that it creates a more obvious separation between the current iteration of myself and all the previous ones. The thing that always linked all of my different skills and experiences before was a sense of approximate continuity of location – so that even when I was hanging lights on 4th Avenue and President Street in Brooklyn I could explain to people I met that I used to tend bar on Smith Street and President Street in Brooklyn. I bounced from job to job and field to field but there was never really a stark divide between one thing and the next; I always just seemed to fall into the next job when the opportunity arose or when the time came to move on.
But now all those things I used to do in New York are still, to me, in some sense located in New York; whereas all the things I do now – teaching English, working with children, blogging – are in some sense located in Georgia. In New York I expect my friends and family to consult me about things like cooking, mixing drinks, setting up sound equipment or whatever. In Georgia, I only really expect people to consult me about English, teaching, and writing; so when I encounter some other thing that I do or have done, some other skill set that I have, it serves to really remind me of my life before Georgia.
I guess what I’m saying is, this reinvention comes with its own particular oomph – a sort of locational intensity, as opposed to just a temporal dimension. This is like a four-dimensional reinvention.
And I wonder where it leaves me. I wonder if this is the final reinvention or if there are more to come. In fact I’m almost certain there are more to come. I’m already looking for what to do next. I know I’m teaching this coming year, and I’m equally certain that’s not all I’ll be doing in the coming years. I want to get involved in other projects in Georgia. I want to find ways to use my expertise in English and Linguistics to better serve and educate Georgians – not just on a student by student basis, but also on a grander scale – and I also want to find a way to make that goal compatible with paying off my student loans and maybe putting some money away, too.
I also know that I’m not done traveling. Whether or not I make my base camp in Georgia – something that seems like a good idea on many levels, including low price and close proximity to both Europe and the Middle East, the two regions that I happen to be the most interested in – I know that I definitely want to see much more of the world. So I don’t know what I’ll end up doing when my contract with TLG is done and I am ready to move past volunteering to teach at a public school. I don’t know whether, five years from now, I will sit and ponder what my life used to be like back when I taught English for a living and how the skills I learned doing so continue to serve me. I might well still be teaching in some form or another. What I do know is that it’s actually pretty cool to have all these different sorts of experiences to look back on. It’s cool to know how to do a bunch of stuff, even if some of those things get rusty. It’s cool that I feel like underneath my skin is a series of separate and interesting people all of whom can help me out in various ways. It’s certainly better than regretting my past or my mistakes.
I never dared to hope that one day, my aimless drifting through life would actually seem to be worth the sacrifices of stability, resources, and status that I have made by not determinedly pursuing any single dream or path. I always thought that I had screwed myself, that I would never have the money or success that I really wanted, and that all I could really do was look back at the fun I’d had along the way and try to take solace in knowing that it wasn’t all bad. But now that I’ve actually found a way to be happy in life, all of my previous experiences seem to contribute uniquely to that happiness, and it seems to me that each remnant of my previous life that I encounter somehow makes my current life more complete – like they are all pieces of a puzzle that, nearing the age of 30, I am finally just beginning to be able to solve.
By the way, this is what it’s like to be me – you fuck up one egg, and three days later the writing bug possesses you to churn out a novella about career changes and coping with regrets. That’s one thing in my life that I feel will never change: my capacity to turn even the smallest event or insight into a long and rambling essay about my life story. I’ve been doing it since I was fourteen – more than half my life – and I don’t see myself stopping anytime soon. I credit my High School English teacher, Ms. Evans, who assigned us all to keep a journal – a tradition I’ve kept, in one form or another, ever since that class freshman year. Ms. Evans may have affected the course of my life more than any other teacher, and I have to say, I’m extremely grateful, because I don’t know where I would be without my writing. Sadly she is no longer with us and there is no way for me to express my grattitude; if any of you believe in the afterlife and happen to end up there someday, please let her know.
This one’s for the discos:
Video: Wonderwall, by Oasis