After almost three hours of walking, a slight fatigue begins its ascent, starting in my heels and ending in my consciousness. Going south on EAST LYNDALE Ave. N (yeah, it never ends), it’s easy to ignore sore feet. My brain, however, is a near-useless pool of warm gelatin. Man, it’s just that absorbing so much new stimuli while trying to analyze that stimuli and then compartmentalizing it into a cohesive narrative weighs on the ol’ willpower. In moments like this, when my brain needs a pep talk, I usually create a miniature Herman Boone in my head (he was the football coach from Remember the Titans, played by Denzel Washington) and it goes as follows: “This was your decision, son. You chose the direction. Now we’re sticking to it. (Voice rising) When the chips are down, sometimes we have to remember. We have to dig, son! Dig for the purpose! The reason we started in the first place! (Voice quieting) See, son, this is the reason for adventure: taking chances; challenging yourself and your preconceived notions about the outside world; being frightened and overcoming that fright; getting lost; finding out that the world is large and complex and you’re not always at the center of it. (Voice rising) That’s right! (Head nodding, voice continues rising) Yeah, that’s RIGHT! (Cheers come from some hastily fantasized locker room) NOW GO OUT THERE! THIS IS YOUR CHOICE! YOU CHOOSE THE DIRECTION YOU WANT THIS TO GO! (Now I’m running onto a football field, screaming like a maniac) GO!”
Sigh. Right now, even the velvet-to-violence intonations of Denzel Washington can’t cure what ails me. It feels like there’s something more to adventure. Something deeper I’m missing, as if I’ve found only half of the map that leads to treasure.
Nevertheless, there comes a time in every man’s life when he starts to question his direction. Sure, I’m speaking literally (as I wonder how I’m supposed to exit the salted-earth anti-glory that runs adjacent to I-94). By “direction,” though, I’m really referring to the existential crisis that yokes itself around our necks from time to time. As I go past the Minneapolis Farmer’s Market (basically empty truck stalls at 1:30 pm on a Friday) and a bunch of labyrinthine streets and alleys that lead nowhere, I’m reminded of Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go!, that instructive graduation staple detailing the unique contortionism that is life. But beneath Seuss’s rhyming charm and optimism, there’s an unexplored darkness contrasting the celebratory surface material. On a page towards the beginning, the Seuss-ian protagonist finds itself in a position to take any of the numerous paths offered. And here’s the verse:
You’ll look up and down streets. Look ‘em over with care.
About some you will say, “I don’t choose to go there.”
With your head full of brains and your shoes full of feet,
You’re too smart to go down a not-so-good street.
And you may not find any you’ll want to go down.
In that case, of course, you’ll head straight out of town.
It’s opener there in the wide open air.
Out there things can happen and frequently do
To people as brainy and footsy as you.
And when things start to happen, don’t worry. Don’t stew.
Just go right along. You’ll start happening too.
Great stuff, of course. When choosing a direction in life, however, I wonder whether or not I’m truly “too smart to go down a not-so-good street.” I’ve spent a solid chunk of my adult life questioning, and oftentimes outright loathing, the decision to get an MFA in Creative Writing versus an advanced degree in a field more practical, more rewarding, and (certainly) more financially stable. Looking at Seuss’s distinctly rendered paths, paths that represent choices, I’m filled not with a libertine sense of freedom but with a self-doubting dread. I imagine it’s similar to David Foster Wallace’s thoughts in his essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, when he states
“…I’m starting to see how as time gains momentum my choices will narrow and their foreclosures multiply exponentially until I arrive at some point on some branch of all life’s sumptuous branching complexity at which I am finally locked in and stuck on one path and time speeds me through stages of stasis and atrophy and decay until I go down for the third time, all struggle for naught, drowned by time. It is dreadful.”
Yes, the narrowing of choices or even being “stuck on one path” eats at me (that stuff sucks). But what fully consumes me is whether I’ve gone the right way concerning anything important. God, for every hour of writing bliss attained, I’ve spent five hours in a suffocating and blood-red rage. There’s the crying over Facebook “likes” and blog clicks, the punching of walls at the inevitable rejection letters, the tossing of my diploma in the fireplace, the throwing of manuscripts against the wall, the yelling into the mirror about how lesser writers and peers are more successful but still “COULDN’T CARRY MY FUCKING PEN IN A U-HAUL!!!!” All the while I see so many of my friends (about a million of whom are attorneys, like my wife) content and validated and fiscally secure as they offer the smiling litany of mock-hardships (the student loans, the long hours, the difficult colleagues) that accompany success. Artistic insecurity, full of claustrophobic creative tunneling, gives life to such dickish, jealous tantrums.
So I take a quick left, going east on LINDEN Ave. W, barely within earshot of two homeless people (a young African-American woman w/dreadlocks, an older Caucasian man in a punished black hat that reads “Vietnam Veteran”) arguing about some territorial discrepancy. Their faces are inches from each other’s until the older man retreats from the vitriol, his hands up in deference. I’m a few feet from walking over I-394 (a weird, constantly snarled piece of freeway that, like many Minnesotans, I avoid when possible) and I feel like a spoiled aristocrat for silently pouting about artistic disenfranchisement while people disintegrate in this impersonal urban fringe. I don’t know how those on the social periphery (like the many homeless I’ve encountered) maintain any modicum of strength when there’s so much worldly weight pushing them down. The older man with the “Vietnam Veteran” hat begins walking the opposite way, going west and under I-94 and I can’t help but think of how, if I were him, I’d shed the role of underdog and dreg and take the path that would end it all. He’s swallowed by the shade of an underpass and I can’t tell if I’m inspired or devastated.
It’s a dizzying enterprise, isn’t it? The whole “choice” thing. We have an entire lifetime to adjust, refine, and redirect, and yet so many of us find ourselves shuffling down some road that yields only cubicles and gambling debt and junkie friends and emotionally unavailable husbands. There’re so many examples of failure and doubt and constant resets that one wonders if true satisfaction is a chimera, a lie our parents tell us to at least keep us out of the crack dens or off the pole. So what do we do? Throw on the façade, that’s what we do. And most of the time, I feel like I’m wearing a goddamn suit of medieval armor that is 25% impenetrable steel and 75% bullshit façade.
I saunter by a coterie of hip college-aged gals in black skirts. I’m through a corona of smiles and perfume, standing tall (as tall as a 5’ 10” guy can), walking with authority, like I know where I’m going. Walking like a man. Totally faking it, totally guessing, I head south on N 12TH St. as if it was the way I was going to take all along. The brickwork becomes redder; the fencing becomes less barbwire and more wrought-iron; saplings, wither-free, stand on the boulevards. Appears I’ve hit a patch of renewal or gentrification. Sometimes you get lucky. Happy to be away from the near-freeway eyesore, I meditate on Michael Chabon’s words, in his essay, Faking It: “This is an essential element of the business of being a man: to flood everyone around you in a great radiant arc of bullshit, one whose source and object of greatest intensity is to yourself.”
Yeah, men have too much self-assurance, as wonderfully stated by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman in their cover story, Closing the Confidence Gap, in The Atlantic (but it is a self-assurance, mind you, that has been biologically advantageous at times and is thus a massively important reason why air fills the lungs of our uber-successful species). I turn west on HARMON Pl., with its refurbished stone/bright glass, and I mentally flip through the luminescent archetypes of perfect self-assurance: the outlaw whiz-kid, the maverick entrepreneur, the uncompromising genius, the galvanizing artist, the conquering specimen. All of them against the grain, all of them grand paragons that usher our existence toward enlightenment and a truer understanding of what it means to be human. Man, it would be awesome to be the “luminescent” dude who brought about some form of “enlightenment.” But I get the feeling that most of us aim our arrows a tad lower; shooting for a role as a bit player in the common good is all most of us ask for. And, for guys like me (white male, middle-class, educated, stable upbringing, young, not a verifiable troglodyte in the looks department) it should be easy to take the right path and achieve my dreams. A walk in the park, right? So which road takes you to purposeful rebel (south on SPRUCE Pl., west on YALE Pl., south on WILLOW St.) and which to delusional loser?
LORING PARK, a resplendent patch of sylvan finery, plops suddenly and wonderfully in front of me. Cozy and shadowed, intimate but inclusive, LORING PARK is one of Minneapolis’s nicest parks, greenly nestled in the jumble of freeways like a wedge of lime in a moribund cocktail. About 40-50 squirrels greet me and I come to the conclusion that this is where they’re plotting to take over the city. Ooohhh, a jet-black squirrel! Jugglers toss white bowling pins to one another while a pair of elderly couples watch and munch popcorn. Two of the women reach into the bag at the same time and laugh. Dozens of surly geese defend a pond from joggers that get too close. Antagonists to the end, they patrol the paths, stiff-necked and soldierly, loosing a “HISSSSS!” from time to time. I’m struck by the offense that they take to our incursions, as though the world was (and will always be) specifically created for geese.
I take a nice path in a vaguely southern direction, until I come to a circular brick patio and flower garden. All the hearty summer flowers and plants are in attendance: milkweed, yellow daisies, pink dahlias, purple coneflowers, that cool fountain grass that looks like it was dipped in wine. Bees do their aerial line-dance, humming from one nectar source to another. A man in a royal purple Vikings jersey hugs a woman on a bench and I realize it’s just us three in the patio area (the jersey is #28, Adrian Peterson, the coolest player in the NFL). Excluding my intrusion (they don’t care or seem to notice), I can understand why they chose this quiet offshoot. LORING PARK, because of its ample tree cover and sunken topography, seems to fold in on itself, which eats most of the urban ruckus and creates the illusion that the park-goer is an ingredient in a verdant salad bowl. The whole scene is a shot of woodland morphine; it kills the residue of the misanthropic industrial landscapes.
A nearby church tolls the 2 p.m. bells. Monarch butterflies, like orange origami in discordant flight, take to the sky in hunt for more milkweed. The sun finally burns away the soot-gray clouds and it gets hot and bright in a matter of minutes. All the monarch butterflies go, except one perched on a pink flower. I get as close as I can and snap about fifteen digital shots with my camera. It decides to cut its modeling session short, however, and flaps away, manic and determined. And what it must see during its travels from Mexico to Canada! But are they anything like us? Does a monarch butterfly question its route? Does it sometimes want to deviate from the same migratory course it has always taken? And, if so, what are the consequences for such risks? It’s here that the other half of adventure is understood.
I took a zigzag way to get here, to LORING PARK, and it was full of errors, second-guessing, and a special brand of “meh, whatever” momentum/luck/fate, an unconscious migratory pathway that seemed to put me exactly where I needed to be. The park makes me want to go somewhere welcoming. Somewhere like my home. Because adventure isn’t just going out into the world to get away from it all. It’s also about finding out if you have anything worth going back to. Even Homer’s Odysseus, one of literature’s most famous adventurers, says, “Nevertheless I long-I pine, all my days-/to travel home and see the dawn of my return.” My feet hurt and I want to sit on the same couch with my wife and my daughter and my dog. I want to make a quip about how there are “too many mammals on this single piece of furniture!” That always gets a good laugh. I want to be home.
Check back soon for the penultimate chapter, Part Ten: The Path Most Taken!!!!!!!!!!!!