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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Riverine and Alternate Timelines


In those days, running was nothing but an extension of self. Like breathing. There was no labor in it, only direction and the feeling of blood rushing in our veins. Above us, a silver moon hung sideways from black sky. Soon, the world would swing sideways with it, unhinged, split wide and dripping. - Riverine, Angela Palm

We sure love us some alternate timelines, don't we? Actually probably none of us do, but it seems like the easiest and best way to keep churning out content that is nostalgic and familiar because if there is one defining thing about my generation in particular and humanity in general it's that we love to be reminded of when we didn't have to pay bills. If that comes in the form of old action figures or Nintendo cartridges or kitschy signs in your favorite casual dining restaurant, it's all a throwback to when times were simpler. Not for the world, even though you think that, but just for you because you were little and nobody expects much out of you when you're little.

Except, of course, they do. When you're little your parents expect you to pick up your room and not pick your nose until it bleeds or pick at your scabs or chew your fingernails or forget to change your underwear or the million other disgusting things kids do. They also expect you to sit still for 6 hours a day, even though when adults go to conferences nobody actually sits still the whole day and there are tons of breaks and cookies and EVEN THEN the adults mill about in the halls "networking" or play games on their phones and absorb about half of it.

You have to put your dishes away and do your homework and be kind every time and deal with bullies and adults who are sometimes bullies and you worry that every time your parents fight it means they'll get a divorce and you hear about cancer all of the time and that kids can get it? Also, you don't know for sure what is real or isn't because dinosaurs were real but you're pretty sure dragons weren't and you're unsure about whether a koala is a Pokemon. I remember very distinctly that one time I threw a baseball through a neighbor's window and was sure I was going to jail.

That's all the suburban white middle class worries. It doesn't take into account the terrors of sexual or physical abuse, the crushing feeling of neglect, the fear of authority figures, racism, xenophobia, parents in prison, hunger, and fear of losing the place where you sleep. It doesn't cover mental illness, learning disabilities, physical disabilities, dying parents and siblings, or living in foster care or an orphanage.

In short, being a kid is fun and carefree but also awful and terrifying, so no wonder we cling to the same distractions we did to escape it. I still love candy and toys and video games because even though it looks like my life is super different from being a kid, I'm still scared of all of those things and part of me really does think that koalas are too cute to exist in real life.

But actors die or characters die and settings change and there's something about us that rejects new things in exchange for re-packaged old things. Which leads us to the new Star Trek movies that retell parts of Star Trek sort of but with new actors and more modern stuff so it's an "alternate universe." At some point both Marvel and DC had like a hundred universes each with different timelines and super heroes. There was a Nazi Superman whose nemesis was a guy dressed like Uncle Sam and a universe where Batman is dead and one where he's old and one where he's always young. Right now in the Marvel comics Wolverine is dead, but it's OK because we have a gray-haired Wolverine who came from another timeline but they call him Logan because there's a new Wolverine who is a girl who was cloned from the original Wolverine.

Nobody wants to live in a world without Wolverine and because it's fake, we can kill him and be sad, and then we can bring him back and be happy. Both timelines exist in our heads, with a multitude of others, and the only thing that limits us is our ability to digest flowcharts.

Because this world is scary and sometimes feels random and often feels very, very cruel, we find ourselves obsessing over our own alternate timelines. Here's one of mine: when I was about to graduate from college, I had an interview with The Nature Conservancy. I really love the organization and recently had a meeting there and it's so cool. Their offices are in this old restored house and it feels so homey. Anyway, I got in the final 3 for the position but didn't get it. I often wonder how my life would be different if I'd stayed. Would I be in my exact job no matter what? Would I live in Salt Lake and therefore be way cooler and wearing more stylish jeans? Would I be happier?

What if you missed your soulmate on the bus one time because you were playing Pokemon instead? What if you met your soulmate but you blew it because you said the wrong thing ("Are koalas real?") What if you had one more kid? One fewer? What if your mom hadn't died. Or you were born in a family that recognized your talent for art instead of forcing you to play football or vice versa? What if your leg hadn't broken and you got to start in the big game, or you didn't go to the same school as Scarlett Johansson and you got the lead in the play instead?

Here's what I think: I think there is only one timeline and it's the one we are on. It's not predestined, but as soon as a thing happens, everything moves that way. There are no branches. There isn't a version of you who is sadder or happier or healthier or sexier. There's just you and you are as sad or happy or healthy or sexy as you are. Which is in my opinion, on that last count, very. Everyone who reads this blog is sexy as all get out.

Bottom line: I don't care about alternate universes because whether they exist or not, I ain't getting to one so all I can do is fix what I screwed up here. This is you and this is us and this is the universe and that's where we are at. Go soak your head, Steven Hawking.

Easier said than done though, eh? Riverine talks about that kind of thing a lot, by the way. Riverine is the book I read. I don't think I told you that yet. It's by Angela Palm and it's a memoir. Rivers make great metaphors, don't they? You can do all sorts of stuff with them. If only they weren't such suckers to manipulate in real life.

Case in point: Angela Palm grew up in a neighborhood without a name. When she is a kid she looks at the map and asks where she is on it and and her mom sort of points to a blank space between two dots. She and her neighbors live in a river bank that was diverted years ago, but there's a funny thing about rivers: they go where they want to regardless of what we have planned. Every year her neighbors would see the rains coming and start sand-bagging around their houses, when the flood inevitably came and the river bed filled, they'd ride boats to each other's houses and play poker. Angela sits on her father's lap and loves him despite the emotional abuse he doles out to her mother.
I prayed for a mother who could find more worth in herself than my father would lead her to believe she possessed. Once, I thought a prayer had come true. My mother emerged from her bedroom dressed for an office holiday party wearing a black dress. She had swept her hair up into a neat bun, put on makeup, and traded her glasses for contacts. She glowed. She was making an entrance, and I rooted for her silently as if she were in the running for homecoming queen. She presented herself to my father, smiling. He told her she looked like a fat geisha, and sent my mother spinning back into herself.
Angela loves her next-door neighbor Corey, who she sees through her bedroom window nightly. But, just as a river's path is inevitable regardless of anyone's best plans, Corey takes a dangerous path that ends with him in prison, incarcerated for murder. She spends much of her memoir analyzing the path her own life took, from working at the bar to winning a scholarship to living far away from home, a writer. Throughout is the specter of Corey's fate and how her life would be different had she been able to change his path.

Spoiler: she doesn't know. None of us do. But we can sure drive ourselves crazy thinking about it. The worst part of this tendency is that whatever the alternative version we think of, we take the best possible outcome and compare it to our disappointingly real current existence. Maybe, if I'd taken that job, we would have struggled to live in an expensive city on very little income. Maybe I'd still be commuting an hour to work every day from a more affordable place. Every time I enter the freeway I think of it as a dice roll. The more I roll that dice the higher the chances of something bad happening.

Palm fixates on a handful of moments where she thinks she could have changed things, created a better world for herself and Corey. She grew up in an abusive home, though, and her idea of a healthy relationship in her youth was certainly tainted. Only through the lens of adulthood does she see that world. Just like it's sometimes fun to imagine going back to high school in your high school body but with your adult experience, it's easy to say I could have or I should have. Think about it, though. You may have dreamed up a better way to navigate your teenage years in 1996, but 2016 high school would eat you alive and you know it. The memes alone would destroy you.

We watch children play and think they don't have a worry in their heads, but look at their little faces. They're serious as heck. They're deciphering an undecipherable world, creating with action figures and dolls a world where their parents get back together, or where death isn't permanent, or where dad always comes home from work and they all eat at the dinner table and they don't go hungry because it's Christmas break and so that means no free lunch at school. Where friends don't stab you in the back and tell your secrets or pretend they don't know you when the "cool kids" are around. Where you're never quite sure what you should be doing at any given moment until someone looks at you and says, "what are you doing?" and you honestly don't know.

Don't worry about the branching paths. Be glad you survived that. That's pretty neat. Enjoy what comes next.