I had the good fortune to meet some real punks recently. City-style art punks, living in a huge old house that looked condemned from the outside. They had their space fixed up beautifully inside, with dozens of old bike frames hanging from the extremely high ceilings, ramshackle shelves made of reclaimed wood displaying everything from canning jars to sewing supplies to Marx– all arranged tastefully with that spare, cleaned up, dumpster art punk style. The extraordinarily tall window was half boarded up with opaque plexiglass, but the top was open to the world and the breeze was billowing out a 16 foot long white curtain. You could tell that they spent their nights drinking homebrewed moonshine and reading Chomsky aloud by candlelight.
Or, I could tell anyway, because I used to be them. The woods version– minus the bike parts and the moonshine. I was 20 in my 20s. All the way, baby. I looked the look. My chosen style was army issue wool pants with 18 pockets all crammed with gear and old Pendelton shirts which I never, ever washed. Rifle over the door, crates of dumpstered food, shelves of canned bear meat and dried wild mushrooms. Some kind of animal skin soaking in a bucket in the corner. Reading Gary Snyder by kerosene lamp light.
Now I am all grown up, with such a boringly regular looking life. And I can’t help but feel a crushing nostalgia.
But as things have evolved, as I have crept ever farther into the ‘This Isn’t How I Imagined My Life’ classic drama of modern first-world adulthood, I wonder more and more how much of what I miss, what I feel I’m missing out on, is pure aesthetics. Do I really want to change the world? Or do I want to look like I’m changing the world?
My Man always reigns me in on this subject– the tendency of people in our subculture to want to be weird for weird sake. It’s just another form of branding really. We so desperately want to believe we belong, somewhere, to something. We can’t just be us for us, we have to be One of Us. As opposed to Them.
It’s the same bullshit we rail against, but transposed onto our own supposedly alternative lives. Them being regular people, Us being ‘different,’ with an unspoken ‘better.’
The fact that I was, I think, insufferably judgmental in my 20s doesn’t help things now. As I become more and more like one of Them, and lose more and more of the badges that used to get me into the Us club, I feel a rising panic in my throat. Am I selling out? Am I failing my ideals?
Of course the answers, if there are any at all to be found, are exceedingly complicated. But lately I am plagued by wondering just how much of my discontent is due to the derailing of my chosen path, and how much is simply a lack of the appropriately alternative appearance. If I were doing all the exact same things– getting and spending the same quantity of money, using the same range of electronics to hand power, buying vs making in the exact same proportions—but in the context of a homemade ramshackle squat, would I feel more like I had succeeded?
I always thought of myself as valuing function over form. Even though I have wanted to be the artist type (you know those people who, no matter what their chosen style, make their home into a thing of composed beauty?) I was never able to make myself give up the incredible time and energy it took. In the end I always came down on the side of practical. But now I am seeing that it is a struggle within. I choose function by default, but then I pine away for form.
Certainly there is lots of overlap, and much of what I am pining for is not just the lost form of my cabin in the woods, but the function of quiet and peace that was undoubtedly in greater abundance. When we lived by kerosene lamp our lives moved slower. And I miss, I crave that mental space.
But many things have changed beyond the structure whose walls we inhabit. We had kids, for example. I never got a chance to play that out, the family woods-punk lifestyle. Would I have liked it? Would I have hated it and dreamed of moving to the city as so many mothers have before me?
I read The Unbearable Lightness of Being last year. One of the concepts that has haunted me is that we only get one chance at every decision we make in our lives. We don’t get to make the same decision twice (in the same circumstance) and then reference afterwards to see which one worked out better. With no possible actual comparison, we can never know if our decisions were for the best or not. We can only keep stumbling through, untethered by the weight of applicable experience.
As I’ve gotten older I have noticed that 1. Most people over 35 feel at least vaguely dissatisfied with their life and 2. They blame it on whatever decisions they happen to have made that led them to where they are.
Having had many friends with many distinctly different lives, I have witnessed the blame flying in all directions. People can feel disappointed because they do or don’t have kids, because they have a partner who isn’t perfection personified or because they’re single and lonely, because they have a nice house (granted not many bitches ungrateful enough for this one) or because they don’t have a nice house. I don’t actually mind a little discontent if it keeps a fire under our asses to work for what we want, something of worth. But the vague and directionless anti-climax of adulthood is less than inspiring, and if any part of this malaise is just a failure of aesthetics, I want to know goddamn it.
Because… what? What would I do then– if it turned out that some bulk of my discontent was wrapped up in pure aesthetics? Is that a base urge to overcome, or a perfectly human urge to indulge? Should I throw out the unattractively normal looking bookshelves I have found on the side of the road or bought at garage sales for next to nothing and instead spend hours of my time scrounging splintery antique boards to build a beautiful art shelf?
I can tell you one thing, and I’m not joking. I’ve been building up to this one for years. I’m going to get a tattoo for my upcoming 35th birthday of a stinging nettle, a wild edible emblemic of my woods self. That my friend is some rarified aesthetics.