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I Used to Be Ambitious


I used to be ambitious. Now I just want to find avocados that cost lest than a buck-fifty each. I want the washing machine to have five percent less hair in it when I go down to the laundry room on Sunday. I want the guy on the corner not to ask me for money. Or I want to walk by the guy on the corner, but then go back and give him money. Or I want to not walk by the guy on the corner at all. Instead, I want to walk straight up to him and ask if he needs a sandwich instead of money. I want to buy him a sandwich. Or I want to convey to the guy on the corner -- with the meaningful glance that I deliver to him as I slide by -- that I wish I could help, I do, but I can't. Just can't. Nope. Not today.

I hope that he understands. I hope that my Netflix works tonight. I hope that it snows on only the days when I want it to snow and that the snow melts before it turns all gray and gross. I hope that the ice doesn't all melt at the poles. I hope that the races and religions of the world can find a way to get along and work together before the superior race of robots, or the superior race of aliens, or the superior race of robot-aliens destroys us all with shocking precision and efficiency (leaving all necessary resources and infrastructure intact for their use, etc.).

But who am I kidding? I'm worried we'll be bickering right up till the end. And I'm worried that poetry can't save us. And I know that gluten-free diets and 5G internet and wearable technologies can't. And I'm worried that I sit too much. And that this thing on my arm, which frankly looks a little bit larger than it did last week, might have to come off.

As soon as my health insurance card arrives in the mail.

Whatever happens, I don't want coupons to a spin class. I don't want Google to know my location. I don't want my right knee to hurt when I ride the exercise bike. I don't want to stretch. I don't want my wearable technology to tell me that my resting heart rate is high. I don't want my doctor to tell me, "you know, a little more fiber couldn't hurt."

I don't want to have to decide whether to spend more of my time in an wholly immersive, amenity-rich, virtual world.

"Already?" I think, reading articles in the white glow of my phone, in the dark. Aren't these things happening sooner than they were supposed to? And how could we possibly have prepared? And what will this mean for our definitions of humanity and selfhood?

And what kinds of amenities are we talking about here?

Alas! I have watched the best minds of my generation start start-ups that start start-ups. They tell me with absurd conviction and ghoulish smiles: "I build apps that sell app-building apps to app builders." We talk over happy hour drinks and apps. They tell me about their apps while we look at plastic menus that list lunatic prices for cheese fries.

"I'm sick of apps," I say.

"The wings?" they ask.

"No the other kind of apps." I say.

"The potato skins?" they ask.

"Never mind," I say.

I go home and incubate in the tub. The buffalo wing juices come out of my pores, turning the water into broth, then a cold soup. A friend once gave me three Xanax in a prescription bottle for Zoloft. She scratched out the word Zoloft with a Sharpie, wrote the word X-A-N-A-X, and handed the bottle to me.

I hoarded them like gold nuggets. But then I drew a bath on three consecutive winter Sunday nights, lit candles, took a Xanax, drank a glass of Rhône, and wrapped myself in sweat-clothes on the couch.

"I was there! Did you know that?" That's what I'll say to my grandchildren, though they won't hear me as they enjoy the 30-minutes of virtual reality that their parents allow them after dinner.

"I was there, chanting 'Yes we can!' Oh, it was a frigid day, my loves. Chunks of ice in the Potomac. A freezing cold day, the grass like hardened concrete. And there was a kid on his father's shoulders dressed in a purple snowsuit and a lady next to me was shouting at the kid, 'Hey little kid in the purple, get down!' And we all laughed to keep warm. Ha! Ha!"

Brother, don't even get me started.

I wish I had taken notes when my grandfather said something about mutual funds. Or was it hedge funds? Or short term capital gains taxes? Or plumbing?

Who remembers these lessons, anyway? And where are the people in charge of informing us when the lessons are happening? They seem to have vanished, along with my baseball cards and my pogs and my Legos and my Game Boy and my notebooks with Star Trek fan fiction and unsent drafts of love letters letters written in crooked pencil.

"Pay attention!" they used to say. Now that was helpful. Where are they, with their reminders, now that I need them?

Attention to the details -- that's what's missing these days. Attentiveness to others. Asking, "my brothers and sisters, are you surviving? Are the avocados any cheaper where you live?"

The only thing I pay attention to is a daily email alert that delivers into my inbox a single video clip of cute animals rubbing against each other and emitting soft purring sounds. I listen to the clips when I go to bed. Then I listen to history lectures on the War of the Roses, and the War of 1812, and the Crimean War. I get through the first four minutes and then I'm out cold. I've learned nothing about war, so don't ask.

I remember what my grandfather said!

He said, "what you left, I could make a meal out of," and, "Chicago is nice, if you can stand it," and "your grandmother drives like a maniac," and, "I was only scared once in the war," and "boy, you're the greatest," and, "if you eat like that for a hundred years, you'll live a long time."

The dog died on the five-year anniversary of my grandfather's death. "You can't make this stuff up," is something he also said. My grandfather. Not the dog. Or maybe I'm making that up. Or maybe memory is a fictive act of self-creation so it doesn't matter. Or maybe it doesn't matter because facticity (which is a word, people continue to insist) in general no longer matters. Or maybe memory is just neurons firing. Or bacteria vibrating. Or chemicals banging around in our noggins. Or God farting softly into our ears.

(He really did used to say that, though).

Anyway, the dog -- our dear old Skylar -- was dead and we sat in the living room eating Chinese food in silence. Mom choking down wonton soup. Dad tucking into a triple delight. Mal fighting with her beef and broccoli. And grandma slurping up some chow fun.

"Boy," she said, tears dripping near her plastic soup container. "Merton would have been beside himself with this election!"

Just to survive beneath the weight of silences like the ones that followed is ambition enough for me these days, is what I'm trying to say.