dispatches from the thick of a late quarter-life prologue

It’s Friday night, a week past my halfway point in tech school and a day into an extended Memorial Weekend. My open-ended itinerary is a source of relief and concern. Angst swells after a daylong series of starts and stops, wondering how much longer I can remain inoffensive.

Wherever you go, there you are holds too true yet again. From that failed attempt at college in NorCal, the summer in Wyoming, and this bout of Air Force technical training, a now decade’s worth of lingering habituations colors West Texas as loaded in promise and despair as any other. Of course, this episode was arrived at through a more graceful mix of twenty-something inertia and intentionality. Too much so to be regarded a hail-Mary.

My day-to-day arc is sustainable enough that the downturns serve to better distinguish moments of genuine ease. I had one of those last night. I arrived Downtown at the Cactus Hotel to work a gala for mental health awareness, an admirable enough commitment from which to expect good vibes. As the threat of what-did-you-do-this-weekend looms come Tuesday, getting my chance to package an experience in three hours or less was a steal.

I was put on one of the carving stations. Other volunteers to my left and right were distinguished members of the community, including a counselor who worked on the sixth floor via commute from his apartment a story above, and the architect who designed the sixth floor itself. The cadre of catering staff seemed in it long enough that the bitter chatter expected with service work was redundant this late in the game. Instead, all were oriented around the cause at hand with a professionalism I envied elsewhere.

“These cuts are part of a $1000-plus ticket,” said Mr. Zapata, the night’s coordinator, injecting some weight into of the slabs of pot roast laid before me. “Those lit-up cowboy hats, a $100 at least. There are millionaires here. These people run San Angelo.”

A younger me would have been primed to size up the incoming crowd of West Texas elite with a biting, over-opinionated take, informed by a vague attempt at gaining clout with a cheeky and exhausting crowd of near-peers in the back of my mind. These days, anyone bothering to maintain niceties, without giving room for the gossipy undercurrent that arises as exhalation to mark sprints of civility, is worth meeting with graciousness. Aging into the stage past needing to reiterate one’s assessments about how disappointing the world supposedly is, is a soothing transition.

Of course, the downside to cultivating yourself this way is that it becomes hard to be simpatico with people who insist on shit talk and complaining to pass the time. As if that whatever’s in front of us is the worst is the only thing we can agree on with strangers. The vibe on base is not unlike every other mediocre job and friend group I’ve ever had, in that respect.

My interactions with meeting new people typically involve a mental countdown until I witness the other person guilty of complaining about something trivial, or being problematic in how they’re talking about someone who’s just left the room. Then do I deem them as disappointing as the rest, and remain distrustful of everyone. It’s not a great mechanism in terms of willingness to meet people halfway, I understand, but it’s a hang-up I have yet to work through a more productive deconstruction about. Excursions like the one last night provide a much needed reminder that I am not insane for not wanting to partake in such toxicity.

I managed to pull off the role of carver through some small talk and muscle memory from gigs past. Guests were kind, and my grateful host reminded me to snag some entrees and dessert for my efforts. A solid showing from all parties, I thought. Then came the true meat of the affair, the bidding wars set off by the rattlings of a true Texas auctioneer. Assisting him were two celebrities, the actress Lena Headey, who plays Cersei Lannister on Game of Thrones, and Marc Menchaca, who played Gunny Wynn on Generation Kill. They’re dating, apparently.

“This is an older crowd,” said a guest rich enough to attend the gala but too poor to partake in the auction. “They wouldn’t know who she is.”

“She sounded Australian,” said one of the officers working the event. “I’ve never seen the show.”

From there, the alcohol poured in and I was getting along nicely post-shift. Then the music act appeared and I didn’t think much of it at first.

“This guy’s slated to headline with George Strait at the Austin City Limits festival this year,” said Mr. Zapata. My ear perked up.

My previous volunteer outings made me expect another cornball local Chad with a sensitive streak and a baseball cap to take the stage. Instead, the country singer Charley Crockett and his crew of tastefully quaffed musicians emerged to bookend a night honoring victims of suicide, with a neon sign that appropriately read WELCOME TO HARD TIMES, the title of his 2020 album, over his shoulder.

“I’m here to get some video for my brother who loves him,” said the poor rich guy. “If you’re into the kind of country on the radio, this isn’t your guy.” My other ear perked up.

“I dig that Chris Stapleton stuff over the Home Depot country, sure,” I said.

I could feel my night culminating. That key players from two of my favorite shows made their way to San Angelo, Texas, of all places, was a reminder that I am very much in the middle of somewhere. I came here to study military intelligence, a subject I have genuine passion for, and the field in which I will kickstart other parts of my young adulthood that have been a long time coming. Yet I continue to feel out of place among the smug and resentful students on base. I remind myself that these are not serious actors I’m dealing with. But I’m also not quick to dismiss them, as that’s the kind slippery slope into blowhard-y, antisocial thinking that I do not want to succumb to.

The crowd pleasers have arrived
And say they’ve got me on their minds

The type of guy I am was never meant to bloom this early. Looking back to my teenage years onward, I always felt out of place at whatever age I was. I figure early to mid-thirties is where I’ll finally hit a stride. Later is a payoff for all those years focused on unwinding the problematic person I was since childhood, to spending my twenties making this new individual as effective as possible. The advantage of being a late bloomer is that I’m still fairly malleable, open for what comes my way and ready to incorporate the feedback that entails.

I’m already on that Tennessee Special
Sure beats lying in my grave
I’ll take the money, but these fools don’t own me
Tennessee Special all the way

Of course, unresolved is that tension between preserving all that is weird and wonderful in my core from the undiscerning eyes of the crowd; to being game enough to play ball with the world on its terms. Anxiety about this tends to spike midday. Sometimes I manage to pull off a combination of adjusting the internal monologue/dialogue, a good meal, an exercise session, and an especially compelling bit of video or reading to feel at peace with a fruitful day. Only then can I clear myself for a smooth landing in time for bed.

Have you ever seen a stranger just a-passing through?
And wondered where that drifter, he was headed to?
Well, the stranger’s me and it’s plain to see
I burn every bridge that I cross
I’m the man that time forgot

Last night was an especially condensed version of that. Tonight I lay low in my room, as I will the rest of the weekend. I feel bloated, my heart literally heavy with two BANG energy drinks in my system. I consider how I could be doing more right this minute, but don’t let feelings of imposter-ism dwell too long. I’ve removed “should” from my vocabulary for this reason. Come Memorial Day, I’ll bookend this weekend with the arduous Murph Challenge, something I’ve been preparing for all month. From there I have two months and three weeks left of schooling, 11 more weekends to experience this corner of Texas, another 80 days of internal discourse and 80 nights of emotional comedown; before I’ll be on my way. Until then, there is work to be done.

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