Ten Years

1. Pageantry

The sun sinks down over the Neogothic towers of Healy Hall and bathes the front lawn in a pink sheen to match my dress shirt. A gentle hubbub rises from the tents. A soundtrack from yesteryear cranks up, and I am surrounded by faces from a past that grows hazy, all familiar but at what point do we introduce ourselves, break down those inhibitions? Groups begin to form and orbit about each other, old networks coming into contact, and over time they coalesce into a pulsing mass, lonely anxieties forgotten in an identity that gives me as much pride as any. We are back in DC for a reunion, here to revel in our greatest shared loyalty, Georgetown Hoyas for life.

2. Brotherhood

The four onetime occupants of 3731 R Street reunite, along with our honorary fifth roommate. The house still stands in Burleith, despite the horrors we inflicted on it, and somehow the powers that be have allowed four of us to become homeowners ourselves in the past two years. The Tombs has a new menu, which we appraise with narrowed eyes, but it’s still wine night on Mondays and trivia on Tuesdays and the pitchers still roll out to satisfy us adherents to this boat-themed catacomb on 36th. Late nights ensue, our minds still twenty-two but our bodies not quite that anymore, though we get ourselves back into shape as the weekend goes along. No beats missed, easy reminiscences and all the old giving of shit, and a certainty that we need to do this more often.

3. The March of Time

The clock hands tell us Georgetown is timeless, but evidence to the contrary does slip through the cracks here and there. I share a hug with my dean, who went on maternity leave while I was an undergraduate; her son is now 13, which seems impossible even though the math does indeed check out. All five-year reunion increments attend for the same weekend, so we get to see our future progression in a steady march through the different tents across campus. One day we too will be the aged souls whose parties wrap up at nine, the middle-aged parents boring our young charges with campus tours and impositions of Hoya swag. But for now we are still among the fresher faces, here for a party and dip back into a time that still seems like just yesterday.

4. Minutiae

DC is a city of trivia. Around every corner sits some monument, literal or figurative, that teaches us who we are. Identify the flag, name the embassy, learn which obscure historical figure has earned a statue or plaque in this little niche. This is a town for lovers of arcane facts, or just those who look for stimulus on every block. The wealth of knowledge expands one’s sense of what it means to be an American, a citizen of the world. I often eschew Ubers and do a lot of walking in inadequate boat shoes, a full sensory experience: red brick sidewalks and cobblestone streets, pastel rowhomes and federalist manors, thick leafy trees and hidden back gardens. I’m not sure another neighborhood can ever top the beauty fixed in my mind’s eye here.

5. The Eternal City

Minneapolis feels radically changed by the past two years. New York, too, has been hollowed by the pandemic. In Chicago, savvy relatives now counsel me to avoid the El. But in DC? It all feels the same. The gentrifiers north of the Capitol keep drifting east, Rosslyn has added a building or two, and the homelessness that has long been ubiquitous has certainly not gone away. M Street seems down from where it was a decade ago, with fewer bars and restaurants and more direct to consumer retail. The gas station at the base of the Exorcist Stairs is no longer, and as we head for the piano bar, we find a wild new urban phenomenon, the murder of rats by trained dogs under the direction of a vigilante pest control. Is a rat carcass in the middle of the sidewalk really an upgrade over a live one inside the trash can?

But otherwise, the city is its lively old self, the streets of Dupont and Adams Morgan teeming with life. New York may be America’s financial capital and the Bay Area may be the cutting edge, but the power of this dear old swamp only seems to grow with every new denunciation of it. DC is perhaps the most stable of great American cities, fed by that ever-growing beast. Porque aquí está el poder, I overhear a man tell his wife on a stroll down Prospect Street. Because this is where the power lies.

6. Rubbing Shoulders

Georgetown knows how to throw a party, but it also hooks us in for some education along the way. The first panel I attend features successful young entrepreneur alumni in realms from college mental health support to lobster restaurants. (This former dining hall regular might suggest a correlation between the two.) In DC there must be political commentary, so a second brings a lively debate ahead of the 2022 midterms. Opinions flow from the lips a straight-talking former Elizabeth Warren campaign hand and a biting Republican adviser who claims she owns Mitch McConnell’s brain. Nancy Pelosi drifts through; will Bradley Cooper show up? Has anyone in our class earned their way on to one of these lists yet? How about some infamous alumni to go with the list of our famous compatriots in the program?

7. The One Percent

Georgetown remains a beautiful people’s club. I thought I’d see a bit more thinning hair, a few more widening paunches, but no, this is a world apart from the toll of time I see in other friend circles. Skin remains unblemished, hair perfectly teased or coiffed, and ambient in the air is a sense of ownership that can only emerge from long years of life in a ruling class. Seated on a bench, I am glad I wear sunglasses to hide my eyes as they follow a bronzed beauty in an orange sun dress, her hand alas held by a lacrosse player and a specimen in his own right. Preppy attire remains the de facto state, but there is also a whiff of elite disdain for care, as with the bro whose definition of cocktail attire features a bathrobe. With beauty comes the power to set one’s own standard.

8. Busy

One of the chief markers of being a Georgetown student, I observed as an undergraduate, was being busy. When asked how one was, the appropriate response was “busy,” and levels of busyness became badges of pride among the hard-charging Hoya climbers. At the time, I swore to never describe myself as busy. I have failed to keep this commitment over the past few years, and am not proud of my lapses. This, I think, is our generation’s great failing: a manic obsession with productivity for productivity’s sake, and falling into patterns that normalize 80-hour work weeks, or worse. There is nothing healthy about this life, and high incomes hit diminishing returns when they crowd out the time for the other pursuits that make a life worth living. But we are Hoyas, so we continue our manic pursuits, certain we can arrive at a place where we have it all.

9. Rebel Against the Sort

At the School of Foreign Service reception, I chat with an acquaintance in the Class of 1972, a former federal relations official at the university. He introduces his freshman year roommate, a Hoya who moved home to Indiana and built a life there, including a failed primary bid for congress in a race ultimately won by a young Mike Pence. A kindred spirit. We part with me admitting how much I waver, and him pushing me to stay the course. My path remains a noble exception among fellow Hoyas.

Later, over gelato in Kalorama, two of my greatest sparring partners take up the question of the Big Sort, the notion that the well-educated strivers are self-isolating in a few specific places. So many of my classmates have drifted to New York, DC, or the Bay Area for jobs in tech or finance or consulting or law, and those intense jobs or advanced degrees they were pursuing at the five-year are now bearing fruit in stepping stones and large salaries. I am far from the lone exception, and there may be some self-selection in who returns for a reunion. But I may be the most obstinate in my pride at what I’ve done, even as I try to find new wells of strength in my Hoya inheritance. What was once a source of social anxiety is now a simple certainty that I belong.

10. Ease

I head straight from the airport to a tour of the Fond du Lac Reservation, and attend a funeral for a great Native woman the following day. This is what I do, though. Further out in either direction my schedule will find a muddy hiking trip, a speaking gig at a conference at a resort on a lake; a garden party at an old money club and political dinner, to say nothing of a work calendar that likewise pulls in ten different directions daily. Busyness? No: richness. In no place did I learn more about how to live richly than I did at Georgetown, how to drift between worlds with ease, adjusting to each to fit in while still retaining some core self. I am still in love with this school, and while there are certain decisions over those four years that I wish I could change, it is also the source of everything that has come since, and everything that could yet be. It was at Georgetown that I found the tools that direct the flow of an ever-churning life, and the self-assurance to ease into the next great push.

Grand Staircase III: Layers of Time

This is the third in a three-part series. Part 1 | Part 2

Sated by my time in Grand Staircase-Escalante, I drive the three hours back to Zion, where I nestle in at the Novel House Inn in Springdale, a mile’s stroll from the park’s gates. This writer is a sucker for this bed and breakfast, complete with sprawling library and author-themed rooms. I am in the Mark Twain Room, wedged between Walt Whitman and Louis L’Amour on the first floor, and the great red cliffs peek out above some trees through my window. There is a voucher for breakfast at a Mexican place up the block, a tray of cookies and lemonade in the afternoon, an attentive Irish proprietor, and a library where I can sit and organize my notes in the evening. What more could I ask for to round out this trip?

I spend the night at the Zion Brewery, which is, brilliantly, the first establishment one encounters when exiting the park via its pedestrian bridge over the Virgin into Springdale. I settle in at the bar and make a few temporary friends as we throw back beers. “Have these trips ever changed your life?” asks Russell from Philadelphia when I tell him the tale of my journey. Check back in with me later, I reply. A couple from Long Island then joins us, the husband glued to the North Carolina-Duke Final Four game on the TV, and I become a temporary Tar Heel fan at his behest. These are the best nights of solo travel, the momentary community a necessary counterpoint to the solitude of nights in tents.

On my final full day, I hike the full eight miles up Zion Canyon to the end of the road. At times I am on formal trails such as the Pa’rus across the meadows north of the Visitor Center, or the Kayenta between the Emerald Pools and the West Rim trailhead; at times I am on a semi-formal sandy track lining the river; and for long stretches I am just on the road, which is empty aside from shuttles every few minutes, the occasional car headed to the Lodge, and a steady string of cyclists. While the shuttle system has the effect of choking up certain spots when it disgorges busloads at certain popular locations, it means that vast amounts of the canyon, despite the number of visitors it hosts, are basically empty. Even in the four days since my backpacking excursion, the canyon seems lusher with spring, the cottonwoods’ leaves unfurling and purple and red and yellow flowers springing up here and there. I see a condor and a crane and a wild turkey, and at times the only sound is the rushing water of the Virgin River, which echoes off the canyon side walls. Never has a stroll up a road felt like such complete immersion.

After a quick recharge at the Novel House, I go for my final Zion hike: a quick burst up and down the Watchman Trail, which rises from the Visitor’s Center some 360 feet to views over Springdale, the campgrounds, and up the canyon. As on the West Rim, I half expect to find a shrine at the top, but instead it features verdant greenery crawling out of the rich red rock, a perfectly acceptable endpoint for a pilgrim to Zion. I sit for a while at the summit, process a few thoughts, make peace with the paths I’ve trodden over the past week. I read a passage I copied down from Leave only Footprints, a memoir by Conor Knighton, who visited all of the national parks in a meandering, yearlong post-breakup journey. Here, he contemplates a fireplace at the Grand Canyon that serves as a model for all its layers of rock:

Looking at a canyon’s different lines and layers, we can read its diary, seeing the various strata that made it what it is today. The layers are stripes, not smears; they all seem so clearly delineated. I wondered if, inside of each of us, those same markers exist. When we think of personality, we tend to think of it like a soup, a blend of traits and experiences that have been mixed together to make us the people we are today. Over the years, more and more gets added; the broth gets thicker, and the individual ingredients become harder to discern. It seemed to me that we might be more like that fireplace; like the canyon, full of layers with clear dividing lines; moments that say, from this point on, everything will be different. Maybe those lines mark deaths, births, loves, and losses, the moments we’d expect to define the different periods of our lives. Or, maybe they correspond to days and events we would have never initially seen as important.

Did I actually change as a person when I graduated from college? Probably not. Maybe a more significant shift happened midway through seventh grade, when my teacher told us to pick a college to do a report on, and instead of picking one that was good at sports, I chose Yale, a place I knew nothing about. Maybe your life changes on your wedding day, but I’d imagine the actual change happens on your fourth date, when the woman who will one day be your wife tells you a joke that somehow tells you she’s the one. It’s never clear a layer is over until the line appears and a new one starts. Looking past the fireplace, out to the canyon it represented, I began to think that I might be smack dab in the middle of an important layer, an era that was changing who I was as a person. There was the me before the parks, and there will be the me after them.

I ponder some of the layers in my own life, some obvious to any who know me and others more subtle. I was eight when I learned that the world could steal away life in an arbitrary instant, and eighteen when I learned it would be impossible to ever truly go home. At twenty-two I grounded a life that was somewhat adrift in a place, but by twenty-eight I found myself more in tune with the kid who had once run away from that place than the one who’d made a commitment to a thing that cannot love him back.

The world is forever changing, and that there is a sweet spot of knowing it will change you while knowing that you can also change parts of it. At twenty and twenty-one I began to sow the seeds of a worldview that understood this fact. Around twenty-six I internalized the power of forgiveness and began to appreciate that I did not need to define myself by the things I had lost. At twenty-seven and twenty-eight I undertook a writing project to interrogate these possibilities, and to play out the tension between competing strains of thought in my head. At twenty-nine and thirty I learned that more than a place I was in need of a pace, and have, perhaps, at thirty-one and thirty-two, found it.

In the four years since I last came to Zion I have hiked relentlessly forward in the fog, through a snow patch of work life upheaval and a climb up into a new Duluth network and on through the sticking mud of a two-year pandemic. It has been a relentless, and generally successful, but often very solitary phase. My navigation skills in any moment haven’t really been in doubt, but the view has not always been clear. Now, at long last, I think I can see again, and am even more eager to see where I am the next time I make my way to this canyon that has become my Eden.

In a few conversations before I left for the Grand Staircase, I described this venture as a last great solo trip, at least for the foreseeable future. This usually brought about a lament in response. Why stop now? I seem to love it, and I am good at it. But too much of my life has been caught up in a confusion between being good at things and therefore believing these are the things I must do. This doesn’t mean I won’t ever travel this way again, and I had some motivations for making this a solitary burst. But I have done what I set out to do, and I have came home content.

In these canyons there are always more layers, greater and greater depths and heights to explore. Some of it will be forever buried, and that is alright. But there are many more layers to discover, and next time I head forth, I don’t plan to do so alone.

Time and a Place: Good Writing, 8/7/19

A return to my good journalism series, which I’ll open with a quote from a Wallace Stegner short story, “Beyond the Glass Mountain,” in which the narrator returns to his college campus years later:

The light over the whole hill was pure, pale, of an exaggerated clarity, as if all the good days of his youth had been distilled down into this one day, and the whole coltish ascendant time when he was eighteen, nineteen, twenty, had been handed back to him briefly, intact and precious. That was the time when there had been more hours in the day, and every hour precious enough so that it could be fooled away. By the time a man got into the high thirties the hours became more frantic and less precious, more carefully hoarded and more fully used, but less loved and less enjoyed.

I’m reading Stegner’s complete short stories now, so this blog may suffer something of a Wally barrage in the coming weeks. As for the journalism, I’ll start with the Literary Review, where Helen Pearson reviews a book called Where Does It All Go? It discusses contemporary time usage, and the trend over time toward this sense Stegner identifies. Humans are now busier, more stressed, and more prone to multitask, right?

Wrong. Aside from some gender roles that have shifted somewhat (but are still far from equal), it hasn’t changed much since Stegner wrote 50 years ago. What have changed are the habits of the highly educated, professionally successful, and general status seekers, who do work a lot more, and are more likely to get featured in articles about how people use their time. Pearson also accurately diagnoses the ways in which people in these circles sometimes use busyness as a form of status, a way to convey that they are important and their time is therefore valuable (and yours is probably less so). It is something I have always hated, and am not fond to find it creeping into my own language at times. It also raises some serious questions about what exactly this class of people is achieving other than higher levels of stress.

So, going forward: I’m not busy. I’m just doing what I do.

Speaking of those busy urban elites, Derek Thompson of The Atlantic takes a look at the rebirth of many large American cities and finds one group of people conspicuous in its absence: children. Cities have become playgrounds for urban professionals, and market forces and public policy have made it harder and harder for people with families to build a happy life in said cities. This specialization of life–young urban professionals in some areas, young families moving out to the suburbs, immigrants over here and rich homeowners over there–fits in with broader forces within a self-sorting society that is often aided and abetted by public policy. It also creates serious issues for tax bases, school quality, and humans’ sex lives, and feeds into questions about the welfare state and immigration policy.

I’m becoming increasingly convinced that long-term solutions to American urban issues are going to need to take a serious look at regional planning, property tax apportionment, and a more fundamental re-orientation toward ideas of what exactly communities are for. (Presumably, we put down roots in them and invest in them because we want them to be vehicles for the futures of ourselves and people around us.) Of course, I also think that more people should abandon the rat race and make lives in small cities, whose merits I have plugged, for obvious reasons, in past writings: if the market is so overheated in certain major cities, it is overdue for a correction, and the best way to achieve that may not be a turn to the suburbs, but to another way of thinking entirely. But to the extent that some of our more significant modern maladies have policy solutions, this is one of the most fertile grounds that we need to explore.

To the extent that there are policy solutions, that is. This is perhaps why Ross Douthat’s latest on the Trump phenomenon resonated with me: policy alone, while necessary and helpful, cannot resolve the things ailing our busy lives or our cities or our politics today. That requires the more fundamental framing I mentioned earlier, a more total pursuit of a sensible framework to support policy goals. Without that backdrop, our arguments miss the forest for the trees. We become the blind chasers, we become “busy,” we concede too much to the forces that can just bear lives along and leave us in places we’re not sure we want to be. There are better ways.

Stolen Time

While perusing the sprawling and unwieldy Word document in which I barf out thoughts for blog posts, I stumbled upon an article I’d stashed away for my post on my Georgetown reunion some months ago, but forgot and only now rediscovered. It’s an essay by Joseph Bottum, a 1981 Georgetown grad who has gone on to some prominence as a socially conservative intellectual, and once stole the hands off the clock tower on Georgetown’s Healy Hall. The theft of the clock hands on Healy is a timeless Hoya tradition, and after a period of relative rarity, it happened my senior year.

Bottum floats the thought that he and his co-conspirators were metaphorically trying to stop time, but concludes that they probably weren’t so clever. They were young, he says; they didn’t know what the passage of time meant, not really. I suggest he give his college-age self a little more credit: I titled the photo below “Georgetown Is Timeless” after snapping it back in 2012, and was definitely aiming for a certain symbolism. A 22-year-old is certainly capable of recognizing the march of time, of knowing that things aren’t as they used to be, and high school and college graduations tend to bring out the earnest reflections that stem from a first encounter with farewells, even if we know these are temporary and relatively painless shifts. Bottum’s point, however, is that these early markers of time’s passage mean little when weighed against the heavier ones that come with more final farewells.

HealyHands

For the luckiest among us, any consciousness of human mortality takes its time in rearing its head. Life progresses from one stage to another in smooth transitions. We have this vague sense of when changes are supposed to occur, and life’s failure to conform rips holes in our very conception of time. Bottum drives at this when he talks about how death seems different, depending on one’s age. When people my age die, it’s a shock and a tragedy; when people Bottum’s age die, it’s a bit too soon but an acknowledged possibility; a generation older, it’s no great shock, the natural passage of time. But time’s contours rarely behave in such an easy way, and before long each one of us is tested by something that disrupts this flow, great or small. No moment is more formative, and while I’d wish it on no one, it can also stir forth some of the most admirable human qualities in response.

Early brushes with mortality tend to age us prematurely, but they also distort all the time that came before them. Those preceding moments now seem all too short but linger forever, make one wonder if the way we flow through time, measured in minutes and seconds and hours and all lined up in perfect linear form, doesn’t mistake its true nature. Go deep into quantum physics and it will all break down, yes, but maybe the disconnect registers on a more immediate, deeper level, one that lets certain moments endure for an eternity while so much of our day-to-day lives fades into an unremarkable blur. No matter how long these moments may last on a clock or a calendar, their end will inevitably bring the sense that time has been stolen from us; time we’ll never have back save in the recesses of wandering minds. And so we preserve it there, make sure we never forget, and use it as best we can to form us in who we become.

We don’t need to steal clock hands to rebel against the march of time, but the thieves of Healy Hall do have lessons for us, whether we’re aware of them or not. When we become aware of stolen time we come in tune with far broader forces, and they ground us, make us believe things like the quote I shared on this day three years ago. When we know where we come from and know why it is we want to get to wherever we’re going, we can steal some time back ourselves.

Happy 19th, bro.

Utopia II: Farewell, 2014

Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

—Luisa, Y tu mama también

My 2014 is coming to an end at a villa overlooking the sea in the Virgin Islands. It’s not utopia, but it is a spectacular place, and I am blessed to be here once again.

It’s hard to pretend to know how one becomes fascinated with utopia, and the earliest childhood memories probably lurk behind it somewhere. But if I had to name a place where my own imagined ideal worlds were born, it was probably here, where I first came when I was nine. This led to something of an infatuation with tropical islands, and I can trace the whole arc of my invention of new worlds directly back to that trip.

Few things inspire quite the way travel does, with something new around every corner. This endless opening creates new possibilities, and digging into the details frees the imagination to embellish reality with our own little flourishes. The Virgin Islands were my first real trip into the unknown, and while I’d hardly call them the most exotic or inspiring places I’ve been—my host here cites the local “intellectual wasteland” as the reason he wouldn’t settle here, and I’m inclined to agree—it’s still a bit more than your run-of-the-mill beach vacation. The stories born from that trip, both childish and grandiose at once, slowly became my way of making sense of my world, with everything contemplated there, all great questions with their own place. In time, they made their way out of my mind and into the written word, with countless pages filled.

This time around, I’m not exactly questing for new inspiration. Whatever it was I set out to achieve when I first started writing in fall 2008, I’ve done it. That doesn’t mean I don’t still revisit and build on the past stuff, but it’s all right there before me now. 2014 was a decent year, and a good foundation for whatever may come next. The pace isn’t always ideal, but things are moving.

Where to? Hard to say, though that may be a good thing. Better to avoid the ideal image and instead chip away, somewhere within a framework that makes sense. I’m not sure where I’m going, but I have some idea of how to get there. That doesn’t mean it’s all about the means, and not at all about the ends—benchmarks are essential to keep things moving, and proper management of the utopian instinct isn’t quite content with simply doing one’s best, no matter the results. That hunger and desire can’t go away. One must seize the moments, stay in control—even when taking control means letting things go a bit. From a thoughtless afternoon in a hammock to an extra rum and coke, there are times when even the most relentless managers must lose themselves in the surf. One can aspire to both ends without contradiction.

I haven’t always managed that balance, and I’m as certain as anyone that we cannot build Jerusalem on earth. But to stand in the face of that impossibility and still carve out something good—what more can I ask for? As I enter my second quarter-century, many of the more fanciful dreams born of that first trip have washed back out to sea. But that doesn’t mean they still cannot be inspiration, and that things cannot all come together in, somewhere between dreams and reality in the flux I live through every day.

And so we move on to the next year. Here’s to continued progress, as the waves allow, and the wisdom to know when to barrel into them, and when to ride the tides. Somewhere in here, there are answers. The search goes on, but I’ll be home at the end of the night, as I always am.

‘Boyhood’ and Life in Time

Near the end Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, the protagonist’s mother, Olivia, has a breakdown. Her son, Mason, is just about to head off to college, and she suddenly realizes that her life, long defined by the routine events of her children’s growth, will now lack any such signifiers.  A droll remark from Mason eases her back off the edge of the cliff, but—aside from making any boy away from home immediately want to call his mother—her moment of realization shows how we make sense of the passage of time. Filmed over the course of twelve years with the same actors, this is Boyhood’s revelation: it distills a childhood into a series of memories, flashing by in jarring little vignettes, exactly as we’d all remember it all as we look back on our first eighteen years.

Some of these moments are obvious, shared across many lives: family moves, fights with stepfathers, a first drink, a memorable 15th birthday, first sex. Others are distinct to Mason’s memory: his sister’s mannerisms, a haircut forced by a stepfather, a camping trip with real dad just after Mason’s voice drops, a change that coincides with his acceptance of his wandering father’s role in his life. There is no serious attempt to build a narrative through them all, but it all fits together seamlessly because this, we know, is how life flows. Meaning only comes out in retrospect, and often in the strangest of places. Boyhood knows this intimately.

Boyhood, for Linklater, is far from a youthful idyll, and one suspects it would have been the same even if the protagonist hadn’t been the child of a single mother who sometimes struggles to make ends meet. It is often defined by its most painful moments, and awkwardness and social struggle abounds. Those moments of boyish bliss are there from time to time, but the film persistently reminds us that innocence is far from the starting state of human life. Even so, nostalgia builds as the moments flash by, the past always seeming a bit less complicated simply because there was less for us to remember. Memory is the root of complication that breeds frustration, yet only by fitting those memories into a story does anything begin to make sense.

Manhood is just as much of a theme as boyhood in the film. Olivia’s three lovers are all sorry weaklings, two alcoholics desperately trying to impose order on a world that won’t cooperate, and Mason Senior, who spends the first forty years of his life just going with the flow, failing to take on anything more than the most routine responsibilities. Ethan Hawke’s Mason Senior is aware enough to recognize this, but only in time does he move past his self-absorption and see his son as a partner in a journey, one who is very much his own son, and in need of a guide who has been down this road and learned a thing or two. His growth over the course of the film is as dramatic as Mason’s, and his time away from his son gives him a sense of perspective that Olivia, forever down in the trenches, cannot match.

Mason doesn’t find much in the way of male peer companionship, either. As an introvert whose family is often on the move, he builds little that lasts, and his friends rarely aspire to anything more than instant gratification. It’s no wonder that his relationships with girls come to predominate the last hour of the film. He plays along with the dalliances of his peers without any serious discomfort, but he aspires to something else and wanders alone, his father coming out in him as he loses himself in photography. Here, finally, he finds an outside adult who takes interest, a photography teacher who tries to give his work ethic a bit of a nudge. Somewhere in here are the beginnings of a serious investigation of manhood in modern American life, a fascinating topic never far from my mind whose delicacy has kept me from tackling it head-on in this blog to date. (Too often, the fate of boys is tied up in a comparison to girls. While this has considerable merit—as the prevalence of certain gaps and some of the teenage misogyny in the film shows—the experience of growing up male needs to be confronted on its own terms, not just in relation to the opposite sex.)

Boyhood takes cinematic realism toward its furthest possible extreme. There is nothing at all remarkable in the circumstances of Mason’s childhood; sure, his home life is far from ideal and he dabbles in drugs at a relatively young age, but none of this goes to the extreme. It is just the story of a childhood, only one step removed from a documentary. The film looks good, but there are relatively few artistic and philosophical flourishes, separating Boyhood from the “self-conscious grandiosity” (in the words of Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post) of the similarly-themed Tree of Life by Terrence Malick. Malick takes ordinary life and tries to find transcendent meaning; Linklater takes ordinary life and revels in the simple idea of being ordinary. If Malick echoes Kierkegaard, Linklater echoes Camus.

Of course, some critics would rather have their grandiose gestures (and lest I sound opposed to them, I adore Tree of Life). In a withering takedown of all things that attempt to be “relatable,” Rebecca Mead of the New Yorker blasts Boyhood as “the apotheosis” of art aiming to speak to viewers on a solipsistic level, with the novelty of the passage of time covering up a “the banality of the plot and the cliché nature of much of its characterization.” This trouble will confront any work of art that tries to describe things as they are, and trying to pin down an “average” American childhood or other such experience will inevitably hit upon a number of well-worn themes.

There is more to Boyhood, however, than just relatability and the novelty of the twelve-year project. Parts of Mason’s childhood are clearly relatable, but that’s hardly true for every viewer, and there is just enough instability in his life that a happy ending isn’t quite a given. There is something else going on here. The philosophical musings of Mason and his teenage friends, while often half-formed and not entirely original, are also not thoughts straight out of a can. The struggle is evident, and if that’s what is most “relatable” here, it is because this really is a universal: we all face these questions in life, and they do not come along as platonic ideals placed in front of us by some philosophy professor up in the sky, but within the muck of daily life as we confront obstacles with which we have no prior experience. We’re frustrated and we don’t quite see the full picture, and thus the things Mason and company observe don’t seem hackneyed; they’re genuine struggles. Unlike most any other film, they really don’t know where their story will go.

This is how the Big Questions in life come to us, and Boyhood captures that lurching evolution in a novel, precise manner. If the goal of social realism is to show us how we live, Boyhood gives the ‘how’ a new dimension, grappling not just with the passage of time, but the manner in which we perceive and remember it. It’s not relatable just because people can see bits of themselves in Mason, but because their very experience of living is just like Mason’s. Boyhood is art that seeks to make sense of life, and while that is not all that art can or should do, its power in this field overwhelms any weaknesses elsewhere. It is a triumph.

Adios, 2013

I’ve never found a good way to express my bafflement of the passage of time. Just trying to answer the question ‘what is time?’ is trouble enough. But yet it goes on, passes us by, even in years like this past one, which for me was one of relative stasis. There were no great adventures, no decisive moves; just the steady rhythms of life somewhere in the vast white north of Minnesota. It’s been an interesting test. I’m a born dreamer, one who often lives in places where I am not, both real and imagined. I’ve always had a tendency to wander, whether down the darkened streets of my neighborhood or through worlds that exist only in my head. There is so much to see, so many little corners to explore and make sense of, and that force has driven most of my decisions to date. But that life up in the clouds of my mind has its drawbacks, and obsessive fascination with the outside can quickly become anchorless, and turn paradoxically inward into self-absorption. And so my retreat to Duluth has, paradoxically, had me fighting against that. So I started to take a few older obligations more seriously. I became a more active citizen. I wrote a novel, and I started a blog; neither one is likely to reshape the world much, but they’ve gotten a few things across, a process that I hope to continue. When it comes to Big Questions About Life, I’ve never been in a better place, and that has started to filter down into other places. Lingering anxieties seem far less important than they once did, old worries rendered trivial by new wisdom and evolving thought, often startlingly simple in its clarity. I had to go home to be set free, but it might, finally, be happening. My twenty-fourth year on this earth will, most likely, involve another venture outward, in one way or another. It’s time. There is no grand vision this time, but that now seems more like a triumph than a failing. It will be less in the ideal and more in the real. I’ll simply ride the moods and try to seize the opportunities that come along. Many of the constants will still be there: Duluth, the family gatherings, the little routines, the old friends worth holding on to, and (of course!) the hockey. I know plenty of people will laugh at the notion of someone my age feeling old, but as the glory days fade into history, I’ll admit to a few moments of angst. This is especially true for someone who’s subjected his own early years to a brutally intense self-examination, and someone who can’t forget the ‘what ifs.’ Still, the time has come, and I’m past the point where I can pretend to be a kid anymore. The good news is that those glory days don’t have to end. That doesn’t mean we don’t grow up; no, we do have to mature, and the march of time will trample anyone who stays for too long. But we can always go back, and as long as we have that, well, what more do we need? And so we head back, for one last time in 2013, for one last evening of youthful delight, a moment frozen in the frigid Duluth night. We carry it with us, unable to forget, no matter how far we wander. I’ll let the last song on the presumptive album of the year have the last word. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QKZUQXxM6-Q