A few weeks ago, an old buddy of mine from my undergraduate days at Florida State University rolled through town. He told me he was coming ahead of time. We made plans to grab a burger and a beer at the local brew pub. I knew there would be some problems, largest among them the fact that people who are my age are getting old, which I cannot understand because I’m staying the same age. And this buddy, I’ll call him Dane—because that’s his name and he doesn’t read Razorcake anyway—has belly-flopped into middle age. Suburban home. SUV with a McCain/Palin sticker still on it. Christmas cards with pictures of his kids on them. Kids named Hunter and Aspen. He has a hairline that looks like the toilet seat in a public restroom and a belly that rubs the finish off the bottom of his belt buckle. He’s gonna hate me if he ever reads this. Still, when I see him, I have to squint real hard to see the guy who, when I knew him, was living with his girlfriend, started having an affair with her best friend (who, not-so-incidentally lived with them), completely fell for the best friend, and moved his stuff into her bedroom (two doors down the hall). As you may have guessed, neither girlfriend became the mother of Hunter or Aspen.
As you may not have guessed, it was good to see Dane. We shared some stories that I love to relive through the retelling. He told me about what some of our old friends are up to. I told him about old friends he’d lost touch with. The beer was good. I gave him no shit about ordering a salad and much shit about his bald noggin. He tried to come back at me with some crack about my gray hair and couldn’t figure out if I was serious or not when I told him I die it that color. We talked about politics and it didn’t matter that we were on opposite ends of the spectrum because the world’s not gonna change the way I want it to and he doesn’t act on his political beliefs, anyway. And then he pushed my buttons.
He said, “Are you still doing that magazine? What was it? Razorcookies?
“Kinda,” I said. “I still write a column for it.”
“But you’re not the guy anymore? What did you do? Sell it?”
It took a while for me to explain to him that, yes, ten years ago I moved out to California to help start the magazine and that, for four years, I did half of the work on it: editing; proofreading; working with writers, artists, photographers, bands, and labels; laying out columns and interviews; adjusting the resolution of photos so they’d look okay in newsprint; wrestling with distributors; mailing subscriptions; dropping the originals off at the printer and picking up the thousands of copies in a truck; loading and unloading them; so on and so forth. There are even a couple of early issues where, if you look real closely, you’ll see that I wrote about a third of the content. For the next few years of the zine, I gradually backed off. I did a little less and a little less until I now only write a column. Amazingly, volunteers have come along to take up all the slack I left. In fact, volunteers now do almost everything that Todd and I used to do in that ratty old Razorcake HQ of old. I told him that I was never the guy and the magazine was never mine. That Todd and I had started it together, so technically, the two of us would’ve been the guys. But we never were. Even from the first meeting, it was way bigger than me and Todd.
Dane got hung up on a few points. How could we have volunteers? Who got paid? Who made the money off it? He was particularly pissed off that I didn’t sell “my half” of the ‘zine to Todd. He kept asking me what would happen if the magazine got big. “Like Rolling Stone big” were his exact words. What kind of money would I be entitled to? He looked at me like I was retarded for never getting paid money for my labor, for not holding on to some sort of future entitlement to money. He thought the whole idea of a not-for-profit magazine sounded vaguely socialist. I’m pretty sure Dane, like most Americans, doesn’t really know what the word socialist means.
Dane is not the first person I’ve had this conversation with. I could kinda see where it was going. And, sure enough, he said, “Anyway, at least you finally joined the real world.”
This statement, this sense of the “real world,” is what gets me worse than anything. I did the only thing I knew to do. I pointed to the pub TV, which was tuned to ESPN, and said, “What do you think about ol’ Jimbo Fisher.” Because Florida State alumni will always be willing to talk about Florida State football. And this is the real reason I pay attention to football at all: so I can have something to change the subject to when I get stuck in situations like this.
I guess I should be vaguely pleased that a someone like Dane would acknowledge my job—teaching literature at a state university—as real. Most people of his ilk see English as a waste of time. The fact that most people of Dane’s ilk are functionally illiterate doesn’t seem to matter to them. Though, in fairness to Dane, he’s not functionally illiterate. I’m projecting characteristics of others with whom I’ve had similar conversations onto him. Either way, I know that what I teach has nothing to do with his definition of real. I know that the only thing that makes my job real to him is the fact it pays me a middle-class salary and it’s a job middle-class people can understand as being middle-class. And middle-class, to him, is the real world.
This magazine, on the other hand, is somehow unreal. I mean, obviously it’s real. You’re holding real paper in your hand as you read this. That’s real newsprint ink sticking to your real fingers. It’s as real as the crap you’re taking while you read this. And this magazine was even legitimated—not by Dane but by others with whom I’ve had this “real” conversation—by being sold in Barnes & Noble. But the situations that allow this magazine to become reality are unreal. Volunteers. Community. Not-for-profits. Twenty-first century punk rock. If I’m to understand Dane, these are not part of the real world.
When I explained the reality of Todd to Dane, things became even more unreal. How could a man in his late thirties spend all his time in his basement, running a magazine that has no aspirations to make big-time money? How is he going to retire? How can he raise a family when he’s doing that? When is he gonna join the real world?
And this is what is so difficult for me: that even now, even among my friends, I’m still being sold only one way of life. It was bad when our parents were telling us that we had to grow up, go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids, work for a company for forty years, and retire with a pension. It’s worse when you’ve already grown up and your friends, the very same people who rebelled with you in your youth, are telling you the same thing. It’s even more ridiculous when we look at a world where some of those things cease to be an option. Buying a house may have been a good idea once upon a time. It may be a good idea again sometime in the future. But right now, putting down on a mortgage that’s gonna cost twice as much as rent for the same place, just so I can own it when I get to be in my seventies is a little ridiculous. Working for a company for forty years—dull as that may have been for our grandparents’ generation—isn’t really even an option for our parents. No company keeps their employees that long. When your salary gets too high, they lay you off and hire someone who’ll work for less. And there are no pensions anymore. I mean, there are. I’m paying into one. I’m just not so naïve as to believe I’ll get any money back out of it. And the alternative, something like a 401K, seems like even more of a sucker’s deal to me. I don’t believe for a second that, if you let Wall Street handle your retirement, you’ll be able to retire. That seems the ultimate unreality to me.
So I think of Dane and his real world seems a fantasy to me. He thinks he owns a home, but he doesn’t own it. The bank does. They will until at least 2030 or so. He thinks he drives an SUV. There’s no sports. There’s not much utility. It’s just a station wagon with a high roof and an effective ad campaign. He thinks he lives in the real world, yet most of his free time is spent watching television or playing around on the internet, which are both modes of escape out of the real world. Nearly everything about Dane’s life is a fantasy he’s bought into. Even his name is a fantasy. He’s not Danish. Even his son’s name is a fantasy. Dane isn’t gonna take Hunter hunting.
And it’s not that I’m trying to make myself feel superior to Dane. My name is a fantasy, too. Sean is as Irish as they come, and I’m not Irish at all. My life is not much more rooted in reality. I spend most of my time reading fiction and teaching about fiction. Everything about my life is about making sense of the fictions that surround us. So I’m not trying to get on a high horse. I just think about where Dane and I met in the first place, which was a creative writing class. I remember Dane writing hilarious short stories. He’s embarrassed about that now. And I think of him rejecting a world of creativity and self-expression so he can hole up in some corporate marketing twat’s mundane fantasy version of a reality… Which is fine. He can make his choices. But I think of it and what makes me most upset is not that he gave up his own creative outlets to do it. It’s not even that Dane thinks Todd is somehow unreal because Todd never gave up his creative outlets.
What makes me most upset is even the possibility that I’ve somehow entered this world of reality with Dane.
Author’s note: This is the twenty-third chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote. It originally ran in Razorcake #61. For more information about the collection, read this post. If you enjoy reading my Razorcake columns, please consider subscribing to the magazine.
Funny and witty. I especially like the second-to-the-last full paragraph (the deconstruction of what your friend stands for). You make some good points! I’ve always held the belief that most Californians don’t really own their own (outrageously priced) homes–the bank does (at least for the better part of the time they’ll live there). However, in our home states (Florida/Michigan), where houses are more affordable, home ownership before 70 is more of an accessible reality. As for now, I rent from the bank with the rest of the middle-class teachers.