One Perfect Moment

I am an incorrigible stage manager, or situation manager, if you prefer. The movies, books, and music I love most trigger a certain mood, which is more important to me than plot or character. It’s why my reaction to artists such as Wong Kar Wai, Haruki Murakami, and Miles Davis during his “cool jazz” era (among many others) is so intense. This carries over to my personal life, to a tendency to construct (or reconstruct) a situation modeled on that jumble of moods and influences. Clothing, lighting, soundtrack—no detail is to small. If it’s seen as precious or contrived…frankly, I don’t really care, because I’m creating moments, however manufactured, that instill in me a deep peace of mind and happiness (or melancholy, because lord knows I love melancholy).

Sometimes you get lucky, and you encounter one of these moments in the wild, free of any planning or expectation. Needless to say, such moments, rare that they are, provide an even deeper level of satisfaction than moments that have been meticulously planned. Once in Barcelona, my last night in the city and in Spain, I went to dinner at a narrow cave of a place called La Alcoba Azul. I drank vermouth and gin and tonics—those great, ridiculous, glorious Spanish versions—and ate tapas in good, raucous company and with Lecuona Cuban Boys’ “Tabu” drifting through the place. On Dominica, hiking through the jungles in the Caribe Indian part of the island, I happened upon a man and woman sitting outside their home in a grassy clearing. “We’ve been waiting for you,” the man said as I waved in passing. That led to the better part of a day sitting under a massive mango tree, drinking from a dusty bottle of rum and talking about coconut carving, tree climbing, proper machete technique, surfing, and Caribe history.

Less ambitious: sitting on the B train, with Duke Ellington and Adelaide Hall’s “Creole Love Call” playing right as the train comes out of the tunnel, Manhattan spread out before me. And that was nothing but my (pre-COVID) commute to work. I’ve lived in New York for 23 years, and sometimes it still feels like I’m seeing it for the first time.

Spontaneous perfect moments happen less for me as I get older. However hard I fight against the tendency for the aging to let fear (or, to be more diplomatic, caution) creep into their thinking, it certainly still makes itself known. It wasn’t so long ago that all the planning it took for me to launch some hair-brained adventure was to wake up. Now I often feel crippled by the urge to plan, so much so that half the time, the adventure never gets off the ground. I know most of this planning isn’t essential; somehow I managed to get around Japan, Italy, and Scotland (not to mention most of the US) with a minimum of planning and no internet or sat nav, and nothing went wrong—except in Pisa, where I got a little bored and got a parking ticket (come and get me, carabinieri!).

But now, if I don’t watch myself, I’ll hesitate and over-plan to the point of not doing anything. Even a trip into Manhattan, something I do basically every day, can become subject to overthinking.

It also makes me less likely to approach people. Forever needing to be complicated, I am neither (or am both) an extrovert nor an introvert. I hover somewhere in between, or I vacillate between the two depending on sundry variables. But in my younger days, I was quick to strike up conversation and make new acquaintances. As I’ve gotten older, and even though the positive experiences I’ve had vastly outnumber the negative, I’ve become more likely to fold in upon myself, to drift quietly (some may say creepily) through a scene, not so much like a ghost or an observer, but more like…well, like a slightly edgy, uncomfortable old man. Conversations I should have, could have had—about old music, about an interesting amaro, about an obscure movie or point of history—go unspoken, and I’m less the richer for my letting them pass me by.

It even manifests in my writing, as a certain hesitancy to commit to expression of passion or excitement for fear of wandering into the realm of foolishness.

I may enjoy melancholy, but I do not enjoy depression or regret, and this creeping fear inspires depression and regret more times than not. To counter it requires vigilance and an acceptance that sometimes it’s just going to happen; no need to make it worse by beating myself up over it. I’ve been approaching it in a few different ways, the first of which you are in the middle of right now: writing about it, and returning to the sort of personal (indulgent? I can live with that) rambling that was not uncommon in my early days running and writing for Teleport City. As the internet became a nastier place, I tended to insulate myself from it with a certain journalistic aloofness, never committing to page anything too personal or emotionally vulnerable. But I think now that was the wrong reaction, that rather than improving my mental state it further isolated me from myself. Writing is how I work through most things, and for better or worse, the internet is my primary medium. So that was a big chunk of me put in cold storage, and it was damaging.

Another part of the program is being aware, of recognizing when I’m pulling into myself in a situation when I’d rather not—which is not every situation. Sometimes telling the world to fuck off for a spell so you can be alone feels great, and sometimes one just wants to drink alone in peaceful, silent contemplation. I’m pretty aware of what I want to do and experience, so I am pretty aware of when I’m not doing something because of fear. Which means I can work to overcome it. It’s not a game of totality. If, for example, you have a drinking problem, and you are sober for months but then have a night…well, you were still sober for months. I’m not a fan of “one violation cancels all of your progress.” Sure, some nights I’m going to overthink something to the point of not doing it. And I won’t pretend that won’t disappoint me, but come on. No one gets it right every time, and I am cool with that.

I also think it’s healthy to ramble like this not just for myself, but because I know I’m not the only person who occupies this weird space between introvert and extrovert, between adventurous and timid. And men, in particular, hesitate to talk about it because, like wearing pink shirts or shorts that are actually short, they’ve been conditioned to think it’s weak or feminine or gay, which…I hope you can tell what I think of any of that. I also wear pink shirts and like a 5.5″ inseam on my shorts. So the more men who deal with it openly, who promote the idea that we can have more emotional range than stunted stoic and “guy screaming about a movie on Youtube,” the more other men might start taking their mental well-being more seriously.

The final part brings me back to where I started: perfect moments, and not being afraid to put some work into creating them for myself. I admit many of my dream scenarios are influenced by pop culture. Movies, in particular, though often time it’s about an impression more than exact detail. And it amuses me to recreate moods and moments. It’s like buying yourself a gift, even wrapping it so you can unwrap it. A few years ago, in anticipation of traveling through the canyon lands of Utah, I spent some time putting together a very particular experience for myself. That’s how, one chilly morning, I found myself in a canvas safari tent, wearing a tank top undershirt, olive drab pants, putties, and boots, shaving while looking into one of those little round mirrors on a metal accordion mount, listening to Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” via a tinny little radio (OK…Bluetooth enabled…it is the 21st century after all). Then I stepped out onto the tent’s veranda, a tin mug of coffee in my hand, and surveyed the vast, majestic landscape near Zion National Park.

That image has been ingrained in me since I was a child, by adventure movies and books and Boys’ Life magazine and a lot of Teddy Roosevelt. A composite of all of those things, the memory of a memory. It didn’t matter that I’d put it all together for myself like a little stage play. I was, in that moment, sublimely happy and at one with everything.

These days, when a pandemic has had us all spending over a year now with nothing to do but plan for experiences we can’t yet experience, I’ve been working on a few more. One involves Greek islands, old Riviera and Amalfi Coast photos, and some comfortable lounging wear I picked up from Dandy Del Mar. Another has an awful lot to do with Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild and creating the perfect WKW playlist for a certain mood.

It doesn’t work for everyone. It doesn’t always work for me. And this past year, in particular, I’ve had conversations (or DMs, anyway) with friends about the inherent privilege of something as simple (to me) as a road trip, of the things as a pretty mundane looking white guy I don’t have to worry about that are much more…to say “dangerous” doesn’t overstate the case…if you are Black, or if you are Asian, or if you are a woman, or if you’ve suffered financially or physically. That racism, sexism, homophobia, vicious economics, and bigotry can not only rob a person of what should be a pleasure, but can make simply getting form point A to point B an exercise in stress and terror…I don;t even know how to express the depth of rage and revulsion that inspires in me.

So what is for me a predictable function of age and personality is, for many of y’all, a tragically necessary survival mechanism. I’m still working on integrating that reality into my thinking and figuring out what I can contribute. But therein lies the real reason I want to fight the creeping fear. Not so I have good stories, or so I can say I went somewhere interesting, or even so I can sit at home and be content. It’s because I see, over and over and over, first-hand, how often that creeping fear that seeps in as you get older turns into suspicion and hate of others. I see it turn once-smart people into conspiracy theorists. I see it turn once-smart people into racists.

Anyway…perfect moments. Let them come too you, or manufacture them. Be open to them, but don’t beat yourself up if you let one pass you by from time to time. Support others in their own quest for perfect moments. Watching someone else get theirs can be a perfect moment in itself. They don’t need to be grand gestures or sweeping epics. Tempering the scale and reducing the price tag makes it more achievable, and it makes it less likely you’ll bail on yourself.

Tonight, I’m sitting on the couch, drinking a bottle of cheap, delicious Portuguese wine (Escudo Real Vinho Verde, y’all), listening to Xavier Cugat and Lecuona Cuban Boys. I worked all week toward this, and now that it’s happening…one perfect moment.

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