Re: this Seinfeld meme about drugs as illumination

seinfeldacid
Yeah, I see that mindset sometimes and it weirds me out. It’s like when you’re a teenager and anything in a book or movie that’s odd has to be explained by “Wow, they must have done so many drugs!” If you take the time to get inside your head and examine yourself and the Universe, you’ll realize the drugs are often unnecessary. All your potential “hideas” are there waiting patiently for your sober brain… it’s a matter of training yourself to think around those corners without need for the crutch of the drug. And besides, whatever you experience on the drug, it’s not the drug itself giving you those thoughts and feelings, it’s your brain chemistry being temporarily changed due to exposure to the drug. It’s still all in you; it’s just a matter of whether you can do it yourself, or whether you want/need the shortcut. Drugs are an effective magic feather sometimes, but it’s still all in your ears.

I have opinions on this because, even if I’ve never been a real drug addict. I smoked a shitton of weed in my mid-20’s to early-30’s, but I was never a crackhead. I was a childhood epileptic, and gods know what else you’d call all the brain damage I suffered from (long story) being born dead. I used to trip like fucking mad, no drugs required, from grade school up through puberty. I would lay in bed when I was 12, seeing geometric patterns and hearing what I thought of as the sound of the Universe in my head, having out of body experiences, vivid and accurate psychic dreams (like the next day’s homework assignments); my senses of time and size would distort wildly, I’d experience other things I can only vaguely recall now and could never put into words. Growing up, my brain was on fire, and if adult me is a little different, it’s because child me learned without any choice in the matter how feeble and subjective our sense of reality can be.

But as I got older, I realized I’d learned another important lesson from those experiences–every dark corner of your brain is open to you. You are the programmer of your own computer. Each and every one of us is the godhead, the buddha, the Universe made flesh, and hard as it can be to remember when life is bearing down on your ass… it is quite possible to control just about anything going on in your body, including your brain. There are monks who have trained to regulate their own body temperatures, for christ’s sake. So anything you want your brain to do, any place in your mind you want to go… it’s open to you. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and speaking as someone given often to hedonism it can take a metric fuckton of discipline and time I frankly don’t like having to invest when I could be doing other things, but it can be done. And you don’t even need the drug… I eventually found weed was just getting in my way. I’d rather just be the fucking drug, to borrow from Salvador Dali.

Also, it’s been a long goddamn time since I last posted here, but I’ve moved, found new work, and seem to be waking back up to the path I was on a few years back, after having to put those studies aside so I could work on my long-term mental health a while.

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I am uncomfortably numb, and I’m tired of it

Last weekend I got to see someone I love very much for the first time in six months. There was so much I wanted to say to her and so little time in which to say it, and most of the conversations I wanted to have with her that day have been shuffled off into the future some more. As we stood together on the front porch, twin trails of cancerous smoke leaking into the frigid night air from our cigarettes, I asked if she was cold; with a resigned smile she told me, “No, I’ve gone numb.”

Though I held my tongue, my first instinct on hearing her say that was to respond, “Me too,” for the truth of the matter is that I have gone numb, physically, emotionally and psychologically; at the risk of sounding melodramatic and emo, I’ve lost a good deal of my ability to feel anything the past decade. Regaining my ability to feel has become one of my major goals in life over the past year. But of course I didn’t say that to her–instead I finished my smoke and got her inside and started a fire to warm her. But should I have seized the moment to express what I’m about to lay down now? Ah well. Better late than never.

The truth is that I have become a prisoner within my own mind. My natural introversion has colluded with my depressive nature over the years to drive my conscious focus further and further inward. It’s at the point now where I’m no longer just lost in thought while walking about town or when I’m drifting off to sleep. No, I’m stuck with an endless parade of thoughts, a string of unrelated cacophonies that make concentration on and appreciation of the moment impossible, even when I’m having conversations, when I try to read for any amount of time, certainly when I attempt to write… everything. I find it impossible to finish anything these days, and so I have largely (if to this point mostly unconsciously) given up starting anything. My attention span has become more of an attention inch, and it seems that even though I am physically present at the events of my life, I’m not really there.

The symptoms of this issue go beyond the mental–they manifest physiologically. My breathing is shallow and hurried, like I’m always under stress; likewise, that same unrecognized stress is expressed in the way I hunch my shoulders and cross my legs under my torso when I sit, drawing my body into a tight position like an animal under attack. The more I think about it, the more it seems I’m expressing the physical posture of a creature in flight-or-fight mode 24/7, and I have to imagine my mind, were I capable of objectively examining it, is in a similar state.

My senses seem impacted as well. I have only a weak sense of smell and/or taste, and I’ve begun to wonder if that isn’t a symptom of my excessive introversion. Certainly I suspect the dullness of my sense of touch is related to that wider problem; I find it has become harder over the years for me to register either pleasure or pain through my skin, a physical numbness to match my mental and emotional state. Once in a while, if I don’t pay attention, I’ll drop an object from my hand because I don’t feel it there. This issue of my clumsiness becomes especially concerning when I’m in a depressive state, which is what suggests to me that its root is psychological rather than neurological (if my fellow materialists will excuse me the distinction). No, I don’t buy that these senses are well and truly damaged so much as censored because their dysfunction is inconsistent–sometimes, especially in my manic stage, my senses burst open like a flower in spring, drinking in the sensory input with a Jonny 5 gusto.

Putting my gripes and symptoms out like this makes me feel a bit like the narrator of Notes From the Underground, except I do not accept these issues as parts of me to be celebrated; I do not revel in misery or guard as precious my complaints. I want out of this bubble; it’s a lonely, soul-devouring place to be, and I’ve already spent too many unrecoverable, wasted years within it. My brain has spent years turned in on itself, observer-observee, like a set of nesting dolls standing between two mirrors reflecting back at each other in an endless feedback loop–and at this point I just want to smash the goddamn mirrors. Being so self-aware all the time, and yet so dissociated, has driven me a little nuts.

Is dissociated a good word for it? I suppose it is, the way I mean it. Like I said above, I’m a materialist–I don’t believe in a mind-body distinction; I don’t believe in the soul–but anymore my body has taken on the feel of Other. Often I am struck with the impression that what I’m doing–physical activity, or even holding a conversation–is somehow separate from “me,” the inner-self, the consciousness supposedly in this body’s driver seat. I watch dispassionately, in control but still somehow removed, as the creature that is my physical self goes through the motions of living. And even when I try to take the stage, to be and to feel in the moment–a wall is there, invisible but insistent, silent but unanswerable. Those moments when I do manage to take the stage are often the best of my life, but they feel random, and they can be sparse, and they rarely last long.

So what is there to be done? This past year, I’ve come to recognize the emotional, psychological and physical depths to which I’ve sunk, and I’ve done a decent job of beginning the climb out of them, though I’m still nowhere near the top. My goal is fitness and enlightenment; so far I’m just barely clinging to sanity and self-support. But I do believe I can make it out of these holes… and even in my worst hours, like the ones I’ve lived this past week, I don’t really want to give up and die, even if the thought briefly flashes to my mind; I’m not sure if I can explain how glad I am to be able to say that. I want to live; fuck, I want to win, to borrow a phrase from another crazy dude. Or perhaps in a way more poetic, as Alexander Pope set it down:

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;
Man never Is, but always To be blest

(I’m familiar with that line because of the Lunar 2 ads back in the day, by the way. Yeah, gaming can be educational!)

Tomorrow (well, today now, I suppose) I leave the home I’ve known for the past few years and set out to find a new path. I’m not sure where I’ll end up or who will be there with me when I reach whatever destination I’m headed toward. What I do know is that the time has come to stand on my own two feet… and I want nothing more than to break down these goddamn walls that have climbed round my mind and heart, but it’s going to take time yet before my bubble pops, even if I want so badly for it to dissipate now. I refuse to be trapped in my head anymore. I know what I am–I am a conscious piece of the greater Universe; I (like you) am the way that the very fabric of reality has evolved to perceive itself and to affect changes to itself in order to bring about even more evolution on a cosmic scale; but I am also me, a lonely, somewhat neurotic naked ape, who has spent his life too often wanting for closeness with others and is still trying to learn how to achieve it by letting down his often subconscious defenses, and who has little problem forgiving others their trespasses against him, but never seems able to forgive himself.

A couple years ago now I wrote down an epiphany–I realized that I had stopped wanting anything, that I had lost desire as a motivating force. That is no longer the case; I’ve learned to want things again. I want the future I’ve dreamed of; I want success, and stability, and wisdom, and love. But above all, right now, I want to learn again how to feel–I want to stop being so damned numb and disconnected most of the time. The recognition that I’ve come to this point fills me with anger, sorrow and determination… and you know, that feels like something right there–it feels like a start. Or perhaps, since I am already a ways down the road and have come to understand that fact more and more the past year, it’s more of a resumption.

After all, there ain’t no gettin’ offa this train we’re on! Or to put it another way, courtesy of Glenn Yarbrough:

In Memory of Lord Hylan Dronta, the Mad Jester, Part II

Continued from Part I.

My first year of college took me to Montana, while James took classes at NIC in Coeur d’Alene. We stayed in touch through the internet and phone calls until (for reasons detailed elsewhere) I returned to Idaho the next year. There, I went to NIC with him, and I met the wealth of new friends he’d already amassed. The man would come through the door into the student center with his own retinue most days: babyboomers finally getting their degrees after years in dead-end jobs whom he would tutor; young single mothers to whom he gave a friendly ear; fellow geeks who wanted his opinion on what class to play in the MMORPG flavor of the week. James was ever at the head of his own parade, in the real world as well as all the virtual ones he explored; he knew everyone’s name, knew where they were in their lives, knew who they spent time with—even the people he never met face-to-face (and I know there are so many of you out there on the internet, especially in the online gaming community, who knew James and played roles in his life even if you never knew his real name). And he knew because he was genuinely interested, because he made an effort to connect with other people—though as I mentioned before, he could be hilariously (but usually harmlessly) Machiavellian in his purposes.

While away in Montana, I’d started an online group with the goal of creating an amateur JRPG videogame, and James was gung-ho to join up. I’d already recruited some volunteers off a few messageboards, but of course it was James who sweet-talked a dependable programmer and a musician into joining us. The whole ordeal was of course ill-fated—neither of us could program a line outside of HTML, we didn’t have the manpower or resources to develop all the art we needed and the programming tools for pulling that sort of thing off without having to build everything from scratch in C++ just weren’t available to amateurs then—but it took us a couple years to give up. For a while there we both switched our majors to computer science, only to switch back to liberal arts degrees once we agreed it was best we both stuck to word processors instead of compilers for our future storytelling purposes.

By then we were both working at call centers. James started off at Coldwater Creek, a job he complained forced him to frequently lie to customers; for example, “Good choice, ma’am, that’s a lovely sweater.” I recruited him over to Center Partners, for which I can only offer my eternal apologies. CP was the last fulltime job James would hold, but he’d hold it for years, and though it was a horrid place to work, James nonetheless climbed what little ladder there was to climb, always offering a smile to everyone he passed on the call floor (and talking their ears off between calls whenever he had the opportunity, of course). I convinced him to move into an apartment with me at a development I later found out was nicknamed “Felony Flats,” and so in our early twenties we each became the other’s first (non-college-dorm) roommate.

Allow me to say a few words about James as a roommate, and understand I do so with love and fond humor. James had us set up his computer and desk in the living room so he could watch TV while he played Star Wars Galaxies with his brother. That was where he spent most of his time, and to his credit I usually only caught him sitting out there in his underwear on his days off. As far as I could tell, he never unpacked outside of a cursory effort the first week he was there, and he only went to his room when it was time to sleep. He “cooked” once the whole time we lived together, by which I mean he tossed a few cardboard boxes in the microwave. If memory serves, his mom would come grab his laundry. I think that, as much as James liked living with me and liked the idea of independence, he just wasn’t ready to be away from his family for long stretches of time. After a few months he decided he wanted to go back home, so his dad came over and moved him out the next weekend. I adopted a cat so the place wouldn’t feel so empty and rode out the rest of the lease on my own. My next day off, I was back out at the Peterson homestead hanging out with James in his old bedroom again.

(For the record, he did eventually get his own place again with other roommates. I just wasn’t living in Idaho any longer by then, but I did visit and stay the night a few times. We watched the last episode of The Sarah Connor Chronicles together at his place in Coeur d’Alene. James went to live with his family again for the last few years of his life, when he went on full disability due to the progression of his ataxia.)

Near the end of my career at Center Partners, James and I got into a series of increasingly heated arguments over my claims that manning the phones at CP was comparable to digging radioactive glass out of lava vents with one’s bare hands while being repeatedly stung in the face by cancer-causing bees. James was newly appointed to the resource team and didn’t see things quite that way. We stopped talking for a number of months, over the course of which I left the company, until I got a call from our mutual friend Keshia, who told me how depressed James was. I gave him a call, and our friendship picked up like it had never left off. We never really talked much about that silent half a year or so. It didn’t seem important; if anything, having James gone from my life during that portion of it taught me how central his friendship was to my identity.

Even after I moved away from Idaho again and our lives took ever-diverging paths, I don’t think we ever went more than a week or two without talking. There was always a game or a book or a show for us to make small talk about, but what’s more, there was a decade and a half of shared experiences that tied us as close as blood, conversations from a decade ago we could reference as shorthand toward mutual understandings, old disagreements we’d learned to accept with smiles and grunts. There are secrets of mine he’s taken to the grave, and you can bet I’ll honor his memory and keep those rare secrets he entrusted me with to mine as well. Recounting his life in short-form like this can’t possibly do the man he was justice, but it’s the best I can do for him for now.

In Memory of Lord Hylan Dronta, the Mad Jester, Part I

I had few friends left by my sophomore year in high school. I was shy, stand-offish and in retrospect not always the kindest person. But that year I met James Paul Peterson, my best friend throughout my teens and twenties, a non-genetic brother who seemed to see what was good in me before I ever did, and that friendship helped define the course of my life for fifteen years until his abrupt death at the age of thirty on April 26, 2011. In the time I knew James, we grew into adulthood together, went through plenty of changes (for good and ill) together and occasionally bickered as only the best of friends can, but there was never a time when I didn’t love the man like a piece of my own soul, and I always will.

Most of my lunch breaks in school back then were spent either wandering the halls or reading and writing in the library. The latter is where I remember  first chatting with James. We went to different elementary schools, and though we went to the same junior high, I have to confess I don’t remember him from back then. I don’t know that I was on his radar back then either; James’ early adolescence included time in a back brace and an extensive, painful back surgery that involved hooking metal rods to his spine due to his battle with Friedreich’s ataxia, so he certainly had his own priorities during those years. But we hit it off in high school after we discovered we read many of the same books and played the same videogames, and over the weeks we made small talk about Terry Brooks and Final Fantasy and shared ideas about the Great American Novels we’d write after we graduated. James told me about Lord Hylan Dronta, the noble warrior-king whose epic he would one day tell (and over the years, while the story always changed, the name generally remained the same, in his prose and in Dungeons and Dragons campaigns and countless MMORPGs). One day in the gym I told James (probably in too much detail) about my teenage magnum opus, and he asked me if the character Maxim was named for the hero in Lufia II: Rise of the Sinistrals. (He wasn’t, but it was a hell of a guess as that’s one of my favorite SNES RPGs—though I don’t think I’d yet played it at the time; I just knew the reference from reading “Epic Center.”) Looking back, I think that was when I suspected what a dear friend James would become. Is that nerdy as all hell? Sure. But that’s where we both were at the time.

Now I am thirty, and the year I met James was half my lifetime ago. That is a fraction that will continue to shrink for me. Someday (I hope) my fifteenth year of life will be ¾ of my lifetime ago, then 5/8, then 9/10, if I’m lucky and medical science continues to advance apace (and assuming the books I plan to write don’t get me shot). But that fraction is frozen in time for the man whose friendship occupied half our mutual lifetime. Doing the math still breaks my heart a little. Still, that means I can say that I knew him about as well as anyone else did (or if nothing else had a fairly unique perspective) for a full half of his life.

Here’s the first thing you need to understand about James: he had a gift for the spoken word. He claimed his own mother nicknamed him the “Silver-Tongued Devil.” Whether that was true or not, I couldn’t tell you. The man was also a brilliant liar, and I don’t mean to demean him in saying so; take it more along the line of “he had a hell of a poker face,” and he often used these two gifts in tandem to satisfy his own sense of humor. To put it bluntly: he loved to fuck with people, especially when they underestimated him.

The gift of gab is not a talent I share; where James could enter a room full of strangers and leave an hour later with a dozen new friends, I’ve always been the reserved, slow-to-speak type who spends most of his time in solitude. But we shared a passion for the written word, so I think he’d appreciate me putting in pixels what won’t come out right if I try to use my voice. As different as James and I could be, there were a million unspoken agreements between us, and he probably knew me best out of Earth’s seven and some billion human inhabitants in many ways—if nothing else, he was one of a handful of people who could usually tell when I was joking and when I was serious. The converse is probably true as well, which is why I’d like to tell you about the James Peterson I knew—my best friend of many years, my partner in most of my young adult crimes, my brother.

Our friendship developed slowly that first year. We had our first period class together (I don’t remember which it was), and we’d meet in the hall every morning. James would recount the previous night’s adventures on Ultima Online (the granddaddy of the MMORPGs he loved), where he was known as Lord Hylan Dronta, of course. I’d never played the game—I didn’t even own a computer back then (we’re talking 1997)—but I listened and managed to get a few dozen words in edgewise most weeks. I shared some of my writings with him, mostly bizarre short stories or song parodies, which he took in good humor. We worked together to write a parody of “Pretty Fly (For A White Guy),” but all I remember of it now is that the bit in the original that went “Uh-huh! Uh-huh!” changed to “Corp Por! Corp Por!”

I do remember a day that winter when we both learned a bit about each other. The Post Falls school district didn’t have much money for maintenance—the high school was at something like 150% capacity and starting to fall apart besides—and ice would build up on the sidewalks faster than the groundskeeper(s) could put down salt. One day when we were leaving for the afterschool buses, James hit a patch and went horizontal in midair; his toes climbed level with his chin, then he hit the concrete with a thud and a “WHOOF” as the air rushed out of his lungs. Laughter exploded from the bus five feet away as teenage fingers pointed against the misty windows. For my part, I damn near panicked, and I bent down next to James, afraid to move him, as his mouth moved silently. All I could think was that James was hurt and trying to tell me as much, but then he found his breath and I realized he wasn’t trying to tell me how much pain he was in—he was laughing too, and the tension dissolved out of that potential brush with disaster. But he told me later how much it meant to him that I’d been so worried and hadn’t joined in the pointing and laughing, and I wondered how much of that he’d put up with in the past with his surgery. I don’t know if I ever said it to him, but his reaction that day meant a lot to me too; instead of focusing on the negative or embracing his own victimhood, James chose to accept what came and tried to have a sense of humor about it. It’s only now, looking back, that I realize James was one of the zennest people I’ll ever know.

Eventually we took up a spot in the lunch room that morphed into our table for the remainder of our high school careers, and we spent our free time debating the late 90’s console wars, books, television and movies, with a little philosophy, history or theology thrown in from time to time; we’d make jokes about one English teacher’s harping on the “symbolism of the symbolic symbols that are symbolic of the symbolism of the symbols” in the stories he made us read; we complained to each other about our lack of teenage sex lives, seeing how many of our peers (and certainly most teenagers on TV) seemed to be getting a little something-something. (And for the record, he lost his virginity probably six months to a year before I lost mine. I couldn’t tell you the dates, but I have to give him props for that.) I had plenty of bad mojo in my home life at the time, and James certainly had his own struggles, but all was good at the nerdiest table in the school cafeteria. Still, it wasn’t until I began visiting James’ home that our friendship really took off.

James, ever the consummate gamer, had a copy of Final Fantasy VII as soon as the game came out; if memory serves, he may have even faked sick a couple days to stay home and play it. I was still stuck in the 16-bit age at home, so James invited me over to check out the new game in what was then our favorite series. I suppose saying our fifteen-year friendship was cemented with a JRPG may sound odd to some people, but is it really any weirder than lifelong friends bonding over a favorite band or sports team?

I took my ten speed to James’ place—it was a four or five miles ride across town, one I’d get used to quickly—and discovered I was not the only newcomer to the Peterson household that day. We played with Jasper, the Petersons’ new miniature dachshund puppy (a breed of companion now a staple of their household), until the little guy was tuckered out and crawled inside James’ shirt to sleep, and only then did I start up the game I’d been invited over to play.

Months of visits involving a few hours of after-school cross-town bike rides and gaming sessions later, I beat the game; as far as memory serves, James even avoided ruining the end-of-disc-one plot twist for me. I gradually got to know James’ parents a bit, and even managed to run into his brother Joe a few times, though back then I mostly tried to stay out of his way after (if my memory serves) seeing the damage his temper had inflicted on his little brother’s bedroom door. Mostly, I got to know James better; our conversations turned down new paths, we invented private jokes that only made sense to the two of us (for example, he was “Mop Boy” for a while after attacking me with… well, guess), and by the time we both started driving we were nigh inseparable. People would ask if we were brothers when we went places together.

During our senior year we embarked on our first website together, a game-reviews-and-whatever-else-we-came-up-with project on Geocities that we called “The Intelligence Games” (a title that drips with teenage conceit—but we were both still invincible in those days). I was “Czar Ben,” James was of course “Lord Hylan” and James’ cousin Jake contributed pieces as well as “Big-Head Bob.” We learned about the wonders of Super Nintendo ROMs and fan translations that suddenly made formerly-Japanese-only games playable in English. We sat together in US government class, where we had daily tag-team spats with a couple kids sitting in the next row that neither of us got along with very well. When graduation came, James and I were the last two down the isle to get our diplomas, side-by-side.

THE GUARDIAN OF (my last name spelled backwards), #1: Collector’s Edition

I grew up reading Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures. No, not the cool Mirage comic by the TMNT’s creators, Eastman and Laird, but the spin-off of the cartoon show by Archie, the one with Shredder, Krang, Bebop and Rocksteady and the Technodrome (To be fair, most of that went away after issue 13). I’ll talk about that series some other time; suffice to say for now that it’s cooler than you think it is–the storyline got so “dark” and “mature” (which was the thing to do in mid-90’s comics) near the end that Archie cancelled what would have been the concluding storyline in the series and pulled the book.

Granted, there were some storylines they probably regretted later.

 

Still, I’d also been reading a little DC from time to time, and when my sixth grade teacher told me that Batman was going to get his back broken, I knew I had to be there to see it. And sure enough, I was.

How many times did they reuse these poses on following covers in the next year?

 

It so happened that I’d already been writing my own comic for quite a while before I hopped on the Batwagon as a monthly reader. My first comic was called Bungie, and it starred an eponymous superhero with high-tech fighting gloves whose arms stretched out like slinkies. He wore a helmet that was decidedly Megaman-ish, but with goggles and a mask so I didn’t have to draw his nose and mouth all the time. If I tried to draw him from memory now, he might look a little something like this:

Which is really kind of Freudian now that I think about it.

 

Bungie went on for some time during my childhood, maybe around fifty issues never seen by any eyes but mine. The main villain, as memory serves, was some gigantic dude in spiked armor called “I,” who cried out “I am I!” like some desert tribesgod the first time he leaped from my prepubescent brain to the notebook page. I also remember that Bungie had a group of allies called the Rejects (which were probably very loosely based around my fairly ignorant ideas then about the X-Men). The Rejects included such luminaries as a “ninja” called Guy, a mutant ooze monster called Sludge and the token girl on the team, the Pink Protector (yes, really; I was ten).

I don’t have any surviving issues of Bungie. They all went in the trash, and the why of that is a long, semi-embarrassing story. But as part of my renewed interest in comics as of late, I did dig out a series I did (with assistance from my best friend at the time; we’ll call him Mo) when I was 13. This was the story of Basher, whom the covers knighted as “The Guardian of (The Name of the City He Served As The Local Superhero For; It Was My Last Name Spelled Backwards).” And it was godawful.

No, it most assuredly did not lead to an epic.

This was soon met by a companion volume, a three-part-miniseries that played the part of cross-over (hey, we picked up the marketing tricks fast!) starring Mo’s creation, The Piece, a soldier who is rendered partially invisible by some kind of super-science whackery. When I say partially invisible, I mean only parts of his body, like his right arm, disappear. His main superpower seemed to be mostly hitting ninjas in the face and not getting shot with lasers, if this cover is any indication:

Are those supposed to be radiation symbols?

 

Will Basher and the Piece escape whatever the fuck is going on? (This goes on for over a dozen issues, so I assume so.) Will the art get any better along the way? (Glancing through the covers, not a whole lot.) Will I continue exposing my shame to the internet next time with art from inside these books and a self-psychoanalytic retrospective? (I’m afraid so.)

Generation I Don’t Know What

Reading about generation theory always makes me think. I was born in 1981, which, depending upon who you ask, either puts me at the tail end of Generation X or as part of the opening salvo of the Millennials (a.k.a. Generation Y). While I recognize that these generational labels are only vague approximations, both date-wise and as far as describing the behaviors of individuals go, the problem I run into is that both official generations of which I am supposedly a potential part seem to be built upon the idea of growing up during a time and in an environment I didn’t mature under. Let me explain.

First you have Generation X, generally thought of as the children of the Baby-boomers. Well okay, so far, so good–my parents are Baby-boomers. Thing is, my parents started having children later than most people in their generation; I won’t go into too much detail for my mother’s sake, but suffice to say she was going through menopause at the same time my younger sister was going through puberty, and hopefully that paints the picture well enough that you can make out the details for yourself. While I certainly qualify as part of the generation that came after the Baby-boom, however, I don’t really share much in the way of what we’d probably call Generation X’s foundational experiences. I was way too young to have any opinion on Reagan at a time when such an opinion was meaningful. I don’t remember the Challenger disaster (I was five). I don’t remember the fall of the Berlin Wall (I was eight). My clearest memory of Desert Storm, which happened when I was nine, has to do with a new episode of The Wonder Years being pre-empted for news coverage of the invasion. Heck, the USSR fell apart when I was ten, so I mostly missed out on what I’d think of as one of the fundamental experiences of Generation X: being scared that the Soviets would bomb the crap out of us.

MTV was not a big part of my life; I have vague recollections of the time when MTV played music videos, but most of my memories related to MTV are of Beavis and Butthead, Aeon Flux and Singled Out.  (Oh, and the bit from Cartoon Sushi about an anime that runs out of money for animating the lip sync when people talk.) Arcades weren’t a big part of my life either, except for a scant period during the fighting game craze of the 90’s; otherwise, they were already dying their slow death by the time I was old enough to go to them alone. I was never “grunge” and I was too young to feel disaffected enough to like Nirvana when Kurt Cobain was still alive.

Then there’s Generation Y, who seem to be thought of as the generation that grew into maturity around the turn of the century. Well that sounds promising–I graduated high school in 1999, after all. But here again I seem to run into some problems. When I think of Generation Y, I think more of people my sister’s age. Personal computers (that you had in your home and everything!) had become commonplace by the time my sister hit high school; in fact, I’m told that people my sister’s age (which is to say, people six or seven years younger than me) never had to learn to write in cursive because it was assumed they’d just use computers for everything! I know, right? I was still turning in hand-written essays in high school because having a PC in your home was still a luxury at the time. What’s more, the Millennials grew up with the internet, and to my way of thinking that’s one of the big sticking points in trying to lump my apparently post-GenX group in with my sister’s age group.

I did not grow up with the internet. Like I said, for people in my age group, it was rare to have a computer at home, and even if you did, the modern internet as we think of it just plain didn’t exist until I was in high school (and even then it was little like today’s internet). I spent a lot of time in libraries as a child, where I read these things called books. Maybe you’ve heard of them? This absence of the internet during one’s formative years seems a pretty major distinction between people my age and people my sister’s age. Sure, people my age were young enough that we soaked up the internet when it hit its stride, but we remember life before it, and that seems to me a pretty major distinction. I’ve said elsewhere that I think the internet is probably one of the major turning points in human history. The generation I’d think of as the Millennials are those who matured in a world where the internet was already commonplace.

And it’s really not just the internet that I think sets whatever the hell generation I am apart from the Millennials. Again, when I think about my childhood compared to the childhoods of people half a decade younger than myself, we really grew up in fundamentally different worlds. I spent a lot of time playing outside, where I was often unsupervised for hours at a time. My friends and I would hike off into the woods or ride our bikes across town, without an adult to be seen or heard. Compare that to the helicopter parenting that’s become so common with the Millennials. Nor were we “trophy kids.” I may have gotten a certificate of participation or two in my day, but the feel-good lukewarm bullshit of everyone getting a trophy no matter how much they sucked was still a few years down the line when I was a kid (and thank Eris for that).

For more proof that my generation and the Millennials grew up in different worlds, look at all the bureaucracy and paranoia present in public schools nowadays. The Columbine shooting happened about a month before I graduated high school. When I was in school, teachers generally weren’t afraid students were going to come into class and blow everyone away. Hell, when I was in elementary school, we’d bring our plastic toy guns and gear from Army Surplus to school and play war during recess, “shooting” each other from our pine needle “forts” and throwing pine cone “grenades” at each other, and none of the adults would bat an eyelash. I’m pretty sure kids nowadays would get expelled for that sort of thing.

I don’t want to get into a side-discussion of whether the world I grew up in was “better” than the world my sister’s generation grew up in; that’s all highly subjective and beside the point. But I don’t think there’s any denying that the world we grew up in–or the culture, or the generation, or whatever word you want to use–was different, in part because of the sudden explosion of the internet in the late 90’s, which has fundamentally changed Western civilization in ways we’re yet to fully recognize or understand, and in part because of the changing cultural mores and theories in child development that became popular at the time. At the same time, it doesn’t seem practical to lump me or my peers in with Generation X, who were children of the Cold War (and consciously aware of it at the time the Cold War was still going on) and are generally involved in their own careers and have families of their own at this point; that distinction seems to belong more to my older cousins, generally in their late thirties or early forties.

I belong to a generation somewhere in the middle, a group that grew up with eighties music but not a lot of fear of being nuked; kids who grew up on Star Wars but never saw any of the original movies in the theaters (at least not before those godawful special editions) and were old enough to know the prequels were crap as soon as they came out; we played the hell out of Mario and Sonic when we were kids, while Pac-Man and Galaga were old hat, and when console games started coming on CDs when we were teenagers, it was kind of a big deal. We were already adults when 9/11 happened, albeit young ones, and though the needless wars since have certainly shaped us, there was already an average of twenty years of life experience hardwired in our brains beforehand, so it’s probably disingenuous to suggest 9/11 was as foundational for us as it was for people just now getting into their twenties. What should the sociologists call us? I don’t know. But neither “Generation X” nor “Millennial” seems to do the job, at least not under the definitions I’m finding.