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Chapter 9 — Following my intuition to Italy, followed by a descent into confusion.
An Ordinary Disaster — chapter 09 — I Let Confusion In
Once I got through my first year at Cal Berkeley, I knew I had to get to work on the language requirement. I’d been interested in Japanese, and so I signed up for the intro class, but when I showed up for the first session, the room was full of Asian kids just rapping away—and very clearly not in English. I leaned over to whoever was closest and asked, “what’s the deal—isn’t this a first-semester class?”
My anonymous colleague smiled thinly and nodded. “Many Japanese-American kids learn to speak from their parents when they’re growing up, but not to read or write,” she explained, “most of us are here to learn the script.” Digesting the reality of the situation before I’d even fully settled into my seat, I realized that I’d be a total outsider from the start, and I wanted to feel more part of something. Without considering it any further, I stood up, went down the hall and walked into Italian 101 just as the instructor was getting things going.
I felt at home with Italian as soon as I heard the first words that day, and not only because I’d done a fair bit of Spanish and Latin in high school. The language just made sense to me, from the sounds and rhythm to the syntax and the grammar. I took to it straight away, and none of the things that often trip up foreign speakers, such as the difference between the two verbs that both seem to mean to know, ever gave me much pause.
Just one year later, in early July of 1990, I was getting off a plane for the summer in Venice. I spent my entire junior year there and in nearby Padua, and by halfway through, in December, I was fully fluent—enough so that I was often taken for a native speaker. It was there in Italy that I became fully aware of my gift for mimesis—the tendency and ability to unconsciously and un-selfconsciously imitate accents and languages. I’d noticed it before in my shipyard days, working with guys from Scotland, France, El Salvador, and other places, but now it came to the surface consciously, so that I was able to use this mimicry as a skill in learning not just Italian in the main, but also various regional accents and dialects of parts of the country that I visited, setting me well apart from other American students who remained tone-deaf with their boo-on gee-or-No’s, no matter how varied their vocabulary. This same ear for the sound of languages often lets me identify where people are from by their accents, fake my way into sounding like a speaker of a language with very few words, and even understand enough of a new language to make sense of a conversation, all through concentrated attention to the meaning coming through the sounds of speech.
Although I wasn’t aware of it at the time in terms of being in touch with my intuition, it felt good knowing that I’d ended up there by following my own compass, as I had in finding the subject of geography—and that first Italian class, for that matter—and I was proud of myself for this. Life for me there in Italy was almost entirely in Italian, including all the class work in school—reading, writing, research and exams—and I did my best to further immerse myself and explore the country, visiting everything from the Venice Biennale, where I saw Jenny Holzer’s work for the first time, to rural train stations in the deep south, a disco in Milan for a sold-out Jane’s Addiction show, and hiking trips on the steep slopes of the Dolomites. Of course I did also visit the monuments and masterpieces, but my feet start to hurt after about half an hour or so once I cross the threshold of a museum, and daily life was more captivating to me anyhow.
It wasn’t just the place—it was that speaking another language gave me the opportunity to be someone else. If we were to encounter each other on the streets of Lucca or Palermo, or in the mountain village of Val di Zoldo, or for that matter at the ancient thermal baths in Viterbo, just two hours north of Rome, and you—some local, that is—slid me some quick query about the heat, the train strike, the local soccer team or the pasticceria down the street for that matter, you’d hear me reply without any effort at all, in a smooth stream of sentences totally unintelligible to anybody back home, and the words would come out without hesitation or any prior translation from a voice that feels as fully formed as any other part of myself, and yet only exists or emerged because I chose and was able to learn that language. A new part of my self, like a parallel universe unfolding at a great distance from my other selves, and seemingly just as infinite. An entire life opened up just by walking through a door, and although I was always proud to be from California—and from San Francisco in particular—I left those places where they were. To this day, I rarely think of home when I’m away.
I did think about staying there, and one or two students do remain behind each year on those education abroad programs—but I didn’t have the courage. I went back to Berkeley and picked up where I’d left off for my senior year, graduating with a major in geography. While I still regret not going on to become a professor, I followed my nose again and managed to land a very unique job right out of school with small adventure travel company out of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Putting my skills to use making maps for their brochures, they sent me off on a scouting trip to Thailand, Nepal, and Burma—not a bad gig at twenty-two—but not everything was going so well.
Towards the end of my last year of college, and just before finding that job, I’d been seeing a California girl who’d been on the same year-aboard program in Italy. Julie was a friend, funny as hell, and a force of nature, a six-foot-two giantess who wielded her baritone sax like a battle-ax, and just as handily as a bottle of Wild Turkey or a big Euro-spliff rolled up into a cone of tobacco and hash.
I’d had no real success with Italian women, and both over there and after returning home I’d been dejectedly pining for one beautiful girl after another—mostly from afar, because I remained tongue-tied without drink, and also because aside from drinking together, most of what I’d learned about how to relate to the opposite sex came from the same folder full of favorite pages torn from triple-X magazines that I’d first collected in my teens, and brought with me to Italy, and back again—which, needless to say, didn’t translate well into actual relations in the flesh.
The first turn was when I told Julie that I was going to move to the midwest after graduating. As I recall, we were sitting together in the front yard of the house I shared on the south side of campus, a rambling and once-opulent Victorian faded into a sprawling five-bedroom student rental. Her Travelall was parked out front next to the Comet that my buddy Vasco drove and our friend Ted’s vintage Chevy pickup.
“Ted’s gonna drive out there with me,” I told her. “He says we’ll stop to see his brother in Kalamazoo, then go to Detroit, stay at his mom’s place, catch a Tigers game.”
I could feel some tension between us now that I was making plans to leave, but right up to that moment I’d been figuring that my departure would be a painless out from what had felt like a pretty casual thing between us.
“What are you going to do after you graduate?” I asked her.
“Well,” she said, “I want to go to grad school, but not necessarily right away.”
A tiny bulb lit up in my brain. I knew that I’d be better off going to Ann Arbor alone, but when I pictured myself headed into the midwestern winter out there all by myself, the cold of my chronic loneliness went right into me, even though we were sitting full in the sun of the warm Berkeley summer.
I’m pretty sure that she made the proposal. “What if I came out there with you?”
Fuck, I thought, now I really have to tell her ‘no,’ even as I experienced a simultaneous wash of gratitude and relief at the prospect of perhaps not having to go it alone. To be honest, I was flattered too—I mean, she was saying she was willing to come along on my ride, which, no doubt, activated my unconscious desire to have a woman support me and my decisions, but from behind, by following.
Shivering inwardly as I imagined the snow and ice of a Michigan December, my resolve quickly faded, and it was only a couple of seconds before “OK,” came out of my mouth. Julie’s still beautiful, hilarious, and, thankfully, a lifelong friend, but at the time she wasn’t quite my dream girl—and besides, we were only twenty two. I liked her, but the fact is that I said yes because it seemed easier than telling her I didn’t think it was a good idea, because she had offered—and, most of all, because I was afraid of being alone.
Once the possibility was in the air, I didn’t have it in me to turn down a willing girlfriend, bed-mate and traveling companion. Perhaps she knew as well as I did that it wasn’t really the right thing to do. The fact is, we both opted for what seemed like it would be an easy ride, even though what looks like the easy way also often turns out to be a much longer route. Regardless, there’s no doubt that I knew what was right for me, and that instead, I did precisely the opposite.
She loved me, and we had a lot of great times out there in Michigan, especially cruising the back roads in the big old Ford van that her father very generously handed off to us, but the truth was that in choosing her, I had turned against myself. I ignored the voice that was trying to speak up from inside, and I began to pay the price almost immediately. I was conflicted from the start of our adventure together, and then, as I tried harder and harder to suppress the protests arising from within, I began to get confused.
Confusion is not just a whirlwind that envelops the unwary. There’s a purposeful way to go directly toward confusion, and that is by knowingly doing the opposite of what you know, deep down, to be right for yourself, even if it seems like just a subtle hint at the time. This kind of confusion is the first stop on the crazy train, and dogging its heels are the twin hounds of anxiety and depression, closely followed by desperation and, quite often, addiction—which frequently seems to solve confusion on the surface, but of course instead is masking, subduing and burying the truth, deeper and deeper.
One of the things I remember most from our time in Ann Arbor was a chanting chorus of the words I don’t know what to do that became an earworm I woke up with in the morning and that often kept me from falling asleep at night. Just as I’d gained such immense and genuine confidence from spending a year abroad in Italy and then getting myself this great job in Michigan, I earthed it up beneath thick layers of confusion and denial, and all because I wasn’t able to tell the truth—not to myself, and not to her.
Confusion proceeded towards depression in what Toko-Pa Turner describes as how “…this central distrust of my instincts became the breeding ground for a constant inner doubt of even the simplest interactions.” I knew what to do, but I didn’t know how to do it, and so I told myself that I didn’t know what to do. I let confusion become part of who I was, and once that pattern became wired in, it played out again and again and over the coming years. We get good at what we do, even something like being confused. I practiced that, and, more and more, confusion got to be normal for me. I erased part of myself. That was the beginning of real depression.
Julie and I spent the first few months in Ann Arbor living in a big old farmhouse on the west side with a bunch of guys who loved to ride bikes, shoot guns, drop acid, and sit on the porch watching the big, black summer thunderstorms roll in over the neighboring fields and crack hail and thunder all around. At night she and I made a habit of going to shoot pool, drink pitchers of beer and eat pickled eggs at places like the Blind Pig and the Eight Ball Saloon. Driving home one night, blind drunk on the icy dirt road that led back to the farm, I had what felt like a moment of clarity.
If I’d actually had my wits about me, I would have kindly suggested that Julie head off to grad school in Seattle by herself. Instead, I went deeper into the little bubble of what had become our present reality, working our jobs and drinking our nights away in that frozen little college town. I had the window on my side rolled down so that the icy winter air would keep me blinking awake enough for the last of the drive home. Turning my head away from the cold, I looked across to where she was sitting at the other end of the bench seat, and said, “we should get a place closer to the bar.”
In the moment, the idea of getting a place together felt like love passing between us. She looked back at me, and saw that I was serious. “Yeah, we can’t keep driving home like this,” she said, with a sweet, conspiratorial laugh.
The truth is, the way we were living was both perfectly normal as far as we were concerned and also far more reckless than we’d reckoned with. We not only chose to isolate ourselves from our only local friends and to relocate as close to our favorite bar as possible, but also deliberately furthered our denial of the fact that we should have been headed in different directions.
I’ll take my share of the blame, which I’m sure is most of it. Another reason that I still wasn’t speaking up about my wish for independence was that, even though she was a perfectly reasonable, intelligent, and loving person, I was afraid of this woman. I was afraid that if I told her the truth about how I felt that she’d react the way my sister had when I changed the channel on the TV after school—irrational, inconsolable, and physically violent. I don’t have any reason to believe that would happen with Julie, but of course, the deeper I went into denial and my own cognitive dissonance, the more she did sense something was awry—and then I began to unconsciously create the circumstances that might bring about the end that I was too much of a coward to speak to more directly.
In the middle of my six-week trip to South-East Asia, I took a prostitute back to my thatch-roofed hotel room in Mandalay, and when I got back home, Julie’s feminine intuition was ringing a three-alarm fire. When I tried to convince her that her perceptions were mistaken, she did quite rightfully explode—unlike my sister, not with flying objects, but with the coherent and very pointed argumentation of a trained rhetorician, who also happened to be four inches taller than me. Never date a girl who’s been on the debate team, unless you like arguing—and losing.
I’m happy to say that was the only time that I’ve consciously attempted to gaslight anyone.
Moving to be closer to our favorite bar was a dumb-ass thing to do, and it was not just an error, it was a defeat. I knew I was letting the wrong part of me win.
Squinting back down the road, one-eyed, the back end of the van went sideways for an instant. I gave the wheel a twist and tapped the gas, keeping it out of the ditch as we rolled on between the scarecrow stalks of midwinter cornfields.
I managed to keep the van on the road that night, but I didn’t pull out of the dive I’d put myself in until at least another year later. After several months in a nondescript one-bedroom just across the train tracks from our favorite gin palace, I left my dream travel job to follow Julie to Seattle, yet again because I didn’t have the courage to say no. She and I gave it a bit of a go in the northwest, but I was so disconnected from her and from myself that it felt like part of me had died. Of course not 100% of the time, but for the most part I dragged my ass around that town in a disturbed daze that matched the famously grey skies and the angry dirge of bands like Nirvana and Mudhoney.
I’d started this lap around the country by diving through an ad in the back pages of Outside magazine into what could have been the beginning of a life outdoors. Instead, I spent two years in a hell of confusion, capped by three months walking in the rain to work as a temp in an sugar-syrup factory and sneaking sessions of VHS porn while Julie was in her first grad school classes. I’d watch sea planes landing in the morning on Lake Union, and imagine how those were the people that really had it figured out—if you had to commute to a downtown job, hell yeah, live out in the San Juans and fly to work in the morning.
Seaplane ride to work? For me, not so much.
By that point, Julie and I had already gotten separate apartments, but we’d still been coasting on the inertia of being ‘together.’ As I’ve since learned, we’d turned that into something far more serious than it needed or wanted to be. Neither of us wanted to give up, but there would have been no harm in that—and long before we’d come to the point where we’d dragged each other so far off course.
The fact is, even then, I wasn’t really able to make things totally clear. I used a job offer from my dad back in San Francisco as leverage to pry myself free from Seattle, turned for home, and slunk away with the vague promise that ‘who knows’ what might happen for us, even at a distance.
The dramatic ending didn’t happen until I’d been back home for more than a year and found myself living in North Beach, not far from a good friend of Julie’s. This chick, an athletic blonde with a cute little runner’s bob, was new in town and I was newly returned, we had an friend in common, so we had our justifications… and before long she and I were meeting regularly for pints at the North Star on the corner of Powell and Green—a neighborhood joint since the 1880’s.
I bet you can see what’s coming. This old college pal of Julie’s ended up in my bed, and then we were all crying on the phone to each other the next day about what a terrible mistake it had been. I was still replaying the mental images of her naked friend underneath me as Julie finally delivered the full force of her fury, during which I came clean about what had gone down in Mandalay as well. I felt like an terrific idiot, and rightly so, for several reasons, most of which of course being that I’d let the thing run out as long as I did due to my inability to face her unhappiness with me much earlier—and that all of the that had all been unnecessary.
Once I got off the phone, what I felt was relief. It was a bit of a shame—and also, nothing out of the ordinary, really. We were young, and nobody really got all that hurt along the way. I wish I could say that I learned my lesson about sticking to my own straight story right then once and for all, but it took me many more years and several more rides on the roller coaster before that one really sunk in.
Thankfully it’s been long enough now that we can both look back with some fondness. As Julie put it to me not long ago, we had a good time, we did learn some things from each other, and it was “lovely, really, in the way that youth is lovely,” which is a fine and generous way to look at it—and also true.
Thanks for reading, and for being part of this journey.
This is part of AN ORDINARY DISASTER, the book-length memoir about a man learning to listen to himself, and the price I paid until I learned how to do that, serialized right here on Substack with a new chapter published every week.
You can find everything from the memoir that I’ve published so far right here.
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