You have got to be a fool to wait in line for four hours for Texas BBQ.
I am a fool.
With variable levels of success, I have tried redefining myself as a morning person. After weeks of painstakingly inching back my sleeping schedule, it came to be that, for the first time in nearly a decade, I woke up fully rested before 8:30am.
It was a beautiful morning: cold, overcast, breezy. I strolled about my yard to take in such an unfamiliar feeling: alertness at such an unfamiliar hour. And, with a full day of possibilities before me, I considered my options for the morning –
– a) read a book, clean the apartment, compose music, and exercise.
– b) get BBQ.
I chose poorly.
Now, please understand, Reader, in my town of Austin, Texas, there exists a BBQ joint whose scrumptious meats are only available to those who wait in line for the duration of the morning, for it is open only from 11:00am to whenever the meat runs out around 9:45am. That is to say, in accordance with the competitive spirit of BBQ connoisseurs, people gather in line starting around 8:00am to ensure their claim to pork ribs and brisket, and around 10:00am, a staff member counts the line according to their meat inventory and tells everyone in line outside of the anticipated meat limit to go home.
Thus, I grabbed a book and a stool and decided to squander my precious morning waiting in line for gourmet BBQ. The hours went by slowly.
It was while I was sitting in line, amongst the people standing, that my mind recalled a similar time in which my eyes met only the waists of those around me – namely when I was seven years old.
My present situation (in line for BBQ) and my distant past (as a seven year old) were none too different. The sensation was the same: surrounded by adults I didn’t know whose faces I couldn’t see as I reluctantly waited around for something from which there was no escape, my mind jumbled by some vague fantasy land (whether it be the book for whom my attention was distractedly divided while waiting in line, or the LEGO universe of my younger years as a reprieve from the adult world). For a brief moment (or rather, four grueling hours), I empathized with my youth, and reaching out to him, I said, “Not much has changed.” Whether it was in a BBQ line or at one of my parents’ holiday parties, it was all the same: longing to be free from the oppressive waists of adults.
When I finally sank my teeth into that BBQ (in the wee hours of the afternoon), it was euphoric. Briefly. And then it was gone. All I had left were meat sweats and a hazy connection with my childhood.
I suppose you could say childhood memories are like herpes: they pop up just when you’ve forgotten they exist and long overstay their melancholic welcome. It was merely an hour ago I heard a Lutheran Christmas hymn on the radio, and through the timeless sludge of holiday schmaltz, I was touched by the idyllic recollection of singing church hymns with my family on Christmas Eve, as if, through the timelessness of hymns, our family kinship had existed since the creation of the universe.
But no, I didn’t sing hymns until my teenage years. Before that, church music bored the hell out of me.
Are all of my memories as sweet as I remember them, or are they merely coated with the deceptive sugary icing of nostalgia? “…Or occasionally cynicism,” adds my seven year-old self, absently fighting the Great War Against Bees at my sister’s soccer games to which I was often reluctantly dragged.
And through the fog of nostalgia, here I am today: a graduate student, a composer of music, chasing after the elusive leprechaun of artistic greatness, a greatness I once believed existed, but perhaps no longer. Is greatness dead? No more than five years ago I believed in the sublimity of music as a tool to achieve immortality. But what right do I have to strive for immortality? I am not a God, nor should I ever try to be one. Modernity is forgetful and indifferent anyway. Greatness is impossible. Immortality is a fool’s treasure.
I am a fool.
Perhaps it is ironically foolish then that I spend my present efforts trying to relive the delusional glory of my past, when my past efforts were trying to ensure the greatness of my present. And yet, in the midst of it all, the elusive joy of success is fleeting. I spend months writing a piece, pouring my heart and soul into its melodies and counterpoint, only to hear it played once (poorly) and never again. Being a composer is like being a cocaine addict who can only ever acquire decaf.
And so it happens that my family of suburban-born over-educated lifetime achievers have chased after the promise of enlightened glory only to stumble upon routine ennui.
“Follow your dreams.”
“Make a career for yourself.”
“Be all that you can be.”
“Never give up.”
“Reach for the stars.”
Well, I’ve reached for the stars, but my head has only ever made it to the clouds.
Every couple of years, I talk to my cousins. We are different cultures in spite of the sameness of our blood. One such cousin my age has three kids and a marketing job with an international company. I have no kids, and I shelve books in the campus library. He got a job offer and took it. I continued my education out of lofty dreams (or perhaps faintheartedness). He found a great woman and married her. I sit in cafes and try to exchange meaningful glances with pretty women I’ll never actually talk to, just to see if they avert their gaze. Sometimes they don’t. It’s okay, my friend, I’ll avert my own eyes on your behalf.
My cousin seems happy with his life. It’s a good life. I think too much about mine. But it’s also a good life.
I find the juxtaposition of myself and my cousin funny because the culture in which I grew up, the educated suburban high-achieving wealthy utopia whose comfort and sterility for which I still secretly long, seemed to look down on youngsters sacrificing their selfish dreams for the sake of family building. “Build your career first. Find yourself. Don’t get married until you’re thirty-five and successful. Get fancy degrees, and only when you’ve exhausted your potential, only then is it within your dignity to get hitched and make babies.”
But my joys are fleeting. The taste of gourmet BBQ doesn’t last forever. My music is only briefly appreciated every so often. Hymns are sung only once per year. Even drunken stupors last only an evening. And yet, every parent I’ve ever met talks about their kids being their greatest joy, their magnum opus, the most important things in the world, the essence of their life purpose and meaning, before which they had no idea how trivial their lives were or how special they could become.
So what’s the meaning of life? Why are we all here crawling about the world? It seems like makin’ babies is the only thing that really makes sense.
Then again, how should I know? I am but a fool.