Being Untied Isn’t That Bad

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, 1999.

The photograph was taken around that time.

No idea whose wedding it was.

Light streams down from the cathedral windows, spilling across the spotless suits of my friends and family. The ones who aren’t smiling are weeping furiously into silk handkerchiefs, and through the silver mist I watch as my bride, her Edwardian garments shimmering like polished ivory, proceeds down the aisle, bouquet in hand…

And then I wake up in a cold sweat. I’m in my apartment, I happily realize. It isn’t a tux I’m wearing but boxer shorts. And marriage is far, far away. Or so I thought until this spring, when my disillusionment began. I ran into a friend at the library. When I asked how she was, she said that she was getting married.

“You’re kidding,” I chuckled. Then, with some desperation; “You are kidding, right?”

The answer, of course, was an emphatic “No, I’m not kidding,” followed by a detailed complaint about all the tribulations she had suffered int he wake of The Most Wonderful Day of Her Life. There was the church to rent, a minister to track down, ice sculptures to order, guest lists to make. For all the preparation, it sounded like she intended to go directly from exchanging vows to invading Poland.

One of my co-workers is already married. She hasn’t even graduated, and she celebrated her second anniversary just last week. Another coworker is engaged. A third coworker has been married for three years and maintains two charming children. Even an old friend in the Air Force, the most infamous stoner in my hometown’s history, seriously contemplated tying the knot. By the year 2000, I expect to be the only unmarried human being in North America, infants and widows included.

Marriage is as strange to me as skydiving. As a kid, it was the necessary goal of any relationship, followed only by a ride into the sunset, the silhouetted kiss before a crimson backdrop, the swelling symphony, the rolling credits. Now all I can think about are the side effects: cigars, impatient limo drivers, bawling relatives I’ve never met, and this morose promise that we must part at death.

Besides, wasn’t it just last week that I was an acne-infested 12-year-old? Senior year of high school was an endless event of fellow guys trying to impress girls. Now fellow men are solemnly proposing to women. Tomorrow, fellow husbands will be picking out real estate with their wives, fellows fathers will be coming home to their toddlers…

The reason for this fear (as usual) is statistics. Nearly half of American marriages end in divorce. Of those, more than half must battle over custody of children, ownership of dishes, and drudge up in court all the wrongs ever committed by either party. Of my 10 closest friends in high school, seven were the disgruntled offspring of divorced parents, and the remaining three would have just assumed their parents broke the contract. There would, in the end, be more dishes to divvy up.

Ironically, I already live with my girlfriend. We had known each other three days when we decided to try the romantic thing, and nearly two years later we’re still, in the words of my mother, “disgustingly happy.” We talk into the wee hours of the morning. We travel, watch movies, read books aloud, and continue to compliment each other on the most mundane accomplishments.

And still, with nearly all pretensions behind us, I can’t conceive of nuptial bonding. My girlfriend can imagine it, of course, and owns a set of professional blueprints to lead us from bachelor’s party to honeymoon. All I have is the occasional nervous breakdown.

In any event, our wedding wouldn’t really be ours. My girlfriend’s mother claimed dibs on that before either of us was born. She says everything will be fine as long as I convert to Catholicism. WIth each mention of Our Lady of Lourdes, my doubts thicken.

And then, just when I think I’m resolved to wait until we’re eighty, I find myself strolling by a jewelry store, golden earrings and silver bracelets catching the lights through the windows. As I idly study them, I notice the diamond rings arrayed impeccable rows, and I’ll quietly wonder if my girlfriend would object to serving moo shu pork at the reception.

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The Art of Finding Yourself in the Post-Nonconformist Age

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The following appeared in The Pitt News, the Summer of 1999.

Photograph taken in glass door of Carnegie Museum, around then.

Both seemed very profound at the time.

Some time ago, conformity was a good thing. We all marched in even rows. No problems were unsolvable because if you behaved like everybody else, it would dawn on you that there was no problem. No man was an island.

Then conformity became bad. The trend was to be an individual at all costs. “Your identity is your own,” people said. Nobody can own you. Be different.

Then being different became passé, because everybody was being different. So society started arguing that being different was a sort of conformity. This view was so commonplace that the conformist idea of being “different like everybody else” became a popular catchphrase.

Indeed, being truly different in the modern world is tough. The “leaders of outsiderness” work for advertising firms and get paid exorbitantly to generate a means of being sufficiently different. Somehow, their products must have inherent qualities that enhance the you-ness of you. Otherwise, you won’t buy it because it’s a symbol of either conformity or a personality disorder.

Take, for example, an advertisement in American Heritage magazine. It reads: “At Del Webb’s Sun Cities, the active communities for people 55 or better,  you’ll find endless possibilities to fulfill the promise of who you really are.” What promise is it talking about? And why haven’t we been able to fulfill it for the past five and a half decades?

More quizzical is my cereal box, of all things. On the back, there is a photo of a girl with a spoon stuck to her nose and an accompanying blurb: “POST KIDS invites you… to kick back and be yourself! From feeding your face with your favorite cereal to creating your own cereal box, POST KIDS is a place where you can be you.”

What on earth does eating cereal have to do with being me except that I satisfy my daily iron requirement? The choices—from eating cereal to making a cereal box—doesn’t sound like a wide range of activities. Does this mean I can’t be me unless I’m at the breakfast table?

Then there’s the commercial that just says “I AM” in big sans-serif lettering. Zoned-out teenagers proceed to tell us what (not who) they are, while postmodern landscapes flash in the background. The commercial concentrates so heavily on its spiritual slogan that it barely mentions the product they’re trying to sell.

When I finally started ignoring advertising campaigns, I got caught in the second trap: self-help books. Browse in any bookstore for longer than two minutes, and the self-help section will come to you. In it, you’ll find out how to have a good relationship, a loving family or a homosexual encounter. You can even learn how to overcome a neurosis. The size of self-help sends an indelible message: “Your life sucks. You don’t know who you are. Have some chicken soup for your soul, and we’ll sort everything out.”

And then, if you still don’t have a personality, switch on a talk show. Oprah will tell you all about surviving, recovery, spiritual equity and so on.

If you aren’t yourself by this point, it’s time to call in the big guns. Personality tests, which are usually based on the writings of ancient astrologers and Zoroastrian mystics, can put you in nice, clear categories that will give you a cut-and-dry description of who you are. More scientific than the zodiac (or a cereal box, for that matter), the personality test gives you a number, indicating character type. I am a three, devilishly handsome and sharp as a pin.

With all these tools of identity, it’s no wonder that people have grown to be more like themselves lately. They may be unsatisfied, spiteful, newly alcoholic or even suicidal, but at least they know who they are. The word for this is “healthy.” Society assumes that if you’re healthy, you’re probably happy, too. And if you know who you are, your karma is high, and you’ve just made a good investment, you’re probably healthy.

And meanwhile, as people like me struggle to figure out who we are, someone else is doing something interesting.

Introducing the Isenberg Archives Project

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Self-portrait at age 20. Like life at this age,

the photograph is slightly out of focus.

In 1999, I published my first article—a sarcastic little essay about “finding oneself.” I sent the piece to The Pitt News, the student newspaper of the University of Pittsburgh. The Pitt News was notable for being (a) a daily paper that (b) paid its contributors. Within days, 10,000 copies of my article hit newsstands around campus. I was nervous and excited, because I had always wanted to become a professional writer, and now it was actually happening: I was getting published.

A few months later, my editor gave me a regular column, called “Postmodern Gush.” The next summer, I became Opinions Editor of The Pitt News.

Since then, I have published thousands of pieces, large and small, for newspapers, magazines, and online publications. When I started out, the Internet Age was dawning. Now, the Print Age is in its twilight. And in the 14 years in-between, I forged my career as a freelance writer, leaping from masthead to masthead, earning my living the best way I knew how.

Here’s the crazy thing: Hundreds of my early articles still exist only on paper. Digital archives were not ubiquitous until the mid-2000s, and some publications—like the late InPittsburgh, or the defunct Pulp—were erased from the Internet the moment their businesses failed. Hundreds of my reviews, features, profiles, interviews and editorials vanished from the World Wide Web (indeed, around the time people stopped calling it the World Wide Web). Of the 300 or so items I wrote for AOL DigitalCity, hardly a scrap remains anywhere. The only evidence that I wrote for these publications is physical—carefully stored in a Rubbermaid crate, deep within my basement.

Starting this month, I have begun to archive these long-lost articles. I would like robertisenberg.net to be more than a multimedia résumé; I would like to compile the full canon of my writing career. This requires some marathon typing sessions (most of the hard copies have to be re-transcribed by keyboard), but the project grants me an excuse to revisit old stories. Some make me cringe, since I am older and wiser, but most inspire fond recollection, because I can remember what it felt like to write them.

I plan to republish these items in roughly chronological order. In a way, I am piecing together a mosaic of my early life—a vast autobiography told one article at a time. While my op-eds gradually transformed into art reviews, then theatre reviews, then profiles and travel stories, nothing could be more revealing than these early articles. As I often say, writing is my life. No matter how removed or exotic my subject, the actual sentences are honest and transparent. They document not only what I was doing at the turn of the millennium, but what I thought, whom I met, and the ideas and feelings I juggled. Folks say that journalism is the first draft of history. At the time, I had little notion I was drafting my own.

Robert Isenberg, January 2013