Wednesday, November 2, 2011

The Paul Kemp Blues

Late last night I returned to my dark, lonely apartment in the eerily silent midnight hour after a viewing of The Rum Diary. With the cinema-induced images of miniature rum shooters fresh in my mind, I felt a lot like Paul Kemp -- the main character of the film/novel, and a portrait of a young Hunter S. Thompson -- did in the lonesome and crazy world of Puerto Rico.

Like Kemp, I felt stuck in that strange quarter-life stage between the carefree bliss of youth and the contentedness of settling down, the stage in which one struggles to define just what one is doing with his life. Like Kemp, I felt at odds with the career track I had chosen for myself and was left to wonder just how I had arrived at this career juncture. Like Kemp, I felt torn between an ambition to do something that I can't quite put my finger on yet and a lack of ambition in which I am content to half-ass my way through life in a haze of self-indulgent adventure. Like Kemp, I simply wanted a shot of rum -- if for nothing else than to make sense of all those thoughts.

But I was out of rum. Instead, unable to sleep, I picked up my copy of The Rum Diary and re-read the last couple of pages of the novel as I waited for the NyQuil to kick in. The last paragraph of the novel:

"Voices rose and fell in the house next door and the raucous sound of a jukebox came from a bar down the street. Sounds of a San Juan night, drifting across the city through layers of humid air; sounds of life and movement, people giving up, the sound of hope and the sound of hanging on, and behind, and behind them all, the quiet, deadly ticking of a thousand hungry clocks, the lonely sound of time passing in the long Caribbean night."

Thompson's closing lines are simultaneously both nostalgic and foreword-looking. There is a sense of sadness as Kemp looks back on his time on the island. Despite the ups and (mostly) downs he encountered, Kemp seems nostalgic as he realizes how much the island has influenced him and how it will unavoidably play a significant role in wherever he goes next. Nothing can ever change his time there; it will forever be cemented into the footpath of his life.

In the past several weeks and months I've been thinking a lot about the different stones on my own life footpath thus far as well. As an avid walker, I walk a lot in directions of places that occupy a special spot in my past. Over the summer, probably because it was the only thing I could tolerate soberly without hating life, I must have walked every square foot of my hometown. I walked past the Mike Modano Ice Arena, the place where Steve and I learned to skate as little kids. I walked past the post-demolition rubble that remains from the movie theater I used to go to. I walked down the trails alongside the Rouge River for just about as far as my legs would take me. And of course I walked to the old sandlot.

In Ann Arbor I've done a lot of walking by the places I called home during college, namely Mary Markley dormitory hall and the old house on State Street infamously known as the BOX house. So much of my life took shape in that tiny room on the 2nd floor of Mary Markley hall. I met so many people that year: some were fleeting drunken encounters with people now dispersed throughout America; some were historical moments with the people that will be my best friends for the rest of my life. It's weird to look up at my old window, where so many good times and a few bad occurred, and see that some unnamed freshman has the gall to occupy that room. In fact I can't even get in the front door of the building.

The same is true with the old college house. The rooms are now occupied by people not my best friends. It seems wrong in a sense. Those were our bedrooms, that was our front porch, that was our kitchen countertop bar. That was our house -- where relationships bloomed and relationships ended, where we got bad news on a phone call from home, where we rejoiced together over a sporting event, where we laughed and where we cried. So much of my life is ingrained in that house that it feels blasphemous that anyone else should live there, in the seat of our memories.

As Paul Kemp does as he departs Puerto Rico, I look back with nostalgia at those places. And like he did, I recognize that each place you go forms the sort of backbone of your life; each one will be a part of you no matter where you end up.

As Kemp laments in the film, "Life is full of exits". He exits Puerto Rico knowing exactly where he's been, but having no idea where the next stone in the footpath will lead him. And so I, in these times of uncertainty, may have no idea which direction my life might lead me in the coming years. But anytime I want I can take a stroll by Mary Markley dormitory Hall or by the old BOX House and know exactly where I've been.

Indeed, perhaps it's better to know where you've been rather than exactly where you are going. It seemed to work out pretty well for Hunter S. Thompson, after all.

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