It’s raining in my apartment. Beads of water drop from the living room ceiling into the bucket I’ve placed on the floor. It’s just a matter of time before the slab of soggy plaster is loosened from the ceiling and comes crashing down. It’s unnerving. I have this feeling the house is crumbling from within, succumbing to an inexorable, pervasive damp decay. It’s as if I’m living in Tyler Durden’s house. Without Brad Pitt.
The problem isn’t new, though it actually never rained inside before. The signs were there, barely noticeable at first, like the early indications of Alzheimer’s. Each of the three building contractors I’ve called in over the years identified what they thought the problem was and presumably fixed it. But masonry isn’t ballistics. Rain and bullets behave very differently; the point of egress tells you nothing about the point of ingress. This time I’ve engaged an architect who actually specializes in this kind of thing. She spent almost two hours inspecting the apartment and veranda and roof and then laid out a complex plan of attack. But it has to stop raining before we launch our assault.
So in the meantime I plan my days and nights around the weather forecast. A couple of days of rain and I’m housebound. It might start raining somewhere else in the apartment. This is not how I imagined my life, canceling a date for an evening concert to be home to mop up after a storm. I don’t recall how I did imagine my life but I’m sure stressing out over a leaky roof wasn’t part of it. Come to think of it, though, none of the stressful, dreary or difficult scenes of adult life figured in any of the future lives I imagined for myself when I was young. These scenarios were purged of tragedy, sickness and anxiety. They were even more sanitized than fairy tales. Those at least had a villain.
I was talking to Natalie yesterday about these imagined futures. She’s just come back from a semester of teaching in New York—though it felt to me she’d been gone for years—and she was telling me how her visit back to the city she had lived in as a graduate student then a young writer was like dipping in a pool of “what if’s”. She described the experience as intriguing and not at all unpleasant.
I knew what she meant. When I am in New York, I am like Narcissus, but instead of falling in love with my own image, I become entranced with the image of a different me. A self I could have been if I had made different choices in my life. An editor or doctor or teacher (or if look deep and long enough, a painter), usually with a decent if small apartment—Noho, Chelsea, the Upper West Side, the neighborhood changes ad libitum—at times with a lover, at times alone.But this reverie doesn’t last long. In my heart I know the pool of what if’s is just a reservoir with a bed of very strange and complex forms that can suggest very different shapes depending on the particular light of day and color of mood in which I view it. I’m entranced by some of the shapes I perceive, these future selves, but they sadden me. Unlike Natalie, I don’t like going back to New York, however much I love the city. Too many possible futures, all forfeited, all unattainable.
Ordinary speech betrays an over-confidence in our ability to predict alternative lives. Ah, yes, if I hadn’t been screwing around in graduate school so much I would have finished my PhD and…. well, what? . The only certainty is that it would have set into motion a gnarled and unpredictable decision tree with a multitude of pathways, each leading a different possible self. If, for the sake of argument we assume that each decision offers only two options—though we know that life’s decisions are rarely either/or and we all too often fudge than decide—and each of these two options leads to only two different outcomes, and each of these two outcomes, in turn, presents us with a decision that leads again to only two possible states, then after only 10 generations of decisions, we arrive at 1000 possible selves.
How much of who I am today would be contained in this myriad of potential identities? Would I recognize myself if I met one of them? If each shared the formative experiences of my childhood, would the core of my character and personality be preserved through this generation of choices? Am I play that can be staged in numerous ways, each time with a distinct set of scenery and costumes, each time with a particular message illuminated more than others, but the text unchanged? To what extent have I become my choices? Although I can imagine myself teaching in a small college in Iowa or, though this is a stretch of the imagination, working as a short-order cook in a New Jersey suburb or (and this only because accidents do happen) a homeless drunk, I cannot imagine myself closeted or married. Though it’s possible I could have wound up in prison, I’m almost sure if I had, it would have been a miscarriage of justice. I can’t imagine myself a cheat or much of a liar, and I’m too much a wuss to actually break the law. These imagined selves are like identical twins separated at adolescence and reunited decades later, with nearly identical routines and habits and even tics.
Though I’m saddened by the loss of these imagined futures, it is simply a mourning over the constriction of the horizon of possibilities that comes with getting older. My brother says I underestimate my resilience. He thinks you can reinvent yourself. He left New York to work in a design firm in Venice. Years later he joined a monastery, threw out his back and lost his vocation, moved to California and bought a ranch in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains. But even if I wanted to start anew, to move to Brussels or Berlin(an idea I have toyed with in t he past, even to the point of looking through on-line realtor sites) there are some things that for practical reasons can’t be done again, over or differently. In any event, I am content with the present that I have. Of course, it would be ludicrous to assume that who I am and how I live represent the best possible outcome of the innumerable alternative life situations that could have developed, that this one self is the best of the 1000 possible selves that could have emerged if I had chosen differently. I have grown fond of this decent, inquisitive if somewhat peculiar person I think I’ve become, but mostly I have become deeply attached to the particulars of my existence—my friends, most of all, but also to the interests I pursue and the work I do, and even, despite the rain and falling plaster, my home. This attachment explains the retrospective gladness, to use a term of philosopher Jeff McMahan, I feel about my life now. Considering that some of the 1000 selves would be dead by now, I should even be thankful.
Image: Caravaggio, Narcissus