The Parallel Life … Unlived

One of the things that frustrates us, especially as we get older, is the unlived parallel life.  At virtually every turn, we have opportunities for our lives to head in a certain direction, but we only seem to be able to follow and participate in just one of these threads.  In imaginative fiction as well as in imaginative science there is this recurring idea of a multitude of existing realities unfolding at every turn as we meander along our ant-like circuitous routes to nowhere, or wherever it is we think we are going.  It boggles our little minds to think about it, because there just seems to be way too many opportunities for a turn — more than we can possibly imagine.  I step in front of traffic, or I don’t.  If I live in Manhattan, that choice exists fifty times a day.  And there are 8 million of me in that little strip of land.  So it just seems too silly to contemplate.

But what are the real-life implications of being aware of the limitation of following just a single thread?  That’s it exactly — we limit our behavior.  After all, we have only so much we can do, and once we get past a certain age … well, it just gets to be too much to imagine.  We are already so far down a path … why bother.  Here’s just one …

You are in line at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC at 10:15 AM.  The place opens at 10:30, but there is a popular show there, so the line stretches like a snake almost through the glass doors.  You just wait, and play with whatever small square electronic box you carry around with you to kill the time and provide distraction.  Today, however, a spectacular woman appears behind you in the line — couldn’t be a day over 24.  Your heart stops for a moment, and the phone rings.  You take it, and it’s a lengthy discussion wherein you are able to somehow display you intellectual prowess, and perhaps a little wit.  What luck.  After the call, you quite casually twist 30 degrees and mention something about the line.  A huge smile is what you get back, and some kind of South American accent.  What country?  Venezuela.  Of course.  Happens you were there — yes, just before Chavez was elected.  She is studying politics in Madrid precisely because of Chavez.  She is both impossibly beautiful, friendly, and intelligent all at once.  Within fifteen minutes you realize that this would be one of those critical moments in your life … 20 years ago, anyway.  But not now.  When you both get your tickets, together, and step up toward the escalator, she turns to you helplessly, and shrugs with the map.  She wants a guide, or she likes you, or both.  But it doesn’t matter, at this point, because you know you cannot go down the path that is presented.  Surely, it would be an enjoyable day, but what more would it do but remind you that when you were twenty-five you never placed yourself in a position of meeting a Venezuelan heiress studying in Madrid, and so you could not have followed such a path.  Instead, you are on the path that has taken you here — and of course there is nothing whatever wrong with where and what you are now — it is full of love and life and happiness most of the time — but hey, I don’t care how happy you are every minute of the day, you must admit that it’s a bit frustrating and sad that our lives on this planet seem so limited, so structured, and so … finite.”

Yes, yes, I know there is beauty everywhere.  I also know that it is a supreme act of selfishness to view the outside world solely as it relates to ME, and it is certainly somewhat pathetic that I would deny myself a fine afternoon with a lovely person only because I’m a little sad that I’m not longer as young as I once was … but this transition from youth to middle age, and then through the belly of the beast itself as our hormones gradually begin to turn off like someone slowly cranking a rusted pump wheel … well, it’s tough.  I remember once in Woodstock, when my father was close to the end of his life, and we found ourselves at the Woodstock theater, waiting on line (again, with the lines! We should never complain about them …) and there was this very attractive woman in her fifties. maybe, staring at us in a friendly, open way.  I never saw my father so flustered.  Later , he turned sad, especially when I pressed him to step up and make some kind contact.  He was too far down his own path, and despite the fact that my mother had been gone for years, he couldn’t begin to imagine the possibilities.   It is what we do, I suppose.

When I was a lot younger I used to imagine all kinds of spiritual possibilities — like wouldn’t it be great if our “higher being,” as it were, was very much like a genius chess grandmaster, walking back and forth along a fifty-foot table against 20 players, managing 20 games at once?  With this, idea, what the kernel of our selves REALLY did was simply to manage all of these lives, or at least stay aware of them, guiding us along our paths like so many wayward sheep, all with the intention of learning and evolving, heading toward some higher plane of awareness.  Or, maybe it’s just a series of games, and the multitude of parallel lives we live are nothing more than an elaborate series of very interesting games played by some celestial race that we used to call Gods, but have lost our belief and in some cases, our need of them.

Anyway, that’s one idea, toward the middle of one life, on one single wayward path that has been followed for almost half a century.   It’s hard to reconcile all of the effort we expend in order to make sense and attempt to validate this one little thread that we have spun, if it’s true that there may be so many more that we are responsible for.  Just think of Proust, who lay in bed for years in an effort to Remember everything he could in his short life.  A heroic effort, to be sure, and worth it, I suppose, since he did produce something that outlasted him for going on a hundred years now. But think of the efficiency that we now have to emulate and extend this idea:

Technology is leading us toward the broadcasting of our every waking moment.  Twitter is the nascent beginning of a sort of Public Narcissism that will completely take us over within five years.  Mark these words — just a few years, people who are truly hooked into the “cloud” will wear devices or perhaps clothes that record every moment and will upload a constant “stream.”  People will choose to follow that stream or other streams.  Those will be the reality streams, which might get pretty mundane and boring, although we shouldn’t underestimate the capacity for humans to engage in all forms of voyeurism — they have proven that much with reality television — but perhaps more popular will be the fantasy streams, once we figure out how to create avatars and realities that might have been, and push them out into the cloud like so many errant children — lives to be lived and watched any time we choose to hook into them.  In that case, perhaps one of my sons will move to Madrid with a Venezuelan heiress, as well as raise eleven children on a farm in Idaho, work for thirty years in Patagonia as a geologist, and spend another life traveling the world as a member of Cirque du Soleil.   Maybe instead of immortality, humans will be content with living a dozen lives all at the same time.

Wouldn’t be so bad, I think.

” … like the time I strangled that poor Porcupine…”

It’s just going to be stories from the past from now on, I think, because they are easier to write, and it’s pretty clear that it’s futile for me to “save up” these stories for some future memoir.  Besides, it’s good practice.  Because of the time constraints in my life right now, these won’t be stories in any real sense (those have a beginning, middle, and an end), but rather “sketches”, I think, would be more accurate.

So this poor porcupine.  He is still staring at me these 27 years later with two round black marbles for eyes.   It haunts me, honestly.

See, my first college degree, such as it was, was in Fish and Wildlife Technology at the State University of New York at Cobleskill, which is a pretty nice little college town nestled in the rolling, grassy farmlands southwest of Albany, and which are really an extension of the Catskills themselves, minus the thick forests. The students in that program were almost universally small-town kids from around the state, like myself, who dreamed of a career with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.  Most of these kids, though, were way ahead of me in the actual hunting/fishing/trapping categories, since I never much liked to kill things when I was growing up, so I had a lot to learn if I was going to catch up and join the rest of the class, as it were.

We would have “game dinners”, which were organized by the professors and featured just about everything you could eat that was running around that part of the country from venison to grouse to trout — delicious and rowdy affairs with plenty of beer and wine and the things you do when you are freshmen in college.

My girlfriend at the time, Johnna Lee McClelland, had a project for one of the introductory classes wherein she had to pick an animal, trap it,  skin it, and present the pelt to the professor for a grade.  The project was graded both on skill as well as originality.  I thought that a porcupine would be pretty original, not to mention challenging to skin, and so I promised her I would furnish her with a freshly killed porcupine for her to complete her project.

The problem was that I had no traps, no real trapping skills, and did not have a ready supply of porcupines hanging around the college or even my house, which was about a hundred miles south. But, I went back home on spring break determined to find myself a porcupine.  A few years before that, when I used to camp in the Catskills with my best friend at the time, Kevin Reidy, we would be awakened in the middle of the night sometimes by strange clicking and grinding noises all around the tent, which turned out to be bands of porcupines waddling around at night, fretting as they are wont to do, apparently at least since Shakespeare’s day.  So I headed up to the Catskills.

A few days of camping and hiking found me not far from Echo Lake, climbing up a steep, wooded path toward Mount Overlook.  And what do you suppose I found as I approached about the halfway point? — a fretful Porpentine, swaying above me in the trees about fifteen feet above me!

First I had to climb up a small adjacent tree armed with a long stick, and I was able to prod the poor little guy until he fell out of the tree.  Then I jumped down and caught up to him pretty quickly and tried hitting him with a stout stick, but his body of quills were excellent protection against my blows.  Finally, I somehow rolled him over and pressed the thick, twisted club-like tree branch against his throat, and, like I said earlier, watched his black marble eyes watch me as he slowly expired.

When I presented this trophy to my girlfriend the following week and told her the story she was appropriately horrified.  She didn’t break up with me at that very moment, but if I remember, it wasn’t much long after that.   A sad, strange story from a long time ago …