A few days ago I was driving home from FedEx, where I had just interviewed for a position picking up boxes off a conveyor belt and loading them into a truck. I remember one of my main reasons for going to college was because my year of warehouse work was enough to make me consider higher education as an option, if only as a way out of picking up boxes and putting them down somewhere else as a way to make money. I’ve had plenty of jobs that required physical labor before and since, but 2002 was the last time I was an on-the-books “warehouse worker.” As I was thinking about all this, I was wondering what had changed since then? What made this different?
There’s no quicker path to understanding how little you know about a place than by examining its history, and this week’s edition of the local weekly celebrated its own 25th anniversary by diving into the past, in as much as it relates to the paper’s writers. The articles detailed people, things, and places that were far outside my knowledge base, which only made me feel further separated from a place I'm slowly loosing my grip on. One article examined the rift between transplants and natives, encouraging civil understanding as the city and its population continues to change, the old and comfortable being resurfaced and populated by an incoming class of newly minted Nashvillians. The concept is pleasant, but the longer I'm here the more divided the city appears. Yes, a lot of people aren’t from the city, and people here are likely to be welcoming because they, too, might not be from around here, but that doesn’t mean Nashville is any less populated with exclusive inner-circle tribes than anywhere else. There exists a layered exclusivity beyond the general transplant vs. native conversation though, as identified by social groups who are more or less welcoming based not on whether you're from here, but on how long you've lived here (regardless of whether they're from here, as if to regulate the inclusion of new outsiders' abilities to created shared "Nashville" experiences based on their relative distance from their own shared experiences from days-gone-by). If you weren’t one of the original outsiders, you’ll never be welcome.
Whether or not this reflects reality as it is for others, it's what my experience has been. Also true from my perspective is the city's ability to remain consistent in its selective welcoming of transplants, based on their relationship to fame: As long as an incoming resident is willing to let their star factor trickle down to the city streets, all is well. As though (fill in the blank with any celebrity's name) living here says something about about Nashville as a whole, and by extension about the rest of the population, validating an entire citizenry, while the thousands of other incoming folk have to apply for "true" Nashville status on a case-by-base basis. All of this being butted up against city and state-funded directives to drive tourism at the defeat of established low-income or minority communities, which are then faced with surviving the wave of gentrification mutilation using the help of nobody in particular, makes for a strange landscape, to say the least: out with the old, and in with the (to be determined). Also, it's not that outsider-outsider communities don't exist in contrast to all of this, it's just that once you get beyond the surface, they're usually about as insular as everybody else.
Four years ago this week I arrived in town, wide-eyed, ignorant to the city's social politics, and in retrospect, a few years late to a party that I was never invited to. I came straight from Canada where I'd moved six months prior, returning to my place of birth as a hopeful (though failed) coming-home-to-find-myself excursion. I've left the city a few times now, I've returned a few times, and I've gotten a tattoo to commemorate the entire adventure. Whether it was the move to Canada, the move here, or the multiple moves since, ever since I first stepped out I was hoping for something resembling acceptance — because who doesn't want to be accepted? But trying to find validation within such a strange mixture of "scenes" here has made trying to feel remotely wanted problematic, resulting in feelings of loneliness made only worse by a self’s internal combustion engine that was already burning white hot, fueled by too much liquor and self-hatred, dead set on a long-term harm reduction strategy by means of triggering a flame-out from within.
I've only recently confronted and accepted the idea that I've historically cared about a scene or friends or a network online in as much as it relates to my relative position to that "scene," so it's not without reason (and embarrassment) that I recognize the connection with that sort of conclusion and my relationship with Nashville. I've only cared about participating in the larger Nashville to this point for the sake of what my participation in the city might add to my own resume of publicly-deemed value. Nashville means more than this to me, but mostly in the (sort of) abstract. I don't have a "home" to "go back to" if and when I leave, so by the default of now living here, Nashville's "home." Nashville was the first place I moved on my own without a pre-existing base, and I've established it as My Place, regardless of whether I fit in among scenes, communities, insiders, outsiders, or other wayward transplants. I like it here. Parts of it, I even love. It feels right, and speaking to the impact it's had on shaping my character — to borrow someone else's idea — the pebble can’t help but be molded by the stream.
Why I write online has been a question nagging me the past few weeks, though not because some part of me feels it disingenuous to write in public rather than keep thoughts private. As I've recently reclaimed years-old thoughts and blog posts from archived versions of past websites I've had, I'm realizing that while I have no real audience, I'm not writing to nobody... I'm writing to myself, somewhere down the road. The ability to do so, freely, has been such a gift in terms of my ability to start figuring myself out, especially as it relates to things like environment, belonging, and self-construction. (It's forced me to finish ideas I might not have otherwise tried to explore!) General feelings of belonging are as much about what's felt inside as anything, and no one-way ticket to a new locale is ever going to transplant me from outsider to insider. I get that now. But, maybe Nashville is home not because I decided to come here on a whim, but because it’s been the physical location beneath my feet during the most pronounced emotional and philosophical swings in my life to this point.
I'm starting to think that writing in public, or online, isn't as much about floating my thoughts into the digital abyss out of egotism, as it is about maintaining connection with the medium that has helped me feel at home when nothing else did. The internet has helped me expand my understanding of what's possible for myself, in terms of who I can be. Blogging, for example, has filled in holes existing within real-life community for me, adding stability and conversation in my world when it didn't exist elsewhere. I was recently re-introduced to Mike Rugnetta’s 2013 XOXO presentation on how the successes of others can give people permission to be themselves, and to say that it has been revelatory in terms of figuring out this private/public/self/home/who am I? battle that's waging on in my head would be an understatement. These words connected most:
"I mean, the self is a very complicated thing because it isn't accessed directly. The reason you have to spend lots of long nights staring out the window looking at the moon, visiting all of the coffee shops, and smoking all of the cigarettes, in an effort to figure out who you are and what you believe and what you desire, is because you can't just shut your eyes and observe how you feel. The self is a little bit like a pitch dark room: if you wanna find the sofa you have to go feeling around for it. Maybe it's right in front of you, maybe it's not. If you wanna know how you feel about the conflict in Syria, maybe you immediately know or maybe you have to consider it for a while. The philosopher Immanuel Kant described the systematic elusiveness of the ‘I’. He wasn't talking about knowing if you're a furry or not but he was talking about the apprehension of the self, and how it's always kind of retreating. For some certainly more than others, and for many very different reasons, a common difficulty, I think it's fair to say, is the preoccupation with knowing what is acceptable or even possible to want or do.
The self retreats, not just as effect of its complexity, but sometimes as an effect of its inevitable comparison to other selves. It's difficult to confidently construct oneself without placing it alongside others. The true self, if there is even one, can retreat behind cultural norms, community practices, social and societal expectations — so that puts us in this weird spot, right, and not like the dog park in 'Welcome to Night Vale'-weird, but metaphysically weird (don’t think about the dog park). You want to be true to yourself but you might not know what options are available for inclusion in that truth unless you go ‘shopping’, I guess, is one way to put it. But are they true if they came from somewhere outside of your own brain? And this is actually a big important question: is there a truly and totally internal self? Or, put another way, would everyone who currently self-identifies as goth, or pro-life, or democrat, or an Evanescence fan, or who identifies as a furry have come to that conclusion independent of the actions or preferences of others? I don't have an answer… because one doesn't exist.
But here's what I think: the self is understood only through its properties. You only know what you think and believe based upon your experiences, which are themselves and inscrutable stew of nature, nurture, environment, action, reaction, expectation, rebellion, and probably also a fair amount of luck and entropy. Asking whether someone is truly this or truly that is ultimately unhelpful and honestly just brings me right back to the McCarthy-era-esque poser witch hunt of the 1990s. More so than whether someone is this or that, I think it's important to ask if someone feels comfortable identifying as this or that. Part and parcel with that comfort and self-discovery is seeing and recognizing in others, in people, in communities around the world, that which you feel stirring in your self. And since we're talking about the internet, it’s easy to connect this line of thinking to those thought of as having a special home online, those thought of his existing because of/with reliance on the internet: communities like furries or demisexuals, who have been a recent and frequent topic of Tumblr’s social justice community. Demisexuals do not experience sexual attraction based on looks or personality, but rather only once they formed a strong romantic bond with a partner. Or otherkin: a community of people self-identifying as partially or entirely non-human; part spirit, part mythical being, lifeform from another dimension, normally inanimate object or animal/cartoon character, positioning them rather though not entirely in line with furries. According to Wikipedia otherkin have had a persistent online presence since about 1990. Eventually though we'll be talking not just about the people who seem to only have a home because the internet, but about everyone for whom internet and self are somehow related. That number is only going to get bigger. Always. And I would guess that it's represented with abnormal distinction in this room right now.
I mean, that's why we're here, right? Whether it's for art, business, media, or technology, the internet is the tool which helps us peel away all of those layers to get to that inside thing. But, you know, it's not a special club. And that peeling away process works just as well for people who consume as it does for people who make, because the more and more different media you are exposed to, as an effect of the great disintermediation, and the more and more different people you encounter because of those desire paths, the more accurate, and complete, and fine-grained, and detailed, and complex, and confusing, and exciting your conception of the world is. And as follows: the more you know that no matter who you are, yourself is worth celebrating. [...]
As the internet, and access to media, and access to distribution, and audiences for that media, continues to grow so too will challenges to the idea of normal. The internet is not a system beholden, at least not in the way most broadcasters, and certainly not solely to the dominant attitudes about culture and by extension self-identification. And it's not some place that exists opposite, instead of, or in subjugation to real life. The internet is real life. And it is changing the way that people are living their real lives, and the ways that they are being themselves. It's kind of like what Andy [Baio] described at the beginning of the conference: at the heart of all these buzz words, the fun, and sometimes overplayed ways to talk about how we're changing the world and upsetting the status quo, and going into the board meetings, and flipping over all the tables is really that simple but complicated, and isn't that the beauty of it, search for independence. And I think we've all learned, counter-intuitively, that like what Christina [Xu] said, you sort of need a community to be independent. And that's what we're building: We're building this community of independent people forging out completely alone, altogether."Where to even begin?
I’m stuck on Nashville because it’s where I live, and as a pebble in the stream, it’s where I’ve landed, allowing its current to smooth over some of my rough edges in the passing years. It’s where I feel best, but it’s certainly not where I’ll land forever. Nowhere is, and that’s the point, I think, of pulling apart all of these concepts in my mind, laying them out on the floor, looking at them as a whole, and attempting to make sense of the lot of them.
Years ago the internet became a place where I could show off part of what made me feel at once unique and cool and nerdy and of value and an outsider. The internet was what helped showcase others back to me, others who had similar interests, who I could compare myself with, in lieu of physical people in my community who held similar interests and beliefs. Once there were others to compare myself with, the internet then shifted into a place where I confronted those things, forcing myself to ask whether I maintained these interests only because they helped me stand out to begin with? The internet has been both the coverall that allowed me to find safety in being myself, while simultaneously helping offer alternative views of self that encouraged the understanding and expansion of what was really inside of me. This decade, for instance, the internet has helped introduce me to Joe Rogan’s podcast, Doug Stanhope’s stand-up comedy, and Louis CK’s cultural observations — all of which have helped me step into someone else’s identity just long enough to recognize that where I was or who I was wasn’t the person I ultimately wanted to be. Look no further than this very article I'm writing for an example of the internet's ability to impact my thinking: I wouldn’t have seen the XOXO photo-essay that led me to Mike’s lecture video which helped me piece together a bunch of thoughts that had been gathering on a notepad on my desktop, if not for the internet.
When I was in junior high, the aggressive nature of heavy metal started speaking to me (as it does many boys of that age). At the time that’s the identity that felt right. Whether moving from city to city, or from blog to blog, Mike’s “shopping” statement strikes me in the chest with an impossible accuracy: life for me has been, if nothing else, a series of attempts at trying on new identities until I’ve found one that fits better than the last… ideologies, hometowns, friends, “scenes,” whatever. His mention of the “disintermediation of self,” as I understand it, means that the internet has helped reduce the distance between external insight into who we can be and internal understanding of who we are. I’ve struggled in the past with approaching the internet as “real life,” but the way in which the internet continues to expand my world in unparalleled. Even in walking away from "social" medias, I don't see that changing.
This isn’t to undermine the importance of physical relationships, which is why I think I’ve tried looking to those outside the internet for friendship, and acceptance, as an extension of my understanding of who I am and what value I have online. All the good and bad and ups and downs to this point, the people who I’ve done wrong to and those who have done wrong by me: I’ve needed all these other people to find out who I am. Misunderstanding of what I want has come about because of a clash between my online and offline worlds and my erratic navigation through each. It turns out that trying to maintain separate identities within separate paradigms is a messy proposition, especially once it turns out that all along there has only ever been a single "real life."
There's a line in my book that I'd forgotten I'd written that might speak to where this struggle began, touching on "a lack of hard-wired identity due to an unsure nationalistic allegiance, leaving me feeling a foreigner in both my native and adopted countries." That's true, but what I've found is that I'm not even looking for a home as far as the term relates to a physical place of comfort and security. Home in the sense that I've been searching for it is a fallacy — a place where I'd fit in, without even a hint of discrimination or single question regarding my inclusion. And now that I'm finding peace through the painstaking process of recognizing this evolving self within me, it's been difficult overriding my ego's knee-jerk reaction to hit the panic button and toy with self-destruction (as if to disprove my ability to legitimately outgrow the obsolete past versions of self that have since turned parasitic as a means of somehow staying alive). Past selves don't all die off at the same rate. Some memories linger longer than others.
Though it didn't raise similar flurries of internal dialog within me, by following the previously mentioned internet rabbit hole I also watched Cabal Sasser's 2013 XOXO speech a few times, leaving me with another idea that relates to all this. Discussing his role as an entrepreneur and creator, Cabal contrasted the realities behind selling out, burning or flaming out, and fading out, relenting that as a business-type, he was probably going to end up falling into the latter category, failing to kill his baby for a paycheck or allow the core to overheat and evaporate everything in sight. And I think, strangely, that's where I'm finding myself now — putting an ellipses on my life rather than struggling to place a distinct and definitive period on what's happened, calling it the end of a chapter, and starting again from scratch tomorrow.
I've burnt out in the past and I've sold out in the past, but I don't even see this (or what's on the way) as a period of fading out. I'm just fading on, expanding away from a disappearing yesterday and onward into an ever receding tomorrow, shifting along no axis in particular while remaining at the center of a soft focus. I'm just existing, trying on identities, and slowly feeling increasingly more comfortable with the self of today, while learning to accept that it will be replaced by tomorrow's version before I know it. I'm not a tourist, I don't think, but would rather prefer the title of traveler. And being a traveler, I'm going to have to understand that there isn't going to ever be "home" in the sense that "home" has been sold to me. I'm a traveler if only because I'm not a settler, and I'm going to continue holding onto what feels right until the stream shifts, I lose my footing, and am once again carried off a few feet further into the unknown. Forward progress because nothing else is even possible.
If I can learn anything from Nashville, it's that I want to be more welcoming. I don't want to be the bouncer, standing guard over my secure party, making sure no strays get in who don't meet the philosophical (or even physical) dress code. I can take that with me no matter where I go. Even into the belly of a concrete box on the outskirts of a medium-sized city, standing at the mouth of a semi-truck as I'm being fed outgoing packages from a conveyor belt with a seemingly endless ability to regurgitate cardboard boxes. Because things are different now.