31 December 2005

How Arnold Schwarzenegger Screwed Up My Life

“...are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” - Forever Young, Alphaville

I don’t know – I must have been like 14 years old or something. Damon’s parents were at a party and had rented the newest laser disc to keep us boys occupied. A giant naked man looks analytically at the three punkers and speaks in an accent I don’t recognize, “Your clothes. Give them to me. Now.” A terrible, unfeeling thing that looks human, but isn’t human, reaches back from the distant, radiation filled future to destroy a child – no, to prevent a child from ever being born.

One of the truly defining characteristics of my generation, Gen-X, is our inability to make decisions, our unwillingness to commit. We shun organizational structure and programs and we insist that we keep our options open until there is literally no option left but the one we take. Growing up with an unprecedented number of choices to make from which of 129 different coffee drinks to purchase today, to which ‘career’ we’ll pursue...until something better comes along...we see almost every choice not in terms of what a thing is, but instead in terms of what a given choice excludes.

I languished after high school because I was totally unable to pick a major. I lingered at junior college for two years because the idea of actually deciding ‘what I wanted to do with my life’ was terrifying! What if I got it wrong? What if I THOUGHT I wanted to be a writer but only because I’d never taken a fencing class – there could be a whole world out there that I shut out just by declaring a major.

And marriage – forget it! Sure, the idea of finding and marrying my soul mate – my lobster – was a great and heart warming idea...but what if I got it wrong. I couldn’t bear the thought of marrying the ‘wrong’ person only to find myself enduring a loveless marriage and ending up just another datum in the well publicised 50% divorce rate. Probably the only decision that scared me more than marriage was the thought of bearing children.

So instead I just waited. I stalled for several years in my mother’s nest. I avoided finishing school, resting instead on being “a career student.” I had a series of “serious” girlfriends. I wasn’t willing to appear fickle or promiscuous, so these relationships were always at least a year long, but while I think all of these women were in earnest about their willingness to marry, or at least consider marriage, I think I always knew that I was incapable of making that choice (in short I was an asshole). I remember once there was a pregnancy scare and the deepest cry of my heart at that moment was relief. Two of my greatest sources of anxiety, who to marry and when to have kids, had been made for me! It wasn’t like a new pressure suddenly appeared on my shoulders but rather that two huge ones had been removed. When if turned out to be a mistake, the period was just late, I was disappointed – and not because I had glimpsed my child’s eye and now saw that gaze fading away, but because I was back to that old uncomfortable ‘maybe.’ Wanting to BE married, but unwilling to GET married.

Hoping that something outside of myself would make my choices clear, sitting still, becalmed in the fog of my life was better than risking running aground on the rocks that might be ahead, and standing still was far, far better than actively approaching the apocalyptic future I knew to be inevitable.

I’m told that my parents used to have nuclear war drills in school, where the sirens would wail and all the Buster Brown wearing kids would duck under their desks. By the time I was in school, knowing that the missiles were coming meant walking out to the Rim and waiting for Norton Air Force base, a mile below us, to go up in a mushroom cloud. Hide under my desk? Attempt to survive? Fuck that noise! I wanted to be fuel for the first fireball and not fighting with mutants for the last dented can of creamed corn. Let me put it more succinctly.

There was no future worth having.

As I grew up, nuclear holocaust was a foregone conclusion. It wasn’t if, but when. And it really had nothing to do with what anybody did – it wasn’t anybody’s fault – it was just going to happen. Sooner or later somebody with a key and a death-wish would launch one little missile, it didn’t matter whether it was Soviet or American, and that would be that. Mutually Assured Destruction was the term – and it said all there was to say – my destruction was assured. Even if somehow the nukes didn’t get us, the pollution would. If it wasn’t the pollution, it was the ice age. If not the ice age, it was the fragging androids. Movies like Blade Runner and The Day After painted a sickeningly dark – but deeply believable picture of what I had to look forward to. And The Terminator, probably more than anything else, was the catalyst for my nightmares.

The movie is set not in the skull strewn future that the robot comes from, but in the sunny, bustling world of modern LA. When Reese explains who he is he says he’s from “one of many possible futures.” It’s not that Judgment Day is inevitable, but it is so powerful, so charged with emotion and blood and stainless steel, that it reaches back into the 80’s, my every day, and literally creates itself. Sarah’s raw, instinctual drive to do nothing more complicated than save her own life, is what actually dooms her and the world. One simple woman, doing only what she thinks is right, kills everybody.

The suggestion is that things might have been different. If she had only given in – not fought so hard – her death, her submission, would have prevented that particular future for ever coming to be. All options were bad options, but some were worse.

All futures were miserable futures. That was my childhood and adolescence. No wonder I grew up unwilling to make any sort of decision. Any choice heavier than what to have form breakfast meant having an eye on the future and I wretched at what I saw there. So instead I chose to do nothing – hoping against hope that some escape would open up. When the Berlin Wall came down I was more perplexed than excited. I can’t say that it seemed too good to be true, because it didn’t really seem ‘good’ to me at the time. Better than a poke in the eye – sure – but I really couldn’t understand what it meant.

It took no less than a decade for that event to bloom in my heart as hope. It was that long before dystopian visions of the future like The Matrix felt like warnings instead of prescriptions. It took those years to unlearn my anxiety, to look out ahead of myself and plan.

I look today at this war on terror and even the nuclear threat represented by Iran or North Korea, even China, and find myself wondering at the hand wringing. From my perspective, even the worst possible scenario – say a half-dozen nukes in major cities and 50 million people vaporized – is so much less, by a factor of 100, then what I grew up assuming to be inescapable. As grim as the possibilities are today I’m filled not with a sense of what WILL be, but rather what CAN be.

It’s sort of ironic that as my faith in Christ has grown, and with it my faith that the “real” apocalypse is coming in time, that my hope for the future – my future – grows ever brighter. And not for some morbid sense that I’ll be on the right side of that coming equation but because I’ve come to understand love – love that “hopeth all things” – even hope that there is joy and life and contentment in my future, and that of my children.

That hope allows me to choose, allows me to commit, allows me to move.

It was on Easter Sunday, the celebration of life’s victory over death, in the year 2000 that I proposed to my wife. The hysteria and subsequent non-event of the Millennium was the last nail in that coffin of wicked anticipation. Rebekah was the first woman that I felt like I had pursued as opposed to being pursued. I had just graduated from George Fox University – with a major in history, and with honors. I had recently begun my first ‘career’ as a web developer and less than a year later I would purchase my very first house.

I feel now that Hamlet was right. “To be, or not to be...that is the question.” Wandering in the world without purpose, without vision, without action we become like the vampires we seem so enamored with; neither alive nor dead, just there – sucking the life from everything we encounter. Not immortal, but a-mortal. And yet for most of us, life happens anyway. We fall in love despite ourselves. We bear children often on accident, jobs become careers by virtue of how long we stall there.

This change of heart has lead to some unexpected consequences in my life. Not only am I willing to seek things; love, success, my Lord, but it’s also made me willing to risk those same things – to take a loan against my home to start a business for instance. It’s not that I’m sure of my success, but rather I’m sure my ability to get up again if I fail. This is NOT my last chance, and even it it were so the hell what?

So if I’ve learned one thing – forget what lays behind. Strive toward what lays ahead. Press on.


Marilyn said...

Nice try but I'm not buying it. If you spent too much of your early years watching Schwarzenegger playout seriously mental movies that was your choice. Some people saw such movies and were motivated to go out and do stuff to ensure a better future.

Although being from a Christian home there was always the constant waiting for the rapture and the idea that surely it would be soon. Which gave me the impression that planning for the long-term was kind of pointless. So I get what your saying.

Nice bit of writing though and of course I think the last bit was the best.

Lisa said...

Hey, Toph.

I certainly can relate to the idea of waiting for life to force itself upon me rather than dare to make a decision. It's easy to say "Oh, look...God threw this [job, housing situation, person, etc.] in my lap..." I wonder now how often I've ignored God's quiet whisper under the guise of, "Well, I'm not very good at hearing His will so I just wait for Him to hit me with the proverbial 2x4." Scary.

On another note, what do you make of the US continuing to develop "bunker buster" bombs all the while enforcing that other countries should not develop nuclear capabilities? That "bends my noodle" as you would say...