In The Ashes Of Dreams

Part 3 of 10 from the NOTES FROM THE BREAKDOWN LANE series:

When I told him his name was going to be Adolphus he laughed that sudden, characteristic laugh of his. He asked me why Adolphus, and I shrugged and said I really didn’t know, that’s just the way it was going to be. Then I asked him how he felt about being named something so closely akin to the name of one of the worst dictators and mass murderers in the history of the world. He laughed again and just shrugged, never looking up from the cigarette he was rolling, and said “Hey, at least the man knew how to get shit done.”

We’d been drinking and playing chess since mid-afternoon. We’d started with beer, then moved to wine around dinner time, and when that ran out we moved to vodka and cranberry juice, and it had turned into that time of night when time seems to stop mattering. Mission accomplished. We needed a little relief from that stretch of hot, desperate summer nights, back when the world first seemed to be quietly tilting towards doom and gloom.

Or mine was, at least. I’d gone through a cascading series of personal and professional disasters that had me as back on my heels as I ever thought I could go. So I’d escape up to the city whenever I could, the city that I’d loved and lost, and stow myself away for a while at Adolphus’s little roof deck apartment, and take refuge in strong drink and good company. Looking back, those nights may very well have been the only fuel to keep me going through those days.

He asked if I wanted to play another game and I said sure, even though we both knew we were at the point where the game was just background noise. Now was the time for thinking big and feeling good, and reassuring one another that somehow, and in some way, the path that each of us found ourselves on was moving in the right direction. And so as he set up the board I further laid out my latest and greatest plan.

I was going to write a book, of some sort, I’d explained. And I was going to take it seriously this time too. I’d recently found a worn out, musty cardboard box tucked away in the back of the closet of my bedroom at home. I must have stuffed it back there years ago, but i had no recollection of ever doing so. It was full of notebooks and journals and photographs and letters, like a time capsule I had left myself from the past. There were writings in there going as far back as grade school, and when I’d sifted through the contents it felt like an archaeologist carefully examining artifacts of someone who had long since disappeared.

“I think the key is in there somewhere, somehow,” I remember saying, fully convinced about that fact, but having no real idea why. Hell, I wasn’t even sure why I’d given him the name Adolphus right then, but it felt like it was better than nothing, so we stepped outside to the porch to have a smoke and laugh about it.

“I love it, man,” he said, as we looked out over the row of other triple deckers. “And as you go through all that stuff you’re going to find things you’d completely forgotten about, and reconnect with parts of yourself that you didn’t even know had faded away. Life’s inner journey man, it’s a beautiful thing.”

That was Adolphus for you: the soul of a poet, scholar, and video game junkie, all rolled into one. He was a deep runner, and the more a situation was framed as an existential crisis the better equipped he was to handle it. And it was exactly the kind of advice I needed - or was looking for anyways.

I’d first met him about ten years prior, when we both moved into the house at Wait Street, and we’d hit it off right from the start. In fact, anyone who would move into that place - or even spend any real time there, for that matter - would be by de facto someone I’d probably get along with just by the simple act of being there. It was a real bohemian type of situation, which necessarily relied more on harmony than organization, since it was never really even clear how many people were actually living there at any given time. The house itself had paper thin walls, ancient wiring, windows that would rattle in the wind and old, cast-iron radiators that would bang and clang whenever we tried to heat the leaky house in the winter.

For some people that old place looked simply like a flophouse, just a temporary camp for wandering souls to huddle up and have poker parties and long community dinners with plenty of wine and pot and talk about politics that would spiral off to nowhere. And to be sure, in those rare moments when there was no one else around the place had such a bare and uncomfortable feel to it that I would almost always find myself slipping away to the familiar din of the neighborhood bar. But when it filled back up with roommates and friends it brimmed with light and laughter, and remains in my mind one of the warmest places I would ever live, regardless of the season.

But those days of hard scrambling living and bunking up with artists and grad students had passed, and so too had our long season of thinking in big, vague and rosy terms about the future, simply because there was so much of it left that it seemed to fill up the whole screen. All those friends and roommates and raucous nights and crazy dreams that we’d shared around the kitchen table had eventually scattered, of course, like leaves that had slowly lost their color and surrendered themselves to the wind.

Most of the others had blown off in the direction of career and family and kids, and all the other wonderful trappings of a normal and conventional sounding life. But for guys like Adolphus and I, the wind wasn’t blowing in that direction. We were still drifting around, just without a tribe now, and for two men who had spent their entire lives raising themselves it had become abundantly clear as time went on that there was still a lot to learn, and for me anyways, that learning had something to do with some kind of puzzle that I had to put together front the contents of that cardboard box.

But learning isn’t really the right word for it - that term implies receiving an instruction or fact and then being able to incorporate it immediately into action, knowledge or skillset. But the human mind operates at seething like 97% subconsciously, so patterns that are ingrained - at an early age especially - don’t just get changed with a simple piece of factual knowledge. That’s why bad habits are so hard to break, and why no one is cured of all their ills just by reading a book, no matter how insightful it might be. To turn a battleship around it takes one degree at a time, and requires a lot more muscle than brain - a fact neither of us fully appreciated at the time.

So we had set out to educate ourselves, and do our best to keep chasing those dreams that had once chased us around the kitchen table during those far off nights, and somehow find a little bit of happiness along the way as well. We read books, and swapped stories and insights. If we had other tools in the toolbox at the time we would have used those too, but the irony there was that it was a lack of tools to begin with that was the problem, so we were stuck just pushing forward with what we had.

One book that proved particularly insightful was Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, a book I’d picked up specifically to investigate the concept of success. In it there was a two part section that struck a chord, and helped spark a change in my course of thinking that would last far longer than I anticipated at the time. In it Gladwell focuses on the difference between analytic intelligence, the type of smarts that is measured by IQ and is largely innate in your genes, and practical intelligence, the type that helps you navigate the world around you and is knowledge based, or - to put it another way - is dependent on the environment in which you were raised.

To make his point Gladwell weaves the tale of two men on similar genius with a study performed on a dozen sets of school children, half from middle class families and the other half from poorer families. The study was meant to discover the differences in how the children were raised, and in it they found only one major one. The upper class children were raised in an environment of what was termed “concerted cultivation”, where the parents were heavily involved and concerned about their children’s development, and considered talents and interests to be something fostered and guided into greater development. These children learned to interact with their environments on a much capable manner, learning to develop a sense of self-advocacy that would serve them well in all aspects of life later on in life. The lower class children were raised in environments dubbed “accomplishment of natural growth” and were essentially left to fend for themselves when it came to extracurricular actives and developing their talents. These were the latch key kids, and though they tended to do well in the categories of independence and creativity, they lacked the ability to navigate the world and engage it on their own terms the same way their upperclass counterparts could.

The two men Gladwell compares in these chapters are Robert Oppenheimer, who had considerable genius and an upper crust background with parents who consciously nurtured his talents, and Christopher Langan, a man of such genius that it literally went off the scale when they tried to measure it, but who grew up in rural Montana in a household with a drunken deadbeat and absentee father, and a single mother who could barely take care of herself much less recognize and nurture her genius son’s talents. Spoiler alert: Oppenheimer went on to become famous for heading up the Manhattan Project, the US’s nuclear program that would prove decisive to winning World War 2, and Langan would end up spending the bulk of his career doing math questions for his own personal enjoyment as he worked as a bouncer in Montana before retiring to a horse farm in northern Missouri.

Which was not good news for Adolphus and I. Not that either one of us was much of a genius by any stretch, but neither did either of us have the kind of background that even remotely promoted practical intelligence. And, as it turns out, that’s something that’s either baked in early, or you have to spend the rest of your life learning to rewire yourself to self-correct, and turn that battleship in the direction that you know its supposed to be going in.

But ignorance is bliss, and sometimes a little blindness can shield us from the pitfalls and horrors that might otherwise stop us dead in out tracks. And we had nothing if not plenty of blindness. The practical thing to do at that time would have been to go out and find a good job, and take concrete steps to turn my life back there around. What would end up happening instead was I would spend a few months trying to turn the crap I found in that box into something worth reading, until life finally would catch up with me and deal a final death blow to the miserable existence I was trying so desperately hang on to, and send me packing all the way to the other side of the country.

And thank God for that. As the story of Christopher Langan clearly illustrates, there are some lessons even a super genius can’t learn from a book. So sometimes maybe you have to die a little to start living again. Sometimes maybe its best just to start over completely, with a fresh blank slate, and let go of everything that came before. Sometimes pain and loss can be where the most important lessons lie, if you are willing to be open to them, and I would eventually figure out how to be grateful that I wasn’t given much of a choice.

But I still miss those nights with Adophus, and retiring to that spirit of blind optimism that we’d spark in one another as we drank and laughed and played chess all of those long nights. I still keep in touch with him and talk on the phone once in a while, usually as I pace underneath the palm trees of the desert night sky, cell phone in one hand and a glass of wine in another. I will have what remains of the cardboard box too, now whittled down to the size of a shoe box. I had again stiffed it in the back of a closet and went through it the other day. There were still some of the more important pieces from my childhood and a few photographs and notes I’d taken. And there was a journal I’d decided to begin back then, in order to track my progress as I wrote my book. On the title page I’d written “Just don’t overthink this.” The rest of the pages were blank.