To My Dearest Boulder, Part II: We Need To Talk
So far in my adult life, I have lived in some of the country’s most expensive places. In Manhattan, where I first went to school, I was on a fairly generous scholarship from the university I attended, and was thusly shielded from many of New York’s financial perils, but they were always in full view beyond my walls. In Honolulu, I broke my body waiting tables, and then eventually donned a tie for the State, moving papers from one side of my desk to the other, a white-shirted picket in the bureaucratic fence. I got by. And now I find myself in Boulder, a city that is certainly by no means cheap. It’s livable, workable, in the way that my other experiences have been, by which I mean that there are more than enough sacrifices able to be made for a spot in the nest.
When I worked for the Department of Transportation, I was actually doing quite well, to be honest. Government positions are cushy, and inviting, and offer a sense of security that works to assuage all of the societal fears and anxieties instilled by the tenets of capitalism, realistic or not – the idea that we are all offered the opportunity to gather for ourselves as much as we need and more, and, beyond that, that we should. And it is frightening, in retrospect, to realize how truly palliative it was to take home a paycheck every two weeks that so calmed my nerves, filling my bank account with something intangible and yet powerful enough leave me feeling safe, protected, from something even less tangible, more powerful: lack. Paucity. The possibility of not having enough, and the terrors that might befall us should we ever land upon such barrenness.
I did not have to worry about paying my bills, or from where my meals would come, or defaulting on my student loans. But I also did not really have time to worry about those things, at least not in any really philosophically or existentially fulfilling way. I did not have the energy to ponder much my place in any of the systems or institutions I inhabited. I did not have much time or energy for anything other than work.
Traffic in Hawaii, among the worst in the nation, consumed sometimes up to four full hours of any single weekday, bookending a 9-5 structure that itself was without variation. Friday afternoons were filled with a relief and an elation that was subtly disconcerting, and Sunday evenings were downright macabre as the hours were whittled away into the shapes of my predawn alarms. My life was on a very specific track, financially secure monotony that, by my second or third month in the office, was starting to wear on me spiritually in ways that I could not even recognize at the time.
This is not a new story, and I would never claim these realizations to be profound. The fears of white-collar imprisonment and stagnation and collapsing in a rat race, parched and thirsty for something soul-quenching, are the tired sighs of every would-be vagabond, and our social history would have us believe that nonconformity inspired an entire generation, the counterculture of the 1960s still lauded as some halcyon period of some collective self’s awakening. And yet I spent the better part of 2015 processing overtime claims on a weekly basis for two thousand men and women who I would never meet. Perhaps some harsh realities are undefeatable.
I look back on my time spent in this role, and I do not shudder. They were months spent with some of the closest friends I have in my life, weeks’ worth of hours spent crawling along highways in groggy carpool conversation, humbling lessons taught to me about the mastodonic and slow-moving machinery of the greater systems with which we all interact on a daily basis, an opportunity to see behind the curtain. I am happy to have tasted all that I did as an Account Clerk II, payroll designation D3-J, and to know intimately the soothing coos of society’s safe songs. And when I left that world, it was not because I was running from some nightmare from which I was roused, the death-in-life that I saw my future becoming. My circumstances simply changed, and I moved on.
Back to Boulder. I will have soon been here for a full year, and I have spent a lot of effort trying to balance my scales. On one side sits financial responsibility and security, and on the other my leisure, my relationships, my personal endeavors. I work over forty hours per week, split between two jobs, and at the end of each month I am spent, literally. I have opportunities to put more time in on the clock, and to remove from the latter half of my life the things that I truly cherish – writing, reading, climbing, my friendships – in an effort to get ahead of my expenses, to break the paycheck-to-paycheck cycle into which I have fallen.
And the effort at this point just sounds exhausting, because the things that I mentioned above, all of the various expressions of love in my life, fulfill me in a way that no job ever has, and this crossroads at which I find myself has halted me with a watershed gravity far greater than the beginnings of the paths I have chosen to follow in my past. I know that the choices I make in this season of my life will impact my future with greater refinement. That the nightmare of putrefaction from which I did not have to wake in Hawaii is only that much closer, should I step in that direction. I have to elect to what it is I will give myself.
If time is a finite resource, then I must decide its worth, lest it be decided for me. And in my accounting and number crunching, I have always arrived at a bottom line that values my hours at far more than what I am being paid for them. I have a list of books I want to read that is at least a hundred long, that grows faster than I can chew through it. I have stories that I want to write, and letters to those I love, cities I want to see. Friends and family who I have not had the opportunity to visit in far too long. Highways to drive and mountains to climb. An afternoon spent in the shade of a tree with a book and a pen could only be traded in good conscience for far more than anyone is yet willing to give me. This has always been the case, and yet I have until recently not had the courage to deny my being shortchanged.
I do not want to submit to agony or despair or to question what I’m going to do when I feel that I am unable to fit into a specific set of parameters, held hostage by a set of unpaid balances. I want to set the parameters. To not think outside of the box, but to change the box’s shape. What this will entail I am only now beginning to work out, but I can not wait any longer. I don’t want to wait for another career opportunity to present itself that might allow me enough time on the side to do the things that I want to do. I want to truly do those things first, and then work to support that. Boulder, I would love to stay with you, and I’m sure that I will for at least some time longer. And that I will always return in some way. I just can’t right now give you something traditional, my full attention. I can’t give you all of myself.
But do you know what I appreciate most? For what I am most grateful? The fact that this city has never really asked that of me. That it has never wanted to tie me down or stifle my growth. That I have never once felt here the oppressive indifference of New York or the isolation of the islands. If anything, Boulder has been nothing but supportive and enabling of all of the things that I have wanted to do. It has both forged for me the sword and summoned to me the beast. It has provided a place for these realizations to occur. It has been a cradle of my life, the place for my nascent desires to finally begin their development.
Boulder has been given the endearing sobriquet of “The Bubble,” knighted as a standalone community that has isolated itself in its values and eschewed the realities of the outside world in preference of its own drum’s beat. This strange idea and its inherent metacognitive pretension has invited the breeding of cynicism and hip irony and defense of the self against the self in the face of the recursive cool/uncool back-and-forth. Hell, just Google “The Boulder Bubble” and witness pages and pages of blogs and articles detailing this self-awareness in its many forms. Hell, witness me doing it right now.
A bubble implies a fixed boundary, but I have felt the city to be an inversion of that, a community that has a much more fluid perimeter than other places. At the bottom of everything, living here is very much what we make of it. We can complain about university traffic, and then be thankful for a reliable and extensive public transportation network that keeps thousands more cars off the road than there already are. We can scoff at the blatant white privilege and the heinous amounts of money that are thrown around, the skyrocketing of property values that is dragging rent behind it and ever-upward, and then spend a day at one of the many beautiful public spaces that is kept not just afloat but flourishing by tax money.
Where else is living in your car so acceptable? In which other cities is local business so supported, are the outdoors so lauded, is health- and environmental-consciousness at the forefront of the legislative agenda? Many places, I’m sure, which is wonderful. But in Boulder, too. And that’s where I’ve been while thinking about the life that I truly want to lead, and the changes that I want to make. And it’s where I haven’t felt crazy for doing so.