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I feel them sometimes.
I don’t know how much of it is science, or overactive imagination. But whether real or perceived, the universes in which my alternate selves exist seem very tangible on certain days.
Which one feels closer varies. Today, driving through the carefully HOA-managed suburbs, I seem to see them through the eyes of the me who decided to belong there. He is a middle manager of some description. Maybe he never left the bank after the crash a decade ago. Knuckled down, got some certifications, and scooched up an economic bracket. He doesn’t love his job, but doesn’t expect to. It is a tool to achieve stability, which he craves just a notch more than this me.
He likely has more than one child, domesticity tending to breed more domesticity. A backyard grill, certainly, for hangouts with his friends, who have also succumbed to the ordinary at long last. They talk about old times, and shake their heads at how foolishly starry-eyed they all were. He can afford better whiskey than this iteration of himself, and maybe has a membership to some appreciation society for fine spirits.
I sense his comfort at placing all of his books and albums in neat order around his study. He definitely has a study. It still occasionally doubles as a studio. Maybe he does a podcast about whatever esoteric subjects capture his attention. Music reviews, perhaps, keeping a foot in his old world. He is more an observer than a participant in the scene these days, having rearranged his priorities around his job and family. Around security.
He still votes Democrat, his empathy nodes unable to conscience modern Randian conservatism, but he may not skew as progressive as he does here. A centrist, more interested in smooth sailing than revolution, for the good of his investment portfolio, which, though certainly not extravagant, offers some actual hope of retirement.
He is ten years into his mortgage, and will be at retirement age when it is paid off. He planned this well, and has kept on top of his health, the better to enjoy the golden years when they arrive. He tries not to dwell on thoughts of downsizing. They restructured his division last year, and he managed to make the cut. Not everyone did. He keeps his head down and ears open for rumblings of future reorganization. He acquires new certifications and attends professional development training to keep himself qualified for any lateral moves that may become necessary. A friend of his works at another bank, and he has that parachute ready to jump over there if things don’t work out. He plans ahead. It’s important to him to know what his options are.
The Corolla got upgraded to a Camry a couple of years ago. Satellite radio, AAA membership. SUVs use too much gas, money that needs to go to school supplies and extracurricular activities for the kids. Though his first child is not athletic, his second one is, and her soccer games and practices occupy a fair number of his evenings. He makes sure to spend equal time with both, though, and pays for the latest tech gear for the oldest, Apple all the way.
I see all of this with perfect clarity today, surrounded by the trappings of American middle-class life. Manicured neighborhood parks, streets ending in brick walls, schools with stadiums recently built by new bonds. Churches he doesn’t attend, but whose stately facades speak of a desire for order. For predictability. He knows the world is chaotic, and he seeks anchors in the storm. Here, he has found them.
There are different days, though, when I sense a different me. The one whose grip on stability loosened rather than tightened during the travails of his youth. The one who is just that bit less afraid of the unknown than me.
He is childless, and eschews long-term romantic relationships. His fulfillment comes from throwing himself wholly at his creative work, and he is prolific. I am never quite certain if he is successful, or what metric one might use to gauge that, but he has minimized his commitments to the point that he survives on his artistic work alone. He produces as well as creates, and is well networked in the local scene as well as others.
He is on the road periodically, whether performing or recording, and goes to conferences. He’s been to SXSW every year for decades, and has friends in the higher levels of the industry, but keeps his own business homegrown. Maybe he owns a studio, or maybe he rents them out as needed. Nothing he’s produced could be classified a “hit,” but he has a steady roster of respected independent artists who keep him up on the list of desirable collaborators.
His own creative output has been similarly received. It sells enough among indie crowds that people know who he is, but he’s not a household name to the masses. Tape Op has interviewed him, as has Pitchfork. He can fill moderately-sized clubs in most locales relatively easily, with a well-chosen opening act. He’s worked with a lot of his heroes by now, and helped some newcomers out along the way who give him shout-outs, keeping him relevant, a must in this industry.
And it is a fickle industry. Budgets for album production have shrunk dramatically during his career, and the goalposts for success have had to shift. He does well enough to get by, but paychecks are unpredictable, and he still keeps his overhead low for fallow periods. He still rents, keeping his options open, and doesn’t spend much time at home anyway. He has occasionally had to turn to moneyed associates to help pay for medical expenses, when they arise, which is more often than he’d like.
Growing older concerns him a bit. Retirement is out of the question. Though his bills are always paid, he hasn’t been able to save anything much, and knows that one major illness could wipe him out. He hopes he can survive on years of accrued goodwill and continued interest in his work, but is acutely aware of the shifting fortunes inherent in this business. He has fraught conversations with others about the paucity of streaming revenues, and the effects that repealing net neutrality might have on non-corporate music marketing. He worries about the little guy, because it’s him.
But, he reasons, better to live one’s dreams than to choose safety and quiet desperation. He, too, can feel alternate selves through the ether at times. Some days, in the spaces between royalty checks, part of him wonders what stability would feel like. Other days, in the throes of the muse, he can’t imagine living any other way.
These are, of course only two iterations in the universe of possible Matthews. There are at least a couple where I am no longer alive, my brushes with death having brushed a bit too close. Certainly an option for outright destitution, my gambles having been risked in error, the support network failing. Perhaps even a more rustic self, living on a commune in Tennessee, off the grid. And maybe even a version with wild success, money at last no longer the object it has always been.
Yet the two selves more fully fleshed out above always seem the closest to hand. Probably because the me that I am here is perched almost exactly between them. There are elements of both in my life as it is in this universe. I have a measure of income predictability via my dayjob, reliable transportation, healthcare, modest nest egg. But like the second iteration, retirement is a pipe dream. However, like that version of myself, I have accrued respect in the local music scene, have worked with some heroes, and have helped give newcomers a bit of a push when needed. I have produced albums for friends, and released many of my own, none of which are “hits,” but which do sell periodically, sometimes without my intervention. If I am not “successful,” neither am I “unsuccessful.”
I live in a state of tension between those alternate selves because I cannot commit fully to either. I know that actual financial and housing stability would require me to apply far more of myself to the office world, to advancement and notoriety in those terms, which are not my own. Likewise, I know that any chance of pushing my creative career to any sort of next level would require pulling up anchor and sailing into the murky seas of complete uncertainty. Which scares me just as much now as it always has. And yes, it would require the playing of games that I don’t take easily to, different but not dissimilar to the ones that exist in the corporate realm.
I have seen too much of life to believe that a perfect world exists. Some series of choices I could have made that would alleviate all of my problems entirely. Move the fader up in one area, you have to draw it down in another. Either you’re Randy Meisner and sacrifice career at your height for family, or you’re Phil Collins, and do the opposite, with alimony payments and songs about regret trailing in your wake. Maybe throwing everything into officeland achievement has the same effect, and you lose out regardless.
Maybe there’s no way to win.
Still, sometimes I like to commune with my alternate selves. I dream a backyard barbecue at my suburban self’s house with me, him, and the one that maybe has a tattoo or two. We would have similar touchstones, and could compare and contrast our responses to them. The choices that made us who we are. Maybe I wouldn’t like them very much. Maybe we’d be pals.
But I feel them today, as I hover still between their shadows on either side. We regard each other across the gulf of lost pasts, irrevocably separated long ago, the roads not taken now lost, overgrown and murky in the mist. We have our friends and loved ones, as we define them, and we have our motivations, some similar, some very different. We all have the future ahead of us, and despite our hopes and plans, not a one of us truly knows what it is.
In the midst of uncertainty, in the grip of seismic cultural and political change, in a world not of our own making, it is oddly reassuring to sense their presences just on the other side of those invisible membranes between worlds. I don’t even care if I’m making them up. They seem real to me, and they give me a nod as I head into another day of not knowing what the hell I’m doing any more than they do.
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