I found the brittle edge at around five in the afternoon – something I had not anticipated. I had thought for sure I would find it in the wee hours, maybe on the highway outside of Nashville, or descending into San Francisco. But it wasn’t in those places. It was at home. But I found it just the same. As often before, I’d been out looking for it.
Wow, that was a theatrical opener. I kind of like it though. I’ll leave it.
And theatrical or no, it’s accurate. If I go searching for limit experiences even in the midst of the most banal business travel, if I go so far as construct that business travel with that desire in mind, it’s only fitting that I accept a certain characterization as a drama queen. It’s not wrong. But it begs some interesting questions. Let me back up a bit.
When last I posted I was holed up in the airport, trying to get to Florida for a speaking engagement. I made it, very late, and was obliged to drive an hour up the coast in a rented Dodge Ram 1500, a vehicle I never wanted to drive and, having driven one, never particularly want to drive again. It was titanic, smelly in the wet-dog way of all southern vehicles with fabric seats, and had the turn radius of an aircraft carrier. Exactly what you want when you’re exhausted and bleary at 1am. The next day I did my little song and dance, trundled back to the airport in my monster truck, and flew home, arriving late once more. The next day was one of rest, and I had the boys so I deliberately shut off everything but them for twenty four hours. By Sunday, I was back on the road, taking a red-eye to Nashville. Another late landing, another rental car, another hour-long drive, a day of presentations, then a haul-ass dash back to the airport for another consecutive red-eye, this time to San Francisco. The next day was a six-hour sales pitch and product demo performed in one of the most fucktangular vortexes of corporate dysfunction that its ever been my privilege to witness (and friend, I’ve seen a few). Then a third red-eye home. No real rest yet though; my calendar for the next day was already slammed, so though I made it to my own bed, I still had to keep things to about four hours of sleep.
But I didn’t find the edge. I looked. I kept my eyes open, so to speak, but I didn’t hit it. Between adrenaline and performative muscle memory it all went reasonably well (excepting the unreconstructed dickfire of the final presentation, which was no fault of mine). I was tired, I suppose, but I didn’t really feel it. I wondered if I’d really done enough.
Back in the office at last on Wednesday, I touched base with the guys on my team. I have an outstanding team – I’m lucky to work with these gentlemen. And we know each other well. Well enough that when I gave a rundown to my boy Drew, he simply said, “Why do you do this to yourself?”
Now I have canned answers for that. The canned answers are even true, to an extent. “Maximizing time with the kids,” I’ll say, or, “Just trying to get as much into one trip as I can.” All true, on both fronts. Also basically horseshit, which Drew is sharp enough to know. If I’d wanted to push back on those trips, establish a protective boundary around how much I would have to push to get them done, I could have. No one would have had a problem with that. I absolutely did want to make sure I had time with the boys, and I did want to be at all these things. I did believe, and do believe, that my being there made a difference. But I could have eased off the gas if I’d wanted to. I just didn’t want to.
Nobody who knows me has ever accused me of living an unexamined life. Whether it’s been examined with any particular competence is a separate question. But I try, legitimately, to achieve a certain self-awareness. Which I think is what makes it so very interesting, for someone like me, to find the points in my life where I don’t really have a great handle on what I do, or precisely why I do it. And with this one in particular, it’s all the more interesting because so far as I can remember, it’s always been there. I’ve always had a fascination with pushing things a little too far, seeing how far it’s possible to take a given experience, and finding out what happens when you go past that.
Back in 1982 the Dutch band Golden Earring released a song called Twilight Zone. Most people don’t know that it’s called Twilight Zone. It seems to be better known as the “bullet hits the bone song.” Or you can sing the famous bass line (dum-dum-DA-Dah, dum, da-DA-da) and anybody’ll know it. I’m not going to make a case for it being a particularly great song or anything. I like it, but I have a broad fondness for the un-ironic hot cheese of the era. I can’t justify this on any sort of cultural or aesthetic ground, and I won’t try. But I remember clearly when the song came out, for two reasons. One was that my mom found the bullet/bone reference distasteful, which I suppose it is. The other was a lyric at the end of the chorus, which stuck in my brain and never left: Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far?
I mean, I was nine. The age my youngest son is now. And yet I’ve been trying to answer that question my entire life.
This isn’t the time for a catalogue of my excesses over the years, and I’d prefer not to lay one out. But it’s one of the things I understand least about myself. Certainly it’s never been tied into any utilitarian calculus of benefit. It predates all that anyway. I’m not even sure it’s the kind of thing that wants to be explained, and not just for me. A little while back I started getting interested in Michel Foucault, digging fairly deeply into his work as well as the excellent biography by James Miller. Relatively early on, Foucault had a lot to say about what he termed the limit-experience. He described this as an experience at the edge of what’s possible to endure, even to survive. Something of sufficient intensity to separate the subject, as it were, from itself. Something enabling, under certain circumstances, a kind of transformative change. Certainly, he spent a great deal of his own life involved in the genuine, deeply personal pursuit of precisely those experiences.
Yet by the time you get to his later works, particularly his History of Sexuality, the limit-experience is generally absent. Which one might just find a little odd, considering that it was on the field of sexuality that Foucault chose to play out his own, committed search for the limit-experience itself. I’m not a qualified Foucault scholar, by any means, but I wonder if at some point he wound up absorbing the search for the limit-experience back into whatever was personal to him, leaving its greater context aside. I don’t know.
Now I’m not about to compare a few days of grueling business travel and sales presentation to the extravagant rigors of Foucault’s extreme, gay sexual sadomasochism. The parallels are certainly there, but this post is long enough. I’m not sure why I went looking for that edge this week, only that I did. And I found it. Not on the road, however – I was apparently (to my detriment) too tough for that. I found it at the end of my first full day home. Still drastically behind on sleep, it came as I was finally headed back to my house, suddenly feeling the world swim and go a bit glassy. Which meant that I was finding that certain ragged edge of feeling right at the point when I needed to pull things together and invest a good four more hours in being a dad.
And I did it. I did that, and it was okay. The boys didn’t mind me snuggling them on the couch a little more than usual. I got everyone safely and appropriately to bed, lunches packed, homework sorted, outfits chosen, before passing out. But I did it all through a kind of shaky haze, and it made me think. The fact that I pulled it off doesn’t make it any way to parent. Sometimes you wind up parenting from that place anyway, and I know how, but why create that when you don’t have to? So I don’t think I get away with not examining all this a little more closely. I don’t think I can quite let myself off that hook.
Because for better or for worse this is the one answer that I’ve found, more than once, to the question “Where am I to go now that I’ve gone too far?” Home, is the answer. Home, to everything that’s waiting for you there.