Life · Literature

Call Me Anonymous

When I was first introduced to postmodernism as an undergraduate in a literature course, I felt like the world was melting away, slipping through my fingers. The small, ineffectual grip I once had on reality suddenly vanished and I left class each session feeling like I just had a lobotomy.

About two years ago I started introducing myself as Jaclyn instead of Jackie to anyone I met that wasn’t from my hometown. It’s not like I changed my name. “Jaclyn” is on my birth certificate. But this was my vain attempt to reinvent or refashion myself. I didn’t feel like the same person anymore and this was my symbolic way of showing it. How many billions of times have we heard the utterance, “What’s in a name?” without being fully confident enough to answer it. (Shakespeare makes a pretty solid point about it, though.) If my name is a sign in the semiotic, postmodern nightmarish sense of the word, my existence is then the signified. Jaclyn is not Jackie, but I don’t know if I could really articulate the signification of either. I do know, though, that Jackie is still with me. I often feel it is as if I am living a dual life; the two opposing parts of me–the person I’ve been and this new person I’m trying to become–never quite come together, but still refuse to part. Whether I’m sitting in a graduate seminar at NYU or bellied up to a bar in my hometown, I want to just say “Call me anonymous.” That seems like a lot less pressure.

It is an odd thing to realize that there is probably no one single person that really knows you. And I don’t just mean when you travel alone or even move to a new city or a new country where the closest recognizable person might be hundreds of miles away, maybe thousands. Maybe across the ocean like when I moved to London and had a panic attack when my cell phone didn’t work after my sister flew back to New York. We can experience that same feeling of loneliness even if we have ten friends all with us on the island of Manhattan.  What I mean to say is, how many people in our lives really know all the parts of us? Of course different people serve different purposes in our lives, have certain things in common with us and not others, but is it ever possible to know every side of a human being that is as complex as we all are?

To the majority of people that claim to know me as I claim to know them, if I said that Jameson has had a profound effect on my life, they would assume I was talking about shooting whiskey and surviving a massive hangover. They wouldn’t know that one of the essential ways that I’ve come to define and understand myself is through studying literature and cultural theory. I don’t mean to imply that I will ever be a connoisseur of either, but my entire adult life has been that of a student; it is all I know. My friends don’t know any of the papers I’ve written, the hundreds of books I’ve read over my eight-year career in higher education. These same people who have known me for years wouldn’t understand me if I told them I was nostalgic for the present. But Fredric Jameson would. Now there’s a good friend.

I don’t mean to deny the fact that the liquid Jameson has also not played a major part in my life. To an Irish girl from a small, predominantly Irish town, drinking is a way of life. I would not be surprised if people had no idea I ever even left Greenwood Lake since, like how we experience it in childhood, time moves much slower here, I guess because not much every really changes. When I walk in to Murphy’s Tavern it is the same way I feel when I walk into my parents house. My dog Oscar doesn’t know if I’ve been gone an hour or a month, maybe even a year. I’m not equating my fellow bar patrons with animals, though there’s a few dogs in the bunch; I simply mean to say that time seems to be measured much differently in my hometown than other places I’ve lived. If for T.S. Eliot and the cast of Rent, time is measured in coffee cups, for Greenwood Lakers perhaps its measured in shots of Jameson. We drink to celebrate, to mourn, to survive. It doesn’t help your consumption levels when your relations own the town watering hole. It’s even harder when alcoholism is as popular in my family as blue eyes and dark hair. Drinking, as we know, becomes a vicious circle if you don’t watch out. How ironic that sometimes our methods of survival can actually kill us. No one in Greenwood Lake seems to be watching. Except for my parents. “You’re going out again?” They are of only a few of the rare specimens in our town that stay home on most nights and would rather measure their lives in cups of coffee.

Fredrik Jameson knows me. The first time he spoke to me from that giant theory and criticism anthology, what he said did go down with a burn, I won’t lie. But unlike other friends that have come and gone, Jameson is always there. And what he tells me now I’m able to ingest without a sour face.

I would argue that we all walk around with some essence of nostalgia, not just for the past, but also for the present, as my friend Jameson would say. I think we can all agree that time–that illusory way we make sure schedules can happen–seems to speed up. Einstein is not the only one who contemplated this phenomenon when he studied the speed of light. Children know that a year is essentially an eon. By the time we reach our mid-twenties a year feels like no time at all and suddenly we feel like we’re running out of something we never really had in the first place. We can’t hold on to time.

But something else happens around this age. I think we start to understand who we really are around our mid-twenties. Of course I can only attest to this by personal experience and the selective parts of people who have told me they’ve experienced something similar. Maybe that’s why I’ve started to feel like no one knows me: I didn’t know me until fairly recently. I didn’t really know what Jameson was trying to tell me either.

I understand it is perfectly probable that if I do in fact survive, in another ten years I will probably reevaluate all of this and laugh at how ridiculous I sound. So young, no naive. But I’ll also feel nostalgic for the age I am now. I’ll hear songs, see images, smell scents that are “so ten years ago.” And I’ll feel old and wise, but I won’t be. Is this some kind of nostalgia for the future? Now I’m really getting ahead of myself.

I hate when people ask me where I’m from as much as I hate the feelings of existential crisis aroused by this idea of a name. (Of course these are trivial, first world problems of a girl, anonymous or not, who has way too much time to think, apparently.) It is not because I am ashamed of where I come from or where I live now; in fact I love my childhood home, enough so that I will pause in a rather lengthy digression to describe it. This is, after all, my essay.

My parents’ house where I grew up has been situated on their three-acre lot on the side of a mountain of Sterling Forest for the past twenty years. One of my first memories is visiting the lot as I sat atop my father’s shoulders while he trekked up the steady rise that would one day become our driveway.  The house fits in with the lay of the land, as if nature dictated where my father had placed that house he built at night for a year after his daytime job as a carpenter in New York City.  The architectural design which my Dad customized back in 1989 has since been altered as my parents have added to it, but the major features, the original character of the place, remains intact. The house with its cedar siding adds to the effect of its rightful placement up on the hill, flanked by trees of a similar hue.  The local wildlife seems to agree with the natural setting of my parents’ home, as trails of turkeys, deer, bear, and an occasional coyote, to mention a few, frequently visit, peering in our windows as if the man made structure was a natural phenomenon. Perhaps it is.

The house I call home stands in relative isolation. My parents don’t have any neighbors in the traditional sense, but we did make a trail through the woods to my father’s childhood best friend’s home about 100 yards to the south on Old Tuxedo Road. Structurally our house is bookended by two fireplaces and follows a circular pattern within so that there is always more than one way to exit any room on the ground floor.

Upstairs the bedrooms all provide great views of the surrounding forest, especially the master bedroom that overlooks Warwick Mountain. The front porch also faces this mountain to the west, providing sunsets over the horizon, and a great place for summer naps, reading, meditation, and the like. A host of wildlife passes through on the front lawn making them available for easy viewing. The porch is made entirely of cedar and stone, a woodsy retreat attached to the house by sliding glass doors. The interior of the house also contains these natural elements—hardwood floors and stone tiles and countertops throughout. There are large windows in every room, including a skylight in the main living room. Each season in our pocket of upstate New York is accompanied by drastic changes in temperature and distortion of one’s sense of place. During the winter, the house feels even more isolated than the other seasons, even though this is when the trees are most barren and one can catch glimpses of the road, or the home recently built to the north. The snow accumulation up on the side of the mountain far surpasses that of the town below. In spring the wildlife returns with the onset of the budding trees and plants and the world is suddenly green. This continues throughout the summer when temperatures linger in the 80s and 90s at the peak of day. This is the height of action around the property when the bees are buzzing, and our Dachshund, Oscar, chases the squirrels, chipmunks, and Garder snakes that find their way in and out of the stone retaining wall around the pool. At night the cicadas are nearly deafening, but deliciously so, and the only thing between us and the constellations above is the occasional bat flying overhead. As the summer gives way to autumn, the turkeys and deer are most abundant. The dying leaves are a vision of bitter sweetness as the enchanting rich colors that envelop the house is only a premonition of the long, treacherous winter that will soon come bearing the cold. These changes are a part of home.

But to really understand the place I grew up, it must be placed within a larger context. It stands outside the village limits—Greenwood Lake, NY being a village within the town of Warwick, a larger, wealthier area slightly to the northwest. Greenwood Lake is a one-traffic light town full of New York City commuters and blue-collar types most of which frequent the three major bars in town. Greenwood Lake was once a popular destination for vacationing, many of the houses were once bungalows never intended to be permanent residences. These houses surround the main feature of the town, the nine-mile lake that initially attracted vacationers, along with New York’s 18-year-old drinking law when New Jersey, which owns less than a third of the lake, was already at 21. Greenwood Lake once held the record for most bars per square mile, but I’m not sure where a fact checker might verify this. Sometimes I wonder if its just a town legend. The drinking legacy still persists despite the closure of many of the establishments of Greenwood Lake’s heyday back in the 60s and 70s.

Greenwood Lake’s association with Warwick has a paradoxical effect. Homes are generally cheaper in the village and its reputation for drug and alcohol use has caused those in Warwick to look down upon the Lake which lacks the yuppie quality of Warwick’s more trendy main street restaurants and shops, their farmer’s market, and much larger school system. Greenwood Lake still does not have its own high school—a factor that village residents have been fighting over since forever. But then again, it is still part of Warwick whether they like it or not, and so Greenwood Lake residents may lay claim on Warwick’s amenities. My parents’ house is both within and without the context of Greenwood Lake. Its isolation up in the woods and location beyond the village limits makes it feel detached from Greenwood Lake, yet our rural location necessitates drives to the village to use of the post office and convenience store.

My childhood home is in a word, idyllic, and the surrounding landscape truly bucolic. Theocritus would certainly write a poem about it, but since he’s no longer with us, you’ll have to take my version of it as rough and rugged as my prose and my person may at times come across.

As I said, many people from our town commute daily to New York City, about 50 miles away, or an hour to two hour drive each direction depending on traffic. There are no highways close by to town. The ride over the Tuxedo Mountain on Route 17, or the route through New Jersey and over the infamous Skyline Drive are the only ways to get to the highways that lead to the city. Mass transportation is limited, although there is a bus from Greenwood Lake to the Port Authority, or a train about fifteen to twenty minutes away that goes to Hoboken, NJ or Penn Station if you switch over at Seacaucus. My own father has been commuting via car to downtown New York City since before I was born. His general contracting business would not generate nearly as much money upstate, if it were to survive at all. His company specializes in the renovation of office spaces in Manhattan, the equivalent of which simply does not exist beyond the city limits. My father generally spends about three to four hours a day in the car driving to and from his office.

Despite the rather tiresome commute to and from New York City from Greenwood Lake, it is this very disparity that adds to my confusion when people ask me where I am from. Sometimes I say “upstate” and they think Buffalo. Other times I say “I live right around the corner on 64th.” Neither is really accurate. I can’t say “I’m from Greenwood Lake” because no one knows where that is. Worse still is the fact that my physical address of my childhood home is considered to be in two towns at the same time. Try to explain that one.

The question of where I’m from get’s a lot easier the farther I travel from any of my so-called “homes.” I’ve actually lived all over the state of New York in the last eight years, and for four of them I was mostly living in Tampa, Florida, with a brief stint in London, which also confuses people. I move a lot and my family and friends like to make fun of how many apartments I’ve had. I change my mind a lot, I suppose.

“I’m from New York” is vague enough to cover most of the territory, but, like my name, sometimes I don’t feel like I’m talking about anything real. “Hi, call me anonymous. I’m from (insert place name here).”

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