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A year in my parents' basement

Highlights from 2013 include talking to the cat, punching my friend Jim and not finding work. Next up: Law school?


Matthew Mazer
December 30, 2013 6:00AM (UTC)

Great men measure time with displacement. They ask themselves, how far have I come over this span of time? Lesser men will shrink from this question because the answer may drive them toward dissatisfaction. Meanwhile, I am unshrinkable because I accept my complete lack of displacement and eat dissatisfaction for breakfast, lunch and all three dinners.

2013 has been a year to forget. In fact, I have actively tried to forget most of it. I have successfully forgotten some of it, and the rest of it was so inconsequential that it never stuck to begin with.

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This time last year, I had recently moved back into my parents’ house. My return to the basement from whence I came occurred after multiple months of successfully dodging employment in New York. I had moved up there straight out of college to pursue a career in writing only to discover that writing jobs, much like the professional references on my resume, didn’t actually exist. I quickly shifted focus toward strengthening my relationship with New York’s alcohol and food. I was very productive in this endeavor until finally, I was recalled to the minor leagues of careerlessness in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama.

While I may have over-announced my departure from Birmingham to New York, my return to Birmingham could not have been more understated. It took little reflection to determine that my time in New York had been remarkably unfruitful, since embarrassment isn’t a fruit. My only point of pride from the NYC experience was that I ate a lot of gyros, and even that made me way more sad than proud. So once I was back home, I mimicked the behavior of my spirit animal — the noble earthworm — and hid underground in a basement. In my solitude, I determined that the extent of my failure had reached its highest possible peak. But I wasn’t giving myself enough credit — I have a much, much greater capacity for failure.

Shortly thereafter, I celebrated my 23rd birthday by drinking a lot, vomiting and punching my friend. I came off the mat swinging, but missed the target of “obstacles to a career” and instead connected with “the face of Jim.” I didn’t remember it happening, so I had to pretend to feel bad about it. Still, I realized I was probably getting too old to go around punching things, especially when that thing is a friend who just paid my bar tab. I haven’t thrown a punch since then, except the other day at my neighbor’s pumpkin just to feel alive. The results are in: I’m alive, and pumpkins hurt.

The following month, I was cleaning out an old desk when I found one of those Sacagawea gold dollars, encased in a rock, attached to a dark leather keychain. This first seemed like too much enthusiasm for just one dollar. A day later, when I was truly broke, it seemed like a perfectly spendable dollar that some idiot glued to a rock. I set out to right such an economical wrong by means of screwdriver, but that didn’t work. So for lack of a better option, I realized the real value of the dollar was in its commemoration of Sacagawea’s remarkable legacy. After all, Sacagawea was a Pocahontasy Harriet Tubman for white people trying to do the opposite of escape. So I put the coin in my pocket with the hope that Sacagawea’s spirit would guide my whiteness toward some useful purpose, but Sacagawea couldn’t even guide me toward not getting my car totaled. Six hours later, my car was totaled. And while the doctors said it was cancer and not Sacagawea that killed my uncle, my uncle was dead three weeks later too. Just to be safe, I eventually let the coin sink to the bottom of a lake so it could be closer to Sacagawea’s spirit, which is clearly in hell.

When my uncle died in January, it had been a year and a half since my aunt died. Within 1.5 years — less time than it took for me to learn how to serve a tennis ball — my mom had become a 50-something only child. And after having lived an average of 90 years, this was also the point at which my grandparents lost their second of three children to cancer. Yet their reactions were strikingly muted. And while I may not be good at either math or emotions, I calculated that two out of three is roughly 66%, and when 66% of any organism’s offspring dies, it is a horrible situation. As such, I found my grandparents’ stoicism irritating until I realized they were just feeling utterly defeated by life, which in turn depressed the hell out of me. In retrospect, I may have trouble manufacturing my own feelings unless those feelings are hunger, wanting to take a nap or shame. And most of the time, even those feelings are largely predicated on being stoned. In the end, I found distraction in shamefully eating and napping my way through the rest of January.

After napping a permanent mold of my body into my mattress, I traded my bathrobe of fine polyester for a kitchen apron on which someone had spilled mashed potatoes. By February and throughout that spring, I was working with some consistency on a food truck. The job paid in actual U.S. dollars, so it was worth ignoring that my boss was my little sister’s boyfriend. But as I discovered, it’s difficult to ignore a situation when you have to make burritos with it on a repurposed mail truck. While working on the food truck, I was essentially the star witness in thousands of squabbles between two people I even had to share my turkey with on Thanksgiving. I thought I was going to suffocate on the food truck every time drama filled the air and mixed with the pork smells. It was like a pork-themed version of “MTV Road Rules” with no prize at the end, where the only way to win is to quit. To that degree, I won after a few months. But bemoaning a shitty job is like talking about politics in the sense that we should stop ourselves from doing both. Anyway, that was my spring.

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Then, figuratively speaking, April showers brought May showers and June showers and July showers.

Summer had arrived. For its duration, a barred owl lived in my backyard and managed a chipmunk restaurant on top of my childhood tree house. Something interesting about owls: They can see everything, because they have floating heads that are not attached to their bodies. The owl in my backyard was particularly skillful at seeing things. I confess that he witnessed me talking to my cat more than zero times. In fact, he was probably spying on all the private conversations between me and Merlin — my most trusted (and only) member of the Interspecies Nap Squad I founded in January. This precipitated some questions regarding the owl’s ability to perceive what it had seen.

To this day, I ask myself, how much did the owl truly know about me? Had he realized that I was irrationally attributing emotions to a cat? Could he perceive that I had a terrible time at that Railroad Earth concert in May? Did he know that I had celebrated that July 4 and the authoring of America’s greatest historical document by devouring ecstasy and sweating through multiple America-themed t-shirts? Was he mad at me? Was he aware that I spent a month of the summer in halfhearted pursuit of a girl for whom I wavered between infatuation and no respect? And could he tell that, unsurprisingly, I had been spurned after slightly gambling on the side of infatuation? A scientist would probably say that when the owl looked at me, it just saw food that was too big. In this case, I hope science is right.

But the owl vanished sometime in July, along with his judgments. Unfettered by the discernment of an owl and employment, the frequency of conversations between my cat and me reached an all-time high. Meanwhile, all of my non-feline friends were mortgaging their ways into kickball leagues and buying two suits for the price of one at Jos A Bank. Often I found myself alone, talking to my cat about how much I love my bed, and responding as my cat about how comfortable my blankets are. After a lot of this, I got back to marinating on my failure to secure a writing job when I had lived not in Birmingham, which seemed more and more like a better place to be than Birmingham. Using the mathematics of desperately wanting to leave my mom’s basement, I calculated that I should definitely move to Chicago, although I had never been and only knew three people there.

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So late July, I flew up to Chicago to feel out the city, even though Delta did everything in its power to stop me. When I finally got there, I stayed with two of my oldest friends, whose band and minimal possessions were based out of a renovated firehouse. My friends introduced me to the city, its beautiful pizza, a young Santa Claus from Minnesota named Dave, the smell of boycotting deodorant in a closed space and I Ching readings. From what I gathered, I Ching readings are short poems about the earth’s elements that you read at people while an accomplice plays the guitar by candlelight to make everyone emotional.

They selected a reading for me at random. This was a short poem based on the element of water, which I was first excited about because I drink water, it saved Mel Gibson in “Signs,” it is 70 percent of me and it is 100 percent of the ocean, which is my favorite bathroom. However, the poem suggested that I am in fact not like water because at some point I apparently sank into a pitfall whereas water would have flowed around it and toward success. This really resonated with the 30 percent of my body not made up of water. Then resonance evolved into revelation. I was in a pitfall. I had no idea how I was going to escape from my pitfall. I also couldn’t figure out what part of my past was not a pitfall. And besides a Nintendo game, I wasn’t 100 percent sure what a pitfall was. Before I knew it, a guitar was being strummed and multiple emotions were happening to me.

I had a great time in Chicago, but I left it with that feeling of emotions. By the time my plane touched down in Birmingham, I had murdered that feeling and buried it under the decision to apply to law school. I realized that if I lived my life by I Ching readings, I would likely end up back at a Railroad Earth concert surrounded by Subaru owners. So I bailed on I Ching and, accepting that the law school application process would keep me in Birmingham for another year, I gave up on Chicago a la Derrick Rose’s knees.

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I enrolled in a class for the Law School Admissions Test with my friend Jim, whom I had punched in the face all those months prior. We spent most of August and September studying for the LSAT to justify our existences. Like victims of a hostage crisis, Jim and I formed a special bond through LSAT-induced frustration and anxiety. Unlike victims of a hostage crisis, we never got to meet Ben Affleck. But after all we went through together, I am now confident I could punch Jim in the face at least two or three more times before it really started to jeopardize our friendship.

Ultimately, I didn’t do terribly well on the LSAT. I have since taken this to mean I might not make the best attorney. I’m fine with this though, because I’d rather not make any kind of attorney, unless it’s a modern Atticus Finch without children in danger of being stabbed. And as a person with a semi-functional brain, I also hate debt. So all things considered, I probably should not go to law school. Yet I am still going through the motions of applying because, as this retrospective has reaffirmed for me, not being in law school has worked out pretty terribly the last 23 years.

So here I am today, almost 24 years in, still living in the same room I was in when I worshipped an autographed Mark McGwire baseball card signed by Mark McGwire’s publicist’s intern, himself. Obviously, I don’t know what the future holds in store for me, but I know it’s not the past, which has been absolutely exhausting just to try to remember. In fact, by writing this, I’ve reached the conclusion that I trap myself in a pitfall every time I think more about the past than the future. So from now on, it’s all forward. And if I get any fatter off all these meals of dissatisfaction, I'll lose my breath every time I bend down to pick my life off the ground.

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Matthew Mazer

Matthew Mazer graduated from the University of Alabama in 2012 with an impractical degree in Foreign Language & Literature. Now he lives in Birmingham, AL, where he will do pretty much anything for enough money.

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