Stucco Revisited

South Hadley, Massachusetts

At the beginning of my sophomore year of college, my parents moved from the suburbs of Boston, where we had spent my childhood years, to Chandler, Arizona, where they would be able to escape the New England winters and be closer to my father’s place of work. They drove our old van across the country in September of 2012, spent a few months settling in, and, naturally, invited me to stay with them in Arizona over Christmas break. The thought of keeping my disastrous Fall semester a secret in such close quarters and fielding questions about school in general filled me with dread. But they insisted, so I packed a bag and went.

The three week-long visit was as uncomfortable and neurotic as I had anticipated. My parents and I visited a local optometrist so I could renew a long overdue prescription, hiked around Sedona and the Grand Canyon for a few days, and at one point, got into a nasty row over the cost of the disposable safety razor blades I’d started shaving with. I told them that I was getting straight A’s (I was failing classes) and they crowed about it over the phone to all our relatives on the east coast. I went for frequent runs—anything to get myself out of the house.

This was five years ago. I guess I was in a different place: angsty, ashamed, and filled with loathing. But on those long runs under the blinding, midday sun, all of Chandler looked ugly and brain-dead. Every stuccoed strip mall, every dusty construction lot lined with a mile of chain-link fence, every SUV making a lazy left turn onto a wide boulevard, seemed to be an affront—a gigantic mediocrity—and I could feel myself getting angrier with each step. One afternoon, I went to a local barbershop. It was a standalone building—a beige box in the middle of a blistering parking lot. I was the only non-white customer, and the youngest by what seemed to be around 50 years. I buried myself in a magazine and imagined, with a perverse mixture of disgust and pride, that everyone was staring at me.
A few months later, the university sent my parents a letter about my grades, to fearful effect. I did some crying and groveling and soul-searching, and scraped through two more disfigured years of school. My grades improved though, and after graduation, I found decently-paying work as a high school English teacher. In any case, I’ve gone back to visit my parents in Arizona since then and it felt a lot better. We ate at some of the same restaurants and hiked some of the same trails. I went on more runs and added late-night drives to the routine. I still didn’t like Chandler, but I was certainly less tense and impatient, and more willing to simply observe.

For one, I began to understand (perhaps subconsciously) why Chandler’s architecture and planning—its bountiful, commercial sprawl—had annoyed me so severely two years prior. Let me compress. First, you notice a scorpion in the garage and suddenly remember that the wide-open desert is always right there on your doorstep, anywhere in the American Southwest, and that it’s really up to you to go out into it. So maybe you do go out into it—camping or a road trip or something. Or maybe you just stare through your windshield at the mountains in the distance, and imagine yourself there. Either way, this passage from the opening chapter of Thomas de Zengotita’s book, Mediated: How the Media Shapes Your World and the Way You Live in It, describes what happens next:

Pretty soon you notice how everything around you just happens to be there. And it just happens to be there in this very precise but unfamiliar way. You are so not used to this. Every tuft of weed, the scattered pebbles, the lapsing fence, the cracks in the asphalt, the buzz of insects in the field, the flow of cloud against the sky, everything is very specifically exactly the way it is—and none of it is for you. Nothing here was designed to affect you. It isn’t arranged so that you can experience it, you didn’t plan to experience it, there isn’t any screen, there isn’t any display, there isn’t any entrance, no brochure, nothing special to look at, no dramatic scenery or wildlife, no tour guide, no campsites, no benches, no paths, no viewing platforms with natural-historical information posted under slanted Plexiglas lectern things—whatever is there is just there, and so are you. And your options are limited. You begin to get a sense of your real place in the great scheme of things.

Very small.

Then, somebody honks and you look up and realize that the light has turned green. It all comes roaring back and in that moment, you make a snap comparison between your ostensible needs—how strenuously it's been insisted upon that these people, these cars, these buildings, these options really are all for and about you—and the totally, massively indifferent canvas of Nature, which, you remember, underpins it all. You come under the impression that the streets and peoples’ lives alike have been literally grafted onto the landscape—an impression that the vast emptiness of the desert intensifies in a way that no temperate forest ever can—and you feel pathetic for it.

Again, all of this happens more or less subconsciously. When it finally does bubble up to the surface, I find that the awareness doesn’t actually spare me from feeling pathetic or annoyed. It makes feel better for a different reason. I guess what I have now is an explanation, a choice, permission to lapse into bad faith if I really can’t help it. By honestly articulating my experience, whatever it may be, I acknowledge that I am not condemned, without irony, to be the helpless victim of a shallow and corrupt culture. Rather, I recognize that I am nothing more than a dignified, albeit tentative, participant in a strange and awkward life. I’m free to step outside of and forgive myself for whatever I might feel. I’m free to feel above my circumstances or at their whim. I’m free to slip consciously or unconsciously between these states. I'm free to retain some dignity, simply by telling the story of it all. I’m free to embrace—indeed, to feel fondly for—all the schtick, as often I did, speeding down the freeway at dusk amidst a sea of red tail lights, wondering with my heart of hearts what lay beyond the distant mesas, or where all the people and cars around me were going.

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