Untitled – George Chen

 I started 2012 in Palo Alto. If you’re unfamiliar, it’s where Stanford is and its most famous son is probably James Franco. Steve Jobs had just died there a few months earlier about 15 minutes away from my aunt’s house, where I’d been living since August. It’s hard to believe this was also the place where Ken Kesey came for creative writing. He ended up working at the mental institution that inspired “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest,” and took acid under the MK Ultra program.

When the New Year’s Eve ball dropped, I was updating my resume with my cousin who has a fancy job working for biotech. I watched Dick Clark for the last time squeezing some good cheer out of his orange maw.

 How did I end up here? Good question. I spent a decade plus before this working an assortment of odd jobs eking out a semblance of a living in Oakland, an economic equivalent of binge-purge. The last job had lasted me five years.  I could go into detail about the good and bad things about that job, but if experience has taught me anything it’s that bitchy comments can come back to bite you in the ass, especially when there’s no way to scrub the internet dry. Suffice it to say, there was no room for promotion or possibility of a raise or a way to rationalize being there any longer when I was bring reminded that every day could be my last. What do you want on your tombstone, “checked email, made funny tweet, assuaged the ego of deluded punk band”?

My dad had passed away very unexpectedly at the end of 2010. I don’t really know how to explain the grieving process. You hear about those five stages, and you sometimes think you’re skipping ahead and find out you’re further back than you thought. It’s not that linear. My process may have involved an overconfident belief that I should strike out on my own and quit my stable, if unremarkable, day job. “Carpe diem” and all that. Right before this happened I had been trying my hand at standup comedy, I was dating someone I was really into, and I had toured Europe for the first time on a six week trip. While I was grieving the loss of my dad, at the same time part of me guiltily felt free of this judgment, a judgment I’d absorbed from my parents about how my life had taken this wayward path. I missed my dad, but I also felt like “well, I don’t need to worry about embarrassing him or our family name any longer by telling jokes about dicks and god.”

 So I quit my job and prepared to go on another Europe tour. The girl dumped me shortly thereafter, so I was kind of a free-floating mess for several months. I was unemployed and pretty emotionally untethered. What does that look like for me? Lots of internet and eating. My benders are less like “The Hangover” and more like gorging on ice cream and sleeping till noon.

What did I do for most of my summer of unemployment? Was I going to open mics or writing new jokes? No, I was mostly feeling sorry for myself and trying to convince myself that quitting my job had been a good idea. Maybe identifying a little too closely with Adele.

 I was about to run out of money when another job opportunity entered the picture. This was a job at a software company in Sunnyvale where my mom was friends with one of the people who could potentially hire me. These were giant neon warning signs, but I was willing to take on something completely different from my last punk rock job. After all, I was not getting any younger.

I ended up taking this job that was very ill-defined. My business card says “marketing associate.” They hooked me in by saying I would be working on a new media/music project for a big client. That project failed to materialize for a number of reasons, nothing that I could identify as my fault specifically. It was a case of biting off more than they could reasonably chew. This was also the first time in a long time I had worked with a lot of people. My last job had started with four full time employees; that  had downsized to two by the time I’d left. When they replaced me, they reduced that job to a part time position.

 At this new job most of the people were from China or Taiwan. The grief of dealing with my dad’s death was somewhat compounded by the bizarre version of a Chinese family reflected in my workplace. There was a definite cultural mismatch but I’ve felt that at most jobs I’ve had. It is different however in that people ask me why I’m not married or don’t have a kid and feel like an answer is owed them. One of my co-workers from India asks me if I have a girlfriend, not that he can help introduce me to anyone. At my age, he says I only have two years to find a bride and reproduce. “Don’t you get bored?” he asks. Yeah, that is the main reason I’d want to bring another life into the world, to alleviate my boredom. Well, he had an arranged marriage. Not all of us can be that lucky. Especially since I saw his wife and she is smokin’.

 I do have a crush on one Indian girl at work, but I think she’s married. I am not sure, and all our interactions are awkward. All MY interactions are awkward. I did manage to talk to her about this sci-fi Bollywood movie once. I know it could never work out though. I walk by her desk and she has a cut out cartoon smiling sun pinned to the drab gray fabric of her cubicle wall.

 Around New Year’s I had been coasting rent-free at my aunt’s house for about four months, and it became time to find my own apartment. I was panicking about getting stuck in a lease for a year in Mountain View or Sunnyvale to stay at a job I was not committed to. I could not fathom having a roommate in the South Bay and feeling terminally stuck. Some friends of mine from the old Oakland days were moving back to town with their two-year-old daughter. I made a decision to move in with them and endure the 45 minute commute to work until I could find something better. Living with a kid has been interesting. It was cute at first. The night terrors she has been sharing with us all used to seem like a poetic expression of my own existential plight. Lately, it has been the cause of it. We get along in a normal interaction, but when you turn three there is no such thing as a normal interaction. Well, at least I’m never “bored” at home.

I have had to start drinking coffee, something I’ve avoided most of my life. I don’t like the taste of office coffee and I am not supposed to load up on sugar, which is the only way I can tolerate it.

 I joined a gym. I signed up for training because I didn’t want to rip my back apart not knowing how to operate any of the machines. When my trainer interviewed me, he asked me when was the last time that I got any regular exercise. “20 years ago.” He thinks I’m kidding. No, I need to do this just to not die. I am about half an hour into my training when I have to stop or I will vomit whatever Chipotle barbacoa bowl is left in my torso. This guy is also three times my size and said that it was okay because once a girl passed out ten minutes in to a workout, so I lasted longer than her.

 I try to go to open mics when I can, which is difficult after commuting. There’s one at a laundromat called Brainwash and there’s a Tuesday one at Amnesia, so those are my gyms for telling jokes. Sometimes there are no jokes. Those times I am just summarizing the ridiculousness of my life at the moment, much as I am doing right now. I am in my thirties dreaming of show business and working at a dead end Silicon Valley job, living with a three year old who is not mine, terminally single, trying to play music when I can, hoping that there is an end game I am moving toward. I am worn down from driving everyday, both ways adding up to the length of a feature film. I could have watched the Wire and Mad Men these past few months so I would know what people are talking about.

 There is something Zen about doing open mics and going to the gym. Both things look and feel totally ridiculous if you apply your rational judgment to them. Why would you do this repetitive motion on a machine that has absorbed the sweat of hundreds of strangers while looking in a mirror? Why would you pretend to walk up hundreds of flights of stairs but drive home afterward? And why would you sit through hours of amateur microphone wrangling for a five-minute shot to embarrass yourself in front of people that are just as judgmental as you are?

They are both about embracing failure and acknowledging incremental progress. You can’t be mega buffed and funny unless you are Rollins or Joe Piscopo. Or CarrotTop. You can only be where you are, when you are.

 Like Ken Kesey at Stanford, I am also experimenting with pharmaceuticals. It’s medication for adult ADD, something I’ve been self-diagnosing my whole life but thinking I could change via “positive thinking.” I think it’s all part of the Zen moment, accepting that there are some limits and elements beyond your control, and it’s okay to ask for help. I’m not sure how it will work, but I’m probably not gonna write a great American novel on it, or start a psychedelic bus tour.

If anyone would like to arrange a marriage, I am at georgethechen@gmail.com