‘Et Tu, Timorous Futurae?’ by Chris Rojas

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“Hauntology,” simply defined, means “nostalgia for lost futures.” But what is the word for fear of potential futures? The word I am looking for is not “anxiety.” “Anxiety” is used colloquially for outcomes that will be known soon: test results, flight departures, final scores, etc. It feels like a more grandiose word is needed for anxiety about things both more impactful and further away. “Anxiety” feels out of place, even incorrect, in a sentence like: “I am anxious about the potential arrival, and subsequent outcome, of a military conflict between China and the West in the centuries to come.” It is not that I’m anxious about this possible future so much as I am haunted by it. Futures can haunt, after all. Recall that the final spirit in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Until something better comes along to fill this lexical gap, I am dubbing it timorous futurae. It is an abysmal feeling. While anxious people often break out into hives, sweat, or get fidgety, timorous futurae just leaves you depressed (And this considerable difference in side effects is another reason the sensation deserves its own name.). It is a feeling I have been getting more and more often these last few years. Not about geopolitics or Donald Trump though—but I do, for the record, worry about China’s rise.

My timorous futurae is more personal than all that. It hits me most often when I go out to watch a movie by myself. Before the lights go dark I’ll take a look around at who else made it out, and I’ll see a guy on his own, just a few years older than me. While still technically a millennial, like me, he’s crossed an important line: the thirty-year mark. I am still only 25. Sure, I don’t have a stable career path, a house, a girlfriend/wife, or children—but there’s still time. It’s the twenty-first century, lots of people don’t get any of that until the second half of their twenties. But this guy blew it. He’s 32 or 33, and at this indie movie theater all alone just like me. Now that’s pathetic. He should have a wife/girlfriend in tow, or be at home with the family asking when the last time he got to go out on a Saturday was.

The trouble is, the guy is a lot like me. Our sense of style is similar, from the sneakers to the cap. He wanted to see You Were Never Really Here on the big screen as much as I did—that is to say, enough to go it alone. With just a glance, I know he and I could talk for hours about not just movies, but music and fiction too. I am sure of this because, every now and again, it happens. Not so much at the movies, but at house parties or concerts. I’ll start chatting up a guy whose hipster credentials are just as buffed up as mine, only he’s seven years older than me. We always get along, and he always tells me about what it was like to be able to smoke in bars and fear getting drafted for the Iraq War. The conversations are always great, finding people to talk with about cultural exotica is a rare blessing—but then there’s that timorous futurae.

What if I don’t make it, the way he didn’t? How many more failed romances do I have to have before it’ll be obvious that it’s just never going to work out? I wonder what it’ll feel like to hit 31, work at a punk record store, and know that this is it. Sometimes I want to ask him if there was a particular moment when he realized there was nothing better was on the horizon, that his particular eccentricities would always keep him from a lasting relationship or a fulfilling career. Maybe he could give me advice on how to keep it from happening if I could just muster the courage to ask.

I have known a few guys like this fairly well. Make no mistake, his life is a sad one. You go to his house so he can show off his record collection or shoebox of ticket stubs. It’s cool that he’s got Dinosaur Jr. releases from back when they were just Dinosaur. The trouble is, that’s all he’s got. He doesn’t live with anyone he can share it with—that’s why he’s hanging out with you. Then you go out to a bar where he promises to pick up the tab because he’s got more money than you. There he tells you a cool story about seeing A.R.E. Weapons when Ryan Noel was still alive and you feel honored to know him. Then he tells you about his long line of ex-girlfriends, each story sadder than the next.

It’s all too much. You ask yourself: Am I this guy? Are the next seven years of toil and heartbreak going to end here? Does it even end? What happened to this guy’s ghost of Christmas future? Is he now rocking out alone to Gen X garbage that kids these days don’t even know by reference? Is he unconsciously choosing to meet up with the opioid overdose and suicide-thinned herd of his 40-something buddies at divey watering holes because he knows, bereft of the last vestiges of their youthful looks, they’d stick out as the wrinkled, beer-gutted should-be dad’s they are at any house party or club worth a damn?

I really might be next. It is hard to see why not. While I’m too young to have a collection of CDs or records worthy of boast, I have hundreds of books and movies. I used to work at an indie video store, and I read The Baffler. Rest assured, I have passionate opinions about musical esoterica and films next to nobody has heard of. Want to argue about Chekov’s gun? Because I can happily oblige. The signs are all there. I’ve got time though, it’s not so bad. I just have make sure the timorous futurae doesn’t set in.

 

‘Loneliness is Starting Clubs’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was in high school my mother told me it was important to participate in extracurricular activities. Doing so would help me get into college, and had the added perk of potentially socializing me. Sports were pretty much out of the question given my meager frame and limited stamina. My tone-deafness and complete inability to act further limited the field. In surveying my options, I had a brilliant idea: start your own extracurricular.

The first plan was a Monopoly Club—as in the board game. This was right when hipsterdom was burgeoning and board games of all sorts were experiencing a resurgence. “Board game brunch” was becoming a thing in big cities across the country, and in my own neighborhood, an old diner had just closed and been replaced by a bar where you could play Battleship and Stratego as you drank. I counted on that trend to serve as wind in my sails. Moreover, people who love Monopoly are always in search of kindred spirits. While board games are generally meant to be played at family gatherings, nearly every family has at least one, and usually more, diehard Monopoly hater. Very few people casually dislike Monopoly: if you don’t like it, you hate it, and find any other board game superior to it. While this trend is on the whole depressing, it makes Monopoly a great basis for a club. Clubs, I believe, are best borne out of an interest or activity that your immediate family cannot ably meet.

Or so I thought. That high school had around 4,500 students and only two wrote their names down on my sign-up sheet. Three people was not enough for the school to officially sanction the group. Nor is it a good number of Monopoly players. While not having a Monopoly club would have been fine, having tried to start one and failed was considerably less than fine. Discovering that pure nothingness feels less bad than the nothingness that follows failure is a terrible realization. Once you know that, your motivation to take risks and try new things plummets, which is a good way to live a static life, which is a good way to feel unhappy. The cliché that only by taking risks and trying new things can happiness be achieved is completely true. When you prioritize not failing over succeeding, you have made the choice to descend into an emotional coma. But fail enough times, and you will get there. The stillbirth of my Monopoly club did not get me there, but it was a start.

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‘Loneliness is Going to the Movies’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I consciously chose an interest that was widely popular. In middle school I was having a hard time finding other kids interested in Harry Turtledove novels and the Franco-Prussian War, so I set out to establish an interest already in vogue with my classmates.

This plan seemed like a safe a bet—everybody likes movies. And for a time, it worked quite well. A large part of why movies are the default for first dates is because it counts as spending time together, but you don’t actually have to start and maintain a conversation. Then after the show, you have an obvious conversation topic. The same goes for dysfunctional families and their affinity for any kind of shared viewing experience. If there is just one TV show or genre that everyone can agree on, an hour or so of unity and tranquility can be achieved while everyone silently participates in one thing. When you’re in middle school, trying to figure out how to stop being a complete child and manage adolescence, quite a few social engagements have that uneasy feeling of a first date or a family on edge. Movies serve as a handy “free parking” spot throughout all of this chaos.

But over time, most every appreciation sharpens into an interest and is then honed into a specialized obsession. There are sports aficionados who want to tell you about specific plays in the 1976 Super Bowl. There are gearheads that insist on explaining the details of Pontiac V8 engines to people who drive Corollas. I’ve even met feminists eager to tell registered Republicans about every intricacy of the 1980s “porn wars.” So it goes. And so it went for me and film. When I was 13, it was easy to find guys interested in watching Quentin Tarantino’s latest. When I was 16, and wanted to see Moon, it was a harder sell. By the age of 19, I had gotten my hands on some VHS tapes of Lina Wertmüller movies never released on DVD. Boy was it tough to find anyone to watch those with me. Inside of just a few years, my interest in film evolved from a social outreach tool to a burning, and very niche, obsession. I do not mean to denigrate my cinephile ways—at least not entirely. Film has brought a richness to my life that I will appreciate to the day I die. But the irony of having first dived into movies as an avenue to a greater social life and ending up just developing another often-unshareable interest is, well, depressing.

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‘Loneliness is Sharing Books’ by Chris Rojas

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When I was younger I thought I could feel less lonely if I found a way to get people I liked to like the things I liked.

The written word makes us less lonely. When you read about someone just like you, who feels the way you do, gets off on what gets you off, you feel less lonely. That’s the point of it all. The trouble is when you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, but then can’t find another actual person who also felt less lonely after they read that same book. Not being able to find that actual other person can bring on a whole new kind of loneliness. And the trouble with this kind of loneliness, is that you can’t get out of it by reading, because that’s what got you into trouble in the first place, and you become all too aware of that fact.

Years ago, I figured all I had to do was give people I liked the books that I like. I assumed the issue was just that they didn’t know about all of these great books. All I’d have to do was show them. Then they would know about these wonderful things too, and they would feel less lonely, and I would feel less lonely too. This plan had the added benefit of making me look like a cool curator of cool things. People would know that I knew about all sorts of great books that could make you feel less alone.

In hindsight, it is extremely strange how long I stuck with this strategy. There is perhaps no lonelier feeling than when you buy somebody a book, excited to give it to them, and realize as you give it to them that they will not read it. On the day of the gifting, I would always make eye contact with the recipient as I eagerly stuck my book-clutching arms out. More often than not I could immediately see the hesitation in their eyes. It was never disappointment, or even annoyance, just a clear discomfort or weirded-out ambivalence. The look of “What am I going to do with this?” Or, “Wow this is weird, why is he giving me a book?” More generously I sometimes got, “Boy, Chris sure is goofy. I wonder what the fuck this book is about.”

One time I was meeting an acquaintance at a restaurant and I brought him a magazine I thought might interest him. He was a foreign policy junkie with a paleoconservative streak, and that ideology’s foremost outlet, Chronicles, had an issue almost entirely dedicated to the Ukrainian Crisis of 2014. He was sure to gobble it up and ponder it for weeks. We were seated outside when I gave it to him, and after briefly thanking me he tucked it under his chair without much looking at it. Unfortunately it had rained the night before and the magazine slid into a puddle of stagnant water. He failed to hear the slight “sploosh” it made when it hit the water. I didn’t want him to realize what had happened, because it would guarantee at least one uncomfortable apology and a lackluster “no worries” on my part, so I kept my reaction to a brief wince. When we had finished eating and headed out, it was clear he had completely forgotten about the magazine. I didn’t bring it up as we exchanged goodbyes, and he has never mentioned it.

When I was 23 I went to my then-girlfriend’s father’s house for Christmas. He remains the most generous man I’ve ever met. He bought my girlfriend and I a fancy Keurig coffeemaker for our apartment along with dozens of boxes of k-cups. A value of at least a few hundred dollars. At the time I was making $28,000 a year at a non-profit near Washington DC, and had just paid off my student loans. We drove to his house in my girlfriend’s car because I was too broke to own my own. Her father was a fairly tough guy, from rural Pennsylvania, with a keen sense of right and wrong. So I had bought him a paperback edition of Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. That novel is easily best detective story ever written, filled with broad shoulders, flasks, dames, and a seedy Los Angeles that can’t manage to protect itself from the heroic and tough protagonist. Plus, it influenced a whole slew of classic Hollywood tough-guy movies, which all dads seem to like. He unwrapped it after we had opened the Keurig and said, “thanks” with a perfectly neutral expression across his face. For a moment, I felt the overwhelming rush to explain to him why it was such a great book, and why he would like it, and why I had chosen it for him. But the rush subsided and I thought better of it. Next Christmas I did not buy him a book, and The Big Sleep did not come up.

Two Christmases later I had wised up a little bit. I had three friends all living together in one house. It was a den of millennial cliches through and through. They, like I, were broke, bright, and conspicuously lacking in telos. When we hung out we tried to get as fucked up as possible. Adderall, ecstasy, alcohol, marijuana, and LSD, mostly. Sometimes I’d go to their house, get high, and watch Netflix for hours with them without ever getting up even to smoke a cigarette. Other times we’d stay up all night giggling through the hallucinatory recollections of the triumphs and tragedies of our adolescence. As a gift to all three, I bought them the issue of Granta magazine with the cover story, “Confessions of a Middle-Aged Ecstasy Eater,” by Anonymous. Of the many many written works that grapple with the ups-and-downs of drug use, I assure you this one as one of the best. Its ability to convey the strange mix of blissful hedonism and unending ennui that become permanently entangled after years of abuse is uncomfortably on point. It’s about forty pages long, ensuring that at least one of the three roommates would read it. This was an incorrect assumption, and not one of the three has ever brought it up to me.

More recently, I made what was likely my most obviously doomed gifting. A conservative friend of mine and I had been arguing about whether Marxists, or at least Marxians, had ever made thoughtful or valuable observations about the world around us. He remained obstinate, and left me with the burden of proof. With the thrill of coming vindication, I dug-up my copy of The Society of Spectacle by Guy Debord and handed it to him. It’s a very short book, and has a kind of whimsy to it that makes it a real pleasure to read. Most importantly, the “spectacle” described in it has obvious value to conservatives, as the spectacle papers over religion, tradition, and even nationalism with a spiritually empty gilding. It’s now been long enough that if he were going to read it, he would have already.

The list could go on, but you get the point. So next time you find a book that makes you feel less lonely, and you share it with someone you like, and the gift goes down the memory hole, and you feel even more lonely than you did before finding the book, try rereading this essay. I hope it makes you feel less lonely.

Chris Rojas is the son of a librarian.