Saturday, April 09, 2011

The Embrace of 360 Degrees

by Matt Dineen

Life really does come full circle sometimes. I guess this is no surprise since our lives are not single linear journeys of constant progress. We are on a continuum that ebbs and flows and our personal histories often have the pesky tendency to repeat themselves. Our current selves are an amalgamation of all of our ups and downs, and the journey we’re on is a complex one.
On the cusp of 30, I feel like I’m 15 again. Half a lifetime ago I spent the summer washing dishes at Nonnie’s Country Kitchen in Orleans, MA—my first job. I was paid under the table, in cash, to scrape the remains of chocolate chip pancakes larger than my face, scrub lipstick stains off coffee mugs, and listen to the classic rock station that the sexist cook would sing along to all morning. It feels like yesterday.

Actually, it was yesterday.

I arrived at my new job to discover an envelope in the back room with my name scrawled in full-caps: MATT. It contained a (small) pile of 20 dollar bills for my previous week of labor. After counting the bills, I stuffed the envelope in my backpack, grabbed a glass of ice water, and squeezed into a fresh pair of bright-yellow dishwashing gloves. Something was different though.

Instead of elderly retirees filling Nonnie’s counter (and inhaling her second-hand Lucky Strike smoke), there were tables full of people gazing into laptop computers, sipping lattes and eating pasta salad. Instead of AC/DC and Van Halen on the transistor radio in the back, Modest Mouse and Arcade Fire were playing on an iPod through the surround-sound speakers of the cafĂ©. Everything has changed. But as I stood in front of the industrial sink scrubbing lipstick off a coffee mug it hit me that, actually, everything has stayed the same. In one week, I will be a 30 year old dishwasher with a college degree.

How has my life reverted to this, 15 years later?

It would be pretty easy to wake up on the morning of my 30th birthday in despair that my life is not going anywhere; paralyzed by an internalized classism, making me feel like an utter failure of a human being. Luckily, I have dedicated a lot of my time since school to analyzing, rejecting, and documenting alternatives to the dominant culture that defines people by what they do for money, first and foremost. I have spent more than half of a decade now interviewing activists and artists about the dilemma of following their passions, doing what they truly love, while surviving in a cutthroat capitalist society. So I have thought about this stuff a lot.

Over the years, when people I meet ask me, “What do you do?” the answer is always complicated. “Well,” I’ll reply. “It depends what you mean.” We are all so much more than our wage jobs. We are complex, multidimensional creatures. And this should be celebrated.

As I approach 30, I think back to that requisite thought exercise throughout many of our childhoods: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Is this it? Am I grown up now? At one point, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. Apparently I told my mother (who was 29 when she had me) that I would become rich as a Major League star and buy her a house. She lovingly reminds me of this broken promise every now and then. Sorry mom!

It has been essential for me to talk to people who have spent their lives redefining what success means—prioritizing happiness and community over the accumulation of wealth and power. This is also true of the aging process.

In my mid- to late-20’s it was really inspiring to talk to people in their 30’s who were truly embracing getting older. Actually, I have found that if you ask people who have passed the 30 year milestone, almost across the board they will talk about how much better life is than in their 20’s. So why is it then that many twenty-somethings in our society are so scared of this moment?

I wear a pin on my jacket that reads: “Growing up is awesome!” The person that created (and gave me) this pin explained that it was in response to the popular subcultural slogan: “Growing up is giving up.”

In a culture that fetishizes youth and perpetuates “glory days” mythology, that teaches us to fear and misunderstand the natural cycles of life, embracing one’s 30’s is a radical act.

The vision I have for my 30’s is to actualize all of the things that I talked about doing in my 20’s. I want to take inspiration from, and further cultivate, the best aspects of my youthful past. Simultaneously, I want to learn from the mistakes I’ve made, the low points of my personal continuum. This is not to say that it will be easy or that history won’t continue to occasionally repeat itself. My life will inevitably come full circle once again, but I am hopefully for what the next 360 degrees holds for me. Turning 30 is awesome. I am not giving up.

Matt Dineen lives in Philadelphia, where he turned 30 on April 7, 2011. This essay is part of his 360 Months project, which features 30 essays by 30 different people about turning 30. Contact him at: passionsandsurvival(at)gmail(dot)com