Inside a lookout tower in the Smokies.
Inside a lookout tower in the Smokies.

Lost in the Present

On Wednesday I spent all morning and afternoon cutting together my first director’s reel. That night I crawled into bed, played and replayed the video on my iPhone, content with the auspicious development.

The editing process was surprisingly emotional: I felt immense nostalgia for all those long nights shooting and laughing with friends and people who, somehow, trusted that I knew what I was doing. I felt embarrassed for taking so damn long to cut a proper reel, for failing to submit my best work to festivals in a timely fashion, and in turn, failing the expectations of the actors who so graciously donated their time. But I felt optimistic that stacking all my favorite moments from my life in film would signify a sort of leaf turning, a new chapter, though now that I’m officially in my mid-twenties I’ve learned not to get my hopes up.

I’m lazy. Not in a stereotypical stain-strewn slacker way, but in the more subtle sense that I never feel like I have enough time to do things I know I should be doing – like writing this blog. Of course, I’ve had plenty of time to write this blog. On my first personal checklist upon arriving home from a month-and-a-half on the road was this blog: I was supposed to provide a detailed account of my fun-filled weekend with Holly and her med school friends in Asheville, my lonesome hikes along the Blue Ridge Parkway, my first-ever forays into stand-up comedy, how excited I was to spend a week in an unseasonably warm and beautiful Outer Banks with my family and watch my old friend and former bully Mike Arms get married. I had the feelings, and I let them fade away.

Sunrise at the Outer Banks, the morning after Mike's wedding.
Sunrise at the Outer Banks, the morning after Mike’s wedding.

The problem with being subtly lazy is that it is very easy to come up with convincing excuses for not being creative. At the start of this month an essay that I submitted to a national literary magazine was quashed by a managing editor, three months after it had been accepted and revised by her colleague. It’s a long story with some interesting pivot points, but the more I share it – attempting to convey the essential literary injustice and philistinism at play – the more I realize that it’s not a very good story. In the telling, the only way to really jazz it up is by emphasizing that the managing editor is a fat lesbian with ugly pink hair, but that makes me seem like more of a hacky asshole. And the deflating punchline remains: I thought I was going to get published, but I didn’t get published.

I don’t get up and write 500 words every day. I don’t grab my camera and film a nice flower or a swift-moving patch of clouds like people who claim to film something every day most certainly do. Instead I do what feels “right” from moment to moment – I trust my intuition. As I’ve written about in a previous post, I know when my most productive hours are, and I have getting things done outside of mid-mornings and late evenings. Recently I wrote a joke about being unemployed: there are perks. You can have a glass of red wine with lunch…and then another glass of red wine with lunch. And then a nap. It’s very European, being unemployed….

When you trust your intuition, you avoid stress like a plague – but stress has obvious benefits. Clean drinking water. Civilization. Good music. All these things are forged from stress.

I’m reminded of a very bad scene in a very bad movie called Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist where Nick and Norah have a heart-to-heart in a recording studio that Norah’s father owns. Kat Dennings tells an enraptured Michael Cera that even though it’s in her blood, she doesn’t really want to work in the music biz, because it might ruin music’s magic for her, and that would be tragic. In other words, she is also subtly lazy (I found the clip on YouTube – apparently they have sex right after this embarrassing epiphany, so it’s all good.)

A couple years ago I was talking with my dad on the phone about the difference between a job and a hobby – whether writing should be the latter or the former – and he said something like “that’s a profound difference that takes a long time to figure out.”

As much consolation as I’ve found in this statement, I’ve countered with restlessness, distractions, jealousy of peers’ success, long stretches of “writers’ block” and convincing myself that I got “burned out” on film at the end of college. Any artistically-inclined person goes through phases – I’ve barely tried to write a poem in almost half a year, though I now write jokes almost every day – but creative malaise punctuated by a blog here and a short film there hasn’t been a winning formula. In addition to distinguishing between job and hobby, for a while I’ve been parsing out whether I want success as a writer and a filmmaker because it would bring me joy, or simply because it would save me from being a loser.

One of the most amazing discoveries of my road trip – a Mexican buffet, 10 miles south of Roanoke...
One of the most amazing discoveries of my road trip – a Mexican buffet, 10 miles south of Roanoke…

Moving back in with my parents has been like a part in a movie where you’re not sure if it’s a flashback – why does he look so happy? Doesn’t he know his life is crumbling around him? What’s going on with his hair??

I wanted to call this blog “Lost in the Present” mostly because it sounds cool in my head, and as far as a cry for help one could do worse.

Do I really want to spend three hours at this whack open mic for five minutes of stage time playing to an empty room? But if I don’t, will I ever take my act to the next level?? I’m lost in the present!!!

Is it really all that productive to spend 1,500 words bemoaning my unsatisfying work ethic? Isn’t that a bit ironic?? I’m lost in the present!!!

A shot of my first open mic in Charlotte, NC, and the one-person audience (jk I think there were like 20 people there)
A shot of my first open mic in Charlotte, NC, and the one-person-on-his-phone audience (jk I think there were like 20 people there)

Lately, on listless nights after days of nothing but job applications and maybe a dog walk, the elephant creeps into my bedroom – do I regret leaving Portland?

I’ve been nostalgic for sitting with Jake on the balcony watching rust-colored gradients disappear from the sky, for the single incandescent bulb hanging above our rickety kitchen table, for Laurelhurst Park and playing lunch basketball with eager high schoolers who referred to me only as “Berkley.”

One of the advantages of trusting gut feelings is that checklists of pros and cons are effectively meaningless (this is also a disadvantage) and feelings of regret are merely a reminder that something has been learned – and learned by doing. If I hadn’t driven across the country and spent so much time alone with my thoughts, I don’t know if I ever would’ve gotten the balls to get up on stage and try to make strangers laugh. I don’t know if I ever would’ve gotten my reel together, and I definitely wouldn’t be able to tell people that northern Arizona is “pretty cool.”

I never like when people speculate, “what if…Elvis Costello started making music today? He wouldn’t survive in today’s scene.” Well, good thing we don’t have to figure that out, because we already have the Elvis Costello who started making music in the 1970’s, and he’s great. Right now I have the Jackson Berkley who moved back to Great Falls, VA and can barely handle the “where do you see yourself in five years?” portion of an interview without stammering profusely or outright lying.

And I have a new reel, and some jokes to provoke nervous guffaws from strangers in a dark room, so there are worse ways to be lost.

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