A Letter to My Fairer Years

Things fell apart on my 21st birthday. Now I am become man, destroyer of pie. And, as is the case with young men of vanity of person and of situation, I find adulthood to be very much in bad taste. My whole life I have struggled with mediocrity with varying degrees of success. I have no doubt become a finely-packaged bachelor if one were not to look too closely at the label. I had earned an agreeable following through my work, sweated away fifty pounds, conquered a voguish depression, and made and lost great fortunes worthy of gilded age gossip. Yet now, on this 17th of June, the eve of my birthday, I lie awake, suffering from some quarter-life crisis that refuses to be washed away by youthful exuberance before the coming of midnight.

When I was a little boy, my father would make me listen to tapes of the Three Kingdoms. My favorite character was Liu Bei, then it was Cao Cao, and now it is Sun Quan. My father was a professor of business strategy who gave fairly dry lectures that made good cures for insomnia, and for a long time I went to bed early. Whenever he wrote case studies, his prose marched in soldierly fashion across the page, the formation only broken by elaborate streams of formulas balancing epsilon and delta. He must’ve believed that a poem was an enigma of words with a tricky meaning tucked surreptitiously into its folio, like treasure on the ocean floor below a surface of galloping rhymes. But he always wanted to write poetry, and I guess it rubbed off on me.

One Sunday morning, when I was maybe twelve, I was sitting on the marbled living-room floor next to an expensive porcelain vase that my father had obtained from some celebration. The drapes were shut tight because my parents worried that the sun would fade the Ming Dynasty rosewood furniture, but nonetheless, a bright bar of light cut through a gap in the curtains, and that’s where I sat when I heard the ascending footsteps of an angry tiger-mom. I don’t know why the episode sticks with me today—if not for the thrashing she gave me for missing math tutoring, but time and time again I revisit the phantom memory and attempt to beat some meaning out of it. Maybe that was the day when I decided I no longer wanted to be the man my mother wanted me to be and live the life she wanted me to live, although that is exactly what I ended up doing anyway, nine years later. I hope she is content, knowing that a remarkable mediocrity is the antithesis of true brilliance.

It seems to me that the literary man leads a very romantic life. Perhaps that is who I become in my dream, the same way a primrose dreams of Baudelaire. Sure, you were not ever going to be as famous as Paul Newman, but you could enjoy an undisturbed afternoon in some Viennese coffeehouse on NanChang Road lost in the pages of Proust or fleeing from Faulkner’s great lexicon of despair. You were never going to have the power of a statesman or the command of a general, but you were free to doze off into a dozen dreams. You were condemned to forever wander the Hochschwarzwald without having mastered the mathematical secrets of the universe (which are, I am told, inconsistent anyway), but you could always catch dasein in the rye. Yet, I am now old enough to appreciate that life is always in bad taste in so far as every being is never satisfied with the path it eventually chooses.

But I hesitate to choose the life of the litterateur. Well, asks my dear friend, what about the life of the philosopher? Of the techno-philosopher? Of the crypto-techno-philosopher-king? Now now, no need to get lost in elaborate neologisms and hollow tautologies—here one but cracks the epistemic nut with the ontological sledgehammer. One ends up talking to oneself. So, in writing this letter, with my mastery over language maturing as fast as my net worth declines, I declare on this momentous day that I would perhaps, once and for all, choose for myself a life as a grown-up would by the time I sign off this letter. As the twenties Zoom ahead, with my own twenties tailing not far behind them, my two juvenile regrets—at not being good-looking enough to be popular amongst girls, and at not starting some ideological rebellion against some loosely defined enemy somewhere for some quixotic cause—resolved themselves into dreams of horseplay heroism that was eh good enough to sleep on in rainy days. I no longer daze as I use to.

When I got into Harvard, there seemed little doubt that the world was going to get better and better. Life was getting better. I was getting better. Then, one year later, the broken-winged bird lifted into the azure skies, and the barren snowland defrosted, leaving room for the little lotus bud to peek from the water and a dragonfly to land on its tip. My sweet dreams blossomed. Then, two years later, my dreams (not deferred, but having arrived too early unannounced) began to implode. All of a sudden, the whole course of my life appeared to me as a fantasy through a kaleidoscope; sometimes I wonder if indeed it was all true because it never presented itself to my mind with the intensity of reality. And, with that, I realize now I carry with my premature fortune both a blessing and a curse.

The curse is that early success gives one a rosy view of fate. At the peak of the bull market I was indomitable. I was no man: I was dynamite! With my star shining above me I ascended the Tower of Babel and demanded a mandate from heaven. Then came a clap of thunder, and, as it ricocheted off the surrounding mountain, it began to rain. I somehow recollect at this time every year that my birthday falls on Waterloo, and only now do I realize I am Raskolnikov, not Napoleon. I admit here that on my last birthday, I wished to be like the general. I wished for in my own life a friend like Lannes, a right hand man like Ney, an adversary like Alexander, an admirer like Goethe, and a victory like Austerlitz. I wished to never forget the son of the revolution, his indomitable will, which, as Hegel observed, “concentrating on one point while seated on a horse, stretches over the world and dominates it.” Now, I ask to be forgiven for my juvenile delusions. I convince myself I no longer harbor these fantasies as much as they beckon me, for I had not known the pain and suffering of the world-historical individual who, upon a drunken night in St. Helena, remarked that he should have died at Waterloo. Oh sire, in you mankind suffered the wrath and bathed in the glory of the will-to-power of the young virtuoso who caressed the hand of fate as his mistress. In you, we saw Caesar united with Rousseau, Cesare Borgia with twice the brains, and Machiavelli with thrice the will. But I no longer envy you, you addict of action, you warmaker, at last, a world figure fallen from imperial robes to the imprisonment of your own mind. No longer, I declare, do I fantasize on restless nights playing chess with the gods.

Now that I have borne the burden of my curse, unbroken, it is time to indulge its blessing. The blessing is that now I get to regard life as an entirely romantic affair, in the best sense of the word. Having courted the beautiful and the damned, I blink and find to my immense satisfaction that I have many fair years ahead of me waiting to be wasted. What is more romantic than waste?

Once sometime between the falling of spring leaves and the heartbreak caused by an ex I was walking along the old route Dupleix in Shanghai where throughout the twilight the French plane trees swished and swooshed in a pas de deux with the wind. As far ahead as I could see were pretty ABGs in red-bottomed stilettos smoked with silicon taking photos of each other in front of handsome concession-era villas taken out of a sepia photograph that made the starry night its celestial canvas. It was not the girls I was looking at (or maybe it was). It was back to the pimple-faced, chubby boy with disheveled hair who sprained his ankle slipping on black ice one Andover winter. I was him again—for a second I was swept off my feet and transmigrated into his soul, I who no longer dreamed. Occasionally nowadays there are times when I creep up behind him, on late latte runs in SoHo or spring nights in Cambridge when during the dead of darkness you could hear freshmen roaming through the Widener stacks until the break of dawn. But never as during that moment when he and I were one person again did the past and future crescendo into a single euphoric cadenza.

That is until now. I close my laptop and rub my eyes, red with fatigue. And in my daze, I see him again, the boy who wrote letters and then made them real, if only for a brief moment. The clock strikes twelve and I am transformed, as it is time. I see my imploded dreams. I had promised earlier in this letter that I would choose. And for my first act of adulthood, I choose to write this letter. For my second act, I choose not to choose. And, knowing that I can squander my fair years chasing paradise and picking up all the fallen pieces, I will go on dreaming, again.

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