Forty-Three

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I remember playing the Smashing Pumpkins’ song “Thirty-Three” exactly ten years ago today. Beyond the fact that it’s just a good song, and that listening to it reminds me of a simpler time in my life, I had a very good reason for playing that song on that day: It was also the day that I turned thirty-three years old. As often as I’ve heard “Thirty-Three” throughout my life, I don’t think that song even felt more meaningful to me than it did when I played it on my 33rd birthday, even if the numerology at play was kind of superficial.

Back in the Smashing Pumpkins’ early years, I had huge crushes on both Billy Corgan (when he still had long hair) and D’Arcy. Even though I’ll always say the roughness of their first album, Gish, makes it the best album they ever put out, the commercial success of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness, combined with all the personal changes I was going through in 1995, has kind of set it in my mind as the definitive Smashing Pumpkins album, and the one I go back to most often when I want to listen to their work. (Having said that, I think “Bullet with Butterfly Wings” is kind of overrated, and “Thirty-Three” deserves a lot more attention, but that’s just my opinion.)

Ten years ago today, on my 33rd birthday, I was certainly going through another set of big changes in my life. I was marking my second birthday after my father’s death, I was in the middle of teaching my first creative writing class, and I was hip-deep in trying to help Mom navigate a very tumultuous world (this was less than two months after Barack Obama was sworn in as President) without her near-lifelong partner. I remember feeling at the time that I was getting my life in order, but looking back with the perspective of ten years, I can see that I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and I was barely treading water back then. I’m not so sure that I’m necessarily doing all that better now.

I’ve tried to document the changes of these past years on here, as well as in the physical journal I’ve been keeping since 2000, but I still have moments where I wonder if my past and/or my present actually happened the way I remember it. It’s been close to seven months since I moved here to Wisconsin to start my new teaching job, but I still wander around my apartment sometimes trying to figure out just how I got here. I remember the struggles I went through to get to this point all too vividly: The abuse I endured in my childhood, the wars I had to fight (both with others and myself) to get my head back on straight after that, all the problems I went through to get my degrees, and all the kicking and scratching it took for me to get a full-time teaching position. Sometimes, though, I start remembering the parts of Toledo that I still know like the back of my hand, and it almost feels like I’m remembering Lake Wiishkoban, Minnesota, one of the fictional towns I invented for my first novel. Living in the same part of Toledo for almost all the first forty-one years of my existence just normalized that whole area for me as the background of my entire life, and even though I know it’s all still there (minus a few businesses that closed down), sometimes it’s still difficult for me to recognize that fact when I can’t be there to verify it with my own eyes.

I’ll probably be visiting Toledo at some point this spring or summer, just to satiate my curiosity about how things are going back there, but I already know that it won’t be the same for me in a lot of ways. I used to save my favourite meal — cheese pizza from J&G’s Pizza Palace, the best pizzeria I’ve ever been to — for my birthday meal, and I didn’t get to have it when I was living in Colorado at this time last year. I’ll probably go back to J&G’s the next time I’m in Toledo, but I know that it won’t be the same for me, and not just because Mom won’t physically be there with me, and it won’t be my birthday. A lot can change in ten years, or even two, let alone the forty-three years since I was born in a hospital just a couple of miles away from that pizzeria, and I just know that even though I’ll feel that I’m in Toledo when I go back there, it won’t be the same. It never will be the same again.

When I played the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Thirty-three” ten years ago today, the song was close to fourteen years old. That was a long time, but it didn’t really feel so old to me. Now that song is nearly a quarter-century old, and all of us who listened to it when it first came out are nearly twenty-five years older as well. I should probably go listen to it again later today. Even if I’ll never be thirty-three years old again, or nineteen like I was when Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness was released, I can still remember those times in my life all too well. With all the difficulties this whole world is facing right now, maybe some time reminiscing about the past will help me find the rest and comfort I need to help me build a better future for the people around me, and for myself as well.

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