Around 3 a.m. on a Saturday this May, I took the wheel from my friend Jordan and started driving across the Iowa plains. The sky above us was black and potent, and my windshield dappled with mist. Hidden clouds snuffed out the stars. Headlights sometimes loomed over gentle hills, each pair cresting like a sunrise, but they came more sparsely the more I drove, and mostly I saw darkness.
Before long, Jordan was asleep in the passenger seat. The night seemed soft but heavy; it embraced the car like a blanket pulled over a child’s head. Yet it also felt open, endless, its unadulterated blackness stretching as far as I could see and farther still past that.
Every few miles, I passed a bit of road construction that pierced my calm cocoon. Orange cones would funnel me past the shoulder of the road, to an area that looked like a pit stop and shook it like a rickety washing machine before setting me free on the open highway once more. It went on like that for a while: smooth highway and short detour, open stretch and cordoned side, peaceful flow and abrupt shift, until it took on its own sort of rolling rhythm and just became the Iowa drive.
I heard my engine humming faintly and, louder, the sound from my speakers: podcasts of WNYC’s Radiolab, spacey, philosophical, and grand, perfect for the setting and perfect for my mood. I caught every word, but they felt more atmospheric than present, the scenery in my mind instead of the dialogue.
Mostly, I felt alone, with nothing to do but think, and drive. It was exactly what I wanted and what I felt I needed.
This was my first vacation after six months in a new office job. I had worked in advertising for eight months before that, mixed an Italian restaurant with a book publishing internship before that, and gone through one of those increasingly common bouts of post-collegiate unemployment before that. It was while working at the restaurant that I took my first big road trip with Jordan. We left Chicago and followed the old Highway 61 down south, through St. Louis and Memphis and New Orleans, then came back up through Nashville and Louisville. We explored the cities and embraced the music, drove fast and stopped wherever, and came back ready to share our stories and make some more.
That trip felt right at the time: we left on my 23rd birthday, and I thought of it as a new beginning, a big adventure that would keep going and lead me into adulthood. This time, though, I wasn’t looking for a beginning; I was looking for a break—from the burdens of work, from the stress of the present, from the bustle of my life. So I called my road buddy and planned a long drive west.
I was a college junior walking languidly through Cambridge, Mass., on a crisp November day when I decided that a 40-hour-a-week desk job might not be so bad—might even be something I would want. And it was a video game that got me to that point.
My roommate and I had left our dorm in a weird mood that day, both excited and wistful, and acutely aware of how transitory everything felt. As we strolled away from the Charles River, in no particular hurry to get to class, we started talking about Super Mario Galaxy. We thought it seemed cool, and we wanted to get home and spend a few hours playing it, the way we had with dozens of video games when we were younger. That’s all, really.
But as we talked about the games we used to play, I started to realize that my free time felt different back then—more contained, more cohesive, more leisurely. I could come home from middle school and let a sprawling game like Ocarina of Time envelop my life. It wasn’t just the excitement of each accomplishment I loved, but the way every event was a revelation that drove me and the story onward. Each night I played that game, I discovered another aspect of the polygonal world and collected another piece of the epic fantasy tale, and each morning I’d get on a bus full of giddy chatter and hyper questions: “How’d you beat the water temple?” and “Where’d you get the hover boots?” and “How cool was that scene with the Seven Sages?” My thoughts didn’t go much beyond that—I was 11, after all—but I knew that there was always something new and exciting to do, and that as much as I didn’t want the game to end, I couldn’t wait to beat it. Now, though, I began to see something else: my young life had a structure to order my free time, a steady pole opposite the school day.
Because at this point in college, any structure I had seemed to have collapsed, and the smooth cyclical march between schoolwork and play felt more like a lurching, interminable procession. As I grew older and my interests expanded, I watched an immense, interconnected world grow up alongside me, and it shaped a dramatically different mental landscape. It’s not that other things didn’t contribute—my friends, my classes, my own maturation—but that everything in this world was suddenly amplified.
And in my room on the Charles, I had access to it all. It might start with something simple—a friend’s blog, or the Wikipedia page for a movie I wanted to see. Or, more often, I’d open them both in separate tabs, while downloading a new album and listening to another already in my iTunes; to not multitask, at this point, was to waste time. My friend might talk about a talked-about movie like Juno, and I’d want to read about the background, and the plot, and then Ellen Page, because who is this girl and where did she come from? And Ivan Reitman I half-recognize, so I click on his name and yup, his dad is the guy who made Ghostbusters, and what was the plot of that again? And wasn’t Bill Murray great? And he’s a Chicagoan and a Cubs fan like me, so I flip over to a Cubs blog to check the offseason chatter and read hundreds of fervent comments, and what’s this trade rumor? Brian Roberts? Baseball Reference has his stats, and John Sickels has write-ups on every prospect in the deal, and I wonder if FJM’s posted a line by line takedown of awful baseball writing recently? Or if Joe Posnanski’s got another three thousand words of great baseball writing up? Regardless, Michael Cera was in Juno and now I feel like watching Arrested Development but dwoop! there’s a gchat asking what’s up or linking me to something I’ve gotta read, and an email with a new video I’ve gotta see, and I know I do, because we’ll all talk and email and gchat about it soon enough, but I still feel like checking the news and David Brooks mentions William James so I pull up that essay I like, “oh not much how bout you?”, and oh hey, that album finished downloading, and my mind gets distant while so much is present, and—well, you get the idea, and probably did before I started.
This isn’t to say that everything became a series of trivial distractions; it was more like an overlapping jumble of fractals, each one as full and bottomless as the one before. I picked through them like a magpie while obsessing like a maven. That album in my headphones became a catalog of early stuff and a library of influences. And I wasn’t even the kind who, in a different time, would have spent his days in a record store: there were always others who knew more, or at least they blogged like they did. About music and so much else.
I wanted to keep up, but I needed a way to get a handle on my relentless, fragmented days. And as much as I loved my classes, they seemed to get in the way of doing that. School work was another persistent presence in my mind, tugging at it while the rest swirled through, and I could never get away from the demands of papers and assignments for long. I felt stuck in the manic present, and I wanted to restore a sense of cohesion to my days and progress to my life, even if it was only partial.
“You know what?” I finally told my roommate. “A full-time job might be nice.” You get out of work and you’re done, I figured. It would be more like the days of middle school and video games, with a structure for my work, a way to contain my free time, and a unified experience of my day.
I was wrong, of course. But I couldn’t have known that at the time.