“the answer to the question “And if so, when?” and 25+ other questions worth posing when you find yourself standing in front of a small German-made hatchback and wondering 1) how many big, rectangular things can be jammed into a container meant to move people and not their As-Seen-on-TV kitchen appliances, 2) how long one can postpone so-called adulthood and all the snazzy doodads that come bundled with it, and 3) how to know if you’re making the right decisions… at the right times… for the right reasons.”
I. THE ORIGIN OF “AND IF SO, WHEN?” – an intro in which “you” means “me,” as “we” decided that going 2nd-person with this one might makes it feel a little more relatable/less exclusive – like, ending phone calls, with, “I’m gonna let you go,” instead of the more honest, “I’m gonna let me go.”
You reach a certain point during a cross-country drive when I-80 loses the charm it maybe never had and settles into a long snooze across the Midwest that promises nothing but roadkill and infuriating bumper stickers – and certainly delivers.
You get bored.
Get bored of the boredom.
Break-up the boredom with things that aren’t boring, but are fleeting and, when gone, make the boredom seem all the more boring and permanent.
Using only the first four bars of a song to guess whether the hosting radio station is secular or Jesus-tastic proves too easy.
Rating the hairstyles (from 1.0 to 10.0) of other motorists becomes less feasible as you move farther from heavily populated cities (and you even get bored with weighing the possible correlation between the geographical absence of professional sports team and professional hairdressers).
After a while you even exhaust your old standby – the “I’m going on a picnic…”-game – by setting the bar too high in Jersey with “I’m going to hell because…” and twice topping it in Pennsylvania and Ohio, respectively, with the fun-but-limiting “I’m going to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and bringing…” and the decidedly-unbeatable “I’m starting a porn Web site and am considering called it…” (some fetish-porn favorites that briefly bonk boredom on the noggin: for male inserters “Urethra/Merethrea” for female ones “Ovary/Undery,” for swingers: “MEAT the Neighbors,” for fans of good Chinese missionary with bad Chinese translations: “Man with Birch Branch Enters Her Garden,” for rainforest canopy exhibitionists: “Zipline Fuckfest…”)
This is when the last remaining source of entertainment seems to lie in slipping into a new character and encouraging your companion to do the same. If you’re me (which we already established, you are), you interview your accomplice in the style of a nervous 8th-grade girl, awkwardly asking loud questions with halted delivery and no indication that you/she understood the response to the previous question. If your travel partner is Phil (which, if you’re me – which we already established you are – it almost always is), he pretends to be a middle-aged Native American man who volunteers to explain the history of both central Iowa and the cultural middleground of his people; how, “oh yeah, this all used to be the land of the Winnebago,” (which, yes, is a tribe) and “oh yes, my grandfather used to run with Mother Buffalo before brother Walmart moved in and starting selling Brother Slim Jims for $0.94” (which, yes, is insensitive and inappropriate, but admissible when gravy has been a major component of his (Phil’s) last six meals (breakfast/lunch/dinner X2) and he’s not quite thinking clearly (or thinking that you – or I – will ever write a column about his bad impersonations and how he still calls Native Americans “Indians”…)
There emerges something indescribably hilarious around the 15-minutes mark of the fake interview, when the 8th-grade girl asks:
“How do you, a native man in the Americas, think you would be doing if your grandfather’s home-place wasn’t now a KFC restaurant that also sells the Pizza Hut products… and, if so, when?
And so, “And if so, when?” becomes that thing that gets you through the next 300-ish miles (until it fades also and you latch-on to the belief that you and he (Me and Phil) can do decent impressions of David Letterman and Paul Shaffer, respectively, and start riffing on how kids are always carrying backpacks and “what’d’ya think’s in ‘em, Paul?”)
That’s a long-intro to explain the origin of “And if so, when?” so, I’ll keep brief the part about how it never really left my mind, but at some point it just changed context, stopped being hilarious and started reminding me that I need to stop stammering and falling into-and-out-of convenient characters, need to start figuring some shit out before I get run over by the proverbial WalMart herd and find myself forced to subsist on breakfast/lunch/dinners X365 of actual Slim Jims…
II. THE QUESTION THAT PROMPTED US TO PACK OUR CAR, become a plural entity and start hashing through all the other questions that resulted from doing just that (packing/pluralizing)…
It’s been almost a year since I (we) headed out to New Mexico to live in an adobe hut, eat beans, drink hard water from a blue plastic bucket and write our latest novel. In the months since we’ve been back East, we’ve been applying to MFA programs, pitching the new manuscript, freelancing and wringing our hands over the silence of agents/the fact that out girlfriend is 3,000 miles away/the recent recognition that the only thing that frightens us more than failing to get into a grad program is succeeding in getting into a grad and, fuck, having to succeed.
And hanging like a flying squirrel over all of that shit is “and if so, when?”
We don’t settle instantly on an answer, but a question (just like we did when the suffix eventually caboosed “Are you going to quit your suffocating newspaper job and write for yourself…?” or “Are you going to stop throwing all your recyclables in the regular garbage or at least stop pretending you believe that someone actually sorts it at the dump…?”
We tell ourselves that things will pick up any day now.
We acknowledge that “doing our part” might not save the whole planet, but might do a little something; might even preserve a section of it just for us – a gift from what’s-his-name? That guy that everyone on I-80 sings of/for with such purity and intention.
We pack our car and, if you’re still me (which I think you are, but am less certain), you and I ask yourself the following questions before we leave, punctuate:
Can you start a new life with all your old shit in tow?
Should you pack an exercise ball in lieu of a chair (and, if so, should you really expect it shape your core while you browsed craigslist for free bikes and copywriting gigs)?
Is it true that relationships change when you’re living with someone for the first time?
Will your girlfriend still want to be your girlfriend after she spends 24-hours/day with a boyfriend whom she quickly learns is not nearly as interesting/funny as he is hyper/insecure?
Can you “network” in LA without feeling like a complete douche?
How hard is it to get into an environmental science program with no real experience/references?
How hard is it to get a security deposit back from a landlord that doesn’t like you and always carries a pipewrench?
Is it possible to focus when the four fun people you live with are not, are having the young week’s second “Patron Night” and watching “Birdemic?”
Was the height of an economic downturn the best time to quit your unrewarding job or the worst?
Does suffering really help art?
How many fishtanks must a restaurant maintain for you to be willing to overlook sub-par food?
Is – or was – “Mozart died poor,” or “Kerouac lived with his mom,” ever a good response to people who passive-aggressively judge your commitment to a craft that’s yet to commit itself to you?
Would a jury of your peers really convict you for punching a woman who, upon learning that you didn’t have a SmartPhone, said “Oh poor thing. Do you really expect to make it in LA?”
If, when packing your car with all the nonessential shit you’ve acquired in recent years – the chef’s coat, the poncho, the chef’s poncho – you recognize that less really is more, does that mean you should apply that lesson to all facets of your life and stop trying to stuff hatchbacks like pick-ups, and sentences (like this) like paragraphs?
At what point is it healthy to realize that “being meta” is a crutch (and poor grammar)?
Can we stop pretending that a country in which a family of four pays more than $1,200/month for health insurance is “the greatest country on earth?”
Is trying your hand at improv the last obstacle between you and the cliché version of “you” your friends already kinda think you’ve become?
Is a lack of financial security the biggest obstacle to a happy marriage?
When your battery is rated for five years, do you think that’s more or less binding than, say, Greek yogurt’s expiration date?
What’s exactly is specific gravity and should I bother using it as a metaphor?
Has anyone ever died from wanderlust, and if so, was it because he or she indulged it or ignored it?
Are you really saving money by shopping at Costco?
Will you ever be happy, or make someone else happy?
And can two people who aren’t entirely happy really make one another happy?
Will you ever feel settled/comfortable/content enough to stop questioning everything?
And if so, when?