Four years ago, on the day of my 30th birthday, I woke up despondent due to foolishly misplaced desires. I couldn't bring myself to answer my phone, which was ringing with birthday wishes. Instead, I decided to drive out to the coast to be by myself. I wandered around until I discovered the Columbian Cafe in Astoria. (Appropriate that it's named after Columbus and I said I "discovered" it even though many people before me had already been there. Anyway.) I sat at the bar while the owner Uriah, a Jerry Garcia-looking man, cooked up different experiments. "Here, try this," he would say as he handed me a corn bellini or piece of roast duck bursting with flavor. I decided to order the red snapper, and when he served it to me it had slices of tomatoes on top of it. I had never really enjoyed tomatoes in my life. It's not that I hated the taste, but for some reason they always made me gag. I just couldn't eat them. I would never ask for their exclusion, but by the time I would finish a salad or something, my plate would be filled with little leftover tomato wedges. However, as Uriah handed me the plate of red snapper with tomato slices that day, I trusted that I should just eat them, despite thirty years of contrary evidence. It was his kind face and the loving way that he cooked everything, and the deep red color of the tomatoes. They were the kind of red that you only see when you cut a vein and oxygen-poor blood comes spilling out.
I ate the tomato. It wasn't "good" or "great". It redefined what I thought a tomato was. It made me mad at all the pale white tomatoes that had been dispassionately shoved into sandwiches and burritos. Those were not tomatoes. THIS was a tomato. In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato describes how we never know the true essence of something, we just know the shadow that that thing casts on the wall of the cave we're all chained in. I swear to God that in Astoria on my birthday, when I bit into that tomato at the Columbian Cafe, I was biting into the PLATONIC IDEAL of a tomato, like I walked right into that cave, grabbed the tomato that was casting the shadow of tomatoes all over the world, and took a bite out of THAT.
It made me wonder what else in my life I had only had experienced inferior versions of. I wanted to find more real tomatoes.
I started this year with a vow. I decided to convince myself that this was the last year of my life. Every time I was faced with a choice, any choice, I would base my decision on the belief that I was going to die at the end of the year and this was my last chance. It was a way to trick myself into living my life instead of waiting. So I started out the year living in Brooklyn for two months. I stayed in an apartment in the Greenpoint neighborhood, which is filled with old Polish people shuffling down the street in long coats. In the grocery store everyone speaks Polish, and there are all kinds of Polish foods on the shelf, and short old Polish women politely ask you if you can grab them a bottle of pickled fish from the top shelf. From there I went to New Orleans, California, Colorado. I restored old friendships and made new ones and then alienated other friendships. More importantly, I gave up on defining my success on outside factors and made my own happiness and freedom the top priorities.
The theory of evolution gives us a good metaphor in which to look at our lives. The idea is that every species adapts to its environment in a never-ending quest to survive and reproduce. Its success is therefore not measured against other species, but just based on its own continued existence. It is unfair for us to look at our fellow creatures and say that one of them is smarter or more advanced than the other. We are judging based on our own biases. Of course monkeys and dolphins will look good because they can sometimes play along with us, and worms will look stupid. But every creature has adapted to its environment and built its strengths based on what it needs to survive. Because a worm can't beat us at chess doesn't make it dumb. Playing chess was never a part of its environment and not necessary for its survival.
We can look at musical pursuits the same way. It can be overwhelming to look at a very successful band and feel like your own musical project is a failure by comparison. If the Arcade Fire sells a thousand times more albums than you, does that make their music a thousand times better than yours? It really just means that they are a particular species that has adapted to their environment well. It's not a competition amongst all groups, even though it definitely seems like that. In reality, each project is given a certain environment and tools to survive, and it either performs well and continues living or it doesn't. There are creatures that fly planes all over the world and there are also creatures at the bottom of the ocean that live off the heat escaping from the center of the Earth. If you can survive in your environment, then you are a success.
I write these words from Krakow, Poland. I am half Polish, from my father's side. When I was a kid the first composer who ever really broke through for me was Chopin. His Prelude in E minor was a shot right to my stomach. Some music you struggle to appreciate, and some just tackles you and tramples your heart. Before I ever knew how to play an instrument I used to have dreams of being able to play the piano like Chopin. The dreams were so real, like when you can fly and it just seems natural. I would look down at my hands and would and marvel at what they could do. When I was a teenager I went to a psychic and she told me that in a past life I was a woman living in Poland in the 19th century and I took piano lessons from Chopin.
I don't really expect to die by the end of the year, but I'm grateful for the impetus that vision caused me. Without it I would have put off France, and Germany, and cliff diving, for another year. Now all I want to find is more real tomatoes. The real versions of every possible food, musical style, and type of person. You know you've found it when you realize you'd only been experiencing a cardboard cut-out until now.