Route 55

By Samir Shukla

Practically everyone thinks they are going to live forever when they are 18. That's what I thought when I hit that age, the juncture of exiting childhood and entering legal adulthood. It was summer of 1981. A sizzling hot July. A young new decade, the recently birthed eighties were teasing with possibilities. The disorienting cultural shifts of migration from India to USA, via several stops along the way and winding up in Charlotte now were smoothed.

A new decade dawned, high school was conquered, and college life beckoned at the end of the summer. Life was young and the future seemed so vast, so long, so far away. A new and former unknown road called Route 18 opened up and I didn't hesitate to get on it.

The road was bumpy, curvy, and full of distractions, with plenty hesitations, forward moves, and learning curves. It seemed an endless road of mishaps and achievements. The journey began in a car that was a beat-up American classic and the prime distraction, the lovely radio dial never further than the reach of the right hand.

Music has been my prime sustenance in the past decades, not just as a listener or attempting to play the guitar, but as a participant in the business of music, owning a record shop, recording label, a music magazine, and promoting shows. I calculate that I've seen over five thousand bands or musicians till date in various venues and stages. Let's call them music makers of varied genres, beats, melodies, and noise. My basic parameter is that I have to see a specific music maker for at least 20 minutes to say I've seen that performer, to at least get a taste of that performer's ability to perform live.

Music informed the past, drizzles the present and promises comfort into the future.

There's that word again. Future. I always looked forward to the future as a youngster. I have loved science-fiction and science fact since I learned to read. Star Trek, Star Wars, and Mahabharata along with myriad other films, TV shows, and books helped imagine a tech-infused future. I couldn't wait to have Star Trek communicators, ability to talk via video, use the device to navigate. Now that we have invented those innovations, I must confess I'm a bit underwhelmed. The initial magic of cell phones, internet and now smart phones has worn off. I've got a smart phone, but do I want smart everything else?

I suppose I feel underwhelmed by technologies because at the same time I'm overwhelmed by them. I find this dilemma unhinging. My younger self is trying to reach forward through time to slap my present self. What? This is what you dreamt of, and now it is prevalent the youngster tells me. What do you mean you are underwhelmed?

We are in the throes of unimagined technological advancement but at the same time the human disconnection is unnerving. We are connected like never before, but are becoming unconnected in unnatural ways, we are community but are becoming more tribal, self-centered. This creates a challenge to evolve new ways of thinking and I'm sure human ingenuity will make this possible but I fear massive disintegration of established orders amid dissonance and discord before a new type of society emerges. One that uses technology as a convenience, rather than a shield or hiding place or denigrator or weapon.

I adore our tech innovations, but also crave a bygone age. Simpler times. Sometimes I want to go way back to the legendary American West. But life was too hard back then and I'm too lazy to make such an adjustment.

So, I just watch old westerns and fantasize about the west. I now watch Star Trek waiting for transporters and warp drives, as other fictions of imagination have become fact. Sometimes I want to go back to the 1980s and 1990s when current technology was young, the Internet was coming of age, but you still needed to make an effort to discover and to connect. Way back when Route 18 was bursting open with possibilities of the future leading to other routes with the progress of time.

I like the ease of technology and as I'm dictating parts of this essay to my phone, which is typing it out for me. The clunker still makes a lot of mistakes and misreads what I say, but it's useful. After a while I just want to put the phone down, hit the road and get lost driving, pulling out creased old paper maps to find my way. The radio playing favorite tunes.

Maybe I'm just age-softened, the murky blend of memories and experiences slapped around by reality keeping me grounded.

I'm much more comfortable in my own skin now. I don't want to be anyone else but myself. Unlike my younger self dreaming of being one of my favorite musicians, actors, scientists, or simply being someone else.

A simple wisdom I've acquired traveling the routes of the possibilities and inevitabilities of life is a cold and hard one, try as you may but you can't run away from yourself. You can't unzip your skin and inhabit someone else. The restlessness of youth was never quite being happy with yourself.

You can go to the Himalayas to meditate, go to Jamaica and join a Rasta camp, go wandering the country on a motorbike, immerse yourself in dogma, or fill in your own quest on the blank line. These are all wonderful and serve a purpose on an individual basis, but you must like yourself first. If you don't like yourself, then your physicality, abilities and limitations, looks, financial constraints, all become road blocks, making elusive any attempts at happiness. At the risk of sounding narcissistic, you have to love yourself, pending self-realized improvements. Everything else then becomes manageable.

This doesn't require any deep spiritual quest, just acceptance of the physical self. Pinch yourself. Realize your talents and capabilities and then expand them. Realize your limitations and work within those parameters, while making efforts to decrease the scope of your limitations. Not everyone can do everything. “Never give up" sounds nice in a speech or committee meeting, but a smart person realizes to let go of something that simply won't work or cannot be achieved and moves on. Cut your losses and find another goal. We all have our skill sets. We have our physical beings. We must become comfortable with both.

This of course doesn't mean you can't lose weight, or work to increase stamina or find the clothing styles that make us feel confident. Learning to be alone when needed is an absolute requirement. Most people simply cannot be alone. I'm never alone. This is because I'm always with myself. I have learned to like myself. There's that corky hippy song..."If you can't be with the one you love, and then love the one you're with."

It's better to do and accomplish with your skills then daydream about something you cannot achieve. It's a hard lesson not easily learned in the throes of youth.

That old classic American car broke down and was abandoned eventually on Route 18. Others were driven on numerous routes along the way.

Today I'm driving in a comfy SUV along a straight and narrow desert road that evokes a sense of infinity. The road and journey seem endless. It's a similar feeling as when one is embarking on life in youth, often on unpredictable and narrow paths.

This drive through the desert is in a dream. It's a continuation of the actual drive through the West Texas desert from a couple months earlier. It's a hypnotic drive that breaks the trance only when another crossroad appears. The desert road has no exits and minimal distractions, while a sense of clarity hangs in the hot air.

I spot a road coming up that I need to turn on. The white rectangular sign with black markings appears. I pull onto the road and am now motoring along on Route 55. That's the road I need today. The road is smooth and well-traveled. The July heat swirls off the tar. Route 18 was taken with throttle in full gear, no map in hand, the words GPS still far in the distance, screeching tires and burning rubber occasionally welcome. Route 55 is just as fun, wide open and beckoning, but damn if the foot doesn't remain constantly alert, ready and hovering near the brake pedal.

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Samir Shukla is the editor of Saathee magazine. Contact - Samir@saathee.com