I’ve referred to my stretch of travels around the country last month as The December Experiment because I tried something to change my routine, in order to see if I could develop better habits in my day to day life. Six months of ungainful employment and the resulting cabin fever led me to some rather pathetic behaviors. There were a few video game marathons during that time, but worse still were the days, even weeks, in which I did nothing but channel surf the internet, not looking at anything important or even specific, yet not knowing what else to do. I developed this junkie habit while surviving a period of incredible abandonment and loneliness, which makes it all the more dumb that it persists in a house full of people, years later.
So the main element of The December Experiment was this: I’d get all my writing work done, turned in, and posted before heading out, and then I’d leave my computer at home. Which I accomplished. I wrote up one month’s worth of journalism in a week’s time, and each time I left Washington I was largely technology-free, save my electronic book, iPod, and camera – all of which had little potential for sloth. I felt pretty good about myself.
After suffering the holiday scorch of Phoenix, I was excited to return to Wisconsin: for my friends, for the snow, and for the ability to drink like a free citizen of the world. There are a few things I don’t miss about the Midwest, but the nigh-Irish drinking culture isn’t one of those things. Living in Washington is pretty goddamn wonderful, but to its discredit, this state HATES its liquor. Getting a vodka screwdriver out here feels like undertaking the Odyssey. Any intoxicant not beer or wine can only be sold in state-run liquor stores with Jesusy hours of operation and prices double those of equivalent products sold in Wisconsin. Perhaps I’ve had it too good for too long, but it feels blasphemous to drop twenty bucks for a tub of cheap vodka.
Worse still is the abomination I’ve discovered here known as the Beer Bar, in which liquor is shunned outright. For those like me who can’t so much as sip a beer without gagging, this institution makes bar hopping an exercise in proper planning that honestly isn’t worth the trouble.
There was a voting initiative in Washington this year which would have cut out all this hateful bullshit, but it was defeated on the strength of baby crusaders – terrorized parents who seem oblivious that the legal drinking age is 21 and not 5 – as well as, appropriately enough, the beer industry. Maybe I could get vodka easier if I could get a medical clearance for it.
Thus, after flying into Milwaukee and spending a few days lurking in my mom’s east Wisconsin Fortress of Solitude, I rode into La Crosse on Christmas Weekend, ready to flail, to make a fool of myself, and to suffer Valhalla-grade hangovers.
On the Thursday afternoon of my arrival, I found the town exactly as I left it, which felt both reassuring and depressing. Being too early to immediately dash to the bars, I met up with one of my friends, and we accompanied his kid to Chuck E. Cheese.
Having recently been reacquainted with Arizona’s weapon fetishist gun laws, I picked up on a strange sign at the exit of the kid’s restaurant, one which expressly forbade bringing guns into Chuck E. Cheese. No shit, says I. Dumber still, however, was the advertised punishment for violating this law – a stiff charge of trespassing. So what happens if a person actually fires a gun in this Chuck E. Cheese? Disorderly conduct? Jaywalking? First-degree Boys Will Be Boys?
But this night was not the time for philosophy; this was the time for action. And soon I found myself in my ancestral downtown, slithering down from Sobriety Summit. I had a good time – and an even better one during my traditional drunken Christmas Night festivities, in which my friends and I watch the original Star Wars Trilogy and get sloppy – but boozing in Wisconsin hadn’t been the legendary adventure I had hoped it to be. There weren’t any stories to come from Christmas weekend that were any better than the ones I already have. Instead, there was a lot of calm, and low-key reunions, hanging around a small group of friends, and me wandering around town by myself, killing time without agenda or that awkward onslaught of catching up that invariably accompanies homecomings. Which was perfectly fine.
I was returned to the Fortress of Solitude a week later, where I spent another week in comfortable limbo before going back to my already structureless existence. And it was there where The December Experiment, well, it didn’t fail, but it wasn’t a wild success.
The other side of the Experiment, once the mindless slog of the internet was cut out, was to fill that void with something more productive. I had brought notebooks and journals, ready to fill page upon page with new ideas for all the writing projects I plan to do. Yet for most of my vacation, those pages went blank. Mostly, this was because I’m very easily distracted, and wherever I was, I was rarely in a place where I could block everyone out and get to serious work. My mom’s place, for instance, was a bit cluttered at the time, and there weren’t many places untouched by a running television. It left me with an unhealthy knowledge of both Frasier and The Nanny, two TV shows whose theme songs will now never escape my brain. It was easier to play video games and ignore the constant static than actually work.
But things didn’t end badly. On the last day before leaving Wisconsin, I developed a code of conduct which I’ve been attempting to turn into the new habit ever since. It’s coming together, not with the unrealistic and easily frustrated flashes of epiphany and revelation, but with a slow assembly that, given time, could become the new routine. December Experiment, meet the January Plan.