The Crab Who Would Be Free
Crawling into the New Year Like a Dungeness on Death Row
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The other day, my wife and I were doing some business errands, and we realized we were both hungry.
I was on my “Christmas break from dieting” after nearly 6 months of being incredibly strict, and I wanted Asian food, which is almost never low carb even on the best of days.
“We could go to dim sum,” I suggested. “It’s just the two of us, so it’ll be cheap.” Things have been tight for us lately, as they are for many folks right now, and our normal routine of going out to lunch several times a week as we go about the daily obligations that keep us on the move has been on hiatus for quite a while. Things can be pretty predictably tedious when you’re rocking the low-budget life, and food is no exception. Most days are leftover days, and we tend not to go anywhere we don’t have to.
“That sounds really good, actually.” She said. So I changed lanes and headed for the appropriate exit.
Lunch was good, and it scratched an itch that needed scratching. I’m a sucker for ethnic cuisines from around the world, and having married into a Cantonese family, dim sum has been a family tradition of ours for over 20 years. One of my all-time favorite things to go do together. I didn’t grow up with these kinds of traditions, and it makes me happy to grab all the kids on a weekend and go yum cha - drink tea, as the Southern Chinese call the experience. And it doesn’t hurt if along with some nice Guk Bo (a combination of Pu-erh and Chrysanthemum teas) you share a bit of Siu Mai, Har Gow, Fung Zao (chicken feet), tripe, and other such delicacies.
Jamie and I had already spent much of our day discussing what 2024 would have in store for us, and we were struggling to see a clear path as we pondered some big decisions ahead. In December alone, we’d decided to pull all the kids except our senior out of school to switch back to homeschooling — which we really don’t have time for, but felt was necessary for their wellbeing. As we were pondering that, on the weekend before Christmas, my father-in-law died. This ended a 7-year-run of us being his only caretakers, and all the many (often overwhelming) challenges that had accompanied that obligation, to say nothing of the complex, difficult relationship he and my wife had. Even the main business we’re running — an assisted living home — is something we purchased in large part so we could oversee his care. But after the toll this past 7 years has taken, the feeling we are left with, though freeing, is one of being surreally unmoored.
As I sat at our table sipping hot tea, looking around the large, mostly-empty restaurant (it was 2 in the afternoon on the Wednesday after Christmas), I noticed movement from one of the live seafood tanks in the back.
A lone crab, evidently also not content with his current state in life, was actively trying to escape, his claws and legs waving futilely in the air as his body was partially trapped beneath a basket floating at the top.
He was the only one sticking up, while the other crabs sat complacently below. He was using every ounce of leverage he could get, and at one point, I thought he was actually going to pull himself free. I felt an instant sense of solidarity with the little guy. Here he was, packed into an overcrowded tank in the back of a restaurant, on the list to become somebody’s dinner, and unlike all of his peers, he wasn’t content to take it lying down.
The message was clear: Escaping an unwelcome fate might not actually be possible, but you guarantee failure if you never even try.
He was, for all intents and purposes, the Crustaceanic version of this guy:
And in the moment, his attempted great escape felt poignant. A little signal from the universe that fighting a Sisyphean battle to find your true place in the world, against all odds, is still a worthwhile and admirable thing to do.
(As of this writing, the crab has not, to my knowledge, managed to escape, but let’s not get distracted by such depressing trivialities when there are useful metaphors afoot!)
2024 is Here, Ready Or Not
The fact is, much has changed over the past four years, and more changes are coming fast. None of us are, I think it’s fair to say, the people we were in January of 2020. For all of us, the world became a very different place, very quickly, and no matter where we’ve stood on the various issues that have come to dominate our discourse since then, we are all more embattled, more tribe-wary or tribe-aligned, and ultimately more world-weary (and probably, if we’re being honest, misanthropic) than we were back then.
No more games, Imma change what you call rage
Tear this moth******in’ roof off like two dogs caged
I was playin in the beginning, the mood all changed
I've been chewed up and spit out and booed off stage
— Eminem, Lose Yourself
So here we are now, on the other side of Whatever This All Was, trying to make sense out of it. We’re not seeing the prosperity they’re talking about on the news. We’re all toiling away in an economy that’s supposed to be great while finding that our bank accounts feel more like Bilbo Baggins — “thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread” — and wondering how to make it all work in the face of an increasingly uncertain future.
What are things going to be like in five years? What will AI do to the labor market? How many of the current conflicts around the globe are going to blossom into something to worry about, increasing the likelihood that our country is going to get sucked in? How insane will this election year be, and can we even trust the results? Who is on the Epstein list, and are they really going to release the names? What are we going to learn this year from UAP disclosure? Are mortgage prices coming down? Are house prices going up? Is gas going to be affordable this year? How about groceries and utilities? Is there any way to keep our kids blast-shielded from Woke, Inc. and their endless stream of race-baiting and gender ideology?
So many questions. So few answers.
What I do know is this: in my house, we collectively run three businesses, none of which are currently generating as much revenue as we need to cover all our expenses. I pay more for rent than I’ve ever paid for housing — including houses I’ve owned — and I’ve lived in much nicer houses than this. Bills keep stacking up, everyone wants a piece, and it’s incredibly easy to lose yourself to the grind of trying to just. break. even., let alone get ahead.
Meanwhile, if you’re like me, you’ve come to the record-scratch realization that your kids are suddenly not so little anymore. They’re young adults. They stay up later than you. Their emotions are complicated. The opposite sex is no-longer repugnant, but tantalizing. They don’t want to hang out with mom and dad much anymore, and we’ve missed our chance to give them the stability and roots as early as we always wanted to because we’ve wasted too much time pursuing security we still haven’t given. By next summer, I’ll have four teens at home - 18, 17, 15, and 13 respectively. The other 3 will all be under 12, but still growing up too fast for my liking.
And I’m not even close to where I want to be. I haven’t given them the life I wanted them to have. I spent way too long overcoming my own childhood issues to get there on time.
I don’t just mean we’re not physically where we want to be, but that’s part of it. The desert and I have a sort of détente at this point. I’ve come to respect it, appreciate it, even admire the austerity of its beauty. When I’m driving around taking in a sunset over the White Tanks in the West Valley, I never fail to appreciate it.
But when I close my eyes and think of “home,” the movie that plays in my mind is never here. It’s always some kind of white farmhouse in the country, with a stone hearth and a big front porch with a porch swing surrounded by grass and trees thick with leaves, the sunlight filtering down, dappled, across an expanse of lush green lawn. In that space, the evenings of midsummer are filled with the dance of fireflies; the autumn with orange leaves looping low in lazy spirals; the winter carrying the soft, placid sparkle of falling snow through the windows, the soft glow of low lights warming the interior, a fire roaring within. It’s bucolic and beautiful, but there’s city nearby. Stuff to do. Places to shop. Things to eat.
It’s a place we’ve never quite found, but have come close. A place where at last we can rest, and stop leaving to find something better. Instead, we can satisfy our remaining wanderlust with temporary travels, excited to know that when we’re done, we can just come home again.
No biggie: we just have to find it, afford it, grab it, and hold onto it somehow.
With the schools they’d been attending no longer working for most of our kids anymore, and the only family member that kept us here about to be laid to rest, there’s nothing holding us to this place anymore. The reasons we came back this one last time have fizzled and quite literally died. Home prices have gone up beyond our wildest expectations, and stubbornly stayed there. We have some friends here whom we dearly love, but their lives are as busy as ours, and even though we only live ten minutes apart we see each other only a few times a year. By next Christmas, they’ll have two kids in college, and ours will be right behind them in age.
Nothing stays the same.
Perhaps it isn’t actually true, but we feel as though we just don’t belong anywhere. And if that’s the case, we have to start with our kids, and try to build belonging. Create the legacy we’re looking for. We’re already grandparents twice-over, so we’ve got to hurry a bit. Maybe, if we do it right, or as right as we can, by the time the rest of our kids have kids they’ll have a place to come back to on holidays that will always feel like home to them.
I only know that I’m closer to 50 than 40, and I should have figured this out by now. I am too old and tired to be a nomad any longer. I do not have the luxury of continuing to seek out the perfect place. My wife has a new motto I’ve been hearing her repeat when things get difficult. It goes something like this: “I’m water. I do not fight resistance, I follow the path where I can flow.”
Time was, I would have found that philosophy weak. “Why choose my battles,” I’d ask defiantly, “when I have the energy for every single one?”
These days, I’m lucky if I have the energy to make it to 9PM before dozing off involuntarily at least once.
Life has seasons.
Something else feels off, too.
Usually, at the dawn of a new year, I get a kind of feeling about what’s to come. Sometimes, it feels clouded or troubled; other times, I sense prosperity and growth. In the past, these predictions have tended to be fairly accurate, considering their generality. If evaluating them were a test, it’d be a pass/fail grading system. When I sense what a year has in store, it more or less usually tracks.
But this year, for whatever reason, I cannot get a read. My intuition is grasping at straws, and the future is shrouded in a fog so dense that I cannot see my hand in front of my face.
Are you feeling that, too? Does your near-term future seem weirdly and totally opaque? I suspect I’m not alone.
I have some ideas of what I want to accomplish in the next 12 months, and some of the macro changes I think the upcoming year will bring. But the obscurity of any real forward-capable vision has me ill-at-ease.
But perspective is probably helpful here. We are living in very uncertain times, and they bring with them unprecedented changes. We’re all beginning to feel, I think, that nothing will ever be the same, but we have little idea what that means in practical terms. We each have to pick our paths, find our places, and make our way without much to go on. We have to hope we’ll get the answers right on a test that there’s simply no way to study for.
That’s not an easy thing to do, so if you’re struggling, be consoled.
What I can say is this: like that determined little crab, I’m not willing to take imprisoned fate for an answer. I will push against my bonds, I will overcome my many (mostly self-imposed) restraints, I will give everything I can to the effort to pull myself out of the tank, and maybe, just maybe, I will find the path to being free.
Either that, or I’ll get eaten. Just not without a fight.
Either way, I’m entering 2024 ready for some much-needed wins.
How about you?