Twenty-Something Looking at Middle-Age

Jun 14, 2018

TAA 0024 – C. Travis Webb and Steven Fullwood discuss what their twenty-year-old selves would think of their middle-aged selves. How do our measures of success change overtime?

C.T. WEBB 00:18 Good afternoon, good morning or good evening and welcome to the American Age Podcast. Today I’m talking to Steven Fullwood. Steven how are you doing?
S. FULLWOOD 00:24 I’m doing pretty good. How are you doing Travis?
C.T. WEBB 00:26 Pretty good. So we chose from a few different topics today and what we landed on was something a bit more personal which I appreciated that Steven went in that direction. The question is our– so I’m 44. I’m going to be 45 in about a month and Steven how old are you?
S. FULLWOOD 00:44 I’m 52.
C.T. WEBB 00:46 Okay. So Steven is 52. So a bit older than I am but kind of in that age bracket, right? We are firmly middle aged. There is no– when you are 33 or 32 you can kind of play some nonsense and say well [laughter] I’m not quite middle age but so we are both firmly middle aged and I mean we’ll get to this in the conversation but probably both of us have fairly unconventional paths to this podcast on Monday afternoon. But the question that I posed was how does each of our lives look to us in middle age from the point of view of what we would have thought our lives looked like in our 20s? When I was 20-something what did I think I was going to be doing, where was I going to be at. And when I suggested the question I meant it genuinely as a question because I was curious what Steven and Seph would feel about that. Sort of where they were at. I didn’t have a– I didn’t and I don’t have a set– so my thoughts but I don’t have a set answer for myself. So Steven why don’t you sort of let some of those storytelling chops go and why don’t you tell us what does your life look like now north of– well north of 40 actually.
S. FULLWOOD 02:10 Well, when you suggested it like you I didn’t have any firm answer. And I dug a little bit. I’m 52 to reiterate and I started thinking about it’s interesting that at this age for the last week or so I’ve been pulling out a lot of old writing for some reason and reading it before–
C.T. WEBB 02:31 Just coincidentally?
S. FULLWOOD 02:33 Just coincidentally and what I’m trying to do is not go to sleep with my computer in my face [laughter]. So I need something to read. And so thinking– but not coincidentally in terms of my upcoming– I’m taking my father to his family reunion in Minden, Louisiana. So for some reason I’ve been thinking about him and thinking about growing up and so the writing’s been helping me kind of think about what I was obviously thinking about, what I was concerned with and all that. And so when I got the question I was like, oh, okay. I didn’t immediately make the connection until just a moment ago. And I would say that around 16 I was a really dramatic teen. I was very much your usual pop marked, raging hormones, leave me alone, leave me along kind of guy [laughter]. And I remember feeling– doing the math because I guess a relative or someone had just turned 50 and I did the math and I was like I was born in 1966 and so in 2016 I’ll be 50. I just can’t conceive it. I could not conceive what I’d look like, what I was doing and I’ll be honest with you it was just very vague to me. I initially wanted to be a singer, song writer or musician. I didn’t have the talent, the sweat, none of it to really kind of pull it off. And I remember just thinking I didn’t want to go to college, I couldn’t see myself getting married, having kids and oddly enough a lot of that did happen [laughter]. By the age of 20 I was raising my godson and I was in school and shortly after that I had a succession of jobs and then I moved to New York City and started working at the Schomburg. The thing I was thinking about though was there was a lot of fog and howling for me. It was like being in a scary movie in the 80s where you see the fog and you hear the terrible music and the howling in the background. It was like what could this thing be like? What could this thing called life for me be like? Because I didn’t want to do so many things. I was just turned off, completely turned off and the 20s were.
C.T. WEBB 04:42 Did you–
S. FULLWOOD 04:42 Go head.
C.T. WEBB 04:43 Did you have– so, so many things you didn’t want to do. Did you have any sense of what you did want to do?
S. FULLWOOD 04:51 Other than being a singer, song writer that was it and then [laughter] eventually I started writing and that took over and I started early on when I was in high school I was training to be a graphic artist and got really turned off by the idea that I could help make a commercial for someone when I felt like no one needs to be convinced to buy anything. Either they need it or they don’t. And I couldn’t produce art on demand either. So I just couldn’t sit there and go you draw this and I was like, no man. I’m not inspired. So no. So there was a bunch of all that and it was just noisy. So I was curious about your upbringing because I grew up in the north and you grew up in the south and I was wondering how different they were. We’re not that far in age that–
C.T. WEBB 05:36 Yeah. So my dad grew up in the south. I grew up in southern California which I suppose technically is in the southern portion of the United States but definitely is not the south in the sort of traditional sense of the word.
S. FULLWOOD 05:51 No. You’re right [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 05:52 So we were racism very differently in southern California than they do in the south, so.
S. FULLWOOD 05:57 That’s so special [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 05:59 Yeah, that’s right. Yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 06:00 So nice.
C.T. WEBB 06:01 So yeah. For me, when I was a kid I had very– I was an only child and I had very grandiose notions of what I wanted to be or do when I grew up, right? So I mean president of the United States. Things like this.
S. FULLWOOD 06:22 Wow. Okay. Okay.
C.T. WEBB 06:23 And so that didn’t last very– it didn’t last into high school and I became very involved in role playing games and one of the few things that hipsters have not made cool, right? I mean hipsters have made just about every 1980s pastime cool. Whether it’s comic books, whether it’s weird super fringe music–
S. FULLWOOD 06:56 Vintage clothing.
C.T. WEBB 06:58 Vintage clothing for sure.
S. FULLWOOD 07:00 Vegetarianism, veganism.
C.T. WEBB 07:02 Records, right? But definitely not playing Dungeons & Dragons [laughter], so.
S. FULLWOOD 07:09 No, that’s, yeah, no. Too much work in there and I don’t work on my mustache. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 07:13 So that has not– yeah, that has not been rehabilitated and I don’t even know– I mean, the one shot I thought maybe Stranger Things had a shot at maybe rehabilitating Dungeons & Dragons a little bit because the kids at the beginning. But, no. I agree. I’m with you. So I am definitely an unreconstituted nerd from when I was a teenager. One of the things that I have never really done much of is tell stories about myself to myself. Now, I’m not saying making up stories throughout the day about whatever event happens or I’m trying to interpret this or that or the other thing but I remember one of the reasons that prompted the question, I remember reading several years ago I was just starting my PhD and I was very into this– I was kind of planning out my dissertation, I was very into this idea of kind of the human impulse to tell stories, right? Which is basically culturally universal. But I also thought that it was individually universal as well. If you had asked me at that time I would have said, oh, yeah, everyone makes up stories about their lives to themselves.
C.T. WEBB 08:40 I read this story from this one neuroscientist. I forget the guy’s name. I should have looked it up before the podcast but I didn’t even know I was going to end up talking about it but I’ll put it in the notes for the episode. He talks about the fact that there are a people that don’t narrativize their lives and tend to have more episodic memories. So they don’t walk around telling stories about themselves to themselves. It’s more of just sort of, again, episodes, right? Sort of this happens. This happens. Kind of sort of one damn thing after another kind of cliché. And I realize when I read that I was like, holy shit. That’s me. As much as I value stories, as much as I love stories, as much as I read and have written stories and pay attention to other people’s stories and if you and I were to sit down like right now and I’m now ad hoc coming up with a story about not having a story. But the sort of larger narrative about my life I don’t tell myself which means I’m terrible at dates for example. Now, not dates as in the second temple was leveled in 576 BCE [NB: meant to say first temple], I mean, my own dates. If you were to say, oh, when did that happen Travis? I couldn’t tell you if that happened to me when I was 32 or 38, right? I don’t place things in a timeline like that.
S. FULLWOOD 10:22 That’s so interesting. I’m curious about so how do you– you pay attention to other people’s stories so you’ve talked a little bit about your father on the podcast and some of the things that how he influenced you and the kind of quality of person he is. So how does your– I listen to your stories about your father and I insert you in those stories but– I guess I’m trying to figure out how one doesn’t narrate their own life.
C.T. WEBB 10:52 I don’t know. I don’t know.
S. FULLWOOD 10:54 It’s fascinating to me.
C.T. WEBB 10:55 Honestly, it’s fascinating to me too because, again– I mean, even as I’m telling you this I wonder– I sit there and go, I wonder if subconsciously I tell stories to myself and then I just don’t let those pass through the filter into my conscious mind which of course is possible, right? I mean, we can never entirely rule out subconscious motivations for anything which is one of the strengths and weaknesses of that as an explanation, right [laughter], because you can never falsify it. So I am of course open to that and I definitely know that events have shaped who I am. A pretty good example is we grew up– my parents when I was young we were very poor. I mean very– just no money for shoes and things like that. And I know that my self-consciousness around making and or not having money is directly connected to that upbringing, right? So my ability to– my incline, ability is the wrong word, my inclination to be self-conscious about– to not wanting to let on like if I sit down at an expensive restaurant that I’m taking aback by the prices or something like that.
S. FULLWOOD 12:20 Right. So it’s like a class sort of consciousness.
C.T. WEBB 12:22 Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. For sure. Yes, for sure. Absolutely. So I see that. I’ve known that for several years. I mean more than several. I’ve known that for a long time. I see it working– I’m an older man now. I have a handle on that, right? It doesn’t rule me but it definitely influences me. And even to the point where I had– when I met you when I came out to New York however how many months ago– so there’s my lack of memory. I don’t remember how many months ago I came out to see you and Seph. I really just– it could have been a year ago. I know it wasn’t because I can think of other events that have happened but–
S. FULLWOOD 13:06 It was late 2017, yeah [laughter]. I remember how cold it was and how I had to get to you guys or early 2018 maybe.
C.T. WEBB 13:17 Yeah, that sounds right [laughter]. And I don’t know if you remember, I got that stupid haircut. I need to get my haircut. It was like $150 or some insane amount of money and of course I didn’t– I was completely expressionless as I was being told the price of the haircut and so that was that– within reality I should have been pissed that I was paying this much for a stupid haircut [laughter]. So–
S. FULLWOOD 13:49 Did you like the haircut?
C.T. WEBB 13:51 No, it was fine. It was definitely not a $150 haircut. I mean, that haircut better make me look like George Clooney or something for that much money, so [laughter].
S. FULLWOOD 13:59 Wow. I don’t remember the haircut. So that’s so interesting. Did you mention it to us during that–?
C.T. WEBB 14:07 I did. Yeah, I did. I did. We had a conversation about it but it doesn’t– so this is what I mean. So this is where my memory does kick in. I really–
S. FULLWOOD 14:17 The episodes. Got it.
C.T. WEBB 14:18 I remember for example your godson is an artist, right?
S. FULLWOOD 14:22 Mm-hmm.
C.T. WEBB 14:22 And something that you’re very proud of.
S. FULLWOOD 14:25 Oh, yeah. I’m proud about it.
C.T. WEBB 14:26 And I remember the conversation at dinner that night about how you– we were talking about sort of structural racism and you mentioned how you, yourself, have not had a clear event that demonstrated to you that you were being racially profiled by the cops but that you have relatives that have gone through this experience.
S. FULLWOOD 14:54 Oh, absolutely. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 14:55 So when I hear other people tell me their stories I’m on it. I hear it. I’m connected to it. I’m processing it but as an ongoing narration for myself for my life I don’t really do it.
S. FULLWOOD 15:10 That’s so interesting. So do you journal?
C.T. WEBB 15:13 I used to a lot when I was younger.
S. FULLWOOD 15:15 Okay. Do you feel like your storytelling has changed since that time because writing things down helps you reinforce memory? It helps you reinforce an experience.
C.T. WEBB 15:25 Yeah. That’s interesting. I tried to pick up journaling again maybe again this would be my bad with dates thing [laughter], let’s say within the– it’s certainly north of 40 I tried to pick up. I journaled for, I don’t know, a couple of weeks in a row, several days in a row, however long it was. I was not interested in my own sort of whinging about my life and whatever I wanted to accomplish or do or feel or see. Now, that doesn’t mean that writing doesn’t do something for me. It very much does. But I didn’t have a lot of patience for me telling stories to myself about myself.
S. FULLWOOD 16:15 That is so interesting because it feels so– while you were talking you were making me think through this idea of holding– what I mention to other people is like I hold your story and roughly translate it that I’m listening to you and that when you come back to me I can not only remember what you said but I’ve done some thinking about it, I remember the conversations we’ve had. I may have done some extra thinking about it to bring it back to you and say you trust me with your story, you tell me personal things and I have friends like that. So we hold each other’s stories in a safe space where we can kind of come back and share. And so because I’m surrounded by narrative and because I built a life in journaling and writing reviews whether they were critiques of film, music or literature a lot of that for me is it’s hard to do without. And so I’ve been journaling since 1984 in different forms.
C.T. WEBB 17:21 Consistently?
S. FULLWOOD 17:22 Not consistently. I stopped. So I stopped I think in the ’90s but then it went into poetry, it went into different kinds of chat books so it was it was a different kind of journaling and now everything is digital so I’ll PDF it that month and put it all together for the year. But I notice that I’m always scribbling down something. I have a notebook right now that I keep all The American Age notes in, things I want to discuss with you guys or things that you might have said to me. And so when I think about you wanting to be the president of the United States when you were younger I say what caused that? What was the president that made you think that or was it a president at all or was it something you just kind of carried around and said I’m going to be president of the United States. So that’s a question I actually have for you right now.
C.T. WEBB 18:08 That’s a great question. So I have some memories of Carter. Not strong ones but I do have some memories of Carter but probably in sort of my youngest formative years it would have been Reagan. When I was young I had my parent’s politics as is common, right? And my parents are– well, my parents are not socially conservative but certainly ideologically conservative in their belonging to the Republican Party although that’s not really true of my dad anymore. The Trump presidency has kind of broken him a little bit. So he–
S. FULLWOOD 18:51 I wouldn’t be surprised if that was the case for a lot of other Republicans as well.
C.T. WEBB 18:54 Yeah. It’s just too far for him. He can’t really get behind him.
S. FULLWOOD 18:58 It’s a bridge too far. Yes.
C.T. WEBB 18:59 Yeah. That’s not true for my mom, unfortunately, which leads to lots of family arguments but I love my mom so it’s fine. We don’t have to be on the same side of that stuff. To me, when I think back on that phase of being a kid and wanting to be president or whatever I think it probably came down to I felt like I had something to say and other people should listen to it [laughter]. I mean, it’s really just egotism, right? I mean, there’s not–
S. FULLWOOD 19:33 Or maybe self-assurance in the sense that– I mean, you’re young, of course, and you don’t have those skill sets but self-affirmation. It’s a form of self-affirmation for me as well. It could just be– but I think you feel like you have something worthy of people listening to. I think that’s interesting. I wouldn’t automatically call it ego.
C.T. WEBB 19:54 Yeah. I appreciate–
S. FULLWOOD 19:54 [crosstalk], right?
C.T. WEBB 19:56 Yeah. Right. I appreciate that. The thing where we would have had just a sort of radically different experiences and what is often fascinating to me in relation to my friendships that are not entirely circumstantial, right? So you have circumstantial friendships and that you work with people, you live near people, you grew up with them, right? And then you have kind of what I would call intellectual or friendships that are organized around principles, ideas, and things like that. So I am often surprised, I mean, by any measure other than perhaps the poor one, I should be pretty unreflective about society and my place. Right, so when you are a white male at the center of a society you are not incentivized the doubt the power structures that you are born into. Why do that [laughter]?
S. FULLWOOD 21:04 Heavy metal music, maybe that moment. Maybe those kinds of things. Maybe hip hop kind of, yeah, but you’re right. But you’re completely right and finish your thought. Yeah.
C.T. WEBB 21:14 Yeah. I was just going to say everything about how the world is set up for you is set up for you. Now, maybe that’s shifting and changing and we’re questioning that in a more serious way.
S. FULLWOOD 21:23 And it’s definitely a generalization because there are men and women, white folks who constantly are thinking about these things. So whether it was economic or being born out of a particular kind of white dynamic, right?
C.T. WEBB 21:36 Right. Right. Yeah, yeah. It definitely happens but it is you do not fit into that stereotype as you do not fit into that stereotype. You are constantly sort of thinking outside the box and sort of thinking about yourself as a creative. Wanting to do something creative. So being a singer, songwriter is in some way is a survival mechanism, right? It’s like how are you creating a space for yourself in a world that has not really set up spaces for you to live in.
S. FULLWOOD 22:12 So, wow.
C.T. WEBB 22:13 Go ahead.
S. FULLWOOD 22:15 And so I’m thinking about your president comment [laughter], wanting to be president. As a kid I just thought I had something to say all the time. So I’m sure my ego was working overtime. Unlike you I’m one of five and I’m number three. Two above me. Two below me. And I was always running my mouth. I mean, it was the one thing I was constantly getting in trouble at school was that Steven won’t be quiet. He’s a lot of potential but he’s always talking. And earlier on I wanted to say about this whole journaling thing, to get back to that briefly, is that knowing you for the brief time that I have, you think on your feet very well and I’m surrounded by people like you who are really incredible thinkers. I need to write to think, to examine, to pull apart, to really say do I really believe that? I said this to Travis earlier, blah, blah, blah, but do I really believe that. And so that’s one of the spaces I go to to think and actually make that space for myself to think all the time. When I don’t write I feel something’s wrong. If I’m not carrying a notebook somewhere in my bag or in my pocket I feel naked. It’s an appendage that I really rely on to go to those spaces to think larger, to expand my consciousness, and to write down those things that I find really fascinating. So those things sometimes make it into the journal or they make it into some kind of writing but I love having those journals. That would be the one thing I could save other than my photographs with my family if there were a fire. Everything else can go up in smoke. That would be those journals.
C.T. WEBB 23:51 I have two questions about that. One is pretty close to our stated topic. The other is just curiosity. So I’ll go with the curiosity first then I’ll give you that’s closer to the stated topic. Curiosity is how do you process your notebooks once you’re– so if you’re always carrying a notebook with you, how do you metabolize them so that you can incorporate them into the work? Do you look at them again later? Do you formalize them in some sense? Second question is do you feel like that process of constantly writing to think through things led you in a faithful way through your 30s and 40s to get to where you are now–
S. FULLWOOD 24:40 Great questions.
C.T. WEBB 24:41 –from where you were?
S. FULLWOOD 24:44 I’ll start with the second one because it’s easy. Absolutely. Absolutely. And it does fit in with how do I metabolize or utilize the notebooks because I’m in a constant state of thinking about or using memory as a way to– well, how can I– let me see if I can restate that or rephrase it. I’m interested in narrative. I’m interested in my own narrative. I’m interested in the narrative of my family members, my friends. I write about my friends. I write about people that I don’t know, that I might have met at the library or somewhere else because I go that’s an interesting person to me. And so I was also turned off by the idea very early on that someone needed– the world needed to think you were important before they would write about you or do a film about you. And I was just– the old adage, I know I’m going to get it wrong, but it’s something to the effect that there are no boring people there are just boring writing. There’s boring writing.
C.T. WEBB 25:40 Yeah. Right, right, right, yeah. Everyone has an interesting story. Yeah. I know what you’re talking about.
S. FULLWOOD 25:44 Yeah. I mean, I’m the kind of who I think because of the service industry that I’ve worked in as a librarian people constantly ask me questions whether I’m at the library or not [laughter]. So I’m the store, just today, I’m in the store, I’m on the phone and this guy is asking me do you work here? And I go, no. And then he proceeds to ask me the question anyway and then I get off the phone and I say can you hold for a second. But I don’t mind it because I’m like I like helping people. And I also feel like it connects me to community in ways that a lot other people feel isolate. I don’t feel isolated. I feel very firmly and largely in most circles that I travel in even when it’s not my circles sometimes I’m still relatively comfortable that I can talk to anybody. And so I think I’ve used my notebooks to write poetry books, to process– excuse me, to edit anthologies, for ideas, jokes that I thought were really hilarious that I just couldn’t do anything with and go back to them and go, I think I can do something with this now. So as I mentioned earlier now my journals are electronic so I PDF them and sometimes I go back to a particular day and say what was I thinking as a sort of oracle kind of thing because I’m the hippy. I’m the hippy as I mentioned earlier [laughter]. So I enjoy that guy. I enjoy the person I was and the person I’m going to be. And so a lot of the writing works for me in that way. So it’s definitely helped me become a better person and a much more of a visionary in terms of what I think my life could be like at 60 or 70.
C.T. WEBB 27:25 Sure. Yeah.
S. FULLWOOD 27:26 You sit down and you go I don’t want this habit anymore. What do I need to do not to have this habit of eating and then just falling out and going to sleep? I like to get up and walk around or you read a book before you go to sleep and that kind of thing. So my writing has set me up. It’s been amazing. It’s been really a blessing.
C.T. WEBB 27:45 What would your 20-year-old, 20-whatever-year-old self think of where you’re at right now?
S. FULLWOOD 27:54 Okay. You answer that first. I’ll just listen in. Yeah. I’ll double back. Give me your take.
C.T. WEBB 28:00 So I would say that my 20-something-year-old self would be pleased with where I am now but would have been woefully disappointed with where I was three or four years ago.
S. FULLWOOD 28:15 Wow. Okay. Okay. You care to indulge? I’m here to dive off that. Indulge me [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 28:21 Yeah, I mean, I’ll try and be brief so I can let you have the last word because we’re coming up to the time but for me I mentioned this to you before in private conversation, not really on the podcast, but it takes a really, really, really, really long time for things to incubate for me. And so I will make lots of public gestures or sort of private resolutions to move in a particular direction. And it takes from the point of time that I do that those things might not come to fruition for several years, several months and I was deep in a cocoon three or four years ago. I mean, going back to do the PhD was tough for me. I don’t mean tough, I mean, in the sense of how am I going to eat tough I mean tough in the sense of my pride and kind of being in a classroom again and needing to sort of put myself at the foot of Socrates in that sort of way. That was hard for me. But I feel pretty good about where I am right now and I’m pretty sure that my 20-year-old self even though he was a fucking idiot [laughter] I think probably would have– I think would feel pretty good about where I am now.
S. FULLWOOD 29:46 That’s good. That’s good.
C.T. WEBB 29:48 How about you?
S. FULLWOOD 29:50 Well, similarly in a way that– so I wrote some of the worst poetry that I have ever read in my life [laughter] because I was trying to come out of the closet to myself and it took a minute to do that and so I was constantly using them or changing up the gender and just not really owning my own desire. So it took a moment to do that. But I think the 20-year-old would really like the 52-year-old. He might have questioned me and said, well, why didn’t you go full out get a PhD or write more philosophy books or travel more and all that but, I mean, suffice to say I think he’d be okay with it. But he would also said you should have just played piano. You just should have chose one thing [laughter] and I go we have omnidirectional sensibilities. We just don’t do that. So he’d sit there and laugh and joke and stuff but, yeah, I think he’d be okay with me. I’m okay with him [laughter].
C.T. WEBB 30:48 All right. Steven, well, thank you very much for the conversation. It was fun.
S. FULLWOOD 30:52 It was.
C.T. WEBB 30:52 I appreciate it. Okay. Take care.
S. FULLWOOD 30:54 Take care. [music]


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