Boulder was beautiful.
Nestled in the Rockies, with clear, comfortable weather and lots of college students, it was the perfect place for me to settle into a semi-normal, anonymous life.
I rented a room in a Victorian-type bungalow north of the University of Colorado campus, where the hundred-year-old architecture and tree-lined streets reminded me of my home back in Massachusetts. My three housemates were nice, all students at C.U. If the media circus two years ago hadn't forced me to disappear, I'd be at Princeton now, boning up on Kant and Nietzsche. But most days, I didn't mind how my life and future had been waylaid because I never would've ended up in such a wondrous place.
Even though I'd been here for several months, the Flatirons still took me by surprise. Back home I'd been to New Hampshire and Maine to hike in the mountains many times, but living smack-dab in the middle of them was a whole different experience.
I wasn't the only person who felt this way; pretty much everyone who lived out here engaged in daily outdoor activity,as if not partaking in the immense beauty would be a sinful waste. Even the biggest computer nerd1 hiked, biked, or canoed daily. Living in Boulder was like one prolonged recess.
Because enough time had gone by and the Larry furor had dissipated,2 I let my hair return to its original brown. When people asked where I was from, I said my father was a consultant and we'd traveled around a lot. I explained that my family was now in Chicago and I didn't visit much. The name I used was Mark Paulson.
After dissecting the fall catalog on the floor of my room, I decided to concentrate my efforts not in philosophy as I'd always planned, but in the field of environmental, population, and organismic biology.3 The country's flora and fauna had nurtured me for most of my life; it seemed like an area of study that made sense. And it only took a few days at the EPOB department to realize I wanted to focus on animal behavior. I'd read several books on ethology for fun and had to suppress my enthusiasm in class each time the professor posed a question.4 I carried around my textbook like some zoological Rosetta stone, making notes in the margins daily.
I'd been painfully vigilant about never using my real name and paying for everything in cash from my various jobs, but the thought of enrolling in an institution still scared the life out ofme. Instead I sat in on classes and volunteered in the research lab without credit.
I had other projects, of course: the Inspirational Quote Word Search I'd created in fractals class and the Greek mythology flip-o-rama comic.5
I was living in nature and learning lots of new things. Life was good.
And when I met Janine, it shot straight to ecstatic.
I was trading three old CDs for new ones at my favorite used-record store on the Hill.6 I spotted her at the register--black sneakers, torn jeans, and earrings made from two fuzzy dice like the kind some people hung from their rearview mirror.
"How's it going?" I asked.
She smiled but didn't answer.
"I loved this Beck," I said. "Hate to give it up."
She nodded, still no words. I figured she was shy.
"Did the new Santana come in?"
She pointed to the rack of new releases.
"Do you ... ?" I trailed off, not sure what I wanted to say.
She reached behind the register and held up an index card. PLEASE RESPECT MY SILENCE. IT'S MY PERSONAL STATEMENT TO COMBAT THE BARRAGE OF WORDS THAT ASSAULT US EACH DAY.
I held my finger to my lips. A woman after my own heart.
"Do you do this all the time?" I asked. "You can just nod if you want to."
She turned the card over and wrote EVERY MONDAY.
I thanked her for the three-CD credit and left the store. Tomorrow was Tuesday, a much better day to pick out new CDs.
The next afternoon when we went for coffee, Janine wouldn't shut up. She talked nonstop about her poli sci classes, her family back in Seattle, the Hives concert she'd been to over the weekend. Turns out we both volunteered at the local PIRG office, canvassing and making phone calls for various consumer and environmental causes. She talked about how she'd been silent on Mondays for more than five years--a day to reflect without the distraction of speech. But after an hour and a half together, I came to the conclusion that the barrage of words Janine needed a weekly respite from was her own.
Still, she was adorable--great sense of humor, a slight stutter when she got excited, the most bizarre taste in clothes I'd ever seen. (She wore a yellow vinyl BMX jacket with splattered painter's pants and cocktail swizzle sticks tucked into her streaked hair.)
Since I'd left Boston, I had barely gone out with anyone, but Janine seemed worth the risk. I asked her if she wanted to come over Friday night to watch a movie.
She did, then left three days later.
The next several weeks were filled with late-night conversations, hikes up Mount Sanitas, and silent Mondays. I walkedher collie, Brady, on the nights she had to work. The last time I was this happy, I was sitting in my basement swing back home, composing Larry's sermons. Now I was high on the mountains of Colorado and my first real girlfriend.7
"Come on! Come on!" Janine grabbed my arm and pulled me toward the Fox Theatre. The Samples were back in town and she didn't want to miss one note.
Music was like oxygen to Janine; she couldn't go more than a few minutes without it. She knew people at every concert site within a hundred-mile radius; she got tickets way before those babies hit Ticketmaster. And always the best seats. When she jumped up and down during a show, the look on her face bordered on someone witnessing a miracle. Lucky for me, her joy was contagious.
The simplicity of what made her smile was a welcome change from how much I'd always expected from the world. She loved to sit with Brady and watch The Planet's Funniest Animals. Me? Not content till the world was at peace, till every worker earned enough to make a decent living. It was almost a relief to settle in after a day of classes to watch someone's cockatoo walk across piano keys, trying to sing.
But even with our differences, we got along fine. I came this close to telling her about the whole Larry business but decided that was a piece of baggage no relationship could withstand.
Anyone who knew me growing up would look at her and marvel at the resemblance to someone important in my life--my no-longer-with-us mother.
Not just the dark hair and the big, loud laugh, but her open and slightly manic view of the world. Sometimes the similarities were scary. When Janine brought home CDs from the store, she might as well have lifted them from my mother's album collection. Between the music and her retro clothes, the surge of memories almost knocked me across the room.
I felt like I'd come home. Except for one small thing.
Her favorite thing to do on Saturdays?
These were the times I almost told her about Larry. Almost told her I'd had a Web site devoted to anti-consumerism, that thousands--then millions--of kids from around the world had joined me in my quest to be non-materialistic. That I'd kept my number of possessions down to seventy-five for almost four years now--didn't she notice I wore the same clothes all the time? That I'd dropped out of society because I began to be consumed. That asking me to go shopping was like gnawing on a leg of lamb in front of a group of card-carrying vegetarians. That I just couldn't do it!
At first I tried to reason with her: How could someone who volunteered ten hours a week for an activist organization spend her free time loading up on things she didn't need? She'd say she earned her money and could decide how to spend it. She even felt that buying dresses at a vintage store was a form of recycling. I told her spending was spending; weeven broke up twice because of our differing philosophies. But each time I left her apartment, the piece of me that still ached for some semblance of home begged me to call Janine back to patch things up. We always did.
So we reached a type of compromise: On those Saturdays I didn't have to work in the bakery, she could drag me to her favorite stores.8 But I would not--under any circumstances--buy anything.
It was more difficult than I thought.
Here's the part I'm almost too embarrassed to write about, that I'm revealing only in my quest to (a) understand myself better and (b) be honest with you.
I began to like going shopping.
Usually when I walked through the Pearl Street Mall,9 it was to enjoy the fresh air and the abundant opportunities to people watch. But once I actually went into stores, I realized how out-of-the-loop I was in pretty much every department of pop culture. So while Janine was trying on lipstick,10 I killed time by browsing until browsing became interesting in and of itself.
Some of the stuff was fun--T-shirts with witty sayings, aerodynamically designed kites, fountains that emanated tranquility.
The whole shopping experience was less painful than I thought it would be.
I was looking but not buying, an important distinction.
Yet it wasn't the browsing that led to my downfall.
It was Janine's thoughtful one-month anniversary present.
She walked into my bedroom carrying a large striped gift bag. Inside the bag were eleven CDs, straight from the late-night conversations we'd had about my mother's musical taste. Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, U211--all of whom contributed to my musical education. I thanked her profusely, then we stayed up all night listening to them. I was in aural nostalgic heaven, but one thought kept returning: You can't keep these and stay at seventy-five possessions. You have to get rid of them.
But I couldn't.12 I spent the next morning making a list of which of my old items to jettison. To keep the CDs, I'd be down to one pair of pants, three pairs of socks, two shirts, almost no books ... .
And here is where I admit my crime, along with my deep sense of shame.
I kept the CDs.
And the rest of my possessions.
And that, fellow pilgrim, was the beginning of the end.