Today I went down to my friendly local passport office to apply for — you guessed it — a passport. Surely, you must think, I only needed a replacement after casually tossing my latest ragged booklet, its countless stamps blurred by exotic moisture, onto the pile of previous filled ones. That's not exactly the case; I wasn't so much world-wearily checking the "renewal" box for the umpteenth time as, well, checking the "new" one. Perhaps you think this reveals that I have been lying about my age and am actually seven years old, essentially fresh out of the womb and raring to take on the planet. Or perhaps I've been lying about my nationality and, as a newly naturalized U.S. citizen, am proudly acquiring the passport of my free, democratic adopted homeland. But no, I'm an honest guy — an honest, American-born, nearly twenty-four-year-old guy. Coming up on the quarter-century mark. Applying for his first passport.
One question, needless to say, haunted me throughout the process: how did it come to this?
Was I born without arms or legs, rendered unable to travel by my condition until the recent development of adequate bionic prostheses? Did I commit a childhood crime so henious as to warrant lockdown lasting through early adulthood? Am I some kind of backwoods rube who opens beer cans with his few remaining teeth while cursing furniers and immygints alike? The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes. But that still doesn't let me off the hook.
Don't get me wrong; I'm glad I'm not getting my first passport at thirty-four or fourty-four, but that's a little like saying that I'm glad I didn't put off toilet training until adolescence: technically true, but nonetheless a sad admission. How have I avoided it? I don't recall turning down opportunities to go abroad. (I remember a handful of proposed and quickly aborted trips to Italy growing up, but none of that was my call. I was quite relieved, later, to hear Adam Carolla's description of the country: "It's like someone got Mexico out of bed and sent it to Cal State Northridge." Then again, I don't know what Mexico is like.) I'd mention that I don't come from poverty, but those I know who have poor backgrounds do the most globetrotting. Across nationalities and SES categories, my friends all — and I do mean all — have stories about Bulgaria, Japan, Italy, the Philippines, France, Kenya, Finland, Chile, Morocco, Belgium, China, Great Britain, Singapore and other, lesser-known countries that it's too demoralizing even to name. I have stories of precisely dick.
It's not like I'm one of those people you hear about who's never left his birthplace, though; I've moved all around. From, uh, northern California. To Washington. Then back down to southern California. (Yes, I'm bi-Calual — it's not true what they say about bi-Caluality just being a pit stop on the way to homo-Caluality.) And I've taken some jaunts. Up north, for instance, to Oregon. Been up and down this here west coast, yessiree. There were a few jaunts to Idaho, Montana and Florida in there as well.
None of this is to say that I'm ungrateful for the limited forays I have taken into the outside world. Some of my favorite memories come from these trips, especially one weekend spent kayaking by Vancouver Island. And, yes, I've been to Canada several times, so technically mine feet hath trod foreign soil, but when people ask me where I've been, replying with the limp, solitary word "Canada" actually feels more pathetic than remaining silent. Whichever my response, interlocutors are surprised in much the same manner as when I reveal my low GPA. They look at me with one of those are-you-sure? stares, as if I might have absent-mindedly forgotten a semester or two in New Zealand. (Which, but for that aforementioned GPA, I might've taken.)
Thus it is with a heavy heart that I report the destination that shotgunned me to the U.S. State Department's altar: Canada. I'm going to Vancouver to visit the expatriate Livejournalist formerly known as cobalt999, cool_moose, the wisest man on Livejournal and Facebook, and possibly shofarot, who may or may not be based in the area but in any case reputedly appears like smoke, unpredictably materializing and dispersing when and where he sees fit. Also, something about a French MBA. I'm actually quite excited about the excursion and am looking forward to seeing the place (again) and the people (in cobalt999's case, again), even though I won't be venturing into any badly-needed uncharted territory.
But all that said, I blame myself. Ultimately, my own negligence put me in the pathetic position of applying for passport one at well beyond even the legal U.S. drinking age. What circumstances led me to make such bad choices? I can think of nine:
- Laziness. As a kid, I couldn't be bothered to engage in any effort that didn't immediately result in comic books or video games. I'm not exactly condemning that mindset, though, because I don't remember there being a whole lot of environmental cues indicating that there were other goals worth pursuing. Perhaps I just surrounded myself with a highly pursuit-unfriendly coterie. But as hard as I try, I can't remember one hint that that leaving the continent might in any way repay the effort.
- A false conception of travel. Also as a kid, I imagined that going on a trip meant either (a) decamping for two weeks to some sun-drenched "paradise" like Hawaii (I don't like the sun or anything it nourishes), (b) staring at a series of post card-y landmarks and feigning engagement, (c)
roughing it like some Rick Stevesite through narrow cobblestone streets
in a pair of underpants you washed in the sink, desperately dodging
swarms of filthy urchins, their dozens of tiny hands grabbing
tirelessly for your dorky, inconvenient money belt or (d) a
truly unpalatable cocktail of all three. Only relatively recently has
it occurred to me that you can do whatever you want with your time
abroad, like exploring cities and whatnot.
(I really fixated on the urchin scenario, warned as I was about it so many times in the lead-ups to the various aforementioned Italian vaporcations. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't find appealing my assumption that, if urchins could freely steal from you, you could freely beat up urchins. I fantasized about various urchin-exploding mechanisms: remotely detonated decoy wallets, for instance.)
Again, as a kid, I asked the following: What if I get lost? What if I
can't read distant street signs (because I sure as hell won't wear
glasses)? What if I have to wear dirty clothes? What if someone steals
my Game Boy? What if someone breaks into the house while I'm
away and steals my Genesis? What if nobody speaks English (because,
surely, I'm totally unable to learn a foreign language)? What if
somebody laughs at me when I either speak English or pathetically
attempt to speak the local tongue? What if the house catches fire while
I'm gone and my Genesis melts? What if it's too hot? What if it's too
cold? What if my hair looks bad one day? What if I get tired from
walking? What if someone can tell I'm fat?
(I was not the most confident child.)
- Outprioritization. As childhood ended and middle school began, my priorities narrowed down to (a) stop being fat and (b) hey, check out those girls. I accomplished (a) and then some, and regarding (b), I have entertained cosmic hypotheses that my extended lack of a passport is a vengeful YHWH's payback for an abbreviated virginity. Can't have everything.
- No obvious reason. Going someplace "just to go" never held water with me. Still doesn't. A hunch says my habitual non-traveling can be explained away in large part by my failure to come up with a reason to travel that didn't ring flighty. I bet I'd have gone abroad in childhood if I had a convenient reason to do so — school assignment, comic book sale, video game tournament — but none occurred to me. To an extent, I still consider traveling for traveling's sake a very "free spirit" (read: flake) thing to do, but I'm better at spinning half-baked yet convincing rationale these days. (A travel writing gig would be the ideal solution, I suppose.)
- Europhiliaphobia. I won't claim this has gone away; though I endorse gap years in principle, I still cringe in embarrassment for teenagers who take one to "backpack" through Europe and "find themselves". As I approached eligibility for that sort of thing, I loathed the idea of inhabiting the stereotype. The sentiment worsened one do-nothing day in senior year history, when everyone in the class (except me) exchanged stories about how "they live better" in Europe. The qualities invoked were no great shakes: 35-hour work weeks, coffee shops, boulevards, that kind of rinky-dink stuff, but these kids were practically drooling over them. I vowed then and there never to become... that.
- Distaste for manky accommodations and "budget" conveyance. I once thought I'd take a bullet before staying in a youth hostel or living out of a backpack, and I probably still would. The main change over time is that I've now got more money. Also, I watched too many Michael Palin travel programs as a kid and envisioned myself riding on the outside of a corrugated steel train in 115-degree weather sandwiched between a thousand Sudanese guys. But this sort of thing isn't so much of a problem anymore, as my travel jones is almost exclusively for the developed world.
- Travel People don't have much to show for it. This was, and is, a huge one. A lot of friends who go abroad seem, in my observation, only to gain a short-term laconism and a penchant for staring into the distance. Some of them let the bumming-around attitude they'd adopted while away bleed into their real life, which gets insufferable real quick. In my junior year of high school, my history class had a student teacher who'd been criss-crossing the globe and admitted that, as a result, he'd "been poor pretty much [his] whole life." One day he pulled up next to me at a gas station in his rusted-out pickup, took a glance at my high school car — which I liked, but which had a resale value of $900 — and said, "Wanna trade?"
- Travel People are assholes. There, I said it. This is less a hard-science law than a social-science law: not true in every case, but solid enough to work with. It's not as if all Travel People are openly supercilious about their advanced internationalism and trenchcoat lined with only the finest life-altering brushes with the Other, but it does come through in other ways. For instance, I have yet to converse at length with a Travel Person who does not marshal their travel experience to address issues to which it has absolutely no relevance. Start talking about macroeconomic policy, for instance, and a Travel Person might well whip out an anecdote about watching Senegalese kids drink water out of their cupped hands. And you're like, zuh?
But what's past is past. Fait accompli. In this and other areas of life, I've got some serious catching up to do. It doesn't help, though, that the passport process is the most anachronistic-feeling thing I've ever been involved with. Maybe it's second nature to you habitués, but is there not something really weird and archaic about having to acquire a physical, paper booklet before going to another country, and having to wait three weeks for the thing? Let alone having to present a birth certificate to acquire it. A birth certificate? Birth certificates shouldn't be required for anything — they shouldn't be required for birth! And don't get me started on having to write out a paper check as payment. I mean, it's 2008; politically as well as technologically, shouldn't we be well beyond junk like this? At least possessing the damn thing rids me of another obstacle to foreign adventure: "But I'd have to get a passport!"