It’s March, and we are ready. We’re committed. We’ll do it. We will do it because we want to. And because we can. After sixteen years of co-habitation, we desire a little adventure, maybe even a big adventure. We tell ourselves that we will be giving our sons an education better than they could receive in public schools. We whisper under our breath, “If not now, when?” Carpe deim and all that, you know. When I have to, I admit I am afraid of dying a relatively early death, like three grandparents, in my sixties because I could not unhinge myself from my bad habits and “unhealthy coping mechanisms.”
We are going to do the crazy thing, the thing about which one set of friends exclaims, “Oh, my God, I’ve always wanted to do that. I’m so jealous,” and the thing another set of friends scowls at: “What are you nuts? Why would you even think of doing that?” And it strikes me that now almost sixty, fat, gray, securely middle-class, that this is exactly the thing I should be doing, the unexpected thing, the unreasonable thing, the inexplicable thing.
It probably doesn’t matter what I really do, except to break the damn habit of doing what is expected, the routine of daily work, and thus the reactive routine I have developed to help me forget the routine: watching cable news and eating carbohydrates. Compared to the world’s population, I have it easy. I am educated and I am paid for being educated. I have a house that is relatively inexpensive by American standards, but at 2800 square feet our house is a mansion compared to what Americans lived in two hundred or one hundred years ago. I live a fine life with a wonderful wife and two sons, aged fifteen and ten, and a third grown son from the first marriage lives not too far away across town.
We live in Austin, Texas, one of America’s coolest cities, home of film and music festivals, artists, musicians, writers, food trailers and microbreweries. If you ignore the Californians, still at the heart of the city the spirit of Willie Nelson and that unique blend of Southwestern Redneck and New Age Hippie sings and dances, hoots and hollers. Sooner or later, everyone is converted. I am a teacher and administrator in one of the largest community college districts in the nation. So I complain about budget freezes, nutty professors, misplaced priorities, the neglected humanities, and everybody’s sense of their own specialness and their tender socio-economic-political sensibilities. Everyday someone is offended by something, so I take my leadership advice from the Rudyard Kipling: “If you can keep your head when all about you / Are losing theirs. . . .”
Yep, I am sick of doing the right thing. I’m ready to do the wrong thing. Why not take the advice of the Gospels? Forget holding on to my life. Why not lose it, give it up, let it go? Maybe then I will gain another life, a better life. I know if I keep going the way that I am going, I’ll just eat more, exercise less, gain more weight, until the heart decides it has had enough or some tumor takes root on something vital. Maybe fate will intervene no matter what I do. Even more so then, I’m convinced. Let’s pack it in. Pack it up. Discard, distribute, lighten.
Thoreau had my number a hundred and fifty years ago. “The mass of men live lives of quiet desperation.” Or as I might say to my friends, “I am bored shitless.” There are a lot of ways to live a desperate life. I think Thoreau had in mind that kind of back breaking New England life of taking on the elements, digging in the dirt when its hard and cold and digging in it again when it is hard and dry, doing without, saving what you can, praying bad luck doesn’t get you. Or running a store, dealing with creditors and praying the bank doesn’t call in its loan. Being vulnerable and afraid that there are stronger forces than you at play. It is the desperation of facing trouble in eye and going on because if you don’t, you die. It’s that un-philosophical brand of stoicism, not thoughtful, just tough. Certainly, we still have that kind of desperation everywhere in the United States today. It’s the mother on minimum wage with two babies and no partner to help. It’s the middle-aged man who always provided for his family, their hero, their stalwart, who is laid off or replaced by someone younger and cheaper, and discovers now even Wal-Mart is overstocked with over-qualified greeters.
But there are other kinds of desperation. There is the desperation of knowing one is stuck in a job one doesn’t love because you have what is so compassionately named “a pre-existing condition.” You are not hopeless; you are just without options. Things are great, if you don’t dream. And there is the desperation of the comfortable. No one pulls out a tissue to cry for these folks, and no one should. It’s the house wife stuck at home with her children and her soaps. Or the trophy bride and her meaningless parade of facials and pedicures and palates: “Oh, you look marvelous.” It’s the clerk at Brooks Brothers fitting yet another successful man with slacks with an adjustable waist. It’s Cheever territory; it’s Updike. Run, Rabbit, Run.
I suppose that is the category I fall into. I think there are more of us around that one would think. We are fairly well-educated men and women, who have had semi-successful lives. By some standards, we have accomplished a great deal. By other standards, we have remained perfectly average. We are not Gloria Steinem; we are the director of a non-profit shelter for women. We are not Michael Jordan; we manage a gym. We are not a Pulitzer Prize poet; we publish in small regional journals. We are not the President of the Yale; we are a dean in a community college. We are respectable, proud Americans, caught in a world of warped values and over-crowded cities where nobody knows your name. Appreciation is measured in plaques, photo-ops with local politicians, and the size of one’s charitable contributions. And somehow we don’t measure up.
We all know that somehow we have not been challenged. We were born pulled up already by our parents’ bootstraps. We faced no firefight, never had to pull our wounded buddies out of harm’s way. Our cups always runneth over. We haven’t lived up to our potential, but only because for some reason life hasn’t required us to. Or we just calculated the odds: “I am happy where I am, and how much harder will I have to work to win the next promotion?” Maybe it wasn’t not worth it. Or maybe we calculated the cost: “Do I really want to be Lance Armstrong?” Or Donald Trump? Or Tiger Woods? Or Hillary Clinton? Or Sylvia Plath?
If at some point in one’s life, one just says, “I’m fine,” what does one do after that? I think that is where I have arrived. I know my job, and I can do it well. I like the people I work with. My boss is smart and fair. I enjoy taking my sons to basketball practice two nights a week and watching them play games on weekends. My oldest son is smart and funny and always has something to teach me. My wife and I enjoy enough of the same things that we can have happy mutually satisfying dates. My wife and I are interested in enough different subjects to remain interesting and surprising to each other. Maybe I am happy. Maybe I am just sick of the calendar and how every Monday is a Monday and every Friday is pizza and beer.
So we are going to do it. We are going to reduce our possessions, as best as we can. Sell the cars. We will store the books and records, family mementos, china and kitchen stuff, kids’ toys, televisions, tables, chairs, couches, and beds. We will rent the house to someone responsible, we hope. We will purchase a diesel crew cab truck and an RV 5th wheel trailer. On August 1, 2013, we will drive north out of Austin and on July 31, 2014, we will pull back into Austin new and different people, or merely the same people another year older and deeper in debt. We are cutting lose, and taking off to see America.
Soundtrack: Woody Guthrie. "Worried Man Blues."