S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Ready or Not,” Park contemplates his time during retirement and being alone.
In my mind I “retired” when I harvested my first indoor marijuana crop: that was thirty-three years ago and it feels better now than it did then (as I no longer have to tend the plants). Instead I wake up every day and do exactly what I please. Which usually means walking, errands and appointments in the morning and reading, writing and drawing in the afternoon.
What a life … plug in a woman and I’d be living the dream. Except even that is a vestige of my younger self, a guy who believed Ms. Right was out there and—once she materialized—I’d still be free to create all day, pausing only for sex and meals.
Right. (Even if I’d ever found a woman who’d cook for me.) No, some people belong alone, and I’m pretty much Exhibit A. (Sex on the side would be great, of course, but I’m a skinny old recluse with no money, hair or prospects … who’d want a piece of that?)
This all came to mind when, in the midst of a walk last week, I ran into a couple I know. (Well, it’s actually their dog I know, a mutt named Mojo … I’ve no idea what their names are.) We chatted for a while as I scratched and petted their boy, then the conversation turned to my house. It’s a two-story, beautifully landscaped, cedar shaked tower that’s nestled beside a forest.
Or as the wife put it: “I’ve always thought of it as a fantasy castle. Like Rapunzel should be up there, letting her hair down.”
“Instead of an old bald hermit,” I laughed.
“Hermit is right!” she blurted.
“Well, I’m just saying. We walk Mojo past your place between five and six every night. It’s dark, the only light around is your second-floor room, and we can see you up there eating dinner. And it’s just like now, when you’re out walking: you’re always by yourself. I’ve never seen a person who spends as much time alone as you do.”
I gave Mojo a final pat and stood up. Reached over and gave the wife a hug.
“Well, thank you,” I said, “that’s a very nice compliment. I appreciate it.”
Then I continued down the trail. I could feel her eyes burning into my back as she wondered, Hey! What kind of reaction is that? Didn’t that asshole hear what I said?
I heard all right: what she’s missing is I feel sorry for them. I’ve been looking down as they’ve looked up all these years, and what goes through my head is, Damn! How can those two stand each other, their life must be hell!
Which is to say that—except in a grateful way—I rarely notice I’m alone. It’s most likely to happen on long drives to California, but even then it’s fleeting. I default to the same questions every time, i.e., Is there some girlfriend/lover/wife I wish were still around? Absolutely not. Would this be a good deal for any woman, ten hours in a junker with a stoner who thinks he’s flying? Hardly.
The truth is that things have turned out way better than they should have for me. I worry about money sometimes, but that’s the plight of most boomers, even the ones who lived responsibly. Plus I’m seventy-two and feel like I’m thirty. You can’t beat that, not when you’ve lived a life as feckless as my own.
I’m seventy-two and feel like I’m thirty. You can’t beat that, not when you’ve lived a life as feckless as my own.
Though I’ve been rethinking the “feckless” part lately. I’ve long sought a philosophy of life, a code to live by: I searched high and low for it with little success. Oh, I’ve plenty of quotes and maxims and experiences to draw on (example: Who does the hard things? He who can. or: The only thing we leave this world with is what we’ve given away.), but a single guiding principle? I thought that ship had sailed.
Then my dog died. Hobo and I had been together for twelve years and, paradoxically, one of the reasons I waited as long as I did to adopt him was I couldn’t imagine putting him down someday.
I’m too soft-hearted. My brothers and I spent a lot of time in the back seat of my dad’s Buick as kids, traveling to one place or another, and over time I ceded my turn at the window.
I was much happier in the middle; there were too many dead dogs beside the road. I’d be looking at the passing landscape, lost in one reverie or another, when suddenly a run-over mutt would zip past. I was okay with roadkill generally (raccoons, possums, cats, squirrels, etc.) but somebody’s squashed Terrier? I’d be heartbroken for hours, lost in morbid fantasies of how the dog had lived and died (even assigning him names like “Dusty,” “Spud,” etc.).
I trace much of this angst to Walt Disney’s Old Yeller. I was eight years old when I saw that movie and it fucked me up for life. Seriously. When the father walks off to shoot the dog I was devastated. (Even as I didn’t dare show it at the time: I was a little boy in a jock family, so you sniffled in the dark if you had to but didn’t take it outside. Not in 1950s America, anyway.)
But my mushiness about dogs came back to me every time one of ours was run over. Which was often, unfortunately. Families weren’t as attentive to their pets back then; you’d let your dog out in the morning and expect him or her to hold their own on the street.
So when it came time to euthanize Hobo I was amazed at how well I handled it, much less the mature way I’ve dealt with his death since. I’ve been relentlessly upbeat to myself and others, emphasizing our wonderful times together as opposed to simply missing him.
Which is hardly my normal M.O. Or is it? I keep coming back to something I wrote months ago (“Better Lucky Than Good”), where I noted how fortunate I’d been despite “fortune favoring the prepared mind.” It made me wonder if steeling myself for Hobo’s death as I had (beginning the day I brought him home from the shelter) wasn’t my general approach to life.
Well, at least since I was eighteen, anyway. That’s when, after a two-year relationship, my high school girlfriend and I broke up. She was my first love and the heartbreak that ensued was ten times worse than anything Old Yeller produced. I was so devastated, in fact, that the day after it happened I walked for twenty-four hours straight, never knowing later where I went or what I did.
Fortunately it was the end of my senior year, because I remained a zombie for weeks. Then slowly, a little bit at a time, I learned two crucial things about myself. First was how I always over or under reacted to things, that I had an all-or-nothing personality with little patience for anything in between. (So I was looking at a future—not just of impulses—but extreme ones.) Second was how wretched it was being that vulnerable. I vowed it’d never happen again.
How many spurned lovers have made that boast? Yet I pulled it off somehow, pursuing passion with a parachute I hardly knew was there: I certainly fell for women in the future, but never so hard I bounced.
It was much the same with alcoholism. When I realized (at nineteen) that I was a drunk I didn’t pretend later that I wasn’t … done was done, so what came next? I could try to string it out, embarrass myself for decades and die in a trailer park, or, alternatively, cut to the chase and “Get ’er done young.” It was hardly a difficult decision, not when I was impatient by nature, anyway, and the latter option meant I’d at least have a chance at sneaking through.
If I survived, of course. And I wanted to apparently, so I worked at the alkie essentials. I can’t remember, for instance, ever waking without a bottle nearby. It might be beneath the dumpster, or the bed in the hotel room, or the front seat of the car, but when I needed “hair of the dog” it was close at hand. This wasn’t an accident; it required serious discipline on my part. Even in blackouts (which was most of the time) I had to remember to save something for breakfast. How many rummies do that consistently, much less treat it as part of their D.T.’s Protocol?
Because it was obvious that alcohol was poisonous to me. My twenty-year-old buddies would wake up after drinking more than I had, have a cup of coffee or a couple aspirin and go on with their day. Me? I was a train wreck; not only did everything hurt, but the mental madness was closing fast.
Even as I knew I’d have to face it without booze someday. So over the years, as the Dread grew in strength, I’d let a little terror in at first, then a bit more the next time, and a hair more after that (even while I read about withdrawal in books like Kerouac’s Big Sur or Lowry’s Under the Volcano, etc.), until one day I was savvy enough to survive the gauntlet ahead.
I may have looked like the neighborhood drunk in other words, but I was actually the man with a plan. It certainly hardened me for abstinence battles in the future.
Not that my body didn’t save me, too, as I have my immortal mother’s genes. It certainly made drinking untenable. And cocaine? It so paralyzes my sinuses that a single snort stuffs me up for weeks. I’m also allergic to anything derived from the poppy plant (a single Vicodin induces vomiting), so opioids are as forbidden as booze.
For my other habits, though, it’s been up to me. I began smoking early and my father’s four-packs-a-day (unfiltered Camels and Kools) meant there were always cigarettes around. He was also an early riser, and in every place we lived, no matter how far away my room was, I could hear him hacking up phlegm in the morning. It felt like the whole house shook, and I swore then and there that I’d quit cigarettes when I developed a cough.
And (ever the strategist apparently) I meant it. So all through my chain-smoking twenties and thirties I wasn’t (as they said about Michael Landon later) a guy who sucked until the back of his head caved in. I relied on smaller hits, inhaling half the smoke and expelling the rest through my nose and mouth. It seemed reasonable (even necessary) to me, given that I also smoked pot and wanted to string both vices out.
In the meanwhile (as I had with the d.t.’s) I prepped for the inevitable; would quit every few years just to give abstinence a try. It was hard, but nowhere near as difficult as the alkie wars. Initially I’d want a smoke every few seconds, then every few minutes, and gradually every day, week or month until the urge finally disappeared altogether. It seemed you could beat any habit if you were willing to wait it out.
Easier said than done, of course, but when I developed a cough at forty-two I was ready. (Not that choosing between tobacco and pot was difficult: the latter gets you high, after all.) I tossed the Camels in 1989 and haven’t smoked since. When I vacation with my Portland high school buddies (ex-smokers all) they usually bring cigarettes and puff a few while we’re there. Me? The old three-packs-a-day chimney? Not only don’t cigarettes interest me, but I’d sooner suck an exhaust pipe … you earn self-aversion like that.
I see this assiduous planning everywhere now and wonder why I didn’t recognize it before. In basketball: I made a hopelessly uncoordinated kid into a decent player with thousands of hours of practice (even if I lost interest afterwards). Or studying: of course I had straight A’s in high school and college, I never took a test (well, except in Spanish or French) where I wasn’t over prepared. (I’d typed all my class notes since I was fourteen, even as—in my own mind—I was an irreverent, give-a-shit kind of guy.)
And jobs … try cleaning toilets or waiting on tables or selling meat door-to-door in Watts, much less dozens of other lowly tasks, without being able to fool yourself. (In my case, how I’d write the Great American Novel someday.)
Probably the best example is pot growing. I knew nothing when I began so spent years studying everything I could find on the subject. That, and all the cross breeding and multiple varieties and seed hunting that ensued, was one thing; the breaking the law aspect another. I discovered defiance was as natural to me as breathing.
Which presented a dilemma of its own, because it meant my problem wouldn’t be paranoia (like many of my fellow cultivators) but recklessness. It’s an inclination I had to temper constantly over the years, particularly when dealing with custom officials and cops. Those run-ins were inevitable; you don’t operate a commercial grow for a quarter century without incidents and accidents, or fly to Amsterdam every year without Security scrutinizing your luggage.
But when detection or arrest seemed a hair’s breadth away I never flinched: I’d perfected the Frozen Man act with the d.t.’s and psychedelics, so slipping into a regular guy persona was second nature to me.
The list goes on and on now that I’m looking at it, but none of it changes my assertion that I’ve treated life as an experiment. To the contrary, it pretty much validates it … I just had a better tool kit than I thought.
Along with a unifying principle. It’s hardly the one I imagined or hoped for, particularly when you consider I was always in trouble as a kid. I was eleven when my Cub Scout pack planted trees on a hillside, for instance. The Scoutmaster, Mr. Grinnell, left me in charge (to see if I “have what it takes” as he put it), so I convinced the other kids that, on my signal, they should pee on their saplings to fertilize them. Just a harmless kid’s prank, right?
Except I couldn’t leave well enough alone, I had to wait until Grinnell returned. He stepped out of his car, saw his pack with their pants around their ankles, pissing on the trees, while I gagged with laughter below, and nearly fell over.
He was outraged, and we both agreed (based on that and a string of other incidents) that I should leave the troop.
So he’d be as surprised as I am that I’ve lived by the Boy Scout motto since: