Shakespeare, Gray Hairs, and Peggy Lee

booksA week or so after moving into the new house, I stood in the guest bedroom, unpacking all of my books, when an enormous wave of sadness overtook me.

On one hand this was nothing new. In the days before, during, and after the move, more than once I stood in a room full of boxes thinking, “It can’t be done.” Also, “Why do I have so much shit?”

But this wave of sadness felt more pointed. If a wave can feel pointed. It was pointing me at something, but in my exhaustion it took me a few minutes to make out the direction.  In the middle of my alphabetical shelving, somewhere between Shakespeare and Sam Shepard,  I sat down on the edge of the bed. I didn’t wipe a tear from my eye.  I was too tired to cry. So I sat there looking at the books till it hit me.

I’d lost my way. I’d failed where those writers had succeeded. Each book was like a reproach. Concrete evidence of their drive and dedication, their private sacrifices. And me? I was 20 pages from the end of my own book. I’d been there for several months, after starting on the damn thing eight years ago.

I suppose I had an excuse or two. A new house. The arson. And I’d been working three jobs, two of which involved a great deal of writing, about a subject for which I’d had to feign great interest: marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. All writers could learn a thing or two from marketers. But each hour I spent thinking and reading about marketing were hours I couldn’t spend writing my book, reading my favorite authors, discovering new books, or figuring out how to be a better writer.

This is the great battle for all writers, since writing rarely pays the rent. A battle I’d been losing. I was tired and angry all of the time, pulled in a hundred different directions. My current freelance client had revealed herself to be a sociopath, happily devouring every hour my sweetness had offered her, and who’d paid me back with resentment.

Three jobs had meant more money, and the money had been good, and we’d just bought a house, and there I sat, in the new house, surrounded by boxes and not-crying, adrift from the thing that had given my life the most meaning.

That night, over dinner in our kitchen, with the oven and the lights shorting out from a faulty breaker, my husband listened to this familiar tale of woe, then told me the same thing he’d been telling me for months. And this time I heard him.

And though it made me anxious and nauseous, because it meant disappointing other people, whose interests I’d put ahead of my own, the next day I gave notice at two of the three jobs. I kept one, the job with the health insurance and the commuter check and the greatest number of hours, the job I could leave every day at the office. The job that involved no writing at all.

I’m writing this with a head full of cold medicine, which is making me self-indulgent. Or more self-indulgent than usual. The cold and other complications kept me out of Joe’s chair, which means I’ve gone a full two weeks since my last haircut. I know, it’s an atrocity. But in my slightly-longer sideburns I see more than a couple of gray hairs, and it’s this, I think, that finally allowed me to hear Joe’s advice about dropping the 2 jobs.

Because at the age of 41 I keep looking around and thinking, “Is that all there is?” Peggy Lee was before my time, but apparently the sentiment is universal. And in no way does this apply to my husband, or our pack of dogs, or the new house.

It’s the panicked, and yes, self-pitying cry of a middle-aged (yikes) man who’s worked a series of low-wage desk jobs and has a 98% finished book that scares him shitless, and who’s afraid he hasn’t made nearly the mark he’d like on the world.

The only way to answer that question is with action. So I dropped the 2 jobs and now, leaner and slightly less exhausted, I face the end of the book with less money and fewer excuses.

Of course I immediately filled some of this free time with another project. I caught the gardening bug. Again. Long story, but the new house has enormous outdoor potential, and I’m obsessed with making it pretty. Or prettier. Happiness comes from low expectations. Besides, on the spectrum of addictions, gardening feels slightly more productive than, say, crystal meth. Or Playstation 3.

Even without gardening, a new house is essentially four walls of endless projects. But the two weeks notice I gave the two jobs have passed, Joe’s Barbershop has opened again, and in fits and starts I’ve made a little progress on the book. Maybe Peggy Lee will quieten down for a little while.

Old Dogs, New Tricks


I was puttering around in the front rock garden this weekend, adding some aeoniums that I’d picked up at Cactus Jungle, when I turned around and saw this guy on my Verbana bonariensis. I grabbed my iPhone and gloriously, improbably, he sat there for about ten seconds as I held the camera a few inches above him and snapped this pic.

Unlike Vladimir Nabokov, one of my favorite writers, I’m no lepidopterist, but thanks to the Google machine, Joe and I were able to narrow it down to the Anise Swallowtail, common to the West Coast. A couple of friends have confirmed our guess since then – in fact one glance at the pic and they both rattled off the name. Which made me wonder how they acquired such knowledge.

This isn’t exactly a deep thought, but as I spend the bulk of each weekend at nurseries, driving to nurseries, buying plants from nurseries, researching plants online, re-potting plants, and putting a few in the ground, I’m quietly amazed at the potential of the brain to acquire new knowledge.

I’ve been sober for nearly 12 years, but there was a time where my days all looked the same, where they felt small and dark and where the extent of my new knowledge might be figuring out the location of liquor stores that opened at 8 a.m. near the intersection of Hennepin and Lake Streets in Minneapolis.

Though still capable of elaborate forms of mental self-torture (just ask Joe), I’m generally a happier guy now, and after 12 years I no longer wake up feeling absolutely certain of what the day will hold. The potential to change, to  try new things and to acquire new knowledge, lately brings me comfort.

Even if it’s just about gardening, which, in the big picture, is probably a frivolous activity. But as I slowly transform into the cranky old man I’ve always longed to be, I get less interested in the big picture, and I seek happiness in smaller, quieter pursuits, kicking back on the couch with the husband and our pack of dogs, or standing outside in front of my plants, lost in thought, absently stroking the scruff on my chin as I measure the growth and health of things I’ve put in the ground, or admiring the color of the hydrangea in the derelict yard next door:


I could spend hours doing this, standing there, lost in thought, no doubt causing the neighbors concern for my sanity, until I snap awake and force myself to go, you know, clean the bathroom or feed the dogs. Obsession? Escapism? Sure. But as the country calls for the head of John Roberts, or rates in order of success the marriages of Tom Cruise, I find myself less willing – or able – to give portions of my finite days to those echo chambers. I’d rather watch a swallowtail land on a flower that I’ve managed not to kill.