Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Settled Life of Toasters

Hostels are a way station for the just-arrived and the about-to-depart. I had a few days between my last gig and my next one, so i booked a bed in San Francisco and picked up the guitar and played till someone felt like talking. Someone did. She was maybe 25, touring California. But being English, she was 'on holiday' and not vacation.

"When does the trip end?" I asked.

 "Thursday in San Diego."

"Then back home?"

She groans.

"That's not a good thing? I would think it would be nice."

"There are plenty of nice things about home. There's nothing nice about the real world," she says. "The real world sucks and everyone knows it, that's why there are so many books written by people who gave it up and went back to it then wrote about how terrible it is so they could have the money to give it all up again."

"You mean like Elizabeth Gilbert?" I say. "Or Byron?"

"Not just western literature but all literature," she says. She pronounces it lit-ra-ture. "Everyone makes stories about better worlds and transcending the ordinary because the real world sucks."

To be contrary, I try to offer evidence to counter this opinion but come up lacking. There doesn't seem much i can say for the defense of standard living. The real world she describes is the standard one of maturity, the settled life of toasters and gardeners, postman and picket fences, umbrellas and telephone directories. Bills and baggage. Insurance. Age. 401k.

I'm deeply troubled by what she has said, mostly because I want everything she is railing against.

I want that green lawn, that white fence, that mailbox with my name on it, the closet crammed with the aerosol smell of plastic off-gassing from the Payless shoes, the refrigerator that makes both ice and water, the store-bought spouse, the couple of vacuous kids bathed in the blue glow of television screen.

There will be two children: the boy we planned and wanted, and then the surprise girl 15 months later, for whom we did neither, but who, by the time she's three, I will love the most. The boy will be bland but serviceable so far as sons go, doing sll the things he thinks boys are supposed to do - baseball, getting dirty, being cruel to his sister - until he comes to enjoy them.

He becomes talented at sports, which I find dull but which because he is mine I will encourage, though I will never come to like it and always harbor suspicions that had she wanted to his sister could have been the better athlete. I will be proud of him when he gets accepted to college, but not as much as I am of his sister when at the age of 14 she outs herself as a lesbian.

At the age of 38, I will contemplate an affair, but hold back for outdated ressons of integrity and honor. I will tell this to my spouse when we divorce 5 years later. In the separation I learn I was the only one to hold back on temptation for the past 10 years. I'm deserted for someone whose children have grown since they are "done wiping noses." I counter with some choice words which leave me feeling empty and failed. I keep the house, and since the kids live there, them too.

 I keep my nose to the grindstone, trim hedges, grade papers, update my glasses prescription, get cavities filled, start wearing cardigans and yelling at the thirty-something neighbors who move in with their toddler and cocktail-sized dog.

The boy will move out first, claiming he's had enough of my iron fist. In panic I will call his mother, who tells me my laissez-faire ways were bound to backfire. I scream obscenities and hang up. He joins the marines because he knows this is one of the worst things he could do to me. His sister says that he did it because he wanted to and when am I going to let them be their own people and not who I want them to be?

She goes to school to be a dental hygienist where she meets a nice girl. Four years later they give me my first grandchild and I breathe a sigh of relief that I get to try over, then get my heart broken when they move overseas. I still love her the most.

Then the boy comes back for a time. Years have mellowed us both that we actually come to enjoy each other's opinions. But he realizes he's outgrown this old town and moves away. I get christmas cards from him that slowly increase in the number of signatures at the bottom of the card from one to four as the years go by.

Then, in October of my 72nd year, while burning leaves on the curb, the exertion and smoke inhalation triggers a heart attack. The neighbor girl finds me face down, with part of my clothing smoldering and my eyebrows singed off. I wave away the ambulance, but since my response was not articulate or verbal, I'm carted away. As they whisk me to the hospital, I close my eyes, not regretting my mistakes, nor taking any pride in the victories, as I wait, flickering, fading, and finally, going out.

Of course, that's just the rough outline. It might happen differently. Most of those elements I begin to find distasteful even as I write, but even though I may not want these things in a month, or a year, or twenty, I do want them now. Or at least some of them. I'm left unsettled by this.

When did i stop wanting to be Peter Pan and began envying Mr. Darling?