I Am No Tolstoy

I am no Tolstoy. This I know. I have been trying to become a man of letters for many years. All I have to show for it are a few published short stories, a back-breaking book collection, numerous unfinished novels and a reoccurring day-dream.

I am ready for winter to dissolve away. I have had enough of its cold hands, intimidating winds and wet rains. I have been spending a lot of self-demeaning time alone thinking about my inability to achieve the status of a great writer. For reasons that I still do not understand, Tolstoy often comes into my mind. I contemplate Tolstoy’s genius while taking a shower, while making lunch, while stretching, while meditating, while driving and while staring at my complexion in the mirror. I am not obsessed with Tolstoy but he is often creeping around in the penetralias of my mind. “Tolstoy was a master of resolution and maybe this is why his entire country loved reading him,” I often think to myself as if I am trying to compare his literary success to my lack of literary success. You see, Tolstoy was read by almost every single one of his countrymen and women but I have only one consistent reader of my stories- my wide-eyed wife (who usually falls asleep before she gets to the end). While looking at myself in the mirror I silently think, “If my only reader is falling asleep before finishing my stories maybe this is the reason why they end up unfinished and buried alive in the bottom drawer of my desk.” It’s always easier to have someone else to blame for our own shortcomings.


Tolstoy’s wife read his writings with the passion of a biblical scholar. She was in love with his writings. She inspired him to get out of bed in the mornings and she even dedicated her life to typing up his messy hand written manuscripts. At one point in Tolstoy’s life she was so worn out from not sleeping for months on end because of her dedication to her husband’s writings- that she was hospitalized for a month. Tolstoy often used to say that his greatness was only half his. The other half belonged to his wife. One of the most depressed periods of Tolstoy’s life was when his wife was hospitalized and he was home alone, trapped inside his own mind. “I thought myself a failure, a hack writer, unable to produce any profound themes that mattered,” he once said commenting about this period of his life.


I often give a new story that I have written to my wide-eyed wife to read. Granted, I married a beautiful women who is not as passionate about literature as I am- but does this compensate for the look of distress that comes over her wide-eyed face when I hand her something to read that I wrote? My wide-eyed wife prefers to “read my stories in bed,” where she feels more “attentive and calm” (and has the extra added benefit of my story helping her to fall into a deep beauty sleep). My wide-eyed wife never really says anything to me about my stories (because I do not think she every really finished reading one). Sometimes when I want feed back on what she has read I will ask her but she always gives me unenthusiastic five or less word responses and tells me that she needs more time to think about it. “It” was not always this bad.


When my beautiful wide-eyed wife and I first met she loved what I wrote (well she never really read anything that I wrote, but she loved the inspired explanations that I would give to her about the stories that I wrote). She often told me that she fell in love with me because I reminded her of Jack Kerouac and she often liked to refer to me as “the next great bohemian.”  I was so flattered by being compared to Jack Kerouac that I ignored the signs. I should have been more alert to the fact that I never saw her with a book in her hand and that she was not expressing any interest in reading anything that I had written. But I was too absent-minded most of the time. My judgment was clouded by the large amounts of poetry that I was memorizing and the fact that a young wide-eyed beauty was in love with me made me disregard my concern that she did not read.

Almost a decade has passed since those early days and I am still struggling to shine in that Jack Kerouac light, which for my wide-eyed wife has turned dark. Jack Kerouac has become a romantic bum to her and she no longer wants a husband that shines in his image. She wants an industrious man, someone who is able to buy a home, work hard and support a child or two if one happened to pop out. An aging Jack Kerouac with unmaterialized dreams is no longer the kind of man she needs.


Tolstoy’s wife completed the entire manuscript of War And Peace. She edited it, and typed it twice! When I was telling my wide-eyed wife about this she looked at me and said, “Well, you are no Tolstoy.” “I beg your pardon,” I replied with a microcosmic measure of disdain in my voice. “Well it’s true….. you have never really written anything significant,” she replied. I had to control my anger which was jumping around inside of me like popcorn in a microwave. I took a deep breath and calmly replied, “but what about all those stories I have given you to read that you have never read or finished?” “I have read them and they are good and interesting but why haven’t you tried to get them published? Why don’t you make a commitment to writing every day, and if you want to be a great writer why are you almost forty and have not finished a single novel? I mean get real man!” I clenched my jaw and wanted to shine the Jack Kerouac light down on me but the light was out of batteries. I wanted to tell her that the reason “why” I have not written a novel was because she never even showed any interest in my five-page short stories…. “It is all your fault…..” I wanted to yell…… “There is no greater insult to a writer then when you use his stories to fall asleep…..” I wanted to say that the reason I am no Tolstoy is because she shows very little interest in my work and a writer is only as great as the woman who is inspiring and pushing him!!! But I said nothing because of my grandmother who always told me that if you have nothing good to say then do not say anything at all.


Upon receiving one of the highest honors that a country can bestow upon a writer, Tolstoy said to the upper class audience “I would not be here if it was not for my wife.” When I think about this I often fall into a daydream of sorts. I imagine myself receiving an award for a short story or a novel that I finally published. Maybe it is the Pulitzer. In my daydream I have become the great writer that I have always imagined myself to be. Instead of thanking my wife-eyed wife and family I simply looked out into the crowd and say “being a writer is a long and lonely journey and I could not of done this without my self-determination and a lot of endurance.” The audience claps and my wide-eyed wife and my family look puzzled. “Why did I not thank them?” I know they are wondering. As I walk off stage I look at them and my eyes are filled with the pride of a just revenge. “That was for the years of neglect and for falling asleep while reading my stories,” I think to myself before disappearing behind a satin curtain towards all of my adoring fans. When I awake from my daydream I am always inspired with a new desire to write. I start thinking up ideas and opening sentences for the novel I want to write. I sit down with a pen and a blank page at my book covered desk and begin writing my epic until I hear the words of my wide-eyed wife lingering in the back of my mind, “You are no Tolstoy. Get real man!” Then I put the pen down and take the dog for a walk.

Island Fever

1.

There is a small lake not too far from where I used to live. I often went to this lake, sat upon a bench beside the waterline and watched the afternoons float by. I would read from the collected works of Thoreau or observe the landscape, which was filled with birds, dogs, joggers, cyclists, strollers and lovers. My sitting became a kind of meditation, where I was able to distance myself from the bothersome thoughts that chronically invaded my mind through out the day. Over time, I became an ornament upon that bench. I spent every afternoon there. My present life was stuck in a quagmire, my future life uncertain and the only thing that made any sense to me was sitting on that bench and watching the world unfold.


One afternoon, for some unknown reason, I began to pay more attention to an island that sat in the middle of the lake. It was almost as if, on that particular day, the island had suddenly decided to float right before my eyes. I had never noticed the island before and still swear that it was not there before that afternoon. However, I have always been a man who is open to the miraculous possibilities in life, so I immediately started to observe the trees and tall grasses that grew all along the island shore. I watched the ducks and geese happily congregate on the summit of a small dirt hill. The island was the size of a tennis court or a lap pool and it was covered in blooming lilies and flowering wisteria trees that I assumed someone had planted there. Why I suddenly became preoccupied with this island I will never know and where the idea came from that it was upon that island that I needed to be– I do not pretend to  understand.


After much examination I concluded that it would not be difficult to make it over to the island shore. The only life swimming around in the small lake was a family of brown ducks and a dozen or so geese that stuck together like a tightly knit team. From what I could see, there were no large fish or predatorial creatures living deep within. The water appeared to be knee deep and maintained a continuous dynamic spirality in the way that is flowed. The only risk was communicated to me through rusting signs (that I had never noticed before) that read “SWIMMING IN THE LAKE IS FORBIDDEN TO THE GENERAL PUBLIC AND PUNISHABLE BY FINE.” For the past few months I had been spending so much time alone and isolated from the world that I no longer felt like the title “GENERAL PUBLIC” applied to me. I was different and estranged. I existed in some sort of foggy limbo in between “GENERAL” and “PUBLIC” that was hard to define. With an unquenchable desire to make it to those solitary island shores, one sunny September afternoon I put on my bathing suit, ignored the warnings and decided to wade my way across the lake.


The ducks did not mind my presence in the water. Neither did the wind, the sky, the muddy lake floor, the algae or the afternoon sun. I felt like a long lost member of the natural world who was gracefully being allowed to pass on through. At a certain point the water became so deep that I had to breaststroke my way across. Once I made it to land I suddenly felt like a man who had just been set free. There was an impulse in me to shout out loud- but I controlled my celebratory whim. I had finally left behind the mechanical, political, business, Disney world that I felt so detached from. I was now on another shore, where steel and concrete did not exist and the industrial revolution was yet to hit. The few geese that were perched up on the dirt hill quickly flew away as soon as they saw a human being. I smiled into the afternoon sky and thought about how I was now free to indulge in the primordial grandeur of the universe that was all around me.


I found a soft spot on top of the dirt hill upon which to sit. Nestled in between tall grasses, weeds and blooming lilies- I sat stoically composed in the lotus position. In that same spot I passed magical afternoon, upon magical afternoon in nothing but a bathing suit. I left the island only after the sun had set and the water had begun to grow cold. My wife was curious about what I was doing all day. My skin had become tanned and my hair bleached by the sun, but I kept my adventures all to myself and told her I was out looking for a job. Upon my boat made out of earth that was drifting through time- I watched the birds fly, the ducks quack, the flowers unfurl, the trees shimmer, the turbulent structure of clouds, and the sun slowly set. I felt the joy of a man who was living in the moment- navigating his way through distant seas far away from the declining human world. Day upon day I experienced feelings that gave my life a meaning and purpose that previously was not there. I was no longer looking at nature. Now I was finally living with her. The song of crickets, the fissures around the tree bark, the fossilized rocks, the inherent patterns in the plants all became apart of me.


2.

Summer came to an end and it was time for me to expend more energy in my search for a job. My savings was not immune to the ravages of time and I had worldly responsibilities that needed to be attended to- but I still found the time to sneak away to the lake. When no one was looking I would strip down into my bathing suit and breaststroke my way through the frigid water. Once on the island I would perch my shivering body upon the small hill of dirt that seemed to me to be frozen in time. I watched the last wrinkles of summer unfurl, break apart and get ironed out into the slumber of fall. I watched as the fall turned into ice-cold raindrops that left imprints in the sand. Everything on the island was influenced by the wind, rain and cold and as I sat there, still and silent upon my hump- I studied the ducks wading in the water and the many formations and patterns that were composed as the seasons changed. It was as if each event in the natural world was a poem, a painting, a drama and a celebration that was helping me to see something that was buried very deep down in my soul.


3.

In the depths of winter my island of sanity grew a bit confused. I was no longer experiencing the same peace and purpose that I had felt for so many months before. I noticed that as I interacted with the natural world I was growing impatient with what I saw. My frustration turned into accusations and before I knew it I was yelling at the ducks, messing up the natural patterns that I observed in the dirt and making fun of the annoying geese that seemed to me to be suffering from indecision. When I would be sitting in my office searching for a job I felt resistance when it was time to return to the island. Like a man who is putting off going for a run- I would often skip days. When I pushed myself to make it to the island I would be perched upon the dirt hill as restless as someone who had been contained for too long. I felt like a castaway miles from the shore. My attention would not remain focused on the things I saw or the sounds and smells that at one time were such a delight for me. Instead, I was upset by this nagging feeling that there was some place else that I was supposed to be, that there was this big world out there that I was not getting to see. Little did I know then that I was suffering from what psychologists often refer to as island fever. As the seasonal cycle ran its full course and summer returned, I realized that I was no longer comfortable hiding out, far away, on another shore.


It is ironic to me that on the day I decided would be my final day on the island- I was discovered by a park ranger. He was walking by as I was taking one final walk around the island shore. I was saying goodbye and trying to inscribe various patterns and plants that I had come to love into my memory bank. Upon hearing his yell I bent over and tried to hide behind a bush- but it was too late. “Hey you! What the hell are you doing over there?” I looked up and said “who me?” as if he was talking to someone else that could have been hanging out on that uninhabited island. Since I had already planned upon leaving for good that day I felt no need to put up a fight when he demanded “you are in violation of the law and need to get over here now!” I knew that it was my time, time to return for good to the human world of rules, recessions, battles, mechanization, injustice, toxicity and regulations- for good. However, now I was returning to the world with the knowledge that it was time for me to take responsibility for not only my life but also the life of everything else around me- even the park ranger.  I knew that somehow I was a part of the whole and not just an isolated part. I knew then that I would end up radically changing my life as a result of the impressions and realizations that island life had given me- but at that moment in time how I was going to do so was a mystery. With this deep insight in the front of my mind- I smiled, waved at the park ranger, put my foot into the lukewarm water and began swimming back to shore.

Other People’s Houses

I enjoy looking at other people’s houses. I imagine what my life would be like if I lived inside. I look at all kinds of homes- but I especially like the nice ones. Every evening I will go for a walk and observe houses. I entertain thoughts about what these people must do to afford such nice homes? I love seeing the various ways that people decorate their homes and I enjoy looking at the landscaping in the front yard. Sometimes I will look inside a front window to see how the residents have decorated the inside of their homes. When I feel like seeing homes I have never observed before I will drive to distant neighborhoods and walk around for hours. There are few pleasures that I enjoy more in life than seeing a well decorated home for the first time.

I love modern and Victorian homes. I love welcoming homes that have a lot of plants, cats and benches out front. I enjoy seeing homes that are painted in unusual colors and have obscure art outside. I enjoy looking at bohemian homes that have been given an individualized flare by their artistic owners. Homes that are loved and built with an attention to detail often take my breath away. I love staring at every inch of these homes in the same way that I would observe a beautiful lady. I find myself filled with a certain “homey” sensation when I stare at other people’s houses; a sensation that fills my body with feelings of comfort and ease.

I often will get as close to a home as I can so I can peak inside. I am interested in the interior design of other people’s houses and I am curious about what kind of furniture and art rests inside. I want to see if the home owner has a book collection and if so I want to know what kinds of books are sitting on their shelf. I try to make an effort to make sure that no one is home when I am looking through windows but I can not always be sure. There have been several occasions where I have been innocently peering through a window, enjoying the interior design, when suddenly I was noticed by a resident inside. On these occasions my plan is to yell out “sorry” and run as quickly as I can.

I have always enjoyed architecture. In college I wanted to be an architect but I could not handle all the math. My parents also shared my love for architecture and home design. As a young boy and teenager every Sunday my family and I would go for long drives around various neighborhoods. We loved looking at other people’s houses. We would  stare at the various homes as we drove very slowly by each one (after years of driving around and looking at other people’s houses on Sundays my family was given the nick name “The Stare Family”). My parents were gathering ideas from other people’s houses and imagining ways that they could redecorate their home. I on the other hand was dreaming about the beautiful and stylish home that I would one day own.

I currently rent a two bedroom house. It is rather cheap and ugly house with not much thought or imagination that went into its design. The front yard is filled with plants that are dying, paint chips that have fallen from the side of the house and a decaying fountain that no longer works. The inside of my house is not as bad as the outside. There are hardwood floors, nice white walls and a relatively peaceful back yard. I don’t really have the money to furnish my house nicely so my wife and I have had to use our imaginations to make our house into a kind of impoverished bohemian oasis. We have birds that help drown out the outside car sounds and a leather couch that helps give our box like living room some modern charm- but for the most part the inside of my house is rather simplistic. Since I currently have a lot of free time to wonder, I spend a lot of time meandering around inside of my house. I think about ways that I can make my rental house a bit more charming (like the homes I enjoy looking at). I buy plants, re-arrange a lot of furniture and hang various art on the walls. I clean the kitchen and bathroom at least once a week but I never feel that “homey” sensation that I get when I look at other peoples homes. This is the downside of being a renter- you never really feel like your house is your home.

When I walk around neighborhoods, staring at other peoples homes, I still dream about owning a home of my own one day. Like my parents twenty-five years ago, I too am getting ideas for the house that I hope to one day own. Just yesterday I walked around San Fransisco looking at all the various urban and Victorian homes. Some people who are home owners in the city have a sense of design and aesthetics that I rarely find out here in the country. I take everything that I like about other people’s houses and add it to the construction site in my mind where I am building an imaginary home of my own. This home is a modern house and has small hints of all the houses I have ever loved. There are wooden benches in the front yard, a pebbled driveway with a working rock fountain in it and tall glass windows that let in the sun light. There is a hammock in the backyard, redwoods growing on all sides and solar panels on the roof. I have beautiful art on the walls, comfortable couches, fish tanks and dozens of book shelves filled with classics.  There is my writing desk that is up against a large window that looks out over the sea. One day I hope to build this home in the material world but first I realize that I need to find that darn tree that I have heard so much about where money grows from branches instead of leaves. For now, I suppose I am content enough walking around for hours and looking at other peoples houses.