I am 42 now and I awoke early this morning with an all too familiar feeling. It felt like seeing a person from your past who you hoped you would never see again. The feeling slowly traveled from my toes up into the center of my chest. I could feel it nudging itself right up against my heart. I thought to myself: What the hell is this? Oh that’s what it is. It was that dreadful what am I going to do if? feeling. What am I going to do if I run out of money? What am I going to do if my job does not work out? What am I going to do if I can’t afford to pay back my debts? What am I going to do if I go broke? I’m not sure where this feeling originated, since I feel more financially secure now than I have ever felt in my entire adult life. Maybe it was triggered by a traumatic dream about my youth. Whatever its cause, I remember waking up feeling this way everyday when I was 28 or 29.
I like to live in the moment now. I have no use for walking the dead (except when writing things like this). The only thing I confidently believe in is the practice of not thinking about tomorrow. I trust that tomorrow will take care of itself and I don’t need to worry about it. When I was 28 or 29 I worried about tomorrow ALL THE TIME. I wore all black in order to let others know that I existed in a state of worry. I was continually tormented by an untreatable condition called what am I going to do if:
I don’t amount to anything?
I can’t pay my rent?
I run out of money?
I can’t figure out how to hold down a job?
I am unable to earn a living through writing and painting?
I die young?
I can’t ever get my anxiety under control?
I have a fatal sexually transmitted disease?
I have to depend on my parents for the rest of my life?
I never succeed?
When I was 28 or 29, this was the narrative that was continually looping around in my head: What am I going to do if?, what am I going to do if?, what am I going to do if? I was living in my x-girlfriend’s walk-in closet in the ghetto section of downtown Oakland. I set up a small futon just beneath her hanging dresses, pants and shirts. Every night I fell asleep to the earthy scent of body odor that clung to her clothes. Radiohead had recently released their fifth album, Amnesiac. I listened to the album ALL THE TIME. I listened to it when I went for walks. I listened to it when I drew, painted or wrote. I listened to it when I spent afternoons lounging around on my futon. I listened to it before going out and before going to bed. It was my anthem of despair. It prevented me from bleeding to death. In that album I found a bandage. A group of musicians who were around my age and who understood what I was going through. At least it felt that way. I felt like the only difference between them and myself was that they could afford to buy a house and all I could afford was to rent space in my x-girlfriends walk-in closet.
I drank much too much. I smoked much too much. I was stoned much too much. All of these methods of intoxication interfered with my motivation levels. Rather than spending my days making an effort towards some kind of productivity, I preferred hanging out in and around a coffee shop, reading, smoking and talking with the locals. I was happy in my unhappiness. Content maintaining my own status quo. All that I knew for certain was that I wanted to be nothing like my father. Aside from my appreciation of writers and artists, I presume that the main reason why I wanted to live my life as a writer and artist was because it was as far away as I could get from good old dad.
I tried. I tried terribly hard to make certain compromises with my father’s world of licenses, degrees, work ethics, status, cultural legitimacy and financial drive. I started but was never able to finish:
A Masters degree program in English Literature
An architecture apprenticeship
A well-paid position as a stockbroker
(There may be other things I can’t recall at the moment.)
Along with my fathers urging and hostile support, I tried to find a balance between his world and the world I envisioned for myself- but was never able to feel comfortable in this common ground. Even then I knew that life was short and should not be spent doing things for the sake of money and prestige. Growing up I watched my father work hard and earn a lot of money but he was often angry, stressed out and deeply unhappy. I consider myself fortunate to have learned young that hard work, making money and happiness do not often go together. When I was 28 or 29 I didn’t mind so much living in my x-girlfriends walk-in closet. I figured that it was what all great artists and writers did at the beginning of their “career.” I saw it as a kind of initiation.
My grandfather ended up dying just in time (I am forever grateful to him for this). I ended up inheriting his Lincoln Continental Town Car, which was put on the back of a truck and driven from the suburbs of Philadelphia to the ghetto of downtown Oakland. My grandfather was a failed musician and I think he saw me stumbling down a similar path. He took pity on me because he saw a lot of himself in me and as a result left me his car. The problem was that I could not get his smell out of the car and every time I drove around I felt like his ghost. So I did what felt logical to me- I sold the car to a very friendly older gentleman who put $6,000 in the palm of my swollen hands (I had been taking too high of a dosage of Paxil, which caused my body to retain fluid and bloat. As a result my hands, feet and face where often ballooning out). When my parents found out about what I had done, they were furious. It was if I had stolen something very precious from them. I had deceived them by selling my mother’s, father’s car without their consent (meanwhile they were building a mansion and traveling to Europe while I was broke and living in a closet in the ghetto).
I used the $6,000 to move myself up in the world. I was able to move out of the closet and into a legitimate (but small) fifth floor one-bedroom apartment in a better neighborhood of Oakland. I bought myself some new socks, underwear and shoes. I also bought a well preserved 1988 silver Honda Accord. My dead grandfather’s car had given me back some dignity. I began to feel confident enough again to meet women. But I still had no idea about what I was going to do, so I got stoned and made art. I waited and was lonely. I did not know it at the time but I was struggling with generalized anxiety disorder. I was 28 or 29 and lost.
When I got out of bed this morning I went into the front room where I lit a fire in the fireplace. I looked around at my beautiful home and smiled at my two German Shepherds who were looking at me through the large window, which separates my front room from the outside redwood deck. My heaven-sent-wife was still asleep in bed. The house was quiet. I looked out into the backyard where a large, strong, branchy maple tree was shedding its leaves. As I looked around my house I told myself that everything was all right now, that I was perfectly ok, that everything had somehow managed to work itself out. I smiled, felt my heart lighten, got off the couch and went into the kitchen to make myself some tea.