Going Down, Looking Up (Some Reflections on the Verge of Turning 40)

On my last day of being in my thirties, I fell on my face. I had just finished lunch with my 94-year-old grandmother who had eaten more than I. I took her to an organic salad place in town and all she had to say was, “why do they give so much dammmmm lettuce. Stupid. Where is the meat?” I tried to explain to her that we were eating at an organic, sustainable restaurant that was more concerned with health than meat. She told me that the world was finished. That she would rather be at home eating her frozen ham and cheese puffs. I tried to engage her in conversation, in between large bites of lettuce- pieces of which stuck to her nose. But I had little luck getting any meaningful words out of her until I said, “so grandmamma, as you know I am turning forty tomorrow. Do you have any advice on how to grow old gracefully?” She put down her fork, which was searching through the lettuce for any signs of chicken, looked me in the eyes and said “Jared, (my name is Randall) just stay yourself. Stay who you are and don’t let yourself grow old and bitter like all the other old farts your age.” Then she went back to rummaging through her lettuce for any signs of meat.

“Stay who I am?” I thought to myself. Since my grandmother said it I have not been able to get this one simple sentence out of my head. In my desire to find some kernel of truth about growing old gracefully, my grandmother hit the proverbial nail on the head. She had given me the exact answer that I did not expect to hear. Today at lunch I cannot help but think that my grandmother provided me with one of the greatest gifts I have ever received- the gift of anti-aging. As I was saying goodbye to my grandmother, she took her waterlogged lips and placed them against my curious ears. She said, “James (my name is Randall), never forget who you are but in order to know who the hell you are- don’t forget where you have been. Don’t be afraid to look down.” I thanked my grandmother, kissed the wilted side of her face and tripped over her walker as I made my way out the door. Now looking back it feels as if my fall was a kind of petty and painful ritual or indoctrination invoked by my atheist grandmother. I say this because on my way down, my thirties flashed quickly before my eyes.

When I was thirty I was broke, disowned by my mother and father for selling my newly deceased grandfathers Ford Crown Victoria and living in my friends shoe boxed sized closet. I slept night after night on a broken futon under a clothes rack filled with young ladies dresses and cigarette smoke drenched jackets. Beyond the wall that separated me from the ghetto was a tall redwood tree in which lived an owl that kept me up late into the night with its primal and onomatopoetic mantras. I remember laying there on my back, an always-intoxicated thirty-year-old man remembering my youth with disdain and looking forward to a future filled with fame. I was convinced that I was the next great writer or painter waiting to be born into public fame- being broke and living in my friends closet was a sure sign of my devotion to my art. But day upon day passed like wind through the quickly turning pages of a book and before I knew it I was thirty-one, still living in my friends closet. The only thing that had changed was that I now had a plan.

My parents forgave me for selling my grandfathers car because they finally came to understand that having money to eat and pay my share of the rent for a year without working, was much more important than a dead man’s car. Even though they were terrified by how much alcohol I consumed, and how little I cared about my future- they had to admit that I was not dead yet. When I told them that I had decided to move to Portland where it was easier to find a job and cheaper to find meaning and purpose they were excited that I was going to get my life out of the closet. They threw me a very generous going away party where I invited many of my friends and after too many tears and too much rich food and wine I packed my bags and prepared to leave California forever. I took the remainder of the money that I had from selling the Crown Victoria, put it in my back pocket and the following morning I boarded everything I owned onto a train- destination Portland. Sadly, I spent one lonely and depressed night in Portland. I got drunk because I had no idea what else to do. The next morning I was without a clue where to begin so I bought a train ticket and headed back home much to the shock of everyone who knew me. I took up residence again in the closet.

When I was thirty-two I spent much of my time in a bar. I worked as a waiter and was in love with a nymphomaniac alcoholic. She was also a waitress at high end restaurants, but she kept losing jobs because she would show up to work beautiful and drunk. I had moved into a studio apartment, which had a pool where we would spend our afternoons sunbathing, drinking and reading. By nightfall she was always slithering her words and sounded more like an out of tune piano than the articulate poet that she was. I tried to return to graduate school for the third time to finish my master’s degree in English Literature but I was still convinced that I had a future as a famous writer and/or painter so I decided yet again that I did not need a master’s degree. Instead I drank and read and filled my mind with lustful thoughts about an alcoholic who was once President of her college class. Sometimes she would disappear for days on end and my heart would be frantic while my mind was convinced that she had taken off with another man or woman. So I would camp in the ivy outside her one bedroom apartment, spend my nights smoking cigarettes and drinking Budweiser beer and waiting to spy upon what was going on. The problem was that she was never out with anyone. Instead she was cheating on me with several bottles of whiskey- drunk for three or four days straight.

One morning I awoke in ivy, covered in cigarette ash and realized that I was now thirty-three. I had spent most of the last year of my life in pursuit of somebody that was not there. I was drinking too much and finding garbage bags filled with whiskey bottles hidden underneath my girlfriend’s bed. My heart was starting to beat irregularly because of all I had put it through and I realized that if I did not get my mind, body and soul together I may come to an early end. I spent my thirty third-year working as a waiter in French restaurant that rarely had any costumers. The owner would spend the evenings banging his spatula against the crepe makers wondering what he had done wrong. “My product is good. It is a nice restaurant with unique food but no one ever comes. I don’t understand!!” he would whine. My answer to him was always the same, “location is everything. A homeless shelter across the street and the ghetto are not good ingredients for a busy French restaurant.” “Merde!!” he would growl and then tell me to open a bottle of wine which we would proceed to drink. However that French restaurant was not as much of a curse for me as it was for him. In fact it was a blessing. Not only did I get to drink a lot of good free French wine but I also waited on a beautiful twenty six year old woman who would later become my wife.

When I was thirty-four I learned how to stand on my head, meditate, drink a bit less, give up smoking and live with a woman. Things with the alcoholic nymphomaniac had fizzled out and I had found myself in a relationship that had the potential for health and happiness. After my new girlfriend and I had discovered a dead body in the apartment beneath hers (he was blackened to a crisp and lying face up on the edge of his bed- the victim of a painkiller overdose) she decided to move into my studio wall-to-wall carpeted apartment. She loved me because I reminded her of Jack Kerouac and because she believed in my heart (which was still irregularly beating along). She was finishing up art school and even though we did not know it then she had a future ahead of her that was filled with success as an artist. She introduced me to organic food, clean sheets, baby soft skin and home cooking that made me consider giving up the pursuit of art and instead getting a real job so I could afford to have her cook for me every night. Together we lived in that studio apartment, overcrowded by too much stuff and two big egos that had a hard time learning to live together.

When I was thirty-five I proposed to my girlfriend in a cemetery that I spent a lot of time in. Day after day I would go to the cemetery with a book in my hands and contemplate the fine line that exists between life and death. Even though I realized that as a married man there would be those who would expect me to live a more conventional, career driven life I hoped that by proposing to my girlfriend in a cemetery she too would realize that there were more important things in living than working. She said yes to my brief proposal and I spent the next eight months evading preparations for a wedding, fearing over a future that felt out of my hands and working hard to lose a fifteen pound overweight stomach bulge that was the result of eating too much and many home cooked meals. My fiancé was furious by my reluctance to engage in helping her plan the wedding and I was just as confused by my apathy. I though about Franz Kafka who found himself in a similar predicament. He called off wedding engagements several times because he knew that his indoctrination into domestic life meant the end of his writing life. In the end he chose his writing life and I chose married life. But unlike Kafka I have not written some of the greatest novels of my time- but I did have a great wedding (where the rabbi made out with the brides maid), buy some nice furniture and a dog.

Thirty-six passed by and was spent mostly in couples therapy. I came to find that my wife’s issues were equally as dense as mine but I was no match for her quick wit, wisdom and disdain. In order to please her and her family’s career aspirations for me I got my first real job teaching English at an inner city high school. My anxiety started to become more chronic and was more of a normal state for me than tranquility and calm was. I became continually worried about money and my ability to become the writer and/or painter that I once was certain I would become. For the first time in my life I was working five days a week for more than ten hours a day. I was making more money than I had ever made in my life- thirty five thousand dollars a year. I was teaching inner city freshman how to read a book and liberate themselves from the heavy fist of white male oppression. I was also spending my evenings driving around in search of sex because my sex life at home had all but dried up. Even though I never had the guts to cheat on my wife (well not yet at least)- just the idea of the possibility of sex with a stranger kept the muscle that is also referred to as a penis from atrophying.

Thirty-seven went by without any sex. I was married to a woman who worked more than I had ever worked in my entire life. Her determination to succeed as an artist was enviable but my idea of being an artist involved spending much more time sitting around and contemplating the unsolvable mysteries of the universe. I was still teaching high school, but I had to find another job because the school where I taught was shut down since California did not want to pay money to give minority inner city kids an education. The recession was in full swing, there was a war being waged in Afghanistan and in Iraq, George Bush was still President but soon a black man would occupy the lead in the white house. My wife and I had moved into an old Victorian home with hardwood floors in the Oakland ghetto. But there was a small stream and a redwood tree behind the house and from my opened studio window I could hear the sound of birds chirping and bullets passing. I was settling into married life, struggling with an intense anxiety problem and spending too much time masturbating.

Thirty-eight was the year that I began to have a mid life crises. My wife was accepted into a prestigious graduate school so we moved to Davis, California and while she was away at school (which was most hours of the day) I was left on my own. I had no job, no friends, very little money and not much ambition to do anything but dress like I once used to in the 1980’s. I started listening to new wave music again and wore black eye liner and black nail polish. I started smoking cloves again and dancing alone in the privacy of my room. My diet had become healthier, my heart beated a bit more regularly, my insomnia was not as bad but there was still something inside of me that grew unhappy and jaded. I started to feel like my life was a failure and to combat these unwanted negative vibes I began meditating more and reading spiritual self help books. I learned to go on two-hour mindfulness walks, I purchased a dog, I got a job as a bartender and did what I could to assuage the gut feeling that being a successful writer and painter was as far from me as winning the lottery was. I enrolled in graduate school to become a psychotherapist and I found a therapist whom I still see once a week. My therapist helped guide me back to what now feels like a place where hope and love have the potential to reside. My anxiety started to leave me alone and while sitting in a restaurant in San Francisco on my thirty-ninth birthday I was able to acknowledge that “yes, I have a good life.”

After I tripped over my grandmother’s walker I struggled to get back onto my knees. I landed straight on my chest and face. My grandmother was too weak and giggly to be of any help to me so I lay there and thought about being thirty-nine. It had not been a bad year. My wife and I were getting along and I had learned to accept my fate as a future psychotherapist who was excelling in graduate school. I was interested in things I had never heard of before such as: family systems theory, Gestalt therapy, Client Centered therapy and cybernetics. I had to let go of my need to be the next great writer or painter and traded in my paintbrushes for textbooks. I would spend some days drawing, reading and writing but now it was more for play and less for destiny. I worked in my garden, walked my dog, visited my therapist, lost my beer belly, ate organic food and meditated every morning at seven thirty. Even though I know it is a cliché I go to say it- life was good. But somewhere beneath the surface of my flesh and deep down around the fringes of my belabored soul- I was unsatisfied. Maybe that is why now I sit here writing at my desk in my parent’s home where I am living. I am yet to know of anything that lasts forever and my marriage was also unable to escape from this eternal truth. All I can say is that two people who loved and love each other very much grew apart in the same way that two leaves that grow from the same stem can spread out in different directions. Shitty things happen to the best of us.

“Give me your dammmmmmm hand,” my grandmother said as I was stuck in a finally revelry about being thirty-nine. I reached out my hand and surprisingly my 94-year-old grandmother was able to help me onto my feet. She was holding onto her walker and had wrapped a leather belt around her waist and strapped it to the door to brace her body so she could help me up. I felt a bit dazed and confused. There was a bit of blood on my shirt since I bit my lip sometime during the fall. “There you go kid, back on your feet. That’s right!” my grandmother said as she undid the belt from her waist. I dusted myself off and got a first taste of how much more pain an aging body feels than a younger body. “You all right?” my grandmother said with a look of genuine concern on her face. “Fine, fine” I replied with a half smile and half embarrassed grin. “Well you just listen to me David. There will be a lot of falling down in your life. Promise you that. But as long as you always get back up that is all that gives a dammmmmm. After you fall as many times as I have, have as many bruises as I do and are still alive at 94 you start to really, really realize that anything is possible in life. That is the best part about getting old. Now brush yourself off, have a good birthday and get out of here.”

The Birthday From Hell.

I’ll be honest- my birthday sucked. It was not anything in particular that took place but rather an over all mood. Their was languor or torpor in the air- the kind of feeling that you get when you are in the room with a group of people that you would rather not be around. Even though my entire family gathered together, I felt under appreciated, un- loved, uncomfortable and annoyed. My family is a group of people who suffer deeply. My 97 year old grandfather drank a good amount of red wine and kept telling me that no matter how “crummy” my father was- he loved me. My father tried to smile as he stuck expensive pasta in his mouth but I could see through that smile as if I was staring through glass. He does not like me, nor does he care for my wife- but he gave me $500.00 for my birthday. It is as if he is saying “go buy your self something nice so that I don’t have to feel bad.” He buys off most things in his life- including his son.

All through dinner I felt tense and suffered from chest pain. I dropped my pizza in my lap and drank much to much red wine. My mother kept making sure that my wife was going to take me home and put me to bed. I swore that I was not drunk and that I would go home and do meditation to recover from my birthday, which was filled with a pain so deep that I feel like I could scream. My mother and my wife did the best they can to smile and look appeased but no body talked to me about my life but rather it seemed as if we were all pretending that we live in a pretty world where appearance counts for every thing.

I do not know what I am going to do. If I could explain with words the feelings that I have within me I would have mastered the art of writing. But I am no master. On the outside the birthday was beautiful. Wine and cheese at my house with the family before dinner. My grandparents, parents, sister and wife all present. Then off to the restaurant for a six o’clock reservation where I met friends who would join us for a beautiful feast. We are alive and this is what matters most- I kept telling myself- but deep down I felt like I was stuck in the birthday from hell. Like I was on a ride that no body wanted to be on. I stuffed my face to take away my sorrow but I tried my hardest to smile, say cheers with every sip of wine and make sure the entire gathering was enjoying their time. Now I am home where I will now take a shower in my tears.