Today is my birthday. For those of you playing the home version of our game that makes forty-five of the little bastards — halfway to ninety. My optometrist noted my advancing age. “I read a statistic recently that if you make it to forty-five you have a fifty percent chance of making it to sixty-five,” he said. Thanks for sharing.
For all intents and purposes that means for the next twenty years when I step out of bed in the morning I have even odds of not making it back to bed that night. There’s a fifty percent chance that I won’t make it to the end of this sentence. Don’t confuse me with mathastatisticalprobability — that’s what it feels like.
And what if I keeled over tonight? Would it matter? In any meaningful way it would matter only to my children. Not only would they lose the father who loves them madly but they would lose my income, too. Their lives would change significantly both emotionally and physically should I become a bait ranch before the lights go out tonight. Once the grief lessens they will remember me as more than I am: kinder, funnier, more talented and generous. Or maybe they’ll remember me as less than I am: more bitter, quicker to anger, selfish. It really depends on where their heads are on that day that my heart decides that it just can’t take anymore.
They will keep me alive by telling my stories, reliving the time that I fed Ricky Brent a jalapeno and called it a pickle, or how as a child I swam in a pond where the fish nipped at my toes. They will romanticize these stories, tidy them up and embellish them until my stories are proxies for their own best characteristics, or at least for the ones that they wish to possess.
I hope that they find comfort of another sort in my stories, too. I hope that those dark shortcomings that are too frightening to voice aren’t quite as scary when told through the prism of their father. The whole thing is powerful medicine, I hope: If Dad pissed his pants during a fight or contemplated suicide or whacked off to a Bo Derek calendar then maybe I’m not so screwed up after all.
And so it isn’t much but I keep writing, and I try to be as honest as I can without hurting the innocent. I change names and yada yada a fact or two rather than embarrassing someone, but overall I put it out there as straight as I can. That’s the only way that I know how to do this, and that is what has shut me down for the bulk of my adult life – what if someone is hurt by what I write? As soon as that thought enters my head I panic and start looking for a nail on which to hang up my cleats.
That might be the hardest thing about writing — surrendering one’s dignity in order to reclaim one’s dignity. We spend our lives creating personae — the business James, the father James, the child James — each one meticulously crafted to satisfy a specific audience, each one just a little bit of a sell out. That is neither complaint nor criticism, just observation. Without these personae we wouldn’t be able to navigate adult life. Different audiences demand different characters, so to speak. But good writing requires setting those masks aside, letting one’s guard down. It’s almost an unspoken contract between writer and reader: If you promise to read this with an open mind then I must promise not to con you with another plastic persona. If you wanted two-dimensional characters you would watch television rather than read.
My kids and I were having dinner recently when my son said, “You know who is a beautiful woman? Beyonce.”
“Just remember: she poops, too,” his sister replied.
And there it is — the difference between art and entertainment, fact and fantasy. The character named “Beyonce” as portrayed by the person named Beyonce is flawless. She is beautiful and talented and perfect and completely devoid of an asshole because she isn’t real. She is a character, or maybe a caricature — a product that entertains us.
I can’t relate to that. I agree that she is beautiful, but her music bounces off of me like raindrops. I don’t know anything more about myself after sitting through “Single Ladies.” Maybe that song speaks to someone, I don’t know. I’m not exactly Beyonce’s target demographic.
But the character “Pete Townshend” as portrayed by the person named Pete Townshend is confused, absolute, angry, happy, scared, fearless, arrogant, insecure, desperate and without a care. I believe that “Pete” is Pete, that his experiences are real and thus I can relate to them. “When I look at the hole in your coat / I have to love you more.” I get that. “To catch you I’m gonna run and never stop” — I feel that way often. I connect with Pete, so I put his work (well, most of it) in the “art” rather than the “entertainment” bucket.
And so the march toward death continues, everyday a coin toss with a 50/50 shot at headstones. Meanwhile I’m too goddamned foolish to know how to do anything other than write the character named “James” as close to the actual person named James as I honestly can. I don’t know any other way to stay alive forever for my kids, nor do I know how else to give you something real with which you hopefully can connect. If I can’t be honest then I can’t write, it’s just that simple. Also, I’d look awful in one of those Beyonce dresses.
As for Death? Come and get it you big, hairy motherfucker. You haven’t scared me for a long time. There’s nothing you can do to me that I haven’t put myself through a thousand times already. Besides, I know your secret, you ugly bastard. You poop, too.