If I told you I wanted to sell the family home and many of our possessions, put the rest into storage, buy an Airstream trailer and travel America with Catherine and the kids for three to four months, would you try to talk me into or out of that idea?
People do it. Are they weirdos? Or people who’ve figured something out?
I was in the gym the other day when a fit-looking man of about 70 walked in and was greeted by a friend. The friend asked how he was doing and the man said in a matter-of-fact tone that he was just diagnosed with liver cancer. He was having surgery to remove the liver this week and hoped they caught it early enough. The friend, also in his 70s, nodded and replied that he had lung cancer about six years ago but was in remission. His story was that he went in for x-rays for a funky shoulder and they found masses on his lungs.
What promise do any of us have we will be able enjoy tomorrow? Yet, we all run around gathering nuts like a bunch of crazed squirrels.
My family is aging fast. A while back the girls graduated from animated television shows to too-sophisticated Disney Channel tweener coms with semi-mature themes. I have to lock the car doors when I drop them at school to get a “Love you, Dad,” but at least I still get that.
I want to start the youngest Lily on a diet of cigarettes and coffee to stunt her growth. I can still pick her up and cuddle her like a doll.
Finley wants SnapChat and Instagram and to be 18, but he still wants to lean his head on my shoulder when we’re on the sofa.
When I think about some of the crap they’ll have to endure in a few years and the pressures they face now I want to move to a deserted island and grow our own food.
Just a few months in a tow vehicle together with a sleek aluminum trailer behind, home schooling, camping, adventuring, expanding—close as prairie dogs in a burrow—before the world closes in.
One of my favorite authors, Jim Harrison, died this week. He was 78. Compared a lot to Hemingway (which he hated), Harrison wrote mostly about half-lost men with outsized appetites for food, fishing, hunting, drinking, and chasing women. Unlike Hemingway’s heroes, Harrison’s often fell victim to morality and its relentless sweeping serpentine arm. Harrison’s heroes were the characters Hemingway killed off.
Harrison started out as an accomplished and acclaimed poet, but turned early in his career to fiction to make some money for his young family. He struggled and considered ending his life. In a poem about it, he wrote:
Beauty takes my courage
away this cold autumn evening.
My year-old daughter’s red
robe hangs from the doorknob
He found success eventually and made a lot of money and published a lot of fantastic books. His most famous, Legends of the Fall, was made into a (good) movie starring Brad Pitt.
I met Harrison years ago, in Seattle, at a reading for his memoir, Off to the Side. The event took place in the basement of the Elliott Bay Book Company—metal folding chairs on the scarred pine plank floor and the smell of coffee from the adjacent café. After the reading I waited with all the other Harrison acolytes for him to sign my book. Even then, maybe 15 years ago, he was unhealthy looking—stooped, wild hair, skin like tilled earth and a badly injured eye from a childhood accident. His fingers were nicotine stained and he had a glass of red wine on the table beside the neat stacks of his freshly printed book. When I got my chance at the table, I wanted to tell him his books inspired me to write, but I didn’t because he looked annoyed, I didn’t think he would care, and I would look like a major league weinie. So I just got his signature.
Still, every once in a while I write a sentence that reads like one of his and I am preposterously proud.
I’m not saying I want to run off to Harrison’s Michigan woods to drink and trout fish, or shoot rattlesnakes on his Arizona ranch, but I’m just feeling like something’s got to give. I revered Harrison’s work and it’s not the same without him. His best friend, author Thomas McGuane, said Harrison’s death leaves an “extraordinary vacancy.”
No man is an island, wrote John Dunne in the 17th century, Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind,
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
We’re all in this together.
Interestingly there’s a Hemingway book title in the second last line. I also greatly admire Hemingway’s writing, though I don’t think it’s cool with the truly literate. Harrison couldn’t stand the literati, so maybe I can’t either. I’ll like who I like.
It’s being pushed into boxes, some of them of my own design, that makes me want to take off with an Airstream. Those who do take off in Airstreams (and there are many of them) refer to themselves as “living riveted” for the rivets that hold together the stainless steel panels on the iconic trailers. Of course leaving everything behind is weird because it’s not the traditional path most of us take through life. Even though I am enthusiastically materialistic, I have always wrestled with the stuff-vs-experiences argument. I remember when everything I owned fit into a Honda Civic and I recall life being easier. That might be romantic nonsense, but now I have a lot of stuff I worry about and fuss with all the time and while I’m struggling to get more stuff my kids are growing up and people are dying.
I’m just saying there has to be a better way.
There’s a part in the New Testament when Jesus tells his disciples to follow him. Uh, okay, one of them says, but I need to run it by my family first. I get that. Even if you thought the man was the Messiah you’d hesitate to just drop everything to follow him. What about your bills, your stuff and all the practical accumulation that makes up a life?
In Harrison’s first novel, Wolf (1971), the narrator returns from the woods to civilization and heads straight for a bar. “Maybe King David drank heavily in his canopied tent the night before battle,” he says.
We’re all on shaky ground.