Regrets

I was talking with a friend tonight about if you had one wish to remove a moment from your life that you regretted what would it be?

Here’s mine.

Greeley, CO, 1998. It’s the first day of Spring Break. March 15. The night before, I decided that I want to drive to the desert to go camping by myself. Just head out in my ’79 Ford and see where the road takes me. It’s a pre-internet, pre-cell phone world. It’s a world of 1800-COLLECT and calling cards. Folding road maps. I’ve never taken a trip by myself anywhere.

I’m living in a studio apartment in a big old Victorian house. I have a TV, a twin bed, a bookshelf made from an old entertainment center, some knicknacks and a computer that I am writing my magnum opus on. A Macintosh Powerbook CS. CS for Color Screen. My TV has stickers for the Peace Corps that I got from a recruiter because I want to go to Mongolia and work with people there for a year or two. I have aspirations to go to Japan and took two years of Japanese just so I could navigate the islands. I’m thinking of teaching English in Asia if I need the work.

At 6am, my doorbell rings. My landlord is at the door with a kennel in his hand. Half awake I ask him what’s up. He and his family are going on vacation and they need someone to watch their pug. They tell me they’ll take $100 off my next month’s rent. My rent is $375 per month. This isn’t such a bad deal I think. I’m not thinking clearly. It’s early. My sleep schedule usually means I go to bed at around 3am. But I’m a poor college kid (so I think at the time) and a hundred bucks off rent sounds pretty sweet. That would at least pay for my gas to the desert and back. I take the kennel containing a small, possibly brain damaged pug puppy, and attempt to go back to bed.

Oh…wait. I can’t go to the desert if I’m watching this dog.

YIP!!

Each time I try to let the dog out to pee or poop in the yard, it tries to run into the street. I live on the busiest corner in Greeley. 11th Ave and 16th St. I opt instead for letting it do its business in the house. I’ll clean it up as needed, just so I don’t have to tell the landlords that their dog ran under the wheels of a car.

But if it did that, at least I could go to the desert. Also, this “poor college kid” has $5000 in his bank accounts because he was cheap and never spent money unless he had to.

I resist the urge. The previous Friday. The 13th of March to be exact, I went to the movies with a girl from my creative writing class. I didn’t quite consider it a date. She’s not my type. But it was nice to get out of the house and see a movie. We watched Dark City. I loved it. She complained about Jennifer Connelly the whole time and Keiffer Sutherland in his mobile dress form. We went to coffee and I pretended to not be on a date. I tell people I have gone on a date because my luck with going out with anyone has been so dismal. I have no confidence. It is approaching the year anniversary of the breakup with my first girlfriend, and yeah, that’s a whole thing.

Monday, I am stuck at home with YIP! every five minutes. This stupid dog is insane. My friends are off on houseboats in Lake Havasu or other warmer destinations. It’s been raining the whole week. The desert would have been in bloom. There is nothing else that smells quite like it.

YIP!

The girl calls me and wants to know what that sound is in the background. I complain that it’s the landlord’s dog and I explain my situation. We visit for a while, then we start hanging out. It’s nice to have company. A month later, we are dating. A year and a half later, we are married, after already several horrible fights and some indications that there is some mental illness going on. Including her father saying, “You know, she’s crazy. You had better run while you still can.” No Peace Corps or Japan, just a lot of guilt about “If you leave to do that, you might as well break up with me now!” Fifteen years after that life of hell, three kids who get to watch their parents fight constantly, two bankruptcies, constant calls from bill collectors, and then a messy divorce, parental alienation, CPS investigations, $30k in debt to lawyers, credit card companies, etc., and being stuck in the same building where I was working when I was in college for 13 more years, only to be laid off unceremoniously four days from now…yeah.

So, my regret: I should have told the landlord to go to hell. I was going to the desert. And I would have stuffed my tent and sleeping bag in the car and just started driving until the air smelled of sweet rain and desert blooms. My life would have been completely different. That dog got run over not two months later anyway. The landlords sold the house and my rent went up another $200. I moved in with the crazy gf because rent was cheap.

They say if you live in the past or “should” on your life, it will drive you crazy. I think as a writer I’m already a little crazy. When I write these things, I can be in a different life. In my head anyway.

I can think about the way that desert would smell and how after sleeping on the cold ground, I check into a hotel for a few nights, bitching and moaning about how expensive it is. Maybe I’ll try to go to Havasu to meet my friends. Maybe I’ll just drive and play connect the dots on the map with places I have always wanted to see, but my dad would never pull over and let us get out of the car to see them. Maybe I’ll stop and visit my grandma in San Diego. Go to the beach. Maybe I’ll think about Southern California and how the clouds hang heavy over the city in the morning and then roll out at 10am and it’s nothing but clear skies, and the crickets chirp at night and you watch the spotlights for some grocery store grand opening swing back and forth. You can see maybe Venus, maybe a few planets. Everyone is crazy there and the traffic is awful. Maybe I stay and work for a summer, or just bum around. Hiking. Climbing. Driving up the coast until my Ford finally wears out.

Maybe I decide to go to Mongolia. Maybe I help dig some wells. Build a school. Then I truck over to Japan and learn how to take crowded bullet trains, order soba at divey market stands, and I come back to the states after a few years. I decide I want to see what Europe is like, like Larry Daryl in the Razor’s Edge only going from East to West. Maybe I have a quirky ex-pat girlfriend with a name like Cornflower or Wren. We break up because she wants to live on a beach in Spain and I’m sick of tapas and paella.

I return home to visit my folks. I get a job as a fireline crewman for the summer. September 11 happens. Maybe I decide I want to do my part and join the Army. I sign on as a war correspondent and get shipped off to Afghanistan. It reminds me a little of Mongolia, and a lot of Wyoming. Something nags me, making me grateful I’m not living in Wyoming in some cinderblock house, hiding the existence of two additional dogs that aren’t supposed to be on the lease. A baby on the way and all of our funds depleted by a shrieking banshee of a wife. What a strange thought. An IED takes out the convoy I am riding in. I lose two buddies that day. I get a discharge and deal with PTSD. I have an inner ear problem caused by the concussion. I try to go back to college to get my Master’s in literature, but I hate the courses, so I drop out and I don’t look back. I don’t sleep so well anymore. The way that column of red earth, like the plains between Laramie and Cheyenne just lifted into the air, taking an MRAP with it. So much blood. So many pieces. I wake up screaming sometimes.

***

I keep writing. I have stories to tell. It’s hard to keep a relationship though. I have a hard time trusting someone I’m dating. Besides, she doesn’t get what I’ve experienced. I have bad dreams. Depression. Anxiety. Sometimes I just feel so goddamned alone.

***

For a brief moment, my worlds have converged.

I bounce from job to job. My grandparents pass away. My dad’s parents. Within about a year of each other, but they were very cold people and I don’t know them very well. I regret that I haven’t had time to start a family. My life is a mess, but I’m getting treatment. Seeing a therapist. I’m putting in the work. Hiking. Spending time outdoors. I meet someone nice. She’s more than I could have ever asked for. Pretty, intelligent, kind, sexy as hell. She laughs at her own dirty jokes. We get married. Maybe we have kids. Maybe we don’t. If we do, my grandma spoils the hell out of them. Grandma loves babies. Her alcoholism gets the best of her when the kids are around 3 or 4, but they always talk about San Diego and getting to play in her pool.

Either way, my wife and I seldom argue. She sets my shit straight like a compass. She’s patient, fair, intuitive. I anchor her too. Sometimes we go to church and I sing badly, but she doesn’t mind. We hold hands a lot. Drink beers and watch the sun go down and talk about all the same places we might have nearly run into each other years before. Sometimes we barbecue with friends. We travel and take the unbeaten path wherever we go. She’s as crazy about me as I am her. Sometimes she works too much. It’s around 2014. I publish my first book. It does okay. I start the next one, then the next. I keep going. I get better. I write about a man who puts his life on hold and survives some crazy domestic hellish experience. It is high literature. My wife asks me where I come up with this stuff, shaking her head. “This had better not be about me!” she jokes. We survive. In spite of a cancer scare, the loss of our parents, kid drama, and a dozen other bumps in the road, we flourish.

Years from now, I think about how the desert smelled. And I regret nothing.

What do I do with all this garbage?

Today is a more melancholy post.  I’ll make it about writing, because as you are about to see, that’s what writers do.

There is a movie out there called “The Whole Wide World” it is about pulp writing legend Robert E. Howard, creator of Conan the Barbarian and half a dozen other characters who probably deserve as much attention as the iconic sullen-eyed Cimmerian, who tread the jeweled thrones of the Hyborian age beneath his sandaled feet.  In one scene, Bob is telling Novelyne Price, the author and hero of this story about his job as a writer.  He tells her about how he’s had lots of jobs, and clerkin’ in a store is about the worst thing a man can do.  He goes on to say that when he writes, he’s the boss and the typewriter is the employee.  He’s not wrong about that.  But it gives an outsider a peek into the mind of a writer for another reason.

I know lots of writers who have been malcontents like this.  Maybe myself included.  Jacks of all trades but masters of only one: the written word.  Many writers have a problem with authority, with foolish consistency being the hobgoblin of little minds.  Each has the ability to absorb experiences, pain, emotion, and the human condition, and regurgitate it onto the blank page.  You have to have equal parts of order and chaos in some cases.  The chaos comes from wading through a world full of people, experiences, pain, and then ordering it together and producing something about it somewhat suitable for others to take in and process themselves.

My own characters are infused with reflections of experiences I have had, snippets of stories others have told me, more information than I know what to do with.  So, it all winds up in the stories.  Some granular bit, some hint, some big joint of beef.  So, when artists are asked the annoying question of “Where do you get your ideas from?” the answer is “everywhere.”

Like any chemical reaction, there are waste products.  Sometimes taking in all this information and filtering it results in the by-products of depression, overthinking, anxiety, anti-social behavior, heightened emotions, etc. is the heat, waste material, and grey water of the whole process.  That sounds like a horrible experience, doesn’t it?  For many, it would probably be worse without an outlet for the creative process.  Think of an industrial factory that just burned coal all day, produced smog, and polluted the water without even having electricity, shiny basketball shoes, or crystal glassware to show for it.  Having a writerly brain without putting it to some kind of use is like a saw mill that just produces saw dust.  Hence the ordered part of the mind.

I have had lots of jobs. Some worse than others.  I’ve scrubbed outhouse floors, driven trucks, waded through mosquito infested swamps to pull old fenceposts, sat on my butt in an office for years, sampling every gradient of the emotional spectrum from fear to boredom.  I have lived a life.  Not always easy at times.  Sometimes I have been a lot luckier than I deserve.  This all makes it into the stew.

It isn’t always obvious how.  In this world, here is a place I get to decide how and what to deal with.  Every frustration, every victory, how it all felt, and the consequences of decisions…and even sometimes how they might have been handled differently.  If I am not destined to have adventure or excitement, that doesn’t have to be true for my characters.  And if I am not anywhere near living a comfortable life, maybe they deserve one…eventually.  So much of life is getting from point A to point Z.  The order is unimportant.

Life is like a story.  We are the authors of our stories too.  We are given the plot, the characters, the conflict, and it is up to us to decide what to do with it all.  Do we want a happy ending or a sad one?  Robert E. Howard lived a tumultuous life and died young.  Unlike Conan, he wasn’t strong enough to conquer his demons.  The point I’m laboring to make is that everything is a choice.  We have a choice of how we want to solve our problems, who we ask for help, and how we overcome our obstacles.  This is why real life is so much better than fiction.  And sometimes scarier.  Definitely weirder.

My advice, if you choose not to take things personally, make it about the writing.  It is happy to consume anything you can give it.  Pain, love, loss, exuberance, contentment, nostalgia, madness…all of it. Let the writing feed and keep going.