The good-looking one, the one in need, the one that almost was
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I saw a movie recently, a comedy, “Lost in America,” about a young couple who decide to quit their jobs and spend the rest of their lives roaming around the country.
Highly successful in their respective careers — he’s in advertising, she’s in personnel management — David and Linda feel that their lives are too “controlled” and too “responsible.” On the eve of buying a new car and moving into an expensive new home, David fails to get an anticipated promotion. Furious, he quits. Instead of trading in their Saab for a Mercedes, they decide to trade themselves in, exchanging the soulless predictability of their upwardly mobile lives for the high adventure of travel. They sell everything they own, buy a Winnebago, and hit the road — “just like in Easy Rider,” David croons.
It’s a clever story. Their naivete is believable and the plot has some unexpected twists as they encounter one mishap after another, losing almost all their money as well as their illusions. Their odyssey is short-lived; eventually, they go back to their old jobs. Escape just isn’t possible, the movie is saying. Dropping out is as ludicrous a dream as the lives we want to drop out from.
For Hollywood, such cynicism isn’t surprising; still, the movie troubled me, reminding me of my own life, my longing to be free. Years ago, I’d decided to escape, too, from a whole way of life, its worries and its comforts, its cruel mortgaging of the present to the future, and create something different for myself, paying as I went with hard work and honesty, writing no checks my heart couldn’t cover, giving up a good living for a good life. I’ve done it, too. I’m still doing it. At least, that’s how it seems. But seeing the movie made me wonder just how much I’d really escaped. After all, in some ways my life is just as controlled and responsible as it ever was: the long hours at the office; the rushing to meet deadlines; so little time for friends or music or poetry. I thought about the winding road which led me here, the unexpected twists and turns, the detours I still don’t understand, and one fateful intersection in particular, when I hit the brakes and spun so sharply it took my breath away, and friends whistled, and my boss threw up his hands, and I gunned it, a free man at last, at the wheel of his destiny, leaving America behind.
I’d been planning the getaway for more than a year, reading travel books, studying maps, going down to the bank every Friday with our two paychecks (my wife was a teacher, I was a newspaper reporter) to deposit one in our checking account and the other in savings, “for the trip.” Like the couple in the movie, Judy and I knew something was missing from our lives, though we had no idea what it might be. We were both good at what we did; we had master’s degrees from prestigious universities and the kind of savvy that makes getting ahead less a challenge than a social obligation, the shelf of your life already cleared for the trophies the future will surely bestow.
I’d already won some awards, in fact, and displayed them proudly in the hallway next to my degrees — the same hallway I’d pace at night, after getting home from work, not knowing what to do with myself, tired of writing and reading and thinking, feeling hemmed in by our small apartment, and hemmed in too by the world’s most exciting city, having had enough remarkable meals in enough intimate restaurants, and hemmed in most of all by my own restlessness, which I couldn’t even name, like some hauntingly familiar melody that had become the soundtrack of my days. I wanted a change. I thought about moving to a new city, going to work for a different newspaper, getting a sports car — but I knew such changes were cosmetics which might cover but wouldn’t erase the scowl on my brow.
The idea of travel lured me — but not just a trip across the country. I wanted to take a giant leap away from everything familiar: my job, the city; the weekly visits to my parents’ house to argue with my father; and from friends whose lives were turning into success stories I didn’t need to read to guess the end. I needed to say goodbye to all that.
In July 1969 we sailed for Europe on a luxury liner, the SS France. It took five days, but that was the idea: I wanted the sense of making a great passage, of crossing an ocean, of journeying not just through time but through space. How often we measure distances, even the greatest distances, in hours. Instead, I wanted wave upon endless wave, the luminescent greens and blues, the darkest of darks lapping against the giant hull, as the ship carried us forward into the night and the next day and the next night, making time itself unreal. I wanted a passage through the mind, a beginning, a birth — but of what, I couldn’t say. Standing by the rail, looking across the watery nothingness, I was staring as well into my own life. We too had sold the car and the furniture, quit our jobs, put all the money in traveler’s checks; to leave behind nearly everything that made up our life was exhilarating and terrifying. I wondered how a blind man might feel being helped across the street by a total stranger. What trust I had placed in a part of me I knew nothing about! More than once, I asked myself if it wasn’t too late to turn back.
We docked in Southampton, England and rented a car for the drive to London, but I couldn’t get it to go. “It keeps stalling,” I told the man at the counter. He walked outside with me and stood beside the car while I tried again. I turned the key, let it idle a moment, shifted clumsily into reverse, gave it some gas — and again it promptly stalled. “The brake,” he said. “The brake?” “The brake,” he repeated politely. “You need to take off the brake.” Accustomed to cars with automatic transmissions, I hadn’t even looked at the brake. I smiled sheepishly, started it again, and backed up easily this time. I thanked him, Judy waved goodbye, and I coaxed the gearshift into first and pulled onto the highway — directly into a lane of oncoming traffic. In my embarrassment, I’d forgotten to keep to the left. I swerved, glanced horrifiedly at Judy to see if she’d noticed, then eased the car into second and settled back for what I hoped would be a relaxing trip. It was, for the next half-mile, until I tried to shift to third. The car coughed, the gearshift wouldn’t budge. Each time I tried, metal screamed. I gave up, and coasted along at twenty-five miles an hour. Everyone passed us but no one, amazingly, blew their horn. How extravagantly courteous! It was so improbable as to be disconcerting. How I pined for something more common-sensical — like the rudeness of a New York cabbie.
Don’t we often ache for what’s familiar, even when it’s boring or painful? I’ve read that battered children frequently reach out to their abusive parents as they’re being carried away from them to safety. How I yearned for the home I’d been counting the days to leave. Here we were, in a nation practically America’s twin, yet I felt uncommonly estranged. My mood of displacement only deepened as our travels continued; I realized, after a few months, that it had less to do with the eerie beauty and dinginess of the cities, the nuances of custom, the attitudes that changed like the landscape, or the language that rose and fell across the centuries of shared history, than with a different migration altogether, the journey I had begun within myself and which was moving me beyond my borders, and giving me a scare. I was becoming less and less sure of who I was. As if from disuse, my personas were crumbling like old stone walls. How could I convincingly call myself a journalist, since I wasn’t writing, or a New Yorker, since I had no address, or even a resentful son, since I was no longer losing ridiculous arguments? What I was losing, instead, was my identity, so carefully hinged to what I did, where I lived, who I was in the eyes of the world. Yes, the hinges were giving way, the backstage door was swinging open, and the troupe of selves I called me was breaking up, leaving like actors at the end of the show. The old lines weren’t working anymore.
There were, of course, other, more obvious changes — my hair started curling down past my neck, and soon reached my shoulders; instead of dressing each day in a suit and tie, I wore jeans and a leather vest; I carried a shoulder bag rather than an attache case, and though I kept a pipe inside, just like in the old days, it wasn’t for tobacco. Some of these changes were purely symbolic (I’d never cared for long hair on men, and certainly didn’t think it enhanced my appearance, but it wasn’t just hair, it was a flag, a sign of my independence). Some of the changes were for convenience — since we were living in a van and camping out, dressing casually made sense. Yet other changes spoke of deeper stirrings — using drugs helped me clear the rubble around my heart, and if the flowers that grew in the cracks were short-lived, at least I was thankful for that, in this barren place where nothing much had grown for years.
Regardless of the changes, though, my besieged ego latched on to them. Here, at least, was the outline of an identity. Being a hippie had never been my ambition, but it was better than nothing; to my ego, anything was better than nothing. For without the armor of an identity, I was defenseless against myself — which is to say, my own pain and confusion. Always, I had read the newspapers carefully; could I bear to read between the lines of my own life with such scrutiny? Where inside myself was the peace I wanted to see on earth? I, who was so quick to judge — how much justice did I dispense, how much forgiveness? Could I forgive my father for bullying me? Could I forgive myself for bullying my wife? Could I even think about these things for more than a few seconds without reaching for the door? When your face in the mirror becomes a headline your heart can’t bear, when you see how much of your life is a monument to fear, and there’s no one left to blame, no parent or teacher or boss, indeed not even yourself, then the desire to escape becomes overwhelming. There are many exits, plainly marked — pretending you know who you are is one of them.
We stayed in Europe for two years, then headed back to America in search of the ideal commune. By this time, we’d become acquainted with Eastern religion, which my ego had turned into another prize. Now, I was someone spiritual. Now, I was on the path. Now that I knew we were all one I could use that knowledge, too, to set myself apart.
So, dropping out had turned into a challenge similar to any other, with its own rigors and hidden dangers, its endless invitations to play the hero or the fool.
After all, this is a country with a tradition of rebellion; ever since the Boston Tea Party, every generation has staked its claim to something a little nobler, or fairer, or sweeter than what came before. Had I come of age in the thirties, I probably would have become a Marxist; in the forties, a hipster; in the fifties, a beatnik. No doubt, I would have been tempted to define myself narrowly then, too. What is more seductive, after all, than the mind whispering that it’s the form that counts: what you do, where you live, how you look. But isn’t it true that there’s no form, in the system or out of it, that guarantees happiness, or justice, or salvation? Look at organized religion. Look at the rebel leaders after they win power. Look behind the curtains of every life that advertises an easy path to glory, freedom without a price.
Look at my life: independent, uncompromised, a living example of the best of the ideals I struggled all those years to attain. Inspiring, isn’t it? But if this kind of description charms you, don’t miss the small print, the warning that living all your ideals may be dangerous to your health. My friends joke about how early I get up, how hard I work; I make a joke of it myself, because I’d rather hear their laughter than their admonitions about stress, their reminders of what I know (yet every day forget): that if I get too caught up in getting things done, I end up sabotaging what I cherish the most. How easy it is to create suffering while trying to save the world. How tempting it is to tyrannize myself, to dictate goals, instead of risking real democracy, true self-government. I mean, the runner in me is let out for half an hour a day, but the poet has been under house arrest since last August and the contemplative who originally lobbied for getting up early, so there would be time to meditate before going to work, is hooted down now, denounced as a malingerer. Why sit for twenty minutes doing nothing, the boss wants to know.
If my life looks the same as that of any overwrought executive; if the most serious writing I get to most mornings is my list of things to do; if I swill coffee; if I go away to the beach for the weekend, taking with me, as I just did, two boxes of unread magazines (telling my wife, with a straight face, this will be a good chance for me to catch up); if I continue to pretend I’m ever going to catch up by working a little harder; if I think of vacations as needing to be earned; if I again and again confuse fulfillment with the form of things, rather than remembering it’s my own awareness that gives meaning to the form — then what am I to do? Quit THE SUN? Sell the car and the furniture and set off on another journey in search of myself? Drop out again? Can you drop out of dropping out?
When I was in Europe, an American living there told me of a friend of his, who would live in a country “until he started to understand the language, then move to another country where he’d stay until he learned the language there. Each time he’d move when he realized people were talking the same bullshit as everywhere else.”
Where is there to go when you’re always bringing yourself along? What novelty doesn’t wear off, what colors don’t fade, what wisdom doesn’t turn to bullshit? Years ago, Timothy Leary advised us to “turn on, tune in and drop out,” which was good advice, as far as it went, but it was only a beginning. To drop out of society — well, that’s the easy part, like stepping off a cliff. To land on your feet, to keep the ground of your humanness under you, that’s the work of a lifetime, not a lifestyle, and it’s the work I find hardest of all.