I turned 70 in October, so I’m nearing the final station on the line. Soon, It’ll be time to get off.
When I exit this train, I want to know I accomplished something during the ride — something significant that allows my grandchildren to say more than, “Grandpa was a lout and a bum, and all he left me was this paint-spattered sweatshirt.”
As a result, I must get to work. After all, I’m an American, force-fed from childhood with the charge of hard work, enticed with the lure of labor’s merits. Leave the train without a checkmark in the Big Ledger, and you’ve wasted your life. Perhaps, your only life. A real American earns a checkmark.
I slouched in a chair on the deck at the back of the house on a late afternoon a week after my birthday, two G and Ts and a blast or two off the vape rattling around my skull, and I reflected on the fact I am the last of the peer group I ran with fifty years ago who remains alive and, still, no checkmark. Granted, we were crazed musicians and artists back then, living rather hard and fast, but you’d think more than one of us would have survived to age 70, what with the miracles of advanced medical technology, and Medicare access to the cutting-edge products of an avaricious pharmaceutical industry. You’d think at least one of us would have accomplished something. But, no: I’m the only one left, sitting on the deck, lamenting his lack of achievement. The others departed, leaving no marks in the book. I don’t want to end this trip the same way they did.
An aside: it’s true there are plenty of folks I knew as a child and as a young man who are still kicking, but they lived lives less touched, or wholly untouched, by world-class self-abuse and unimpeded fun, so I established no bond with them. I didn’t hang with them back then, I don’t hang with them now. I can’t use them as benchmarks. Wouldn’t want to, if I could.
Most of these survivors are obnoxious, typical Boomers, flush with blabber about how the music of the ’60s was magical, a cultural achievement never to be surpassed. They subscribe to Sirius, and listen to The Association, and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, as they drive to the golf course in their Audis. They sing along and their eyes brim with tears whenever the Classic Vinyl channel plays “Get Together,” by The Youngbloods. They swell with pride when they consider how radically enlightened they remain a full half century after they burned draft cards, lived for two weeks in a commune, kicked the dean out of his office and held college security guards at bay for nearly three hours. Back in the days before they went to work at the bank, and earned checkmarks. The wrong kinds of checkmarks, I might add.
Other survivors are Boomers who, emulating Dad and his Greatest Generation compatriots a quarter century earlier, dutifully marched at age 18 to the recruiters’ office and enlisted, ready and eager to fight communism, and uphold the values of a proud, Christian nation in a useless war in a distant jungle. Now that they’re old, it’s all they remember. They wear special veteran hats and put bumper stickers on their cars to make sure everyone else remembers. They have checkmarks in the ledger.
They’re assholes, too.
Some of the people I once knew are now liberal pinheads, fretting about using the wrong word or “appropriating” another’s culture, fearful of failing to provide trigger warnings to sensitive fledglings, handing out participation trophies to losers, pretending to understand nonsensical post-structuralist texts.
Others are fascists, foaming at the mouth, believing what they read on alt-right websites, ready to hike up their huge-waist-short-inseam trousers, open the gun safe, slap on the camo jacket and cap, and join fellow militia members to defend all that is sacred from hordes of illegal immigrants, terrorists, marauding African Americans, Jews, and pro-choice feminist demons who threaten a cherished, traditional way of life.
They’re all assholes.
Then, there’s a legion of boring ciphers who have turned, or will soon turn 70, most with undesirable checkmarks, most ending a life as a clerk of some kind, but proud of the fact that they went with the flow, performed as expected.
I don’t seek the company of any of these people. I see nothing extraordinary about a group of overconfident, boastful clowns who benefited more by being born white and/or privileged than as a result of prolonged exercise of real skills and unique talent.
Now that I’m considering talent, however, I’m not sure I possess any, and this brings me back to the urgent need to accomplish something before I die, and to the question of whether I can do it.
It’s a fact that I’ve spent most of my life painting pictures and writing, but I’ve done so unmotivated by the conviction that I am special and precious (thus failing to engage in fevered self promotion), or by the idea that the “creative life” teeters on the top rung of the ladder of meaningful pursuits. I do not label myself “a creative,” as do so many smug, isolated goofs who wade in the shallow pools of academia and the art world. I’ve pursued these activities because they come easy to me; they fill my waking hours in a pleasant fashion; they’re suited to a lazy person in possession of just enough intellectual muscle to justify his pursuits whenever he’s called on the carpet, then escape before anyone has time to closely examine what he’s said.
I have concerns as to whether or not I have the firepower necessary to make my mark.
“Why is that?” some will ask. “After all, you’ve taken a wonderful journey on the creative path, committed your time and attention — your soul — to art.”
My response: “Artsy, schmartsy. If the crap you make doesn’t attract widespread attention and sell, you’ve got a hobby.” In my case, a nearly full-time, fifty-year hobby. Hobbies don’t deserve checkmarks.
Not to say I haven’t sold paintings. I’ve sold quite a few since my first show in 1972. And, I made money writing for hire, until I tired of the grind, and left the newspaper biz and a paycheck behind.
But, now, I find my slate is clean; I haven’t accomplished anything of note, and I have little time left to gouge the name “Karl” on the tabula rasa, following it with a crude checkmark.
At the same time that I grow agitated, I realize a fruitful transition from “existing hobby” to “valuable contribution to mankind” is the only route open to me, and I have but two ways to affect the change: after 50 years, I can’t do anything but paint and write! Hobbies or not, they’re all I’ve got! What am I gonna do? Do I have what it takes?
As I sit on the deck, I open the idea factory, and here’s what pours out the ass end of the production line.
- I seldom have more than one exhibition of paintings each year, so I can’t count on this annual disappointment to earn me a checkmark. Perhaps, when I’m dead, someone will notice what I’ve done. Perhaps, not. Perhaps my paintings will at long last be recognized, and bring someone a measure of reward. Perhaps they’ll be used to cover holes in walls made when brawling, drunken adolescents miss their marks, and put their fists through the plasterboard.
I’ll continue to sell paintings sporadically, via exhibitions, and from my studio, but this is spongy turf, at best, not suited for a successful stretch run.
- So, how about a book?
At first glance, this is a promising idea. I have tons of amusing, and at times superficially profound, material in hand, and I produce new sentences and paragraphs nearly every day.
Then, I remember: I tried the book routine a while back. I acted on the prospect when I left the newspaper trade, assembling a collection of reworked columns and essays that dealt with a host of meaty topics — memoir, family, travel, cancer — most pieces written in such a way as to eventually guide a reader to the topic of food, to a recipe and meditations on kitchen processes. After all, food and eating trump cancer and death, as they do flawed memories of days spent as a rock and roll drummer, and a budding artiste.
I was confident, so I sent queries to agents after doing a bit of research to find representatives who favored categories of work similar to mine (“Humor,” “Food,” “Pop Culture”).
I found the agents online. Literary agencies provided well-engineered websites that sparkled with agents’ biographies and resumes, listing works sold to the finest publishing houses, books that soared to the tops of the bestseller lists. Bios were graced with snappy photos of the agents, so it was easy to figure the age of staff members, and most were quite a bit younger than I. People in the business whose photos told me they were of my age were most often listed as the creator or titular head of an agency, no longer accepting queries (probably because martini-induced dementia robbed them of the ability to read), or they were pimped as an “agent emeritus,” living in a retirement community on Turks and Caicos following their latest divorce and a quadruple bypass.
The photos of working agents looked like they were lifted from a high school yearbook — junior class — and my work was obviously the creation of an old man. The two didn’t fit together. I thought I offered a desirable product, with a potentially large market, the kids thought otherwise.
I tried. I failed. No mark.
But, now, bent under the weight of the little time I have left, I realize I need to keep trying. A book is my only hope.
I also understand I can’t send another proposal for a book of short essays to an agent, or a publisher. What a shame, since I have plenty of essays ready, some of them worth a read, but most no longer than 2,500 words —insignificant parcels when considered by those in the know in the publishing biz, twice the word count the average reader in our Short Attention Span Age finds digestible in one sitting.
If I query again about the essays, I’ll receive yet another e-mail equivalent of a form letter: “Thank you for contacting Schmutz and Dorkster. At this time, I do not think your work is a good match for me. Keep working, keep trying, never give up. But, please, don’t query this agency again. Impressively yours, M.F. Plebes, Associate Agent/Intern.”
I need a new product before I give the query process another shot. I have to put the pedal to the floor, and do it now; I need that checkmark. My grandkids are desperate.
I have to produce something that will knock the agents and publishers off their chairs, or off those balls that Millennials perch on during work hours.
I tell myself this when I am three G and T’s into the early evening. What will it be? My mind floods with ideas, I swim in a torrent of options.
When I wake the next morning, somewhat sober, an answer to the question is not immediately forthcoming. So, I have a couple drinks, and it becomes obvious my first task is to determine the optimum condition, the best platform for the work ahead. In what state must I be in order to set the process on a productive path? In short: do I need to be drunk and/or high?
My assumption: Yes.
I decide to conduct a scientific experiment, to determine if my notion is correct. I am no stranger to science: I received Ds in high school physics and biology, I passed the courses, I know the game.
Science: identify a problem (I’ve done that), construct an hypothesis with a solution to the problem (my assumption), devise a way to test the hypothesis, collect data over a set period of time, then analyze whether or not the hypothesis is correct. If the hypothesis proves out, continue on, at full speed — I’m in lockstep with Truth! If the hypothesis is shown to be flawed, come up with a new one, and head back to the lab.
My full hypothesis: I have better ideas, and can execute them in more effective fashion, when I drink several G and Ts, and take a few hits off the vape. Therefore, I conclude that if I fire up the vape, and toss back three or more G and Ts prior to sitting down at the keyboard, the resulting work will be of such quality that it will be fought over by teenaged literary agents; fought over, further, by one of the few major publishing houses still in business. Once published to great fanfare, the book will ascend quickly to the top of a bestseller list (New York Times, Oprah’s book club…I have no preference). My success will earn me a load of money and a checkmark, and provide my grandkids with fodder for numerous “I’m so proud of grandpa” boasts during Show and Tell Time at their schools (though I’m not sure that Forest has Show and Tell Time at Cornell).
My experimental method: purchase an ounce of Green Crack weed at my friend Jason’s shop (I live in Colorado — sorry if you don’t) and use immediately upon waking. Fans of Green Crack tou it as a surefire way to turn on the creative afterburner, and who can you trust if you can’t trust a pothead? Mix and drink three extremely strong G and Ts before 9 a.m., take a bathroom break to clear away cumbersome debris, then write my ass off. Avoid humor, sentiment, references to actual experiences, as well as any mention of food and cooking. In short: make everything up. Write about trees that feel pain and speak Esperanto; visitors from a parallel universe who shove probes up the butts of abducted Kansas farmers; Armageddon; conversations with the ghosts of Dante and Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon; Irish faeries; nuclear war.
The test: review written material at the end of the day to determine if it meets my high standards. I have a degree in literature, and I’ll know the good stuff when I read it. If, by some chance I am incapacitated by day’s end, I will e-mail material to my pal, Roy, an ex English teacher and himself a swell writer, then wait for his feedback (this usually takes a while, since Roy is busy with his blog, dazzling young women who were once his students, and are now his Facebook friends).
Step two: assess data from sequence of daily analyses and (I am certain) move ahead with writing the best seller. Tentative title: “Space Trees and The Holocaust.”
While waiting for feedback: drink, and paint.
In order to be ready for the moment I go to the mattresses (look it up), I am going to cook a dish that, some time back, was a regular part of my repertoire, and that I allowed to fall out of rotation.
I figure if I cook chicken paillards with mushroom/lemon sauce a couple times before I plunge headlong into my science/literature/checkmark experiment, I will be able to cook this when I’m totally wrecked, thus sparing me the agony of a diet of cold pizza and convenience store sandwiches during the week or so it will take me to complete my manuscript.
While the name of the dish sounds fancy (French words do that, you know), the kitchen work is simple.
Take a couple of boneless chicken breasts and halve them. Put each piece down on a cutting board; place the palm of one hand atop the meat, then cut through the meat half the distance between palm and board. Use a very sharp knife; dull knives are hard to guide, and blood does not come out of raw chicken flesh.
(Required FDA Warning: Make sure you wash your hands well after you touch raw poultry. If possible, soak your paws in a mix of one part bleach and two parts warm water. This will have a noticeable effect on your skin color, but will ensure you are kitchen ready. If you proceed without disinfecting your hands, you and everyone who eats what you cook will slough off their intestinal linings within two hours, and die before they reach the ER.)
Put each cutlet into a gallon plastic bag and beat the crap out of it with a mallet, heavy pan, or rolling pin, until it is about ¼-inch thick.
Sprinkle each cutlet with a bit of salt and pepper, coat with seasoned flour and shake off the excess. Dip each cutlet in egg wash (one or two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of water, milk, or cream, salt and pepper); press each cutlet down on seasoned Panko bread crumbs spread on a plate (crumbs seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic powder, dried tarragon, a bit of dried thyme, some shredded Parmesan cheese, whatever). Put the paillards on a plate, and set them in the fridge for 15 minutes.
Slice some mushrooms — a mix of cremini, button, and shitake (no stems, please) is best. Finely dice some shallot or white onion; chop some fresh parsley; juice a lemon; have a half cup of chicken broth ready for action. If there’s white wine in the house, place the opened bottle next to the other elements as you complete your mise en place (that’s French, again).
Take paillards from fridge
Heat the oven to 200.
Put a heavy, nonreactive frying pan over medium high heat. Do not use a cast iron pan, since the interaction of the iron with lemon juice might produce an unpleasant taste. When the pan is hot, add a couple tablespoons of olive oil, and a tablespoon of butter. When the butter melts, put paillards in the hot fat. Don’t crowd the chicken; if you need to repeat the process, browning one or two cutlets at a time, do it.
Cook each paillard about two minutes per side, then put it on an ovenproof plate. When all the chicken is cooked and on the plate, stick the plate in the oven.
Add a bit of oil to the pan, if necessary, crank up the heat just a bit, and toss in the mushrooms. Cook the fungus until it gives up its moisture, turn the heat back to dead-center medium high, and throw in the shallot or onion. When the veg is soft but not browned, take everything out of the pan, and place in a bowl. Deglaze the pan with a splash or three of white wine, and reduce until the wine is nearly gone, add some chicken broth and continue to reduce. If you don’t have the wine, deglaze with chicken broth, and reduce to near syrup. Put the paillards and veg back in the pan, pop in the lemon juice and parsley. Let the mix come up to temp, then turn off the heat and swirl a teaspoon of Dijon mustard and a major league knob or two of butter through the goodies before serving. I like the paillards served with buttered egg noodles, dusted with a flutter of freshly grated Parmesan, but they go well with rice, or with fried or mashed potato. A simple green salad is nice, isn’t it?
If the wine is nearby, drink it. All of it. It is a myth that day-old wine retains its desirable qualities.
After I repeat the recipe two or three times, I’ll be able to do this work in the kitchen with my eyes closed, and/or when trashed. As a result, I will be well and happily nourished as I complete my literary venture.
I’m ready to begin, and I’ve discovered there’s no reason to get stressed.
If my hypothesis and plan, and any further scientific labor I indulge prove unsuccessful, I have another option. I read online last night that crab boat captains based in Dutch Harbor, Alaska, are willing to hire elderly deckhands. Old guys come cheap, and they’re expendable. Being swept overboard during a storm in the Bering Strait earns a checkmark.
With success guaranteed, regardless of how I earn it, the only thing left to consider is my exit from the train — death, itself.
Here, I find myself confident, and unafraid. I remember a comment made by my 3-year-old grandson, Bodhi, whose name means “enlightened one.”
My youngest daughter, Ivy, recently received news that a longtime acquaintance had died, and she was shedding tears. Bohdi grabbed her hand and said, “Don’t cry, momma. If you die, you don’t have to go to school.”
The kid has already put a mark in the book.
And I won’t have to go to school.