RT. 66

Not the highway. Not the song. (Yes, there is a song.) Rather, the long winding path that leads to the Social Security office where I visited last week

This was a funny birthday. Not ha, ha funny. Odd, really. The day came and went without sturm und drang, included a nice dinner out with Sue and Jake, and a sweet telephone call from my older son Matt and his wife Alyssa. Unlike last year when I fell into a funk about mortality (mine), this year seemed smooth sailing. Even after I left the Social Security building there was still no depression.

It was something else entirely, and it hit a couple days later, actually on my music night. I totally sucked. Really sucked. So bad that when I began my lesson, I had trouble playing without squeaking and squawking.

It wasn’t the horn.

I made it through the lesson despite doing everything wrong. Then came time for playing with the ensemble (Polar Vortex). In general, I have difficulty playing at a fast tempo (even a medium tempo to be honest). That night I could barely get my fingers to move at all. It got so bad that for the last 20 minutes of our session, I just stopped playing, sat down, and wondered what I was even doing in the group. I had long before come to terms with being its worst player, but never felt so defeated. Often, exactly the opposite. When I struggled, it usually gave me greater determination to try harder. Not that night.

Much later, lying in bed watching Pawn Star re-runs, I tried to figure things out. Somewhere between a reproduction Gatling gun and a signed first-edition Edgar Allen Poe, I started to get it. There simply isn’t enough of my life left to become a decent musician. The night at music school had been a metaphor for decisions taken and, more importantly, not taken. Despite having always wanted to play an instrument, why hadn’t I first started to learn music long before? Why hadn’t I begun lessons, something where I don’t have natural talent at the time when I began to write—where I do have natural talent? It could have, should have (?) been reversed.

I guess “what ifs” and “if onlys” smack everyone upside the head some time or another. Sue teaches at a “low residency” MFA at Lesley University and, frankly, I’ve been pretty jealous. I’ve helped people with their writing, but working with students on a regular basis would have given me great pleasure. But if you only have one diploma (8th grade) despite attending high school, some college, part of a master’s program, and creating a school for high-school dropouts in Chicago, the end result is strikingly clear.

No teaching for me.

Other decisions also steered me in directions that precluded others. During that long, television-lit night, I reviewed every single one of them. Why did I leave Chicago’s People’s School? Why did I stop my counseling practice in Boston when I knew I was really good at it? Why did I fight my agent, editor, publisher about what they wanted, when I had a critically acclaimed set of novels under my belt. Why did I just stop writing?

Why did I choose serial careerism instead of becoming really, really good at one thing?

Sleep, wonderful restorative sleep. Next morning (after my usual growling, semi-hostile, coffee-deprived wake up) I reconsidered. Sure I’d made decisions that offed alternatives. Everyone does. And, I’ll make book that everyone has regrets similar to what I’d been feeling.

Three cups of coffee and I finally saw daylight. Understood what had immobilized me the night before and saw my way out from under. Blood under the bridge is indeed, blood under the bridge. I have a wife I love and who loves me, children and a daughter–in-law I adore, and oncoming granddaughters. I’ve worked and continue to work with people I respect and who respect me, friends who have my back, and more than just food on the table. Truth is, I can turn my head 180, look at the decisions I did make and feel satisfied.

Bottom line: I got it good and that ain’t bad. Better get my ass back to practicing the sax.

Clouds come floating into my life, no longer to carry rain or usher storm, but to add color to my sunset sky. ~ Rabindranath Tagore

25 thoughts on “RT. 66

  1. Honest integral writing of how we all feel sometimes. It took me 45 years to get to the point of transition. Some days I suck at it, other days I’m quite the queen. Love your article. Hindsight is always 20/20. BUT- hindsight is not living life to the fullest- such as you do 🙂 Great writing Zach as always!

  2. I have many of the same angst-ridden thoughts as you do at this stage of my life. Why didn’t I pursue my childhood dream of becoming a Paleontologist and spending my life camped out in the Gobi Desert? Why didn’t I try harder to overcome the writer’s block that slammed me face-first about a decade ago? Why? Why not? These are questions we all ask and I seem to recall your lifting my spirits a couple years ago when I was rushing headlong into the Big Six-Four and wondering where the hell my life had gone. I see people almost every day my daughter’s age who have already accomplished more than I ever will and, while it still bothers me that I didn’t achieve all I wanted to, I have begun to accept that I am what and where I am and give less of a damn what the rest of the world thinks. This, to me, is the fruit of a longer life.

    • Dave–Like Bill said in an earlier comment,”everyone has regrets.” I hoped this column would be one that touched many people because what he and you wrote is absolutely true. And that not giving a damn about what other people think or say is one of the great gifts of growing older.

      Thanks for reading and commenting. Means a lot.

  3. I always think there’s more I can do, or be, or want or strive for. Always something just over the hill. Enough is never enough for me, Zach. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look longingly towards that ridge, wanting to know what ever lay beyond it. Maybe it’s in our genetics, or the upbringing, or just human nature for some of us. My grandmother was so at peace that she never had a sleepless night. Rarely do I rest like she did.
    So, I’ve come to think that who I am, and how I am, is the fuel that drives me to be exactly this person that I am. It’s too simple, but looking upon it this way turns the draining effect into an energizing mentality that I’m somehow comfortable with in the strange way that makes us, as human beings, different from one another.
    I can honestly say that no matter what I’ve tried to do, or even accomplished, every move I made in my life, and every little thing I’m doing today, is to get to that last breath and say to myself that I wouldn’t have done it any other way. I strive to become human, that’s all.
    I believe we do come into this life as spiritual beings, learning to become human beings. Since I was around twenty and life decisions needed to be made, I’d pretend I was lying on my deathbed and look at the situation at hand from THAT perspective. What from there should I have done? And I have made some crap moves from there, but I know, at that time it was the right move. So, I in turn did move forward if only by making mistakes I needed to learn from.
    There are no mistakes if we can learn something from them. I’m a fairly basically fucked up person, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
    At sixty-six I know how to love today. That’s more than I could say when I was twenty. I’m going to keep practicing too.
    Thanks for posting an honest, thought provoking write.

    • Kathleen–“There are no mistakes if we can learn something from them. I’m a fairly basically fucked up person, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.
      At sixty-six I know how to love today. That’s more than I could say when I was twenty. I’m going to keep practicing too.Thanks for posting an honest, thought provoking write.” Thanks for your honest comment and your willingness to share yourself. And what you say about mistakes is right-on!

  4. There was a great cartoon in Playboy about 30 years ago. Obviously there’d been a bar fight. One guy is still standing, still has his fists clenched, the other guy is out cold on the floor. A stranger comes up to the victor and says, “Hey, kid! You’re pretty good with your dukes and you’re fast on your feet. How’d you like to become an upholsterer?”

    One good thing. That’s all we ask for. Lord, just let us be exceptionally, extraordinarily good at one single thing and we can fake the rest. We all think that sometimes. And we’re always wrong.

    The older I get, the more I think that we all spend most of our lives just faking our way through. Nobody ever comes along at any point in our lives and hands us a diploma with a big, fat gold seal on it stating, “YOU HAVE NOW ARRIVED.” And if they do hand us a diploma saying something similar, deep down inside we know that’s hogwash. Learning goes on forever. When we get to some place where we can help those still learning, maybe show them a trick or two, we’re often surprised that we know that much. It’s a slow process, bro, one so slow we accumulate knowledge over years, little bits and pieces of this and that, all of them seemingly unrelated, and when a strange problem crops up we can associate all this stuff in our minds and use some of it to come up with what others may consider a brilliant solution.

    But that “brilliant solution” didn’t come from any degree. It didn’t come from any schooling. It came from a comment made decades ago on the Johnny Carson Show, an article from National Geographic, and a beer you shared with an electrician at a party six weeks ago. It could (wrongly) be thought of as “quantum thinking,” taking unassociated little scraps of useless knowledge floating around in our heads and allowing them to fuse suddenly into an outside-the-box solution when everyone else still has their heads in that box.

    There are brilliant musicians who literally do not know how to change a light bulb. There are superb heart surgeons who could not change a flat tire on their own car. There are multiple-ace fighter pilots who could not shoot down a goose at close range with a big ole shotgun. These people are known as “specialists.” And they have become so specialized, so intent on being great at just one thing, that they’ve missed most of life’s knowledge–or ignored it–when they had the opportunity to learn.

    Why be a specialist at anything? Why be so brilliant at one thing–and one thing only–that you’re a complete dork at everything else? Sure, we need brain surgeons and we’re always a bit more comfortable with them if they’re skilled in their work, but why can’t that surgeon also be a pretty good woodcarver in their spare time? An intelligent person can do several things well enough to make a living doing them.

    So learn enough of one thing you can always bank on to get a job, then become a generalist. Read about how flowers pollinate. What allows a hydraulic cylinder to lift tons with ease. Why you never store onions and potatoes together. Learn a few good bar tricks–they’ll teach you more about physics than a semester at MIT.

    If you absorb all the knowledge that’s presented to you an opportunity will come along someday to use it in ways you never dreamed possible and it can lead to a new career, or not freezing to death, or helping some young mother with a car load of children get her vehicle started again. In more rare instances, scraps of knowledge can lead you to fortune, fame, and the history books.

    So be a generalist and be proud of it. Tall and brilliant sunflowers look great in any garden, but it’s the vegetables below them that taste best and feed us.


    • Kent–great comment! Love this:”So be a generalist and be proud of it. Tall and brilliant sunflowers look great in any garden, but it’s the vegetables below them that taste best and feed us.”

  5. 66! Try looking back on your life at 153…

    I don’t know man, I’ll tell you what, you’re looking back from a really neat place. I can see why you’d have some regrets and some desire to replay a few holes, we all do, but from my perspective you’ve made it into the hall of fame. I’ve really enjoyed both of your books that I’ve read, you’ve got quite the following here, and even though you don’t have a class room I still consider you one of my better teachers. Oh, and if you play a musical instrument at all you play it better than I play the piano!

    If you never need some perspective to cheer you up all you have to do is listen to me sing, which you have, read my writing, and you’ve done that, and look at how few people follow my work! Zach, you’re a living legend!


    • don–Thank you. one of the best conversations, in general, i have is ours. So we don’t agree about a lot of things. So what? I value our friendship and look forward to spending time with you. It’s a pleasure to have met and spend time with you. Someday I hope to meet your entire family.

  6. Great topic, nicely stated. And I love the quote at the end. I think we only feel old and full of regret when we’re not happy with our current life. As long as you’re doing things you love (like writing, playing the sax, traveling) and have friends and family, you’re a success as far as I can see. Having something to look forward to is also essential—a major milestone like becoming a grandfather, an event like seeing a play, or just a good dinner you’ll have in the evening. Accomplishing “more” doesn’t necessarily make us happier.

    • Sherri–Yeah, I like the quote too. I also agree about that “more” doesn’t mean “better.” My hope was the post would touch folks where they live and give voice to the rumblings we have inside us. And hopefully the sense we make of our lives is our own choosing. Thanks for the read and of course your guest post.

  7. A lot of great posts on this tremendously emerging phenomenon: Baby Boomers Grow Old!!! As Usual, Speak Out About It! Others have covered some of the most important points about this. I’d like to turn towards the mysteries of it, the shedding of the ego identification with the mortal coil and its adventures in the world. All ego death is inherently painful as we are here because we have put so very much energy into remaining here. The amount of metabolic energy that a large animal puts into keeping body and soul together is phenonmenal. It’s the price of being here and when we begin the lovely descent towards evening (in our sixties) it is a tragicomedy of leaps and recoils as we create the next environment of our being where we slowly let go, surrender to a mysterium.

    Our regrets are a part of this, but they are also a way of hanging on, of staying identified, though negatively, with “who we might have been” before facing this amazing process of laying it down and becoming who we never imagined we would be. Shock is stepped down by regret and then regret is released and we face the hilarity of our process as aging animals.

    Highly recommended: excerpt of Haruki Murakami’s Colorless Tsukurie Tazaki and His Years of Pilgramage.

  8. Zach, beautiful piece. I admire your tenacity when it comes to learning the sax. Truly, it’s inspiring. As you said, there’s much to be proud of and thankful for and more to come in your future! Lots of love.

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