The sum and total of world politics can be described this way: Change is inevitable. If you are on the top of the mountain, there's not a lot of room and down is where change will bring you. If you are at the base, there's lots of space but if you get tired not being able to see over anyone's head you have to climb.
Having everything to lose breeds fear and concrete walls. It breed bullets and mistrust. It is an unenviable position rife with paranoia and sleeplessness.
Having everything to gain is the root of progress. It provides infinite degrees of freedom. In time and space, yearning drives us forward.
Therefore, the poor are more fortunate than the rich.
There is a bridge. It's pretty and people will pay to cross it.
On my twenty-second birthday I filled the white board of my cubicle with the number twenty-two, written in red erasable ink. White boards were a new technology, then. Only a few months prior I had a green chalkboard in my office along with sticks of chalk and erasers. One evening the physical plant guys came and replaced the chalkboard. It was there when I arrived to work in the morning.
I was working for RCA in Somerville, New Jersey. My first full-time job. I'd already been working there for nearly a year and a half, having started the summer of my junior year as a co-op student, and then moving to a part-timer, and then to a full-time permanent employee.
When I think of my youth it is all tangled up in my career. I spent my eighteenth birthday delivering prescriptions to shut-ins for the local pharmacy. On my thirteenth birthday I caddied 36 holes of golf. I watched my 32nd, 35th,and 37th birthdays dissolve into nothingness from the window of a 747 crossing the International Date Line.
In Antarctica, I met people in their early twenties who were spending multiple years climbing twenty-thousand foot mountains or volunteering in Nepalese orphanages or teaching English to children in Tanzania. They seemed to subsist outside of the world that required money for continued existence. They had no permanent addresses. No possessions beyond what they could carry on their backs or store in friends' garages. When their job in Antarctica was over, they were all going to Fiji.
In my world, going to Fiji required a massive outlay of capital. Plane tickets and hotels rooms would need to be booked. Island transport would need arranging. Meals bought.
None of this was a concern for the young Antarcticans. Missing a meal and sleeping on the beach was expected. When money was needed, it would arrive. Somehow. Someway.
This is the way the world works, apparently.
It was lost on me. I was making a decent salary. Buying a house. Buying a car so I could drive to work to pay for the house. Having babies to fill the house I bought with the money from the job I needed the car to drive to.
I had life insurance so my dependents would be cared for if I died. Auto insurance for when the car I needed was wrecked. Phone bills from calling my mother to tell her my life was fine. The power was on because I paid the electric bill. We took hot showers because the gas company had been sent their monthly vig. The bank would let us live in the house of which we owned less than ten percent.
I joked I only owned half of the garage. But there was a garage. And if I'd had an Antarctican friend in those days, I might have stored his stuff for him while he worked on the Beardmore glacier in the perpetual polar daytime. I would give it back to him when he got back from Tahiti, via Brunei, via Bombay, via Haifa, via Athens, via Rome, via Paris, via London, via St. John's Island with lots of hitchhiking and train travel in between.
He would have no children. No car. No house. He'd have a couple thousand bucks in an account in a bank in a state where the plane landed when he got back from the ice and which he had never been to again. He would have no spouse, but a girlfriend who had been traveling with him since New Zealand, but who was going to take off for Canada when they got to New Hampshire. He'd be heading west to Iowa to see his grandmother, whom he'd heard was sick some months ago. When he took his stuff out of my garage, it would only be to sell it, give it away, or move it to another garage while he planned his next season afoot.
There are many ways to live a life.
When I was young, I didn't know it.
"I hate Christmas," said my Antarctic friend.
To me, Christmas had always been the high holy day of the year. The one day all misery could come to a halt. Nothing hurt on Christmas. You could eat candy all day, not brush your teeth, and have no worries about cavities.
"I love Christmas," I replied.
"That's because you have a family."
Which was probably true. When I was a kid, the excitement of unearned booty appearing magically in the living room was too much to bear. Every kid is certain he does not deserve his Christmas gifts. The "naughty-or-nice" platitude was mythological. No kid is always naughty or nice. And every kid becomes an angel an hour before bedtime on Christmas eve.
First we are the children, and then we are the gift givers. Either way, there would be Christmas goodness that was larger than any of our abilities to extinguish with Scrooge-like grumpiness.
"What are you doing for Christmas?" I asked him, figuring I'd invite him to spend Christmas with me.
"Flying to Sydney. Going to hitchhike out to Alice Springs. I have a friend who lives in a town in the bush about 200 miles from there."
"Woah. Cool. How'd you drum up the money for a plane ticket to Australia? Last time I talked to you, you needed a hundred bucks to ransom the camping gear you left in the storage locker all winter."
"Just like that?"
"Dude. My mom gave me her old flat-screen television because she won a new one in some sort of bread contest. I mean, what am I going to do with that? So I sold it."
"A bread contest?"
"She bakes bread at the state fair."
"Your mom lives in Wisconsin. I though she lived on Gayle Lane."
"Moved to Wisconsin two years ago."
"You stole your mom's TV, didn't you?"
"Man. Google it."
He left. I haven't seen him since.
A couple months later, when I next thought about it, I did an Internet search on his mother's name. She had indeed won a contest for her seven-grain gluten-free bread at the "Great Midwest Fair". She took second place. The prize was a 35" flat-screen Philips television, MSRP $2600.
The fair was in Illinois, not Wisconsin.
Technically, I hadn't been told the truth.
There's a saying that I remember as attributed to Massachusetts politician Paul Tsongas. He said this when he gave up his bid for the presidency after being beat by Bill Clinton and diagnosed with cancer.
Paul said: "No man ever looked up from his death bed and said,'I wish I had spent more time at the office.'"
He later went into remission and returned to public life. However, soon after his cancer returned and he died of pneumonia and liver failure.
While Paul's quote rings absolutely true to me, I always think of it as pertaining to other people. I suspect on my death bed I will wish I had spent more time at the office, because reaping the rewards of hard work might have kept me healthy enough to stay off my death bed until I was good and old and infirm. Or when I was good and old and infirm, I'd look up from my death bed and say, "Thank god I have this good medical plan due to my hard work at my job."
It's difficult for me to believe that on his death bed Paul Tsongas regretted the time he put into his career.
On my thirty-third birthday I got a nice card from my agent, Virginia Kidd. She'd just sold one of my stories. It was going to appear in the British edition of an anthology called, "Bleak Houses".
I called her to thank her. In her usual manner, she told me she preferred e-mail to phone calls. We also had one of the early versions of "AIM" through Compuserve available to us.
Writers should write, not speak, was what she was saying. And when the coven of her writers got together on line it was as if we had created another world for ourselves. I called it a Treehouse one day, and it stuck. The Treehouse was like AIM on fiscal steroids. One month, after spending a lot of time going through edits with V. on one of my stories, I racked up about $800 in Compuserve bills on my AMEX.
Didn't stop me, though. Looking back now I realize I spent more on Compuserve and postage than I ever made back selling stories.
It seemed to be about the selling back then. All of it.
Virginia particularly enjoyed receiving UPS packages as the UPS guy arrived in his characteristic brown shorts, which she felt made his ass look cute. So I sent her my manuscripts via UPS ground for which she thanked me regularly.
For her birthday I ordered her some flowers. Sent a card congratulating her on selling the unsellable me. She replied via Compuserve mail that the girl from the flower shop was even better eye candy than the UPS guy. Thanks.
She was, after all, a former member of the Futurians and so likely to sleep with anyone who would entertain the thought.
Though she divorced James Blish because in her own words, "He masturbated too much when he should have been doing me."
That was my 87-year old agent.
A couple months later I asked her how I could get a copy of "Bleak Houses". She told me the edition has been canceled. The editor had given up on the project.
I don't remember what my reply was. Most likely I put up a good front. Something on the order of, "Well, back to the drawing board," or, "That wasn't my favorite story anyway," or maybe I just switched the subject to what I was writing next.
Virginia put up a stoic facade on all things relating to business. She did not coddle me nor did she discourage me.
She'd say things like, "You will get sold. I'm never wrong." I was sold. She was not wrong.
In those days I thought my life depended on sold stories. I was already as old as Jesus ever got and I'd done nothing earth-shattering.
Meanwhile, Virginia lost Diana Gabaldon as a client and she'd just taken her first book to the NYT bestseller's list with Perry Knowlton. Virginia needed a winner to replace her. She'd picked four of us out of the dust over at the Compuserve writer's group just as she had Diana. Now Diana was gone we were all she had left.
Then Mac got Michelle pregnant, and her husband wasn't happy. So Mac had to leave town because Michelle's husband was hunting him with guns. I never thought Mac's stories were all that great, and he probably thought the same of me. Whether Michelle could write or not was immaterial now that she was forbidden to browse the Internet again by courts, who sided with her husband and kids. She was out of the Treehouse, forever, and I've never heard from her again (nor do I remember her last name).
Mac was not shot or killed, but had to leave his home in Canada because his wife kicked him out when she found out he'd been cohabitating with and knocking up another married woman and absconding with her and her infant child to various roadside motels along the New York Thruway.
Mac wound up living with Virginia at her house in the State Park in Milford, figuring nobody would find him there and that there'd be a good supply of writer-wannabe women coming through he could tap for various purposes. He managed to get Smith to leave her husband and children behind in Branson and move to Pennsylvania for a while for the purpose of collaboration on a novel Virginia was sure to sell. They worked on it in pieces. As far as I know it was never finished.
Virginia never sold any of Smith's stuff. Nor did she sell any of Michelle's. She sold a handful of Mac's short, randomly humorous stories, as she sold a handful of my bleaker ones. I always suspected Mac of attempting to poison the relationship between me and Virginia. He was always too suspicious of me for my own comfort, and I'd by then learned that people who harbor great suspicions are themselves doing things worthy of suspicion.
He did help me with my first website. I think that once Virginia was gone and he was on his own he realized how rough the real world was, and how little progress we were capable of making on our own without a mentor.
When I moved away to North Carolina I wrote a short story I sent to Virginia and got no reply. Around then I got a note from Smith saying that Virginia had retired to her second home, which was code for "assisted living." Virginia's right-hand man, Jim, had died of AIDS. Mac had hit the road with a young writer that Virginia had recruited into our Treehouse when I stopped my regular attendance. And anyway, they had turned Virginia's house into the Treehouse. It was no longer electronic.
Concurrent with the growth of my potential as a writer, my career began to take off in the electronics business. Money came in. I didn't have time to write.
Everything became finite. Meaning ceased to be subtle. I grew weary of the sexual politics going on in Milford and the bad luck I was having even getting Virginia to show anyone my stories, much less pursue an editor for publication. I never made a conscious decision to stop writing. When Betsy Mitchell turned down Tarantula Season after stringing me along for 18 months, I looked back on the thousands of hours I poured into the book and weighed it against the return I was getting from silicon valley. Writing became an irresponsible waste of time relative to my promotions and bonuses.
For about seven years all the magic in my life was measured in dollars for which I sacrificed all my time. I could buy anything I could think to want. I had more money than I ever thought I would make doing anything short of becoming a rock star (much more than Diana Gabaldon with her now 5 bestsellers).
All I thought about was how not to lose it. I thought about it night and day.
Then one day it disappeared. And I was free again.
When I moved to Alaska my wife gave me a card that said, "I believe in you."
It made me realize how easily I had accepted my bad luck not as chance occurrence, but as an unchangeable characteristic of my being. I had decided that the way to avoid bad luck was to subordinate my aspirations to a theory of pragmatism that dictated it was better not to try than to lose.
I was packing when I found a picture at the bottom of one of my many drawers full of electronic junk. In it were Virginia, Mac, and Smith. I chucked the Polaroid into the waste bin. I was in the process of eschewing the accumulation of my years of excess.
God knows why I fished out the picture. Why I look at it from time to time, the image of these people I knew mostly through a Compuserve chat room.
I also packed 450 double-spaced pages of my novel, Tarantula Season, replete with corrections by Virginia and other editors along the way.
I was thinking to have it bronzed and mounted on a plaque to remind me we don't escape our creations.
No man ever looked up from his death bed and said, "I shouldn't have written my life's story."
Eight months after my forty-third birthday I stepped off a C130 and onto the frozen surface of McMurdo Sound. For years I'd forgotten my dream had been to come to Antarctica. I'd even forgot that my first professional publication was a short story about Antarctica, one I sold before Virginia took me on as a client.
I'd forgotten about Mac and Michelle and Smith and Virginia. Were it not for seeing Diana's book in the airport bookstore, I'd have forgotten all about her as well (and news anchor Brian Williams, with whom I graduated high school).
I set foot on the ice in Antarctica and became a story I had to start writing.
One by one, stories came to me, as if they'd been locked in a garage for the summer along with the skis and snowmobile.
In Antarctica, I found the Antarcticans. The lost thirteenth tribe who migrated to the bottom of the earth in search of an unpromised land. Antarcticans who seemed to live in a dimension that inhabited the same space as "normal" earth, but was somehow not the same earth.
These people with no cellphones had sex and never discussed it. Went days without eating or drinking, and then drank whatever came their way in anticipation of the next dry season. They'd been everywhere on the planet. They were attached to nothing.
The idea of their life horrified me. Didn't their parents care about them? Didn't they love anyone?
"Am I supposed to live more than this life?" one said to me at an Antarctic bar, after explaining how she'd wound up in a hospital in Laos having come down with a rare parasite whose name had no English translation, the treatment for which was massive doses of laxatives.
"But who did you call when you were sick?"
"I managed to get a call out to my father, but he wasn't going to come out to the jungle. I mean, we were in the Golden Triangle. They'd probably kidnap him."
"How do you do these things. All by yourself? I can't stand being alone."
Her eyes glazed over. She went back to her bar drink. "I don't want to be, it's not like I have to be...I don't choose to be alone. I'd like. I mean. It just turns out that way."
You don't have to ask someone like that how it is they never run out of money.
One winter's day after my fifty-fifth birthday I will watch the sun bleed pink and green on a razor thin horizon. The snow on the mountains reflecting the sunset will appear in pastels closer to mauve and puce than primitive primary colors. Raptors will pierce the skies on their endless eagle-eyed hunts and whales will breech making distant booms like echoes of yesterday's thunder.
Behind me, golden light will flow from windows of my house while my wife and children set a bountiful holiday table. Every pine tree will be adorned in pinpoints of starlight and the ground will be strewn with brightly wrapped boxes. It will be difficult to hear the wind for the singing angels and the cry of my newborn grandchildren.
Everything will have changed yet again. Circles will complete. Trials will end and adventures will commence. Unexpected gifts will fall from the heavens and appear in the outstretched hands of laughing children who believe in such things, and their grandparents who having once surrendered to the drudgery of pragmatism, ascend back into the fantasy that can be truth.
I will stand beside my fathers. And my wife and children will say they always believed in me. Finally, I will too.
In that massive pause between birth and the final breath, both heart and mind will agree this life has been a magnificent experience. Though at times I had forgotten, I always had everything. And that even for all the pain and failure that seemed to dwarf those kernels of true joy, it has all been for