Friday, February 21, 2014
Whenever I listen to Bruce Springsteen, I think of small town life, of decaying towns and villages, of people struggling to get by, to make their world a better place, or at least deal with the fact that it’s not what it should be. There is a sense of nostalgia that permeates his work, and I feel as though I can empathize with the characters that inhabit the world he has created through music, a world in which I feel I would be at home. I grew up in a small town, and I now live in an even smaller town, one that has long since lost its glory. Once dubbed “Little Chicago,” my new hometown is nothing like what it once was, and what it once was—an industrial center of regard—was long gone before I moved across the river during my first marriage.
It is far from where I expected I would end up in life. When I was little, I dreamed of playing professional baseball. This may come as a surprise to some of you—especially those of you with whom I play softball—but in my youth, I was obsessed with baseball. I watched it, I played it; I collected baseball cards, and I could tell you who played for whom, what their stats were, and who was headed for the Hall of Fame; and I imagined that someday, I would play among the greats. I was seven. And I was devoted only in my mind. Every spring, it was as though I started over, my body having forgotten during winter’s stagnate period that it had done the previous summer. Eventually, the summer after eighth grade, I came to the realization that my passion, which admittedly was already dwindling, was far greater than my talent, so I hung up my cleats and retired my glove, my dreams of stardom fading as I locked my bat in the garage, relegating it to an untouched corner where it would remain until my father and I sold it some years later.
After that, I dreamed of being a writer. Of being an actor. Of being a musician. Regardless of what I was going to do and where I was going to live—New York or Los Angeles, Europe—I was going to be a star of something. A great actor. A beautiful musician. A writer whose ethereal works would resonate with millions of readers, offering them life-affirming truths spread across the pages of bestselling works.
Many of the characters in my stories are middle-aged men who are long past their prime, yet who still live in the past—wearing their letterman’s jackets to the hometown football game on Friday nights; standing along the fenced-in sides of the practice fields in August, watching the crop of new players who will carry on the legacy of which they are a sometimes forgotten part; regaling those around them with the stories of their adolescent greatness—in an attempt to recapture their glory days, days when they were truly alive, days when their greatness was known to those of their small town. I write about these men because I know them. I’ve seen them all my life, but it’s been only in recent years that I’ve started to wonder about them and their stories. What is it that makes so many of us focus on the past, that makes us look backward at what we’ve done in our lives?
For some, it’s the time spent in high school that lingers in their mind as the best days of their lives. And we tell teens that, that the best days of their lives are when they are young. Maybe for some it is college that lingers as the best days of their lives. Maybe it’s after graduation, the days of new careers, of first marriages, of parenthood. Of self-exploration and the exploration of the world around us. Travelling. Taking risks and accepting the consequences.
And I often think of “Glory Days” by Bruce Springsteen, one of my favorite songs. The opening verse, about the baseball-playing friend who keeps talking about his glory days, days long gone, echoes in my mind. And then we meet the friend from up the block, a divorcee with whom the narrator will have drinks on a Friday night after work. And perhaps the part of the song that affects me the most is the line “And I hope when I get old, I don’t sit around and think about it/but I probably will/Yeah, just sitting back trying to recapture/a little of the glory of…” for I often wonder, when I look back at my life, what I’ll consider my glory days or if I’ll find, like the father from the missing verse of the song, that I didn’t have any.
We assess our lives on so many levels—personal and interpersonal connections; careers and hobbies; successes and failures; the impact we have on those around us—and this, at least for me, serves to muddy my accounting of my life and the events of it. When I’m old, I wonder what scale I’ll use to judge the events and successes of my life. For that matter, I wonder what scale you will use, for surely we’ll approach the analysis of our lives through reflection differently. Will we focus on career successes? On relationships with friends and family? On how well we pursued and used our passions and talents? Or will it merely be a combination of all of these, for maybe we’ll learn at the end that there was so single defining element to our lives, that everything that made us who we were was of equal importance. I’d contend that this is true, yet I still find myself evaluating myself and my life, here at the quarter-life mark, based on individual components, wondering what they all equal.
I think of relationships. You can count the number of people with whom I’ve slept on one hand (one of whom I was married to for a number of years) and it doesn’t take many more fingers to count the number of people with whom I’ve stopped just short of sex. So what do I know of sex and love and relationships? Admittedly little. Since my divorce, I’ve dated one person and been involved, in some fashion, with one other. My ex-wife lives with her new boyfriend and his son, and I find that most nights, on the nights I don’t have Holden, I’m home alone with my cat, reading, watching TV, or writing. But I found myself giving relationship advice to someone recently, someone whose situation mirrored mine from a couple years ago, and in her, I saw myself. In her struggle, I heard the words I had said to myself for a number of years but was too afraid to say aloud. So I gave her the advice I ignored when others gave me. And I had to laugh, for I thought of a line one of my characters has in Safety in Numbers: “You listened to me! My God, why the hell would you listen to me?”
And I’ll admit that there are days I’m angry about the direction my life has taken, for I’m nowhere near where I would have expected to be at this point in life, regardless of how undefined my ideas were when I was younger. When Amanda left for the first time, I found myself going through the five stages of the Kubler-Ross model, a model I had always associated with death, given that it was in light of Kubler-Ross’ death that I was made aware of her work. A friend reminded me that the model outlined the stages of grief, not just death, and I reflected on that as I found myself experiencing the range of emotions—Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance—we go through when grieving. The second time she left, I jumped to Anger and then landed on Acceptance, bypassing all the rest. And yet I find myself going back to anger some days—not anger over the dissolution of the marriage, for we agree, as would anyone who truly knew us, that it was for the best, but at the fact that most days feel so much like starting over. A new career, an unfinished MA, looking for new love—all coming when I thought I had my life figured out. I was a married father who taught and wrote—that was the end of my story.
And yet it wasn’t. It was merely a chapter.
I started working at the grocery store when I was a senior in high school. As I’ve mentioned before, I didn’t leave for the last time until I went to teacher high school in 2012. Seven years (off and on) I spent at the grocery store. But through it all, I knew there was a way out. I was going to college and I could count down the years, the months, the weeks until I would graduate and set off to make my mark on the world, to make the world a better place—and I suppose in my limited time as a teacher, I did that, even if just for a few students. I’ve had too many students come up to me later to hug me or thank me to believe any differently.
Yet I find myself now in a new career—management, a world of which I know little. I traded my socialistic, humanitarian passions for education for capitalistic drive. I haven’t considered myself a capitalist since I was in my late teens, and I’ve never thought of myself as a businessman or economist, so the talk of profits and losses is entirely new to me. Given my college education, I have the opportunity for advancement, and I’m sure it will come in due time, but unlike when I was working at the grocery store, there is no timetable for change. I’ve been bouncing from store to store to gain a better perspective of management, to learn how other managers do what we do, so that I can take from the best of them and craft my own management style. Yet I can’t help but wonder what my future holds—and when that future is coming.
My high school days were tame. I spent most of my free time playing music, reading, and writing. Watching films and old television shows. Weekends and evenings were spent at Katie’s Corner or The Bluegrass, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, and talking about politics and Bob Dylan and how we were all going to make it out of our small town lives. Some left. Some left and came back. Some never ventured away. I may have dreamt of living in a big city, and some days I still fantasize about it, but the truth of the matter is that I like small town life. When I was in high school, I told someone that if Mayberry were real, I’d move there in a heartbeat, so familiar and in love with the fictional town was I from my days spent watching its citizens in black and white in my youth. And I find that I can relate to the plight of the characters of Springsteen and John Mellencamp songs, of Richard Russo’s Empire Falls. I often feel like one of those characters, lost in some cosmic novel about the plight of the small town heroes, most of them unsung, chasing the fading American Dream.
And most days, I’m okay with that.
We talk about glory days, those best days of our lives when we were the best versions of ourselves, the days on which we reflect later in life. And I wonder what my glory days were, or even I even had them. But the more I think about it, the more I start to wonder if, just maybe, it’s not about having glory days, but, maybe instead, about finding the glory in each day.