21.5.13

PLAYING 52 PICK-UP

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PLAYING 52 PICK-UP

I’m 52, alone, and starting over. And that’s exactly the way it should be. Pass the half-century mark and vitality is no longer a given; it becomes a conscious pursuit. Denzel Washington nailed it recently when he said, “The first fifty (years) was for them, this fifty’s for me.”I’m not sure if I’m going to get a full second fifty--heck, the way I feel some days I’m not sure if I’d even want to sniff 100--but I definitely align with Denzel. At 52, I feel like a human deck of playing cards; if I’ve seen just one card a year, there are no surprises left in the deck (check that, there’s the Joker; but isn’t he always lurking about?). That being the case, it falls upon me to find a new way to play the game.

It seems I come by this reinvention streak honestly. I remember the day my mom turned 70. When I asked her how she felt about the milestone, she answered with a single word:

“Absurd.”

Absurd?

“Matty, I look in the mirror and I see an old lady. But inside, I’m still the same young girl.”

That she kept this youthful outlook throughout life is beyond doubt--both she and dad went to see Aerosmith at The Garden when they were 68, which is a story for another day--but I get the gist of the growing absurdity of aging. When I was 5, mom’s older brother, my Uncle Jack, stayed in our small home for six weeks. He’d leave the door to the tiny bathroom open to take his daily shave; standing there in his wife-beater, blade in hand, hairline in rapid recession, he seemed to me to be a mountain of a man.

Guess who stares back at me from the mirror these days?

Hello, Jack.

So me and my five-head get the being 52 part. As for being alone, though my delightful girlfriend of four years disputes it (“You’ll always have me,” says she. Maybe, yes; maybe, no.), I am alone. I am an orphan. Not a born-into-this-world-not-knowing-who-my-birth-parents-are orphan (and, yes, I know a few of those and, brother, it ain’t easy); no, mine came about in the so-called natural order of things.

My dad, whose idea of softening an emotional blow was to first hit you with a metaphorical 2 x 4 between the eyes, sat in a diner a dozen years ago gently explaining to me my onrushing future. He and mom had both managed to be discharged from the hospital on the same day; she after a chemo treatment, he after some cardiac nonsense. “Son,” he boomed over Greek-style liver and onions, “your mother and I are rushing to see who can make you an orphan first.”

Nice.

Now they’re both gone: Mom, ten years (can it really be?) this June; Dad, three years come October. I won’t say dad’s death was easier, though the second go-round at the grief rodeo meant the whipsaw ride was at least somewhat familiar.  In retrospect, the effect of his passing on my psyche was like a huge data dump. While he was alive--and he was sick the last 14 years of his life, and in desperate straits in his final years--this only child had mental space for only one thing.

Keeping Charlie going.

The sudden absence of that task--and believe me, it doesn’t end the day your last parent dies, but lingers through more meniality and minutiae than one can imagine--eventually creates a vacuum into which new thoughts can rush. Good thoughts. Healthy thoughts. About one’s future, and how, finally, you get to be the captain of the ship.

The universe had taken my parents and given me a gold braid. No one had told me how lonely command was without counsel, or how satisfying it could be to re-plot one’s life course. My wise Aunt Fran used to say, “With knowledge comes responsibility.” Put another way, once you know something, you can’t un-know it, no matter how tempting ignorance might seem. With my focus finally shifted from my dad to myself, I realized that my passion for writing in the form it had taken for a decade had played out. Writing for an institution that was far more interested in marketing than journalism, I felt I was on the verge of ‘mailing it in,’ which for those of us who’ve turned avocations into vocations is tantamount to sacrilege. Athletes and actors know this feeling all to well; when the outcome of the game no longer matters, and the performances feel rote, it’s time to step away and re-evaluate.

Which for me means starting over. The first writing that ever got my blood pumping and my prose noticed, at least by an encouraging English teacher, wasn’t about the Iroquois, or Catcher in the Rye, or Cool Hand Luke (cool as he was). No, those were assignments, which were about as appealing as eating flannel. What caught Mr. Johnson’s eye (and heaven bless teachers that tell us we’ve got a gift to share with the world) was something far more personal; a heartfelt year-end essay about my illiterate but determined immigrant grandfather. This wasn’t an assignment, but admiration scribbled through a blue book. When Mr. Johnson scrawled ‘See Me!’ across the top, I flinched, but he fawned. “You don’t understand,” he said when I attempted to deflect his praise, “this was one of the best essays in the state. Have you thought about being a writer?”

Uh, no. It would actually take until my early-30’s before I realized I was a writer, and by then I had started over (much to my parent’s chagrin) many times. As a network go-fer. A stereo salesman. An auctioneer. A locker room attendant (hey, at least it was the U.S. Open). A national radio reporter. A pizza delivery boy. A magazine writer. And, later, a book author. My security?

Hell, if it didn’t work, I could always go back to the last thing I did. Fortunately it never (ok, rarely) came to that. And so I start again, at 52, with an idea I feel passionate about. Stepping out of the safety (or so it feels) of third-person reporting, and into the world of column writing, where I can switch gears as often as a trucker on a 7% downhill grade. Opinion one day, essay the next, elbow-grease throughout, no filter, no buffer, just one-to-one, me and you.

Hopefully, I’m worthy of your time.




[1] 'http://m.imdb.com/name/nm0000243/quotes

6 comments:

  1. I like your column, buddy.

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    1. I like you comment, buddy.

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  2. I still love you Mat. Whenever you want to run away from home, my doors are open! Good luck for your second whirl around - time does fly, young man.
    Am sending you big hugs and cheers/Ruth

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    1. Thanks, Ruthie! It's a delight to hear from you. Hope the family is doing very, very well. All my love, Mat

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  3. Hi Mat, your time as a US Open attendant was well spent. Your poverty-stricken peeps (yes we saw the US open blog), much appreciated the free, though slightly used sneakers.

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  4. I thought of you today my friend. Googled you - as we all do these days - and found your blog. Although you shared the stories with me in the past - to see it in writing is somewhat visceral. Writer? You bet. Loved this. Treat us to more....

    Heading to Dublin in a few weeks to dive. Every time I step up on the tower - you come to mind my friend. Let's get together when I get back. Cheers!

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