Monday, December 7, 2015

Playing Against Type

—Jamestown, VA. Winter, 1609. The Starving Winter. 

I have built a sound cabin of logs I cut while the weather was fair, daubed with clay and straw. We have a fire pit in the corner, with a ventilation hole. I can’t call it a fireplace, but it suffices. We are adequately warm and dry, but we, like all our neighbors, have little food. Daily I tramp through the woods and try to snare a hare or partridge. The game is hunted out nearby, though, and I dare not wander too far lest I fall prey to savages and leave my family defenseless. Lately, I have taken to hunting at night so that I can safely range farther. I sit in a snowbank staring into the darkness, my senses as sharp as the cold, and wait.

—Belle Meade Country Club, Nashville TN. 1959. The Summer of White Privilege.

I have played golf almost every day. I am getting better, but not fast enough. To impress my father with my improvement, I sometimes kick a ball out of a bad lie or concede myself a putt that is too long for that, even among boys. For lunch I have round chicken sandwiches on white bread with no crust, served by Pewee or Shorty or one of the other waiters at the club who are at this stage somewhere between my servants and my friends. It is not enough, though, this ceaseless repetition. Golf is challenging, but not a challenge. My survival will not depend on it. I’ve gotten a paper route, getting up at 4:30 to deliver the morning paper. In the afternoons, I’ve started cutting yards. I’m making money. Not my father’s money. I don’t sign a ticket at the club on his account for it. I’m saving for a car, one I will pick out myself.

My ancestors survived that Starving Winter, or ones very like it. I survived—if you will forgive the use of the word in this context—the Summers of White Privilege. The restless need to be doing something to forge ahead is deep in my DNA. When I’m not honoring its imperative, I get uncomfortable. Like I am now. Like I have been for years.

From the days of that first paper route, I loved to work. I loved the independence, the sense of self worth, bestowed by both the money I earned and by the force-field of energy and purpose that was the work itself. I was never happier than when riding through the rain on my bike tossing newspapers onto dry porches with the precision of a big-league baseball pitcher. I was never happier than when doing five deals at once as lawyer, sleepless and exhilarated to be lancing legal judgements through storms of conflict over money and power.

Not everyone has been as happy with my DNA. I was driven. Sometimes it wasn’t pretty if you got in my way. I didn’t spend enough time with my family. No, that’s an understatement.

Then a strange thing happened. I stopped all that restless charging and began writing. I kept it up because I liked the calmer me. I liked being with my children. I nodded to my DNA by making pancakes and after-school snacks, coaching soccer, running a chess club. But that crop of kids moved on. (They all do, let me just warn you.) 

And now, here I am, the new calmer me, writing away, ever hopeful. It’s a better life that daubing the chinks in the cabin with clay and straw as the snow piles up and the children cry for food, but there is an unease to all its ease. Something in me stirs. It is restless. It urges me to do something. I don’t think it cares what, just something, As long as the doing is all consuming. As long as I’m all in.

Does that mean I’m not all in on writing? I think it must. I like it. I am a better man for it. I understand myself better, the world better. But it is a faintly painful kind of better. I don’t think I’m happier. Just better.

I wonder sometimes if my DNA will ever leave me alone. Will it evolve within me (if such a thing is possible) in time for me to be both better and happier. Will it change at all? To be more evolutionarily specific, I wonder what I have passed along. The compulsion to survive, almost certainly. But also the urge to create? There is nothing I would like more than to read this blog by my children or grandchildren when they are my age. To learn how they will feel then. About the world. About themselves.