A Writer Looks at Forty

“Watched the men who rode you switch from sails to steam,
And in your belly you hold the treasures few have ever seen.
Most of them dream, most of them dreams.”

–Jimmy Buffett, “A Pirate Looks at Forty”

Water, water everywhere,” some famous poet once wrote. When I look at my paltry creative output, no quote is more apt.

In my short story, “Archer Bob’s Blue-Ribbon Guide to Unique, Curious, and Inexplicable Roadside Attractions,” a pivotal scene involves the three travelers and their hitchhiker bathing in the Red River outside Albion, Texas. Their ultimate goal is to reach the Pacific and behold its waves.

If water is a subtle leitmotif in that narrative, it’s overemphasized follow-up, “Baptized in Dirty Water.” Title notwithstanding, both a literal and figurative baptism occur. Between the buckets dumped from a tropical storm and the ensuing deluge, the mentions of canals and the Mighty Mississippi, few could finish that yarn without taking a bathroom break.

My unpublished novel, Carols of Lonesome Love, (note the unpublished part, editors, agents, or publishers who happen across this) is primarily set in Dauphin Island, the lisping waves an unofficial character. I concocted the idea and wrote most of it in my head during an 8-mile jaunt down that very beach while following a hyper-caffeinated 17-year old, unable to keep up, as my out-of-shape muscles burned in protest.

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Pics or it didn’t happen.

Not exactly an unprecedented concept. As I prepare for another semester of teaching various literature courses, I’m struck by how often the symbol appears. The most famous parts of Homer’s Odyssey are set at sea, and, centuries later, Tennyson’s take on Ulysses evokes the same sense of freedom and adventure amid the billows. I snagged the title of my book from a line in Walt Whitman’s poem “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” which uses the ocean rustling against the shores of Paumanok as a powerful metaphor for both the birth of a poet’s mind and the realization that death will visit us all.

The symbol itself is Protean, an adjective derived from an early god, Proteus, whom Homer calls “the Old Man of the Sea.” Its meaning, “prone to change,” is fitting, since humanity’s relationship with water is knotty. It’s sustaining, indispensable. It makes up 60% of our body. It can also kill us should we submerge too long. Floods destroy property and wash away lives.

Truth be told, I’m not as fond of water as the next person. I can doggie paddle, and, should I ever wind up at a depth that is over my head, I won’t drown. Michael Phelps I ain’t. Every summer or Spring Break when millions of people zip to the nearest beach for rest and relaxation, I eschew this tradition, sojourning in a city to bathe in the culture, museums, and local cuisine.

Speaking of nosh, much of my Instagram is run-of-the-mill, overladen with vacation snapshots attempting to demonstrate my life is better than my followers. #FoodPorn is prevalent. Interestingly, however, a large contingency of other shots involve bodies of water.

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Hopping a ferry across the Lago Majora.

I’ve written extensively about my trip to Prague. Breathtaking as the medieval and Gothic architecture is, one cannot ignore the majestic Vlatava River snaking its way through the beautiful settlement.

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The Charles Bridge is the biggest tourist attraction.

Face it: humanity is obsessed with this strange H2O concoction enveloping two-thirds of the planet.

***

When I was a college student some twenty years ago, my classmates were obsessed with something else: Jimmy Buffett. He was ubiquitous. People wore threadbare Margaritaville T-shirts. The commuter lot boasted myriad bumper stickers declaring their drivers “Parrotheads.”

I listened to the music, didn’t hate it, but never dedicated myself to him like them. I was the weird kid obsessed with the angry screams of industrial metal and wearing the “NIN” shirt.

Then, inexplicably, while in grad school, everyone on campus fell under the sway of the jam rock shat out by Dave Matthews. I longed for the Parrotheads’ return.

On my commute home Wednesday, after typical first-day shenanigans of a college course–introduce the syllabus, pretend like I’m a terrifying badass, dismiss early for the only time during the semester–“A Pirate Looks at Forty” came on the radio.

When I started teaching, nearly fifteen years ago, I felt connected to the students. I was barely older than them. I liked Jay-Z, and so did they. Years later, they knew Sean Carter not as a rapper but as Beyonce’s husband. A song like “Money, Cash, Hoes” would not play well in the current campus climate. And, I might add, that’s a welcome shift.

I’ve gone from a hip professor consuming the same pop culture they do to the “Get Off My Lawn” curmudgeon. And I’m OK with that. I relate to that famous line from Matthew McConaughey in Dazed and Confused : “I keep getting older; they stay the same age.”

(Please understand that I mean this in an entirely different way than his character, but I relate to the sentiment.)

I’m not just 39, not even 39 and a half. Hell, I’m not even 39 and three-quarters . Come November, I’ll tick around to the big 4-0. This from a guy who took Jack Weinberg’s exhortation to “never trust anyone over 30” quite literally when in grad school, oblivious to the irony that he was over 60 then. We used to listen to The Who’s anthem “My Generation” and shouted the lyric “I hope I die before I get old” while pumping our fists earnestly.

Now I reject my youthful ideology. I’d like to hang around several more decades, even if the young ‘uns continue annoying me with their horrendous music, atrocious fashion, and rebellious ways.

***

Back when I couldn’t escape the sounds of Buffett, blaring from every open car window, wafting through the halls of dormitories, hummed by every passerby, “A Pirate Looks at Forty” would have been my favorite. I like depressing, pensive numbers, and it’s hard to top that particular ditty. I could feel the emotion, but I didn’t comprehend why. Probably the same reason I didn’t fully appreciate “Sailing to Byzantium.”

Both make sense now.

The title also drew me to the song. A holdover from my middle-school fervor for Treasure Island, I still thought pirates were cool. Thanks to Johnny Depp’s portrayal of the rollicking scamp Jack Sparrow in the seventeen-or-so Pirates of the Caribbean movies, a new generation will undoubtedly feel likewise.

They shouldn’t, nor should I have. Historically, pirates weren’t benign, fun-loving anti-heroes. They were flat-out villains, more in common with the Somali warlords in Captain Phillips than their contemporary, marketable, Halloween-costume-worthy image.

They also seldom if ever bathed, so if you thought Claudius’s offense stank to Heaven …

But Buffett is just one of a long line of creative minds who have over-romanticized pirates. Whether the song is meant to be autobiographical or not, the crooning character yearns to sail the high seas, Jolly Roger flapping from the mast.

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I mean, a crew who flew a flag like this had to be a nice bunch, right?

Maybe we writers aren’t so different. The major names in our trade too are over-romanticized. We envision Hemingway on African safari, rifle in one hand, mojito in the other. We ignore the fact he was a horrible misogynist. We imagine Byron tearing across Europe to the battlefield of Missolonghi, Shelley’s heart in one hand, tinctures of laudanum in the other. We ignore the fact that he was a horrible misogynist. We think of Joss Whedon as the brightest creative mind of our day, churning out fantastic yet relatable characters and plots. At least he’s not–Well, shit!

We shouldn’t laud such exploits any more than we do the buccaneers’, who would force their way on to helpless ships and plunder anything of value. They took whatever they wanted, no regards to ownership or the feelings of anyone around.

Writers are also guilty here. Every story someone relates, every snippet of dialogue that feels genuine and clever, tics and traits of our loved ones and complete strangers are pillaged and stored in the hulls of our memory. When the time comes to further a plot or add depth to a character, we rummage through those real-life personal scenarios and characteristics and toy with them, effectively claiming them for our own.

But if any similarity resonates by comparison, it’s Buffett’s lamentation of the job’s “occupational hazard”: “the occupation’s just not around.” As stated before, there are still pirates, though they are confined to far-flung, lawless corners of the world. And, yes, there are still plenty of writers.

The ones who can make a living today, though? The ones who don’t teach so they can actually eat and sustain shelter? The ones who don’t get driven to self-publish only to lose far more than they invested in the process? Negligible.

We live in an era where few respect and appreciate the arts. I see it annually at our university’s Preview Day. Some prospect will gaze lovingly at the big letters declaring “Major in Creative Writing.” Like mice to the Pied Piper’s music, they meander towards me in slack-jawed amusement. That is until Mom and Dad snatch opposite elbows and haul the Panglossian dreamer towards the practicality and return on investment on display at the Pre-Med table.

***

The message delivered by the speaker of Buffett’s ballad is clear: he’s dedicated his entire life to his calling, his passion, his true love, and it’s all amounted to nothing. “I pissed it away so fast,” he warbles. Haven’t we all?

When I neared thirty, I had a rough go, and I can’t blame it all on Weinberg. I moped and pouted for weeks prior to the event. In the end, I decided I was now undeniably a responsible, level-headed adult, and I should deal with my malaise in a seemly manner. I got a tattoo.

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It’s a scorpion, not a lobster, dammit!

It’s amusing eyeballing images of me a decade ago, when I thought I was getting too old. Now, I’d kill to be that baby-faced bloke, sans a single gray hair or the nagging knee pain.

In 1998, Jimmy Buffett published a memoir titled A Pirate Looks at Fifty. I haven’t read it and–though I hear he’s a decent author–have no plans to. I do wonder if he regards the doleful dirge he recorded ten years earlier as an overreaction.

Seems like when we hit those arbitrary milestones from 30 on, we follow a similar pattern. In the moment, apocalyptic, but ten years later, premature melancholy. Oh, you poor little child, if you thought thirty was insufferable …

And I’m sure when I’m reticently peering from the precipice of 49 into the gaping abyss of 50, I’ll look at this essay and huff. Jesus, Younger Me, you thought it was bad then

Nonetheless, until November 12th, 2017 is X-ed off the calendar, I’m going to wallow in the same acerbic self-reflection. I’ll still consider my heart “fastened to a dying animal.” Yeah, it’s trite and self-indulgent, but age and maturity don’t always increase at a proportional pace.

And I suppose I’ll have to do something drastic on the advent of this dreaded birthday.

Maybe I’ll get a Jolly Roger tattoo.


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