Tuesday, June 4, 2013

WTF Part 1

Three or four times a day I stop moving, stand stock still and ask, “What happened?” It’s not a metaphorical question but a real expression of wonder. “What happened?” How did I end up living in the suburbs of Washington DC in a post-Korean War bungalow that originally sold for $22,000? How did I end up by myself in the United States of America after spending the first few years of my life quite contentedly in Paris, France?  How is it that none of the plans worked out as they were supposed to and that the immediate future, if not bleak, appears at best unpromising?

I’m not the only one asking questions. Many friends I’ve surveyed whose ages range from very early 40s to mid-60s seem to be struggling with this existential angst. The stuff that has happened in one brief lifetime is staggering, almost too much too handle for a lot of folks in my age range. I grew up without computers, with a single corded phone in the kitchen, with daily shopping for foodstuff. The apartment where I lived in Paris had no television or refrigerator. There was a small icebox that was replenished daily by a delivery from the iceman and there were times when we were hungry and ate soup made from yesterday’s bread.

When I first came to the US, my parents bought a house in nearby Maryland. There was no air conditioning; fans barely stirred the air in summer and in winter a central oil burning furnace tried to keep away the chill. Gasoline cost thirty-five cents a gallon and my first car was a 1953 Buick Roadmaster, a monster of an automobile with a giant visor over the windshield. The tiny refrigerator my mother was so proud of had two aluminum ice trays with levers to crack the ice and one of the bigger household sin was using the ice and not refilling the trays.

I’ve had the amazingly good fortune of living here. I’ve written books, had songs recorded, and played my music on stage. I’ve written for some of the nation’s best newspapers and magazines, interviewed a host of luminaries that have included Margaret Meade, Lou Reed and Jesse Owens. I’ve been almost killed three times, and am waging my second bout against cancer. I’ve been married and divorced twice and now live by myself with a cat in a house I will soon have to sell. What happened?

The career, not too meticulously planned, involved leaving a well-paying but increasingly stultifying job with a UN organization, and picking up my writing where I’d left it a few years before.  I’d published three books to pretty good reviews and anticipated little difficulties writing more. I was wrong. The proposals I sent out to my agent were met with less than enthusiastic response. The market had changed, and we were on the edge of the on-line publication phenomena. No one, it seemed, was particularly interested in the fiction I had to offer. Nor was there a great demand for an Addiction for Dummies book I was sure would find a home.  Other projects began with great excitement and either did not have the necessary legs or simply stagnated.

When the recession hit in 2008 I was caught unaware. Not the most brilliant businessmen--I have come to terms with the fact that my knowledge of finances rests on buying high and selling low--I had too many properties whose values dropped like stones into a bottomless pond. No one wanted to buy my lovely wooded lots in Southern Virginia, or the land I owned on the Chesapeake Bay, or the assisted-living apartment originally purchased as a hedge against inflation.  And still no books sales.

I went back to school, got a degree to become a substance abuse counselor, and spent an unpaid year as an intern in a rehab specializing in medical personnel who’d misused controlled substances. Five years later I was working in a methadone clinic. Mostly, I sat behind a sheet of bulletproof glass, handling soiled dollar bills passed through a thin slot, and buzzing methadone users into a nurse’s office. There was minimal counseling; this was first and foremost a money-making venture, and make money it did.  A dose of methadone bought wholesesale and in bulk costs approximately twenty-eight cents and sells for five dollars. There was little effort to free the clients of their methadone dependency. Some people had been coming to one clinic or another for more than a dozen year and had no desire to change habits. I met strippers, war heroes, roofers, prostitutes, housewives and bikers. I got severely depressed and, a year later, I was burned out and eventually fired.

Still no book sales.   What happened? Or, more succinctly, WTF?


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