SPRING IS HERE, the park is gloriously in bloom, and I sit on a sunny bench watching the young on the running path, working hard out of their fear of mortality, and I feel the great privilege of being in my late seventies, all my ambition gone, enjoying life itself, not aiming for distinguishment. All those decades I tried to be intelligent, to be in the know and to maintain a cool sense of irony, an elegant detachment from the mundane, and now that rock-climb is over: it takes no effort whatsoever to be an old man. You sit in the park and savor your happiness and let the young do the suffering.
I enjoy writing more now than I ever used to. I have writer friends my age who’ve been stuck for decades because they once published a book that was greeted by heavyweight critics as “provocative and profound,” “unflinching,” “bold and riveting,” “dense and dazzling,” “lushly layered,” “exceptional,” and “exquisitely crafted,” so now they look at a first draft and there’s nothing exquisite and it makes them flinch — you get put on a high pedestal and it’s a long way down. But nobody ever accused me of exquisiteness, the most I ever got was “amusing yet often poignant.” That’s not a pedestal, it’s a low curb. So I write freely, happily, no looking back.
Now that we’re vaccinated, I’m trying to talk my sweetie into taking a long car trip and head west since heading east from Manhattan takes you into deep water, and enjoy a month or two of dedicated aimlessness. So many of my well-laid plans have gone astray so I’d like to try improvisation. Just get in the car and go.
My great-great-grandfather David Powell felt that urge back in 1859 when he and a bunch of other Iowa farmers formed a wagon train and headed west in the great Colorado silver rush. He was tired of raising corn and hogs and fathering ten children and the gold rush was a great excuse for irresponsibility.
He got to Colorado too late for gold but thirty years later got in on the Oklahoma land rush. I’d like to see that river he crossed and find his gravesite in Hennessey, Oklahoma.
All the gold is gone and I’m not looking for land, I just want to roam. I haven’t taken a long car trip since I was a kid. Every summer my parents packed us in a station wagon and drove from Minnesota to Idaho to visit relatives and it was a great thrill, sitting in a window seat and holding my hand out the window, planing through the air, feeling the lift, and then in adult life I switched to airlines and now getting on a plane is like riding the school bus to high school except now there are seat belts.
The beauty of freedom is that you don’t know what might happen. I flew to Rome once on a sudden impulse, my first trip, and the day before I left, I got a haircut and told my barber George Latimer that I was hoping to meet the pope and he said, “No way. You’re not even Catholic. You won’t get within a mile of him.” I got to Rome and ran into a priest from Milwaukee, Father Reginald Foster, the head Vatican Latinist, and he took me on a tour of the Vatican and showed me the Latin ATM he’d designed, the only one in the world, and who should be withdrawing cash but the pope himself. He invited me up to his penthouse. There was a ping-pong table. He made popcorn. Offered me a Pepsi. And then he said to me, “Qui in nomine Domini Dei tui interficiam capillos? Et tamquam degradatur monachus. Et maior patera exsequi oportuit meum iussum.” (“Who in the name of God cut your hair? You look like a defrocked monk. He should’ve used a bigger bowl.”)
I met my wife in this park in April 1992. She came running by and I got up and ran after her, in my suit and tie and brown wingtips, and caught up with her, and the rest is history. I haven’t run since. What would be the point? But a random car trip east from L.A. on two-lane roads through mountains, listening to the radio, sounds perfect. Sirius Radio has hundreds of channels, some serious, most frivolous. Click the Random switch and you get Buck Owens one moment, Backstreet Boys, Bix Beiderbecke, then J.S. Bach.