Thursday, January 18, 2007

Twenty-one Dollars

I’m fifty four years old. I’ve been a painting contractor for more than twenty years. I put my 23 year old daughter through college. I’m putting my son through college now.
And I have twenty one dollars in the bank.
This prompts an obvious question: what am I doing wrong?
There are many ways to dodge the question: the most obvious is that I have almost eight thousand dollars coming to me this month. This type of work is prone to financial peaks and valleys. But you’re supposed to have something in the bank to insulate you from the worst of it. And I have nothing. No savings, no insurance, no retirement. Just twenty-one dollars and some promises.
How did this happen?
I think … I’m not a drunk or a drug addict. I’m not a gambler.
But then I think: yes I am. That’s exactly what I am. I gambled everything on the idea that I could make a living from my writing. And that gamble has relentlessly failed to pay off, year after year, decade after decade. Oh sure – I made some money, I got in the Writer’s Guild; I got just enough encouragement to keep me going, to make sure I squandered everything to keep the dream alive. It looks foolish now, because I failed. If I had succeeded it would look like a classic American Dream narrative. “It took him twenty years to become an overnight success.” But that didn’t happen. It may never happen. And yet, I still think it might. I keep gambling. The only other choice is to give up. I have an agent now. I have a book almost ready to submit for publication. I have to believe in this last flicker of possibility because I have nothing else. In two years I may have an MFA; without a published book that won’t mean much. Right now I have a packet of graduate work due in two weeks, a bunch of unfinished revisions on my desk; and twenty one dollars in the bank.
The mind roams and paces on these short winter afternoons, walking through the regrets and recriminations
I should have gone to film school.
I should have gotten this MFA twenty years ago.
I should have gotten a teaching certificate fifteen years ago
I should have gotten a real estate license ten years ago.
I should have saved my money against a rainy day. Instead I’m soaked to the skin, it’s monsoon season, and I’m dying from an optimism every bit as toxic as despair.
Yet I remain optimistic. It’s my personal fatalism.
It’s fate.
I’m actually committed to this life. By doing nothing else, by sneering at real estate and spurning film school, by refusing to teach, by not moving out to Los Angeles, by choosing to raise my kids on this tiny island, by shying away from building a real crew out of cheap foreign labor and courting the big contractors, by plugging along, losing customers to immigrant labor, cutting my prices to the bone to compete with people who pay no taxes or insurance, I created this bleak untenable humiliating idiotic circumstance: fifty four years old, twenty one dollars in the bank.
So what am I going to do?
What I always do, what I have to do, what I’ve always done: keep writing.
And hope for the best.


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