This is it. This is the first day of my new way of doing things. I’ll imagine I have been diagnosed with rectal cancer. It’s terminal. But I’m still healthy. And I’ll still be able to enjoy things for a while. Not sure how long. But a while.
Or, a large asteroid is heading for Earth. I know because I work at a government funded agency charged with tracking such things. I can’t tell you the exact date, but suffice it to say it’s better you don’t know. That said, I do know. I have a certain amount of time to live. We all do.
Cancer. Or an asteroid. Or something like that. I think I’ll go with the first one. I’d be in good company. Claude Debussy died of rectal cancer when he was still relatively young. He had one of the first colostomy operations in history. Imagine waking up each morning and dealing with a colostomy bag. Plenty of people do it. Every day. All day.
He was a tempestuous guy, Claude Debussy. He pissed a lot of people off. Fell in love. Fell out of love. Fell in love again. Fell out of love again. Told everyone to take a hike. The Academy hated him. And he changed music forever. And then he died of rectal cancer at 55. Not so old. But not as young as Mozart, who died at 35. Not so old. But not as young as Robert Johnson, who died at 27. Sold his soul to the Devil they say. Down at the crossroads. So he could play the guitar the way he did. The way no one had done before him. And the devil, they say, claimed his due and thus began The Curse of 27. Jimi Hendrix. Jim Morrison. Janis Joplin. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. All died at 27. Overdose. Suicide. Homicide. Alcohol abuse. They lived as though the devil were chasing them, their souls in the balance. Sing that song like no one else. Play that guitar like there is no tomorrow. Because there is no tomorrow. I try to imagine Jim Morrison as an old man, but I can’t do it. These young heroes will never age. James Dean. Imagine James Dean gone bald. Hank Williams will never be older than 29. Elvis lasted awhile. 42. They all burned out. Jack Kerouac, a young man, wrote, “. . . because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn, or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. . .” It’s a famous quote. Most of us want to be that person. At least I do. That roman candle person. But I’m not that person. I say commonplace things all day long. And I’d like to burn burn burn, but I know now, at 50, that there is a cost. Ask Jack Kerouac. Dead at 47. His beauty extinguished by ego and alcohol and cigarettes and bar fights and internal bleeding. His epitaph, etched in his small gravestone in Lowell, Massachusetts: "He honored life."
And he did. He did honor life.
And he did. He did honor life.
It’s easy to argue. “How can you say a guy who drank himself to death honored life?” It’s easy to think he wasted it. He blew it. Watch that last interview with William Buckley. Kerouac did not represent. All that intelligence. Hope. Compassion. Talent. And he blew it.
But that’s not the way I see it. He didn’t last long. No. But his genius was a burning thing. If he had practiced discretion. If he had called it a night after one beer. If he had been reserved in his comments on America. On love. On life. He might very well have not written. And if he had written, he wouldn’t have written On the Road. And, like it or hate it, the world wouldn't be quite the same. That’s what I believe.
I fix air conditioners. I get paid by the hour. Which means the longer I live, the more hours I can work. And the more money I’ll make. And the longer I can go on saying commonplace things. And fixing air conditioners. I sound like I’m sneering at myself and I am. But I enjoy being commonplace. I like commonplace things. And the closer I get to living a life less ordinary, to quitting my job once again and heading off into the world somewhere without a plan, trying to follow that current of. . .something, the more my commonplace life glows with that golden color that only happens in Iowa and only in late summer evenings with the sounds of the highway and the taste of a Dairy Queen hot fudge sundae while we wander around the antique car show. There’s Dave, from the Iowa River Power Restaurant and his blue Corvette. There’s that cherry red ‘57 Chevy Bell Air with the fuzzy dice hanging there. Not very original. And there’s that little green Cosmopolitan we always see. Isn’t it nice to walk around in the evening? Isn’t it nice?
I’m not Jack Kerouac. That might be the most absurd sentence I’ve ever written. Now I’ll write a yet more absurd one: I’m not Jim Morrison. Or Claude Debussy. I will not tear the fabric of society. I will not change the world. That’s not my path. I will probably outlive all of them. Quietly. Boringly. A common person. Saying commonplace things. Leaving a few pieces of equipment in better shape than they were when I came on the scene. Or in worse shape. Posting a blog that wasn’t posted before I came on the scene. Taking care of a few kids. Loving a few people. I guess that’s what I’ll do with my newly imagined last-day-on-earth type second chance. You?