Sunday, October 27, 2013

There have been two times where I have had a real decision to make. Of course I make decisions constantly, hundreds, maybe thousands a day. Little ones about when to get up, what to wear, what to make for breakfast, to run a red light on my bike or slow down and stop. Or even smaller, what word to use when I write, what to say to a student who hasn't been to the last couple of classes, when to turn over in bed, or in what order I eat an assemblage of lunch items. Some of these are so small I wonder if they can considered choices or inevitabilities, habits and reflexes of deeply ingrained preferences, petting my cat absentmindedly as I read an article for class or staying in the hot shower for an extra minute or two. Most of the moderate size choices, when to head up to Wisconsin to visit family or replacing my computer's hard drive, seem like choices that have already been made, opportunities that present themselves as one way trips to a now or a never without too much consideration of an alternative. Or even bigger choices, the decision to come back to grad school for example, or move back to Oakland from an unaffordable San Francisco, presenting themselves as logical next steps in the social and economic momentum of the moment.

But there are two decisions I have made that I have always wondered about. The first was when I was living in Seattle, about a year out of college, working at the accounts and distribution office of a small publisher named The Laughing Elephant and doing an intense but satisfying long distance thing with Amy. My father had been diagnosed with his dementia a couple years previous, and every Sunday since then I had made it a point to call and try to have a conversation with him in his increasingly fractured English. My motivation to call was tied to a deeper motivation to do the right thing, to "do unto others," to be a good kid, as much as it was a desire to engage with my dad or share the details of the life I was living. Susan, his wife at that time, offered praise, that my dad really appreciated the attention, and Amy and Joel and others commended me for my efforts (these were the days before ubiquitous cell phones, making a phone call in a house full of people more of a public event). Feeling bored with my job, and wanting to devote more time to writing, I decided to leave Seattle and move out to the farm to help Susan take care of my dad. It seemed like his mind was going fast, and my twenty-two year still developing adult self still didn't really know much about him. I figured that if I was going to I had to do it before he slipped further down hill.

About three weeks before I left, and a week before I was going to give The Laughing Elephant my two weeks notice, my boss offered me a position managing some of the accounts in addition to my shipping and filling duties. It was a family business, a small publisher that specialized in "gift books" (books that are given for occasions like weddings, or new borns) and atypical greeting cards. There were five of us who worked at the business office: Skip, Brady, Susan, Binder, and me. They were all implants to Seattle via San Diego, proto-punks who settled into jobs as they got older. A group of friends ranging in age from their early thirties to their early forties. They were cool and smart and funny, and I looked up to them. But I had already decided what I was going to do, and when Binder offered me the job I had to say no, and explain the plan. When word got out, Skip asked me if I was close to my dad, and I had to say no, not really. And I could tell by the expression on his face that he thought it strange I would leave Seattle to go back to Wisconsin. Part of me at that time thought it was strange too, not entirely comfortable with the story I had been selling: the good son doing the right thing. It was also for selfish reasons, I thought to myself, so that I wouldn't have to get up and go to work, to have more time to write, and even more so, to gain the experience my father's illness as a subject to write about. In every story that I ever told about being back on the farm I could claim righteous motivation. 

I could not admit to myself at that time (or maybe even in the present) that it was much more comfortable to be the sweet boy I saw on the TV of my mind than to forge a new and uncertain way forward. The thing is, I was never asked to help take care of my father. There was never a real need for me to be there. Susan had been watching after him, and I was the one who suggested coming out there. Some of my other friends were confused about what I was doing; not entirely buying the caretaker angle or seeing the value of gathering poetic experience. Regardless, I spent three months with him, futzing around the farm and Mineral Point, doing some writing and making sure he didn't light anything on fire or kill himself. And then Susan, more or less, asked me to leave and I went back to Seattle, depressed and broke, but proudly in possession of having done "the right thing." Unfortunately the right thing didn't help me find a job when I got back. I broke up with Amy and started dating T. T went back to Japan and I tried to date Amy again, and then there was nobody. I found work making minimum wage as a business card delivery person and lived in a cruddy little studio apartment in an old drafty building. etc. etc. It was a confusing time. 

But I have always wondered what would have happened if I had taken the promotion instead of leaving Seattle. Maybe I would have gone into business, or at least I would have learned the ins and outs of managing accounts and getting book sellers to pay up. Maybe I never would have moved to Portland or gone to poetry school. Maybe I wouldn't have broken up with Amy and we would have followed through on our plan to move in together. One never knows. Or maybe that decision became a kind of regret because I had so much time, underemployed and relatively isolated, to think about what went wrong. Maybe its value as an event arises not intrinsically, a two paths diverging in the woods kind of thing, but maybe its a product of the kinds of attention I gave it sitting alone in my green chair, and have given it, in retrospect, through the silent analysis of fossilized sentiments. As if anything could have turned out other than the way it is. It's also possible that no matter what I would have found something to regret about that time. And I know, it's unfashionable to talk about these things, to dwell in the past. Instead we should concentrate on the present, etc. etc. But goddamn, this is just one of those things I've always thought about but never articulated. Thinking about decisions.