In order to help you understand this completely I need to tell you an anecdote about my father. He had a great sense of humor back in the days when most of us lived together under one roof, before we all scattered and went our own ways.
At the time of this tale, I had decided to follow my literary progenitors and hit the road. I was going forth in the spirit of Jack London and Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller. I was planning to get out on the freeway and stick out my thumb and take off I knew not where. I was doing it for the sake of literature, because I wanted to be a writer but I had not yet sufficiently tasted of life. Only one thing I lacked, thought I to myself: an image. I had in mind the famous picture of Jack London sitting and writing outdoors with windswept hair, wearing a leather jacket. The leather jacket was the key. That’s what I needed, or at least wanted. I was past the point of decision; I would have gone on the road with or without it, but I wanted it to make the illusion complete.
And I knew where to get one. My dad had a leather Navy flight jacket from back in the time he was in the service. He hadn’t been a pilot; he’d been a dentist, but somehow he’d gotten hold of the jacket, and I wanted it. I had a feeling, too, that if I asked he’d give it to me. So I did. I asked, and he said he’d think about it.
My birthday was coming up. I didn’t live in the family house at the time; I was the first to move out. But I showed up on my birthday. I remember I was sitting in the kitchen and my dad said he had a present for me. He came back with a big bulky jacket-sized bundle wrapped in brown paper, and I thought, wow, he’s wrapped up the jacket for me; that’s sweet of him. Before I opened it I was 100 percent sure that it contained the jacket. But it didn’t. It was an old torn-up work jacket he wore around outside on handyman projects, a really ugly piece of rag. He said something like, “Well, you wanted a jacket, didn’t you?” I tell you, I wish they had taken a picture of my face during that moment, because it would have been the definitive image of crestfallen. He didn’t let me suffer long, though. He had a good laugh as he brought out the Navy flight jacket and handed it to me.
I wore that jacket on my journeys around the world. First down south along the west coast of the United States, into Mexico and all the way to Guatemala and back. Then to Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley where I tried my hand at scriptwriting. Then across the U.S., all around Europe, across the Middle East, through Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan and India and Sri Lanka and Nepal and many other places besides. It went with me for many, many miles until… I don’t remember exactly where I abandoned it but by the time I did it had completely fallen apart. It was my writer’s jacket, my adventurer’s jacket. It made me think of myself not so much as more than I was but as what I was aspiring to be. It defined me, in a sense. I needed it at the time. I know a lot of people define themselves by their wardrobes. To be honest, most of the time I don’t give a damn what I wear. I think that’s the only time in my life where a piece of clothing was so important to me.
Why am I telling you all this? Because in the last few days that moment came back to me. I recalled that time when my father substituted the crappy fake for the real thing as a joke. I wonder, sometimes, what has become of my life. I’m not nearly as rich and famous as I had planned to be when I set out on the road wearing that leather jacket. A lot of things have happened, a lot of water under the bridge. And lately I have been tempted to think that destiny has dealt me the crappy brown handyman jacket instead of the cool badass leather one. And then…
I had to think back on my life and remember from whence I have come. I did set off on the road back then, with next to no money and nothing but a desire to fill my time with the sort of life I could write about. And I have done it. I hitchhiked broke through countries most people would never think of visiting even with a pile of money in their pockets. I begged on the streets of Tehran. I hiked through the Himalayas alone without a map or a guidebook. I’ve completely circled the world twice, once in one direction and once in the other. I’ve met good women and good men and had all sorts of adventures. I’ve written about it too. I’ve published four novels and novellas, four collections of stories, and three memoirs. It’s just that I am not doing all that adventurous stuff right now, or let’s rather say that the adventures are of a different sort. I am standing by my sons and trying to raise them the right way.
And I looked at myself lately and wondered if I missed the right road back there somewhere and was left with nothing but second best. I had an idea then that by the time I am the age I am now I would be comfortably ensconced in my writer’s mansion, that editors would be begging me for my words and throwing crazy amounts of money at me. Instead, I struggle on alone, as many of you do, just to get by day by day the best I can. I continue to write, though, as much as I am able. And that’s what scared me: the image of that crappy jacket given to me as a joke, and wondering if that’s what I would be wearing the rest of my life.
So what did I do about it? I came to the realization that it was all an illusion. The real leather jacket is long gone, but what it symbolizes lives on. My life is anything but decided. New choices and decisions confront me every day. I am not like those around me who have stayed in one place all their lives and have security and safety and a steady income. In spirit I have cast off the crappy handyman rag and thrown it into the psychic incinerator and donned the garment I need to wear in order to realize who I am. It’s not exactly that old leather jacket, though. As I said, that one fell apart long ago. It’s another jacket, a stronger jacket. It protects me from the winds of adversity in ways that old jacket, as solid and significant as it was, could never do. This new jacket is woven with the fabric of wisdom and experience and the empathy for others drawn from my many mistakes. The young writer who wore that old leather jacket would not have been able to wear this one. He looked danger in the face, yes, but he ran from responsibility for others. He was badass but he was selfish. I had a lot of lessons to learn that only time and the school of hard knocks could teach me. The curious thing about this new jacket, the one I wear now, is that I don’t know exactly what it looks like. It’s badass in a different kind of way. It’s more personal, more idiosyncratic. Only I can wear it, no one else.
I’m a professional writer; I make my living by my words. I’m happy to share these essays with you, but at the same time, financial support makes the words possible. If you’d like to become a patron of the arts and support my work, buy a few of my available books or available stories. Thanks!