December 08, 2008

Goodbye to all that

William Steig illustration for Listen, Little Man

My wife says it's good to change your life every five years or so, it keeps the brain fresh. For the last 20 my own has tended to fall apart or fall together on such cycles, with each side not too clear until later, and even then the judgments remain preliminary.

Ten years ago I left London to hide out in China for a year-long vacation to break everything in an old life and take only the minimum for the new. Five years ago I was in a business that fell apart and, to over dramatize, lost everything. But that turned out to be a stroke of luck, as it enabled me to skip out of further commitment to a series of bad choices - professional, romantic, chemical - and to slowly rebuild things in a simpler, better fashion.

I fell into teaching. I graduated in 1992 and my parents were living in Portugal and so I took a short course in Lisbon, but I never followed up. I went to London and did other work. I hated the little teaching I'd done, had no idea what to do, and was terrified of getting up and taking charge.

When I first came out here I still hated teaching, but I liked the lifestyle, the extended student / adolescence of all the fun things in a warm climate and cheap city.

Five or so years in I settled down and began to pay attention to what was happening in class, and I learned how to stand and do the job. It taught me a lot, but now I'm tired of standing up and being 'on'. I'm retreating into freelance proofreading and it's a giddy, good feeling to be stepping out of one job into nothing organized.

I have no idea if the following true. Let's imagine that an animal's been inside a cage for a long time, when someone opens the door, does it run out or does it wait for the shock of the scene to compute. I know our cat will sit in it's little box for a long time after even short trips to the vet, but his intelligence is fairly limited, although brilliant as far as it goes.

You get the point. So then what? Ten years ago I quit one life in London and gave myself a year of not working in China and SE Asia, and as anticipated (and wanted) fell in with my animal spirits. The temptation was always to get fired up and look for low life adventures.

I have a copy of The Pleasures of the Damned on the shelf behind me, a collection of Bukowski poems selected by his editor, John Martin. I got it as a gift, because like nearly every other guy I was a big Chinaski fan in my early to mid-20s. I could be at an awkward age [38], or in a comfortable place, but I don't feel too much sympathy for the old guy now. The outsider thing will never get old, but the alcohol is no longer so romantic.

After 30 everyone knows some alcoholics and the body is less forgiving, hurting it becomes less fun.

I still drink, but I avoid getting drunk and rarely get hangovers, and when I do I feel like shit for more than half the day, guzzling coffee and water, swallowing pills. So I've learned to stop drinking before the hangovers will come, which is just before the urge to put my hand up the shirt of a stranger seems like a really good idea that'll bring fun to everyone.

Digression. If you want to do bad things, don't drink first- it'll only cloud your judgment. When drunk everything seems like a good idea, but the aim now is to embrace the best bad ideas, not the worst. The best transgressions are commited more than half sober, if not fully. It depends on how much initiative you have.

Back to the thread. It's no wonder Bukowski was a grumpy old man. He woke up with hangovers and let himself get trapped in jobs that he hated, and perhaps only with the good luck of finding John Martin - who promised $100 a month for life back when that was a living - was he able to leave the post office and make things better, but even then, always with the hangovers, with the shitty feeling half of the day.

This matters because I can now drink all day if I want to, and generally play the Bukowskian fool. There are many ways to get in trouble, and all of them are open to me.

It's been a full week now, and I'm wildly impressed that so far I've done nothing I regret.

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