The Breaks, or the Moral of the Story
Some years ago, twenty-three to be exact—I’m sure because it was the occasion of my wedding day—I received this note: “Hope everything breaks your way.” It was from one of the most generous people I’ve ever known, a man who committed much of his life to splashing money around. He used to own a big house, styled-out with tasteful furniture and a “built-in” swimming pool, as we used to call them back in the day. He drove flashy cars. Inside the card on which the note was written were a faded ten-dollar bill and two dog-eared twenties. I knew what a sacrifice that fifty bucks represented, but I also knew how much more he would have wanted to give me if he still had the means. I winced.
The man was suffering from a dramatic reduction in circumstances. And had been for some time. New owners were frolicking around in the built-in pool. The fancy car had roared off in a cloud of some other joker’s dust. The usual pitfalls were to blame: drugs, crime, ill-taken “romantic” decisions, and a couple of prison bounces, all leading to that ultimate bête noire, failing health. Note: When you were a kid, the old-timers who used to say “If you’ve got your health, you’ve got everything,” knew what they were talking about. And when this man included that note with his wedding present, he knew what he was talking about, too: Hope everything breaks your way.
Needless to say, everything hasn’t broken my way, because it doesn’t, not for any of us. I am a fallen inhabitant of this fallen kingdom, and it would be absurd to expect anything different, but managing my expectations has evolved into something of a full-time job.
It would be self-pitying and sad-sack, bad form really, even to attempt to catalog my disappointments. But in the main, they’re marooned in that barbed-wire-strewn no man’s land of my writing career. To say it hasn’t worked out in the way I once hoped (expected?) would be spectacular understatement. The objective was—and still is, despite some embarrassment—to support myself and my family as a writer. The reality is if my wife didn’t work the way she does, I’d be sleeping on your couch.
Learning early on that my pursuit of a literary career would likely produce the financial burden I now shoulder, I determined not to waste one more minute writing about cuff links or sandwich-making or the exertions of some mediocre rock band. I would focus on the things that mattered most to me, things that I love. I love a lot of things. Families and horse racing and God, to name three. Some things I love maybe a bit too much. But I concluded that writing is a mission. And you don’t abandon a mission.
Once I was asked to review yet another biography of Ernest Hemingway. (I love books and I love Hemingway, so okay, acceptable assignment). This particular effort made extensive use of the novelist’s letters, many of them from friends and associates who were also writers. I was startled to see Hemingway’s contemporaries, towering figures of 20th-century American literature, begging him for money. One of them—it may have been Scott Fitzgerald, who had money problems of mythical proportion—wailed, “I might have to get a job!” I can’t express how much better I felt after reading that.
There’s little point in delivering an unseemly resume here, but I’ve been a lot of things: researcher, television producer, unskilled laborer, deadbeat writer, racetrack bum. One friend characterized me as a street guy with an education. That’s pretty accurate. But I cultivated some major values in my halting progress up the hill: sobriety, the Catholic faith, the love of my family, and, though the returns are diminishing, physical fitness. And I remain devoted to them. The only reason I’ve been able to accomplish anything is that I refuse to quit—about the only quality (I hesitate to call it a virtue) I can take credit for is perseverance. If regular readers here can bear one more reference to Aquinas: The super-brained intellectual mystic of the Middle Ages, with his usual nod to Aristotle, described perseverance as “long persistence in any kind of difficult good.” So there.
Now, far be it from me to evaluate another’s spiritual condition, and I’m not talking about burning sage or burying crystals, although I suppose they’re okay too, but there’s no question that the man of the precipitous fall, he of the dog-eared twenties and the note about the breaks, had a relationship with God. He was as Catholic as anybody. So, after all the money-making and spending, the drugging and the sexing, the setbacks and the losses, he ultimately accepted that what the Lord was talking about in the Gospels—the parables and the works—these had meaning for him, too. His children asked me to say a few words at his funeral. I mentioned perseverance.
Awake in the predawn hours, my current wont as I slouch toward decrepitude, a dim light glows in my home office. I can make out the pictures hanging there, snapshots of my wife and our daughter, a miniature lobby poster for what may be my favorite movie, The Third Man, my artist-brother’s interpretation of an infamous Marvel comics sequence, a detail from Heinrich Hofmann’s depiction of an adolescent Jesus teaching in the temple. The latter reproduction has always been with me (I suspect one of my grandmothers obtained the print in some long-ago supermarket giveaway). All of these are signifiers of things I love, artifacts of my life, and as I gaze on them, I am overwhelmed with a swelling sense of gratitude. Hope everything breaks your way. I’ve had every break a guy could have, and then some.