Change is nice sometimes. When I was thirty I picked up and went to school abroad, leaving everything behind. Girlfriend, car, nice apartment and most of my possessions. Don't worry, my girlfriend had already moved on by the time we had broken up. I mean into the arms of another. Good for her. You win some, you love someone else, as they say.
Before I left town my friend DJ, whom I hadn't seen in a while, came over and took a look at my new digs, the digs I was about to leave behind. Rent-controlled apartment by the beach, tastefully furnished and with reasonably new carpet. And the soon-to-be ex and I had painted the place in a soothing shade of yellow which we had dubbed "instant good mood." He took a long look at Shannon and said, "She's fine." Meaning hot. I had a good job, though I wasn't crazy about it. But teaching paid the bills and left enough over for me to take the occasional vacay, take my baby out to dinner, and save some money besides. And after my six-hour-stint in the classroom enough time in the day remained for me to fit in a workout and work on my novel, which if I could ever finish maybe would let me quit my day job. And sure, the Mercedes Benz coup I was leasing was overpriced and way too flashy for the inner-city adult school, but it was practically new so I didn't have to worry about it breaking down in the 3 years I was contracted to drive it, and though $550 was what we were paying in rent, the monthly payment did include insurance.
"Why do you want to give all this up?" DJ wanted to know. Your life is the shit, he seemed to be saying, meaning good. But did I have the life? The apartment itself, though affordably situated just 2 miles from the beach, was a hand-me-down from a friend who had just purchased a condo and wanted a fall-back plan unless escrow fell through. So we could lose it at any time. Coming home at night and stopping to retrieve the mail I would often catch myself looking over my shoulder to see if some nameless landlord was watching me with suspicion. But yes, I was somewhat comfortable; I just wasn't fulfilled. And I knew this only 4 months into our month-to-month. If I kept at it I'd gain weight and get complacent and lose my spirit, and by then I'd be so dependent on the paycheck and so set in my ways that getting up and going would no longer be an option. I had to strike while the iron was hot, jump through my window of opportunity before it closed. Et cetera. I didn't know it at the time but I was in the company of a great many artists, Picasso among them, who'd pick up and move on just as things got "cush." It seems too much comfort is the enemy of inspiration. Of course I was set to become a scientist, not an artist, and inspiration is not a necessity in this field. And the little island I was moving to was surrounded by the quiet Caribbean Sea, so I was exchanging traffic for the sound of the sea breeze, which appealed to me more than it did DJ. Ever the city boy, DJ's idea of a good time is smoking weed and eating barbecued wings. And I too was becoming a city boy, judging by my habits, which included these as well as smoking cigarettes and drinking more than my conscience condoned. Even doing crystal meth whenever my gal pal could get her hands on it. All in the name of fun. A hangover is not that. I couldn't wait for my soon-to-be former life to end.
And so I went to my "island in the sun" before Weezer's song of that name with whatever I could carry on my back - as well as the couple bags I checked. The island was warm, so my clothes were shorts and Ts and flipflops mostly. I took some toiletries, an alarm clock, some CDs and my old computer. First-term students had to stay in the dorms. Having lived at home for college, the dorm experience was new to me, and initially not pleasant. The place was little bigger than a prison cell, and just as drab. A cot and a bed and air-conditioning was what each student got, and not as cheap as what you can find in prison. But I met a nice guy from New York, an Indian fellow named Raja, and fate paired us up. After a couple weeks we arranged that Raja do the cooking and I be the maid. The arrangement worked out perfectly because he had packed a rice cooker and hot plate and I just some CDs and my old computer and some Comet. Raja would heat up some vacuum-packed Indian food - chana masala, saag paneer - and we'd take our paper plates to our beds and talk about our old lives. Just like they do in prison. We both had lived in New York, and if you've ever been to this great city, you know its citizens stick together. Afterwards I'd wash the cookware off in the bathroom sink. Thank God for Comet. Drinking in the dorm was forbidden but in the course of our conversations it came up that we shared a love for Scotch, so on weekends Raja and I would smuggle in some Johnnie Walker black label and drink two fingers' worth each out of plastic cups before heading to the island's only disco to let off some steam, because it really was humid.
The dorm was 2 miles from school so I bought an old mountain bike off one of the professors for cheap. Thank God for wheels! This meant freedom. Yes you could say going from an overpriced coup to a rusty Trek bike was downgrading, but I was just happy to be able to travel to the market without waiting for the bus which hardly came. Everything at the market was overpriced, but I discovered canned beans, which paired well with the Skippy peanut butter Raja brought from home. Ah, the good life. Simple. Everything I owned fit into a coffin-sized closet. And exercise was built into transportation. And free time - when I wasn't studying. But classes only went for about 3 hours a day, with 2 hours of homework. Five hours was less work than I had put in as a writer/teacher, and no traffic or for that matter TV. After school if I had the room to myself I'd lie on my bed and stare at the ceiling, the quiet hum of the air conditioner to complement my breathing. Sometimes I'd stop at the nearby resort hotel, park my bike in the sand and sway in a hammock beneath the shade of a palm tree, watching the fronds flutter in the wind and listening to the sea breeze - or Queen's greatest hits, which was the only CD I remembered to pack. I can still sing Fat-bottomed Girls word for word, though I haven't heard the song in over a decade. "Can anybody find me somebody to love?" became my anthem.
The water was warm enough to wade into at any time of day. At night after studying and in lieu of the entertainment a city dweller takes for granted (movies and mini-malls, massage parlors and Internet porn) I'd walk back down to the waves and stroll along the shore, conversing with myself. It seemed I wasn't as over my ex-girlfriend as I thought. As Prince sang, "I love you more than I did when you were mine." So true! But I was content in my island paradise, and other than the occasional bout of sentimentality, for which there was Scotch, I never looked back.
As a country, however, all too often we do look back. In the political arena there is talk of the disappearance of the middle class. The middle class has been defined by the U.S. Commerce Department not so much by its position on the economic scale but by its aspirations: homeownership, a car for each adult, health security, a college education for each child, retirement security, and a family vacation each year. But as Neal Gabler writing for The Atlantic points out, a recent analysis by USA Today concluded that to achieve this version of the American dream requires an income of just more than $130,000 a year for an average family of four. Whereas the median family income is roughly half that.
So the middle class has been absorbed into the upper class and the American dream is vanishing. Which is to say the dream is not for everyone. It wasn't for me, but by choice. I don't think we should use aspirations as a predictor of happiness or their fulfillment as a sign of success. Before medical school I was the middle class. My annual income of $65,000 qualified. I had health insurance through the school district, though this should be less an aspiration of some and more a universal for everyone. I had my college degree and part of my salary was deducted for my retirement. And not six months before leaving town I had gone on a trip to Hawaii. Learned to surf on the beaches of Kauai, or at least to stand up. I had my car and Shannon and I had enough to make a down payment on a home or whatever the correct terminology is for saddling yourself with a 30-year mortgage you can expect never to pay off in a city where the cost of living is as overpriced as it is in LA. But guess what? This American dream was my version of a nightmare. I was tethered to a desk in a class that smelled like teenage flatus (a particularly noxious breed I assure you) pushing papers around as I tried to will my hangover out of existence. Newsflash: The real dream is not how much you make and what you own or rent or lease but how content you can be with less, and how much free time you enjoy. Free time is where the money is at, I mean value. Because leisure is at a real premium in today's world. Usually it comes when you retire from that desk job which has left you too stiff too enjoy those waves of Hawaii. Good luck surfing then!
My point is it's sometimes nice to hit the refresh button on life. To start over with little more than the shirt on your back. Sometimes life manages this for you. You lose a job or your home or get divorced. But these transitions can be rough and filled with animosity which leaves you reeling and in no mood to enjoy your new-found free time. So take matters into your own hands. You could say I had a head-start on the simple life, an inclination to head that way having teemed beneath the surface of my blank stare for many a year prior to my departure outta Dodge. I never really liked driving and I had gone years before without owning a car. And periodically I would get rid of all my stuff, just call Goodwill and have them carry it all away. Or toss it into the recycle bin. Snakes shed their skin, birds leave their nests. Try to ditch your digs if not once in a while, then at least once in your adult life. Talk about being born again. If you do, that is simplify, you'll find you wind up with spare time, a clear head, and if you move to the proper locale, one helluva tan. Just go easy on the Scotch.
The postscript from paradise goes like this: After graduating med school it was back to my middling existence as a resident physician. With an income of $50,000 to be $130,000 (enough to support a wife and a couple kids), a car, good health insurance, retirement, and enough left over to make it home for the holidays. But I was so tired after long days doctoring that I had no time or energy to enjoy the perks of being reasonably well off. All I wanted to do was sleep. But I couldn't. There was laundry to wash, and grocery shopping, and cooking for the forthcoming week. And my apartment sure wasn't going to clean itself. Forget about working out. My joints hurt too much to run more than a couple miles anyway. My body was breaking down. I knew that the only way I could keep up my high performance life was to find a partner to shoulder the load or at least hire a maid to do it. In other words I needed to find a mate. Someone to see to the cooking and cleaning and shirt pressing. I'd give the wifey all the money she wanted if only I could sleep in for a change! But more and more women of today's world want careers themselves, so the barefoot and pregnant housewife is a mirage drifting into the ever more distant past. That's redundant, but it has a ring. I was on the fence about having kids but knew that if I got myself a wife, she'd definitely get pregnant. That's just what couples do. They breed. And then I'd really by in dutch, that is to say trapped. Good luck being a beach bum when your family relies on you to put food on the table and clothes on their backs, lest we forget private schools and cars at sixteen, remember the American dream. And this is how we become slaves to our so-called aspirations.
So after a year doctoring in Denver I as they say shed my skin again. Which is to say shed my lab-coat. Which is to say, if the shoe doesn't fit, go barefoot. And I say to you: Leave the American dream behind and forge your own way. Do it in the noon of your life rather than in life's twilight when all you're left with is a sigh at what you've left behind. The good life doesn't have to include a wife, unless she comes with. If she does, you've chosen a keeper. Unlike me.