Roads Not Taken
When the local newspaper reported that a man in our neighborhood – not anyone we know – held one of two winning tickets in a national lottery with a grand prize of $587 million, the rest of us did what non-winners do: we wondered what would have happened if we had been the ones with the right numbers, how our lives would have changed. There was the usual talk about quitting work, buying fancy houses and cars, and taking exotic vacations, along with the usual afterthoughts about doing good deeds. My neighbor Dave and I took the other predictable route, telling ourselves that nothing good
would come of having that much money, particularly since the newspaper had announced the winner’s name on the front page, bringing him all kinds of attention. According to the paper, the (not) poor guy had left home, with a message on his phone saying he wouldn’t be returning calls for a week. He had essentially been forced into hiding, on the advice of the lawyers and accountants he had just had to hire to tell him how to handle the windfall.
“You’d hear from everyone you’d ever met in your life – every one of them looking for a handout,” Dave said. A former school teacher, he
cleans pools now. About once a month he tells me how happy he is not to be teaching anymore; just as often, he says he’d quit cleaning pools in a minute if, for instance, he won the lottery.
“It’d be nothing but misery,”
I said, trying to convince myself.
“Money,” Dave said, sounding as if he was about to break into one of about half a dozen possible songs
(—can’t buy me love, —get away, —money, money, etc.).
“It doesn’t buy happiness.”
“But I’d give it a shot.”
Not many of us have suddenly been handed $587 million – not even our neighbor, who split the prize with a couple in Missouri – but every life is full of rewards and setbacks, temptations and opportunities. All of us can identify key decisions and bits of fortune, good and bad, which, in retrospect, seem to have defined our lives. So while there are plenty of things I’d be happy to see mapped, a map that has intrigued me lately is The Map of Roads Not Taken. Granted, my version of this map might not be of interest to anyone
else, but since this is all hypothetical, we could each have our own.
In case you haven’t re-read Robert Frost’s poem recently, I’ll remind you that his tone is often read as wistful, an older man’s regret over missed opportunities.
But let’s not indulge in too much of that: the women/men/small groups we might have had Olympian sex with (or, for that matter, Olympians we might have had sex with), the dump trucks of money we would have if only we had invested in X when it was selling for $3 a share, how much better our knees would feel if we had lost 20 pounds 30 years ago, etc. I’m
more interested in a genuine depiction of what would have happened if things had gone differently – if the opened door had revealed the tiger rather than the lady. A few might, literally, be dead ends – if no one had noticed, that day in the hotel swimming pool in Florida when I was six, that after diving to the bottom I had come up under a float and, choking and thrashing, taken a long drink of chlorinated water instead of a breath; or if the worst had come to pass that spring after-noon during high school when I ran a red light in my father’s Trans Am, following friends, feeling immortal, realizing only in the intersection that I
had come within inches of being hit by a bus.
Since this map could, like Borges’ library of all possible books, be infinite, and since maps, like poems and stories, are defined by exclusion, some constraints are in order.
To give the project definition, we could rule out things beyond our control (being struck by a meteor, or by fallout from a neighbor’s meth lab explosion), or what I’ll call Compounded What Ifs. So we could include what would happen if we had
married Angel instead of Lola, but not what would have happened if Angel had then run off with Harley, we had subsequently taken to drink, had been rescued by a tattooed bartender with spiked blond hair, etc. Also, no Frivolous What Ifs, e.g., “What if I had gone to Japan in March of 2011, and decided to visit Sendai, and been caught in the tsunami?” I’ve never been to Japan or been on the verge of going to Japan, so that’s off the chart.
Ideally, The Map of Roads Not
Taken would be four-dimensional, moving through time and space, with still pictures as well as audio and video clips of what might have happened alongside clips of what did. It would include, for instance, the conversation my wife and I had five years ago, the result of which was our decision to leave North Carolina to take new teaching jobs on the other side of the country, in Arizona. We told ourselves that if we waited any longer, we might never do anything new; we told our friends that since our son had decided to stay close to home when he chose a university, we had decided to go away to school. More seriously, a poet I
admire wrote “To loathe change is to loathe life,” and I decided that meant I should shake free of my familiar surroundings, my routines. In satisfying our curiosity, in opting to take on new headaches in place of the ones we had grown accustomed to, we left the place we had lived for 15 years, where we had raised our son, and where we had friends at work as well as friends who barely knew where we worked.
The map would also include a nearly identical conversation in which we decide the cons outweighed the pros, stayed in the midst of the lovely woods and transgendered vegans and repurposed-cooking-oil-fueled-Volvos in Asheville, to discover that
Depending on the level of detail we want, this could turn out to be an atlas rather than a single map. In either case, Career Choices would certainly deserve their own section. Mine would include a decision we
made when our son was born: either we would stay in Chicago, where my wife had a good job and where her parents lived, or we would move to North Carolina, where I had an offer of a full-time job at Appalachian State University. “One of you will make a sacrifice,” a former teacher of mine said, “and be able to use that over the other person for as long as your marriage lasts.” At that point he was on his second marriage, and might have already suspected there would be a third.
Our marriage has lasted 29 years now, but the move certainly tested us: it meant we lived eight hours from the nearest relative, so our son was always physically distant from his grandparents, aunts and uncles, and in those early years, when we were learning to balance work and family, there was no extended family to fall back on. But it also meant that we raised our son in a beautiful place, a place where, once he learned to walk, he was chaperoned by two enormous collies who towered on either side of him, like Mick Jagger’s security detail, as he toddled down to the river.
How would things have been different if we stayed in Chicago,
beyond the facts that we would have had free babysitting, and I would have shoveled a lot more snow? Would my wife still have gotten her doctorate, which she did largely because of the people and program at the school we moved to? One thing seems certain: I would never have been hired to direct the graduate program I moved to next, at Warren Wilson College, because that opportunity followed directly from a conversation I had with a writer I had brought to Appalachian, and from my visits to Warren Wilson, which was just two hours away. We all know this is how life works: one conscious decision
leads to any number of things we never could have anticipated, and after a few crucial decisions it’s impossible to know what we would have done, who we would have become.
My wife and I ended up staying at Warren Wilson for 15 years, and both the friends we made and the work we did thoroughly influenced every part of our lives.Some of the key moments in our lives are nearly
as dramatic and unexpected as discovering that we’re holding that
winning lottery ticket. Take the day when the phone rang at my desk in graduate school and an editor at theArizona Daily Star asked if I was interested in writing film reviews. I had been a student journalist in high school, had thought I would major in journalism in college, wrote for and eventually edited the college newspaper, then went on to write features and reviews for an independent weekly for two years. I gave every indication of being interested in pursuing journalism, and the day the phone rang I had already become part of that group of reviewers who receive first class plane
tickets to attend film junkets in unlikely places, where we were fed swordfish dinners at midnight and given semi-private audiences with famous actors and directors. It was fun to meet famous people, and to have them consider my questions for a minute; it was entertaining to sit in a restaurant or movie theater, unrecognized, and overhear people arguing about one of my reviews; and I was more surprised than the person who had called when, asked if I was interested in being a full-time movie reviewer for the daily paper, I said, “Oh no. No, thank you.” Only after hanging up did I realize that, despite the hundreds of
hours I had spent watching and writing about movies ranging from the truly great to the stunningly bad, I didn’t consider reviewing movies to be a serious occupation, something worthy of an adult’s attention. Given the opportunity I thought I had been working for, I turned it down.
Hollywood had one other chance to change my life: a few years later, when I arrived at my parents’ house at midnight, after an all-day drive, my mother opened the door and said,
“You didn’t tell me about Tom Cruise.” She was in her nightgown; she was whispering. “What are you talking about?” I asked her. “Don’t pretend,” she said, smiling. “They called. You must have given them this number.”
I was exhausted from the drive, but under any circumstances it was one of the strangest conversations I had ever had with my mother. It turned out that Tom Cruise and his production partner wanted to buy the rights to my first book; and even
in those days before Google and smartphones, with the speed of the truly powerful they had found someone who knew how to find not only me, but my mother. The next day, my agent said her assistant had literally thrown up, out of excitement (though ‘literally’ doesn’t mean in Hollywood what it means to you and me); two days later, the deal had fallen through.
This map would answer the question, What if it hadn’t? What if Tom Cruise had produced The Girls
Next Door instead of Jerry Maguire ? Would I have sold the other two screenplays I had written? Would I have bought a Porsche, developed a cocaine habit? The screenwriters I know don’t drive Porsches or do cocaine, but that’s why I want this map. Ideally, it would show me – not an actor playing me, but me, in an actual film clip from my actual other life – my first day on the set, naïve and optimistic; it would show me pitching ideas for sequels of sequels, or – who knows – for low
budget art house movies. I like to think it would include at least a snippet of audio from the day when Tom Cruise would have suggested Icheck out Scientology.
But this isn’t just fun and games. Another section in anyone’s atlas of Roads Not Taken would have to be Family: Things Said That Shouldn’t Have Been, Things Unsaid That Should Have Been, Minor Things We Foolishly Let Fester, etc. Back around the time I was writing movie reviews in graduate school, my father had a heart bypass. This map would include a photo, maybe even a photo I have, taken twelve years later. While he had
been a hot-tempered father, by that time he was a doting grandfather. The photo shows him sitting on a picnic table bench on his back patio, his grandson dressed in his old umpiring gear – the mask, the shin guards, the old-style chest protector. He could tell that his eight-year-old grandson had the makings of the athlete I never was. All my father wanted to do that spring day was to play catch. The desire killed him. Still overweight, frustrated that he was so short of breath, he elected to have another bypass, without telling his cardiologist, without telling any of us what the surgeon had told him: that there was a
significant chance he wouldn’t make it. This map would include video of my son playing a Little League game on a gray day, in a light rain, and striking out three times – something he had never done before, and never did again – while, 500 miles away, my father’s enlarged heart refused to pump.
But that other road isn’t so attractive. While it’s tempting to think that, if my father had been talked out of the bypass, he might have started
exercising, improved his diet, and lived to see his grandson give up baseball for soccer, then eventually play high school football – something that would have given him enormous pleasure, since football was a game he loved, and I could never muster enthusiasm for hitting people – there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that my father would have changed a thing. Worse: he was having trouble holding a job, because of his health, and he had virtually no retirement savings. Thanks to a large insurance policy he had bought when work was going well, he knew he was, in dollars and cents, worth more dead than alive.
When he and my mother and sister had watched Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman on television, they turned it off halfway through; it told a story they knew too well.
It was in my father’s nature to make choices without consulting anyone else. He went off to enlist without telling his father, and when the Navy turned him away, mistaking his stutter for an inability to read the eye chart, he joined the Marines. He left home as a teenager and never
went back. After his time in the service he got work as a drafting teacher and began dating – or trying to date – a girl who lived a few doors away. The trouble was, she was dating other boys, and her parents didn’t think much of him. But he would knock on their door, and ask to see her, and when they said she was out on a date he would say that was ok, he’d wait. And so she’d come home from a night at a dance or a movie and find him there, eating, since usually he talked my grandmother into feeding him.
If my father had given up, if my
grandparents had turned him away, there would be no me at all.
Which leads to the obvious origin, the start of the line: if that tiny sperm that won the race had been carrying an X chromosome instead of a Y, would I be Petra, Pat, or Priscilla? Or say Y won, but the rest had aligned differently. I imagine the tall me, the skinny me, the more coordinated me who probably would have played more outside, so not read so much, so not ended up writing essays about imaginary maps. Too
much? I suspect you’re right. So let’s agree that this map has to begin with who we are, or were, at birth.
Romantic Choices would certainly have their place, despite what I said earlier.
What if we had only patched things up with M________ ? What if we hadn’t acted so foolishly that afternoon with G________? What if I had been suave and self-assured enough to wink back, that first day of second grade, when B________ winked at me?
Any map of my life would have a long and eclectic soundtrack, and at a crucial time it would eature Big Joe Turner singing with Count Basie
playing on The Bosses. To be true to the moment, the fidelity should be low; I had bought the cassette tape in Oxford’s Covered Market, and on the pivotal night I sat on a chilly stone step outside of Manchester College’s Arlosh Hall with a battery-powered tape player given to me by a friend for my year overseas. The Bosses was the first blues album I ever heard, much less owned. I can’t say now what about the simple black and white cover attracted me, or what I expected from songs called “Honey Hush” and “Cherry Red.” But I quickly became addicted, and that night I had already heard the tape twice, Joe’s mighty voice resonating off the stone buildings,
Basie’s spare notes establishing the mood. Dense fog settled like the atmospheric effect in a Sherlock Holmes movie. This was the England I had imagined. I heard distant voices, then footsteps approaching; a beautiful woman emerged from the haze.
When life presents us with such moments, how often do we know enough to seize them? I’m tempted to say I won a different sort of lottery that night, but it would be nearly four
years before I married that woman. “I want to dedicate a song for the newlyweds,” Big Joe told our guests at the reception. “Give Me an Hour in Your Garden, and I’ll Show You How to Plant a Rose.” Let’s put that on the map, too.
But what if, on that foggy night in Oxford, like a reasonable person, I had been listening to Big Joe and the Count in the dry comfort of my room? What if I had been listening to Bruce Springsteen or, through some series of disastrous decisions, Hall and Oates?
Let’s say, dear reader, that you make my atlas for me, and I make yours for you. Once we have it in our hands, do we really want to open the cover?