When I was in junior high, back before rocks were born, I got to be friends with a kid named Gil. He was a big, strong lad and a bit of a bully, but I was on his good side, which, being the squirrel I was, was unquestionably the better side to be on. Gil and I hung out together through high school, during which time he moved from Ada, Michigan, to the inner northeast part of Grand Rapids, where he lived with his mom. It was a rough area with a lot of streetwise white kids and plenty of drugs. The drug part fit the kind of teenager I was, but I couldn't fake the tough-guy persona—it just wasn't me. It was Gil, though. He was good to his friends, but if you weren't in that circle—well, Gil liked to fight, and sometimes he just looked for an excuse to get into a scrap. If you happened to cross his path when the mood seized him, then if you didn't give him a reason to fight you, he'd create one for you. He was helpful that way. I was with him one night when he tried to pick a fight with a whole table of guys at a restaurant. He followed them outside and had them all backing down by the time I followed after, at which point I actually had the audacity to give him a tongue-lashing. Had I not been his friend, I'd never have gotten away with it, but he reluctantly cooled his jets and went back inside with me and a couple of our other buddies, and that was that. There was an anger in Gil that he didn't understand and didn't know how to handle other than to take it out on others. Today, for whatever reason, I find myself thinking about him and about that anger and why it was. I knew little about his pre-teen years—just broad splashes of information: a broken home, a brutal dad, and a mom obsessed with the occult in a way that, from what I could see, had driven her crazy. Gil hadn't been dealt a good hand. Once, he told me, when he was thirteen or fourteen, he had chased his mother's abusive boyfriend around the house with a baseball bat. Was that a true story? Maybe, maybe not. I'm inclined to believe it. What was it like for Gil to grow up in those conditions? Those were the days when young people still hitchhiked, and Gil had gotten around much of the country that way. He'd been to New Orleans for Mardi Gras a few times, and I don't know where else his thumb had taken him. Lots of places, though. Which brings me to the conclusion. When Gil was eighteen, he hitchhiked down to Florida with a couple buddies, and while he was there, he got sick. I suspect drugs were involved, but whatever the case, his friends left him by the side of the road to get help. During their absence, he picked up his sleeping bag and, swinging it around his head, stepped out in front of a car. I imagine the driver's astonishment and horror, with no time to avoid the inevitable. I think of Gil, dying on that lonely Florida roadside; of the police arriving and flashers flashing and an ambulance carting my buddy's body away; of his two friends and their reaction to a fun time transformed into a tragedy; and I wonder . . . What would it have been like for Gil if his family life had been different? If his home had been stable, if his mom and dad had loved each other, if both of them had been spiritually and emotionally healthy? If he'd known love instead of harshness and uncertainty? Ah, Gil! I think of you still today—you in your blue jeans and red bandana and that hoop earing like the full moon's silver rim. You liked to be called "The Gypsy," and I guess that's what you were: a gypsy just travelling through, apt to pick up and move on at a whim. Your caravan left far too early. I wish you'd had a chance. But you are not forgotten, my friend of long ago. I remember you.
You've heard it said, and it's true, that writing is a discipline. I learned this from my fourteen years as an in-house copywriter. The deadline-driven environment of a publishing house doesn't allow the luxury of waiting for inspiration to hit. The copy must be written, so you write, and inspiration comes in the process—or it doesn't, but you write anyway. The discipline of writing is just the sum of many dry, practical decisions to get the job done. Tonight I'm working on chapter 15 of my book, and I am loving where it is taking me. It didn't feel this way at first; I had no expectations of being taken anywhere. I simply sat myself down with the determination that I was going to write something, even if it was just a few words. I made a tenuous beginning, but it was enough. The pump got primed.
The process is like finger painting: I splash down a few words, then slip-slide them around till I like what I see, and more words come as I go about it, and I play with those till they feel good, and still more words emerge, and so it goes. This picture, this chapter, is shaping up. It began with a choice, but it's coming from my soul. I am trying to write beautifully, and I hope that when people finally read my writing, beauty will be a part of their experience.
True story. It happened earlier this afternoon, and I still cringe to think of it. I buy fifteen bucks' worth of gas at the station down the street, and I go inside to pay, and the gal behind the counter is new to me. Slim, attractive, dark hair—but what's this? She's wearing a huge fake nose—in the manner of a Groucho Marx nose, only minus the mustache, plus it's lumpy and deformed, like a potato with tumors. Okay, well, we're coming up on Halloween and the displays are out, so I guess she's just getting into the spirit of things a bit early. So I decide to play the game. Tease her, have a little fun, right? "Oh, my gosh!" I blurt out loudly, feigning shock, "what happened to your nose?" My voice resounds throughout the gas station. Calm and nice as you please, the girl replies, "It's a birth mark." That's when I realize it's her real nose. Kindly hand me a gun so I can shoot myself. I am ready to melt into the floor. I'm about to explain, "I am so sorry. I thought you were getting a jump on Halloween," but fortunately, my instinct for damage control kicks in directly after the word "sorry." Anything I can say beyond that is going to be no improvement at all. So I continue to repeat the first sentence like a mantra: "I am so sorry. Omygod, I am sorry. Sorry. Very sorry. Oh so sorry . . ." My Sorry Machine is in turbo drive. The gal is very sweet. "It's okay," she says. She doesn't appear to be even slightly offended. But I am sure that those in the line behind me are thinking, "What a jerk!" That's what I'd be thinking if I were standing behind me. From whence do I get this talent for making monumental gaffes? It extends decades back and seems to be improving with age. I'd rather it didn't—I wish it would just go away. But at fifty-eight years, I ruefully accept that my social graces are not spun from silk. More like cobbled together with pieces of burlap from an old potato sack.