I had hoped to dodge the nostalgia this fall, but the weekend’s sudden onset of melancholy harkened its arrival.
I love autumn. I was born in the autumn. For reasons I cannot explain, my favorite holiday remains Halloween. Maybe it’s because the season is so rich with certain olfactory impressions that do such an impressive job of jerking me back in time – the scent of a freshly-mowed football field, those ubiquitous cinnamon-scented brooms, the earthy smell of freshly-fallen leaves just beginning to decay.
The fall sends me straight back to times both good and bad, to things I’ve done that I wished I hadn’t and things I hadn’t that I wish now I had. Creative Loafing’s College Guide is published, reminding me of those destitute nights at downtown venues that I could barely find, flirting with the girl outside the Sombre Reptile or feeling the wind tug at my overcoat as I strode through the plaza outside the law school at Georgia State. Life was hard, sure, but it had promise. Everyone has to pay their dues. I was just getting mine out of the way early, like men used to do; it was both my nature and my fate.
The sound of rustling leaves puts me back into the woods behind my parents’ house, sitting on a creek bank beside my dirt bike with a book, my head at wrest on my helmet as I reclined. It takes me back to autumnal nights at that cabin up in Haralson County – more of a shack than a cabin, really – built by a friend’s grandfather. We always forgot an ax, and so beat sticks against trees to make smaller sticks. Elliott would swing the lumbering piece of pine, battering it against the trunk of a hardwood until the end snapped loose and flew through the air with me in pursuit, foraging it from the foliage thick on the ground. It reminds me of sitting in a camping chair out at my grandparents’ place, my feet propped on the bumper of my car, an ounce or two of pipe tobacco at hand, watching the smoke curl from the end of my pipe and disappear in the wind, thinking about how wicked life can so often be.
Ah, and last fall, the feeling was exceptionally intense, as Ashley began back to graduate school and I thought about all the opportunity I’ve missed owing to my own educational shortcomings. I act as though each intervening year since then has placed further distance between myself and the education I missed, but that’s a fiction. I was kicked out of school over about $300. I just didn’t have it, and so Georgia State summarily dismissed me from my classes, cleared my schedule and offered my spot to other students who could afford their tuition and fees.
I’d wanted to be a professor. Perhaps an attorney – that was the more likely career path – but I thought it would be fantastic to be a professor of philosophy. I had the skills as a writer, I thought, to clearly and eloquently state my views. Like Bertrand Russell – my favorite philosopher still – I could make philosophy accessible to laypeople, so that the pursuit of it could be more a part of the lives of a modern people who think very little of philosophical things. When my friends, in jest, began to refer to me as “the Professor,” I wore the moniker with honor.
But then, I’m also reminded of being so totally broke, hungry and cold; fearing the winter because we couldn’t afford the gas for heat, huddled beside a propane camping heater in the basement, absent my hopes for college, realizing that this was the end of that line. My grandfather was the smartest man I’d ever known, and he’d only completed through the fourth or fifth grade. I had skills, marketable perhaps, and I needed to find a way to translate them into peanut butter sandwiches and paid utility bills, and so I gave up on school and took a job as a newspaper editor. Imagine that, in one’s early 20s, and already running the largest circulation newspaper in one of the fastest-growing counties in the country. The staff and the money were small, but the prestige was splendid, to be employed in such a manner so soon after having been shut out of academia.
Keeping up with things while Ashley finishes her final semester has been plenty to keep me distracted. There’s always something to do besides sitting on the porch and feeling sorry for myself. But this past weekend, I had enough time to myself, coupled with the nagging pain of an ankle and shoulder gone bad, to make me think about how I’d rather things be.
I’d rather be camping, for instance. Oh, the fall is a wonderful time to camp, to cozy down in a nice thick sleeping back on a chilly night, and to hike and walk and just reflect and think, then sit around in the evening by a fire and smoke a pipe and get a pull or two from a flask of whisky and talk and share and laugh. And I’d rather be riding a trail bike, rushing through the woods at break-neck speed, leaping over fallen, rotten trees and turning dry creek beds into half pipes. I’d rather be taking my little girl to hear the concerts downtown, to see her light up to see real musicians blowing horns and beating drums and belting out their songs.
But, as it was, time wasn’t such to allow it. My ankle, already compounded with arthritis, will almost certainly make my desire to go hiking an impossibility. My trail bike hasn’t run in more than 10 years now, and even if it did work, my shoulder such as it is would preclude me from enjoying it. And time just isn’t around to allow me to take my daughter to do the things I’d like to do; there’s always so much that has to be done around the house when I have the chance that even getting time to play outside in our own yard is hard to come back.
I know that there’s a cure for my condition. It requires a pipe, a windbreaker, and an absence of distraction while I set my mind right. Things aren’t as bad as they sound; I’m fortunate in countless ways. And I’m keenly aware of the possibility of a certain intelligence at work behind why things are not the way they could’ve been.
After all, my bitterness and disappointment may well my most charming attributes.