One evening this week I sat on the second-story deck where I live, drink in hand, looking out at the sunlight on the leaves. For the delights of nature, I don’t know what you could do to improve it, unless you wanted to top it off with a distant mountain view. So I sipped on my boilermaker, from an emerald green glass (because I’m classy, and that’s the kind of glass I would have) reading a short story by Oscar Wilde. In the story I was reading, I found this sentence: “Even the scarlet flowers of passion seem to grow in the same meadow as the poppies of oblivion.” At least in my life that’s a perfect sentence. If the object of your passion has walked away from you, you might be glad for some oblivion.
As for Oscar Wilde, I wondered why such a good writer didn’t do more. Other than the novel Picture of Dorian Gray and the plays The Importance of Being Ernest and Salomé, isn’t Wilde mostly known just for being himself? Then I thought about the fact that he was hounded by the sort of unashamed homophobia that no one needed to hide in those days, that he was imprisoned, and that afterward he died in poverty at only 46.
We have a very popular myth here in America that if you have talent and work hard, the only question is which stars you want to put in your pocket on your way to success. In spite of the myth, talent and hard work do not exempt you from being human—much as you might wish they would. Wherever humans stand in anticipation, there is a basic truth of human life regarding success: being good is not good enough. You need to be lucky as well. Oscar Wilde’s luck ran out.
It would be some comfort at least if only people with talent who work hard become successful, but even that isn’t true. Dreadful mediocrity does not exclude you from anything: (music) Gene Simmons, (painting) Thomas Kinkade, (politics) Michelle Bachman, (writing) Danielle Steel. Nope, those sons-of-bitches all got lucky, and in the short term, luck counts for more than ability.
By contrast, consider the condition of people who we now think of as some of the most talented who ever lived:
- Antonio Vivaldi, composer of The Four Seasons, almost magically great music—he died in poverty after having been famous throughout Europe.
- Johannes Kepler, a brilliant astronomer who described laws of planetary motion—seven years of his life were made miserable and time was wasted by trying to keep his mother from being tortured to prove whether she was a witch, for fuck’s sake.
- Antoine Lavoissier, called the “father of modern chemistry”, came up with many laws of chemistry—he was guillotined during the French Revolution, when he was 50 years old.
- Edgar Allan Poe, even now, more than 150 years later, still one of the most original American writers—he died poor under mysterious conditions in Baltimore, at age 40.
Because artists lead more prominent lives than many people, we know more about them, but was Edgar Allan Poe more miserable than some poor bastard we never heard of who worked on the docks in Baltimore? Or a woman who died as a young prostitute the same year? People struggle. Life is harsh, and not everyone gets lucky. Most of them we never heard of, and never will. How many construction workers in Dubai earning $200 a month do you know? Or Honduran maids in Chicago working two jobs with no health insurance?
I have days when I think that my own life has been adamantly opposed to almost everything I want. And sometimes, yes, it definitely feels that way. But then I sit with a boilermaker on the most splendid back deck in the Washington metro area, unless there is one with a mountain view, and I relax and read and feel that whatever cares I might have, I’m not interested. For a while, I don’t care about my cares. Then I have some dinner, and some wine, and I sit on the couch and look at my plants (to be exact, a jade plant, a poinsettia, and some odd fern with a remarkable tolerance for abuse), and I write. I cannot deny this goodness, in spite of struggle.
Regarding the struggle, it looks like soon the speed of life’s tornado will pick up again. I can no longer afford to live in Washington, and unless I suddenly get a job—you know, get lucky—by the end of June I will move to Georgia where I can take refuge with my family. It’s better than living under a bridge, although I don’t want to denigrate living under bridges, as I haven’t done it. So if you’re a troll, don’t write me. I didn’t mean it.
Maybe I’ll still find a job in Washington. Maybe I’ll find a job in Georgia. Maybe I’ll go teach English in Japan or Korea. Maybe I’ll be appointed U.S. Ambassador to Wine-Producing Regions of the World. That last one doesn’t seem so likely, though. I’ve also just completed an application to the Peace Corps, which I’ve thought about doing since I was in high school, over 40 years ago. As a friend said when I told her this, “What’s your hurry?”
Well, I needed to think it through. I’m a cautious guy.