Sunday, May 04, 2008

Small Rewards

I always want to know where the roads go. Saturday I found one of surpassing beauty -- a winding country road, flawlessly cambered and almost empty, snaking over hills. It ran through chaparral, grassland, oak hills, even a redwood forest damp and sheltered enough for ferns -- a rare sight here. Every turn brought a new prospect: hills, valleys, woods, the Bay glittering in the sun, a reservoir mirroring the sky.

Except for bicyclers, the road was almost deserted on a Saturday afternoon. I bet it's even better on a weekday afternoon, when the bike-riders are off at work. A place to stretch my reflexes and my eyes, to dawdle or zip as the mood dictates.

Best of all, this road is not forty miles away, across the bay and up in the Santa Cruz Mountains. It runs from Hayward to Oakland. You might know it as A Street or Redwood Road. I've driven sections of it a thousand times but never, before, beyond the high school, where one turns off to go to the Episcopal church.

That road felt like an extraordinary gift from the universe. Or maybe part of God's Frequent Seeker Rewards Program.

For most of the time I've lived in the East Bay, I haven't had time or energy to go exploring. Particularly when I was making the vicious commute to Palo Alto, the last thing I wanted to do on weekends was drive anywhere.

The life I was living prevented me from doing the things I loved and wanted -- the big things, like writing fiction, and the little things, like exploring country roads. And the things I substituted for what I really needed were both insufficient and expensive.

And it's not a question of leisure versus work. I am working now -- working damned hard, in fact -- but under conditions that are much more conducive to my being able to function day to day. I'm cooking and eating a variety of foods, I'm able to give more energy and love to my partners, I'm doing better with life maintenance chores, and I am even unpacking boxes and sorting possessions. Someday I may no longer be living in an apartment that looks like I moved in an hour ago.

Clearly this is something I need to consider when I look for the next job. It's almost a tautology -- when you're living the right life, you'll get the things you need, because by definition the right life is the one that feeds and nurtures you. But why is it so damned hard to remember that?

By "getting the things you need" I don't mean that you'll become a lottery winner or be protected from all loss and grief. I am not one of those prosperity Christians who thinks that prayer exists to beef up your bank account. Mine will undoubtedly shrink, in fact, and that's OK.

Maybe it's easier to see it the other way around: a job that twists your soul, a marriage that gradually erodes your sense of selfhood, a life where you have to deny who you are and who you love are bound to make you miserable. They will have compensations, of course, otherwise you wouldn't stay long enough for it to become a problem. But they have high costs, and they swallow the energy you could be using for something more productive.

The rewards of the right life (or miseries of the wrong kind) are not in the nature of arbitrary reinforcement from a Skinnerian deity with a sadistic sense of humor. They're much closer to the laws of physics. Defy gravity at your peril, and don't blame the mirror when the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection.

I was talking about this with Michele when I was struck with a another aspect of the issue. The work to build the right life may hurt like hell. It may even seem worse than the familiar wretchedness of the wrong one. But it pays off -- and that positive payoff is something I consistently forget to include in my cost-benefit analysis.

There are excellent reasons for that quirk of psychology. But it's useful to remember that it isn't usually true any more. Asking for what I want, trying to get what I need, making changes -- these do involve some frustration and pain, but these days when I do them, I also actually get what I want without having to pay a cost too high to endure. This is what I have to convince my protective back-brain, which doesn't want me to throw away whatever I have now in hopes of a better future. It learned too early, too thoroughly, that asking for change brought things much worse than whatever I was enduring.

I have a huge chunk of work to do in therapy about reconnecting with my body, and I have been seriously considering not doing it. What's the point? It's going to take years of work and a lot of misery, and I'm 48. Why bother? By the time it's done I'll be old and close to death. The alternative to doing it will probably be shortening my life by some unknowable number of years. And I was very close to saying that an earlier death was preferable to fighting this war.

But maybe, if I do it, I'll get rewards I never even thought of. I didn't quit my job to write so that I could find beautiful back roads or eat a better diet. Those were bonuses. I bet there will be bonuses to the bodywork, too -- things I cannot imagine now.

Worth trying.

Another Frequent Seeker Reward: free MP3 of Dirty Town, the new Steve Winwood single. I've been waiting for a good new Steve Winwood album. This looks like I've got my wish. The verses may not be not great songwriting, but the choruses and riffs are catchy, urgent, compelling.

Winwood's voice is deeper, maybe a little hoarser, than his voice when he was the fourteen-year-old lead singer of the Spencer Davis Group. His keyboard line starts like a lonely blues song but breaks into a rock anthem -- and nobody writes better rock anthem than Winwood at his best.

Eric Clapton's godlike guitar sounds more like the passionate, protesting wail of the Cream years than the magisterial resignation of some of his recent work. Which is not to say all of his recent work has been rockless -- have you heard the Cream reunion album? Blew me away. They are still damned good -- better than anybody else -- even if Ginger Baker looks as kippered as Keith Richards.

Definitely worth the download. Amazon has an MP3 downloader, but it only works with Mac OS 10.4 and up, and I'm still running 10.3.9 on the laptop. Nevertheless, I had no trouble downloading the song.

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