Of horses, birthdays and no regrets.
I had a milestone birthday in June so I decided to do something momentous and vaguely pricey. My mother pitched the idea of a fancy watch because, for some reason no one can fathom, I have an almost sexual attraction to timepieces. My father suggested a large gift certificate to the lunch buffet at 16th and Chestnut--one of the many food-related things for which we share a passion.
But nothing they suggested felt right, perhaps because few things at this age feel right.
At 40 I'd expected I'd have children. I'd own a home. I'd be in academia, writing my fourth book on something irrelevant, like whether Cocoa Puffs can truly exist in other cultures or if they're untranslatable.
Instead I'm here, wherever that is, and like everyone else, I have to learn to accept what life dished out instead of what I wanted it to dish. Because let's face facts: No one at 40 is exactly where they thought they'd be. No one walks around saying, "What do you know? When I was 18 I dreamed I'd be right here. On the dot. How delightful!" (If they do, please don't introduce me.)
It seems like everyone has regrets. As a kid I often heard adults around me talking about bad decisions they made, things that'd be different if only. I decided early on not to be like them, but it's hard. I have regrets even about small things: Should I really have picked the pasta with chicken at the buffet? The fried rice looked just as good...
The thing I wanted most at 40 was India. My lust for India is not unlike my lust for a Rolex Oyster Perpetual Datejust: baffling yet fierce. I had an image of myself alone on a balcony, a hot breeze against my face, listening to the ruckus of modern Calcutta below. But my parents were worried. My mother kept saying, "What about your 'stomach'?" By which she meant my bowels might explode.
India is expensive, too. There's a lot of poverty in Calcutta, and though I apparently want to see it, I don't want to live it while I stay there, a contradiction that makes me repulsive but also very American.
Given the limitations, I turned to my second fantasy: horses.
Initially I thought I'd go on a rough-hewn equestrian vacation in Argentina, galloping across the pampas in my "gaucho" pants (circa 1980) on the back of a beautiful steed.
But how was I going to navigate the Andes if the last time I was on a horse, in college, I couldn't even trot?
So I downgraded my expectations and went to a dude ranch, which provided many opportunities for my friends to mock me in advance. I chose Colorado because I'd never been to the West. In fact, when people talked about it--especially the "mythic" West--my eyes would flutter. It was a sleep aid.
Now I feel differently. I don't mean to get John Denver about it, but the minute I saw the Rockies from the plane window, I felt moved. It was such a bizarrely patriotic feeling, it frightened me. I immediately conjured Dubya in my head to make sure I was still immune to him. (I was.)
I spent seven days in the San Juan mountains doing little more than riding horses. There was no cell phone reception, Internet or TV. For amusement people played cards, shot eight- ball or jammed on mandolin and fiddle.
Each day I got dirt under my nails and grit on my boots--dirt I'd earned. I rode up rocky trails, across rivers and through stands of trees blackened by forest fires.
At night I'd drink a shot of Maker's Mark to warm up, then go back to my log cabin and have a bath. I'd turn my little heater on as the night got cold and fall asleep to the creaking of the pine trees that bent over my cabin.
Each day had a declarative simplicity. One morning I woke up to snow flurries. By afternoon it was 80 degrees and sunny. That evening I dug in the piano bench and found yellowing sheet music. A girl and I played four-hand pieces together while other people talked horses, which is all anyone ever talked about.
Another evening we sat around a campfire and I asked a guy with a guitar to sing a Townes Van Zandt song. A dog came over and put a stick in my hands for me to throw. I rubbed him behind his ears and felt purely happy--and embarrassed for being cheesy. Then I thought it was the city me who was embarrassed, and I regretted it.