Page Two: When I Write the Book

On luck, anarchy, and the narrative vagaries of life

Page Two
Back in the old days, Austin's airport was not only at Mueller but boasted a pretty basic terminal, one whose lobby housed both the Gnu Tub refinishers display window and one of those airport insurance machines. It cost literally quarters to buy hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of insurance. One time, when my friend Fred was heading back East after having visited, I got him to give me all his quarters and bought some quantity of such insurance.

Fred was a little offended, feeling that I was betting against him, but I told him there was no worry, as I was never that lucky. This offended him even more, as he took it to mean I was saying that I was so unlucky that he was sure to live, so I wouldn't be able to collect. I tried to reassure him that what I meant was that I simply don't have that kind of luck, so I was actually guaranteeing his safe flight rather than hoping otherwise.

I don't really believe in supernatural "luck," but I use the term as a kind of shorthand for indicating how we end up being treated by fate – "Fate," in that context, is also shorthand – a way of suggesting a consideration of the mundane realism of where our conscious and unconscious choices lead us – rather than as any kind of predictor, and certainly not indicating predestination or any otherworldly guidance.

Regardless, I don't win. This is why I rarely gamble, buy lottery tickets, or even check the numbers on my tickets for some theatrical giveaway. I've never had that kind of "luck." On the other hand, this is why I never worry about crashing when flying, no matter how rickety a single-engine plane I may be in; instead, the more the plane is falling apart, the more I usually enjoy it. I'm also not concerned with sinking when sailing or derailing when riding a train; those occurrences would also not be my kind of luck. Car crashes are a more common disaster, a kind of day-to-day inconvenience, and given I now drive like Mr. Magoo, I feel no kind of protection when so engaged.

It isn't that I'm not lucky; in so many ways, I've ended up one of the most blessed people I know, life having treated me better than I deserve by any stretch of the imagination. Part of what preserved my run, I think, was that I was so grumpily oblivious to any and all of my good fortune. Most of my life, I was usually too busy – deep in the amusement-park ride of traveling the ever darker and deeper tunnels of my depression, ignoring and blocking out the often-overwhelming amount of light trying to get into my world. No way; I am superstitious to a degree about the ever-changing tides of my life. Enjoyment invites disaster, acknowledgement precedes nullification, appreciation is a prologue to grave disappointment, and any kind of basking will fatally poison one's soul.

My luck, if you will, has always been with people and experiences. Invariably, I've been oblivious and unappreciative of both relationships and experiences, often so embittered as to dramatically misunderstand and hostilely react to the best of them. In a way, I'm sure, this preserves my inexplicable and undeserved trajectory.

People in particular having long proved an area of weakness, one that has made me take for granted some of the most enlightening and extraordinary people I've encountered. My dumb luck is the unlikely product of my inability to focus, lack of attention, and casual self-absorption. As with so many aspects of my life, this realization is not to be offered as a lesson to others because, basically, it isn't.

The glass is never either half-full or half-empty to me, but instead, regardless of what level is reached, it is always just about to spill.

Lone Wolf and Cub: Sword of Vengeance is the first in the original six films in the Lone Wolf and Cub/Sword of Vengeance/Babycart series, which is easily my favorite martial-arts series of all time. The films are about the adventures of Ogami Itto, the shogun's former executioner disgraced and on the run, wandering the dirt roads of medieval Japan, pushing his young son ahead of him in a wooden baby cart. In the first film, Ogami Itto is set up, falsely accused, and, in disgrace, dismissed from his post. His wife and servants having been massacred, he realizes he must head out on a journey that is sure to be hellish, violent, and perilous. Trying to decide whether or not to take his maybe-1-year-old son, Daigoro, with him, he decides on a test. He puts a ball down on the ground and places a sword a few feet away from it. He then lets Daigoro crawl toward them to see the one he will pick. Choosing the sword means that Daigoro is ready for such a life as they will be forced to lead, and they head out together.

As a child, given the same situation, I would have crawled between them. This would not have even represented being difficult or idiosyncratic but would rather have merely indicated how confused I was, not even getting the basic idea of the choice.

After graduating high school, I went to the College of Basic Studies, a two-year school at Boston University. At the end of those two years, my grades weren't good enough to get into BU. Facing the draft, I still frittered away the summer, not applying to other schools. Finally, as time had just about run out, I realized I had better do so, or I would be joining the military. Vermont, I decided, was where I wanted to go to school. I sent away to three colleges for applications. One was two pages long, another 15, and the longest 40. I wasn't even a couple of pages into filling out the 15-page form, the 40-page one remaining completely untouched, when Windham College (of the two-page form) accepted me.

My two years there became part of a half-decade during which I was based in Vermont, easily the most entertaining and interesting period of my life up to that time. Windham was one of a crop of small liberal-arts colleges that sprang up in New England during that time, catering to baby boomers and fertilized by the draft. The college has been gone for several decades now.

During both of my years at the college, I worked on the student newspaper – though, rather than being a prodigy or star, I was more of a hanger-on. The first year, the paper was a classic hippie sheet: poetry, psychedelic art, and the kind of stories that were just as coherent when, during layout, many paragraphs got pasted up in the wrong order as they were when they got the layout right. It was a lot of fun, always done at the last minute, and more a work of visual distraction than linear information.

The second year, given the résumé of the new editor, I expected more of the same, only that the paper might be more coherently politically radical. William was brilliant as expected and bearded, but his beard was neatly trimmed. He wore clean jeans and white shirts and was dedicated to making the paper more professional and very much college-oriented. Now I realize he was probably only 23, but because of his demeanor and the fact that he was married, I would have guessed he was much older.

Unlike the editor of our trippy, dreaming design past, he went in for a straight, rigid layout that accommodated classic, reported pieces on the school, faculty, and students. In a very different way, the paper was still a lot of fun to produce, and I became very friendly with William and Cecilia, his wife. One of my ongoing handicaps is my inability to remember how to pronounce people's names correctly (as well as most words in general and any foreign words in particular). Whether "Cecilia" was pronounced with a hard or a long "C" I could never remember, so she was one of those people whom, though I liked and knew well for a year, I probably called by name less than half a dozen times.

The three of us would often hang out, talking together; they would have me over for dinner, and we'd sometimes go to films together. At the paper, I learned a lot from William.

During most of the year, I shied away from approaching William to ask about the work he had become famous for, figuring as I usually do that if he wanted to talk about it, he would bring it up. One night, as we sat on the porch of their trailer, rude or not, I decided to ask him about the book. As soon as I did, Cecilia started laughing, and he didn't look overly happy. Although he has said otherwise at different times, that night he told me he had written The Anarchist Cookbook just to make money and that it certainly didn't represent his political beliefs. William Powell told me he had researched it at the New York Public Library, that almost all the information in it was readily and publicly available, and that he looked on the book more as satire than as advocating a political position. He did seem amused that the book had taken on a life of its own and had become an important outlaw work of culture.

In interviews, at the time and later, he said that when he wrote the book at 19, he was making a political statement against the Vietnam War. At the time I knew him, he didn't claim that he was in any way being political – actually, much the opposite. He did say his current project was writing a novel about Gavrilo Princip, the anarchist whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, led to World War I. That work, however, seemed to be driven much more by an academic and historic curiosity than by any burning political convictions on Powell's part.

Later I heard he left Vermont to go work on the Alaskan pipeline with a professor, another writer. The word was that he left Cecilia, but by the time it got to me, it was too vague and inconsistent to be considered reliable.

Sometime later, I heard he had come back from Alaska, finished school, had children (whether with Cecilia or a new wife was never clear), and become a teacher. But I kept up with few of my Windham friends, so this information also was very vague and uncertain.

Some years back, he posted an author's note on Amazon mentioning much of the above and also noting that he had become very religious. Denouncing The Anarchist Cookbook, Powell wrote that if he could, he would pull it out of print. Unfortunately, he didn't own the copyright, so he couldn't stop the book from being printed, nor was he earning any royalties from this book that is in who knows how many printings, has been pirated all over the Net, and inspired several generations of mostly pathetic, would-be imitations.

Before I met him, I expected the author of The Anarchist Cookbook would be a pedal-to-the-metal editor, regarding journalistic rules as fleeting signposts to be passed at radical speeds. The paper, I expected, would be some mutant combination of the Rat, The East Village Other, and I.F. Stone's Weekly, with political actions and anarchist activities taking precedence over editorial meetings or style discussions. Instead, there were neither actions nor activities, and there was an emphasis on clean writing, correct style, and traditional reporting. I probably learned as much about straight journalism during that year as I've ever learned before or since (and it's still not much, I grant you).

This story is without relevance, filled with contradictions, and peopled by not-really-fleshed-out characters – but then, that is also true of many a good story. It is filled with the silences of time passing without explanation, edited by the whims of corrupt and distorted memory, and certainly is in no way reliable or really verifiable.

From where you start, if you're really lucky, it will turn out that you really have not even the slightest accurate idea or knowledge of where you're going to end up or what you are going to learn on the way. Again, with luck, rather than disappointment, the journey will generate trust; rather than despair, excitement; and rather than failure, though your life might not have gone at all as you expected, it will have been more than interesting along the way. end story

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

luck, Louis Black, fate, autobiography, William Powell, The Anarchist Cookbook, Lone Wolf and Cub, Windham College

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