As my wife starts her own blog on the transition of being 40, I am reminded that I am in my own transition. Jenny’s transition involves returning to the world of adults after five years of raising our young daughter, Cerridwyn. My transition involves buying a hat.
I wouldn’t call this a midlife crisis. Thirty-six isn’t exactly midlife these days. I don’t think so, anyway. I’m still young, though teetering on the edge of Not-Young. Besides, I sold a sports car rather than buy one. And I replaced it with a hat.
This has only made sense to a few open-minded people, but then again I’ve only bothered to explain to a few. The lovely Japanese woman who runs one of the schools I work for didn’t get it.
“I sold my Mustang and bought this hat.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” she said.
“Yeah, I know. It’s hard to explain. It’s a way of letting go of my youth and reclaiming my sense of self.”
“Nani? I don’t understand what you are saying.”
Yeah. I felt the need to explain it to Kumiko, not because she was entitled to explanation, and not because I burned with some self-conscious obligation to justify my new hatness. I wanted to explain it to myself in the simplest of terms—language barriers often force you into that.
It worked well enough for myself, if not for Kumi.
Okay, so, the hat: a cheap knockoff ofHerbert Johnson’s “The Poet.” That symbolism is clear. What other hat does the Writer wear? But this hat is famous. Harrison Ford wore it as Indiana Jones. It came with a little Indiana Jones pin sewn into the band. Jenny ripped that sucker off for me. It’s not his hat anymore, it’s mine.
Indy was my first hero, and I wrote my first short story in the fourth grade. It was called “Indiana Jason and the Temple of Bananas.” It was four pages, front and back. Indiana Jason chased the bad guy into a cave, and, like young David against the giant, he slung a rock into the villain’s belly button—the belly button, because besides the butt or the nuts, which would have gotten me in trouble, that’s the funniest place to hit him—and the villain melted into a gelatinous ooze. Then, just as Indiana Jason was about to leave the cave, from the ooze on the cave floor arose Farrah Fawcett and Loni Anderson. In bikinis. They flanked the young hero, and off the three of them walked into the Great Whatever. The story was a hit amongst my 10-year-old peers.
I would forget about Indy during the prolonged identity crisis of my post-adolescence. I bounced back and forth between majors: history, pre-med, pre-law, political science, communication, journalism, education. It was during this time of being pulled apart by possibility that I got my first new car, a white 1998 Mustang. I made a symbol of it immediately, equating it with the white horse the hero rides into the sunset. Justine, what I named the car, was my steed, and ride off into the sunset we did, into every sunset we could find. One sunset found us at the banks of the Mississippi River, reading Poe and scrawling our own verses. This was about the time I decided I should become a writer. Clearly I was a romantic. And romantics write.
This identity would take a long time to set in. I’d never really envisioned myself in the role before. Perhaps it should have been obvious. Every English teacher I ever had pushed me in that direction. I’d won contests, achieved a “Distinguished” rating on my writing portfolio in high school. Eventually, I was getting paid to write.
But here’s the thing: In the fifteen years since I had decided to become a writer, I had never really felt like a real writer. I felt like a wannabe who may be kidding himself. I enrolled in Spalding University’s MFA program only on the suggestion of a friend. I’d never heard of the school or the degree. The door opened and I went through it. I had no idea when I got there I’d be surrounded by people who already had master’s degrees, who already had books published, who knew what was meant by “story arc.” They told Moby Dick jokes. I’d never read it, just pretended I understood and laughed on cue. They were writers. I was in over my head.
Well, I graduated. I became a teacher of writing. I got a few things published. But even though I’d started calling myself one, I still did not feel like a writer. I wondered if ever would. I wondered at what point I would feel justified calling myself that. Would I feel like one if and when I published a book? Would the book actually have to sell? I still haven’t received any sort of check from a publisher. Could I call myself a writer when I finally get one?
So, this summer, at 36 years old, I reached a moment of truth for myself. I was measuring myself by the wrong criteria. Justine sat in the driveway rotting. I’d long stopped driving her. She wasn’t quite right for baby car seats. I came to view her as the last vehicle of indecisive youth in my life. I didn’t want to sell her. She was a part of me. We’d been through a lot. I’d put her through road warrior hell. Selling her felt like selling my youth. Selling her, in a way, was buying into an adult identity. I was a grownup. I should act like a grownup. I was a writer. I should act like a writer.
My mother used to say, “Dress for the job you want, not for the job you have.” Now, what she meant was suit and tie and spit-shined shoes. She did not mean an Indiana Jones hat. But after, I don’t know, 20 years of hearing her say that, I finally took her advice. I couldn’t have my white horse, but I could decide to step into a role I’d wanted to step into for a long time. I am a writer. I wear the poet’s hat. I wear the hat of my first hero. I become Indiana Jason, sans bimbos. Indiana Jason does not need bimbos, or white horses, or anybody telling him whether or not he is a writer. He is one.
In the end, the hat is not a fashion statement. It’s a life statement. It’s a statement of my identity as Writer.