Poor Man’s Feast: The Things We Almost Do

Posted inCreative Voices

I clung to the two words like a drowning woman clings to a life raft: Beaverton, Oregon.

I already pictured us there when my father said these words over dinner: The headhunter called and there’s a marketing director job they want me to go for in Beaverton, Oregon, for a sneaker company.

I knew very little about Oregon, except that runners came from Oregon, and I knew that there were a lot of hikers out there, and people who were generally healthier looking than my friends in Queens, who, like me, lived in apartments and spent their out-of-doors time playing handball against the wall at our local junior high school, trying to outrun Son of Sam, and buying after school quaaludes from our gym teacher.

The headhunter called and there’s a marketing director job they want me to go for in Beaverton, Oregon, for a sneaker company. When my father said these words, time stopped. I was already there, in the bungalow we’d live in, in this green, green place with massive trees, where physical activity was such a part of the culture that people made careers out of it. I imagined my father letting his hair grow a little bit, suddenly sprouting a bushy mustache like Steve Prefontaine’s, and carrying a threadbare JanSport backpack instead of a leather briefcase.

My mother, sitting across the table from my father, cut him off after the word sneaker.

If you go for the interview, she said, stirring her coffee, I’m leaving you.

And just like that: no Oregon. No possibility of it. No chance.

No massive trees in a green, green place, no bungalow, no easy western glow of vibrant health. I was there and gone in a matter of seconds.

My parents, taken by a 7 year old me. Monterey, 1970

A few weeks later, my father came home from work with the first copy of Outside Magazine; he was trying to land an advertising deal with them — Jann Wenner, William Randolph Hearst III, and Jack Ford were the founders — and he had gotten me a charter subscription. The advertising deal fell apart but in the midst of the New York City garbage strike, Son of Sam, the Blackout, and our neighbor’s heroin addicted son offering to relieve me of my 14-year-old virginity, I spent days reading and re-reading the magazine, and mostly looking at the pictures of astonishingly healthy people climbing and hiking and skiing and running and hanging off the sides of mountains. It was associative: if I climbed and hiked and skied and ran, I would be one of them. I might even live in Oregon, with or without my parents. Ultimately, I never learned how to climb and my hiking is mostly pretty tame, and I stopped skiing in the late 90s after I blew my knee out at Stowe, but I’m still in love with the magazine, which has the same aspirational effect on me now, at 59. Maybe because I’m 59. Back then, it was all about: you could do this. You could be this. Now, it’s all about: maybe you could still do this, if you don’t fall and break a hip. Stop wasting time.


What would have happened had my father said to my mother We’re going. Who would we have become, living out west, my father walking to work every morning in Nike Waffles instead of his Adler Elevators? What if I grew up climbing Mount Hood instead of eight flights of stairs to our apartment during the blackout? What if I’d become a western trail runner type of woman instead of that incredibly slow, back-of-the-pack schlepper who herniated a disc by wearing the wrong kind of sneakers?

This is the question, and I ask a version of it every day: who might I have become IF? If I’d gone to Iowa for my MFA even though my father actually threatened suicide when I told him about it? If I walked away from my elderly mother and let her fend for herself instead of continuing to abuse me? If I hadn’t had that first sip of wine when I was sixteen? If I hadn’t grown up frightened of money, because my parents used it as a battering ram against each other? If, on that night in late October 1999, I deleted Susan’s gorgeous response to my AOL message board post without even opening it?

It’s all a little It’s A Wonderful Life, isn’t it, to imagine a life lived diametrically opposed to the one you’re actually in, the one you’ve got, the one you’re inhabiting. Be here now, says Ram Dass, and in a world that values exceptionalism, where bright shiny objects and success at fill-in-the-blank are what we’re trained to strive for, it’s hard to remember his words, because there always may be a place that’s better than here and now. At least that’s what we’re told.

On that night in 1999, my finger hovered for a full five minutes over the delete key while I debated whether or not to delete the email from a person called Susan, without even opening it. Above my computer hung a picture of my grandmother, who I adored; I looked up at it that night, and I swear that she said Do it, open it, read it. And so I did, thank God. I was a split second decision away from a completely different life.

But everything else? What if. What have I missed? What’s passed me by because I made the wrong choice, or was in the wrong place at the wrong time, or made no decision at all because it was the easier thing to do. What have I not experienced because of fear? The MFA scenario: if I’d gone ahead against my father’s wishes and gotten it back in the mid-eighties, I’d likely be teaching now at the university level (where, to be clear, I often do, as a guest lecturer). We’d be more financially secure. We’d be a bit safer. My writing workshops are generally waitlisted, but even after all sorts of awards and three memoirs and years as an editor and essayist, I still need a terminal degree, which is a requirement nearly everywhere. That, and there are approximately 9.8 million MFA graduates flooding the job market every year, most of them younger than my oldest pair of jeans. What would have happened if I’d made the harder choice? How can I possibly know?

I have a big birthday coming up at the end of June, and last year at this time, I told Susan that I wanted to spend it on a surfboard. I’d like to run a 5K for Parkinson’s research. I want to get back on skis. I would like to kayak Glacier Bay. I would like to do all of them successfully sober. I meant to do these things all along; I just decided not to because I assumed I had all the time in the world. I made that choice. All those years of Outside caught up with me, though, and I have come to realize that I don’t want to be those people; barring ultramarathons and scaling El Capitan, I already am that person. Only, fear has stopped me; fear has always gotten in the way. That’s what it does, for every one of us.

I wonder at what my father’s life might have been had he told my mother exactly what he was thinking that night at dinner, got the job, and moved us to Beaverton, Oregon. They were divorced a year later anyway; that’s where things were always heading. But what if they hadn’t? What if they’d worked on their marriage and stayed together, living into their elderly years married and in love, going for long walks after early dinners, my father wearing old khakis and his ancient Nike Waffles, my mother in perfectly faded Levis and one of my dad’s button down shirts, washed so much over the years that the collar is fraying.

I can’t quite picture it; it feels almost impossible. The choices they made, from the start, were so very different, and the lives they led, exemplified by those choices: this is what life is. My father, finally together with the woman who became the love of his life — ironically a psychologist specializing in trauma — hiked with her in British Columbia, walked the lava fields in Maui, survived two major cardiac surgeries, and was in the best shape of his life when he was killed in a car accident at 79 near the home he shared with her. My mother is still living in her Manhattan apartment, now 87, angry for all the missed opportunities, all the could haves and should haves that she feels entitled to, but never made happen.

Maybe it’s about staring down a big birthday and knowing that there are some things I should have done but didn’t, and accepting that for some of them, it is too late. Maybe it’s about finally coming to terms with that fact, and moving forward, always forward, and keeping my heart where my feet are.

This post was originally published on Elissa Altman’s blog Poor Man’s Feast, The Beard Award-winning journal about the intersection of food, spirit, and the families that drive you crazy. Read more on her Substack, or keep up with her archives here.

Photo by James Morden on Unsplash