Sunday, September 9, 2018

Running on Empty

By James M Jackson

It’s Thursday. I owe my blogmates a draft blog for Sunday (today when you read this). I sit in front of a blank screen and think, “What Shall I write?”

The answer appears from the juke box in my head: a soundtrack of Jackson Browne’s 1977 “Running on Empty.” (Go ahead and play it if you don’t recall the song.)

That song resonated with me at the time of its release. I’m two years and a few days younger than Jackson Browne, but by 1977 I was five years into my career as a consulting actuary, knowing I had sold my soul for a corporate life and already working on a plan for early retirement. Twenty-seven and already running on empty.

Fast forward to 2018 and the possible events that triggered my internal jukebox to queue up “Running on Empty.” Last month I attended my 50th high school reunion. Fifty years gone by like so many summer fields. The harvests bountiful but little to show of it: stubble holding the soil in place, bunches of worn-out machinery parked in a woodlot, and the reasonable financial security from being lucky and thrifty. I doubt my 17-year-old self would have projected how my life has so far turned out. That optimistic youth on fire to change the world would undoubtedly be disappointed at the pragmatic 67-year-old he’s become. At least the pragmatic 67-year-old isn’t disappointed in the kid.

Or maybe “Running on Empty” popped because I feel mentally and physically tired. This week, my sisters and I moved our 94-year-old mother from Independent Living to Assisted Living. Mom knew she had to make the move, but she hated the idea. I told her I understood: none of us likes being told what we must do, whether it’s by our parents, any government, societal or even peer pressure, or, maybe especially, by our children. Perhaps the line “If I can get you to smile before I leave” is the important connection for me this week. Or maybe it’s not knowing how to express how crazy it all feels.

Don’t get me wrong: I know I have been incredibly lucky in the lottery of life. I’m just a tad grumpy. I had book deadlines I wanted to meet; a new novel I wanted to write; fall migration of birds I wanted to see. Instead I have several more bits of experience to remind me it’s all ephemeral. At seventeen, I thought I owned the road. Now I know I owe a debt to the road that I’m traveling on.

And tomorrow, when I’ve finished completing all the online and physical paperwork notifying the world of Mom’s change in address, I’ll get back to the worlds inside my head. I’ll edit False Bottom, the 6th Seamus McCree, and I’ll write the next scene in my next novel.

Here’s a sad little secret: even in these made up worlds of mine, characters don’t say and act the lines I expected. They have their own wills, and I’m often running behind trying to catch up to the road they’re traveling on.

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James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at


KM Rockwood said...

Thanks for the link. I hadn't heard that song in a while.

I hope your mother finds her new living arrangements to be comfortable and pleasing. I know my mother, who didn't want to leave the "house that your father bought me" found assistive living to free her from concerns and worries once she stopped lamenting her loss.

I understand about the characters taking over. I think that may be the best (and possibly the most troubling) thing about being a pantser. Your characters never cease to amaze you with what they come up with!

Warren Bull said...

I know the feeling very well. Your mother might find she really enjoys the new setting. And as to characters, all my characters act on their own. They just allow me to tell their stories since, thankfully, none of them has figure out how to type.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I'm glad your mom is settled. Her new room looks so much larger with furniture in it. And I hope your writing life is settled and moving forward. Your characters might surprise you.

Jim Jackson said...

KM -- it's our hope too that once Mom settles in, she'll realize the advantages of her new living situation outweigh the disadvantages of smaller physical space.

Warren -- I'm worried that with new technology that will allow machines to recognize thoughts that my characters may short circuit the normal writing stage and go directly from thought to manuscript. (Maybe I need to turn that into a science fiction story!)

Gloria Alden said...

Jim, I just attended my sixty second year reunion a few weeks ago. As for your mother, I've already told my kids they'll have to drag me kicking, screaming and biting them if they tried to take me away from my home.

As to my characters I almost don't have to think of what they have to say because like Warren says, they speak and act on their own which makes it a little easier for me.

Jim Jackson said...

Gloria, I wish you a long, healthy life and a quick sudden death. The problem when a parent can no longer take care of themselves is many children face. Fortunately for me, my mother recognizes she needs the help, so she accepts the change even though it is not her preference.