We are all, in many ways, shaped by our life experiences.
It is important to remember, however, that those experiences don’t have to define who you are or what you become. That is up to you.
We are all, in many ways, shaped by our life experiences.
It is important to remember, however, that those experiences don’t have to define who you are or what you become. That is up to you.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
It’s a common question at job interviews and often creeps in silently when people reach age or career milestones.
Rephrased more broadly, it is asking: What are your goals?
In most Western societies—the only ones I really know—we are told it is good to have goals; that you need to set your sights on a destination and follow that path to its conclusion. It is how you get ahead. It is how you find happiness, or at least the stuff that brings happiness.
I have spent my life working this way.
I tell you this not to present my resume—you can find that on my LinkedIn pages (yeah, I have two)—but rather to explain the pattern of my life (and probably yours) in contrast to where I am today.
You see, for the first time in my life, I have no goals. And I am finding it incredibly disconcerting.
Sure, like everyone else, I have daily, weekly, monthly and yearly obligations.
I need money to pay for rent, food, bills, hockey tickets, beer. I have editorial deadlines and the odd gift to buy. But I have no long-term goals. I am living my life without my next destination in mind.
Five years from now? Hell, I sometimes don’t know where I’ll be five minutes from now.
In some ways, I am as close to living in the moment as you can get without living under a tree or in a cave (basement apartment notwithstanding). And it’s freaking me out.
Having a goal is a hard habit to break after 50+ years.
To be clear, I’m not looking for a goal—floating freely has some lovely benefits—but I struggle some days to know what the point of my day is or was.
Simply being is really simple—it requires no preparation or gear—but our society has taught us that it is wasteful; that it is selfish; that even our “free” time must be productive.
Having no goals, I find, is entirely selfish. I can only affect change in myself.
But I’ve come to realize that “selfish” isn’t bad in and of itself; only when it negatively impacts others, which I don’t believe I am.
Still, like a good Pavlovian pound puppy, I sometimes find myself whimpering at the window, waiting for someone to throw the stick of destiny, to give my life meaning and purpose.
Is it okay or desirable to lead a purpose-less life? Is that my purpose? [Never met-a-physics that didn’t hurt my brain.]
But then, it’s 7:30 a.m. and the alarm goes off. I turn it off and go back to sleep.
Life without goals definitely has its upside.
(A writing exercise in which the first word was “shelf”.)
The words struck David’s ear drums like so many flies on a glue strip, their significance dying almost on contact.
“Did you want the catalogue code, too?”
The glue strips over-burdened, David’s head tilted to one side, involuntarily signalling his very real lack of comprehension.
David’s irises shrank to pin points, his brain doing its best to pull focus back to the moment at hand. Emerald green flecks glinted in the near spotlight that bathed the librarian.
David fought not to shake his head in the hope of releasing the cob webs that had yet again taken hold of his brain. He wet his tongue, a dry mouth crusting his silence.
“Perhaps you could write that down for me,” he smiled at the eternally patient woman behind the counter.
Despite David’s complete lack of social graces, he was an easy patron for the woman. He knew exactly what book he was looking for, rather than simply presenting her with a laundry list of random words that only may have appeared in the book title or subject matter.
Slowly drawing a scrap of paper from a tidy stack, the woman dragged her pencil in tight arcs and lines. With each stroke, David was certain that he could hear the graphite crack and flake from the pencil’s tip until finally, the room went silent again.
Looking up, he caught the librarian’s eye, which crinkled as she slid the paper across the counter.
David smiled as he swiped the sheet and dissolved into the stacks, leaving behind a rapidly dissipating vapour trail of Old Spice and anxiety.
Moving swiftly down row after row, David had the sensation of being swept along by a rainbow-glittered tornado, the multicoloured book spines flashing by, muted here and there by cellophane wrappers designed to keep fingerprints and legibility at bay.
Despite his knowledge of perspective—a Grade 8 art class quickly coming to mind—the stacks seemed to narrow the further he journeyed into the bowels of the bibliographic beast. And all the air was drowned in the musty thoughts of insistent authors in cacophonic sensory overload.
David’s chameleon-like eyes worked in solitude, taking turns glancing from the dampening destiny sheet clutched between his fingers and the digital tattoos that graced the spines.
His left eye was first to light upon the congruence, a match that was shortly confirmed by his right eye. Binocular certitude.
This was the book.
Taking a deep calming breath that did little more than trigger a coughing spasm, David rubbed his hands against his trouser legs, only to realize he was smearing pulped paper onto his leg. The librarian’s note had given up the fight to remain whole under persistent perspiring assault.
Without being aware of his actions, David flipped the book’s pages through trembling fingers, eyes scanning for familiar references.
The red wagon on Bakersfield Hill.
The mustard-stained tuxedo on prom night.
The tow motor accident at the soda factory.
The surreal night at the library looking for a book available nowhere else.
It was all here, written in black sans-serif letters on egg-shell pages. So alien to see it captured on vellum and yet so familiar to a constantly refreshing memory.
Clearing his throat, David flipped ahead in the book, trying not to glance at the intervening pages, instead saving his energies for whatever he found on the last pages before the Appendix.
David smiled as he struck the back cover and realized there was no Appendix. He’d had emergency surgery shortly after his 21st birthday.
But the smile faded just as quickly as the memory as he peripherally espied the final words of the book to his left.
As though resisting a coiled spring, David turned his gaze upon the final paragraph, his temples literally throbbing with the rush of blood to his brain.
His eyes all but excised the first word. Then the second. Then the third.
Words became phrases. Phrases became sentences. Sentences revealed thoughts. That’s how writing worked.
The stacks rang with raucous laughter. Library patrons became meercats at the disturbing intrusive sound, unable to identify its source or direction.
They remained unaware that in the darkest corner of the library, a man had just learned how his life would end.
An ending, it turns out, that was pretty fucking funny.
(I’m going to post this here, now, so that when I do make it big financially, I can prove I really did believe this while I was still poor.)
If you don’t love writing for the sake of writing, get out. For the sake of your own sanity, do something else.
I would like to make a career of my screenwriting and novel writing, but if I don’t, I will still do it and be glad that I do.
The truth is that the majority of us (like 99.9997%) will never make it big as writers…not Terry Rossio big, doubtfully Damon Lindelof big, nor Nora Ephron big. Hell, I’m not even sure the simple majority (50%+) will even make a livable wage as writers.
But as much as I want to hit it big and spread the gospel of my genius (he says only half-facetiously), I write because I love writing and I don’t know how to not write.
I can do other things to keep food in the house and a roof over my head, but I don’t want to if I don’t have to. It all interferes with my time for writing.
Perhaps this passive approach to accomplishing something with my writing will keep me from making it big. But I prefer to think that by focusing on the joy of writing, the excitement of expressing my thoughts and feelings, I will be happy throughout the entire process, from now to wherever and whenever I end up.
If nothing else, this attitude means that everything that comes down the road is a known positive rather than a potential disappointment.
Good luck, everyone.
The announcement of Peter O’Toole’s death came as a bit of a shock to me. Not so much that he died—he was a very old gentleman—but rather in how it affected me. I felt like I’d lost a friend whom I had not seen in quite some time.
Fairly or unfairly, I give Peter O’Toole a lot of credit for the life that I am leading right now: the life of a creative artist who plies his art with words. You see, Peter O’Toole was the biggest name in a little movie that might not have seen the light of my consciousness had he not been in it.
The movie is My Favorite Year.
For the uninitiated (For shame, Swanny), the movie tells the story of a couple days in life of a budding young comedy writer working in the 1950s on the King Kaiser Show; a clear homage to Sid Caesar’s Show of Shows. On the day the movie opens, Benjamin is going to meet his greatest hero, fading matinee idol Alan Swan; a clear homage to Errol Flynn. Unfortunately, Swann’s star has faded into alcoholism and practical destitution, and it becomes Benjamin’s job to keep Swann sober enough for the live television performance. The rest is a love story between these two men; one ascending, the other wishing he were dead.
If that doesn’t want to make you see the movie, you’re dead yourself.
The thing is, for all the university science degrees and work I had done, my life was incomplete. What I didn’t realize right away upon seeing My Favorite Year—mostly because the young are stupid and blind—was that I desperately wanted to be Benjamin. More accurately, I WAS Benjamin, I just didn’t know it.
I was a creative writer. I was a comedy writer. But I didn’t know how to express it beyond my own personal doodlings. And even if I had, science seemed the more rationale move (btw, I love science…really, I do).
As I’ve related in previous posts on my creative journey, it wasn’t until my wife took me aside one day and cornered me into answering what I wanted to do more than anything that I realized and embraced my inner Benjamin.
My life of today was still about a decade away, but that moment, that recognition, that admission started the ball rolling.
I had a visual to go by, a guide. I couldn’t go back in time to write for a 1950s sketch comedy show, but I could work toward the modern equivalents.
The other posts will tell you what I did, but without having seen My Favorite Year, I might not have been able to articulate my dream that fateful day.
And without Peter O’Toole, there might not have been a My Favorite Year to see.
So thank you, Mr. O’Toole. Aside from being one of the finest actors to walk this stage, you made dreams come true. This dreamer will be eternally grateful.
Links of possible interest:
If I were truly plastered (scene)
This is for ladies only (scene)
Who the hell is Niblick? (scene)
(Images are property of owners and are used here without permission, but a lot of love and gratitude)
(Click here for Part One)
At the sound of distant splashing, Francis opened his eyes. His face had slowly deformed the mud until it almost seemed a mask in which he might have suffocated. Trying to turn his head, he winced. Somewhere in the night, it seemed, his bones and muscles had fused to become an almost immobile mass.
Slowly, painfully, he pulled his arms to his chest and pushed himself up onto his knees. His body wanted to scream but his instincts said he needed to remain silent.
His world was a grey cloud. As it often did, a heavy morning fog had settled into the trenches, blurring the lines of reality and imagination, preventing the senses from reaching more than a half-dozen feet in any direction. The light said it was day, but that was where his universe stopped.
The splash sounded again, closer. Francis had seconds to debate friend or foe. He opted for safety, launching himself across the gap to the other side of the trench, burying himself behind the remnants of crates. Silence was key.
German voices pierced the fog. At least he assumed they were German. He knew Welsh and English, but just enough of the words sounded familiar to suggest he wasn’t hearing French.
His heart was ready to explode and he willed his breathing to calm, the rapid exhalations forming eddies in the fog that he was sure would give away his position.
From the mists, two boys in German uniforms emerged, poking their rifles into the detritus that lined the trench, presumably looking for food or ammo. They plodded through the puddles, secure in each other’s company, unaware of the din they created.
One soldier cried out and attacked the side of the trench.
His compatriot turned to find him tugging at the buried corpse. Placing his rifle to one side, he joined the other and between the two of them, they pulled the dead soldier out, the mud protesting their invasion with a loud sucking noise.
The first soldier reached inside the dead man’s great coat, feeling around blindly until his hand lighted on his quarry. Smiling at his partner, he extracted a sodden square of leather, teasing apart its folds and sliding out military script. His partner, meanwhile, was filling his pockets with items from the dead man’s kit.
Francis watched the vultures loot the corpse, his mind racing to comprehend the incomprehensible. This was one of their own.
He was as surprised as the German soldiers when the chest of one caved in at the bullet wound. The recoil of his rifle telling Francis that he had pulled the trigger.
By the time the unwounded soldier figured things out and was rising to his feet, he too found himself with a bullet in the chest. He gaped at Francis, who slowly emerged from his hiding place, and his eyes rolled into his head as he fell to his knees and then face down in the mud.
Francis shook, bracing himself against the crates lest he too collapse into the puddle. The dead soldiers—the men he had killed—lay at his feet. Francis tried to feel anguish at his crime. He tried to feel joy at his survival. He felt nothing.
Not cold. Not wet. Not even numb. His world had closed in on him, smothering him.
This was the first time Francis had fired in battle, all previous conflicts amounting to little more than scurrying from trench to trench, fox hole to fox hole, keeping you head low lest it be removed. The first time Francis had taken a human life, and yet he was intrigued that he felt no different than had he just slaughtered a hog for its meat or put down a rabid dog.
Francis dragged the soldiers onto their drowned comrade, laying their rifles next to them. He then stood silently, scanning the air for any sound, the splash of footsteps racing to the rifle shots. He heard nothing.
He pulled aside the coat of one soldier to find a filthy uniform underneath, not just torn in places but the material actually rotting away. A photo dangled precariously from the soldier’s pocket. He retrieved it and saw a youth, the soldier, standing in front of a portly woman near a well. He wondered if this was the boy’s mother. Flipping it over, the back was inscribed with German.
Without knowing why, Francis pocketed the photo and rose to his feet. As he lifted and flipped over the soldier’s military kit, he was startled by the rumble of artillery in the mists far ahead. The line had apparently moved in the night. Time to rejoin his unit.
Shouldering the German kit and his rifle, Francis stepped over the fallen soldiers, picked his way past the puddles and dissolved into the mists.
Two months ago, while organizing my grandmother’s things after her funeral, I found an ancient, moth-eaten bag in her attic. Opening it, I discovered a German bible and a mixture of English and German war rations, as well as a photograph of a boy and his mother.
The back was inscribed in German, which I asked a neighbour to translate for me.
“Be safe, my beloved boy, and come home soon. Mama.”
No name. No date. Just a message of love and worry.
That my great-grandfather had his kit and photo suggested the boy did not make it home and his mother’s heart broke.
I keep the photo with me as a constant reminder of the sacrifices made on both sides. Sacrifices that let me lead the life I do.
I will never forget that.
Please note: This story is a fiction, although my great-grandfather Francis Sowden did serve in the first World War.
(Image is property of owner and is used here without permission, but utmost respect and reverence.)
With a pretty steady acceleration of about 9.8 m/s2 and a consistent headwind coming from below, I am happy to report that my free fall through the universe remains largely unchanged from my last check-in.
The ground remains nowhere in sight although recent episodes of blue-shifting suggest it is down there somewhere. Otherwise, the view continues to be spectacular, if a tad blurry.
The best movie metaphor I can offer for my journey thus far is a mashup between Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade and 2001: A Space Odyssey. It is as though I combined Indiana’s leap from the lion’s head over the yawning chasm with Dave’s journey into the monolith to find it full of stars. (My journey’s been full of actors, some of whom will one day be stars.)
When I stepped off the cliff in May 2012, I could not see the bottom. That there was even a bottom to be seen was pure conjecture. In some respects, that may have made it easier to step off. Ironically, not seeing what awaited me was less frightening.
As I fall—which I don’t see as a negative expression—I have come to realize that I care less and less about my potential destination. Instead, I am enjoying the freedom of soaring in whatever direction takes my fancy (falling is just soaring on a downward bias).
And in my journey, I am meeting an endless array of interesting people. Some are also soaring, while others are flailing in resistance. And still others have convinced themselves they are stable and stationary. Whatever floats their sense of well-being.
The forecast for tomorrow is a continued breeze with periodic pockets of turbulence in a sea of exhilaration. Can’t wait.
Pine cones lay amongst barren rocks, awaiting the hunger of rodents to scatter their progeny to more welcoming homes in happier climes.
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