Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The One Where I Try To Make Failure Sound Noble

Let me start by saying that, in my defense, I can't tell you how many times before we were married that I tried to impress upon your mother how much better she could do. Get yourself a nice surgeon, or an investment banker, I said. Do you really want to spend your life with someone who clips coupons for ramen noodles? I'm not totally blameless. The gay guy in the aforementioned hot tub was a surgeon and if she'd gotten him to touch her breasts maybe they would have hit it off. That one's my fault. But, beyond that it's really just your mother's poor judgment that's kept us together. How's that for luck? She has one fault and it happens to benefit me.

Now as soon as you become humans you're going to be fascinated by all the things you can do. Reading, speaking, running on your hind legs while waving your opposable thumbs in the air, it's all very exciting. And then one day you'll realize that there's someone, or more likely lots of people, who can not only do those things better than you, but they look and sound better while they're doing them. And that's when you'll discover the most critical tool in the human shed, self deception.

Show a bunch of positive words to a human, they'll explain how each of them seems to describe them. Negative words, they'll detail how none of them really apply. Show them where they've made an error, they'll show you where the problem was poorly designed, the test poorly graded, or the Do Not Enter sign too ambiguous. It sounds like a bad thing, but if each of us had to face the day with a true accounting of how smart, attractive, or capable we were in relation to the rest of humanity, no one would get out of bed. The ability to believe that, in spite of evidence to the contrary, there's something different, something special, about each one of us isn't what holds us back, it's what makes us go.

Self deception is tricky since its job is to tell you that you're doing the right thing no matter what you're actually doing. When you get in your car after nine margaritas self deception doesn't tell you that you're going to run over a light pole, it says that you're going to glide home on a little cloud. Once you run over a few light poles you realize you aren't always the most reliable judge of your own abilities and that maybe you should listen to the four identical spinning people who are demanding your keys. And of course the minute you give up the keys you'll convince yourself what a smart move that was and how you're really awesome for making it.

So how do you know when to listen to the little voice and when to tell it that it's ruining your driving record? How do you know when you're fooling yourself as opposed to the only one who really knows what's up your sleeve? I don't really have a good answer for that, but I do have a horribly uninteresting story that I hope explains why I keep getting behind the wheel (have I gotten enough mileage out of that metaphor for you?).

I was working construction in Los Angeles and had spent the entire day crawling around in a ceiling and arguing with my boss about how much I sucked at construction and crawling around in ceilings. After work I went to get a sandwich, still covered in dirt, ceiling guts, and an odor that made other people reconsider eating. My phone rang and, thinking it was my boss who'd come up with another reason I should be fired, I answered it by just yelling, What? And then this very polite person on the other end told me that a story I'd written and submitted so long ago I'd forgotten about it had won an award. And then I started... I'm trying to think of a manly word for crying... bleeding salt water from my eyes? To be clear, we're talking about an award no one has ever heard of in a magazine no one had ever heard of. To this day I doubt more than 200 people have a copy of it, no more than 20 have read it, and only 2 thought it was worth printing, and they're both related to me. But there I was, bleeding from my eyes. I thanked the person, hung up and tried to pay for my sandwich, but the cashier, mistaking my eye blood for tears told me that there was no charge and that, 'things would be okay'.

So what was the big deal? It barely paid anything, no one read it, and when I try to tell the story the reaction I usually get is something like, 'you skipped law school to write because you cried and got a free sandwich?' The problem is that there's really no way to explain the feeling. How do you explain what it feels like to connect your own dots? All I can say is that up until then I knew a lot of people who didn't know what they wanted from life, and I envied every one of them. When you get handed your life it's just this pile of clay. Everyone else seemed to be able to make anything they wanted out of theirs, and more importantly, to be happy with whatever they made. Having a dream, a desperate need to make the clay look like something in particular, felt like an affliction, and if I could have taken something for it I would have OD'd on it. But in that little moment I got to feel what it would be like to have your life follow directions, to turn the amorphous blob of years into something that makes you cry to look at it. That moment wasn't great because it made me rich or famous or even employable. It wasn't great because it made me anything. That moment was great because I made it.

So as for moving on, I'm afraid I'm hopeless. As humans we know we're weak. When something's hard we talk ourselves out of it. Invading armies used to burn bridges behind them so that turning back wouldn't be an option. I got a film degree which is kind of the same thing. Does this make me a good husband or father? No. If they administered tests for either position I'm sure I would fail. And I may well fail at being a writer too. If I weren't trying to be all three it probably wouldn't be an issue. But here we are.

You'll find out soon enough that most of what I say should rightfully be ignored and that leading by example is not my strong suit. But if I'm able to teach you anything, I would hope for it to be this: When you're young someone will ask what you want to be when you grow up and they'll tell you can be whatever you want. Sadly, if that were true we'd be a country of 250 million astronauts. But what they don't tell you is that that 'what you are' can't be expressed as a job description or a title someone slaps on a brass nameplate. The truth is, what you are is much bigger than that, and it really is in your hands. Accountants or opera singers, I don't give a damn. What I hope you grow up to be is the kind of people who never stop trying to bend and shape the life you get until it looks like the one you want. It will rarely cooperate, but the moments when it does, however brief, will be the ones you never forget. I've had two: one in a sandwich shop, and one at the end of an aisle with your mother. These moments don't pay, you can't live in them, they don't last, and if they could be bought there would be nothing else for sale. But until you have one, I'd argue you won't really know what it means to be alive.

Novel - Chapter 12
Dunking - wk5
French - C'est la vie.

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