In America, everybody, it seems, wants to be a success. Me, too.
Recently, I confided to a family member that sometimes, in moments of deep despair (fortunately they are fairly uncommon), I find myself contemplating suicide as the most sensible retirement plan. The road ahead, paved with potholes and poverty, sometimes doesn’t look all that appetizing. I think of Mark Twain’s famous bon mot: “…if you find you can’t make seventy by any but an uncomfortable road, don’t you go.”
And that’s America for you. Success or misery, nothing in the middle.
But, then, in spite of a history of depression and anxiety and a long string of failed relationships—professional, romantic, familial, religious—I am a determined lover of life and an optimist by choice, if not by nature.
Still, it is clear, at sixty, that barring an unexpected turn of events, I am unlikely to make much progress on my bucket list. I probably won’t write a novel (bestselling or otherwise), obtain a doctorate and become a professor, travel to Europe or even New York, write a column for a major daily, or achieve success as a TV actor. Hell, I’ll probably never even lose the thirty extra pounds I’ve been carrying around my middle for most of my adult life. Not if I keep eating these jelly beans.
Then again, I might. (Remember, I’m an optimist by choice.)
But what does one do in the meantime?
Well, here’s what I’ve learned: If you can’t go to New York and see a Broadway show, you can go to the local community theatre. So go. If you never get to dine at the French Laundry, you can at least learn to make a perfect French omelette. So learn. Can’t get it together to hike the Pacific Crest Trail? Take a two mile hike along the Bay.
Persons who work with the dying report that very few express regret for missed accomplishments when the time comes. They almost all report that they wish they’d spent more time with loved ones, or reading books, or just relaxing and enjoying themselves.
One thing we artists know (I hope we all do) is the importance of lounging. Whitman knew how to lean and loaf and so should we.
And it is helpful to remember one’s small, early ambitions and loves. We all have our “rosebuds.”
It is a wonderful thing to realize a simple childhood dream. Recently, one of our local literary impressarios organized an evening of “Writers Not Writing.” A number of local wordsmiths were invited to present at an event in which nobody would read words, but could do something else. Somebody performed a ballet solo; a couple of others acted scenes from Shakespeare; a few played musical instruments.
When I was a little boy I was bit hard by the magic bug, spending hours practicing card tricks and slight of hand, saving pennies to purchase illusions from the miracle that was Jack’s Joke Shop, pestering every unfortunate adult within earshot to witness my rendition of “the multiplying billiard balls” (it was astounding). For “writers not writing” I performed THE ZOMBIE, in which a small silver sphere comes to life before your very eyes and flies through the air.
I tell you, nothing I have accomplished in life so far was more thrilling then seeing the delight on the faces of my writing colleagues as they stared at the floating silver zombie.
I think we all have little pockets of ambition and love and affection that hang on from childhood, and it is a fine thing to remember and indulge them once in a while. Do you have a rosebud that you can recover? A simple ambition, easily realized?
Perhaps we don’t need to take the European vacation, or achieve tenure at the Ivy League School, or get nominated for a National Book Award. What did you want when you were seven? Ten? Fifteen?
My friend Gary passed of AIDS in his thirties. In his last days, he sampled every type of ethnic food he could get delivered in Los Angeles, listened to an entire opera, and arranged to drive around the city in a red Porsche.
Don’t wait! If you have some such simple and easy to accomplish fantasies, make them happen. You might be amazed at the depth of satisfaction they bring you.
Too often, I think, we pursue the big things and let the little ones fall by the wayside, missing our chances to realize many ambitions that might bring great joy if we give them a chance.
Klopnik is planting a garden, and we will have pumpkins come fall, and Klopnik will bake a pumpkin pie from pumpkins we grew ourselves. It’ll be as fine a moment, I promise you, as winning a Pulitzer Prize. It will be our Pulitzer pumpkin! In the end, this might not be such a sorry compromise.
This week, many folks around the world, will be thinking of one of the most famous failures in history: a man who died ignobly only thirty-three years old, after having ridden into the city on an ass, surrounded by followers who thought he would take a kingdom. Others will reflect on a famous disaster when an entire people, freed miraculously from slavery, found themselves worse off than before, wandering about in a desert.
Success is a slippery concept, about which assumptions should never be made too easily.
So: Go for it! But, never forget, “it” might be something tiny and nearly abandoned.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Rumpus original logo and artwork by James Lorenzato, aka Argyle C. Klopnick (ACK!).
“The Storming Bohemian Punks the Muse” was originally developed as a column under the editorship of Evan Karp at Litseen. An earlier incarnation of this work can be found there, along with many other interesting things.