How to Get Started
“I do not, for the life of me, know how to become who I want to be. I can’t get there from here.”
By Jason Dubow
I am born again (writing). Again.
This reminds me of the tales my Messianic Jewish brother tells about the complicated relationship certain wayward members of his flock have with the conflicting moral ontologies of Saturday night and Sunday morning. He has an explanation for this ritualistic paradigm, something to do with human nature and original sin, but I can never quite get my mind around his argument. Suffice it to say, although I don’t buy what he’s selling, I am not un-jealous of the way in which his world seems innately, if artificially, controlled and contained. Simplicity is seductive.
Not unrelated, the other day, while walking home after another frustratingly fruitless day of too much Internet surfing, sports talk radio, and thumb twiddling, I thought, not for the first time and not in so many words, “You must change your life.” I do not mean to suggest anything drastic; a rerouting rather than an uprooting is what I had in mind. I am not in the market for a sexy car or a fast muse. I am not taking my talents to South Beach.
I want, and need, to write. I want, and need, to read. I want, and need, my mind to be unencumbered.
Home, I unloaded my farmers market bounty—Corn is in the house!—and discovered, lo and behold, a link sent by a friend to an article with the title “This column will change your life: the mind-body connection.” Everything seemed to be coming together. The writer suggests that some folks—hello, handsome self—over think this duality. The article ends with the advice, “FIRST, GO FOR A SWIM.” I’m not much of swimmer—lack the necessities, don’t have much in the way of buoyancy—but maybe it’s not too late for me to learn? Or maybe I’m being too literal. I can go for a walk.
I received this mentorly advice once after an uncharacteristically fertile creative stretch: “What ever allowed you to do this, keep doing it.” Thing is, I didn’t have a clue what it was then and I still don’t. My understanding of how work works couldn’t be more fakakta.
In any case, in the almost two weeks since SmallerMan and I returned from driving SchoolLess to camp in Michigan, an endeavor that marked both the official end of home school and the official beginning of summer vacation, I have done a lot more sinking than swimming. My wish for a restful and productive summer has, as usual, gone awry. It would seem that I nail the rest part and struggle with productive but it’s not so simple. I cannot rest, not really, without first feeling productive. I can fake it, concealing doubt and self-loathing under a thin veneer of relatively good nature, but I can hold that half smile only so long.
The relationship between carrot and stick, the balance between delayed gratification and immediate indulgence, has always eluded me. I am simultaneously too good to and too hard on myself.
Hey, it’s summer time and the living is supposed to be easy. One morning last week the three of us ate cake and watched Wimbledon. SmallerMan and I went to Citifield where we enjoyed watching Jonathan Papelbon, our ex, spit the bit against the Mets. We spent the 4th at the beach. Skeptic and I finally made the leap into Mad Men. We sleep in and then luxuriate with the New York Times and iced coffee. I had lunch with a friend, drinks with another. We hosted a backyard soiree.
Yes, life is good! Maybe too good?
My lack of production and the anticipation of that lack leaves me, like the great fictive writer E.I. Lonoff, “frantic with boredom and a sense of waste.” One possible solution to such suffering that I have tended to avoid is drugs, both licit and illicit. I wonder if that has not been to my advantage. A puff here, a quarter of a pink pill there might just do the trick. How much worse off could I be?
If the pharmacologically unadulterated me is insufficient, why not try another? Perhaps this particular slippery slope is a necessary navigational challenge. It would be a simple ends and means problem, easy enough to solve if: 1) the ends were, if not certain, then at least likely, and 2) I could guarantee that my boys wouldn’t take it the wrong way.
I want to be a person who figured out how to do what he most wanted to do. Message to the young people: you, too, can do whatever your heart desires, maybe even better than I and without all the fuss.
As Mad Men makes all too clear, the disconnect between an idealized image, whether of a cigarette or a life, and the real thing doesn’t do anybody any good.
Not to get all Biblical and judicial on you, but telling yourself the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, is the only thing that shall set you free.
(Lying to others, on the other hand, for that there’s a time a place.)
I do not, for the life of me, know how to become who I want to be. I can’t get there from here.
I have been brought down these past days by, among other things, logistics. SmallerMan is, thanks to UPS commercials, fond of the way the word the word rolls off the tongue, a lovely lilting noun that all too quickly transforms from an inside joke—SmallerMan, draining a jumper, shouting, “Logistics!”—into an all-encompassing definer of days.
In the past two weeks I have dealt with, after time-consuming avoidance, a case of being overcharged (Hertz), corporate arrogance (AT&T), a bedeviling password issue (Zappos), and overwhelming camp forms. Still on my list: submitting a change of grade form for a student (F to D: congratulations!), ferry reservations, registering the boys (I’m out this year) for the Chilmark Road Race, and making appointments with my internist and the TV repairman.
I am in need of an enabler, a word that has unfortunately become best known in its pejorative sense. I had a friend whose father was a writer; this man’s wife, my friend’s mother, considered it her “job” to keep everybody away or, at least, quiet in order to preserve the sanctity of her husband’s creative process.
In lieu of enabling myself, I am not exactly asking Skeptic to do this for me; I’m not even sure that’s the kind of woman I want to be married to.
But would she do it? Am I even enable-able? What would she want in exchange?
Skeptic wants to paint and draw. If I enable her, will she enable me? It sounds, perhaps, maybe, under the right circumstances, and with a little luck, not impossible, right?
When I tell Skeptic I’m going to my office to work, she says, “What work?” Is it me or is it her? If I wore a suit, like Cheever, would that help?
John Cage had a plan for how to counter the difficulty of initiating the creative process. He called it “How to Get Started” and it involved extemporaneously talking on a subject chosen at random—“thinking out loud,” riffing and ranting. I’ve used this approach with SmallerMan, as a way to help him feel more comfortable with public speaking. I’ll give him a topic—“pizza” or “subway” or “beach”, “mice” or “park” or “fireworks”—and he talks for two minutes, as loud as he can, neither of us judging the value of the words.
It’s like free writing, which, despite thrusting it upon my students, I avoid like the plague (if the cliché fits, wear it): don’t think, just write.
During our recent road trip, I sent myself 177 notes by e-mail: ideas for stories and posts, haphazard thoughts and observations. I have been stewing in those notes, pushing them together and pulling them apart in futile pursuit of cohesion. I had things to say about: the significance of “the road”; my sense that this, too, is America singing, both on key and off; the paradoxical nature of closure (see: home school, done); integrity, luck, and the meaning of try.
I have not yet succeeded. In other words, I have failed so far.
My life is going to change. I can feel it.
It’s a perfect day to get started (again). It’s a perfect day for a lot of things.
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