I was watching an episode of The Kominsky Method the other night on Netflix. Michael Douglas, Alan Arkin and and Douglas’ daughter’s boyfriend, whom Arkin called “the roly poly pony tail” guy, were all having a meal in Douglas’ favorite restaurant. Roly Poly, in the middle of his martini, was telling them he was a retired school teacher who was most unsatisfied with his life. When asked why, he sadly responded, “I didn’t try anything. I didn’t challenge myself, I simply fell back on the easiest way for me.”
“Fell back?” Arkin asked.
“Like the French Army!” was Roly Poly’s reply.
So, a question – did you end up doing what you wanted most to do in your life? Here’s the safety net to your answer… if you didn’t, not to worry. Many, maybe most people didn’t. And that’s okay. It’s okay even if you didn’t try. I wanted to be a jet pilot, or a pilot of any kind, but I didn’t even try, as I simply didn’t have the tools to be a good pilot. No math skills, bad eyesight, even the wrong temperament to be cool under pressure, which is a must for a good pilot. So no, I didn’t even try. And strangely, that is going to fly in the face of my gentle criticism of a few of my friends and associates who also didn’t try… for different reasons.
I don’t mean to make a big deal out of this, but in truth this whole post is more for my friends than it is for me. Several of these guys were smarter than I, more talented than I, more versatile and world-wise than I, yet they pursued interests and endeavors that were beneath their ability levels. I would love to know why. Maybe they’ll tell me…
Granted, this kind of thinking is for the 60-and-over crowd. No apologies, as I represent the 70-and-over crowd. At this stage of life there is much we can no longer do, so we tend to sit more and think more, and remember more. Self analysis becomes an almost everyday exercise, and sometimes it pays to be careful how deeply one is willing to go with that. Again, I’m pretty comfortable with all that, as I had a good and fairly successful professional life. It wasn’t a barn-burner, by any means, but I made a good living and had one hell of a bunch of fun, while feeling I’d gone as far as I could go with my love of music.
Oh sure, sometimes my brain kicks up at 4 a.m. and starts remembering, and sometimes listing, the many stupid things I’ve done and said in my life. I could actually quantify them, but what’s the good in that? I’m usually able to chalk it all up to simply being a dumb shit who got into some elements of life in over his head, and nearly splashed all the water out of the pool trying to get out of it. The end result of much of that present angst has taken a positive spin for me… aka “at least I tried, and learned what I could and couldn’t pull off.” And I often kept trying, right up to my 70’s
But let’s stuff self-analysis into the hall closet and pick up the reason for this diatribe in the first place, which is, Why and How did a few of my peers skip their dreams and “fall back” on the easier, perhaps more practical route? I don’t mean to be critical of them necessarily, just curious about how that happens to people who seem so courageous, so magnetic, so seemingly ready for nearly everything. Life is complicated, to be sure, and each of us are complicated individuals who make many of our life decisions for equally complicated reasons. I’m interested in this because all those folks had to know, early on, these old hacks – “You only live once” and “Life is short, grab it while you can” and “Reach for the brass ring” and “Faint heart n’er won fair lady” and on and on. I knew some of the guys when I was young, and back then they actually inspired me!
I don’t pretend to know what my friends’ natural talents were, only know what I witnessed. I knew how good some of them were, but it’s rare when we know what is in someone’s heart of hearts. One friend of mine was a fine trombonist in college, decided to drop out ofter his second year and join the Air Force, where he traveled Europe with the Air Force Band for 4 years. He was a fine trombonist, being able to play some high, high notes in perfect pitch, yet after the Air Force he went back to college in Colorado, got a business degree and ended up as the head man of a Forest Service district in Western Colorado. While there, he also started a music store in Grand Junction, expanding it to two stores, and finally the Forest Service forced him into deciding which of his careers he was going to pursue. He reluctantly resigned and ran his music stores successfully for years, raising two kids and marrying twice. During the two years we were in college together, I had no earthly clue he was as motivated and as versatile as he turned out to be. He was, however, an interesting dude from the very beginning, and once, while we were sipping wine late one night, up in a tree on the campus of Montana U.,, he told me this: “Hulse, there are three words that hold the key to a successful life. Remember these and they will serve you well. Honesty, Integrity and Intensity. I later wrote them down and carried them on a crumpled piece of paper in my wallet for years.
One of the most intriguing people I know who didn’t reach for the brass ring is Mack Kirkpatrick, who still works at Freebairn and Company, an Atlanta ad agency. I did a lot of music for Mack over the years, and always enjoyed working with him. He was usually relaxed and funny, and was one of the few clients Doppler had who didn’t micro manage the creative process, but always gave me plenty of freedom to interpret his direction. He would say things like, “Do what you think works best, just make me a hero back at the office.” Always with a smile. Or, “I don’t care what you do with this one, just make sure there’s a French horn in it somewhere!”
We were having lunch together downtown one day, and I asked him if he had ever written a book. He was a writer, and I always liked his copy. He looked down at the table for a moment, in thought, then looked up at me. “No. No, I haven’t. But rather than explain it to you, I’m going to give you a book. Read it, then you’ll understand.”
A few weeks later he swung by Doppler and dropped off the book for me to read. It was “The Crossing,” by Cormac McCarthy. I read it within a week, then scheduled another lunch with Mack. As I returned the book to him, he gave me his “serious” look. “What did you think?”
“Oh, it’s a great book,” I began, “And what a writer! It pulled me in and I was hooked clear to the end. His character development was fantastic, I felt like I actually knew the old man!”
Mack smiled. “Yes. And you see, I could never write that book. It’s simply beyond my ability. So I decided not to try. I’ve never wanted to settle for ‘less than great.’”
He told me he had met Cormac McCarthy when they were students at the U. Of Tennessee. Mack said McCarthy was becoming an icon at the UT even before he left. “We all knew he was brilliant, and that it was just a matter of time.” Then he told.me McCarthy’s real name was Charles McCarthy, and that early on he changed his first name to Cormac, as he refused to ever become known as Charley McCarthy.
I tried to press Mack about writing for the love of it, and being able be satisfied with whatever the results were. He shook his head. “I’m not wired that way. I could never be satisfied with any attempt that fell short of my expectations.”
Perhaps that’s the very reason some of my brilliant acquaintances chose the easier path. One of my friends totally feels that way and has said as much. And I understand it, though I still feel that thought should never stop one from trying. See, from my perspective, it was always possible to surprise oneself simply by attempting, then standing back, as it were, viewing, or in my case listening, to what one had done, in hopes of being surprised and delighted by the result of the effort. We think we know how good we are, and how far we might go with our talent, but I contend that we don’t really know, and that it’s delicious to simply try a thing, in hopes we might surprise ourselves and somehow reach beyond our perceived abilities. For me, turning away from those opportunities is denying oneself the potential reward of doing something a little bit better than one might have thought possible. I’ve always thought it honorable to attempt a thing, and in that attempting give our muse the opportunity to connect with us, and perhaps take our attempt to the next level. Because believe me, it can happen and does happen!
I encourage everyone who still has some unfinished creative business in this life, to attempt it, try it, reach for it. Then prepare yourself to live with, and accept the results, whatever they be. The doing of a thing is always enlightening in one way or another, and often the final results of your effort are strangely satisfying, regardless of your expectations. Ultimately, our personal courage to “go for” our dreams and passions will decide for us whether we had a life well-lived.
As far as my dreams of flying go, I, like Roly Poly, fell back like the French Army. I don’t regret it for a second; matter of fact, it was a blessing in disguise, as so many of our decisions turn out to be. My music took me so much higher than any airplane ever could. I can only hope my contemporaries feel the exact same way.