Like an old jalopy that has to get its wheels aligned every few months, I return every few months to a topic…and a movie entitled, Happy for some non-trivial realigning. You would think that after six-plus decades on this planet, I’d have figured-out the basics, and maybe I have intellectually. But, way down in my gut, I know that I’m still a dumbass teenager in a lot of ways.
When you’re young, you don’t have a lot of “dots to connect.” Something serious happens, and you react illogically. Afterwards, you wonder, what was that all about? My first serious memory of this occurred senior year in high school. Most of my friends were applying to college, some of them rather prestigious. I had applied to four or five, early admission, and got accepted by a few. But one sent me a terse note saying that though my grades were good, they weren’t that good that I should be let in early.
In retrospect, it was a small event and their reply was appropriate. But up till then, I had never been inoculated against handling failure before and I took it badly. Took my 65 Chevy out on Drakestown Road, the route toward my high school, got it up to about 85…and then let go of the wheel. When the car left the road and began shaking and swerving, my instincts took over and I managed to get it stopped. Then I lost it emotionally. My folks, both moderately famous, always assumed I’d just succeed in everything. A dumbass story? Yeah, it really is. But there ya go.
Later, I discovered that my goals in life had little to do with “stuff,” a word which is akin to a dirty word in our family. Stuff is what anyone can buy given the financial luck-of-the-draw. Accomplishments, however, are accrued by 95% hard work, and sometimes augmented with a bit of talent. In the back of my mind, I really, really didn’t want to get a “you’re not quite good enough” letter. Was I competitive? Yeah, in SPADES. Was I competitive with my fellow students? Not really. That would have been easier and much simpler.
At the time and for years afterward, I thought I was competing in some weird kind of way, with my parents, and my father in particular. Famous writer, on The Today Show a lot, always traveling and writing and reporting. Didn’t much like him though for reasons I have chronicled before. Didn’t like his ethics. Hated the drinking. I just flat-out wanted to beat him at his own game.
I’m not sure where the concept began, maybe freshman year at West Morris Regional High School, but it was that old concept: As soon as I’ve accomplished (fill in the blank) THEN I’ll be happy. I’m fairly certain I’m not the only one with this affliction. I’m guessing there are tens of millions of us. But it’s a seductive siren’s song. It makes sense, logically, and holds that psychic carrot in front of your nose…over and over and over again.
And I had my accomplishments at various stages of life: NJ state champ at discus (briefly) and made the first home-built laser by a non-scientist (a kid) in New Jersey. Did either of those dissuade me from feelings of not cutting it? Not even a little. No ego-trip whatsoever. Did well in college. Dean’s List. It was Vietnam by then and I spent a year in Columbus AFB, Mississippi, learning to fly jets. Now, was that a source of profound pride?
Strangely, yes it was, though I suspect that it was mostly because my father, though a professional pilot, was not a jet pilot. I’d finally beaten him at his own game. A shallow reason for doing something? Incredibly, but once again, there ya go. At the time, Pamela and I were dating and she worried, appropriately so, that I was getting a bit full of myself. Truth is, flying a fighter was probably a stronger narcotic for me than anything you can pop in your mouth or stick in your arm. Close to orgasmic, and at 500 knots and 200 feet AGL (above ground level) you begin to feel god-like. It’s bullshit, but that’s how I imagine every person feels flying a jet for the first time. If you’re lucky, you get over it. (pictured left is the T-38 Talon…as well as the longest book I’ve written: 700+ pgs)
A little-known secret: When I was a kid, people would interview my father and fairly often they’d peer down his 10-year-old son and say, “I bet you want to write, just like your dad, don’t you?” and I’d instantly reply, “Never. That is the last thing in this world I want to do,” at which point the interviewer would edge away and choose another topic. I meant it, too. Dad was a very unhappy Hemingway-esque writer. Constant angst, temporarily mollified by Teacher’s Scotch. Nope, never gonna write.
Just finishing up my 26th book. Was it done to show dear old dad that I could beat him at his own game? …Gonna throw a curve-ball at you this time. No, it wasn’t. As it turns out, writing a novel takes about as long as having a kid with probably the same amount of pain and angst involved. You don’t do that to show someone who isn’t even alive anymore. I suspect there might be some tiny chromosome in my DNA, with wants to reinvent the world, stamped on it, because that’s what you have to do…every single time.
I mentioned connecting-the-dots toward the beginning of this essay, and as a point of fact, the older you get the more dots you have to connect. For me, the goal was never “stuff.” You can spend a buck on a lottery ticket, and end up having a lot of stuff. The second theory? Notoriety. Kajillions of people strive to be “famous,” and strangely, I was absolutely 1000% certain I’d be in that category. Who wouldn’t want to be well-known?
The rude awakening on that one came out of the blue one day and hit me right between the eyes. Pam and I had boarded a United Flight for North Carolina for a book tour. We sat down and someone in back of me tapped on my seat. She’d just read my book. Sound like heaven? In three and a half seconds I realized I wanted nothing to do with it. Pam kept looking question marks at me and I gave her my “get me outta here!” expression. That surprised the holy hell out of me.
Having had much time to connect dots on my life, there’s one simple conclusion for me. It ain’t stuff and it sure as hell isn’t some desire for fame. I can sum it up with one word: Curiosity. I am happiest when Pam and I are working on a project whether it’s a new manuscript, some new weird kind of sculpture, or just learning how to put a footbridge across a stream. Buckminster Fuller wrote a book entitled: I Seem to Be a Verb and that about sums it up. Doing, or more specifically Creating, whether it’s an invention, a book, or a new kind of soup with bourbon it it, creating and curiosity and solving those riddles are when Pam and I are happiest.
And very much like the proverbial oyster, we’re at our best when our feelings of self-worth are low. We feel the annoying grit inside our little oyster shells and get to work trying to create a shiny pearl to make that gritty feeling go away.
I have no idea how other people function. Curiosity and an attempt to make things better… to leave my “campsite a little better” is what works for me.
FWIW, though I’ve mentioned it (now several times) before, the video “Happy” is worth its weight in gold…every damned minute of it. My favorite scene is a drop-dead gorgeous debutante, who was dragged by a truck and lost half of her face. And now, decades later, she is happier than she has ever been in her life. If you need a little happiness realignment, check it on You Tube and drop me a line.
I can’t find happiness at will. It just shows up when least expected. I would love to fly a T-38 but I bet I had more fun flying in a Stampe, an old French bi-plane, over New Hope and in a high performance glider over the Mariposa, AZ desert, or building a new sculpture, or talking to someone special..think Pat. All random dots I guess. They just happened to show up except for Pat….I found her and she let me stay.
I won’t quibble on planes. I’ve flown an old Waco bi-plane over Pam’s college campus in Jersey…and that’s a blast…no argument and probably more out-and-out fun. But there’s something heavy-duty even in the way you crank-up a jet. It’s complicated and serious and you have a sergeant twenty feet in front of you, checking for 100 things as you go through each procedure. On the runway, with full power cranked up, your ass isn’t even on the seat because you’re standing on the brakes so hard to keep from moving. When you get the go ahead, a full-military take-off sends you like a slingshot…and then straight up. Twenty seconds later the earth is a tiny HO train layout. The Waco was fun because you had to steer around telephone lines and flip sideways to see what was going on. Scotch vs. bourbon. The argument is unsolvable. The operative point is the statement you made right in the beginning. You can’t hunt it down and capture it like an animal. Too bad.