As I get older, I spend a lot of time thinking about things that I didn’t have time to think about when I was younger. Either that, or maybe they just didn’t seem very important back then. It’s funny though, at this stage of the game, it seems as if what people refer to as “the little things” take on much more importance than before, when I was still nursing a set of “priorities for the future”.
I guess the key word
here is “future”. When you first realize you’re getting older, that word haunts
you for a while. If you’re fifty-ish, say, you might lie awake some nights
thinking things like, “I’ve got more life behind me than ahead of me,” or, “I
wanted to be so much closer to my goals than I am right now,” or, “What’s wrong
with me? Why can’t I advance? I’m so worried it’s not going to happen
for me.” Although you may think you’re getting old at that age, believe me,
those are the thoughts and concerns of a still young person.
The secret you learn as you advance ten or twenty years more from that stage—or, at least, the secret I’ve learned…sort of—is that that kind of thoughts tend to be a monumental waste of time, a futile concern. Wondering “what’s going to become of me” is a fool’s errand. What and where you are is all you’ve got or all you’ll ever have. The only way to know the future is to live it. It’s the only way to know “what life will bring”. You can’t even be sure of the future five minutes from now.
The first time I gave any thought to the futility of “futurizing” was actually when I was still quite young. It was back in the late seventies when I first read anything by famed self-help author Wayne Dyer. I suppose his admonitions about not wasting your present worrying about the future—which he hammered home in his first best-selling hit, Your Erroneous Zones, as well as in every subsequent book that he wrote—struck home with me because I was living in a very dangerous environment at the time and was really at risk of having my life cut short. I was an opposition journalist under a harsh dictatorial regime and those marked as “enemies of the State” weren’t apt to find a life-insurance firm that would risk covering them. But once democracy returned and the danger was over with, my attention span for Dr. Dyer’s sage advice tended to dwindle.
It’s hard to think that way when you’re younger. Sure, life would be a lot more fun and more stress-free if we did. But when you’re young, it’s impossible not to think about the future. Chances are, you’ll have one—a future I mean—even if it isn’t guaranteed. So if you didn’t make plans, if you subscribed to a radically existentialist view and only saw the here and now as “real”, it would be hard to get anything done. If the future is non-existent, if the here and now are all there is—and again, they are—why would anyone bother going to college, learning a skill, studying for a career or trying to be upwardly mobile in their chosen field, or in whatever field they happen to stumble into?
I mean, of course, there’s nothing wrong with having ambitious goals and going after them the best way you know how while you’re young. Anybody who isn’t goal-driven when they’re young can’t expect to be “successful” when they’re older. But that’s all relative too, because there’s nothing broader or more subjective than the meaning of “success” for each individual. And even if young people are focused on career goals, they’ll lead a lot happier life if they also manage not to lose track of the present, not to let their concerns ruin today at the service of some possible but also clearly non-existent future.
Success can, and usually does, mean money, because that’s the society we’re brought up in. If you don’t have money—at least enough to get along, whatever that might mean to each of us—in Western society it’s really hard to have a life, or at least a life that most of us would want. But there are those—specifically talented and/or enlightened folks, as I see them—for whom “success” is all about accomplishment totally disconnected from money. It’s all about excelling at something, at being, in the broadest sense of the word, an “artist” at whatever it is they do. Oddly enough, these are sometimes the very people who, now and then, end up making a lot of money at whatever their craft or skill might be, without ever focusing on wealth as the prime goal.
There are, however, some people—lucky people to my mind—for whom the goal is no goal at all. To just live life to the fullest and be happy at whatever they happen to be doing at any point in time. And if they aren’t happy doing whatever “it” happens to be, simply quitting and trying something else for a while. These are the people who often end up being jacks (or jills) of all trades, or vagabond world travelers who make their living however they can, because the goal for them is to keep moving and to see everything they possibly can in life before their shadows set them free.
It wasn’t until I met a few people like that, people just more concerned with instant happiness and living the present than with fretting about the future, that I finally understood that common Christian teaching that we heard again and again growing up but that wasn’t the way any so-called Christians I came across actually lived their lives. It was that New Testament verse about “Why trouble yourself about clothing? Look at the lilies of the field, how they grow. They toil not, neither do they spin.” It was like, hey, quit sweating stuff that, in the long-run, in the big picture, is usually little more than a fleeting chimera. Things that might happen, sure. But things that are no more a sure thing than Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. Don’t miss out on what you’ve got, by obsessing about what you’re out to get!
I’ve known a few people like that. Very few. People who were focused on the now, not on the what’s to come. And I now think maybe they were always ahead of the curve, when, back in the day, we just thought of them as bohemians, sort of grasshoppers observing the anthill with a sardonic grin, wondering why we ants were striving so. At the time, we figured the last laugh would be ours when winter came. What we were too busy to notice was that winter comes to everyone, at one point or another, and the grasshopper, at least, would have the good times to remember when it did.
My brother Dennis was a guy who loved a good time, a real partier. He loved bars and rock and roll. He loved road trips and golf tours. He enjoyed hanging with his buds. Rock recitals were like catnip for him, and he even volunteered as security for a few of them just to be closer to the stage and to the band.
But he was also a meticulous man, a fretter and a worrier, a perfectionist, and he was seriously driven for most of his life. He worked in retail from age nineteen, climbed to the top of middle management in the region-wide family-owned record store chain he worked for over the course of a couple of decades. He was fully expecting to land a VP post shortly. But suddenly, the owners decided to take the firm public and the new majority shareholders filled upper management with their own people, leaving him stuck in the middle with little chance of any greater promotion.
He could have taken it as the luck of the draw. He even could have seen it as an opportunity. He’d been happy in his several-state district manager’s post, living in Saint Louis, where he was based. He’d made it his city, knew every cool place there was to know, and could easily have stayed on in his post while taking his time to shop for a more upwardly mobile job.
But that wasn’t him. He was devastated. He felt betrayed and hurt, and decided to quit. His marriage of many years also shortly went south, and that only added to his feeling of failure. Now middle-aged, still young, but not really young, he had to start over. He moved back to Ohio, got into a new retail field and started climbing the ladder. But when he graduated from sales to store management, the cruel reality about his likely future seemed to overwhelm him. Who was he kidding? Making a career for yourself at forty-something wasn’t at all like making it at twenty-something.
I tried to convince him that he could do anything he wanted to do. He was smart, educated, effective as a manager. He had a great personality, was handsome and looked great in a suit. Especially his suits, which were never “just suits”. If climbing to the upper rungs of the corporate retail ladder was what he wanted to do, he could surely do it, like he had the last time. But I didn’t figure that was what he wanted to do at all. “You know what you really want,” I said, “is your own business.”
“Yeah, big brother, but I just never had the cojones for that,” he said. “Not that I wouldn’t like to try, but I’m just too scared of everything that could go wrong. I’m great at managing other people’s businesses, but am I ready for one of my own?” He shook his head.
|Dennis, starting over at 40-something|
In short, the guy didn’t seem to understand that he was the problem, not the business. He thought maybe it was location that was killing him, so long before he ever brought Dennis in, he had already moved the business from our home town, where his family’s store had been a local icon for decades, to a much bigger and more affluent town forty miles north, where nobody knew him from Adam.
What my brother was supposed to bring to the mix was his business acumen. Well, that…and his money. Dennis thought maybe this was the challenge he’d been looking for. His friend knew the business and he knew management. Together, they’d have it up and running again in no time. That’s what my brother thought.
What actually happened was that Dennis’s investment in the company ended up being used to fill huge gaps that this friend had been carrying for some time. It didn’t make a dent in terms of improving and expanding operations. So when they decided to do that, his friend’s credit status was in such bad shape that they had to again depend on Dennis’s good name and credit rating to take out a business loan.
In the meantime, his friend kept right on treating the firm as if it were his alone, writing himself checks there was no money for, failing to pay his half of the company debts and further driving the concern toward bankruptcy. After a couple of years, the partnership was dissolved and the friend went on hanging on by his fingernails, leaving Dennis stuck with the task of returning the money borrowed to the bank. It was either that or sacrifice his own credit rating for his friend’s business failure.
In the midst of all this, Dennis was keeping watch over our mother and father. Whitie, our dad, was dying of lung cancer. Dennis was there constantly for our mother, Reba Mae. Whitie died after a four-year battle with his disease. Reba Mae died six months later.
Dennis needed a change. He needed to figure things out. Everything he’d worked and hoped for had vanished like a mirage. He was out of goals and stuck in an on-again-off-again relationship with an unstable woman he probably never should have gotten involved with in the first place. “Her ex is a real nut job,” Dennis told me. “He’s still around. Surfaces now and then. I changed my phone number. I was getting threats.” Then he said, “She says the guy claims she’s the one who drove him crazy. She was crying once and asked if I thought that was true. Did she drive him crazy? I comforted her and said, no, of course it wasn’t her fault. But, you know, now I’m not so sure any more. Maybe he was right.”
He had decided to sell his house in Ohio and move to our parents’ now vacant winter condo in Florida. Once when I was back from my home in Patagonia, he and I were out for a steak and a few drinks at a place we knew in Ocala. Apropos of nothing, he said, “If you could have a do-over, what would you do different?”
I thought about it and said, “Not a lot.” But then I thought about it again and said. “No, let me take that back. True, I’d have done a lot of the things I did, but I’d have done more and I’d have done it sooner. I wouldn’t have stayed in journalism past my prime. I’d have gotten out while I still had a reputation and used that to launch my career as a writer. I never would have quit playing music. I’d have kept on being a drummer in some obscure blues band at night while writing during the day. I’d have better learned how to promote myself and how to make the mid-list as a writer while I was still young. And I probably would have found a way to live part of the year here and part of it in South America.”
|Clowning around...but wishing that mic was real|
“Not much,” I said. “Just every other day or so.”
There was a pause. Then I said, “How ‘bout you? What would you have done differently?”
He sighed. “I don’t know. I mean, like everything?”
“What would you have wanted to do?” I asked.
His answer was immediate. “Be a front man with a rock and roll band.”
I was surprised. But I shouldn’t have been. Music had always been a huge part of his life. In fact, it was what first attracted him to the record store chain he began working for as a teen. Like writers I knew of whose day job was at a bookstore. And it was very likely what kept him working for that company for twenty years. It wasn’t his love of retail, as I’d always thought, but his love of music.
In my own case, I’d always loved playing music and writing. But the daily grind, the striving for upward mobility, the struggle to make a good living seems to get in the way when you’re reaching for dreams. I got into journalism to better my writing skills but let the newsroom seduce and then obsess me. Soon, it was more like a bad marriage than a job. Writing stories and books became “a goal for the future”, and playing music would be sorely missed, but who had the time?
Suddenly, I realized that my brother and I had even more in common than either of us had ever realized. We had let “the future” obscure and subjugate the present. It took a long time to realize that this “future” we’d been busy reaching for was never tangible. And in the meantime, the present had been slipping through our fingers.
Dennis died suddenly at fifty-one. But in the two years between our parents’ death and his own, I think he was taking a stab at living in the present. He was still haunted by the bad relationship that he couldn’t seem to let go of, but beyond that, he appeared to have learned to live life as it came.
He was done with business. He drove a school bus down in Marion County, Florida, and in between time, he worked with a skilled ex-con putting up chain-link fencing, or on his own doing landscaping maintenance on the golf course that formed the center of the condo complex where he lived. He also found that a lot of folks there were looking for someone with good taste and skilled hands to help them revamp and repaint their condos, so he started a little one-man business doing that sort of thing as well, and apparently garnered a lot of satisfied customers. He was well-liked and was the new blood on his condo board. He golfed, hung out with friends, partied and quickly became beloved by all of his fellow bus drivers, who were devastated by his untimely death.
|Good times with friends in Florida|
I remained at Dennis’s desk, going through papers and his computer while Darla was off in another part of the apartment with his friends. When I joined them, she said, “You need to hear this.”
“Hear what?” I asked.
Leaning close, out of earshot of the others, she said, “It’s like this urban legend. It made me cry.” Then to a young woman who looked to be grieving more than anyone else, she said, “Would you mind telling my brother what you told me?”
Tears filled the woman’s eyes and she gazed into mine and said, “God, you look so much like him.”
“Yes,” I said, trying to touch a more jovial chord, “but like the extra-extra-large version.” The others laughed. She didn’t. She seemed to be seeing something the rest of us didn’t.
She said. “Dennis was always helping the rest of us out. He was so nice, and so tidy! He used to carry this bottle of Windex around. He’d wipe down every single window on his bus before he started work in the morning. And sometimes I’d be pulling out while he was finishing up. He would step out and put up his hand for me to stop. He’d jump up on my bumper, spray Windex on my windshield, and wipe it spotless. Then he’d grin at me, wink, give me a thumbs up, and hop down.”
She sniffed. It was like she was seeing him as she told the story. She wiped her eyes on the back of her hand and went on. “Sometimes when we finished for the day, I was in a hurry to get out of there and go pick up my kids. If Dennis saw me, he’d holler, ‘Don’t worry about your windows, I’ll get ‘em,’ because I’d always forget a bunch of the windows open. I’d thank him, he’d say, ‘Not a problem,’ and he’d hop up on my bus and close all the windows for me.”
Again she paused. A couple of tears ran down her face. Then she cleared her throat and went on. “So anyway, we’ve got these security cameras on our buses. They film one day and the next day they record over what was on them twenty-four hours before. We’re supposed to have a look at them at the beginning or end of every day just to make sure there’s nothing going on we should know about and report. Usually, what you’ll see from the day before is sort of a mess. I mean, you know, kids getting on and getting off, laughing, shoving each other and fooling around, the usual stuff.
“So the other morning, I get on my bus and look at the video playback. It’s weird. There’s nothing happening. Just the empty bus and no kids. But this time what I see is a guy get on the bus with his cap pulled low over his eyes. And he goes real quick down the aisle to the back of the bus and, from there, starts slamming shut the windows I’d forgotten open the evening before. Then he comes up to the camera lens, looks right into it, grins and gives me a little wave. It’s your brother. Then he’s off the bus and gone, and the picture goes blank.”
She gets choked up and we all wait for the punchline as she regains her composure. “Thing is,” she says, “I now know that by the time that was recorded, Dennis was dead already, here in his apartment!”
I’ve always been what I like to call “a hopeful agnostic.” I’m not at all sure I believe in any of this. But I’d like to. I’d like to think the story Dennis’s friend told me was not a figment of her imagination. I’d like to think there’s no logical explanation for it, that maybe he just still got a kick out of partying and horseplay, that he still had that ornery prankster’s spontaneous sense of humor that I’d always loved about him. Mostly, I just want to believe he was happy at heart. Happy to have been here and just as happy to move on.