Zen and the art of riding an atomic bomb

The iconic moment of Stanley Kubric’s masterpiece “Dr. Strangelove or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” features Col. Kong played by a very folksy Slim Pickens who finds himself sitting on top of an atom bomb as it is dropped on Russia. Without anything to lose, he makes the best of it.

It’s only Tuesday, and right now a lot of your are already going through this.

Hell, so am I.

In the last year and a half, we barely recognize the world where we live. The fabric of our society has been changing. I’m reminded of the Eloi and the Morlocks from the Time Machine (let’s bring on some more obscure movie references), where the peaceful (if not completely stupid) Eloi live in an above ground paradise, while the Morloks summon them monthly through a monolithic stone head for a cannabalistic feeding frenzy.

I keep seeing a general glaze of ennui in everyone these days. So many of us are working from home and those of us who had to return to an office to work probably didn’t need to, but the status quo of being constantly supervised by some douche bag is more important to a company than happy workers. If anything the last year should have taught us, it is that we don’t need some kind of Joe Versus the Volcano grey-walled prison experience when it comes to work. A lot of people are appaled at factory farming as they stand around the water cooler listening to the hum of people on phones that won’t stop ringing.

The other day I had a conversation with a friend of mine who never got to stay at home. He got stuck with extra shifts, in the public, during the time when there wasn’t even a controversial vaccine that everyone politicized to protect him. He got to be the bad man at the gates keeping the other bad men out. We were talking about what he might want to do with his life instead. Sometimes that seems like such a far-fetched idea.

Instead? Instead of this? “Living the dream!” One of my bro-istas at Dutch Bros. refered to that expression as a white person’s way of saying they are dying on the inside. That was at the beginning of lockdowns and layoffs and Zoom meetings. Back in the day when you could call in sick from work instead of spending the morning crying in the bathroom. When you weren’t expected to report to work, or school, or anything else because you *cough* weren’t feeling all that hot and (rather than come into work on a day that wasn’t going to do anybody any good) you could take a day to decompress without having to prove to your employer that you were on a ventilator. No one is safe from the Zoom call.

My friend told me he envied my freedom.

Freedom does come with responsibility. And anxiety.

There are days that I still feel that pull of self-worth and productivity that was inculcated into me through years of working a 8-5 job. My life is by no means perfect in my attempt to change that to working for myself. Some days, I feel like I am a complete failure because I am still in bed at 9:30am, petting the dog while other people are deep into a 12 hour shift.

The other day I had a conversation with my dad about how much work I had been doing. I picked up a couple writing assignments and had made $300. He told me I should have been helping him in the shop, working on cars if I wanted to make more than that.

That isn’t the point. The point is that I am still in the beginning of making something for myself. That $300 took about four or five hours of work. The agency that gave me the assignments lowballs the hell out of writers too, which means that once I can get rolling, I could be making much more than this. I have a skill that I have been working on for more than ten years, which is something I have been aiming for as a dream for a lot longer. You can’t put a W4 on that.

Also, in the four or five hours of work, I didn’t bang my knuckles on a hot, sharp piece of rusty metal once. I didn’t have a gallon of 10W40 run down my arm. And I didn’t have to wash whatever crap had fallen into my eye as I tried to break the rust off a stubborn engine mount bolt. It’s honest, hard work, don’t get me wrong–and I could do it–but that’s not what I’m here for. That’s not why I left the city to come here. I took a big risk to focus on writing.

The drawback of course is that right now I don’t have lots of clients and that four hours of writing uses a lot of brain power which must be refueled with coffee, sometimes alcohol, definitely naps, and snacks. But I’ve still done more with writing for a couple hours a day than I did working for 8 hours a day at my old desk job.

I think that’s why a lot of people are fine with surrendering their freedom to someone else (and sometimes we have no choice in the matter). And why we have a hard time with boundaries too. When that call comes from that buddy who you know is already several beers in for the night and all he wants to do is call his ex and tell her what a bitch she is, or that supervisor that you know you are never going to make happy (mostly because they don’t know what the fuck they are doing and are projecting their bullshit onto you) we find it impossible to say no. We are held at ransom.

Working for myself scares the hell out of me.

For one thing, there is some security in knowing that the checks will keep coming if I just put out enough effort to not be fired. Working for yourself means that being fired is the day when you finally starve to death because you didn’t put in the work. It’s like Columbus burning his ships on his second voyage. My 20 years in Higher Education taught me some really bad habits. Especially the more efficient I got at doing my job.

Most of my days in Higher Ed were spent on Facebook. Before that it was internet forums, YouTube, and at the end of the day, I could pack an entire weeks work into the last two hours on a Friday afternoon. If the big boss wandered in and said, “Let’s go home early, people!” I did, because I was just following orders. But you see, my work ethic told me that was okay because I was getting paid to do the job I had been hired to do. I had no joy in the job I was doing. I got lazy. Complacent. It didn’t bother me that I was cheating myself out of doing something that I found joy in doing. I was being rewarded with a steady paycheck for doing almost nothing. Certainly getting no spiritual reward out of it.

When I would have been happy working my ass off for something I enjoyed doing at the cost of that security.

In a few days, I’ll be 46. I don’t have many years left to realize my dreams. Not everyong has a chance to chase their dreams either. I am fortunate.

I worked with a lady who spent 99% of her time surfing the internet. She was reading about the Kardashians or downloading recipes. She was always talking about how unhappy she was. She moved her house several times in the years we worked together. I think jumping through all the hoops of real estate gave her something to do. She was always on the phone with her bank or realtor. If it wasn’t them, it was her insurance companies, dentist, retirement/Social Security, etc. When she was given something new to do at work, she balked. So I wound up taking on most new tasks–for no more pay. Eventually I got tired of that and declined the offer to take on another responsibility at my job. I knew my name was on the layoff list anyway.

So, I said No.

It was empowering. Intoxicating.

Well, I also got yelled at by my supervisor in the middle of the office, with people walking in and out. It was an indication that I had made the right choice. Or at the very least one that was too late to roll back on now.

Maybe that’s the problem with this depression that has taken hold of many of us. We got to take a step back and see the absurdity in sitting at a desk all day, when we could be doing that at home–and probably getting more done. But that would mean that we had free will. And for whatever reason, constant monitoring, overseeing, and environmental control are more important.

The trade off being, however, these jackasses somehow feel entitled enough to step into your life, into your home, whenver they feel like doing so. And now a lot of them are saying they shouldn’t have to pay as much because you don’t need the money for gas to commute. They want that dependence.

Am I terrified that I don’t have the motivation to achieve my goals? Absolutely. But maybe I can tell my fears NO for once too and see how good that feels. After all, a bad day doing what you love beats a good day doing something you don’t.

So, for anyone who has a dream and needs to hear it, don’t fear it. For anyone who isn’t happy with their life, you can change it. For anyone who is feeling stuck right now, it’s just one day–keep going. It will not happen instantly. It WILL be painful, terrifying, anxiety inducing, extremely difficult…but it will be worth it. Even if you have to put people you care about on hold, they will understand. If you have to make sacrifices, they will be worth it.

I just keep thinking of that lady with her microwave fish dinners and how you can be miserable and secure, or happy because you are doing something that has called you. Dying slowly inside living a life of quiet desperation…or starving to death slowly until you hope you catch a break.

Where was I going with this again?

Oh yeah. I guess just ride the bomb and enjoy every second of it.

A moment in the sunshine

A couple weeks ago, one of my pitches for a travel story was accepted. I’ve been blogging for a very long time, probably about 13 years, maybe longer, so I am no stranger to a first person narrative, but this felt a little bit different. This was no slap-dash rambling tale of something that happened, this was a STORY, this was something someone might actually pay me for! In some ways it felt like that hypothetical stone that smart asses with at least one college level philosophy course bring up. The one that God creates, and just might be so heavy He cannot lift it.

So, I started off with a draft and realized at about 1200 words that I could write a lot more than the 1000 word limit I was given, especially considering I hadn’t even hit the parts that I had said I was going to write about in the pitch. I took some inspiration from the 2018 Years Best in Travel Writing anthology, which were very much like the blogs I’ve been writing for many years. Incorporate the personal with the spectacular, thread them together and allow the setting to become a character in the story.

I pored over the story, writing out the narrative, filling it full of imagery and character and then ruthlessly killing my darlings, carving it down over 700 words until I hit my word count. Ish. I thought of the Hemingway documentary I had watched the week before, and how he urged writers to just begin by writing one perfect sentence. Then following that one with another perfect sentence. This meticulous attention to detail borders on the obsessive. It is a rock it’s Creator never judges the weight of properly in the beginning. That bitch is heavy.

After a few days of this, I submitted the story. I’m still waiting to hear back. I like what I turned in, but I did have my doubts. Part of writing is familiar to anyone who has been in an unhealthy relationship. You have to anticipate what your editor might want, without actually knowing. I guess the best approach to this is to submit your best writing, and if they don’t like it, you can submit it someplace else. Otherwise, it’s just mindreading (which is impossible) and dumb luck (which is more likley). Hard work, editing, and maybe just a modicum of belief in yourself will payoff if you keep at it. That’s what I’m going with anyway. Otherwise, you have about as much luck selling a story as you do hitting a winning scratch ticket.

My doubts stemmed from the fact that the anthology I was reading was extrapolated from magazines such as Esquire, New York Magazine, the Atlantic, and some others. Had I completely misread the room and put this personal narrative out there when really they might have wanted some kind of list of “Best places to eat dungeoness crab on the Oregon coast”? So, yes, of course there are doubts.

Just as a parent has doubts that first time they let their kid walk to school on their own. The doubts that you get when you set foot on an airplane that is about to fly close to the speed of sound halfway around the world. The doubt you get when you give that person you like your phone number. And with those doubts comes a feeling of exhiliration too. The possibilities that come, all of which are good, which are more likely to come true than any of the negative shit you’ve been cooking up in your head.

That kid will make it to school, and make the trip about a thousand more times. And they will learn to drive, and read train timetables, and take buses in other countries, and be self-reliant when the chips are down. That flight you were nervous about taking will open your eyes to new wonders and experiences that nothing can take away from you. The person you like calls you and you laugh and chat and enjoy each other’s company, gradually filling in the blanks of each other’s Mysteries until you chide yourself for ever being nervous about giving them your number in the first place. You wouldn’t know what to do without them.

And maybe that story gets published and it takes a bunch of readers along with you. Because that is the entire point. Like anything worth doing though, it takes time and work and overcoming some serious doubt.

After all, most Creatives are like this because we’d had our share of damage in life and use our talents to try to make sense of this universal brokeness, this imbalance of emotions and personalities and conflict we find ourselves examining every day. Otherwise, we would do something sane like working with numbers, which never lie. So of course we will have some doubts. We will have to overcome our own self-doubts, fight our own demons, and maybe get to some point where we can have that moment in the sunshine where we feel the warmth on our faces and say “I like this feeling.”

Just a little bit of that is truly addictive.

It’s no wonder we get so fearful of the next chance, which could be a total failure. But what if it isn’t? What if it’s another day with the sun on our face? And like Hemingway’s perfect sentence, we just follow up with another one.

Do something every day that scares you

The more I’m trying to work on my travel writing, the more I feel like I’m scaring myself silly. Which is a good thing. I know that I have a lot of work ahead of me. Hell, right now it feels impossible to even get someone to respond to an email, much less setting out on some long press trip. In many ways it feels like something someone else would get to do and I would listen, just drooling about the whole experience. And they would probably just complain about how dirty a city was or that it’s hard to get a drink with ice in it in Europe.

I begin with daydreaming.

If you can begin with a dream, then you have a goal, and you can work towards a goal. That’s how I work anyway. That’s how I was able to go to London nearly two years ago. Tonight I was looking at Google Maps and just seeing the green of the UK and the hedgerows and the way cities were laid out made me miss my experience. Jeez, I could FEEL what it felt like to see those places! I want to go back. I want to go so many other places too.

I discovered that you can buy a rail pass and see Europe for pretty much which it cost me to drive to Oregon last month. (Around $400) You can take a month to go from place to place too, with several cities and stops along the way not really adding anything to the price of tickets. I didn’t realize how close countries are really. In many ways, it’s a lot like our states here. Yes, I know that is a newbie thought. But when you visualize it like that, it seems less daunting. It seems like a shorter hill rather than an unsurmountable peak.

Hopefully lockdowns will relax and in the meantime, I can figure out little things like how to fund trips like this. Time is also critical. Gathering information. And though a month trip like that is likely a far off experience, it’s a good place to start.

I can’t believe it has been nearly two years.

I have the wanderlust bad these days. My trip out to Oregon was only enough to take the edge off just a little bit.

This is the motivation. What doesn’t come so easy is the discipline to do it. To just keep hammering away at it until something clicks and it goes from being a dream into reality. Work, read, write, pitch, query, travel, repeat. It’s a simple formula, but one that sometimes I feel is about twenty years too late. But back then there wasn’t the access to information the way there is now. In some ways it is easier. And then my life is a little more complicated than it was back then.

I suppose it’s all a trade off.

I mean, what happens if you set a goal and there is nothing standing in your way except how much you want to work to get there, and the result is getting everything you want and more? How terrifying is that? I mean, what if you actually get it?