Let Go of the Rock
Every once in a while, I slip into this David Copperfield mode where I start looking back on my life. It doesn't take much to make me start reminiscing like an ex-high school quarterback who's current dose of daily glory is restricted to being the only one at the plant who can throw a 50-pound sack of manure clear to the top of the truck.
Don't get me wrong; it's not like I'm looking back bitterly on any glory days of yesteryear. As far as I'm concerned, these are the glory days, right here, right now and, as a matter of fact, I think I'm the only one at the office who can hurl sacks of manure onto Tim Patterson's truck. (He uses it to fertilize his beloved asparagus plants, shoots of which he gnaws continuously so that he can leave pungent urine in our offices. Apparently, it's just his way of letting us know that he's thinking about us. Personally, I think it'd be easier if he left a Post-It note, but hey, he's the boss.)
It was a breakfast with a friend that triggered this particular walk down memory lane. Harry and I had first met about 12 years ago when I got a job at General Dynamics in San Diego. We were both technical writers, and our job was to write manuals on how to take apart a top-secret variety of nuclear cruise missiles.
(And to think, most of you slept peacefully at night, not knowing that there was a looney-toon involved in US security. I thought about taking one of the payloads home in my lunchbox so I could use it to threaten retaliation against my landlord for raising my rent, but I thought better of it, considering that he had just attained nuclear capability himself.)
Harry had taken me under his wing and showed me the ropes. We worked together for a couple of years, but I knew from day one that punching a clock to write dull books that no one would ever read wasn't exactly what I wanted to do with my life.
We went our separate ways, but we've always stayed in touch. When we met last week for breakfast, we reminisced about our days at General Dynamics. In between bites of his poached eggs, he said, almost wistfully, that that was the last time he had made more money than me.
Now, Harry's a great guy, a talented guy. He's a good writer, and he's got scores of half-finished books lying around his study. He's also got plans for all kinds of inventions, and most of them aren't half-bad. He never carries through with much of anything, though. Instead, he's stayed pretty much in the same line of work. He now writes about computers instead of cruise missiles but, other than that, not much has changed.
Harry is cursed with an affliction that I call inertia. He's one of those guys who'll say things like:
"I'm going to start going to night school so I can get another degree and get a real job."
"I'm going to start working out and dieting next week so I'll be in shape for that reunion."
"Oh, yeah, one of these days I'm going to get that penis extension, and then the girls will come running."
The trouble is, he never does those things. Well, he did get the penis extension but, like a lot of guys, he tried to save some money by doing it himself. Personally, I think it was a mistake to use a bowling ball tied to a bungee cord, but hey, what do I know? It is a lot longer now, but it's not good for much of anything except tying sheets of plywood to the roof of his car. Despite that, Harry is reasonably happy, but I don't think he ever came close to fulfilling his potential.
Now, I'm by no means a big success story in terms of financial riches, but I think I'm a success in life. No, no, I'm not going to tell you about all the love in my life for the children and how money can't buy you happiness or any of that '60s, hippie anti-materialism that's now resurfaced as New Age philosophy, so don't worry. It's just that I keep rolling the dice until they come up my way, and when I say I'm going to do something, I generally do it.
It sure wasn't easy, though.
Back in the '80s, I was teaching freshman composition at Eastern Michigan University while working toward my masters in American Lit. I was also dinking around the science lab a little bit, contemplating the almost insane wish to work on my masters in microbiology at the same time. I knew, though, that school had given me all it was going to give me.
I certainly wasn't going to get a job where I had to spend my evenings reading themes on how some pasty-faced kid spent his summer vacation, and I sure as hell wasn't going to spend my life sitting in a lab somewhere preparing fecal smears for some stick-up-his-ass doctor. No, if I was going to prepare fecal smears, it was going to be for me and me only!
I knew only two things: I wanted to be "my own man," and I wanted to write. So I rolled the dice. I moved out to Albuquerque to live with my brother. I took my tennis racket, a gym bag full of clothes, my cheap, pathetic polyester suit, and drove my broken down Oldsmobile Delta '88 Royale out West.
Of course, Albuquerque wasn't necessarily the city of my dreams, but hey, it was a start, and it was someplace different. I got a job almost immediately working for a small newspaper. Trouble was, it was the Penny Saver, and my job had nothing to do with editing or writing; instead, I had to sell ad space. Jobs were hard to come by then, and I couldn't afford to be choosy.
My route was the old section of Albuquerque where hardly anyone spoke English. Unfortunately, I didn't speak Spanish. I sold one ad in four weeks and got fired from the Penny Saver. Of course, every experience teaches you something — even the bad ones — and I now know how to say "Go home, you stupid Anglo" in Spanish.
I then got a job selling used cars, at an interest rate of around 18%. I worked there for about three months, and I think I sold a total of six cars. I ended up quitting that one, even though they were probably damn close to firing me.
After that, I registered at an employment agency. The job offers came rolling in. I got offered a job playing Santa Claus at the mall, even though I weighed all of 160 pounds at the time. I was offered a job as a fertilizer salesman (so the bit about the manure in my opening paragraph isn't far from the truth). I was even interviewed for one job by a guy wearing a gorilla suit (it took me a few shocked minutes to figure out that it was Halloween).
The coup de grace came when I was offered a job as an exterminator. Six years of college and a dual major had taken me to this: sitting in Albuquerque, wearing a suit made of space-age polymers, kissing the ass of a guy who wants to hire me to kill cockroaches.
I think fate intervened, though. I had gotten kicked in the right nut about a week before when I was jumped in a parking lot (that's another story), so my scrotal sack looked about the same size and shape as an old Spalding football. So when the guy says to me, "Yeah, you gotta' take a physical, but don't worry about it...we just wanna' make sure you got both nuts," the irony sinks through me like battery acid.
I wasn't even qualified to kill vermin.
I drove my good nut and his friend, Puffy, home from the interview and, as I was cruising back toward my brother's apartment down I-25, some bastard rolled down his window and yelled, for no goddam reason, "Go blow!!!" It wasn't until months later that I figured he had seen my Michigan license plates and was, in fact, yelling "Go Blue!" in a homage to the University of Michigan football team, but my damaged psyche interpreted it as just more proof that the whole world was against me.
When I woke up the next morning, I toyed with the idea of checking out over the nearest cliff, Thelma and Louise-style, but someone had slashed all my tires the night before.
Things picked up the following week, though. A woman — a real hot number, I might add — hired me to be an advertising salesman for Albuquerque Monthly magazine. After the interview, she asked me, rather nonchalantly, "You ever fuck your boss?" No, I hadn't, but I didn't think that Leonard, the chief exterminator, was into that sort of thing.
Well, there's always a first time for everything. I got laid that night. Most jobs, I don't even get a blowjob. The next morning, I showed up to work only to find that the doors were padlocked. The owner had decided to close down the place without giving anybody any notice.
Every day, despite all of the crap that was happening to me, I dragged my ass over to Liberty Gym and took out my frustrations on the weights. I was still determined to fix things, and I knew that any job I got was just a stepping stone, or at least something to hold me over until I was able to do what I wanted.
Soon after, I met my future wife, and she believed in me and allowed me to stay home and work on a book about cancer. She also set it up so that I was able to go back to school and take some grad courses in microbiology. The book didn't get picked up, and the courses were only to keep me "in the game," so to speak, but I was slowly getting my self-respect back. I eventually got a job working for a defense contractor as a technical writer and, one day, I applied for a job at General Dynamics in San Diego. They hired me, and Albuquerque was history for us.
That's where I met Harry. I could go on and on and probably bore the shit out of you but, after a couple of years, I got the bright idea of submitting some articles to the bodybuilding magazines. Wonder of wonders, they bought one for a hundred-and-twenty-five bucks! Then they bought another. I sent stuff to all of the mags. Soon, I was writing about three or four articles a week and was actually tapping out a meager living on my computer.
After discussing it with my wife, I decided to take a chance and quit my job at General Dynamics to try writing full-time. We set a goal, though: If I wasn't editor-in-chief of a magazine in three years, I was going to quit and try another route.
No matter that I had to subjugate my own opinions about bodybuilding and instead report the mostly absurd workout recommendations of what worked out to be close to 500 competitive bodybuilders; I knew I was paying my dues and that some day I'd get to write my own stuff. Eventually, a bloke by the name of Bill Phillips found me, and I fulfilled my goal, a full year early.
That job is ancient history now, but I was able to establish a name for myself in the business. When I left Muscle Media, I received no less than five offers to head up different bodybuilding magazines. It's not a way to get rich, certainly, but I call my own shots now. I don't have to punch a clock; I work pretty much whatever hours I want; and I have my self-respect. Tim Patterson also gives me chocolate treats and scratches me behind the ears when I do a good job.
But it could have been very different. I might have settled for selling cars way back when. Worse, I might have stayed in Michigan, not having the courage to take a chance, and letting fate control me rather than the other way around. I took chances, and I didn't give up. I resisted inertia.
It's sometimes a lot easier to accept things the way they are, to sit back and complain bitterly to anyone who'll listen, but that's the big difference between people who are happy and people who are miserable.
I think these people don't realize that it really doesn't take all that much courage to change their life. I don't care if we're talking about working out religiously, changing jobs, getting out of a bad relationship, or moving to a different town. Believe me, you can't lose.
Whatever you do, provided that you stay focused, works out. The only people who lose are the ones who cash in their chips and refuse to play another hand. It's like the Chinese allegory of the man caught in the rapids. He's managed to grab hold of a rock, but the raging waters are beating him against the rock over and over again. If he doesn't let go, he'll soon die, but he's afraid to let go because he doesn't know what dangers lie downstream.
Let go of the rock.
This column was first posted on August 26th, 1999.
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