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I Could Do Anything: Exercise #1

I started reading yet another self-help book a few minutes ago, I Could Do Anything, If I Only Knew What It Was, by Barbara Sher. Click on the name link and read the "other projects" part if you really want to feel like an underachiever. Okay, maybe it won't make you feel like an underachiever, but that's the effect reading Sher's bio had on me. Or, more accurately, now I feel like even more of an underachiever than I did a moment ago.

Why am I reading another self-help book? Oh, c'mon, do you really need to ask? Okay, more specifically then, why am I reading this particular self-help book? A few days ago I ran across a mention of The Art of Nonconformity by Chris Guillebeau. There's another bio to read if you want to feel like a comparative loser. Why is it that the bios of the self-help gurus always make the rest of us -- that is, the rest of us who read rather than write self-help books -- look and feel like such dweebs? I suppose the intent of these authors is to inspire through their own actions. Or maybe it's just to brag about how awesome they are, I dunno.

Anyway, in my reading about Minimalism and Fitness and Decluttering I've been running across frequent references to Guillebreau's The Art of Nonconformity. Apparently this is the go-to resource of the moment (along with, for some reason, the Zen Habits blog by Leo Babauta -- his blog seems tepid to me; actually, it comes across as a pastiche of the Saturday Night Live character Stuart Smalley, who was himself a pastiche of trite, stereotypical self-help writing. I read Babauta's book, based on his blog, a while back. The gist of the ZH book is that you can change your life by spending less time checking your email). I almost picked up a copy of Nonconformity last year when I saw a display at Borders Books. Maybe the people running Borders should have read those success books they were marketing. At the time, The Art of Nonconformity was not available at the local library. However, after seeing the book mentioned again a few days ago, I checked the online library catalog and found that the book is now available. I put in a request, and The Art of Nonconformity is now sitting on my coffee table -- in my house it should be called either the Coca Cola table or the Slouch on the Couch and Prop Your Feet Up On table -- along with I Could Do Anything by Barbara Sher. The article I was reading -- I would link to it, but I don't remember what specific site I was reading; once I get started looking at "self-improvement" web sites, the link trail expands exponentially, so who knows how I ended up wherever it was I ended up. Wherever it was, the article recommending Guillebeau's book also mentioned the earlier Barbara Sher book. I liked the title, so I checked the library web site and found that one, too.

When I picked up the books at the library yesterday, the library lady smiled and laughed when she saw the title, I Could Do Anything If I Only Knew What It Was. This would be the pretty library lady with piercings and tattoos who usually appears rather serious. I always expect to see a whomp-ass, chromed-out Hog parked outside when this particular library lady is working, but I never have. But I'm sure she has one! I mean, she wears skinny biker jeans, too, so she's gotta have a bike to go with the rest of her ensemble. The library staff here is so cool! Whereas I, on the polar opposite end of the cool spectrum, have been reading self-help blog sites about self-help books. One of the few things more pathetic than reading self-help books is reading about self-help books... and finding it interesting! I've tried reading about chromed-out Harley Davidson motorcycles before, but I don't find it interesting. Actually, I find it intimidating, because I know I'm not cool, let alone coordinated, enough to ride one.

Believe it or don't, I actually receive periodic email updates from a local motorcycle shop -- in which I've never set foot in person, of course -- as a result of online research into Royal Enfield and Honda Shadow motorcycles. The Romance of the Open Road always seems appealing... until I start thinking about rain. And about slick pavement. And about the face-eating friction aspect of even the slickest of slick pavement. When I was in elementary school a neighbor kid, Jim C., tried... once... to help me become "cool" by suggesting I put some time into learning about motorcycles. And by this circuitous line of reasoning, we finally reach the point of this post: an Exercise suggested on page 14 of I Could Do Anything If Only I Knew What It Was. Exercise #1:
Take a blank sheet of paper and jot down the names of everyone in your family and extended family. That is, write down anyone who was important to you when you were growing up, teachers, coaches, neighbors, cousins, older friends. Under each person's name, write down what they wanted you to do with your life. Go ahead, make it a big list: everyone you lived with as a kid, everyone you live with now. What did/do they want from you? Don't think too much. Jot down your first feeling. You might not be absolutely sure you're right about what each person would say, but you know what you think is right, and that's what counts with inner messages. Your misinterpretations have influenced you as much as your insights. Think about it. What did each of these people want you to do? Source
Here we go:

Dad
I have no doubt my dad wanted me to exhibit some sign of athleticism at a young age. After all, my dad was a three-time Olympic athlete, former American record-holder, and on his way to becoming something of a legend in the coaching community. Alas, I, the eldest child, was a clumsy, weak, whiny little boy whose skills, both physical and social, deteriorated over time. My dad quickly lost interest, quite frankly; at least that is my impression. I distinctly recall him telling me, in my high school years, that "brains will take you further than athletics ever will, so go to college." I guess this was before even middling-successful athletes could turn pro and then land lucrative jobs working for Nike corporation. Several people my dad coached went on to become Nike millionaires. No, I'm not making that up.

My dad also respected entrepreneurs. People from his athletic circles seem to have a knack for starting and running highly successful businesses. His current circle of friends includes a guy who restores antique airplanes, a guy who runs a coffee import and distribution business, people who run various foundations and charities and all kinds of crap like that; and on a recent trip back east he and his coaching friends spent a day at the home of a New York lawyer who owns film actor Anthony Quinn's former estate.

"The U of Oregon is a good school," my dad said when I briefly expressed interest in attending college away from the local community. They have everything you need.

My dad took us kids out fossil hunting along the railroad embankment a couple of times.

Thinking back on this, he may have been trying to encourage the interest I expressed in paleontology. Sh*t. Why didn't I follow through on that?

Mom
My mom used to joke when my brothers and I were kids that she wanted us to grow up to become "a doctor, a lawyer, and a mechanic" so that all the future family needs would be taken care of. In retrospect, it probably wasn't a joke. The closest to fulfilling my mother's wishes would be my youngest brother, who runs his own roofing contractor business. My other brother is a part-time surveyor; the other part of the time he spends collecting unemployment benefits since the local building economy slowed down. (The roofer brother deals with the economy by laying off his undocumented foreign workforce and doing the jobs himself; the economic downturn has not seemed to impact him in the least. In fact, he bought a house during the depths of the current economic recession, taking advantage of the depressed real estate market.)

My mother also used to tell me, as I was starting college, that I would make a good teacher. And look where I ended up! It was a long, circuitous career path. Did I end up as a teacher in part due to my mother's suggestion? Why didn't the "doctor" or "lawyer" or even "mechanic" suggestion "take" instead?

My mother wanted all of us to finish college. I finally did, after years of starting and stopping, eventually even completing a master's degree. In education. :-( My youngest brother completed about two years of college before going in to roofing. He made a solid career choice. The middle brother... attended community college in order to complete his GED certificate.

These days my mother often mentions a kid who attended school in my brother's class who has become a local real estate multi-millionaire. He owns hundreds... yes, hundreds... of rental houses in town, and is a real estate agent and broker, buying and selling industrial parcels.

Grandfather, maternal
My mom's dad grew up on farms and became a Safeway store manager at a young age, sent to open new stores in what was almost the "frontier" in central Canada in the late 1920s. He actually led a life of adventure in his young days, even though he wouldn't have considered it to be such. He missed the old days, too, and was always interested in antique cars and motorcycles, the kind that he remembered from his youth. He and my grandmother had a 40 acre "hobby farm" in Oregon, and my grandfather liked nothing better than working on the farm. He also liked going on fishing - camping trips in his pickup truck camper.

I don't recall my grandfather actively expressing what he would like to see any of us do. But then, he wasn't the sort to actively express his ideas. I've long suspected what he really wanted to see in us was some hint of self-sufficiency and a drive to achieve... something. Anything. He also would have liked us to show a bit of mechanical aptitude, and a genuine interest in making and doing things. I think he would have been happy to have seen my brother start a roofing business.

Grandmother, maternal
My grandma wanted everyone to always be around. She didn't want to see anyone move away or move out or become too independent. She had a couple of phrases she often used. We were "just reg'lar folks." People who achieved things "think they're better'n us." Don't get me wrong, my grandma was sweet and nice and kind and thoughtful and generous, but... she didn't want anyone leaving, moving, or becoming too successful. Looking back, it was probably not such a good thing for me that, after my grandfather died, I lived in the attic apartment above my grandmother's house while attending college.

Grandfather, paternal
My dad's dad also lived a life of adventure, I suspect. He grew up and lived and worked in mill towns. His longest career was as a fuel truck driver for Shell Oil Company, delivering fuel oil to logging camps in southern Oregon. He liked hunting and fishing. Surprisingly, at least to me when I finally learned about it, he also enjoyed writing poetry. He had an appreciation for old west history. He collected antique bottles and rocks. He smoked a pipe and an occasional cigar.

I spent one summer staying with my dad's parents at their home in southern Oregon. One day my grandpa took me on a tour of a local sawmill where he had friends working. "I'm showing my grandson, a city boy, what a sawmill is like," I remember him telling one of the mill workers. My grandfather would have liked me to show a genuine interest in... anything related to camping, hunting, fishing, gold-panning (he was an amateur gold-miner, and his father-in-law, my great-grandfather, had been a gold miner), mechanics, or similarly manly pursuits. On my dad's side of the family, everyone was a deer hunter by the age of 11. I think perhaps I've fired a .22 rifle maybe two or three times in my entire life.

Grandmother, maternal
My grandmother was always jolly and cheerful. My dad's parents were actually closer to my uncle's kids (who lived closer, so it made sense) than to us, but visiting them was always a lot of fun when we were younger. As I grew older, I felt I didn't fit in at all. I didn't fix cars, I didn't hunt or fish, I wasn't strong or athletic. I remember always having a subtle feeling that I was something of a disappointment to everyone on my dad's side of the family. There was never anything overt, and this was likely my imagination, and my own feelings of inadequacy, more than anything real. Grandma would have liked it if I were a hunter or a fisherman, though... or if I had engaged in any kind of frivolous shenanigans that would have resulted in entertaining stories to tell.

Brother
Middle brother thought I was a creditable artist, and expected me to become a comic book artist some day.

Brother
Youngest brother thought I was some kind of academic and that I'd be a scientist.

Family friend
My dad's good friend Joe was a professional artist and art instructor, eventually becoming head of the art department at one of the State University of New York colleges. He always encouraged my drawing and my writing, strongly suggesting that I pursue art, writing, or both.

Childhood friend
My friend Mickey, whom I've known since kindergarten, expected me to major in science or engineering in college and become... rich.

Childhood friend
Stan "The Man", as he insisted on being known even in elementary school, had one agenda for his friends: girls, girls, girls! Dammit, Stan the Man, why didn't I follow your lead? There I was, Dweeb of all Dweebs, yet throughout elementary and junior high, Stan The Man was actually my friend; sure, he'd tease me once in a while, in the way friends do, but he was never belittling or cruel, the way jerks are. I coulda learned a lot from Stan. And maybe, if I'd maintained contact with Stan in high school, I would have had more interesting adventures, and Stan would not have devolved into drugs and the associated lifestyle. Where's the "do over" button on this life?

Childhood friend
I mentioned Jim C. above. He wasn't a close friend, except for a few months during late elementary school, during which time he tried to interest me in "cool" things. I should have followed through. Sometimes my mom does "retired people things" with Jim's mom. Everyone still lives in the same neighborhood. Jim married a girl who lived on the same street, Darlene, and apparently they still live right around the corner from Darlene's parents. I haven't seen any of these people in person since... junior high school, maybe? But I've seen where they live. Nice middle-class houses, with pickup trucks and travel trailers in the yards.

High School counselor
Following the pre-SAT and SAT results, the school guidance counselor told me I could apply to any college I liked, that it was rare for a student to score solidly on both math and language portions of the test (slightly higher score in language arts). This was in the days before SAT prep courses became the norm. How dim was I? I didn't really recognize the significance of the SAT test. I kinda figured it was just another standardized test. No studying, no prep, just go in and take the test... and get the second-highest score in the school. My friend Glenn got the highest score (I had edged him out on the pre-SAT, so he figured after the SAT we were even) in the school. We also had the top two scores in our (small) town. Anyway, the guidance counselor didn't offer a lot of guidance. He simply stated that I based on the test scores, it appeared I could pursue any avenue of study I wanted to with a high likelihood of success. There's more to being successful than taking multiple-choice tests. But that's a digression outside the scope of this question.

Childhood friend
Since I mentioned him, I'll add high school friend Glenn to the list. Glenn was a combination of Stan The Man from elementary school and... a smug smart kid. He was an Eagle Scout and member of the Civil Air Patrol. He was on the swim team and in the drama club, playing the lead in the high school production of <i>How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying</i>. Glenn applied to and was accepted into all three prestigious military academies: The Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, the Naval Academy at Annapolis, and West Point.

Turning his back utterly on the military academies, Glenn moved to New York to attend college and pursue a career in acting. I met up with him a year after high school. He regaled me with tales of New York actors' parties and continued his high school efforts of getting me to stop being such an uptight "prude." He wanted me to do something to get away from where I was. Shoulda listened to that guy.

I don't know if Glenn is even alive today. I've conducted occasional internet searches for him over the years, with zero results. You'd think, if his acting career had gone anywhere, there would be some indication. No FB, no "Classmates dot com," nothing. He has never returned for any class reunions (neither have I, for that matter, but I'm in occasional contact with people who have). I suppose I know a guy who knows a girl who might know what happened to him, but that would require contacting people I haven't contacted in... a long time; I really don't want to rekindle any "home town" contacts. Not because I'm on the lam from the law or anything. Just because... I'm nothing.

College-era girlfriend
She wanted me to keep trying to make a go of it as a flea market antiques dealer and in the craft show circuit. She got really angry when I was finally hired as a non-career "casual" at the post office. "We were just about to get somewhere in this business." Yeah, the "where" was filing bankruptcy, being dead broke, and heading back to live in the apartment at my grandma's house. Lotta wasted years there, for both of us. I'm glad those days are over. I wish, for both of our sakes, those years had never happened. Most depressing era of my life.

Current work supervisors and co-workers
Career educators expect things to be done the same way everybody else does them.

Current household members
Theoretical support for anything, as long as the bills get paid. Control issues, however.

Okay, so, there's my "off the cuff" list of early influences, or at least, of my current recollections of early influences. Now what? I don't know, I haven't read the next page in the book yet.

Comments

( 3 comments — Leave a comment )
pastilla
Aug. 28th, 2011 11:02 pm (UTC)
Interesting collection of characters . . . a challenging exercise.

It seems like you weren't surrounded by cruel tyrants and users, but neither were there sensitive visionaries ready and dedicated to finding/financing interesting options for you, either.
dblume
Aug. 30th, 2011 12:44 pm (UTC)
I'm impressed that you're able to look back and retrieve those inferred desires from so many influential people in your life. I couldn't do that.

It makes me consider carefully how what I do and say is probably taken by my children.
sjonsvenson
Aug. 31st, 2011 04:49 pm (UTC)
Impressive.

I think I can come up with two or three people who were interested enough to form an idea about me.
( 3 comments — Leave a comment )

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