Attention, Attention Must Finally Be Paid

Just lately, I've found myself at what seems to be a crossroads. Given my affinity with Kerouac and the ink on my right forearm ("The Road is Life") it is unsurprising that the image of diverging paths is the one that comes most readily.

As I approach my 51st birthday, of course, I am in full bore self-reflection mode and gazing deeply into my own navel with an intensity that borders on mania. Stimuli are coming from every corner and putting all of these pieces together—clues to my potential navigation—becomes somewhat distracting and nearly obsessive, like a man working the last pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that, when complete, will point out a clear and specific direction.

***

Recently, I met Tom Hanks. I was on the job and my role was not to act the fanboy, so while most of my co-workers ended up scrambling for photos and autographs, I maintained my professional distance and cherished the few moments of conversation I had with America's Dad. He was as cool and as normal as you would want him to be (which is not often the case with celebrity). Closing out the show, he took questions from the audience and one question ("Which is your favorite movie?") evoked a bark of disdain from him followed by the reveal that the film that he cried when it wrapped was Cloud Atlas. I love that film so, after a few days, I re-watched it.

The themes of redemption and a journey that connects us all in large and small ways is swirling around my mind like a virus. The ideas of our personal decisions being mere drops in the ocean but that an ocean is but a collection of drops haunts me.

***

I've been playing a game on my iPad lately entitled This War of Mine. The game, inspired by the 1992–96 Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War, differs from most war-themed video games by focusing on the civilian experience of war rather than frontline combat. Characters have to make many difficult decisions in order to survive everyday dangers. There are various endings for each character, depending on the decisions made in the game.

It is one fucking depressing game. Characters get sick, are constantly hungry, must go out and scavenge for materials and food. Sometimes, you resort to stealing food or medicine and your character gets incredibly depressed. If you push them too hard in that direction, they go from severely depressed to broken and stop functioning. Many of the characters end up becoming so despondent with the constant hustle of survival that they commit suicide. Goddamn this game.

***

My mother tells me about my Uncle Don (whom I am named after) who was an aerospace engineer. He was part of the team that built the first space shuttle. This man, who rarely spoke at all around anyone, months before dying on a tennis court in his retirement, confessed that he never wanted to be an aerospace engineer. He wanted to be a journalist but went with the job that paid because he was married and had kids. That if he had it all to do over, he would've followed a different path.

My mother tells me that toward the twilight of his career at Boeing, he was in that paid-too-much-because-of-seniority stage, and his managers hired someone above him and gave this person all of his responsibilities and authority with the idea that he would quit. He would not quit—he had too much invested in terms of a pension and retirement benefits (considerable in those days) to throw it all away. They took his work from him, so he would sit at his desk and read. One day, he came to work and they had taken his desk away. So he sat in a chair in the empty space and read there as well. This went on for awhile until Boeing decided they were going to transfer him to Seattle. He finally took early retirement because he did not want to be relocated. They won after all.

And after all of this corporate humiliation and passive aggressive disregard, he died less than two years from leaving the company. But not before talking a blue streak to his nephew about the choices he made in his life and the choices I should make in mine.

***

A friend (or a Facebook friend whom I actually know and would greet with a bear hug) wrote this week that he had been let go from his gig at a less than high quality journalism type of magazine. He wrote that he was OK with being let go because he realized he was becoming "the Willy Loman of Cat Fancy."  (No, he didn't write for Cat Fancy but the comparison is apt.)

This Willy Loman angle caught my over-stimulated brain and turned it inward.

From the entry in Wikipedia:

"Willy Loman is an aging suburban Brooklyn, New York salesman whose less than spectacular career is on the decline. He has lost the youthful verve of his past and his camaraderie has faded away. His business knowledge is still at its peak, but without his youth and heartiness, he is no longer able to leverage his personality to get by. Time has caught up with him. The play presents Loman's struggle "to maintain a foothold in the upward-striving American middle class" while combating his own self-doubt that plagues him in reminders from the past that his life rests on unsolid ground. 

According to Charles Isherwood, Loman is the play's dominant character because "It is his losing battle against spiritual and economic defeat that provides the narrative spine of the play." 

Willy Loman is sixty-three in the play. Sixty-three is getting closer than I ever thought it would.

I feel like my conversation with the man I'm named after was a dialogue with Willy Loman. I wonder, as I watch the institution I have worked for for a decade become increasingly more about the Corporation than the Mission, if I am walking down that stone road to becoming Willy as well.

"I don't say he's a great man. Willie Loman never made a lot of money. His name was never in the paper. He's not the finest character that ever lived. But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He's not to be allowed to fall in his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person."
— Death of a Salesman

My Facebook friend wrote

"Life is short. I know that's super obvious, but it's become more obvious as I've gotten older, and friends have left this earth, and you realize what you do with your days isn't just passing time. It's not like it was in your 20s, when a job was something you did to earn weed money and pay the rent until you figured out what you want to do with your life. THIS IS WHAT YOU DO. THIS IS YOUR LIFE. We only have so long to leave our mark on this damaged world. Even if it's a really, really, really, really tiny mark, you can do something that makes you feel jubilant."

***

Christ. Cloud Atlas. This War of Mine. Uncle Don. Willy Loman. THIS IS YOUR LIFE.

As a bizarre metaphor for entering into this new Fascist World of Trump complete with the crushing anxiety I see all around me, coming home from a storytelling show one night, I looked down as I was walking to my door and saw, glistening in the rain, a true blue pair of authentic brass knuckles. Illegal in the city, someone must have been running from the cops or just ditched them in a hurry but there they were.

I picked them up, wiped them dry and stared in the palm of my hand at this archaic but still potent piece of metal designed for 1930's toughs to pummel the shit out of other thugs.

Maybe it was happenstance, a random encounter with an object in a world filled with such things. Perhaps it was destiny. And possibly it was the strange, comical Loki of the Mind giving me a clue to the jigsaw puzzle. I keep it in my bag now. Not because I'll ever likely use it—those days are long past me now and thankfully so.

No, not as a weapon but as a reminder, maybe. That as I grow older and into my fifth decade on this tortured rock, as I spend my days driving a Prius and working for public radio (they still haven't removed my desk or stolen my red Swingline stapler), these knuckles marked A-R-M-Y across the surface are a reminder that I may yet still have some fights to fight. I may just yet have some life I have neglected to live.

I'm at a crossroads. I have some choices to make. Which direction will I follow? What will the costs be and will the trade-off for my time be enough to keep me from wasting it in the pursuit of things unworthy of the marvels of life?