A Half Century Plus Two: Lessons of my 52nd Year on the Planet

A Half Century Plus Two: Lessons of my 52nd Year on the Planet

By Don Hall

Oh What a Year It’s Been!

In no particular order, the narrative of my 52nd year included:

  • Packing up my cubicle at Navy Pier and being thrust into the world of the self-employed one month to the day after my 51st birthday.
  • Trump became president and everyone lost their minds over it.
  • In the navigation of said self-employment, learning that some people and organizations will feign employment in order to hear my cool events ideas and then use those ideas without compensating me.
  • I found myself despising the Extreme Left as much as I disdain the Alt Right in its embrace of political destruction tactics.
  • A trip to London and Edinburgh with the love of my life on our third anniversary.
  • Published a book of word jazz (a sentence I could have never predicted writing in all my time but true nonetheless...)
  • Events produced in both New York and Los Angeles for Audible.
  • Became reacquainted with the hustle of freelance life. 
  • Literate Ape is a business and is beginning to thrive.
  • Finally committed to compiling that “I Believe...” book after, like, 5 years saying I was gonna... 
  • Lots of podcasting.
  • Patreon.

The sheer number of lessons learned from 52 is kind of ridiculous. Some years yield a few solid rules of thumb as I hitchhike down the road of life, others hand me a stream of unending guideposts to keep in check like a consistent smack in the back of the head. It leaves a five-inch section of my skull numb and bleeding and a headache in my left eye from my brain being bounced around.

While I feel a bit like a Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robot with the head sprung up, I’m still standing and thus the categorization of lessons learned and heeded for the future begins.

Anger is a tool of both construction and destruction; best to learn to control that light saber

This seems obvious. Not much of a leap of wisdom, right?

Anger gets tricky, however, when divorced from rational thought. It’s a powerful emotion and, as emotions tend to run, is the one just next to fear that fuels some of the most destructive impulses imaginable.

On a societal scale, anger begets retribution and vengeance, twin brothers of action most would agree are not constructive in almost any way. As the #MeToo rebellion took off, the head of steam became a yawp for wholesale belief in the word of women (generally a constructive thing) followed by a wide swath battlecry to castigate all men (a thoughtlessly destructive impulse, at best).

Personally, I found myself still bitterly angry at how I had been attacked the year before and couldn’t find the rational thought to calm me down from my five-year assistant and friend knifing me in the back to get ahead at work. I dreamed of revenge in various ways (some I won’t get into as they constitute an illegal threat just to write about) and had to struggle to find that inner Spock to bring my rage into control to be a tool rather than a weapon.

What I know (and have known) is that anger, like fear, joy, and apathy is an emotional state and that emotional states are well within our control. Despite the current forced viewpoint that emotions are just as valid and heeded as rational thought, obeying the dictates of your emotional states is a road to great strife. It feels good but it doesn’t generally end well.

I’ve learned that suppressing your emotions is the road to ulcers and alcoholism but that control of them is the path to the Force. And yes, I am aware of mixing the worlds of Star Trek and Star Wars.

Fighting fire wth fire is an incredibly stupid way to put out a fire

what-if-i-told-you-its-better-to-fight-fire-with-water.jpg

People are going to cheat you; trust them anyway

Trust is given not earned.

The element of that is that when you get into the practice of trusting without some initial investment — going out on that limb and counting on people to be just be fucking square with you — you’ll be disappointed as often as rewarded.

“As often.” Remembering the times you trusted and got popped in the jaw for it is easy. Broken trust is a bit jarring and your sense of injustice comes into play. Best to remember the equal amount of times you trusted and it went well.

Here’s a metaphor. You trust every restaurant to present you with a good meal. And about half the time, you get a sub-par dining experience on some level. Do you then dismiss all restaurants as crap? Of course not. You keep going with the possibility of a splendid dinner. Sometimes you can go to your favorite restaurant and get a shit meal. And you go again because you trust that place.

In Year 52, I was backstabbed by a five-year friend and colleague. I had my freelance events ideas used without compensation by people I had worked with for a decade. Friends who actively chose to support and befriend folx who had attacked my character. Lots of broken trust.

I also have a wife who has been wholly supportive of me. A friend who has helped in the building stages of a digital enterprise he and I launched. A friend who hired me out of the gate for some national gigs. Another who, in his attempt to gain a bigger, better job included me in his plans should he succeed.

I will choose (because it’s all about choices here) to focus on the unbroken, thriving trust rather than wallow in the grime of the untrustworthy.

Trust is given not earned.

Kindness is best when it is not demanded

The block list is a universal net positive; best to get out into the world

I spent an awful lot of my time in the second half of Year 52 holed away in our apartment. A hermit wearing Uggs connected to the world through a screen. While there isn’t anything wrong with recovery from a major life change by burrowing down and avoiding human contact, strategizing the new road I’m traveling, recharging the battery so to speak, it’s a process that can become addictive.

Via the fetid spiral of social media, I found I didn’t want to be around a lot of people. I found that prolonged and solitary contact with forums that promote knowledge of everyone’s opinions and, more specifically, the realization that so many of those I called friends associated regularly with individuals I had decided to cull from my life was toxic.

Plainly put, viewing the world through social media caused me to really dislike humanity. I know a lot of theater people, but the strident, angry polemics and brazen self-righteousness of a small sect of Rage Profiteers tainted the lot.

On one hand, the choice to not spend my time with folx I no longer need to spend my time with is healthy and smart. On the other, hiding from everyone out of a suspicion that I’ll randomly have to share space with someone I’ve come to despise is easy and short-lived. 

The block list eliminates those voices I’ve grown weary of, clearing the way for new friendships and allowing the disgust in humanity to subside. 

Aging hastens the crumbling of the body but getting old is all in the dissipation of the spirit

Your one source of income is the one that will disappear; diversify or perish

Nothing on this Earth is permanent. The complacent life refuses to acknowledge this simple fact. As I saw the writing on the wall of amazing colleagues slowly be thinned away from the comfortable job in public radio — Tim Akimoff, Niala Boodhoo, Jason Saldana, Jill Shepherd, Justin Kaufman, Jesse Trevino, Robin Linn — I should’ve seen it coming.

When it was my time to go, that solid ground I had convinced myself was secure was my one source of income. Going forward, I’ll make sure that the multiple methods of making a few bucks is the rule. Take one away and have several more in place is just a smarter way to go.

The real key is to find ways of making a buck that enrich you in other ways as well. This isn’t the simple “work for a non-profit” thing but a commitment to remain curious and open no matter what work you do. To remain curious is to remain young at heart. 

The American obsession with youth is a crippling disease

Change is turbulent so keep your balance; enthusiasm and industry keep you on your feet

After five decades on the planet with at least three of them solidly on my own, the only constant I see is change. As soon as you get all complacent and comfortable, life has a way of throwing a monkey wrench into the machinery and knocking things off course.

Now, I’m not a graceful man. One reason I sold my motorcycle was that my balance was getting a bit worse and I realized that sooner rather than later I was going to take a huge spill off of that beautiful Honda Rebel and not walk away from it. I’m no more graceful when it comes to the balance of the mind and spirit.

I’m frequently a bull in a china shop and you are the china.

This is thing about change — it’s inevitable, it’s constant, and it always feels like the boat is sinking. Bouts of despair are common. Moments of clarity are likewise almost mundane in their regularly. In 52 years, I’ve had plenty of changes in course and it never gets easier to weather. The key, I believe, is to greet each big shift in navigation with a sense of wonder and curiosity. Instead of clumsily scrambling to find your footing, go ahead and fall, roll and get up. The new will be different and there will be new things to do and learn.

When you remember the most essential truth of human existence — that it always ends the same way — the trials and obstacles don’t seem so grim. I know I’ll die sooner than later because I’m more than halfway past my expiration date so I might as well enjoy what time I have. Trying to control the uncontrollable is only a squandering of that time.

Is that grace? I don’t know but it’ll do.

Being creative and making art is an essential requirement of humanity

Read the chapter you're on, not the chapter you last finished

It’s an odd lesson to include in a list of backward reflection but it still sums up an important piece of wisdom gleaned from this year.

When things don’t go the way you thought they would it is natural to go back and question all your choices:

“What if I had saved more money in anticipation of getting the axe?” 
“How would things be different if I had accepted the increased money-centric vision of events at WBEZ?”
“I shouldn’t have trusted [fill in that blank with a name] and maybe I would’ve been [fill in the blank with a state of being.]”

The downside of constantly revisiting your last chapter is that you tend to lose sight of the one you’re in and, like a runner obsessing about the trip in the leg of the race just past, you lose momentum by looking back.

Let the past be instructive not destructive.

I'd rather die of overuse than rusting out

Embrace your irrelevance in the world; we are not the center because there is no center

When I flipped over into my fifties for the first time, one of the things I felt I had learned was that “I Am Not Important.” I wrote this:

“The worst fiction about ourselves that we can embrace is that of our own importance in a world that will quickly discard us when we are no further use.”

Granted, this came from a place of feeling somehow unappreciated. Maybe a tad self-pitying.

I had been snubbed by the cast and crew of the NPR show I had been House Managing. They had a Christmas party and I wasn’t invited. So I got pissy about it. I started looking around and realized that there were more than a few instances of people I felt I had been in service to, groups I felt I had worked hard for, who seemed to discard me in those types of instances.

Actors for whom I had (in my view) bent over backwards to provide opportunities for who, when the gilt fell from the Lily, took no pause to hurl insult my way. I was compared to Pol Pot by one of them. My ex-wife’s mealy husband took potshots from the shadows of the internet despite my producing every play he ever wrote.

I became bitter and self-involved.

The lesson, however, keeps hammering away at me.

As self pity is exhausting after a while and bitterness is so in conflict with my internal optimism, the lesson was bound to sink in at some point.

It isn’t that I’m not important. It’s that I’m not important to most people in the world. I’m not even important to people whose importance was high on my own priority list. For so long I placed importance on what others thought of me, of my status within the theater community, the public school community, the storytelling community, the public radio community. Time and time again, these systems became a place where I felt important but when stripped of that status within those tribes I was easily forgotten and discarded.

I know that I am important to my family. I know that I am important to my wife. Joe Janes once referred to me as “more brother than his own brothers.” That’s important. My lovely friend Vanessa Harris is important to me — her well-being is something I reflect upon frequently and I believe that she considers mine as well.

The lesson is to pay attention to those whose importance is paramount to me rather than worry one self-pitying second on how relevant I am. One becomes important by recognizing the importance of others.

On a rock with seven billion souls scurrying around it like ants on a watermelon, there is no center of things. My universe is not defined by my status or what others outside of my list think of me. It is not determined by my accomplishments as each is a masterpiece etched into the sand as the tide comes in. My universe is distinct only by those I place upon higher value than I do myself.

There’s a freedom in acknowledging one’s lack of significance. It means that as long as I pay tribute to those I love and value, I have nothing else to lose. A man with nothing to lose is a formidable thing.

And while it is true that in the Grand Scheme of things I am just a minute spec of humanity, I’m off cigarettes now and am smoking a pipe. So I certainly look more important.

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