Shoot for the Moon

I’ve never actually watched Apollo 13. I’ve heard it. A lot. I could tell you within 3 seconds if it were on in another room. But I’ve never actually watched it.

This is actually true for me for several movies. My father, like me, is a night owl, and while I was growing up tended to spend those sleepless nights watching a certain selection of movies, on a seemingly endless loop. Among those in heavy rotation were Apollo 13, The Thing, and just when you thought there was a theme, Babe. I could basically quote any of these to you from start to finish, but Babe’s the only one I’ve actually every watched, until today.

Today I found myself in a government training class, the kind where they teach you leadership, or followership (yes, it’s a word), or some sort of way to be a better employee (TM) by learning a few simple axioms by way of Franklin Covey or some such. Generally it’s a lot of bullshit and very little substance, leading the average participant to wonder if the people developing the training believe we all woke up one day unaware of both the world around us and the mechanisms by which it works. I signed up for this particular training because it seemed like the lesser of many evils, and because during the precursor training I’d actually gained a nugget or two of new information. But still, my hopes were not high.

The instructor, in the tradition of high school teachers right before summer recess, decided to show a movie towards the end of the class, in the hopes that from it we should gain some insight into how to be a team player. The movie he chose was Apollo 13, and I’ll admit it was a worthy one. Certainly working together in those conditions was something to be commended and emulated, and unlike the Pickett’s Charge references from my PMF orientation, was actually ultimately successful (insofar as no one died, not, like, the landing on the moon part).

But what struck me as I watched wasn’t the lessons of leadership, or teamwork, or whatever, but was how fucking badass we were then. We put people on the moon. The fucking moon. Do we ever take the time to think about that? Calculators were still the size of a compact car, and we put some people on the moon. The fact that we even got people into orbit is amazing. We sat some guys and gals on millions of pounds of fuel, said a prayer, pulled the trigger, and went the fuck into space. Yes, of course it was far more complicated than that. Yes, of course lives were lost, and treasure, and time, but seriously: we, the people of the United States, put other people On. The. Moon.

I thought about that, looking around the room at my fellow civil servants, most of us uninspired. We talked earlier in the day about the incentive to do our work, in the absence of profit, and the reason that came back was service. Service to our citizens, to each other. But what is that service, really, when you’re talking about lower level bureaucrats like myself. Sure, a secret service agent, a border inspector, a benefits processor, these people have tangible, daily impact on the lives of Americans. But us paper pushers? What do we do? When I first moved here, I thought it was something. Now I’m not so sure.

So that’s my new question: what’s my moon? What’s our new moon? The government, this government, is capable of greatness. Amazing, astronomical, impossible greatness. So what’s it gonna be?


Time on My Hands

Did you know that Nepal is 15 minutes off from any other time zone around the world? Most are an hour apart, a few are half and hour, but only Nepal is 15 mins off.

I like that. I like a little grace in a day. I like the idea that you can go mere feet over a border and somehow gain laignappe. I usually need that in my schedule, suffering from a chronic lateness that I jokingly blame on growing up on Arab time, except we were practically the only Arabs in town. So it can hardly be called a cultural norm. The truth is, I simply like to linger. Over coffee, in the shower, listening to music, having a conversation. As much as I run, run, run between things, I like to savor them while I’m there. It’s the gaps in between that aren’t large enough, or perhaps I’m not disciplined enough to enlarge them.

The truth is the gapping maw of uninterrupted time scares me. The idea of not filling my days with THINGSTODO is alarming. Yes, I like unstructured time, but even that I plan for. I schedule it. Finding myself with unexpected free time is… hard to deal with. I am an only child and an extrovert, it’s true. An extrovert in extremis. To the max. Mega. I have a friend who jokes that I book up a month in advance, and it’s completely true. I like having things to look forward to doing in the future. Even on nights when I’m thoroughly exhausted and am honestly looking forward to take out and staring blankly at the TV, I’ll get to about 9pm and be like… “I’m bored. Somebody come play with me.”

It’s the time that’s been getting to me lately. The ticking of the clock, not knowing where the minutes are heading, and not knowing what I’ve done with the ones that have passed. If someone is there with me, it somehow makes it seem worthwhile. It seems purposeful. But alone, the time gives me time to think, mostly about time itself, and how there never seems to be enough of it when you really need it, and too much of it when you don’t. So I linger, in the hopes that each moment will reveal it’s purpose, maybe just a little bit past the tick.

Room to Make a Big Mistake

I don’t own a car, anymore. Living in DC, it’s relatively easy to get by without one. I say relatively, because there are days and activities when it would make life so. Much. Easier. Like, big Trader Joe’s pantry stock ups, or Ikea trips, or any time you have to go to Virginia. But still, there is zip car, and car2go, and Uberx, and the ever-popular friend-with-a-car. I’m usually able to cobble together a happy carless existence.

But I miss driving. When I was younger, growing up in Kansas, a long drive was how I got to thinking, had some time to ruminate on things. I am a big ruminator, chewing on a problem, grinding my teeth over it for days, weeks, months. Some might say I obsess, but I prefer to say I ruminate. Eventually I digest the idea and figure out what to do next. It just takes some work and worry to get there. Driving through those wide open spaces cleared my head and helped me focus.

So this weekend, when I had the opportunity to drive back to Wichita from Kansas City while I was visiting my folks, I jumped on it. I used to make that drive all the time, the first or last leg of any trip from home to college in Minnesota. I could make that drive in my sleep, and on more that one late night or early morning drive from school, almost did. The Flint Hills that make up the bulk of the drive are like God’s Little Acre, rolling green and grey, covered in happy cows and wild horses. It’s bucolic, as my father said. It’s serene. It’s the wide open space I didn’t know I was missing.

DC is frenzy, and chaos, and competition. It’s brawling ambition and deadlines, and the next big thing. I’ve been chewing on a particular decision, one that seems simple on paper, but hard in practice, and in DC I keep trying to come to a decision, a conclusion, because it always feels like time’s a-wastin’ there. The entire city taps it’s foot it at you, and I kind of like that, most of the time. But I’ve pressured myself into so many decisions in the past because I was afraid I was wasting time, or just to get out of the discomfort of not knowing, or just for the love of God do something, because I am such a doer. Some of these decisions have worked, some of them haven’t, but none of them came without struggle. I just didn’t want to make a mistake, and wait too long at the fair. As though doing something, anything, could insulate me from trouble.

But I’m not ready to do anything, right now. That’s what the Flint Hills told me. Or, more precisely, I’m tired of doing. I do so much doing. I would like yo not do for a while, and see what unfolds. To consciously not make a decision, and what happens. Perhaps it will be a mistake too, perhaps I will have waited too long, and my fear that drove decision making will be realized. But I’ve begun to see that there’s a value in knowing you might be making a mistake, and doing it anyway for the lesson. I’ve got nothing but wide open spaces, and room to make a big mistake.

Carpe Diem

Robin Williams died today. He was 63, the same age, incidentally, as my father will be just about the time I finish drafting this post. It’s eerie to me, a bit, because my father is also a man whose humor can belie some deep, rough stuff. But then, I imagine that’s many more of us than we care to admit.

I was struck in the hours immediately following his death by the outpouring of sadness from people all over the country, and the world. This was a performer we could all name, could all quote. He was the funny uncle, the weird neighbor, the goofy cartoon of a man who was bankable because of his consistency. Everyone thinks he’s funny.

My favorite movie of his wasn’t a comedy, though. It wasn’t particularly well-known. It’s a movie that I think didn’t do particularly well in the theaters, even, but I’ve always liked a dark horse of a movie. The Fisher King is a weird film, about redemption, and brokenness, and finding one’s way back from the abyss. It resonated with me, even at a young age, partly because of the allegory, and partly because you couldn’t look away from Williams. I wanted to reach through the screen and help him, to make it stop, to heal this deep wound. I wanted to turn off the movie to keep it from seeping into that same wounded place in me. Not because I have been a homeless man with delusions of grandeur, but because that amount of raw vulnerability felt, even from a distance, unbearable.

As I later became an actor myself, I would think about that role and the bottomlessness of it- the darkness that you would need to tap into to access it. The naturalness with which he put it on should have been a clue to us all. But we were too busy enjoying the show.

So tonight I was not surprised by the outpouring, but I was struck by it. I realized that part of what drove him to death was probably feeling unloved, unwanted, misunderstood. The tragedy is that it didn’t matter how loud the applause, how genuine the praise. There was a hole inside him that no one else could fill, and it seems he died trying. Nothing can substitute for self-love, and self-worth. Nothing, not even the love of millions and money to match.

So I’ll leave you with this, from him, from Dead Poets Society: “Seize the day. Because, believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die.” Every day we still draw breath, we can choose to believe in our own worth, our own value. Let that be the lesson and legacy from this beloved, sad clown.

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