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On Being Thirty-One

February 10, 2010

Notable News from a Year Ago, February 10, 2009: Speaking of getting old… on this day in 1990, Buster Douglas “shocked the world” by KO’ing Mike Tyson. But, since Buster believed he could win before he stepped in the ring, I doubt he was shocked at all. Further proof that one man’s belief can change the world.

Take that world!

[Also on this day a year ago, I was gloating over my recent success writing “How to Change the World”, which you can read here. There’s a good message in this entry, but you’ll have to wade through some writerly confessions for why I made certain decisions in the text, which aren’t uninteresting, but to a non-writer, is perhaps nauseating. Enjoy.]

First, you should know that I finished “How to Change the World” last week and it is as powerful and transcendent as I hoped and imagined. The deadline for entry is the end of the month and I have a business trip to Asheville, North Carolina scheduled for then, so more than likely I’ll revise it this weekend and mail it off next week. New Millennium Writings has an online submission tool, but I’m mailing it just the same so the article is presented as nicely as I can possibly make it.

Another note about “How to Change the World.” Near the end when I got into discussions of God, I had a choice between saying the “Bible”, “The Old Testament”, or “The Torah” — and chose (rather shrewdly in my opinion) to the say “The Torah.” [And since I won Honorable Mention by using “The Torah”, maybe there’s truth in my approach. Then again, maybe there isn’t. You be the judge.] The confession is: I’m not Jewish in any way and have no aspirations whatsoever of wearing a yarmulke, but my impression over the past seven years watching the publishing industry is that there is a decidedly Jewish slant. Works by Jewish authors and musings on Yiddish frequently make both fiction and nonfiction anthologies, and a year doesn’t go by without a hundred or so new works on the Holocaust.

I cannot remember a time when a work referencing the words “Bible” or “Old Testament” even came across my eyes…

In fact, other than Dan Brown, I cannot remember a time when a work referencing the words “Bible” or “Old Testament” even came across my eyes. Either it’s so commonplace that I look over it and remember the Jewish references because it’s so foreign to me (and I haven’t read any Christian fiction, so that doesn’t help), or “Bible” and “Old Testament” engender something lesser in the minds of editors, a lot of whom are also Jewish. As I’ve said before, I don’t know the absolute truth, but I decided because of my experiences, and because of what I was feeling was the truth as I wrote “How to Change the World” (as in, my work wouldn’t be considered worthy if I referred to something from a Christian standpoint instead of a Jewish standpoint), I chose to use “The Torah.”

Actually, come to think of it, there’s a second thing about “How to Change the World” you should know about: it almost wasn’t written. Yes, it seems anachronistic to say I finished it and then, two paragraphs later, say it almost wasn’t written, but to fully understand what I mean we have to go back to October of last year [2008] when I was considering a career change and interviewed for an IT Programs manager position in North Carolina. Actually, it was more than an interview: I’d worked for this manager in a different capacity before, and was sure going in — sure like the solution to 2 + X = 4 — that I had the job.

But that’s not how Jacob’s ladder unfolds — not in this story. According to my former boss, who was tellingly distant and silent the week following my onsite interview, the voting was close but eventually went to someone with 20+ years of program management experience. I came in second on the Cause and Effect Matrix of Employment, or whatever it was they used to make their decision.

It wasn’t my dream job, anyway, but I felt it was a good opportunity for my career and my salary. And the Georgia Tech part of me was looking forward to what would be a huge portion of my responsibility: managing the group’s product website. I’d told myself the knowledge I would gain there would help me in the future when it came time to manage my own website. [And what do you know? It’s a year later and I’m managing a website anyway now without that experience. Must’ve just been a story I was using to convince myself interviewing and moving to North Carolina was the right thing to do.]

So the news that I didn’t get the job was discouraging, but not completely. My wife and I spent two days, Thursday and Friday, in the Pinehurst/Raeford area after the interview. We came away unimpressed. Raleigh we like; Raeford, which was where we would probably be living, was in the middle of nowhere and not particularly scenic, flat and drab when compared to the mountainous beauty of southeastern Tennessee. And then Raeford was 30 minutes away from the headquarters in Laurinburg where I’d be working, which meant I’d have a commute for the first time in eight years, and I wasn’t looking forward to that especially with gas prices circling in the mid $2-range, and threatening to go higher.

I have learned a lot in thirty-one years both good and bad, but nothing strikes me more powerfully than the influence on my life of unseen forces.

And then there is the constant struggle that I’ve had since recommitting to writing in 2002: how high can I reasonably ascend in corporate America before the ways outweigh the means? How long before the day runs out of hours? I felt positively taxed over the last two years flying to Puerto Rico fifty percent of the time. Travel with this new job would’ve been less frequent except for annual flights to Taiwan and Thailand to visit the manufacturing sites, but I got the impression I was gaining no free time, and fully expected after I got the job offer to be completely consumed over the next few months with relocating and settling into my new job.

Except — I didn’t get the job. I had some knee surgery pending, and instead of putting it off until later, as I had planned to do if we were moving to North Carolina, as soon as I got the rejection I went to see the doctor and planned the surgery for December. Because of the surgery and the holidays, I was able to sit in one place.

While recovering, I was unable, for whatever reason, maybe the painkillers, to do any significant writing, but in January I completed the “Incidental Music” rewrite, which I didn’t get the idea for until after I’d learned I wasn’t getting the job. [“Incidental Music is out on submission still, but I’m hopeful it’ll find a home.] At the same time, I read an interview with Dean Koontz where he said he could see things differently when he printed his work out and read it on paper instead of on the computer screen, and so I started doing the process myself, using it on “Incidental Music” first. And then, because I can work from home with my current job, and perhaps wouldn’t have been if I had gotten the one in Laurinburg, I was able to watch Barack Obama’s inauguration from home, the liveliness and energy of which ultimately led to this diary, which in turn led to the writing of “How to Change the World.”

So, I’m very serious when I say the piece that can change a lot of things for me almost wasn’t written. In fact, I have learned a lot in thirty-one years both good and bad, but nothing strikes me more powerfully than the influence on my life of unseen forces.

It happened because of dog named Butterball.

I have several examples of this in my life — examples of when I wanted or intended to do one thing, but forces greater than me interceded on my behalf and made me do something else — but this is my favorite, and in my mind, the most telling. It happened when I was in middle school.

It happened because of dog named Butterball.

Butterball wasn’t our dog originally. He belonged to my dad’s cousin, who had aged into squalor and couldn’t look after herself anymore. She went into the nursing home and her animals, two dogs, Gal and Butterball, came to our house to live.

In my family there is a long and esteemed list of dogs, but at this time Butterball and Gal were it. He stayed down at the bottom of the hill, and one of my chores growing up, which I shared with my brother, was feeding them. And he was a foreign entity to me at first. Not a dog I was afraid of, but a dog I hadn’t asked for.

At the time of this story, however, the awkward period had passed. And on this particular day in mid-fall the duty fell to me feed him when I would have rather been watching after-school school cartons.

If I thought he’d gotten rabies and was a threat, I never would’ve gotten that close to him.

So there I was walking toward Butterball’s house at the bottom of the hill, and usually when he (or any dog for that matter) spotted you and hadn’t eaten all day, he did the Pavlov’s thing with his tail and jumped around in jubilation, jerking at his chain. Except today, Butterball didn’t bark or move; he just stared at me. All the way down the hill. I called his name cheerfully, beating the metal pot with a spoon as I entered the gate and emptied the food into his dish, but he never moved an inch. He just stood there, staring intently at me.

The look wasn’t malicious or anything. If it was, or if I thought he’d gotten rabies and was a threat, I never would’ve gotten that close to him. But when I got back to the gate and turned around he still hadn’t moved, was still looking at me. My first thought was he looked sick, but no, that was wrong –because when I turned my head and looked at him askance, he looked normal. When I looked straight at him, he shivered. Purposefully. I’d turn my head and he’d stop. I’d look back and he’d start again.

I wondered how a dog could do something as clever as shiver on command whenever I looked at him, and then it hit me like a brick: Butterball was trying to send me, the Big Idiot Master, a message. If I slowed down and paid attention, then maybe I’d see what it was.

And so I did. I stopped, looked, tuned in to Butterball in a way I had never done before (and, I have to tell you, I felt foolish, and slightly freaked-out, doing it, because this was some Outer Limits stuff going on here)… and, immediately, as if we’d really made a connection to each other, I went to a nearby shed and got a wheelbarrow and a rake to put straw in Butterball’s house. Only then, when I started to move toward the shed, did Butterball’s tail wag, as if he was saying: Yes, Idiot! YES! You get it! Only then, after I’d done the work and he’d had a chance to arrange the straw in his house the way he wanted, did he even come close to sniffing his food bowl.

And so I left that encounter a changed person. Though I’ve always considered myself of gifted intelligence [and I do mean always here], I’ve been acutely aware, since that moment, that in some cases (some even improbable), I will be the inferior one; that there’s an external intelligence out there that could trying to send me a desperate message at any point in time, but if I’m not paying attention, or if I think I’m so smart and know it all, if I’m hurried, I’ll miss it. Furthermore, I’ve come to realize that the things I typically want in life are hiding so close to what I need that I’ll go feed the dog when I should really be raking straw; or I’ll interview for a job in North Carolina when, to achieve this dream of writing, to fulfill the Plan, I really need to stay in Tennessee.

Somehow, through all my missteps, in thirty-one years, the greater intelligence has found a way to get the message through to me anyway. I don’t know why this is. Maybe I’m more in-tuned to what is happening around me than I give myself credit for; maybe I’m just meek enough to inherit the earth. Whatever the reason, I get stronger year after year because of it. I’m thankful for that — I’m thankful for the humbling — and hope it doesn’t stop.

Next Vista: Wednesday, February 17, 2010, “The Fire That Won’t Die”

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