Friday, March 18, 2011

Sundae Experiment #3.

I don't need a lot of words to introduce this next sundae experiment volunteer. Suffice to say, the project is progressing nicely. During this great conversation about life and change with my good friend Joe, I began to discover that this whole interview process is more about not holding onto the questions so tightly, listening, and just letting the natural flow of the conversation take itself where it wants us to go.

Art imitating life once again.

What’s the best part of your day?

Breakfast. I made breakfast this morning. It's nice to make breakfast for someone who appreciates it.

Is that a different answer now that you’re with someone?

Yes, my time alone taught me an appreciation for the simple pleasures. Now that I’m with someone again, sharing those things is key. Breakfast is something simple; it's how you start your day, and it sets the tone for the day.

Define happiness.

Happiness is a tough call for me as it encompasses so many different things. You can be happy with different parts of your life, but not necessarily be happy overall. Right now, it goes back to simplicity for me. A year ago did a re-evaluation of my life, and I figured out what made me tick, who I was as a person and what I was really looking for out of life. I cut a lot of things out of my life I felt weren't necessary. The things that make me happy are the simplest things. It’s not about money for me, it's about my kids... about seeing them... about seeing smiles on their faces. Bringing a little joy to someone else brings a huge amount of joy to me now. Whereas before, I think I was a very selfish person and really didn't think about other people a lot. I went through a r┼Źnin period. I discovered that happiness is not about money or things. It’s about surrounding yourself with people that care about you and that you, in turn, care about.

I know some things about your past. You lost your father after a long illness. Yet, it doesn’t seem that this triggered such a self-evaluation. Why now?

It was a culmination of many things. I think it was mostly my divorce which became final February of last year. All through the separation I sort of abstractly understood that my life was going to change. At that point, I realized I had a chance to remake my life a little bit, in the way that I wanted it to be. It was a chance to make changes that I'd only given half-hearted attempts before - an opportunity to start over.

Did you have any help with these changes? Books?

I'm a very introspective person, so for me it was more internal than reading any sort of self-help books or anything like that. All along I knew the kinds of things I needed to do, but it wasn't until I was forced to that I did. The dynamic changed. With the kids, it certainly changed. Most people do this when they have the kids. Their outlook changes. They become much more focused on the kids, and for me I don't think that ever happened. I think that was what was wrong with my life. I didn't understand that for me, my kids are a huge part of what I do and my motivation. Now I really think about how my decisions affect them.

At that point, you were no longer living with kids. The empty apartment effect perhaps?

One big point for me is I have a good relationship with my ex-wife. We have issues from time-to-time but for the most part it's very good. We get along better now than we did for years. We both are focused on the kids. Both of us just failed to live up to what was needed in the relationship. She’s become the friend that I think was lost along the way.

It was two years ago, Thanksgiving day. I went over and had dinner with the kids. It felt like a family. It felt good. Then I went home to an enormous house where I was house-sitting at the time. Suddenly, I was surrounded by this other family's happy life. It was really depressing to realize I truly was alone...alone of my own doing... the result of a choice that I had made – my getting divorced. It was a point where I realized I didn't like, in a lot of ways, who I had been. I realized if I was ever going to be happy again, if I were to ever get to a point where I liked who I was, liked the dynamic between me and my kids, me and anybody, I needed to make some major changes in myself.

That’s the upside of when bad things that happen to us, sometimes it forces us to deal with stuff.

I think that's true and you know this from our conversations already. But my ex-wife and I did not have the classic “bad” relationship. We weren’t fighting constantly. The kids weren't aware there was anything wrong. We were just incapable of communicating with one another. I knew my life wasn't right and wasn't going where I wanted it to, and as much as I loved my ex, I wasn't doing her any favors, nor myself and certainly not my kids.

More often, it's easier to do nothing.

I understand the power of entropy in your life. To make a change often requires an enormous amount of effort and a lot of soul searching. Thanksgiving was the cornerstone, and I think the capstone was moving over here to Easthampton and really feeling I had created something new.

That's a great story. Suffice to say, you're happy now. Or happier?

Happier. I have my moments of course. My problem is that professionally I'm not where I want to be. I'm doing a job, I don't have a career.

Sometimes you have to break things down, and work on one aspect of your life at a time.

A part of this worst time in my life, right around when I split with my ex, my personal life was in the toilet. I was miserable all around. It was just so overwhelming for me. I'm not a person who would classify myself as depressed, but I would have to say I was depressed. There were times when I'd come home and just want to sleep. For me, it was definitely a step by step process, getting my life in order one thing at a time. It was my personal life most of the time, although I wanted to get my professional life in order too because that affects where you want to go. I got my personal life in order first. I feel fortunate to have someone in my life now who's important to me, that has similar interests, similar problems as well, both of us struggling to find ways to do what we want to do versus just what you have to do to get by.

As a father, you can answer this question better than my first two interviewees. What advice would you give your kids when you drop them off at college?

I've actually thought about this one, since I read it in the first interview. I've expressed this to my children already. Don't rely too much on planning. Don't feel like the decision you make today is something you will have to live with the rest of your life as far as the kind of things you're looking at in college. I think back to when I went to college myself, and my life is in such a different place than it was at that time. Back then I was reacting to all the things around me, and I didn't know who I was. You're a kid and you're expected make a decision – What's your major going to be? Where are you going with your life? It's absurd to ask someone that at that age, an eighteen year old kid, to make that kind of life decision. Circumstances are going to change, you just never know.

But you may just need to pick a direction. I went to school for engineering, and look where I am now.

For me, what I will always express to my children – do what you love. Look for that thing you want more than anything else. I think for me I always was thinking along the lines of ‘what do I need to do to have enough money to buy a house?’ and all the other transient things you go through in your life. But, the overarching theme in your life... What do you love? What makes you tick? What makes your heart beat a little bit faster? Too many of us get caught up in a career. What's going to pay the bills? What's going to move me up the ladder? What do our parents want? For me, my father never pushed me in any direction. He was physician, and Mom was a nurse. I had no desire to go into medicine. He was an old school doc and did house calls. The medical profession is not that world anymore. I wasn't interested in the direction it had gone. I didn't know what I wanted. I was interested in aviation and wanted to fly. But I didn't want to go into the military. To become a professional pilot as a civilian is nearly impossible. I bounced around for a long time and don't think it was until I moved to Massachusetts that I really got that love of the arts and writing. It had always been there, but I had never thought of it as a viable career choice. But I was fortunate, I landed in the best place in the U.S. for the kinds of things I wanted to do.

Is that still where you're headed?

I've been revisiting projects I had been wanting to do for a long time. For the most part, I had only been thinking about them. Having someone behind me that needles me if I don't do it, that helps a lot. It's one thing to have supportive people around you (‘you can do this, you have the talent... ability’), but I've never had someone consistently behind me saying 'Why aren't you doing that?' Why aren't you working on that project?' At times, it's a slippery slope. You don't want to feel like you're being hectored into anything, but you also want a strong force behind you. I'm not good at self-discipline by any means.

There's always a million reasons not to do something.


This metamorphosis has made you a better parent.

Very much so. And I think I'm supportive of anything my kids want to do. I give them as much guidance as I can. But I realize they're going to go off and make their own lives. My father was the kind of person that never gave any specific direction or push towards anything as a career. But he was a larger than life figure, and always gave me a sense of approval or disapproval with everything I did – very strongly. Whereas with my kids, while I'll support them, I would never tell them not to do something because it's not practical or not a good way to make a living. We often end up falling into a career we don't like and makes us miserable and then twenty years later find ourselves wondering where we went wrong.

It can be hard for parents to encourage kids to go into a profession like art or music where they know it will likely be a struggle.

Absolutely, but they will have that struggle inside themselves regardless. An artistic type, if they are working in a lab someplace or as an insurance adjustor, will have that feeling that the soul inside of them is just withering. And the struggle that you have as an artist is nothing compared to the struggle you have doing something you don't love.

Thoreau says most of us live 'lives of quiet desperation'. Do you agree?

Certainly. Absolutely. The thing is, I think a lot of people are very good at fooling themselves, at least temporarily, into feeling what they're doing is ok - they've made that choice to sell out, or do what they feel they had to do. It hits people on a cyclical basis where they understand they aren't doing what they should be. When that happens... that realization is a terrible thing.

This realization can spark two reactions – ignore it or fix it.

Yeah, you bolt. I think that's partially what I did to a certain extent. For years, I didn't know what I wanted. I still don't know exactly what I want. But at least I know the parts of my life I want to examine more, and I know that it's impossible to ignore those things. They’re always going to rear its ugly head down the line if you don't take the time to at least put some effort into doing what you want.

Any last thoughts?

For my daughter on her fifth birthday, I made a little container with five things I thought she needed throughout her life. Two of those were a pencil and a pen. The pencil, in order to write down those things that change, and the pen to write down those that are constant. I told her that she will be tempted to use the pen... to hold it in her hand and start to write with it often, but always to use the pencil. She should be open to change and not to think about life in absolutes. You can always make changes in your life.

Did I earn my ice cream or am I going to have to pay for it?

No I think that's a keeper. Thanks for sharing your story.

1 comment:

Eileen Boyle Corbeil said...

Fabulous interview Jim and Joe. A keeper, without a doubt.