Saturday, November 17, 2012

Yeah, Well, That's All I Got; Sorry.

Lately I've been thinking even more than usual about my own judgement -- at least some of which is, to put it charitably, ad hoc. I'm a paid expert on the subject of money, who hasn't had a meaningful insight into shrewd financial decision-making more than a few times in his whole life. I am profoundly, sometimes astonishingly klutzy. I take insufficient care of myself (in much the same way that there is insufficient peace in the Middle East, I suppose). I have had arguments that make very little sense.

There would've been a time when I'd have said these things with shame, or frustration, or self-loathing, but these days it feels something more like entertaining: as if I had a free subscription to a 3D sitcom in which the irregularly competent hero with the tourette's syndrome of the hands is played by someone who looks and talks and falls down a lot like I do. If nothing else, it has made for a lot of unanticipated stimuli. There's really only one major decision-making tool I've perfected, but lucky for me it's been a pretty doggone important one, too: My entire life, going back to early childhood, I've always made it a point to have a project.

Like all great choices in this realm, mine was not entirely up to me at least at first. When I was little the projects mostly involved building things out of Legos. Beginning at age five or six, I spent the summers with my wistful and long-suffering grandparents, whose rural-Indiana parenting skills left them ill-prepared for the travails of surrogate parenting the precocious son of an IBM'er they didn't like: A perfect little Mini-Me of the fella who'd conned their daughter with big talk of an aristocratic background, and promptly dumped her with few resources and a young child.

To my grandparents' abiding credit they never once spoke ill of my father, or evidenced resentment of my carbon-copy diction, to even the tiniest degree. For weeks on end I paraded myself up and down the tiled runway leading from their kitchen to their living room, pronouncing on everything from Presidential politics to the state of the art in corn weevil prevention, all without having the slightest idea what I was talking about or even, a lot of the time, exactly what I was saying. One has no difficulty at all imagining the two of them, on a typically raucous afternoon in my fourth year, turning to each other and saying, "We've got to get this kid something to *do*."

From that moment on, and for the next eleven summers, all I had to do was mutter under my breath about how nice it would be to have the next, bigger, more elaborate, more expensive Lego set, and it would seem to fall out of a Crawfordsville summer shower, thence to pollute my grandparents' carpet as efficiently as I had been polluting their brains.  In the beginning my Grandfather still worked at R.R. Donnelley and Sons, leaving every morning to a waving party by my grandma and me that would have been more appropriate to his departure for the Eastern Front.

Thus it was that the Lego projects I visualized for myself were of the sort that could be completed in a single day: The combine harvester with the stair-stepped Lego bricks to simulate the corn head. The DC-9 on which I'd flown unaccompanied from LaGuardia to Indianapolis to get there. A chair lift for the "ski area" that I'd improvised by wadding my grandmother's favorite white afghan into a cone-shaped ball, arranged perilously near my grandfather's un-emptied ashtray. In those days, if you couldn't finish it before he came back from Donnelley's in the evening, it wasn't worth building.

Had my grandfather been ten years younger when I was born (which would admittedly have been a neat trick, given the age he actually was), I'm not sure what would have become of my project-gland as I aged out of being interested in single-day, imagination-based projects built from Legos. Instead, on more or less the exact day that a six-hour stint on the living room rug no longer felt like much of a challenge to me, he retired, leaving me abruptly with flimsy midday excuses for how little value I was planning still to add to the pieces in the box. If I was to continue to impress -- if I was to continue to play this approval-driven game I'd grown so preternaturally fixated on -- I was going to have to step things up.

Enter Dave's Childhood 2.0, then, during which the Lego projects took whole weeks, whole months, eventually a whole summer to complete, and which were so vastly more elaborate that they could not be visually understood by anyone strolling past them before they were finished. Mostly this involved continually building and re-building the national capital city of a fictitious republic I'd formed inside my head -- in response to a budding companion interest in the passions and rancor of electoral politics.

To be more accurate about it the city was actually a metroplex of five cities that had grown together into an unwieldy sprawl of expressways and corporate campuses and sports facilities, comprising DiAblo, East DiAblo, Garrison, Garfield, and Branjard (the J is silent). From my eleventh year until my embarrassingly late teens the people of "The Greater Corridor" argued intensely but always in good-faith about everything from the closing of the original and much-loved airport, D-I-A (and the development-tilting site of its unseemly new replacement, E-D-I), to whether or not the people of Garfield should have to pay the millage on DiAblo's spaceship-like football stadium, despite having long ago been granted an expansion team of their own. All beneath my benevolent, Lego-encrusted hand. There were scandals and controversies; triumphs of community spirit and heart-rending tragedies, and there was always, always, *always* a giant, booming FM-radio station filled up mostly with the sounds of a young IBM kid making burp and fart noises into a tape recorder.

I'm digressing here, but it seems appropriate to admit that The Greater Corridor has never quite left me. I don't play with Legos anymore, but every now and then with no premeditation I catch myself likening a real-world place to one of the recurring Lego features of that fractious and chaotic living-room world. The Pierre Elliot Trudeau International Airport in Montreal, is E-D-I. By which I do not mean that the two places shared the same architect; I don't mean that one design inspired the other; I mean that it *is* the East DiAblo International Airport, on some curiously unsinkable little circuit inside my otherwise grown-up head. (And yes, in the end, the discourse-loving peoples of the corridor came to love the new airport and adopt it as their own, thanks in no small part to an ingenius initiative to turn the grand old gal downtown into a juried artists' colony with periodic multimedia exhibitions in the great open spaces where planes used to taxi and take off. I knew you'd want to know.)

There is much to say about how all of this reflected on me then, and how it perhaps informs many of the unusual behavior patterns that my long-suffering friends have been asked to put up with, now. There's an essay in here someplace about loneliness vs. alone-ness. There's one about approval vs. affection. There's probably even -- let's be honest -- one about early-onset megalomania. None of those, however, are *this* essay. This essay is about having a project. For all that was different, or queer, or even unsettling about the way I spun-out those summers, I was to my certain knowledge the only kid in that entire part of Montgomery County who never, once, said, "I'm bored: there's nothing to do." When the other kids in the neighborhood got bored (or, more often, when they got boring), it was only for me to adjourn on a thin pretext to the completion of the second parking garage at The Zenith, and a spirited interview of the Garrison Invaders' head coach, on what the new facility would mean for the team's cautious fan support. When others were bored, I had a project. It's self-serving to put it that way but it's also true.

These days the projects are all written, and the approval is either distant, improbable, empty, or some combination thereof. But the main idea is the same. Grown-ups don't say, "I'm bored: there's nothing to do," of course; what grown-ups say is, "Every Monday we get up and we come to this place, and every Friday we go to Maxfield's and get tore up: what's it all *for*???" And friends, I don't do that either. It's self-serving to put it that way, but it's also true. I pay for an office that is distinct from the one I get paid for going to, and in that rented office, I pursue large, unwieldy projects -- written instead of made from Legos, but otherwise not all that different, really. Close friends sometimes question my appetite for complexity in these matters, but if I've accomplished nothing else with this story I hope I've made it clear that I wouldn't know how to begin tackling something that wasn't so messy and complicated that it was just about to topple from my grandparents' glass-top coffee table. It just wouldn't be in my training.

You will have noticed that this is not much of an ethos. If I have a son someday, and he comes to me at age seven and says, "Daddy, I'm bored: there's nothing to do," I will stare at him over the top of my New Yorker for a long, loving moment and say, "Have a project." If I have a daughter someday and she comes to me and says, "Daddy, the neighbors are moving to Ann Arbor and I'm about to lose my best friend," I will stare at her over the top of my New Yorker for a long, loving moment and say, "Have a project." If my son comes to me at age fifteen and says, "The guys down the street have been cruel to animals," I will say, "Make ending it into a project." If my daughter comes to me at age eighteen and says, "All this school! What's it really supposed to do for me, anyway," I will say, "Have you tried considering it as a project?"

When they get tired of this mantra, as all children eventually tire of their parents' mantras, there won't be much else for me to offer instead. I won't be the person they come to for money advice (God willing), or relationship advice (ditto), or advice on how to shop for stereo equipment, or cut a board with a radial arm saw, or fight a traffic ticket, or handle a tense disagreement with a friend (ditto, ditto, ditto, ditto). In telling them to have a project, and to use that project as their impetus for putting one foot contentedly in front of the other, I will be sharing with them the sum and substance of the wisdom I've accumulated over all these years of ad hoc judgement. It's not hard to imagine a moment -- one of the many in which I'd just dispensed this very same wisdom to a son or daughter for the fiftieth time -- in which I'm being greeted with a sort of open-mouth, hand-on-top-of-the-head flavor of indignation, and finding myself only able to shrug a sheepish grin and add, "Well, that's all I got; sorry. Have a project."

My project is to get a book published. Got one too?

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

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