Excerpt: Be Coal
When I was a child, my unhappy father -- no doubt with the best intentions in the world -- would say to me:
When people ask you what you want to be when you grow up, here’s how you should answer them, Joe. You should say, “I want to grow up to be happy.” Because that’s all that matters. That’s all that matters to your mother and me. That you’re happy.
Well, I failed you there Dad. But you set me up for it.
What kind of a goal is happiness? How do you go about achieving it? There’s no straight line, no school, no apprenticeships, no goddamn job placement. Ask me to become a great shortstop -- sure. Ask me to get an A in Calculus -- fine. Ask me to get married and have children -- what the heck.
But ask me to be happy… It’s like asking me to not think of elephants.
There’s nothing tangible about happiness. Or lasting. Happiness – like sadness, anger, terror – is something that comes and goes. Medical school, though, is forever. Why didn’t you ask me to go to medical school?
I suspect other parents fed their kids this "happy" crap too, or some variation on the theme. I see hundreds and hundreds and thousands of people like me in their twenties travelling the world looking for happiness. Maybe it’ll be in business, maybe it’ll be in art, maybe I’ll find it in Costa Rica, maybe it’s hidden in her or him or them…
Here’s another thing my father would say:
Joe, you’re blessed with smarts and good looks and if you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want to be. You're one of the lucky ones.
Now this, I’m not so forgiving about. This is a goddamn lie and he knew it. I mean, obviously there are certain tangible things that I cannot become. Like a woman. Or a six and a half foot tall man. Or the President of the United States. Or a red helium-filled balloon.
Or happy all the time.
But those are small quibbles. I know he was just trying to be encouraging. Trying to teach me to reach.
What I wish, though, what I wish he had told me was that having the ability to be anything you want to be – the ability to be just about anything you want to be -- isn’t always a blessing. Because there’s only one of me. And there’s so much anything. There's so much anything.
I wish he had said:
Joe, you’re blessed with smarts and good looks and if you put your mind to it, you can be anything you want to be. With a few exceptions. Like the President of the United States or a red helium-filled balloon.
But, Joe, you can’t be everything you want to be. You have to make choices. And every time you make a choice in your life, a thousand other possible yous die. That is the tragedy of living only once.
Now that would have been some good parental wisdom.
Because here I am, aged 26, and every choice that I make shoots millions of potential mes in the head. They fall and die in the gutter. Bang! Lawyer Joe. Pow! Rock star Joe. Slash! Carpenter Joe. Blam! Anaesthesiologist Joe… They just can’t all exist at once. This town ain't big enough.
So, I think the best thing to do is to stop choosing. Instead, I’m just going to continue what I’m doing now, smoke pot and play Xbox in my parent’s basement until I die. Continue being a big pile of wasted potential like a lump of coal that hasn’t been burned yet.
But at least I’ll never lose that potential, the potential to be anything. And at least I won’t pollute the skies or be used as fuel for a train carrying some poor suckers to the front.
No siree. I’m staying down here in the ground, black and coaly.