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Tuesday, July 16, 2013

I Coulda Been Writer, But I Wound Up Here...

Don Henley famously sang "Well, I coulda been an actor, but I wound up here". Yesterday I found myself floating in a pool in a pseudo-meditative state wondering about the many changes in my life, as well as the things that could have been different. It's not the first time this has happened. I choose to take the stance that more people do this than are willing to admit it. You know who you are. You're the one at a red light so focused in thought that someone behind you has to tap the horn to get you on your way. Or you're the one in the queue at the bank or in line at Panera's and the person behind the counter says "Next in line, please" for the 3rd irritated time. You tell people you're thinking about a grocery list or if you left the coffee machine on, but let's get real. You're wondering to yourself "How in the heck did I get here?"

It's in that instant my mind is transported into some Capra-esque world where I find myself wondering, "What if I had done...?". Commercials tend to make me think this way too. Especially commercials extolling the virtues of getting your degree in some fantastical field like Crime Scene Investigation or Court Reporter. I find myself thinking "I coulda done that" while I put another scoop of Breyers Ice Cream in my mouth.

What got me thinking this yesterday was reading about a couple from Winter Park, FL who have recently opened their second high-end restaurant in Orlando. Having one successful restaurant in the Orlando market is hard enough, but to have two of them is like winning the lottery. Twice.

I do not know what lifestyle they came from as their brief bio doesn't allude to them growing up in a good home or being well-off. It does state that both of them grew up in the same community but not meeting until they were both at a culinary institute where they received their degrees, then went about working at some of the finer establishments in New York and Florida where they honed their skills until they opened their own successful businesses here in Central Florida. I guarantee that they worked hard, made mistakes, learned from them and found success. But this isn't about them.

By the time I moved in with my father and step-mom as a freshman in high school, I had grown up in a fairly well-to-do environment. My mother had been an executive in a travel agency and, by the time I was 14, had moved me to Florida and opened her own agency. We lived in a very nice house in an upper-class neighborhood. I had been raised traveling the world surrounded by very successful people all while getting to learn from other cultures first hand. I was what you might call "privileged".

My father, conversely, struggled to make ends meet and lived a step above abject poverty while growing up and into his early adult life. We were always loved, warm, had clean clothes and there was always food on the table. But the house was tiny, lacked any form of insulating capability and we had field mice, which will have to be another post altogether.

One thing that my parents did consistently well was tell me and my siblings "You can be whatever you set your mind to." And my dad was also fond of saying "I don't care if you grow up to be a sh**-bum, just be the best sh**-bum you can be." In an age where the internet didn't exist and cable TV was in its infancy, much less available to those of us who lived in the backwoods of Missouri, this was great advice. Our minds could wander around dreaming of being in the NFL or an astronaut or even a writer.

But the thing neither of them could help with was how to get there. Or anywhere for that matter. The idea that there was a path to anything just never materialized in my youth. This is not a fault of theirs. There's no ill will. It's just that in that time, in that place, the idea of doing something other than getting a union job and providing for your family was not a driving force.

An early mentor of mine, Steve Helliker, used to bring underprivileged kids from a local high school to our lighting shop in Orlando to show them that there was something other than flipping burgers for a living. He'd parade them to each department to show them the many different facets of the business from sales down to loading the truck. I can't say that we ever reached any of these kids. My hope is that we did and maybe some of them went on to do something fulfilling in their lives. The point was we gave them options and opened a new world to them.

I've had the fortune of mentoring someone as well who not only discovered they had a talent but actually stayed in the entertainment industry and is currently working full-time at a theatre in Birmingham. So the importance of having direction is evident and it can make a difference.

I've had many opportunities to make a right turn or a left turn in my life. Some of those turns were wonderful decisions while others will linger as learning moments. And the last year has shown me that drastic change is still possible even as I near the midway point in my existence on this planet. What I haven't quite figured out is what I want to do with myself when I grow up. I know I want to write, which I've stated before. More importantly, I want to make a living writing, which leads me back to the crux of this article. Had I started writing in earnest when I was a teen, and had I had the direction on how to make that desire a reality, I may have had the job of my dreams.

There are countless stories of people who didn't start to paint or sing or follow their dreams until very late in their lives. But I wonder if they left it all behind to try their hand at happiness or were they finally comfortable and able to follow their dreams?

Take this opportunity to talk to your kids or even young people who work for you. Tell them they can do what they want to do in this life. This is their time and there is nothing limiting about their desires or abilities other than them. But then give them tools to learn how get there. That second step is actually more important than telling them they can be whomever they want to be.

So, as I float around the pool dreaming of a future that wasn't, I have to wonder is it still possible to be what you want this late in life? The what-if's are endless and I choose not to dwell on them. Yet here I am thinking over and over, I coulda been a writer, but I wound up here...

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