It’s a game of expectation and frustration, ambition and the self.
Who and what are we going to be in life? Is that even something we really get to decide anymore? Should we teach our children to chase their dreams? Or, teach them that there’s more than one way to define success?
Sitting on the threadbare sofa in our Manila trailer 30 years ago, my disabled father would often punch me in the arm and grin wide like a knife.
“There’s not a goddamn thing in this world that you can’t have, kiddo, as long as you’re willing to work hard enough,” he’d say, then shush my response with a crooked finger, anxious to catch the gist of Little Joe’s crisis on Bonanza. “Hop to, Hop Sing. I want to watch this.”
At the time, we had very little. We rented the trailer from a scummy ginger who talked fast and ran late, as a rule. Our car worked, most of the time. Cable was a priority, because in Dad’s illness that was airy comfort in a bleak daytime bubble.
Thirty years, and two careers, later, I still don’t have much. I’ve learned in the meantime to be content with what’s in front of me, and work hard anyway. I have dreams, and I chase them, but would I recommend that to my kids? I might have been better off chasing coin from the outset.
Children dream — it’s what they do. And given our cultural context, a lot of the time they spend hours fantasizing about becoming the next pop culture icon, whatever form that might take.
Should we be truthful about their chances for success? Give them the realistic assessment of odds for most people in most places who seek great achievement in the arts and sciences — in everything — but either don’t have the goods or can’t seem to get that lucky break rockstars speak of?
Or, as some now think, maybe we should level their expectations from the outset, so they don’t waste a fat lot of time chasing chimeric dreams they’ve picked up from their favorite YouTube channels and Nickelodeon reruns. Teach them that success should be judged on its own terms and not by a society standard that has too short an attention span and too little brain space to truly judge everyone’s achievements individually.
I’m not pretending to answer these questions. For every child in the world who will be chewed up and spit out by their dreams of becoming the next swarthy rocker or bearded beatnik poet, there’s another who will use those ambitions and attendant frustrations as a means to propel themselves. Some might fail in the long run, but even they may develop appreciable skills. Who are we to block that path?
Others, dare we say it, may even become the next Hemingway or David Bowie. And if there’s even a slight chance that someone might find such success, it’s almost our responsibility to the rest of the world to help ignite such bright artistic lights.
Talent, God knows, isn’t always a determining factor. Some have gobs of it, swim around in it while repeatedly squeaking their rubber ducks in the bathtub, yet can’t bear to work hard enough to burnish that initial aptitude. They fail for lack of heart.
Others seem to suffer disadvantages from the outset, frog-voiced singers and sausage-fingered guitar players who, because they want it bad enough and won’t give up despite all the reasonable advice they receive from fuddy-duddy dads and moms, seize their own destiny and make the world pay attention.
What they lack in talent, they develop. Heart shines bright enough.
I admit to being somewhat of a victim to personal ambition. I’ve long had midnight, sheet-twisting fantasies of becoming, if not the next great American novelist, at least a very readable and totally entertaining writer of good books, who — gulp — makes decent money doing so.
I’m 40 years old this month, and I’m still living the dream. Lucky for me, I’ve learned to enjoy the work. So it’s not like I’m toiling the tiresome hours of my life away in the scalding salt mines of Literaria, shoveling white stuff for some dude with a bullwhip. And, honestly, I know the chances of real success are slim. That’ll make victory so much sweeter. My life, my choice.
But how do I approach this with my kids? With four kids tumbling around the ranch here, I get quite a lot of time to observe them in their natural habitat. Each one has talents and skills the others can’t match, and each also has weaknesses that they will need to overcome.
Their talents don’t necessarily match their passions, but they — and life so far — has taught me to let their hearts have say.
It comes down to joy. What makes life doable? Why get up in the morning? It’s different for everybody. It’s embarrassing to admit that after finishing a really good book, one that lifted me up off my chair and spun me around in some wicked new universe of the imagination where I became someone different and did something spectacular, I’ll sit with the closed volume for some time. I’ll rub the binding, smell the glue that holds the pages together, fan the pages back and forth glimpsing some of the words that so tickled my beard. And then — it’s true — I’ll give the fucking thing a kiss.
Don’t judge. That’s how much I appreciate a good story, a great book. It doesn’t have to be great literature, or even a smart read. If it creates for me a vivid and continuous dream that draws me along and makes me a part of that world, it’s a success.
A big fat one, right on the cover.
I hope my kids seek out and find something in their three-score-and-ten on this planet that gives them moments of rapture. If they find exaltation where they can, and cultivate it — get good at it — they’ll have this life thing licked.
I’m a nervous bird where my kids are concerned. I try to play the odds, to game the system, eliminate difficulty as much as possible, remove all the bullshit — there was a lot of it — that I went through.
I’m figuring out that even if this was something I could do, I’d best leave well enough alone. Life is not a fixed itinerary of goals and accomplishments stacked one upon another: Wins in one column, losses buried in the ground. It’s not pretty and precise, and won’t proceed according to expectation.
It’s a goddamn fight in the dirt. There’s battles and wounds, muddy scrapes and yowling dervishes you have to call boss. There’s accidents and mishaps, mistakes and bad attitudes, occasional attaboys and too many high-fives. There’s hope, and joy, as well, but those are like hearts in Zelda’s digital empire. They have to be sought out in the strangest of places, or you’ll never catch a break.
Life is a struggle, and will always be a struggle. Nothing I do will ever change that. The best I can do is help them be scrappy, resilient in the face of frustration, and happy to be playing the game.
A well-told story describes in sign and symbol the adventures people face everyday. You wake up, you get pretty, you face crisis, you figure out how to deal, and then you do or you don’t.
It’s the same with my children. They’re going to grow up. They’re going to make plans. Their going to fight and fail, regroup, rethink, fight again and move along the long skirmish line of life. I usually hate war metaphors, but if they don’t show up fit for melee, they’ll get eaten by Republicans.
In the end, satisfaction will depend on the battles they chose to fight, and those they gave away. Thus always to youth. Who am I to take that away from them? Whatever made me think I could?
James Faulk is a writer living in Eureka. He likes Republicans — has some as friends — and none of them were hurt in the making of this column. He can be reached at email@example.com.