Aromas stimulate memories in the most powerful way. The moment one enters a bar, particularly after a long absence, it doesn’t stink in any certain way, and smells mostly of those profound thoughts long ago lost. The same ingenious ideas and impossibly clever statements grow evermore clear the instant one walks through the door. And so it was with me, a 63-year-old moderately successful real estate agent who was certainly not completely satisfied in life and somehow unable to turn the corner entirely.
The simultaneous and distinctively different sounds of lacquered wooden pins and polished ceramic spheres banged against one another. It was two-fifteen in the afternoon and I smiled. No matter how furtive the efforts of the lounge manager, no matter the events or even the immediate clientele – a bowling alley is still just a bowling alley.
I turned and pushed through a set of double wooden doors. Not much had changed. To my right were two full-size pool tables, both in use, and a third bar-size table, vacant. Straight ahead were more tables and chairs and a stage. I strolled past a Golden Tee golf game to my left before I saw a single figure sitting at the bar with his back to me.
“David! Over here.”
I instinctively turned my head to the right, at the same time realizing that the fellow I had noticed at the bar was not my guy. A big smile rising with its bearer, Michael Harris, greeted me with enthusiasm. Michael was my guy. It was great to see him. We’d been friends for 35 years. He was a couple of years younger than I, but looked younger even than that. Relatively absent of deep wrinkles, he had a round, boyish face which had not been framed by a good head of hair for quite a while. There was still some dark hair mixed with grey that clung to the sides and back tightly. A bit over six feet and about 190 pounds, Michael slouched a bit but had great presence and energy for a man who lacked perfect posture. He wore faded, relaxed fit blue jeans, white tennis shoes, and a grey sweater with a standing collar and a short zipper. He was tan and his dental work was bright. All in all, a pretty good picture of health. I remembered it had not always been the case. This was good and I was happy for him.
We embraced and had a seat at a tall rectangular wooden table that could seat four comfortably. We stretched out a bit.
“So Steve’s heading off to college this weekend, eh?” I asked, in reference to Michael’s son.
I recalled that Michael and I had very much different experiences at our respective universities. Although we hadn’t met until many years after, we talked about it enough to know what we each were able to take from it.
My best friend continued to develop and improve his work ethic and level of responsibility, while I had only nurtured my natural talent to escape from and avoid both of these important life skills. And, of course, our outcomes pretty clearly represented this. He graduated very highly in his class and began a successful career in education. I failed two classes the first semester, rebounded in the second, then secured the fate of flunking out after my sophomore year. Though I am grateful for the change, it took me until well into my thirties to mature and turn things around.
“Hey Dave, do you remember those days off thirty years ago when we used to bust our butts for two hours playing one-on-one?”
I did clearly…
The old, seldom-used parking lot on the eastside of the local college was uneven and of graying blacktop. It was inviting to us in our late twenties and early thirties with its four even more seldom-used basketball hoops held up by posts of varying heights. They had generic white metal backboards with faded red target squares and garnished with chain-metal “nets.” We, of course, were really in no danger of catching a finger in those with our limited vertical capabilities, though I always did try to intimidate Michael by occasionally grazing the rim with the top of the basketball. Also, for artistic effect perhaps, I was able to “Deflategate” my way to palming the ball and completing Jordanesque over-the-top, in-the-face fakes (to no-one, of course) and executing fall-away jump shots. Neither I, nor he, were totally devoid of athletic prowess and I would hit those shots from time to time.
Interestingly enough, I should have been able to learn something from Michael during these few years of play: he was a finisher (I didn’t realize how to accomplish this until years later, and, even so I knew I was in need of a refresher now).
Back in those days, I had always been a fast starter who had limited focus, or more accurately focus upon the wrong subject or task. I always believed I was more athletic and in better condition than my friend. And so, without fail, I would come out aggressively and would go for the block consistently. I would go for the steal. I would take and make hard spins and turns to get open shots. I worked as hard as I could to look good and to keep what I considered to be a mental edge. And I would, again without fail, exhaust myself to the point where I was too fatigued to make the required free throws needed to keep possession. We would go to 21, playing 2+1, a shot and a free throw – make the free throw, keep the ball. I recall many games getting out to a 15-5 lead, a case here and there 18-0 (no slaughter rule – we were friends, you see) and losing! I couldn’t grab a rebound, couldn’t make a free throw. It didn’t matter most days. Whether it be 3 out of 5 on short, crappy days or 12 of 20 on long, tiring days, I seemed to lose overall. The wins were impressive, but there were too few. I used to think he wanted it more… Well, he did. I was content to look good in losing, if that’s even really possible. Talk about a warped sense of reality.
Curiously enough, we would drag ourselves afterward to the very same bar in which we find ourselves today.
“I almost always won,” he said, not with a boastful air really, but clearly a well-deserved dig.
“I know it.”
“And then,” he said, “we would sit here for three hours and wash a half a pack of cigarettes down with four pitchers of beer.”
“Yep. Glad we both quit that crap.”
He looked at me and raised his glass.
“To idiots and young destructive fun!”
“I’ll drink to that. I did really enjoy those days, though.”
“I think I’ll have two today,” Michael declared, and added, “Glasses, not pitchers. And you did have a great turn-around jumper for an amateur with little hops!”
“Thanks,” I said.
We sat in silence for a minute, maybe two. And then I broke the quiet.
“Well, I certainly learned from those days. I learned to be steady, consistent, and to finish. But, I’ve started to wonder again a bit… How successful have I been? Quite frankly, this is one of the reasons I wanted to meet with you today. I have always respected you and what you’ve been able to accomplish. Like I said… I’m in need of a refresher. I realize that a re-boot can happen anywhere from ages 18 to 98, but I have had ups and downs over the past couple of years that had to make me think. No regrets, mind you, just a feeling of, well, incompletion or unfulfillment. What must I do differently?”
Michael said to me the following…
“Do not sell yourself short, my friend. If everyone throughout history was like you, the world would be a better place.”
He laughed and continued…
“We might not have the railroad yet, but we’d certainly have no war!”
I had to laugh too. Coming from someone else, it might have stung. Michael knew me too well. Moreover, he was so right. I had accomplished much, but my productivity had far too many gaps – lengthy ones.
“So what is your idea of success?” I asked him.
“There are many ideas and viewpoints, but here is something for you…”
He began to relate to me an experience and observation that changed his idea of success rather radically at a young age.
Michael had joined his local YMCA during the first quarter of his senior year in high school. He developed an interest in weight training and took to visiting the weight room there after school a couple of days a week. An unassuming, really nice kid, he made friends with the older members quickly. A couple of them took him under their wings and helped him feel comfortable and answered any questions he might have had. Over a short time, he was so well-trusted that many of the stronger guys would call on him as a spotter for various lifts, sometimes for bench presses over 500 pounds.
This particular weight room was not to be expanded and re-done for a couple of years and he remembered it as cold, poorly-lit, and a bit dingy. But it became home for him this way and he recalled it with fondness always, though it was certainly so small that the occasional anonymous (of course, sometimes not so subtle) breaking of wind could result in an abbreviated set, to be sure. And no one would say a thing.
He learned of two particular men during this time that would teach him an important lesson. They would both be in the gym the same time as he more frequently than not.
The first seemed to wear better clothes than others and he actually smelled better too, of cologne and other good stuff. He had dark hair and was in his late thirties. A little on the pale side, he looked pretty good and one would know from his thickness that he spent some time there. But he did talk a bit much and certainly took his time between sets. And when he did talk between exercises that were a bit loose in form and sort of done at times as an afterthought, the subjects would not be of a positive nature. He would complain about his job or his wife or his kids. Not that he wasn’t nice enough to those in his then current surroundings, but he left the impression that such might not be the case outside of the YMCA. It seemed to be an effort at cordiality for the sake of necessity.
Michael came to find out that this man worked for a large business in town and made a lot of money. When he came into the locker room or left, he was dressed better than anyone else and others could not help but notice. He had an air of importance. He drove an expensive car and had an expensive watch. Success. Right? Yet, the serious lifters who had taken the young high schooler in had little to say to this man. Too much negativity, they would say.
Another that Michael had had the good fortune to meet, always came down to the weight room with a head of damp, blond hair and a dark, dark tan (except in the winter). One could see this because he dressed in an old pair of grey shorts and a tank top rather than a designer track suit. One could also see, to quote an old term, he was shredded – very little body fat anywhere and a huge, vascular upper body, particularly for his five foot eight frame. And he only went about 165 lbs. Sometimes he would be kidded about his legs that were clearly under-developed in comparison to his torso. He laughed it off in a good-natured manner and made it clear that his legs got plenty of work at his job-sites.
You see, he was a construction worker, a laborer. And the best. He had a remarkable reputation and was known to all in his field. If you wanted a job done correctly and efficiently, you wanted this guy on your team. He free-lanced and had more offers than he could take. When he would talk to you (he was focused and quick with his sets – efficiency), it would be polite, quiet, kind, but to the point. It was apparent that this efficiency and focus was a priority and a strong trait in his make-up. But, Michael would discover, this man would sacrifice some of his own efficiency to make others better. Of the specific movements he accomplished during his hour or hour and a half, his full range of motion, his form, was impeccable. Michael learned this and more from him.
Most importantly, though, a different idea of success was translated. Here was a person with the drive and energy and sense of sacrifice to awake early every morning and arrive at his job-site before anyone else. He would ensure that everything would go right and safely. He was prepared for his day. He would work harder and more productively than anyone else for eight to ten hours then go straight to the gym. He would take a quick shower to eliminate the days’ work and then focus hard on an efficient work-out that was important to him, not only for health and self-image, but for stress-relief. Only then, when he was ready, he went home to his wife and two young daughters whom he adored and who adored him. When he shared a morsel of his life with a selected few, he would speak of putting his girls through college, but only after he had spent the proper time to bring them up right in a very tough world and give them everything they would need to be the best they could be.
Who is the greater success? To Michael, it was no contest. To an outsider, who could judge solely on the apparent and material, the choice might be different -in fact, almost certainly in our age.
When asked about it later, he would make his philosophy very clear.
“I do not judge others by wealth or intellect. It has been said that there are a lot of geniuses in the gutters and many complete idiots who are millionaires. What have you done with kindness and the ability to make those around you better? This is how one should be judged.”
“I know it is not our place to judge, but we do. We’re human. We can strive for perfection, but if it cannot be achieved, I want to be among those who are concerned with nurturing others and improving our place in the world…”
“As opposed to those who advance at the expense of others,” I finished his thought and continued. “I think back and wonder if I had been a bit more ruthless, would I have achieved more?”
“Nothing worthwhile, I guarantee it,” Michael replied. “But, you did mention how your gaps in focus might have been too great and your productivity might have been too inconsistent. That would be the subject to study. You might have the same major problem we all have…”
“And what would that be?”
“You’re motivated for tomorrow.”
I thought for a minute.
“Uh, isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what hope and faith create? I once heard that people without these things are the most dangerous, both to themselves and to others.”
“True, but you can’t think and dream your way to your goals. Nor your happiness. Yes, there is a dual meaning. You must grasp both.”
Michael went on.
“There was a very successful book written many years ago that took the world by storm. But, let me tell you here as I have told Stephen over and over. That message was incomplete. I hope that it indeed helped many, many people. There is no way, however, that success and happiness comes solely from our thoughts. We may focus, envision, dream and faith our way to great plans, but consistent, proper actions are the only way to achieve these things. Your thoughts have to become alive and they must drive your activity. Let us discuss the strategies and tactics that Stephen requires, that all of us require, to see this through. There is happiness to be had in the effort and success in the completion.”
He wanted to share with Stephen all the concepts that had drawn Michael out of his mediocrity at a critical time in his distant past.
1. FIND YOUR VOICE: Who do you want to be? Do what you want to do, if you can. Have fun.
2. GOALS TO LIVE: Set goals, but don’t become obsessed with them.
3. THE MEANINGFUL PATH: Stretch yourself. Get better every day. Take the challenging path rather than the easy one.
4. BE A FINISHER: Focus. Success equals sacrifice. Projects, books…
5. DIRTY HARRY WAS RIGHT! Understand your limitations. A man can still be great with many weaknesses.
6. KNOW OTHERS BY KNOWING YOURSELF: Understand other human beings – be what most are not. Possess accountability, communication, positive nature, kindness, honesty, justice, give the benefit of the doubt. Do not judge others based on intellect.
7. HEALTH AND A BETTER SELF: Don’t neglect your health.
8. THE GREAT EQUALIZER: Anxiety, watch your emotions. “A selfish and cruel world. Relationships. We are all going to die – the great equalizer.
9. DON’T FALL FOR THE “ABSURD JOKE.”
10. ACT TODAY: Life is great! Not for everyone. How can it be for you?
11. MOTIVATED FOR TOMORROW… “Just wait until tomorrow!”
“We all need to start from scratch occasionally. Take stock. Rediscover ourselves. I do it more often than I’d like to admit. But, we have to or we’d go a bit batty!”
He paused a bit. He was hesitating and unsure whether he wanted to share something more personal. Then he did.
“I will tell you that I had a difficult time with thirty, I mean turning thirty. I was in a bad way. Not going into details, I had lost a lot of hope and faith. Then I realized that if I had foreseen myself at this age from the age of fifteen, I would have been pretty pleased. I was in good physical condition, had an education, and a decent job. No, I wasn’t an astronaut, I wasn’t rich and famous; but, I was stable from some aspect. I imagined that had I been in a coma from that age until thirty, woke up and was granted all that I had going for me, I should be quite happy. Now, how do I build upon these things? That became the question. I had a similar event at sixty. I questioned if I had done what I had wanted to do. Was I happy? Wrong question. The question was: With what I have now, how do I become happier? That day, like every day now, was a very important day. In fact, for the past few years, I begin every morning with those very words: ‘Today is a very important day!’”
“Good words. What about those who can’t be pleased with who they are or who they’ve become? What then?”
“Today is even more important for them,” Michael said solemnly, perhaps betraying an intimate knowledge. He nodded and sighed softly.
“Let me tell you what I laid out for Stephen after his eighteenth birthday. Let’s see if it re-energizes you. These ideas are essential at any age and are able to almost immediately help clarify our outlook and improve our ability to act with purpose.”
“I’m sure that with the great direction you’ve given him, he’s certain to do wonderful things.”
“He’ll be better than I. Well, nothing’s guaranteed, but it’s one helluva safe bet!”
Even for those in doubt and with limited hope, the desire for happiness and success pulls some of us from our darkness. And I had that desire, strongly.