life as understood

by jeff carr, master of the arts, -------------------------------------------------------------------------- presumably from a couch


on chasing dreams, and their fluid natures

courtesy of Jeff |

Maybe this is what growing up is.

Tomorrow is my last day of work. Eight more hours in the PR office of my small-town alma mater, standing up for the little guy, like Jimmy Stewart. Already I embellish it with the twisted goggles of retrospect.

Tomorrow, and then it's over--the projects, the relationships, the sense of accomplishment. Then it's off to the big time, paradise, and the chance that Jimmy Stewart, at least in the Christmas movie, never got. At most, my upcoming master's program is literally a lifelong dream come true for me. At the very least, it's the first obvious step in the direction where I think my dreams are, or at least where they've always been. I can't be any more specific than that. I don't know where this master's will lead me, and that's fine.

When people ask me, as one of my favorite professors did a couple days ago, where it is that I'm headed, my spiel invariably includes the admission that beyond this next year, I don't know. "I just know what I love," I say, "and we'll see what happens." Adults like that, I've noticed. When I tell them I'm blindly chasing a childhood dream, they smile in a way that lets me know they didn't. They would have, but something came up. At first, I assumed they envied me, and maybe some still do, but lately I've been thinking that smile stands for some secret I haven't fully learned yet, like that dreams change. That dreams, like the people who project them, can grow up.

I've never wanted to stay in this town forever, or even very long. And yet right now, remaining alongside friends and working to bring my small-town alma mater the glory it deserves sounds incredibly attractive. I won't stay, of course. After tomorrow, I'll do the smart thing and move on, seize the opportunity I've been given. I'd be a fool not to, and don't get me wrong, it'll be great. But I've just now been wondering if I've finally stumbled onto the secret realization all the adults made long ago by virtue of necessity or practicality--that secret behind the smile--that hitting the big time isn't all that important. Maybe living in this out-of-the-way town performing a low-profile, but fulfilling job could make me just as happy, if not actually happier than fulfilling the grand aspirations of my youth.

I'll miss this job. But who knows, maybe it wouldn't have been as good without an expiration date. It's easy to get into a rut when you're in it for the long haul, or so I've observed. In large part, being new and unabashed and having an excuse for not noticing obstacles is what afforded me any degree of success I may have won. Of course, the success has been largely theoretical pomp and circumstance. I'm immensely proud of the work I've performed in this job, but I have virtually nothing to show for it. Random contributions made to a number of non-lifesaving projects that aren't even finished yet.

Maybe they will be eventually, though. And maybe something I did will be of use even further down the road. If not, that's probably fine. I never imagined that my first job after graduation would be with one of my favorite organizations on the planet, and I never thought I could get paid for having so much fun. Utah State University and its fine people have done more for me than I could ever possibly do for it. And the Utah State University I know would be very pleased to hear that. And I guess that's just it.

In the throes of a glorious project undertaken by myself and a friend and colleague to pin down and improve our university's public image, it was discovered that people just plain love it here. Many could get better pay and more prestige at other institutions, but they stay because they believe in what they do, and with whom. Their dreams grew up. Now I'm feeling the growing pains to the point that sacrificing my own dreams in order to remain here and at the poverty line sounds enticing.

But we've established that I'm averse to change. And while most would probably say Jimmy Stewart had to stay home to be who he was, maybe that's not true. Maybe he could have seen the world, come back, and used his experiences to make his hometown a better place. Win-win. Since Capra didn't have an alternate ending up his sleeve, one can only guess.

We'll see what happens.


a frame through which to see

courtesy of Jeff |

In the basement of my parents' home, there is a room called "the bat cave." It is so named for its proclivity to perfect darkness. There's not so much as a digital clock to light the pillowcase in soft fluorescent green. Pitch black. It's the ideal guest room for breakfast haters. And right now it's filled with junk. My junk.

In less than a month, we're moving to California, placing my parents' home at a considerable distance for who knows how long. So when we stayed there this past weekend, I spent some time in the bat cave, sorting through box after box of old memories.

This practice of sorting through past personal relics is something we all do from time to time, most often with the noble objective (as was mine) of throwing things away. After all, that's what you do with old junk that piles up in the guest room. What if some weary Elijah needs to stay there for the first time in years? I'm not saying this sacrifice of past knowledge in favor of future uncertainty is wrong. It's just hard for me.

From a young age, I've had a difficult time throwing things away--toys, papers, anything that has specific days, places, or people attached. I assume it's lethophobia, the fear of forgetting, which must loom large in me. I've been blessed with an unusually sharp memory, but even the most vivid stories and sensations from the past generally only surface with the help of some physical cue. And as bizarrely painful as it can be to sort through my own joyful youth, I crave those stories and sensations. I love to remember. I imagine I'm no different than many in that respect. It's human to, once in a while, go through old drawers, closets, boxes of physical cues. The ironic thing, of course, is that we only acknowledge these cues, these artifacts, when laden with the task of thinning out their ranks. But are these memories really only useful to us when we're consciously cycling through them, deciding which ones to destroy? Which ones no longer represent whom we want to be?

A couple of months ago, while doing research on organizational culture for a project at work, I came across a scholarly article on non-verbal symbols which communicate subconsciously to employees and customers. The article served its purposes well, but it also surprised me with a line that turned out to be much more profound than was possibly intended. It hasn't left my mind since. It said, "there is no looking without a frame through which to see."

One of the first lessons taught in English class is on point of view. Truth, we learn, is relative to the speaker. And yet, this lesson is easily forgotten when discussing politics, religion, even sports. Each of us sees through his own completely unique frame--a frame that colors everything we observe in life, and each of our opinions.

So as I sat cross-legged on the blue carpet of the bat cave, surrounded by my boxes of memories and experiences, it came to me that these relics are probably the clearest physical representation on the planet of who I am as a person. These relics--unwittingly collected and created over 25 years--constitute the most palpable, graspable frame I have, the explanation of who I am today, and why.

And yet, even realizing that, I remained successful in my initial task to find things to throw away. I threw away old sweaters, cards my friend made me in elementary school, and page after page of scribbles demonstrating my near-clinical obsession with the Utah Jazz and the NBA. I made the conscious decision that the memories connected with those artifacts were not worth precious bat cave space. Those experiences will remain part of my frame forever, I suspect, but without the physical reminders, any hope of connecting those pasts with any particular present may be lost. For whatever reason, that was evidence I was willing to destroy. I did not throw away a Valentine's Day card from my 5-year-old sister calling me, in crooked handwriting, her best friend.

If I disappear, and those boxes are all that remain to draw sense out of a complex human life, I want that to be part of it. Maybe by keeping it, that card and its happy association will assume a slightly larger percentage of the frame through which I see as well. I suppose there's some sense of hope in the idea that we can shape and refine our own frames over time, whether or not that action is accomplished by choosing what and what not to throw away.

I suppose this long, over-thought musing on throwing things away demonstrates pretty well why I'm so bad at it. Despite all this soul-searching, I admit it's probably indeed best not to think about it too much, or else nothing will ever get thrown away and the bat cave will stand as a giant, faceless shrine to my laziness and/or sentimentality instead of whatever I'd like it to be. I guess there's always a balance.


thou mayest

courtesy of Jeff |

"In uncertainty I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved." -John Steinbeck, from East of Eden

I've never had a favorite book before. As both an English major and one who enjoys literary references in everyday conversation a little too much, I've been asked that question a lot: what's my favorite book. The trouble with me is that I like almost everything I read, thanks to a habit of being quite discerning. There are very few risky choices in my queue.

I could go on, but nobody wants to hear my thoughts on literature. Besides, my thoughts, despite having received a fine formal education in the subject, are rarely based on much. I still can't describe what I love about O'Connor or Faulkner, or now, Steinbeck, even after all the scholarly articles. I just do.

It's not Don Quixote or Ulysses or even Grapes of Wrath, according to most critics. All I know is that I feel more about this novel than any book I've ever read. I finished it last night at 1:00, and spent the better part of the next hour shaking with praise as I read and re-read passages to myself. It's the book I'd want to write, if I was of Nobel caliber and if it hadn't been done already. It's beautiful, simple, and clear. Steinbeck said "I think everything else I have written has been, in a sense, practice for this." And I find myself now in awe and envy over a career so well spent.

Product endorsements, even book reviews, aren't usually my thing around here, and I won't tell everyone to read it. It may not do for others what it did, and may yet do, for me. That's how literature works. But I'm proud to join fellow book people who have long claimed profound experiences with certain novels. Maybe not all of them are full of it.