Oxygen Pills, or The Subtle Art of Not Giving Up


Not giving up is the habit of writing the moment in ways that only the moment can be written.


That’s the kind of sentence that sounds awful but gets better with time. It’s the kind of ugly sentence that I might have marked one of my composition students down for with a comment like — “Embrace concision!”


But the logic of concision doesn’t always make sense, so let’s go back some years to when I was a senior in university.


At 5 a.m. in the morning, in 2004, riding the train to the University of Miami to take courses in early American literature, it’s way too early for concision — both in terms of time of day and emotional maturity. Concision isn’t a life mantra yet (ever?). At that time, I don’t have a laptop I can bring with me that won’t run out of juice in five minutes. Also, at that time, I remember my laptop being big and brittle. I don’t know why I even bother mentioning this because even today I usually just carry a notepad around with me. (Embrace concision!)


The train isn’t full. It’s hard to ride the train in South Florida. It’s so unreliable. But this time, all it needs to do is get me there at a decent hour. I don’t want the traffic, and I need to write this down. I need to write, not sit in a car in traffic. I’m several months away from graduation. This new novel I’m writing on the train is a way to settle my nerves. The character is a man of action. He is 22, has business ventures, is wildly social and goes on adventures with his monkey sidekick. In other words, he couldn’t be any more different from me.


Not giving up is the habit of writing yourself as a business student with multiple business ventures and a monkey sidekick who goes on adventures with you.


Now, I’m not 22 years old. I’m older. How much older is my secret to keep (at least until you do a simple Google search of me). But that same wild energy runs through my veins. I pull out the pages from the manuscript I was writing at the time and read them. Behind the pages — ramblings about vampires and social justice, and aphorisms about business — there is also the smell of the moldy seats of the Tri-Rail in South Florida. The train that is never on time. Its operators don’t follow the rules of concision.


Not giving up means remembering old smells from long ago that make you feel better about your body odor.


I hear bits of conversation from med students just a bit older than me who are sitting a few seats in front of me on the opposite side of the train. They take the train so they can sleep during their commute.


Not giving up is the habit of tailoring your life so you can accomplish a goal that is just a little bit beyond your reach.


“On the Tri-Rail,” one of the med students (the cocky older one) says, “I get to sleep. More energy to study later. See, this is probably the best idea I’ve had in awhile.” The shy girl listens attentively. I later find out that she is taking the Tri-Rail for the first time.


I notice that he is saying one thing and doing another. He’s not sleeping. He’s bragging. Perhaps the mating instinct is taking over.


“Then there is my other secret — oxygen pills. Oxygen pills mean more oxygen to the brain. That means you can think better.”


Present day! I take my notebook to work. I’m in some strange, far away place from my 22-year-old self. He would wonder about things. He would wonder why I wear a tie, why the place I live in is so cold, why everyone I work with takes themselves so seriously. But he wouldn’t wonder about the notebook.


“Pure oxygen,” the older male med student says to the female (I can’t tell whether she is impressed or not).


Not giving up is the habit of finding a way to stay awake in a world that is sleeping upright. Not giving up means finding your oxygen pills.  


What would the version of me who lives ten years in the future say?


Keep writing, young man. Keep hustling. Find little things like oxygen pills and memories that keep you generating sentences that go on and on until the morning hours and offend your charlatan composition teachers but keep your imagination going. And let the word terger be always a backwards spelt word so that it makes the opposite of its meaning forward…In other words, write like you breathe, young man — oxygen pills aplenty! — and for terger’s get a monkey sidekick already!



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