This bit of writing was inspired by my recent reading of a book entitled What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. It was a surprisingly good book and convinced me that I should try to come up with some lessons for myself.
Actually, many of the short essays in this book involve me confronting a younger self. It’s strange offering this youngster advice. Why? Because he is wiser than me, stronger than me, harder working than me…he has more hustle…he has energy.
I think the better option would be to look to a future self, a self that exists 14 years from now (my 50-year-old self) and let that person try to teach my current self some lessons.
This older self has very noticeable bald spots. His midsection bulges in a way that makes him look like an Italian gangster or a postmodern Buddha. He may or may not still be wearing the same clothes I wear now. (My future self, like my current self, is too cheap to buy new clothes.)
What would this older version of myself tell me?
He starts off by giving me the first and only rule of time travel: “I can’t give you information about the future. I can only try to pass down wisdom. Sorry, no stock tips!” Then he lets out a hefty, used-car-salesman type of laugh.
(Apparently, this used-car salesman laugh is very fashionable in the future…even somewhat hipster.)
He knows he’s being unbelievably cruel. He knows he’s borderline wasting my time, but what the hell! At the very least, I might get to rub his 50-year-old belly at the end for good luck.
The dilemma is still…Do you go to the river to drink?
One of my favorite scenes from a novel comes from Haruki Murakami’s The Wind Up Bird Chronicle. An old soldier is telling the main character that during his time in the war he was stationed by a river along the Russian border. He and his fellow soldiers hid along the river — often dying slowly of thirst — with Russian snipers waiting for them to go to the river to get a drink. Eventually, some solider would get so thirsty that he would go to the river…and then, predictably, the sniper would pick him off.
“When you get so thirsty you need to go to the river to drink, the thing to do is to stay put,” the old soldier tells the main character.
But there would inevitably come a point for every man when he became so thirsty that he wouldn’t care whether the sniper killed him. He had to go to the river to drink.
I have found this simple scene to explain almost every dilemma in my life, especially the ones that have to do with writing.
*To self-publish or not to self-publish.
*To publish now or to wait one more draft.
Of course it goes beyond publishing.
*To punch the a-hole boss or not to punch him (You get thirsty…really thirsty. The thing to do is stay put; but can you?)
*To plod through a boring and unfulfilling job or to quit.
“So, 36-year-old self, will you stay put or will you go to the river to drink?”
That is the question. Which can you live with: a terrible thirst or a sniper’s bullet?
My thirty-six-year-old self doesn’t look very satisfied by this.
The rules of time travel are always the same: You can pass on wisdom but no specific information.
“I’m thirsty,” my 36-old-self says. “Can you give me wisdom that will actually quench my thirst?”
When in Doubt…Memorialize
Here is something you know but keep forgetting. Here is something you practice and then stop practicing.
“The past is history, the future a mystery, the present is a gift.”
The only way to make the most of that gift and bring it forward with you is to memorialize it.
You need to take more pictures. You need to celebrate small victories. You need to treasure little friendships, to make little friendships bigger. Because you will miss people, even short friendships…you will miss them and miss them and miss them. And then, you’ll look back and try to remember the little moments that made everything special, but somehow they’ve faded.
The small, brilliant moments of your life are the greatest treasure…that you let slip through your fingers. Writing can be a way to memorialize — and thus, writing in this way, journaling the great moments of your life in fine details, is the easiest way to improve your wealth.
As I write these lines, I pump my fist in the air Rocky-style.
My 50-year-old self approves.
Time Will Make Big Problems Seem…
Small…very small…But trying to bring this insight into the present is impossible because a problem lived in the present seems big. Only afterwards does it seem small…
I have evidence. I look in my journal and gawk in amazement at problems I had forgotten even existed…I was heartbroken over that girl? Who was she again? I don’t remember a thing about her. I was worried because of that stupid report for that class I can’t even remember taking…
My fifty-year-old self looks at me. I explain to him my problems in the present.
He smiles…”What? What are you talking about?” He laughs again like a used-car salesman, but not just a chuckle, a full-throated belly laugh. “That’s not something to worry about. Now losing the keys to your time machine…that’s something to worry about! I’d hate to be stuck in your time period without the benefit of Smartfabric Toilet Paper — yes, super-soft, super-scented, nano-enabled toilet paper! It knows exactly how to treat your…”
And then he goes into exquisite details about…
Assholes! No More…
Assholes. Actually, this is something that comes up in Tina Seelig’s book What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. She references another book The No Asshole Rule. As soon as I heard the title, inspiration struck!
Sure…I don’t remember many of the problems of my past life. The petty struggles. Many of the girls who casually ignored me. The magazines that ignored my submissions. My temporary money problems.
But…I remember assholes. Every. Single. One.
Again my 50-year-old self gives me well-worn advice that I have no idea how to apply.
No more assholes? How do I do it?
How do I create an impenetrable asshole force field? I don’t know how. Does my 50-year-old self have this figured out?
I ask him, practically yell at him: “How do I create the anti-asshole force field? Is there an app from the future you can download to my phone?” I grab him (me) by the collar and shake him (me). “Tell me, damn it!”
But he’s too distracted looking for his time machine keys. “Hmmm…I know I put them around here somewhere…by the way, shake me by my collar one more time and I’ll activate my anti-asshole force field.”
The Anti-Asshole Force Field
The me from the future presses the button on his (my) Aston Martin Smartphone (who knew the company would one day outsell Apple in smartphones!) and automatically I understand something.
The only way to eliminate assholes is to be an anti-asshole myself. I need to:
1) undo, undermine, obstruct as many assholes as often as possible
2) create a stock of anti-asshole karma by doing really nice things for people
3) smile as if there weren’t a problem, a cloud, an asshole in the world
4) surprise people with the level of non-assholeness in the world through random acts of kindness!
(I also try to write a note about investing in Aston Martin cellphones…but as soon as I write the information down, it disappears. Such are the rule of time travel: Only useless wisdom! Never important operable information!)
Your Next Book Will Always Be Your Greatest
“I’m 50, and yet, I still haven’t written my greatest book. That’s why I’m still alive. If you ever stop believing that your next book is the greatest, I will cease to exist. I will make sure I go down to the river enough for a Russian sniper to get me. You must believe this. The very fact that I exist means that you had the courage to pick yourself up and try again.”
“Nice,” I say. “Let’s end this little journey there,” I suggest. I do this partially because I hope he’s brought some Smartfabric Toilet Paper from the future he’ll let me try out.
“And now the moment you’ve been waiting for.” He removes his shirt, exposing his impressive Buddha belly.
“Nice,” I say and rub it. As I rub his belly he becomes relaxed and content like an actual Buddha. At one point, I have him purring like a cat. And when he’s at his most relaxed, I pickpocket his Aston Martin smartphone from the future.
Time travel rules be damned, I think to myself, I want that anti-asshole force field app on his phone!