The Joy Menu #25: Purpose
Your author contemplates his life as a magician's assistant, as a Mexican pizza franchise heir, and as a train careening off its tracks toward an inevitable disaster on a New York stoop.
In 2012, I was living in Wyoming, studying and teaching writing, when my best friend’s family magic show booked a gig in Billings, Montana and invited me to take part.
I don’t remember why I was asked. I’m sure it was as much an excuse for Emily and I to hang out as a “need” for me to serve as a stagehand/magician’s assistant. While they drove a semi-truck loaded with large scale magic illusions a dozen hours from Vegas to Billings (by way of Jackson Hole and some gnarly snow storms), I drove the (absolutely bone dry) six hours up from Laramie and met them at the hotel.
Some things are simple. Few things, maybe. But they're out there. For me, magic performance isn’t one of those things. I’d “toured” with Emily and her family before—once, a year or two previous, in Arizona—and was familiar with the basics of the illusions that served to surprise and dazzle the audience (I can’t tell you those basics here; the Magician’s Guild would send an immediate hit out on my life).
But in Montana, there wasn’t time to rehearse or prepare; I was given a list of tasks to remember, cues to follow, actions to perform, and positions I needed to be in, and that was that. I wrote them down on a scrap of paper and then, before the show, was asked to double as Craft Services (a role Emily’s brother will tell you I took to with aplomb). I didn’t have time to run through the show; I was busy collecting orders and carrying burgers and fries in for the crew.
Which isn’t to say I miffed it. I didn’t (luckily, for the Montana magic crowd and my friendship with Emily). But the intensity of focus and concentration required to pull off the gig—often in very confined spaces—was unlike anything I do normally, unlike anything I’m “good at,” and used none of my natural talents (at least not those I’d claim in view of hundreds of smiling onlookers attentively gazing in my direction).
Laying out condiments in an aesthetic and accessible display? Simple. Remembering to tug a chord to avoid a petite half-naked woman being hit across the head with a swinging bar? Not as natural.
In the late 1990s, my father was driving a Chevy Suburban loaded with micronutrient fertilizers from Mexico to Canada, back and forth, meeting with small- and medium-sized farming operations, trying to convince the (classically recalcitrant) farmers of the Pacific Coast and inland valleys to take a chance on new products which could increase crop yield with a detail-oriented and scientific approach to soil nutrition. (If it sounds technical, it is; I did a high school Science Fair Project on it—and went to State—so I’m basically an expert.)
It was a hard sell, and lots of work, but my father became fascinated by soil nutrition and loved the entrepreneurial side of it, the strategy and flare needed to grow a business. What came naturally to him was the personal: the relationships, the conversations, the authentic connections with honest, hard working families trying to extract their livelihoods from the land. What came harder was the sales part.
On one trip to Mexico, where he was working with a family in Sinaloa, running a number of small soil tests to show proof of concept and thus, he hoped, convince them to make a big purchase, he was invited for a bite at a pizza chain with long lines and a loyal following. While enjoying his meal—classic Italian-American fare with a uniquely Mexican twist—something clicked.
My father became convinced that in Southern California, a restaurant like this one—or perhaps this very one—would appeal to both Mexican-American eaters hungry for a familiar slice of home and curious non-Mexican mouths endlessly desirous of novel (and greasy) flavors. He inquired: franchises were available. And all for a “reasonable” price. If only he had the money.
He knew nothing about restaurant ownership, food services, real estate, franchising, or staffing a kitchen, but he set out to make this dream a reality with the aplomb and idealism he brought to everything he did (making art, studying architecture, slinging micronutrients). All he had to do was find some investors.
I remember his frustration palpably, shared over numerous meals and across a half year of discursive walks around the neighborhood: he spoke on the phone or visited in person every relative, family friend, or amenable acquaintance he could possibly imagine, making his pitch and asking for an investment of any size. No one bit. The dough remained unbaked.
Eventually, he dropped the idea and returned to the Chevy Suburban, to the soil samples, to the fertilizer sales.
The relationships formed between himself (an immigrant in a dirty car, selling a strange European product) and a motley crew of farming families? Simple. That between himself (an immigrant in a wrinkled denim button-down, selling a strange Mexican product) and a skeptical menagerie of rich people? Not as natural.
Some things are simple. Few things, maybe. But they're out there. Aren’t they?
Is simplicity, or natural infinity, an indication that we’re on the right path—the one aligned to our purpose?
And when things don’t click, when they don’t unfold naturally, are we meant to understand that we’re not?
Or is it all just dumb luck? Chance? Or even magic?
Years ago, at a low point in my imagined life as an artist, I saw a video online of a man in his early 60s being interviewed as part of Humans of New York. Usually, the series captures heartwarming tales of “strangers in the streets,” focusing on their small triumphs and unacknowledged dignity. This video did not.
The man being interviewed—ostensibly healthy, white, and middle-class—sat on the stoop of an outer-borough brownstone, and spent the video in full-blown panicked expression of grief and anxiety. He told the camera that he’d lived his entire adult life in the creation of art, which, after four decades of diligence, countless false starts, and who-knows how many unfinished and unnoticed projects, had yet to be received by a receptive world.
“I’m afraid,” he told the camera, his voice wavering, his eyes wet, “that I will die with this inside of me. That I will die without having realized my purpose.”
Perhaps to some his pain seemed solipsistic or unimportant. To me it was like a frightening glimpse into my future.
I thought of my unfinished novels, unpublished stories, unrealized creative ambitions. I thought of the way I’d obsessively, and singularly, defined my life by this artistic ambition—to the exclusion of all else. I couldn’t help it: I saw myself staring back at me from that anonymous New York stoop.
Only I was still in my 30s. I could still change. Or re-route. Or give up.
I couldn’t shake the fear that despite the deep belief that by writing I was living my life’s true purpose, I’d somehow skipped off the tracks of fate and was careening headfirst the wrong way with 12,000 tons of conviction coming up behind me—unable to stop, or course correct, or to find my way back.
They say “nothing worth doing comes easy.”
But how hard should “worth doing” be?
In pursuit of what we want, how much should we struggle? When does it make sense to cut our losses, release ourselves from our dreams, and move on?
(And what if release isn’t easy? If the dreams persist regardless? If we release ourselves from the ambition to succeed, but not from the pain of having failed, or from the life of bitterness, emptiness, and regret that follows?)
How do we grieve the lives we never got to live? Or mourn the ones that were never ours?
I am not a magician’s assistant. Nor was my father a franchisee.
But am I a writer?
Hope you’re in the sunshine today. Or at least eating pizza.
Yours living onward
toward creative joy,