Hey, come on try a little
Nothing is forever
There’s got to be something better than
In the middle
“One Headlight” by The Wallflowers
“What do you want to be when you grow up?” That was a question I remember adults asking me in my elementary school years.
“A doctor,” I’d answer, and that answer always seemed to appease the adults. If one of them had the temerity to ask which kind of doctor, I’d shrug honestly and say, “I don’t know.” This second part never seemed satisfactory, but it did usually end the inquisition. Sometimes I’d exchange “doctor” for “lawyer” and get the same results. The funny part is that even as a kid, I knew I was lying. I knew that these words—doctor and lawyer—had no connection to anything I cared about. Though the words did earn the subtle admiration of grown ups. They heard me say those words and they looked at me differently, like I was going places.
I didn’t know it then, but this common exchange was teaching me some things. One was that most people, myself apparently included, are pretentious. The second lesson was that words changed how people felt. That second lesson was more interesting.
Phantom armies clash on the battlefields of limbo. This strange, last outpost of existence. The forgotten versus the yet to be. Like some half-remembered dream. All the rules of existence are being broken.
“Captain Adam!” Superman shouts. “These people need our help!”
“…Transparent void…Eternal…We’re so small…Yet so significant. How can it matter so much?” Captain Adam wonders.
“It does to me!”
That’s from Superman Beyond #2, an issue in Final Crisis, the DC Comics miniseries written by Grant Morrison and drawn by Doug Mahnke. Morrison writes with joyful complexity. Yes, this is a story about Superman saving the day because that is what Superman does, but it’s also a reflection of Biblical, messianic promises. It’s also a meta text for Hamlet’s most famous quandary of being. It’s also a distillation of the moral sojourns that defined cold war era comics. It’s Shakespeare and Alan Moore and something sillier and more specific. It’s uniquely Morrison, and like all the best stuff, his inspiration contains multitudes. His style is singular. Some people think he’s saying a lot of nonsense, but others, like me, would choose to read his style over nearly any other comic book writer.
I’ve loved comic books for as long as I can remember. One of my earliest memories is frantically explaining to my Uncle Richard that Batman actually got married to Catwoman!1 God bless Uncle Richard, he cared. Back then, I thought he cared because a hero marrying a villain was revelatory news. Now I know he only cared because he was good man granting respect in the only language that a child understands: the adult cares too. When something greater cares for something smaller, the smaller thing feels a portion of what it means to be greater. Because Uncle Richard respected my childhood fascination, and because he was my coolest uncle2 (I wanted to be like him when I grew up), I was allowed to love comic books for the rest of my life. I’m so glad that I have that. I’m 32, and it’s an incredible time to be a lifelong comic book nerd. Superheroes dominate pop culture. Ta-Nehesi Coates—perhaps the most influential writer in America—is writing the Black Panther comic book, while one of the best young directors in the world, Ryan Coogler, is making the Black Panther movie. This stuff probably shouldn’t matter that much, and yet, it does to me.
Ever since cancer, I have felt burdened by the concept of mission. It’s depressingly difficult to be okay with the mundane necessity of making a living. Why am I here? What am I doing? This is probably standard fare for a mid life crisis or types of existential philosophy, but I’m not trying to classify the feeling. It is what it is, and it seeps into everything I consume. I look at my strengths, trying to take stock of my being as a whole, and I try to decide what I should do with my abilities.
This concern of mine, the concept of mission, seeps into everything. What does God want me to do? I guess I should get right with him. How should I vote for President? I definitely will approach politics differently. What’s for lunch? I should remember to care about feeling well more than feeling good. Health, faith, and judgment coalesce to make me worry about what the heck am I doing with time? Time is the only honest currency, and it worries me.
This concern sat in the back of my brain while I was reading Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Born to Run. In one section, he talks about how a creative mentor showed him the path to success. As a young man who’d been performing since high school, Bruce was tired of grinding out a living in the bar/club scene. He’d seen enough to know that he wasn’t going to outshine other bootstrap bands trying to get recognized in the festivals and competitions that ruled the music industry of that era. He needed a producer, and he needed a hook. He examined his toolbox.
His voice would never be better than mediocre. He was pretty good on the guitar. He knew how to use it on a stage, but he’d seen lots of guys like him, and he’d seen lots of guys that were better. That left him with the songs. His songs would have to be fireworks. He knew of only one guy whose songs could stand on their own, outside of the music and the voice, songs of pure poetry. He listened to Bob Dylan endlessly. He wrote Dylan’s lyrics out so he could look at them. Then he’d write, then he’d play. Then he’d write, and he’d rewrite. Then he’d play. Then he’d rewrite and rewrite and rewrite…
Flash forward to the future, to an opportunity. Bruce is placed in front of legendary music producer, John Hammond. Bruce is given a borrowed guitar and told to play a song. He sings okay and he plays okay, but the song he plays is “Growing Up.” Just one song, but it was a lyrically vivid song that told the tale of existential development that all young people face. Bruce is soon signed to Columbia Studios. The studio propped up his vocals and polished the music with a surrounding band, but they didn’t change anything in the lyrics. “Growing Up” would be the second song on his debut album, Greetings from Asbury Park, now ranked as one of the top 500 albums of all time.
Years later, playing at some televised, holiday special, Bruce had the chance to meet Bob Dylan in a stairwell behind the stage. At the end of a five-minute convo, Dylan says, “If you ever need anything, let me know.” Bruce, astonished at the generosity of his idol, simply said, “It’s already been done.”
Bob Dylan was great, and by committing to being a songwriter, he gave a small Bruce Springsteen a portion of what it meant to be a great songwriter. I hear that story, and I remember, with embarrassing clarity, that I was so jealous of The Boss. Not because of his fame or his success, though both of those things sound nice, but because he knew his mission. When a person finds their mission, they should make it part of their core. Bruce Springsteen has a wife and children and a childhood and a future, but music resides in his core. We all have a strength that could become our mission. We must put that mission in our core, it might not make us big, but if we can understand it, if we chase it, it will make us significant. I believe that as hard as I can believe anything.
I’m writing these words selfishly. The words are motivation. I have to convince myself of who I want to be. What I should be doing is making the final edits of my first book, Cheeto Dust…and Other Blood on Millennial Hands, but it was becoming a slog, and I was getting disheartened. My internal battle was familiar. Will anyone care about this at all? Does anyone actually read anymore? I’ve felt it before blog posts and articles, but the size of the anxiety seems to equal the size of the writing, and while Cheeto Dust is no doorstopper, it is definitely the biggest thing that I’ve ever written, so now it’s my biggest anxiety. Here’s an unhelpful exercise: how many books did you read in 2017? Now multiply that number by how many years you have left to live. Does my book deserve to be one in that number? Even as the author, I would feel embarrassed to say that it should. So why am I still writing?
A common sentiment among writers is that one is not the writer they will become until later in life. The metric used always changes. You’re the writer you’re going to be when you turn 40, when your third book is published, once you have children, after one million words, after ten million words, after you die. I assume the next thing I write will be better than Cheeto Dust (that opinion is more about skill development than the quality of Cheeto Dust. Semantic saturation—the psychological phenomenon that words temporarily lose meaning through repetition—is a scientific fact, and I’ve been repeatedly reading Cheeto Dust for months), but I don’t really want to be doing the next thing yet. Here’s an incredibly evolved litmus test I use to know whether or not I should be doing something: will this thing I’m doing bring me closer to the person I wish to be? It’s a pretty advanced technique, I know. Anyway, finishing Cheeto Dust must be done to bring me closer to my vision of me.
I’m writing because I want to write, but am I writing about anything that matters? Yes, it does to me.
Mission. It seeps into everything. I was listening to Bill Simmons interview Masai Ujiri, the General Manager of the Toronto Raptors. Masai grew up in Nigeria, and chasing his gifts in basketball led him to America, then to Europe, then eventually back to America. A friendship with a basketball scout, David Thorpe, led him to NBA management circles. One thing to another, he is now the leader of a multi-million dollar organization. Bill Simmons asked Masai what his best tip for leadership was, and after some hemming and hawing, Masai says, “Okay, I got it.”
“Be more passionate than ambitious.”
That says it all. Maybe you love basketball. Maybe you’re a budding rockstar unearthing the details of what makes your songs special. Maybe you’re a guy who’s letting a kid know that it’s cool to like comic books. If you can get beyond wondering if this “whatever” thing matters, if you can stop caring about whether or not it is big enough, and if you can start focusing on the passion, then you’ll reach the significance.
Don’t know if you have a calling? Dial it back. Here’s a phrase that might help: how you make your money is more important than how much money you make.
I write. And, sometimes, I write! I understand it, and I’m chasing it. I’m not even particularly great at it when compared to guys like Grant Morrison. When I feel invisible under the shadow of the supremely talented, I think about Jakob Dylan. He decided to become a singer/songwriter. How could a shadow get any bigger than picking the exact profession as your father, the greatest songwriter who ever lived? But he chased it with his band, The Wallflowers, and they were pretty good. In the 90s, they were making their way out of the shadow. Unfortunately, Dylan sang their biggest hit, “One Headlight,” at the 1997 MTV Music Awards with guest star, Bruce Springsteen. Bruce, molded by decades of performing until he knew no other way, sang the song 10,000% harder than Jakob ever could, and a whole new shadow fell. The Wallflowers never inhabited their name as much as that moment.
Jakob Dylan shouldn’t stop making music just because Bruce and Bob exist. And he didn’t. He’s been successfully working as a musician for his entire life. And while he may not be as big as Bruce or his father, he’s doing something that both older musicians would be proud of: he’s playing. He gets on a stage and he plays. Most of America is working, but Jakob Dylan is playing. That’s a great reward for chasing a strength. Listen to him in 2015. He’s no joke.
We all have a strength. I think strength is purpose, granted by God, and we should all chase our own while forgetting the human comparisons. Some people might think that it’s silly that you try to do something that others can do so much better than you can. They’ll tell you that what you are doing doesn’t matter. These are the phantom armies on the battlefield of our lives.
Life, the strange outpost from which we view existence, is a silly and specific thing. It can be infinitely meaningful and temporarily meaningless, just like words. What do I want to be when I grow up? Superman wants to save the day, because the day matters. It’s just a passing revolution of the sun, but it can change the world, or, more importantly, it can change you. Maybe it will be the day you hear a Bob Dylan song and realize that you have all the tools you need. Maybe you’ll read a Grant Morrison comic book and realize that your mission does matter. At least, it does to me.
Alright, I’d better get back to editing.
1 When I spell check this, “Batman” raises no flags, but “Catwoman” gets the scarlet squiggly of shame. Someone of Grant Morrison’s caliber needs to give Catwoman some narrative attention.
2 Even at six, I knew that having a good jump shot in basketball and being married to my prettiest aunt meant that this was an exceptionally cool guy.