Sunday, August 11, 2013

Mack and the Boys

"A Praise Chorus," the live-in-the-now anthem from 2001's Bleed American, has always been one of my favorite Jimmy Eat World songs. If the economic law of diminishing marginal utility states that a good or service — or in this case, a song — will decrease in utility or usefulness as a result of additional consumption, then "A Praise Chorus" seems to defy that law; I still sing along to "A Praise Chorus" with as much gusto as I did when I first fell in love with the song about 12 years ago.

This song is, among other things, a road trip staple so it was natural choice for a road trip mix I made for a recent trip to Utah, a mix that I played during my recent trip to Monterey. As I drove I considered the lines I had heard dozens of times before:

Are you gonna live your life wondering
Standing in the back looking around
Are you gonna waste your time
Gotta make a move or you'll miss out

These lyrics hit me hard because I have rarely considered myself as someone that has any semblance of control over his life. In what seems like a constant struggle to create the life that I want, the idea of these few lines — taking a stand for my life and finally following my dreams — has been a source of inspiration for me throughout recent years.

I remember one summer afternoon in Rexburg, Idaho, running through town with this song blasting in my ears. Approaching my 25th birthday, the line "Even at 25 you gotta start sometime" was particularly stirring. I remember vowing to myself during that run, that it was time to start living my life, time to start chasing down and living my dreams.

Easier said than done. I knew how to dream, but rarely did I know how to do.

A somewhat relevant photo (because it was taken in Monterey) that I'm only including to make this post more attractive visually. (And because it's a photo I'm proud of.)

During that same drive to Monterey, I encountered a voice that seemed to be in direct conflict with the familiar refrains of "A Praise Chorus." During our drive, my friend Angie read out loud from Steinbeck's Cannery Row. As we would be at Cannery Row later that day, it seemed appropriate. A passage from the first chapter introducing the characters caught my attention:

Mack was the elder, leader, mentor, and to a small extent the exploiter of a little group of men who had in common no families, no money, and no ambitions beyond food, drink, and contentment. But whereas most men in their search for contentment destroy themselves and fall wearily short of of their targets, Mack and the boys approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently.

Those words stuck out to me, and over the past couple weeks the following Sméagol-Gollum-esque conversation has played out in my head:

Sméagol-Myke: "...approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently." Wow. That sounds like a much easier way of living.

Gollum-Myke: But wait! What about "Gotta make a move or you'll miss out"? You don't want to miss out, Myke. You've already missed out on enough.

Sméagol-Myke: Yeah, but —

Gollum-Myke: Don't you "Yeah, but" me! I invented "Yeah, but" —

Sméagol-Myke: — but "Gotta make a move" doesn't work. I've tried it, it doesn't work.

Gollum-Myke: Sure it does. You just gotta be consistent and follow through. You never follow through on anything.

Sméagol-Myke: I'm tired of living my life in such a frantic manner. In trying to "make a move" I've smothered too many people, I've expected too much from others.

Gollum-Myke: It's not your fault other people can't handle your intensity.

Sméagol-Myke: I know, but —

Gollum-Myke: Besides, casually, quietly, gently — you don't know how to live like that. You just don't.

Sméagol-Myke: ...

I knew there was some kind of message for me in that phrase — "...approached contentment casually, quietly, and absorbed it gently" — but I didn't know how that fit, if at all, into my previous ideal of living — "Gotta make a move or you'll miss out." And like Gollum-Myke said, I don't know how to live like Mack and the boys. I've lived my life so deliberately and strictly, how could I learn to approach something casually, with a certain degree nonchalance?

Because life is short. Life is urgent. Life presents you with opportunities that if you don't seize them, they will pass you by —

— and that's when it clicked. That yes, life is urgent and short, but life being short and urgent does not mean that it's frantic and hurried and overbearing. Rather than making my life a frenetic quest for contentment, why not take step back and let life come to me? This seems like a much more passive approach, but it's not. Because when a $100 bill flutters at your feet during a casual stroll down the street, you don't let it pass. You "make a move" — but not a frantic one. The move is simple: you stop, pick up the bill, and put it in your pocket.

(For the sake of honesty, let's assume that $100 bill fell out of Bruce Wayne's wallet when he was buying a hot dog from a street vendor. When you try to return it to him he perceives your need and says, "Thanks for your honesty. Keep it." This scenario also assumes that you live in Gotham City and that Batman is real, which is pretty awesome.)

While I'm sure such people exist, I personally don't know anyone who makes a living by running around town looking for $100 bills that have fallen out of the wallets of billionaire playboy vigilantes. If I have absolutely no control over $100 bills falling out of wallets, why does it make sense for me to live the rest of my life that way?

The key to living life like Mack and the boys lies in the understanding and replacement of the word "seize." Seize the day, some have said. The word "seize" has such a violent tone — grab a hold of it tightly and don't let go. And so seize the day becomes strangle the life out of the day and hold onto it even after the sun has risen on a new day.

I don't know about you, but I'm tired of seizing the day. I'm tired of hanging on till my knuckles turn white and my grip shakes, and when I let go because I've exhausted all my strength, my fingers ache with weariness from having held on so tight. I want to accept the day. I want receive the day.

Too often I've seen acceptance as some sort of settling. Settling for less than what is good enough for me. In being unwilling to accept life as it is, I've pushed away the good in almost everything. As I've failed to accept myself, I've failed to recognize and appreciate what is good about me and what I am good at — that I am unfailingly nice and that I can make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies without even glancing at a recipe.

Living like Mack and the boys — approaching contentment gently — means accepting and receiving and loving people and miracles and opportunities for what they are. To accept and receive the adventure that life throws at us requires a great deal of gratitude, faith, love, openness, and grace. Seen from this point of view, much easier said than done, life transforms into something greater than a quest for contentment. It becomes a quest to acquire and radiate those attributes necessary to accepting and receiving.

== == == == ==

In the world ruled by tigers with ulcers, rutted by strictured bulls, scavenged by blind jackals, Mack and the boys dine delicately with the tigers, fondle the frantic heifers, and wrap up the crumbs to feed the sea gulls of Cannery Row. What can it profit a man to gain the whole world and to come to his property with a gastric ulcer, a blown prostate, and bifocals? Mack and the boys avoid the trap, walk around the poison, step over the noose while a generation of trapped, poisoned, and trussed up men scream at them and call them no-goods, come-to-bad-ends, thieves, rascals, bums. Our Father who are in nature, who has given the gift of survival to the coyote, the common brown rat, the English sparrow, the house fly and the moth, must have a great and overwhelming love for no-goods and blots-on-the-town and bums, and Mack and the boys.