If you saw City Slickers, the 1991 comedy with Billy Crystal, you might recall the scene when Jack Palance, playing a leather-skinned cowboy named Curly, tells Crystal the secret of life. He holds up his index finger. “One thing,” he says. “Just do one thing.” By that, he meant find the one thing you want to do, that you’re good at, and then go do it. Don’t do much of anything else. Don’t get distracted by all the shiny objects in the water; just do that one thing, and then shut up about it. The rest of the movie is about how three city slickers eventually found the one thing they liked to do.
Curly’s finger has haunted me for nearly a quarter of a century. I didn’t stick to one thing. Or one relationship. Or one coast. Or one career. Or one language, workout routine, alcoholic beverage, philosophy, outlook, or snack. I’ve gone from CheezIts to Wheat Thins to Fig Newtons and back again. Well, until I started reading about high fructose corn syrup about ten years ago. I have also been homeless, unemployed, divorced, stranded, attacked, ill to the point of death, and nearly drowned.
I remember the time years ago when I interviewed the mayor of a small town in the East Bay of Northern California. I was working for a small business journal, and they asked me to interview the mayor, who was a CPA, and then write the feature story about this guy’s career. Actually, I couldn’t believe it. The guy told me how he had majored in accounting in college, went to work for Ernst & Young after graduation, and then, as part of his community service, volunteered in local government. That led to work on the town’s Traffic Committee (he explained the science of traffic patterns in detail), which led to the Town Council, which led to his election as mayor. He also had a beautiful wife with two beautiful kids. There was a photo on the credenza.
What amazed me was that this guy had planned everything with Vulcan-like precision: college major, job, pro bono work, local political career, family. It was all measured, ordered, logical, and linear. If you plotted his life on a graph, it would show a consistent 14% rate of return (actually, that’s what Bernie Madoff’s reports showed, but that’s another story).
Although I was much younger than Mr. Mayor (I was in my mid-twenties at the time), I felt like the complete opposite. I was working in sales for the money, had started writing fiction, and had no real sense of who or what I was. I had had a dozen different jobs, from editor to car salesman. Of course, I did have it over the mayor when it came to family and friends. God has blessed me in that regard.
All of this begs the question that the pre-Socratic philosophers like Parmenides asked 2500 years ago. What is life? Does it consist of the One or the Many? The question has survived today in post-modern debates about essence and existence. Do we have one essence, a unified whole, or are we the result of many things converging here, then there, and expressed in a web of relationships? It’s all very academic, all very boring, until you remember Curly.
I used to think there was something wrong with me, because I had many interests and more than one creative outlet to express them. But then I realized that being focused didn’t necessarily mean one career path or activity. That was focus on one level, but there were other levels. After all, aren’t we many things at once? Spouse, worker, sports fan, quilter, etc.? The key to figuring this out is “at once.” Another way to interpret Curly is that it’s important to be in the moment. Be you. The common denominator in everything you experience is you. You are the thread running through all of your jobs, homes, experiences, and relationships.
A literary agent said recently that a manuscript of mine needed an “organizing principle.” I have been thinking about that, and, at first, I could see what she meant. But then I realized there already was an organizing principle in the collection of short stories. I was the organizing principle. Even more so, grace was the thread that ran through each of the stories. Grace has been the constant in my life just as order and planning had been the constant in the mayor’s life. I figure that’s not so bad.