I used to have some pretty cool retirement plans. They would have required a whole lot of strenuous not doing much. I figured I’d go to movies with my wife, ride my bike around the neighborhood, play a video game or two, cruise the Danube River, and all that kind of stuff. Take it easy and appreciate life. But I was kidding myself, just like some movie producer who’s out there planning to make money on Highlander V – in 3D.

Life rubbed my face in this fact recently. A while back happened to have some time on my hands. My regular work scaled down for a while, so I found myself in a mini-retirement. I thought to myself, this will be cool. I’ll kick back and have some fun. It’s been a tough year, so look out world—the fun train is rolling!

Since nobody cared whether I accomplished anything or succeeded in any way, I gathered up my high spirits and took on a small, fun project. That was so much fun that I moved right into a big project. And while that was going on I tacked on a huge project, which was also fun but really damned huge. By now I’ve given up all the leisure activities I had before my mini-retirement started, and it’s common in the evenings to hear me say, “Sorry sweetie, I can’t watch that movie with you tonight. I need to get some work done.”

So, you can see that mini-retirement didn’t work out for me. My retirement plans were as solid as the prediction that the Lost City of Atlantis will rise, and that UFOs will tow it to Disney World while Godzilla rides a unicycle through its streets.

My dad is retired. I’m pretty close to my dad, but something has gradually separated us. When I was younger we worked closely together for thousands of hours, and we did it comfortably and with a like mind. My dad made his living in the construction business most of his life. Before construction, he climbed out of helicopters and shinnied down ropes for a living. Before that he shot at young Chinese men for a living, and their friends shot back at him, as you might expect.

My dad lived his life in a world of things, of doing things and of making things. A very smart guy, but he didn’t graduate with the rest of his high school class because he failed English. He wouldn’t read the fiction books because he hated reading about things that weren’t true. But he unofficially attended graduation so he could receive all of the sports awards. Like I said, he’s a “doing things” guy. And as I’ve gotten older I’ve dealt more with “non-things” like numbers and words, and my life has moved gradually farther away from his.

Circumstances forced my dad to retire pretty young. A bunch of broken bones from his days of jumping out of helicopters caught up with him. His ability to do things and make things dropped to almost nothing. He never displayed much emotion—when his mom died he didn’t show much grief. One day not long after he stopped working, the city was repairing streets in his neighborhood. You could hear the construction equipment moving earth around. My dad walked outside, and he stood in his front yard and wept.

I don’t understand much. But I’m getting a sliver of understanding of what my dad’s world became once the doing of things and the making of things were taken away. I hope that separates us a bit less. Also, I guess I’d better get my shit together in case the things that my life is about disappear for me someday.

My planned career in retirement – selling sites on which to build bowling alleys.

Just to let you know, this funky piece is pulled from my e-book Bring Us The Head Of The Velveteen Rabbit. All the other essays in the book are far better than this one. You’ll be shocked. I chose this one because I didn’t want to build your expectations up too much. You might particularly like”The Least Romantic Man in America,” and “Days of Wine and Mammoths.” Check it out at either Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Now I’m going to take my unapologetic, grasping, mercantile ass home and mow the yard.

Even from a young age, I have always been ambitious. At 4 years old I elevated my sights far beyond those of my peers. When other children were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, they said things like an astronaut, or Superman, or a professional basketball player. I, on the other hand, wanted to be a buffalo and go out in the backyard and eat grass.

Now here I am years later, striding through the prime of my professional life. By the measures common to my people, to my family and others I know, my professional accomplishments have been reasonably successful. Yet when it’s quiet and drowsy in the evening I reflect that there’s very little grass in my diet, and I almost never buy shoes more than two at a time. Clearly I am the most abominable sort of pathetic failure.

Despite great amounts of retrospection, I can’t chart that point at which I strayed from the path of my true ambition. I just drifted off course like a drunken conquistador who lands in Inverness and insists on converting the Loch Ness Monster to Catholicism. Sure, it’s a lofty goal and a hell of a challenge. But somewhere along the way the point of the whole thing was lost.

My professional life is doing okay. I’m not bitching about my job. I’m just perplexed by the disconnect in my aspirations that has evolved over the years.

I went to work for myself when I was young. I’d like to observe something about working for yourself. It absolutely ruins you as an employee who works for other people—especially in a corporate environment. I am in no way kidding about this. You will forever be comparing your boss’s decisions with the decisions you would have made instead. If you’re an arrogant ass-jacket like me, you will usually think that your decisions are brilliant. You will always struggle between your conviction that your decision would have been perfect and the reality that it was not your damned decision to make.

When I went to work for myself, that would have been the perfect time for some ambition realignment. Yet I did nothing of the kind, and I can fault only my own weakness. I had allowed myself to be intimidated by the measures of my people. You see, when you’re four and want to be a buffalo, it’s charming. When you’re in fourth grade and want to be a buffalo, it’s an unacceptable life goal that raises concern and derision. I tend to learn things quickly, and I learned this lesson pretty darn snappy. From that point onwards I understood that my life would be a lot easier if I provided a more acceptable answer to the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

My acceptable answer became, “I don’t know.” That remained my answer throughout my entire school career. And interestingly, that answer was invariably considered to be acceptable by everyone who ever asked the question.

Now if I were a bitter sort of person I could claim I was the victim of a certain prejudice against the buffalo lifestyle. I could also claim that such prejudice is anti-God, or at the very least anti-religious. What’s true for lilies should be true for buffalo, correct? Matthew 6:28 says, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin.” I’ve never seen a buffalo toil, although if I had to chew cud all day I’m pretty sure it would be an ass-whipping. Nor do the lovely beasts spin, and so what if they’re not dressed like Solomon in all his splendor? I’d like to see Solomon stand around all day in a blizzard on the Montana plains without calling on the Power of the Lord to keep his dick from snapping off like a popsicle.

But in the end I’ve fallen back on more conventional work that doesn’t require skills such as Comanche evasion and advanced grazing strategies. Because if I were to be completely honest, at some point between the ages of 4 and 20 I realized that not only do buffalo “toil not, neither do they spin,” but also they, “drive not, neither do they have dental care.”

My creative life sometimes feels like a grapevine struggling in a field of turnips. Creativity does not pay my bills. Einstein said, “Science is a wonderful thing as long as one does not have to earn one’s living at it.” So it also can be with creativity. I’m a writer, and I’m also an actor. Therefore I am doubly cursed. For every Julia Roberts or Larry McMurtry, legions wade through community theater and rejection letters at night, while they write code, pour concrete, and answer phones for assholes during the day.

I made a decision years ago, and I can’t recall the moment I made it. Maybe I didn’t realize I was making it. Maybe I got sucked along, like when your wife suggests you go to the arboretum, but you say nothing. The next thing you know, you’re looking at a bunch of damned orchids. At some point I decided that my creative life would be my shadow life. It would be my hobby. My vocation and obligations would lie elsewhere, largely wrapped up in security. I would love my shadow life more, but it would always be a mistress to my day job.

That’s the decision I made, and I’m okay with it. I occasionally find ways to exercise creativity in my “real” job. I create spreadsheets with breathtakingly lovely color schemes. I can make people laugh while telling them things they don’t want to hear. But I find “real world” creative opportunities to be rare.

Maybe I’m deciding something different about my creative life now. That’s a pending question. One reason it’s pending is that I have a friend who years ago embraced the artist’s life in an overwhelming way. She has never deviated from her purpose. She’s almost never had a  “day” job. And she’s achieved a lot of critical success. Financial success is always more elusive of course. That must have been true even for the guy mashing pictures of bison onto the cave wall with his fingers.

My friend’s commitment cost her something. Spouses, children, and friends all had to compete with her creative myopia, and sometimes they lost. When they lost, sometimes they suffered, and so did she.

I don’t believe that all creative people suffer from mental and emotional challenges, but I know that my friend and I do. Treatment helps, but it also hampers her creativity just a bit. That creative handicap would be invisible to most people. To an artist it’s like a championship sprinter losing two-hundredths of a second. It’s huge. Treatment’s unacceptable for her, but an untreated life is a vista of misery, punctuated by peaks of elation.

And yet, this is the payment she’s been willing to make, and I’m not going to tell her she’s wrong. She embraced the creative life. For her, it comes at a high price, but she’s paid it and never considered doing otherwise.

So, I see that this post has turned into an almost complete pit of negativity. I’ll finish by saying that I have no answers for anyone else regarding vocation vs. hobby for their creative lives. I don’t have any answers for myself right now either. But I will say that this time I’m damned if I end up looking at orchids without knowing how I got there.