Making Sense of the ‘Menutiae’ in Life’s Middle Passage
When our division vice president flew into town last Fall, we hosted a team dinner, and as an icebreaker she asked the group to name something they each did well that would be a surprise to everyone else.
Now, as my direct boss, she’d known me the longest. “Colt,” she said, “we already know for you it’s music and writing.”
But is it? I thought.
For me, the twin currents that had alternately propelled me and tossed me like rapids for nearly as long as I’d been alive, I guess, didn’t really seem a surprise. But maybe, in our 40s, those passions are more subterranean rivers, forced down beneath the crust of daily life — the desk job, fatherhood, household chores — but still, down there, churning away.
You can’t see yourself as others do. You’re too used to the reflection. And maybe only glancing sidelong at it.
As the rest of my team took turns revealing some pretty interesting stuff — one was a zombie makeup artist, not to mention formerly working in a pit crew; another regularly plumbed the depths of genealogy; and a third could probably take apart a car engine and put it together again (more than I could say for me) — I was thrown into a sort of self-referential reverie between the appetizers and entrees. What did I do that was surprising anymore? What, beyond that driving, subterranean current, made me, me?
The dumbest things seemed to pop into my mind. Bloated pink balloons pulling rubbery faces:
- I guess I’d been damn good at negotiating the purchase of my son’s trombone
- We’d finally decided to trade up to a minivan to cart our family of five around; in recent weeks I’d basically learned every last detail of every car in that segment worth buying
- I’d taught myself a few Tarzan-yell-worthy recipes, improvising and combining and expanding upon them, that had become family staples and legend in the neighborhood and church potluck scene
- Even though my daily running regimen had succumbed to the globe-trotting (read: plane-sitting) career as of late, I’d compiled enough knowledge since trailing along behind my dad at 12 I still felt, if pressed, I could counsel anyone to go from couch to 20K over the course of a year… maybe even myself, again
- Genealogy and family history, for me, too, had been a passion since I’d published my first book in 2008 — coming off the modest summer tour, bored, I’d been dared by my wife’s cousin into adding branches to an online tree on Geni.com; within a week of sleepless nights I’d grafted and pruned my way to the 1100s, then continued the trek through trips home and newspaper-archive-diving and family-box-raiding and expressed it through a dozen side projects: slideshows, photo displays, keepsake-worthy family tree posters, history books, and — ah, right — a mostly ongoing blog
But, I mean, the pink-dork-balloon-quality of these traits seemed, to me, to be their mundanity. Who didn’t, for example, buy an instrument or a car, cook, exercise, or know a bit too much about certain relatives. (And more than likely, wish they didn’t?)
But I can see a bit better, now, the common thread. What made each of these activities, and a bunch more, characteristically me.
Much the same way I’d read every book of a certain theme or by a certain author growing up (and still do), and drew from that streaky devouring of text as I experimented with various styles in my own writing; or how I’d hear a song once and then be replaying it a gazillion times in my head (long before iTunes, kids) until it twitched out through my own fingers on the piano, till I’d memorized it (since, after all, the concert hall of life isn’t conveniently transcribed in sheet music); I could see how the same traits I tried out as a writer and musician were evident in my everyday.
All right, so that’s me. And so what does it matter?
I think the me in my early 20s would have felt a bit disturbed by any of this navel-gazing. You want to write a story? Go write the damn story. Compose a song? Start fiddling on the keyboard, already.
A meal was a meal — more often than not, then, Spaghetti O’s or Dinty More Beef Stew. A beer was a beer, and probably a plain old Budweiser. The cheaper the car, the better. Wear a watch till the band disintegrates. Throw your glasses on the front seat of the car enough times and forget enough times so you bend ’em beneath your butt — your eyes are good enough to muddle along without them when you’re off the road.
Our furniture was Ikea. Our clothes, mostly meh, whatever. And the landlord could be called upon to paint the apartment, fix the roof, mow the lawn.
As I’ve gone from the adulthood launching pad, and mellowed my initial stumble to, first, a frantic sprint to find purpose and now a more measured, purposeful stride, I don’t have patience for the things that waste my time, or money. I don’t want the flimsy, the faddish. I want things that captivate me, that hook me. I want things that last.
In my search for value I draw from those same currents that have always driven me: finding out all I can, researching obsessively, doing a bit of informed experimentation, capturing my flailing, in the moment, doing it better the next time. And then making it the way I do things, the things that I do.
And lately, now that I have my own future acolytes (read: three sons to soak up the hard-learned lessons), I find immense satisfaction in passing it all on: the the good, the bad, the flawed, the silly.
Appreciating the Journey
Sure, there’s something finer in doing the research — whether it’s a fresh, internet-driven binge or employing knowledge won negotiating the rapids of life — to make a more-informed decision. In wearing a watch that won’t disintegrate when exposed to sun. Or, driving a car that does more than just ferry the kids from soccer to Scouts to vacation. In appreciating a single-malt scotch you discovered on a whim and savored over the years with beloved relatives far away or gone.
But my pursuit of what lasts is more than what I buy. Less about being a consummate consumer than understanding what I truly appreciate, how I want to spend my time. Rather than being driven by the rapids, I’ve found my bag of tricks to propel myself at a pace that allows me to relish the ride.
I may have come closer than I ever have to explaining a man’s progression in life to a hyperactive knot of nine-year-olds (is there any other kind?) during a Cub scout pack meeting the other day.
What I told them is that when you’re a kid everything is done for you.
Eventually, those who truly care for you show you how to care for yourself. That can take awhile.
In your late teens and 20s, after you’ve left home, you begin to figure out for yourself how to care for yourself. That can take even longer.
If you’re lucky enough to meet that special someone, well then, your next lesson is learning to care for each other. If you’re even luckier, you get a lifetime to keep figuring that out.
Then, through the miracle of biology — and even more luck than we’d ever guess we’d be blessed with — you may get the chance to care for a whole genetically-related clan of your own. With the added responsibility of passing all that along.
If I can be said to have any aspiration, you know, as an, ahem, man of a certain age, it’s not to know everything about anything, but enough of something about anything that helps make the journey more worth it.
I’ve certainly benefited from some profound examples.
My dad and father-in-law were both salesmen. As comfortable with relationship-building and profit margins as they were bellying up to a table out back, beer in hand, and regaling you with their tales. But sales wasn’t their life.
No, when they wanted a deck on the back of their homes to enjoy said beers and tales they carted the piles of lumber and gravel and cement home to build it themselves. Dad and Mom bought their first house on sort of an installment plan — we lived in the ground floor while the little old lady former owner rented the upstairs from us. When she moved out, Dad set about renovating every upstairs room in our turn-of-the-last-century house one by one and moved my brothers and me around as each one was finished, until all six Foutzes lived comfortably upstairs — whereupon he sold the house, we moved outside town and started the next series of projects to make his home his own.
My father-in-law developed his own affiliations with a favorite cigar (H. Upmann Churchill Vintage Cameroons), scotch (Macallan 12-year), work uniform of sorts (light blue button-downs, khakis), afternoon bar refreshment (real Budweiser) and favorite place in the world (Spearfish Canyon, South Dakota; unless it was the little corner of North-Central Iowa where he grew up and returned multiple times each year to work the century-old family farm).
My dad has worn the same style of Asics running shoes for as long as they’ve been making them, and had been a loyal runner in the Asics Tigers of old, passing that affinity down to me. Volkswagens were his thing through at least 10 or more vanagons, karmann ghias, bugs, Cabriolets, Jettas, until he got tired of the upkeep and repair. We’ve headed to the same island in the southernmost end of North Carolina for 37 years running, where his home is a mere five minutes away.
Memorably, both Dad and dad-in-law nursed liflelong devotions to their sweethearts, certain blonde, blue-eyed girls they’d met and fallen in love with about the same time, 1969 and 1968, in high school and college, respectively. (To my unending gratitude.)
But beyond the favorite things, these exemplary men just plain exude do-it-yourself attitude and the fulfillment that comes from it. My dad has alternately tried his hand at making stained glass windows, hand-crafting humidors and lockable knife display cases, assembling original Valentine art pieces for his lifelong sweetheart, and refinishing and reupholstering a gorgeous dining set he basically picked up as scrap at a flea market.
Oh, and absolutely killing it in the kitchen with his own especially elaborate and entirely original recipes.
Quite a lot to live up to, and emulate. But that’s what captivates me as I meander through these mature years: discovering what intrigues me, burrowing deep inside it, emerging from the other side to cherish the thing for the journey it took to truly appreciate it. Whether that’s a collection of fine or favored watches, a fantastic vacation spot, a family recipe, or a lexicon of faintly ridiculous and entirely characteristic sayings. I’m a work-in-progress, like any man. But the work means progress. And that’s what I’ll report on and try to pass along to the next generation or anyone within earshot of the communal bar where we tell our tales.