This one is gonna be all over the place. This one is gonna zig and zag and zing. So buckle up, cause here we go…
This post is part of the Donna G Project. This is written to and for my boys.
We start with running. And not pretty running. Not athletic, sleek running. No, this is fat-guy running. Hunched and head down. Panting. Huffing. Slobbering. This is bad.
College dining halls did a number on me and I was 240 when I got to LA. (That’s a full 50 pounds heavier than I am today.) I started running to lose weight.
I would go around the block. Once. I clocked it in my car and it was less than a half mile, and still I walked most of it. The pavement was tough on my joints, so after a couple weeks I started running in a nearby park. But then I got chased by a junkie girl with a stick, so then I drove over the 5 Freeway into Griffith Park. And Griffith Park was…
Hang on, some Los Angeles geography:
LA is not really a city. It’s as if you took a real city, smashed it with a meteor, and scattered it over 100 mile radius. That’s LA. It’s 350 towns.
There is a section of LA called “The Valley” and it really is a valley. If I stood on the end of my driveway, I could look to the right or left and see walls of sandy, tan hills that formed The Valley. Griffith Park was in the hills to the right.
The park was a vast acreage of hills full of fire roads, coyotes, scrub bushes, owls, and sand. I started running there. I’d plod up and down the dusty roads and I got to the point where I could run a mile or two without stopping. But the fundamental issue hadn’t changed: I hated it. With every stride, all I thought was: This sucks. I hate this. This is awful.
One night I took a route I’d never tried before. The path went up and along a ridge, then turned down and went into a little pocket within the hills. But as I headed down, something felt wrong. There was something eerie about the situation. I could hear the cush cush cush of my feet striking the sandy fire road and it made me nervous.
Some more Los Angeles geography:
LA is completely covered in freeways. Huge 6-lane roads run throughout the entire “city”. The 5, the 15, the 105, 118, 405, 134. Wherever you are in LA you’re never more than a mile from a roaring river of non-stop cars. The sound underscores everything. It is white noise that is always present; I had never even been aware of it…until that moment in those hills.
Suddenly I couldn’t hear the freeway. I felt so still. It felt like I was floating. I forgot I was running altogether.
And after that, I loved running. I’d sneak out for long lunches from work and do a quick 3 miles. I found a 6-mile loop that I’d do Friday nights. When I ran, all my scattered thoughts jostled around in my head until everything somehow settled into place. It became peace and freedom. Running became a thing that was right in my life.
But not much else was right.
Dead End #1. My writing career was going nowhere.
My job sucked. Actually, that’s not true. It was a good job. I was a Production Assistant in Disney Feature Animation. I’d landed a job at a major studio, which lots of people would have killed for. But I wanted to be writing. I had figured that I’d get the job, become the most awesome PA ever (which I was), and work my way into the writing department. But it hadn’t worked out that way. In fact, it was impossible for it to work that way. Disney had a strict policy of only considering writers that came in through agents. So being employed at a top studio actually worked against me.
But it got even worse. I hadn’t really paid attention to all the forms I signed when I got hired, but in there was a contract that made it so everything I wrote while I was a Disney employee belonged to them automatically.
In other words, I was completely trapped. I couldn’t get into the writing department at Disney and I couldn’t even try to get in at another studio.
Dead End #2: I didn’t fit in at all.
LA sucked. I lived with a bunch of awesome, crazy, fun-as-hell guys and damn we could not find anything fun to do. LA is the most un-fun city in the US. Everyone’s so hung up on acting like they’re hot shit in the film industry that no one is even a little real or fun. It’s a land without authenticity and thus it is deeply boring.
Meeting girls was impossible. Girls wanted guys who stood on the side of the dance floor and looked bored. Me and my crew? We couldn’t ever stay on the sideline for more than a minute.
All in all, LA was a lonely, fake place and I didn’t fit in one bit – and that wasn’t going to change.
And it was there, amidst all these dead ends, that it happened.
One weekday night, I went out for a run. I found my thoughts knocking around in a familiar pattern. I cycled through my standard series of complaints and bemoanings. Why does my job have to suck? Why does Disney have to be so corporate and suffocating? I wish LA wasn’t so lame. I gotta find a way to make it fun. I gotta find somewhere that has girls that aren’t so shallow. Stupid Disney. Stupid girls. Stupid LA. Stupid everything.
I was going along a fire road that cut in and out through the hills with a lot of quick ups and downs. I found myself going faster and faster and not getting tired. And that’s when it happened. I suddenly came up with a remarkably simple realization.
If you ask people to name the turning point in their life, most of them are going to struggle to come up with an answer. Not me. I can definitively tell you the very moment when I became me. My life has an honest-to-God turning point and this was it. It was at that moment that I realized:
I could leave.
I know that sounds like no big deal – but boy was it ever. It was like world had changed to a different color. I hadn’t stopped running. In fact, I’d forgotten I was running at all. But I looked down and saw that I was going what felt like 40 miles an hour.
See, here’s the deal, here’s what suddenly hit me: It wasn’t Disney and it wasn’t LA. I’d been blaming them for months. But really that wasn’t the problem at all. The problem was something completely different. The problem was me. And if I was the problem, that meant I had all the power to fix it.
If I didn’t like my job, I could quit. And if I didn’t like living in LA, I could move. I. Could. Leave.
I had turned into a rocket. I flashed around a wide bend, charged up a peak and shot 10 feet into the air before I landed on the path and kept blasting down the hill even faster.
I could leave; I could move to New York City. I’d have to get rid of my car somehow, but…Wait! Oh my God, I had it. I could leave and live in my car and drive around the country. Then when the car finally died, I could move to New York. I could hit the road. I could do that. I could do anything I wanted to.
I went back to the house and put up a big sign on my wall.
“Let the record show that I am out of here. These are the things I need to do to prepare.”
- Get a tune up for my car
- Buy a Golden Eagle Pass
- Buy a new backpack
- Give notice at work
I listed out about 20 things and over the next couple of months I knocked every item off the list. We had a big party, and then with a car stuffed with clothes, camping gear, and books, I headed out. I hit the road and spent a year living in my car. I hiked National Parks, slept on friends’ couches, and made a lot of questionable decisions. Then one year and one dead car later, I moved to NYC.
Conclusion…right. Here goes. I know I usually end these with 3 pieces of advice, but here I really just have one.
It’s easy to be a victim. It’s so tempting to lie back into the anesthesia of believing there’s nothing you can do about your situation. The teacher isn’t fair. The ump made a bad call. I’m late because of traffic. My boss is an asshole.
But when you say “it’s not my fault.” When you say “I lost the game because the umpire made a bad call” – you make yourself powerless over your own life. You could never have won and you are powerless to win in the future.
But when it’s your fault. When you lose because “I misjudged the pitch and let strike three get by me” – that hurts a lot more. It opens you up to the full weight of the loss. But it also means you have the power to change the outcome of the next game.
There will always be bad umpires, bad bosses, and bad situations. There will always be traffic to blame for being late. There is always a way to create a life narrative of being trapped in a dead end. You can tell that narrative to yourself and the people around you – and most people will nod right along with you. It’s so easy and seductive and comforting.
But it’s not living.
At 45 years old, I can promise you that life goes by very quickly. So quickly it’s hard to believe. So my recommendation to you boys: Fill your life with as much living as you possibly can.
I feel confident that Donna G would agree.
This is me at Yosemite National Park.
This is me and Reef in San Francisco. I don’t have a lot of photos from my time on the road. I didn’t own a camera (which is probably incomprehensible now that phone and camera are one).