When I was seven, I wanted to be a professional baseball player when I grew up. I wanted to play third base like Clete Boyer. I wanted to bat cleanup like Frank Howard. I wanted to be decent like Lou Gehrig and my father.
When I was 14, I wanted to be an Olympic swimmer. I watched the Olympics and wanted to break records by not just tenths of seconds, but by full seconds. I wanted to stand on that platform with a gold medal around my neck, like Mark Spitz.
When I was 21, I wanted to be a world-renowned author. Hemingway was my guiding light, and like him, I wanted to have four homes: in Idaho, Cuba, Spain, and Key West. I wanted to write in the morning and go out on my fishing boat in the afternoon. I wanted to put on boxing gloves and fight with other authors, as he did. I wanted to drink fine wine and know what it was that made it fine.
I have not achieved those goals. And in the ensuing decades, I must confess that I’ve had many more unfulfilled dreams. I would tell you about them in detail, but the closer we get to the present day, the more it would hurt. At the moment, it seems that the best solution is to deny that I’ve failed at them, because I tell myself that achieving them is still a possibility. Denial often seems the most rational course these days. I deny that I will fail at my now ridiculously scaled down dreams. I deny that my life is over. I deny that anybody has beaten me. I trust in denial. It is my only true friend.
Take one small example. I can’t take a large one because that’s too personal. In the late ‘90s, I invited a magician I admired and his wife to my annual birthday party. He came and had a great time. His wife suggested that my girlfriend Debra and I get together with them as couples.
“Great,” we said.
But Debra and I were just about to break up, and it’s not the same with just three. The following year, he had a significant role in a Tim Burton movie that you all know. Then he became a third banana on a popular TV series, and then another one, and now, he’s not just a TV star, but a major luminary in the magic world.
When I see him around, he says hello, but we don’t get together for dinner. He doesn’t invite me to his fabulous home. He doesn’t pass along my script to Steven Spielberg. I missed that train.
These days, I strap on my bicycle helmet and ride. I know what 100% exertion is. At 7:00, I start pedaling up the big hill. At 13:00, I start pedaling down it. At 25:00, I pedal up Hill 2, and at 30:00, pedal down it. I consider that level of exertion 100%, which amounts to 47:00 for the full course. And while I’m swimming inside that pool called exertion, it’s all about the metaphor, it’s about goals and successes. I’m pedaling to succeed where I’ve failed so often in the past.
But then one day, I surprise myself. I suddenly remember that I can push myself beyond what I thought was 100%, and at the end, red faced and panting heavily, I clock in at 41:00. That’s 110%. Then I go out and hit 41:00 every day for weeks. I consider it a challenge that I have to meet. Claire says that I seem perkier and more energetic around the house. When I push my body harder, it responds with more energy. I feel I can do anything, that there are no limits.
My high school friend Chazz (not his real name) has gotten old. He had a kidney transplant and he almost died three times while in the hospital. His most simple dreams, like performing magic at a downscale restaurant every week, are now gone like the road behind him. His wife died of cancer. In his condition, he could no longer do his job selling computers, so he sold his house and now lives with his mother in Atlanta. He walks with a cane and she has Alzheimer’s. But every day, I do 41:00, or if I’m ambitious, a 51:00 course that I used to do in 57:00. Because for me, the game isn’t over.
Sometimes, I play games in my head. Before I hit the road, I put myself in a dire situation.
“You have to make it in 30 minutes or you and everybody you love will die,” says God or somebody like him, somebody who has ultimate power.
In my head, the roads are cleared. There’s no traffic. I hop on my bike and start my wrist chronometer. I start pedaling. From the very beginning, I push push push. Every push of the pedal is 110%. I push hard because otherwise, nothing else will matter. As I pedal, I suddenly discover increasingly deeper levels of exertion, levels that, in my mind, seem like caverns, exotic and unexplored, grottos that I never knew existed, plains that stretch into a beauteous skyline, beautiful visions of the future that are my familiar optimism.
As I pedal, I don’t glance at my watch because that could lose me half a second. I look out for traffic, but in my mind, the traffic is all gone because, after all, everyone else is dead. As I approach the final hill, I push even harder, up to what might be 111% or higher. First, there’s pain. As I push harder, it’s impossible to hold a complex thought in my head. As I get up to 112%, it’s like all my thoughts are gone like a film peeled from my eyes, and all that’s left are the sealife of my unconscious swimming by. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a sitting wolf. Perhaps he is guarding me, or perhaps waiting for me to fall, I can’t tell. Below me, the road rushes by, and two seconds later, I wonder if I’ve been pedaling seconds or days. My ambition is all stripped bare
I log in another 41:00. If I were actually given that ultimatum, though, I know I could chisel my 41:00 down to 31:00. Okay, I didn’t make it to the Major Leagues, or to the Olympics, or to Hemingway’s level of fame, but I know that I could, if I just pushed hard enough. That’s just the way my mind works.