Hi everybody. I’ve disappeared for a long time and it’s been for a very good reason. I have been dealing with a lot of stuff and I realize that nobody wants to hear other people whine, but it’s been an eye-opening experience and I’d like to share it with you for a couple of reasons. One, for the sake of full disclosure and Two, to hopefully give you something positive to take away from my journey. I’ve been living a very different life than what I imagined for myself and I’ve just realized it. That’s a strange statement to make, isn’t it? How could you not know what type of life you are really leading? I didn’t know that I had been walking a completely divergent path until something unexpected happened the other week.
Recently, a comrade from my old army unit announced that he was up for the Oscar. That’s right, THE Oscar.
He had produced a short film and had recently won the BAFTA. I thought it was a hoax at first, but after a cursory search, I soon found out that it was completely real. Through the magic of Facebook, I was able to track him down and send him a friend request which he graciously accepted within a few hours. I quickly posted my congratulations and set about letting my other friends know that one of us had “made it big”. I was and am genuinely happy for this man. To think that one of us soldiers from our tiny cavalry squadron in Germany could have done something like that was nothing short of amazing. What’s more, is that the short film that he made was set in the Afghan war.
My friend is Henry “Hank” Hughes and he is the writer and director of a short film entitled, Day One. I had remained friends with most of my fellow soldiers from my time in the army, but I had lost contact with Henry after he departed the service sometime in 2011. I wondered what he had been up to in the years after the military. A quick look at his Facebook page revealed that he had pursued a film degree shortly after the army, married, moved to LA, received several scholarships, accolades, etc. It was truly amazing and I was soon beaming with pride and fascination. I thought back on my interactions with him and the stuff that we did together. He was a couple of years older than me and was promoted ahead within our squadron. He was a captain when I was a lieutenant, but we were both considered junior officers since we didn’t have a command at the time. He was given a special platoon at the squadron level on a forward operating base while I was the second in command at a more remote combat outpost. We didn’t interact on a daily or even weekly basis, but our paths crossed on occasion and I remember being impressed by his intelligence and a feeling of creativity that he seemed to radiate. Maybe it was the artist part of me that was able to pick up on it, but I felt like he didn’t belong in the army, much like myself.
That’s when it hit me. I suddenly remembered a conversation that we had in the summer of 2010. If some of you don’t know what happened in Afghanistan that summer, it was the summer when two sailors inexplicably went missing. For reasons that are still unclear to this day, they drove from a secure compound in Kabul down to one of the most dangerous places in Afghanistan. That dangerous place was my hood, Charkh District. It was like leaving Beverly Hills and driving into Compton. To make a long story short, these two sailors went missing and it wasn’t long before we had to go searching for them. The search stretched into a ten day operation with hundreds, possibly thousands of soldiers conducting a sector-wide search. Henry and his platoon, like everyone else, were part of the operation to search for the sailors. With my commander out in the field, I was tasked with coordinating the search operations from our combat outpost. During a rest and refit period for his soldiers, Henry and I got to talking in my headquarters.
It wasn’t long before we broached the subject of what the fuck are we doing here in the army. We were both black sheep; two intelligent and creative officers working in an organization that didn’t really foster the type of creative thought we were prone to.
I asked a simple question.
He didn’t miss a beat.
I was a little taken aback. I had met other people who were into movies and film making and they mostly struck me as the type of people who just drifted around in life. Henry came across as a person who was convicted though; maybe he’d make it? I didn’t make it very far with these thoughts when he turned the question around on me.
The words felt a little strange coming out and I didn’t have that immediate response that he did. I hesitated a little. I was already putting limitations on myself even then.
In the years that followed, I had almost completely forgotten about that conversation and Henry winning the BAFTA and being up for the Oscar made it all bubble to the surface. I was genuinely happy for him. He had made his dream come true and he stayed true to himself, but there was this nagging feeling that I couldn’t shake. Then, a realization struck me like a thunderbolt.
He kept his promise to himself and I didn’t.
I suddenly started to feel incongruous with the life I had. I wanted to be a writer but I wasn’t taking any of the risks. I wasn’t putting the work in. How did it get like this? I started to retrace my steps.
Shortly after Afghanistan, I decided to get out of the army. I couldn’t stand it anymore. The constant drilling, the endless tide of pointless tasks, the nonsensical orders, the lack of thinking and creativity were all wearing on me. That’s not even considering the incompetent leadership. They often made many situations dangerous and scary when they didn’t have to be and moribund and reactive when they needed to be dynamic and decisive. I was married at the time and she asked me what I planned to do when I got out. I want to write, I told her. Books, blogs articles, editorials, it didn’t matter. I loved words and ideas and I wanted to do it all. She considered that for a moment and then told me I should do something more stable to support us as a family. Our family consisted of the two of us. We didn’t have kids or even one on the way. What she really meant was to support her. If I had realized that then, I would have changed my decisions. This was a person that was supposed to always be in my corner and she was already putting limitations on my life, for the sake of personal gain, without taking any of the risks or associated responsibilities. But, because my relationships (and my life as a whole for that matter) had been so weird and shitty up until that point, I had nothing healthy to compare it to. I truly thought that she loved and supported me and was keeping my best interest at heart.
I talked to her for a bit and we brainstormed some career ideas. Eventually, I settled on the medical field. I had always been interested in medicine and it seemed like a lucrative industry with good job stability. After all, there’s no shortage of sick and injured people to work on. I was too old at the time to start medical school and we didn’t have much money, having spent much of it traveling in Europe, so med school was out of the question. Instead, I looked toward industry. I was placed into the work force by a private firm that places ex-military officers in corporate gigs. That’s how my relationship with Johnson and Johnson began. I started work in the coronary space dealing with an experimental sales model where we tried to sell medical devices to hospitals and doctors remotely. Traditionally, this had been done via face to face interactions by a field force. The fact that we were doing the same job at a fraction of the salary didn’t sit well with the field employees and they tried to undermine us at every opportunity. It was a near-impossible task, but I really didn’t mind though because I was told again and again that I was hired for my leadership potential and that my time in sales was more of a check-the-block type scenario before they put my leadership skills to use in management. Nothing could’ve been further from the truth because the company I worked for, Cordis, started to go belly up and I was cut like the rest of the chaff and I found myself on unemployment. They didn’t even attempt to keep me in the J&J system or relocate me to one of the other dozens of J&J operating companies despite all their prattle about supporting veterans. That was in early 2013 and my wife had suddenly left me around the same time. In short order, I found myself in a new state collecting unemployment, struggling to get rehired, and separated from a wife that left me with a Dear John letter.
As angry as I was with her at the time, I couldn’t see that I had subtly become my own worst enemy. She had faced me toward the path of compromise and settling on my dreams, but I hiked the journey myself.
What followed was a kind of momentum that carried me into the next few years. I still had the blog so I was working on that and posting to you guys. I got lucky and was hired into another J&J company based off of some relationships I had made at the Cordis gig. Just when my unemployment was about to run out, I suddenly had a good job again in the medical device industry and I began to make decent money in the NYC/NJ area. The issue with all of it was that I was very good at what I did and I mistook it for what I was meant to do, much like my time as a soldier. I still had this nagging feeling that I wasn’t happy in the years that followed. I was making six figures and saving a lot of money. I had met and dated some good women and had a good relationship at the time, post-divorce and I was writing on the side, just like Wife had recommended. From the outside looking in, everything seemed to be on track again, but I still felt like there was an invisible ceiling or cap to my happiness though and I couldn’t quite place my finger on it.
Then I had some personal things happen that made me think. My dad died unexpectedly in July 2015 and I lost my first patient at work two days before Christmas of the same year. Both of these things got me thinking about life and what’s important. I think I would’ve eventually put this feeling aside and gotten back into the churn of my daily grind at the hospital had Henry not won that nomination. It made me really think and I started asking myself if this is what I wanted to do with my life.
I also wondered that if I told people I was a writer, why the fuck wasn’t I writing anything? The long and short of it is that I didn’t feel I belonged in my own life. I was doing the things I was supposed to do according to other people and I had suppressed for so long what I wanted and needed to do, that I couldn’t tell what I wanted anymore. All of this was rolling around in my head and it finally come to a fine point one night in a New Jersey FedEx office of all places.
My company had sent out a holiday gift for a job well done to all of its field employees and, since they are located in the LA area, they shipped our holiday gifts across the country. I heard through the grapevine that they were giving us Fitbits and it was in keeping with what they had done in previous years. Last year, they had given us Beats ear buds when we had exceeded our sales quota for North America.
The only catch was that we needed to be home to sign for them. After a couple of days, I started to get FedEx door tags showing missed deliveries. My schedule was sporadic at best and downright fucking awful at worst. Then, as with now, I worked an average of 60 hours a week in a high-pressure, live surgery lab setting and I just wasn’t home to sign for shit. After three attempts, they sent the package back to the home office in LA. I got an email from some person in the company asking me why I didn’t get my gift. I told them that it’s because I’m not home, I live alone and I haven’t taught my cat how to open doors or sign his name. I proceeded to ask them, if they were going to send it again, to waive the signature requirement. Just leave the fucking thing at my door; I accept any responsibility for its loss or destruction. The response I got was infuriating.
“Sure thing, we will send it back out. Be on the lookout for it, you will need to sign for it.”
I simply threw up my hands when I read it because it was clear that I was dealing with another drone that couldn’t see that repeating the same scenario would likely result in the same outcome. About a week passed and, huge fucking surprise, the same thing happens again. I get multiple door hangers and no package.
Eventually, I get a call from an angry FedEx driver who tells me to come pick this package up at a location a few miles from my house. They’re open till 11pm and I just got out of work. I made my way over there at 8pm and I think it’s important to state at this point in the story that I can’t ever, in any conceivable universe, find even one fuck to give about a Fitbit.
I think they are stupid and kitschy items that add yet another distraction to our already bloated, stupid lives. At this point though, it’s a thorn in my side and I want it out. I made my way into the office and tell them who I am. The girl behind the counter doesn’t want to give it to me because my ID has my old address on it. She recommends that I go out to my car and bring my vehicle registration in because it will have my name and current address on it. I went outside and fumbled around in the glove box for a bit and pulled out the registration. My anger flared when I realized that it’s a company car; it’s not registered to me. I took a few deep breaths and then looked around in the car for some current mail that had my address on it. I eventually found a letter from the VA with the right address and marched it inside, triumphantly. With a quick signature the Fitbit was mine.
The girl behind the counter wanted to know what all the fuss was over.
Without looking up, I opened the box. I took it out of the ugly brown shipping box and turned it over in my hands. There it was, just this tiny little black band suspended in a clear plastic box. It was simple, almost elegant and I couldn’t have desired it less at that moment. I thought about Henry and the Oscar, my ex-wife, my dad and the patient I lost. I thought about the hard work and long hours I had been putting in at my job and the writing I hadn’t been doing. This Fitbit was a representation of my reward; the thing I was aspiring to and I couldn’t give a shit about it. I thought about all the money I was working so hard for, my paychecks, commissions and my bank accounts. I couldn’t think about the last time that I had looked at them or cared about the balance. I realized, holding that little box, I was working so hard for rewards that I didn’t want. I thought about Afghanistan and that young lieutenant that told captain Henry “Hank” Hughes that he was going to be a writer.
When I was in Afghanistan, I was under the constant threat of death. As bad as that feeling was, it made me want to live, I mean really, really live. The feeling I had when I was there was like standing on top of a mountain and being able to see all of your goals and desires for miles and miles away. Ever since I came back and that metaphorical knife wasn’t at my throat, that long view, that desire to really live, has waned a little more each day. Holding that Fitbit and thinking about my life, I felt like I couldn’t see for miles and miles away anymore. I could barely see my hand in front of my face. I had settled and compromised. I had taken the safe route and lived a life other people would run toward, but it wasn’t mine. I had lived the life that Wife wanted for me even years after she was gone. I had rationalized and reasoned my dreams away until it fit the reality that I found myself in. It had gotten so bad and I didn’t even realize it. I had gradually, step by step, silenced that little voice in my head that was calling me what I really was…
Henry followed his dream and kept his promise to himself and I didn’t.
“Oh, that’s nice.” The girl behind the counter said and I was jarred back into the present. I must’ve been standing there for a while. She was looking at me with a curiosity that bordered on concern.
“Yeah, it is.” I said as I examined the small, clear box in my hands, not really seeing it. I glanced at her for a moment or two and decided what I needed to do.
She looked puzzled as I placed the box on the counter and walked out of the office, but I wasn’t worried about that. I wasn’t worried about any of it anymore. I knew, right then and there, what I had to do. I had to put the work in. I had to write to become the writer.
That’s what I’m doing for you now. No more putting this off. No more making sure everything is perfect before I release it. No more waiting for permission or acceptance. I’m doing this on my own and I’m doing it now. I’m a writer and now it’s time to do the writing.
Starting now and going until the foreseeable future, I’ll be waking up before 5am to write each day either on my blog or one of my three book projects. I am going to self-publish my books and I want you to read them. No more safe bets, no more compromise. I am going to succeed or break my mind in the process. Either way, you’re in for an entertaining ride if you’re up for it. As always, thanks for reading.
P.S. Stay tuned for more posts on the blog under its new URL, underwhelmer.com
P.P.S. Please support Henry and his run for Oscar. You’ve helped me more than words can express, Hank!