I just saw Up in the Air, the Jason Reitman film starring George Clooney, today. Spur of the moment, I thought of seeing a matinee today, and happened upon it twenty minutes before the last bargain showing. I made it to my seat just in time for the opening (and didn’t have to sit through any previews!).

It was brilliant, often hilarious, and also complicated, not surprising coming from the director of Juno, the surprise Oscar winner known for its smart, funny character-driven storyline.

George Clooney plays a professional corporate downsizer – someone who is hired to fire/lay off employees because their bosses (mainly for legal reasons) don’t have the balls to do it themselves. He prides himself on the fact that he has been on the road 320 out of the last 365 days, and collects elite status cards for his favorite airlines, hotels, and rental car carriers. His goal is to reach ten million mile status, something attained by only six other people in the history of the airline industry. He also gives occasional motivational speeches on the commitment-free lifestyle he calls, “What’s in your backpack?”, asking participants to consider letting go of what’s weighing them down in their lives (both material items and relationships).

The film explores that character’s journey toward finding real connections in his life, after forty-plus years of being happily, and quite proudly, attached to nothing, living out of a single piece of carry-on luggage. You’ll have to see the movie to appreciate the journey he takes, and the masterful storytelling ability of Jason Reitman.

I wanted to write about it today because it reminds me of a character from my own life. If you want to know the truth, part of why I moved to California was to follow a boy. Or the idea of a boy. The thing is,once I had made the commitment myself, it became clear to me that there was no real chance of actually having the boy – nor would I have wanted it. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me from pursuing my own dream for myself.

[This, by the way, echoes a storyline from the movie also…but you’ll have to see for yourself. Go watch it!]

The George Clooney analog from my real life was a physician-turned-venture-capitalist, whom I’ll call Jack, and who was 43 years old at the time I met him (I was 27). We were in Louisville, Kentucky, both invited as panelists at a conference for biotechnology entrepreneurs. It was a fly-in, fly-out type of deal, the kind of trip I was becoming accustomed to and quite proud of in those days. I learned to jam all of my suits and shoes into a carry-on luggage bag, and found a sleek-looking shoulder bag which held all my personal items plus file folders. I racked up frequent-flyer miles on Continental, since I was based in Cleveland at the time. Those little regional jets became my familiar companions for a few brief years, even as I hated the cramped overhead bins.

Jack was someone who had “a number”. Like Clooney’s character in the movie, who had designed his entire life around the goal of attaining “his number” (ten million miles flown), Jack thought he had figured out that life as a venture capitalist was simply about setting the goal of a number. Twenty million, fifty million, a hundred million. You name it. (We were talking dollars, by the way.) According to Jack, success was just about picking a number, doing enough deals until you got your number, and then being done. You could go and pursue your cute little fantasy “passions” and “dreams” after that. This explained why he never acted on his closet dreams to become a musician, despite a real talent and passion for it. I remember the dinner conversation when he first revealed to me his “wise” life philosophy. I remember feeling shock, disbelief, more disbelief, and then pity. This quickly eroded to a fundamental lack of respect, which I only vaguely knew then was because I have almost no patience for people who talk about the things they wish they could do, but continue to live their lives hell bent on proving their steadfast belief that they “can’t” do those things. To me these people have no balls. Male or female, it doesn’t matter. To this day I haven’t found a case of a person for whom I feel genuine sympathy for not pursuing – in at least small actions – what they really want. Especially if they have the precious gift of knowing what it is that they want. Usually these people have a long list of excuses – carefully crafted rationales – for why they aren’t living the way they really want to. And once they start listing them, I start to lose interest and respect. I move on.

So call me harsh.

I didn’t move on right away from Jack, though. I had to study him for awhile, and try to understand how it could be that someone who owned four Ducati motorcycles, a house in Woodside, a helicopter, an airplane, and who knows how many cars, could still find an excuse not to pursue his talent and passion. Maybe it was because Jack did not have George Clooney’s good looks. It was fear, in other words. But how could that be? Here was someone with all the education, professional status, and now financial security to have anything at all. He had hit all the milestones that people typically use as excuses for not doing what they love. Or so I thought. And he still wasn’t doing it.

I never stuck around to figure it out. Instead I just moved on, so that I could find out the answer to that question myself. I don’t pretend to know any more about life than the next person. I just am content to know more about MY life than I did five years ago. I am about manifestation without fear. I just happen to have most of my dreams wrapped up in creative expression right now. That’s not to say these are my only dreams. They are just my current obsession, and I’m not going to wait for someone or something else to invite me to pursue them.

You see, I’ve come to believe that relationships are transient, and that the only sure thing is the fact that you are breathing in and out every day. One of the messages of Up in the Air is the imperative to have real human connections in life, and that this is a universal human goal, perhaps exactly what is missing from the George Clooney character’s life.

But the movie doesn’t really answer that question definitively. Rather it says that we must each live by the choices we make in life. No matter what, we will be missing out on some other choice that could have been made, and we may surprisingly share the same fears as others who made very different choices. It asks us to have the courage to make a bet on what is important to us, to keep learning what is important as we go along, and to keep making bets, never getting stuck in the singular mindset of a perfect goal.

The last time I saw Jack, he had two toddler kids in tow. He had come to one of my students’ performances and he had the balls to ask me what I thought of starting his kids in music. I told him I thought it would be great for him to teach them piano and guitar himself. It wasn’t clear that his kids knew their dad played music. I wondered if they knew he was still trying to get to his number, whatever that was. I wondered if they would be proud of their dad for going after his number, or if they would want to know what he sounded like playing the guitar. I had gotten to see that, one snowy afternoon in a guitar shop in Cleveland Heights, back in 2003.

I suppose I should take heart that Jack was finally able to make a commitment to something – having kids will do that to you. It sort of arranges your life for the next eighteen years or so, and keeps reminding you of the joys and rewards of commitment. Maybe it’s nature’s way of giving us a reason to stay in one place for at least one chunk of our adult lives.

I have no idea what role I played in Jack’s life. I always thought our storyline – which was greatly abbreviated here – would make a great screenplay someday. Jason Reitman beat me to the punch. Or maybe it was Walter Kirn, who wrote the book back in 2001.

This issue of life choices is sitting in my heart right now because I’ve just taken a big leap. I finally did it, on December 31st. I announced the closing of a chapter in my life, with the trust and faith that a new one may now begin in earnest. Most people wait until someone else fires them, or some tragedy or diagnosis occurs to wake them up to their own lives, but I acted on an intuition that started quietly more than a year ago. I’ve been following it and deciphering it all at once, and it’s led me to the very things that will fill the space created by the ending that needed to happen and finally did. This time I’m not going to rush, and I’m not going to waste time either. I’ve got several irons in the fire, and I’m acknowledging my desire to be engaged in the creative process as my vocation. I want to create things. And then I want to create more things. I want these things to be personal. And I don’t want to do the same thing over and over again. I don’t want to work in a “system”. I want to leverage systems when they are beneficial to me, but I know that I don’t seek the comfort of becoming part of a system. I want to be able to see and experience what I create, and for others to see and experience it also. It’s not enough for my sole work product to be an internal experience within another person. It has to be tangible. “Scale” to me means having something that can be shown or shared with many people, leaving them to their own unique experience of it, and leaving me my own meaningful experience in creating it, separate from theirs. I love watching people, but I also love being in solitude. I would secretly love to be a writer on a show like Grey’s Anatomy or a movie like Juno or Up in the Air. The essence of these is a smart, deep understanding of the complexities of human characters, their emotions, their choices, and their interactions.

But that’s another dream, for another round of dreaming. Right now, I’m ready for what’s real and what’s next.

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