Regrets

Since today is St. Valentine’s Day, I suppose I ought to begin with a quote from Casablanca, inspired by my daily low-dose aspirin regimen:

daily-aspirin

“Maybe not today, but some day, and for the rest of your life.”

In context, this quote is actually Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick warning Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa about an action she would regret.  This week I listened to a TED talk by Ricardo Semler, where he used another quote about regret, this one somewhat cliche:

Nobody on his deathbed ever said, “I wish I had spent more time at the office.”

I’ve seen it attributed to Paul Tsongas, and I’ve heard it used by any number of speakers.  And it is a great motivational message, reminding us not to focus exclusively on our jobs.  I also think it’s bad science.

One of my roles at work is to teach Six Sigma, so I tend to apply its perspective to the rest of my life as well.  As a result, if want to make a claim, I expect  you to show me the data to back it up.  For this quote, I don’t see it.  Despite the repeated claim that no one regrets working more, I’m not aware of any study that was ever performed to measure this–yet Tsongas said “nobody”.

The word “nobody” an extreme word.  If even a single person anywhere regretted their lack of work, the quote would be false.  Indeed, I think “nobody” is such a strong word that it might never apply to human behavior.  We are, as a species, simply too diverse.

But I didn’t know how to prove it in this case, until I had my heart attack.

It hit me at home, when I walked in the door after work.  It arrived with cold sweats and pain I can only compare to having someone drive a railroad spike through your chest.  Since my father had his own heart attack eighteen years earlier, I knew it might happen to me.  So I took a Pepto Bismol,[1] to verify that it wasn’t heartburn, and when I didn’t feel an immediate change, I told my wife to take me to the hospital.hospital-signs

“Wait, what?” she asked.  My wife was standing at the kitchen stove, working on dinner, and looked confused.

“No, you need to take me to the hospital now,” I said, and she did. [2]

Life-threatening events like a cardiac infarction produce a flurry of activity by the ER staff.  In short order I received two IV lines, an EKG, and was given oxygen, aspirin, nitroglycerin, and that blessing of all blessings, morphine.  They collected my medical history and took away my clothing.  And all this time, I was conscious and talking with my wife, keeping her calm and focused.

Because I knew this was serious.  I had researched it.  I knew I could die.  I also knew that the ER team was working on the issue, and there was nothing more I could do about it.

And as I lay there being prepped for transport to surgery, I gave my wife one crucial instruction:  call the office tomorrow morning, and tell them I can’t come in.

I know, it sounds absurd.  When your life is at risk, the motivational speakers will tell you you’re supposed to be thinking about your family, your friends, the non-work things you wished you had done.  I didn’t.

I was thinking about the things I had yet to do.

Once I moved from the ICU to progressive care, and managed to regain access to my cellphone, this pattern continued.  I spent days giving my apologies to other people for obligations I couldn’t meet.

I have had time to talk to my nurses about this, and they told me they see men do this all the time.[3]  When confronted with sudden illness, we instinctively worry first about our obligations to others, and for most of us, that means work.  The data implies that when we’re on our deathbed, we do wish we had more time to wrap things up at work.  For many people, it may be that they legitimately care about their job.

For me, it was about the people to whom I have made commitments.


 

[1] I took Pepto because I know it would cause an immediate reduction in pain if I was having a gastric issue.  In retrospect, it was probably also good for my heart attack, because one of its active ingredients is salicylate (related to aspirin).  It would have been best if I didn’t wait at all, though.

[2] Kudos to my wife for her performance during the day of my heart attack.  Some day I may have the time and space to tell you about it.  People more intellligent than I would have had her call 911.

[3] I omit women from this statement because I don’t have any data.  Perhaps someone should do a study.

I am Salieri

Yesterday I achieved the necessary emotional focus to recharge my Nook, wherein I discovered that the March Asimov’s had arrived.  I was hoping to see at last, in print, the poem they bought from me last year.  It isn’t there, so I’ll have to wait.  I guess the lead time on such things is longer than I had anticipated.

What I did find was another great novella by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  I didn’t really like the ending–it felt more like a novel fragment than a complete story to me–but I really liked the way she detailed every character’s motivation.  They felt real to me, and I think I’ve learned something about writing from it. I also learned something about myself.Mozart

I am Antonio Salieri.

Not the real, talented 18th-century composer, who wrote many fine operas, held the respect of the Hapsburg crown, and taught music to such greats as Schubert, Beethoven, and Liszt.  I refer instead to the character from Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus, who, though talented in his own right, was crushed by the greater brilliance of the young Amadeus Mozart[1].  The film may not be historically accurate, but it’s a poignant piece of tragedy.

If I’m honest with myself, comparing myself even to the fictional Salieri is hubris at its finest.  As a writer, I’m not good enough to appear in a literary competition with the Mozarts of my day.  Still, I do have some talent, and when I stay focused, I can produce work that gets published at the semi-pro level.

It’s not a living–it doesn’t even cover my costs–but it somewhat salves my damaged pride.

Fifteen-plus years ago, I remember reading a late-90’s copy of Asimov’s, learning about the SFWA, and thinking, “I can do this.”  Maybe the writing in Asimov’s has improved, or maybe I’ve learned what it really takes to write a decent SF story since then, but I don’t think it’s so easy any more.  I have tried, and failed, and I have a decade of rejection slips from professional-grade publications to prove it.

I have dreamed that someday I could sell a short story to Asimov’s, or Analog, or IGMS, or F&SF.  Perhaps I might someday hold in my hands a novel from Tor with my name on the byline.  I still hold that dream, because Rusch has given us the secret to success as a writer:

Work hard, write a lot, and don’t quit.

But when my energy isn’t so high, when a story I love leaves prospective editors confused, when I wonder if I’ll ever get published again, I see the price I pay to write, and I wonder if it’s worth it.

Because there is a cost.

When I pick up a book these days, my writerly brain hovers in the background, critiquing it.  I can’t just enjoy a good book any more.  I can’t even enjoy a movie with my family without questioning its plot, its characters, its theme.

If I find a flaw, it spoils my enjoyment, and robs me of the joy I might have had celebrating a work for what it is.  And if I don’t, I’m left like Salieri, watching Mozart do casually what I can only do with great effort.  I want those writers to succeed, because their stories really are better than mine.  But at the same time, it’s no fun to fall short.

It’s what make Amadeus a tragedy, and Salieri its lead character.

[1] It is a sobering thought to realize that when Mozart was my age he had been dead for thirteen years.