…with a monstrous appetite for everything in the library.

In October of 1996, you got on an elevator to go up to the seventh floor of your high school friend’s dorm room. Now in college, he was your main go-to for booze when your newer friends couldn’t produce. He had buddies in the ROTC that were drinking age. You were quite proud of yourself, having gotten Daddy to spring for a pad off campus instead of making you live in the dorms for a third year (the horror!). You fancied yourself on the verge of attracting a female, as you’d taken hydrogen peroxide and dyed your hair blondish in streaks that almost looked as if you spent the summer out at the beach or boathouse instead of working for minimum wage in the hotel kitchen. Your black Chevy S-10 pickup truck, a gift from Daddy raiding your college savings in high school, still looked to you to be pretty cool and special. You’d purchased a semi-stylish Tommy Hilfiger shirt from the thrift store–it was only a year out of fashion.

A beautiful young lady got on the elevator and smiled at you. She looked you up and down, and you could see that she liked what she saw. And this scared the hell out of you. All of your efforts were working! You didn’t know what to do or say, without coming off as the hayseed boob you completely were on the inside.

A week later, your downward plunge of shame was made complete by the donning of a McDonald’s t-shirt, ballcap and cheap, black greaseproof-soled boots. As you’ve told the tale a million times before, you made the decision not to say a word to that young lady, and instead pursue drinking opportunities at ROTC parties where everyone was either married or already practically engaged. It didn’t occur to you that the same folks who brought you the service of being “of age” beer drinkers were also the ones who hung out with even older folks who didn’t bring along any cute, Freshman friends with them.

With your license revoked from the DWI, and you working off all of the lawyer and court fees in your state of shame, you discovered the main library at the university.

You’d first encountered it about a year or so ago, when you decided that you were going to be a booknerd like your one college roommmate, whom you’d scared away after the very first semester due to an exceptionally unhealthy night of binge drinking and puking all over his precious Smiths CD collection (which he played constantly, and you hated because you were still stuck in a high school, guitar hero state of mind, but that’s another story…) For some reason, anyway, you decided that Everett’s approach to college was the one to take–which, to sum it up in terms easily understood by the reader, Everett was a proto-hipster.

You sort of knew that John Steinbeck was more of a literary writer than not, and so on your first trip to the college library, you thought that you would make quite the impression on the goatteed slacker at the reference desk when you asked where the John novels were. Of course, Everett would have sniffed and hmmphed at the idea of reading John Steinbeck past the ninth grade of High School, but you felt like you had to start somewhere. The goatteed reference desk slacker probably thought you were the typical anti-library, non-thinking dude poking his head into the library only because he had a class assignment to complete. He absentmindedly waved his hand over to the card catalog, and muttered something about computers you could use to find John Steinbeck over on the third floor.

You were not especially deterred by his lack of enthusiasm for your newfound lust for literature, but you didn’t dive headfirst into the library, and make it your womb away from those oppressive college classes and your McDonald’s tour of shame until that day in October when you decided to start with a book from the 1930s on Astral Projection. You proceeded to read everything you could on the subject, then moved on to Buddhism and Hinduism, and tried to raise your Kundalini serpent while astrally projecting yourself in hopes that you might go have some astral sex with a coed stumbling about in her dreams.

You found a giant selection of all of Gandhi’s writings, and thought perhaps one day after you were done partying and trying to have astral sex, you could retreat into a monastic state of existence and help others find enlightenment while freeing them from whatever oppressive bondage they were in from their government. You picked up Kant, Nietzsche, Sartre and books for the layman on Quantum Physics. You continued your lust for literature and ploughed through Dickens, Dostoevsky, Updike, Victor Hugo, Anthony Burgess, and eyed the shelves and shelves of books by Balzac and Sir Walter Scott, hoping to one day surmount each and every one of those shelves of books in a systematic sort of way.

You ravaged the magazine section, pulling down academic journals on modern art, architecture, lit crit, sociology, political science, current affairs, aerospace engineering. You dutifully read the New York Times almost every single day.

You found entire sections of the library containing bound copies of old newspapers, magazines and journals from every era. You checked out colorful books about Gaugin and Matisse.

Somehow, you managed to also stop into your classes often enough to take a few notes, grab all of the important reading assignments, and mostly get As and Bs in every class that wasn’t especially difficult. With any given class, your standard operating procedure was to flatly refuse to do the reading assignments until the night before the test, and then cram as much as you could. Later, after the class was over, you’d pick up an interest in whatever had been taught in that class, and go back and find a bunch of books related to the class in the library–and read those books instead of reading the ones you were supposed to be reading for your current class.

It was, you thought, a subtle way of rebelling against Daddy, who was paying for everything except for your DWI fees and fines. Fine, Daddy, I’ll go and get this college education you are paying for if you insist, but I’m not going to act like I’m enjoying it or am engaged with the classes at hand. Instead, I’ll pretend each semester that I don’t care, and only do the minimal amount of work needed to pass–and if I fail, why then that’s a sign, dearest Daddy, that I am just not college material.

In a lot of ways, you were not college material. You hated being told what to learn, and you were terrified of being shot down by a professor or another student if you spoke up in class. You despised the smug, pompous types in your creative writing classes, who all seemed to think their little five-page pieces about some threeway they had the previous summer was righteous and perfect pitch literature. They would trot out the old “it’s not very believable” critique more often than you thought anyone in a college creative writing class should.

The truth was, you hated people disagreeing with you or proving you wrong. You really wanted to learn in a magical environment among some unrealistic kinds of people who agreed with everything you said, and nodded their heads sagely, taking copious notes every time you opened your mouth. You were terrified of being told that you were approaching life all wrong, probably because deep down, you knew that this was exactly the truth of the matter. You would have to wait for years of brutal, backstabbing office environments, and getting your work critiqued constantly, to come to appreciate the usefulness of being tol you are wrong and have to change yourself and your work to get better.

But, your monstrous appetite for everything in the library never really abated. You often find yourself in box bookstores that sell new books, or even Half Price Books, buying books that you could have gotten from used sellers on Amazon much more cheaply. This folly is born out of the sense you get from a book in hand that you can somehow magically make all of the information in it go into your brain in a rapid fashion that won’t require actually reading it all of the way through. You don’t get this sort of impression from perusing books on Amazon.

You will probably always find yourself, in whatever town you live in, going to the local public library and checking out a dozen books you’ll never finish–even if they are completely unrelated to anything you’d ever intended to read before you found them on the shelves.

Now, if you could walk into a library the size of your old university library, and find each book on the shelf had a QR code you could scan to take you to the Amazon reseller with the lowest bid (or perhaps the third lowest bid as you never trust that guy with the lowest bid), and you could instantly buy the book you fell in love with from your mobile device–then, you would probably have discovered the ultimate source of your downfall, a vice or addiction far greater than anything that booze or drugs could bring you. Soon, you and your wife would be in more debt than if you’d taken up a gambling habit. But, you’d have your own personal library, from which you could try to satiate your monstrous appetite.

…and take a gauge on the state of your mind.

These OTC meds have been wonderful this week. They’ve suppressed a bunch of negative appetites and thought patterns, while keeping you nice at work and on the roads. But, now it’s Saturday, and you have the house to yourself, and you could let your mind wander anywhere, or do anything you like. And, none of the books can hold your attention. The television is all noise and chatter. You’ve discovered a perfect state of being, and would love to write about it, but you have nothing to say. You suppose that you could pray for peace where people are killing each other. Or, you could go back to sleep.

You have become an average person with average thoughts. They’ve removed all of the things from your mind that made you special when you were young. Of course, you can still go into the office and perform the tasks you were programmed to do, but you can’t find a single, exciting, creative idea in your head anymore. You decide to make banana bread. Isn’t that would boring, normal people do on a Saturday morning when the lawn is too wet to get a haircut?

You turn the television back on, and try to count the number of commercials playing with people whistling in them. This is too easy. You take out the recycling and wander the yard, looking for some random piece of trash blown in from a neighbor’s yard that can make you outraged. Finding nothing, you step back inside and check on the banana bread. What you wouldn’t give right now to be doing absolutely nothing, just like this, on a beach somewhere–perhaps at a resort where it is perfectly okay to order an umbrella drink at 10 AM.

You decide to close your eyes and see what shows are on beneath your eyelids.

…trying to work with a messy canvas.

Make a new blank canvas every day. Start there, anyway. Obviously, you aren’t really starting with a new canvas, but one that’s been gessoed over in a slipshod fashion. Some of the old works will start to bleed through once you begin to introduce pigment, oil and thinner to the surface. But that’s okay. It’s still better than what you start with when you first wake up–which is a noisy, chaotic mess.

Use a tool like Notepad or another text editor to help you along. Don’t work directly in the WYSIWYG provided by the blogging software, or open your favorite Word Processing application. There will be too many distractions and cues that trigger memories of all the other times you similarly started with the blank canvas, hoping to spill brand new insights forth in the form of a dubious marriage of mind and digital ink.

Don’t focus too much on your physical condition. With each passing year, it’s only going to contribute more distractions to the overall process. By all means, don’t be afraid to erase everything and start over. Every single word is not a precious gem. Most of them are repetitions of what you’ve already thought, and what you’ve thought is mostly nothing original.

Don’t settle for just anything that pops into your head, either. If it’s not aligned with your heart, then it probably has no place here. If your heart is out of whack or you aren’t sure if you are in touch with it, then the words will come out angry, spiteful and tend toward fantasies of vengeance.

Always be better than everyone around you, even if it means swallowing a million insults that come your way. Being better than everyone else also means that you are big enough to let others play the part of being the decision-maker and winning the awards. It means you may not get to die in anything other than obscurity, but if you’re truly being better, then you can recognize the base and the selfish from a mile away, and keep them at arm’s length. If you are truly being better than everyone else, then you can shut up about all of your own petty cares and concerns, and focus on things that need to get done. Finally, if you stay in this state, then you can rapidly see just how undeveloped your own human self is, and spot immature words long before they come out of your mouth.

Being better than everyone else is nothing like what everyone else thinks it is. Imagine anyone on this earth who is labeled great, either through some amazing athletic ability or a place of power that they hold. When scrutinized, all of these so-called better people fall down. This is because your culture doesn’t have its head screwed on straight or its values in the right place. When a good man or woman does enter the public consciousness, they are rapidly feted and forgotten–like the pilot who landed on the Hudson. When one falls down and acts human, they are demonized beyond all rational measure.

The really better people are walking this earth as complete unknowns, and they do not have any problem with it.

…and it’s time to completely re-invent your story.

Maybe you could begin by telling a story that isn’t necessarily true or about you, but you wouldn’t mind if it were. You step into a room full of strangers, and you wish that you could be friends with every single one of them. Some folks clearly know how to accomplish this, because you see them do it. Not just in movies or television, where the writers have placed unrealistic responses on the lips of the strangers in the room when the friend-making protagonist walks up to them.

Your story would likely have very similar, contrived responses built into it as well. You walk into a room all smiley, and people catch your smile as a friend-making one–not a creepy one or a sex-hunting one. There is more to it than just having a smile plastered on your face, though.

There’s this sense of openness you have that is just the right amount of filtration between the inner and outer worlds, that when it’s turned on correctly (which has only happened a few brief times in your life), people know that you’re someone who would be: 1. receptive to their intrusion, and 2: not about to turn the firehose of your mind on them or leak out otherwise unseemly things into their psychical environment.

But, in your story, about you-as-friendmaker, you don’t spend a lot of time analyzing why you are so good at making friends with total strangers. You just are. You don’t need any sort of pretense to strike up a conversation. An airport terminal or a chain restaurant breakfast counter. A dog park or a bar. A botanical garden or a gas station. At all times, you are successful at connecting with total strangers–not all of them, but every single occasion nets you at least one friend you can call upon later if you need a place to stay or someone to haul junk away for you.

You need to learn to dress the part and play the part. You are like some friendly talk show host or childless millionaire–you have the airs of confidence of those types. Think of Regis Philbin, Bob Barker or any other white-haired, steely blue-eyed gentleman from the eighties or nineties with a flawless, baritone voice. You are the kind of man who wears golfing shirts in his most casual moments, and usually wears a sports jacket when dining.

Give yourself a backstory that is hardly true. You needn’t lie to others. If pressed, you can admit you’re just another marketing schmuck who’s never done much of anything except fart around Austin through most of his adult life. But, to give you the right gusto to push yourself forward into the crowd, you can be an ex-pilot from one of the Gulf Wars, or a dotcom gazillionaire vc thought leader that participates in lots of TED Talks, or a man who spent the past ten years healing widows and orphans in Africa for Medicins Sans Frontieres.

The key here is that if your story becomes that of someone who’s done something very special, you’ll be poised to start selling a very special version of you to strangers who are more inclined to help out a special man than an average one.

…ready to launch an all-American revolution.

You love the United States of America. You wouldn’t want to live in any other country, no matter what they paid you. You don’t want to see this country become China’s little bitch, a has-been, also-ran, once-proud, glory-days-are-behind-her kind of country. You don’t want to see the US economy fall behind that of Germany, Russia and Brazil. You hate all this debt as much as the next guy. You can’t stand seeing all these people from coast-to-coast running jobless and scared, or resigning themselves to telemarketing and service industry jobs.

And, you don’t think anyone in Washington has the solution. But, you have no interest in joining the Tea Party movement, or Occupying Wall Street. Because, you don’t think very many people understand what the problem is, either. Or, to be more precise, not very many people want to admit what the problem is.

The problem is simple: there is no longer a general sense of urgency that this country’s present generation of graduating students can do more, build more, learn more than the previous one.

There are no more skyscrapers to erect, railroad tracks to lay, interstate highways to build, dams to engineer and build, moons to race to, communication networks to implement, etc. All of these things are now merely infrastructure and triumphs of men and women who came before us that we are left to improve upon by degree, or maintain and keep from falling apart. All across the country, in towns big and small, nobody who invents is inventing with big ideas. If they do happen to stumble upon something, then a big corporation buys them out and mothballs the patent for safe keeping.

What would Walt Whitman say about the state of things?

Of course, there are thousands, maybe even millions of people, who aren’t sitting around waiting for the economy to pick back up so they can return to their factory jobs, their middle-management positions, their cushy liberal arts faculty spots where they were almost tenured when things tanked. There are people everywhere starting their own businesses, solving their own problems, helping out their local communities under the auspices of just wanting to help others and truly not see children left behind.

But, you are thinking of the general mindset, the zeitgeist of the collective consciousness. When people who have voices that are truly powerful decide to speak about it, they are quick to blame whoever is in office that is on the other side of the aisle from them, and claim that if their party had all the power, then all of the problems would go away. But, how many people, be they politicians or talk show personalities, devote entire weeks, even days, to refusing to bad mouth the competition and just put forth positive, practicable ideas, ideas, ideas?

The seeds of the new revolution have been planted by the folks two paragraphs above this one. The X Prize Foundation, The Bloomberg Mayor Challenge, The Harlem Education Project, The Math Corps at Wayne State, the REACH Health programs–the list seems almost endless once you start to look for it, and yet, somehow, once you get to the level of national dialogue, the conversation is nothing but fear, gloom and blame.

The revolution you are talking about starts with the way everyone talks about each other, about their dreams, their goals, the country they want to live in and want their grandchildren to live in. The endless talk of how hope is dead, America is in a state of decline, and other countries are getting ahead in every single way–this is endless prattle by politicians and talk show personalities who make their livings off of things being bad. The country you knew growing up, and the one you met as you came into adulthood in the nineties, was supposed to be a different kind of country after 9/11. Except, it wasn’t, for better or worse. You kept waiting for all of the goodwill and patriotism to foment into something truly special. Then, you started waiting for the Patriot Act to take away all of our freedoms and Bush to declare martial law and become a dictator. Then, you waited for things to get better with Obama at the helm. And none of these things happened.

The country seems to have managed to limp along, or maybe even stride along okay in spite of all the ups and downs since 9/11. It isn’t getting better, but it isn’t doing nearly as badly as the naysayers like to think it is. Instead, its simply sliding into irrelEce each year, degree by degree, as Congress and the President continue to bicker with each other while all the good ideas are cooked up by people getting on with the business of just making things better.

…from a dream where you thought you’d traveled back in time.

This dream was like a pushy advertisement: “See how real I am, you have most definitely traveled back in time to re-experience your past.” Your dad was there, and he was pushing this idea on you, as you stood in the old family home’s kitchen, watching some strange guy fix the dishwasher. You were pleasantly surprised at how real it all seemed to be. This dream had spared no expenses to make you think you were re-living the past.

Then, you told your dad to provide you with an exact year. This always seems to be a problem with otherwise highly realistic dreams–the people in them seem quite real, and they are telling you that they too are having a dream and you think you might be connecting with a person from real life while in a dream state–but then, they can’t seem to get the date and time right. They throw some weird date or time out there, or you find a newspaper lying around that says something like “August, 1, 1001” on it.

Your dad was stumbling and muttering, and couldn’t tell you what year it was. That’s when you knew it was all a bunch of fantasy cooked up by your own head or by the dream demons. The dude fixing the dishwasher got up and turned around, and looked like the Goodfellas-type witch from Harry Potter. You begin demanding to both of them that they confess that Jesus did come in the flesh. They muttered and stuttered, and the dream was over.

…thinking about Rome again.

You walked down almost every street in the city of Rome last October. You were hoping that some of Rome’s old glory would rub off on you. You thought perhaps you’d return to Texas ready to read the classics in Latin, and hang Renaissance prints on the wall. The city was going to infuse you with enough of its grandeur that you’d be able to escape to your little, inner Rome every time you were reminded that you are living in Hayseed, Texas.

Of course, it didn’t happen that way. The average Roman of today can be every bit as small-minded and disinterested in outsiders as your standard Texan living in one of the smaller, lesser-known towns. He’s indifferent to your insistence that the service happen more quickly, or that the American standing before him is ready to fall in love with all things Rome.

Since you aren’t really a friend-making kind of individual, anyway, this mostly didn’t bother you. The Rome you came to see was not the present day one, of course. You wanted to get lost in the mindset of the pious pilgrim stepping into a giant cathedral for the first time. You wanted to find yourself walking up and down narrow, hilly streets considering the stark simplicity of the Stoic-minded Senator. There were traces of a way of being left behind by a group of individuals intent on enriching and edifying their culture, rather than seeking out the most common, base sorts of their lot and holding them up in high esteem.

The present day public reading rooms of Rome were clearly created with some of this in mind. These were places where one went to learn and think for the sake of learning and thinking, rather than the average American public library that seems to now serve only two purposes: provide low-income people with cheap entertainment, and offer any number of ways you can start your own business to get rich quickly.

Maybe that could help describe the arc of development America has taken. While this country has always had its love of tawdry entertainers and snake oil salesmen, these kinds of people, whether they come in the form of a telEgelist, a “sex and bubble gum” pop singer, a reality show personality, or an athlete with a hyperinflated ego and salary–these people are now held up in high regard as the pinnacle of achievement by most of us. The feats of engineering and progress that built vast bridges, dams, rail lines and eventually gave us airplanes, rockets and computers–these are no longer headline news items. More often than not, even attempts at a nod to science with shows like The Big Bang Theory, see the characters more likely to glorify and idolize pop culture sci-fi technologies than real ones that are reported in the news.

This tells you that either most Americans no longer feel like they have ownership or can keep up with technological progress, or some kind of insidious virus has taken over the country, perhaps with the start of the sixties and the saturation of television in every household. People of all religious and political inclinations seem to be plagued by this. If it is finally driven home to you that you do not have the genetic gifts to be an athlete or a movie star, then you resign yourself to four years of learning to get a degree to make money. Learning stops the moment the diploma hits your hands. The rest of your life, you go somewhere for 8-9 hours a day, Mon-Fri, do what you have to do, and then spend all of your free time with boats, waverunners, guns, television, etc. By the time you are thirty-five, you are virtually indistinguishable from someone in your high school class who didn’t go to college and works as a security guard at a warehouse, except you make more money at your daily drudgery than he does.

What you were hoping to bring back from Rome were the remains of those eras by that civilization to make itself better in every way–one era that was Caesar’s, and one that was Michelangelo’s. Those eras were far from perfect, and you have no desire to live in either of them, but they were markedly different than your own American era in that the elites were bent on cultivating themselves as much as they possibly could. The elites of Caesar’s time were fascinated by the learning traditions of the Greeks, and copied as much of them as they could, while working hard to make them their own. The people of the Renaissance were like-minded, in perfecting art and architecture to be as ultimately beautiful as they could be.

The culture you call your own is certainly not without individuals who seek to continually improve themselves. With all of the world’s knowledge at our fingertips, we naturally have a preponderance of people who seek to better themselves at all times. Technology hasn’t abated, and there are artists who still care more about beauty in art than writing the thesis required to explain what their art is. But, the point is that the overall societal collective is one of a tendency toward preferring NASCAR and Duck Dynasty over learning anything at all. Even the so-called Learning and Discovery channels have ended their missions to provide this sort of thing to the masses in favor of garbage like Hoarders and Honey Boo Boo.

This kind of mindset doesn’t just permeate lower and middle-class communities. The people your culture holds up to be its so-called leaders, both in political might and intellectual thought, seem to be preoccupied with this madness of sensationalizing and idolizing the base and commonplace, and showering attention and adoration on youth–as if the youth somehow have became possessed with more insight into life than the aged.

Even present-day Romans seemed to have at least a slightly higher inclination to spend time in a bookstore or a museum than to be running around wondering what the latest score from the game was. When you found yourself back at the airport among some Alabamans who could talk about nothing else but the game, you knew your trip to Rome was over, and you were already back home.