Today is my birthday. Now normally that would not be a big deal, at least to me. But this is a milestone birthday. It is not a milestone in the traditional sense – such as turning 21, or even reaching that 30th or 40th ‘Over the Hill’ status so often celebrated, albeit more like a Roast, instead of a real party. No, those days have come and gone. This birthday is a milestone because I have finally accepted and even more surprising embraced my age. Today I turned forty-two.
This is only a big deal because for the last 6 years I have been perpetually stuck at 36. It started innocently enough as I am sure it did for Zsa Zsa Gabor. At a time when I was acting and modeling, I began to notice that there was a definitive gap in casting calls for males between 35 and 49. It seemed that everyone was either under 35 or over 50. Well, I still held much of my natural youthful appearance so I decided I would be 35, again, and again. Once I was a little better known I let myself drift comfortably upwards to 36, but it stopped there, until today. I mean with the exception of a few close friends and family most people probably still think I am 36.
Now, for all practical purposes I am Joe Schmo. I have never hit the winning home run in the World Series. I have never brought a newborn into this world nor have I ever delivered the State of the Union address. And the only touchdown I ever scored was a defensive one. But, by all measurable accounts, there are about 11.2 million (US Census Data 2009 estimates: men aged 40-44) men just like me running around the U.S. This writing is for them and for those who love them and for those who don’t really understand them – or us, I guess. Obviously I am still coming to terms with this.
As I sat down to write this, I was immediately reminded of that timeless Jimmy Buffet song ‘A Pirate Looks at Forty’ in which he half-handedly acknowledges his misgivings about the whole Peter Pan Syndrome. It seemed appropriate, for that, too, is exactly how I feel. I often find myself looking back with a certain longing for the warmer days of yesteryear. But rather than lament, I am truly prepared to celebrate. Celebrate life and especially the life that I have been so fortunate to have been brought into and to have lived so vigorously.
Now, many of my peers and certainly my elders would tell you that I have pissed away far too many opportunities, that I have lived simply for the moment and have not crafted a worthy existence. In their eyes that may well be the case. But through mine, I see a life that has been rich with family and friends, a life that has been filled with adventure and experiences, a life that has been exciting and rewarding and yet, has had its share of regret and disappointments. This is my story.
My childhood was not extraordinary. It was a normal childhood. My parents John and Linda were married in March of 1968. They were twenty at the time. I popped out and onto the scene in November of that same year. Now neither of my parents came from overly affluent families. Instead both were raised in sturdy, middle class families of the sixties. And while, again, my family in its many arms was not extraordinary I can honestly say that I have not met another who has a family as steeped in love and tradition and value as mine. As I look back, I often muse that Norman Rockwell must surely have known my grandparents and peeked in on our family gatherings, for they were certainly the stuff of inspiration. And for the record, my parents have now been married for forty-two years. Actually no one has ever even been divorced. Well, almost no one.
I was the first of my generation of now six grandchildren and 3 great-grandchildren. And I am the eldest by seven years. So for seven wonderful years I ran the show. I was the only twinkle available to light up anyone’s eye, and to that end I did my upmost. Perhaps it was those seven years of sole attention that began ever so subtly to spoil the Prodigal Son, and morph me into the self-proclaimed black sheep. But no one in my family would ever tell you that. Miraculously, I still held that glimmer of a twinkle. For my many faults and flaws I have never wanted for their love, their understanding and their complete acceptance.
Throughout my life I have been afforded some of the best role models a young man could ask for. And they were right there, central figures in my life. They weren’t the story book heroes so many often dream of emulating. No, mine were real flesh and blood; men and women so full of vigor and yet so humble in constitution.
Three such men stand out above all in forging who I am today with their often subliminal messages and lessons. My father, John, is a simple man with simple tastes and perhaps most importantly, simple needs. However, he has always provided for his family in ways that can’t be charted in monetary terms but that have a value far greater than those expressed through shallow lives of so many uber wealthy individuals and grocery store checkout celebrity jokes of the day. Well read on a variety of topics and intellectually immersed in meaningful current and historical events he is the one person I often find myself on the losing side of in Trivial Pursuit. Through all of my rebellious youth, which to some degree just recently subsided, Dad has been there. He rarely yelled, although sometimes emotion would get the best of him. But mostly he was there, in my corner, with an understanding that young men make mistakes, with advice and with the unwavering love of a father.
My Grandfather, Daniel Monroe Sharpe, was another of those ten foot tall men in my life. He was the one person who seemed most closely tied to me, both in temperament and physiology. We were both hard core Type-A’s and yet we shared a bond that defies words. I recall Saturday mornings lying on the floor with him and watching cartoons and then Florida Championship Wrestling. Invariably during these moments he would effectively con me into scratching his back for almost the entire duration of our viewings. I never gave it a second thought. In all of my fondest childhood memories he is there. Not always in the forefront, but he is there. But I think the most memorable lesson I could take from him was the old adage that if you are going to do something ‘Do it Right’. By today’s weaker standards, some quack doctor would probably diagnose him as OCD, but in my mind he was simply detailed oriented and driven to perfection. He was the man in the neighborhood who seemingly used a protractor and guide ropes to mow his lawn. It was immaculate. A lesson I surely must have absorbed long ago but effectively suppressed for it is only now, to my father’s dismay, re-emerging. Like most teenagers I used every means at my disposal to shirk my lawn duties. Today, it is one of my many passions. I lost my grandfather several years ago and I still miss him like it was yesterday. Some voids can never be filled.
Professionally I owe my biggest debt of gratitude to Gary Cassell. The first real boss I ever had and certainly the one with the most impact on me. Gary, like my dad and my grandfather, was a no nonsense kind of guy. He didn’t require or even like a lot of pomp and circumstance and would just as easily tell you to “cut the bullshit and get on with it”. While he was not a hardass, Gary was exacting. Gary was detailed and Gary was thorough. He was a solid manager who led his team with an even hand guided by measurements and firm accountability. He was the management mold which cast me.
So, with all of these great role models and a supportive family in my life, one might ask “so what have you done with all of this?” Hmmm, good question. And one that has had me re-evaluating the last forty-two years a lot lately. And here is what I have come up with: I have lived. And not in the blasé fashion that seems to scream at an existence rife with the mundane and essential tasks such as breathing and eating and sleeping. No, I mean I have really lived.
I have been afforded wonderful opportunities in my personal and professional lives and I seized most every one of them with everything I am, never looking back. The twelve years I spent with UPS were awesome. They gave me a chance to work with, for and lead some truly gifted individuals. But more than anything, there were the learning experiences I garnished from my time there. Of course the travel plan wasn’t bad either. After being transferred to Atlanta in 1996, I have now visited almost every state in the Union (there are a few of the truly western ones with practically zero population density that just didn’t warrant a trip at the time, however they are still on my radar) and several countries I would have probably never visited otherwise. I’ve held a never to be witnessed again 360 degree view from the top of the World Trade Center. I’ve walked in the predawn mist and fog at the base of the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve toured a snow covered German country side and sampled a bevy of really funky foods. But UPS also positioned me well to enter the market as a “Free Agent”. I once had an Account Executive tell me that the UPS diploma was like resume gold. He was right.
So, after my little project began to wind down, I took my gold and I ventured off into the land of consulting. After a few short restructuring stints, I decided to change direction and really showcase my self perceived political prowess. In 2002 I began a short lived run for the United States Congress representing Georgia’s 5th District. Did I mention this was short lived? I mean even Ralph Reed and the State Republican party told me not to run. It took a while for me to really comprehend their message. On the bright side, I do have my name in the Congressional Record as having ran, and I still have some pretty cool business cards and stickers.
After this failed attempt, I spent five years training military and law enforcement personnel in force on force tactics. I am still not exactly sure how I lucked into this, but this was my dream job. I got to play soldier and cop without the lethality associated with the real thing. And I got to play with the best of the best; SWAT, SEALs, Marines, Air Force PJs, and special operators from all over the world. Sure I got beat up, several times, I got shot with less lethal and less than lethal rounds which gave me a clear understanding of the phrase “hurt not injured” and I’ve even been Tasered on three separate occasions – only one of which was actually for my certification, the other two were just stupid. But I was getting paid for this and I was having a blast. But as all good things, this too came to an end. I got bored or something.
So, I wandered back into more of a traditional corporate role. But this, oh this one had a corporate jet which seemed to plant me in the coolest locations, at just the right time for the event of the moment; in the garages for the Daytona 500, behind the scenes of the Hooters International Swimsuit Pageant, and skybox seats to pretty much any sporting event or concert you wanted to go to, private tours and tastings at Napa Valley’s finest vineyards. And since we were seemingly sponsored by BudLight and had our own dedicated rep and travel partner, I never wanted for a beer. And you really wonder why my personal growth has been stunted?
By some very odd stroke I found myself dabbling in the acting world. This was pretty weird since the last thing I had previously acted in was the 2nd grade Thanksgiving pageant, and I don’t really remember enjoying that, at all. But this was different and I was hooked, for a little while anyway. At the end of the day, I can say that I have truly starred as a lead in nine television episodes, one direct-to-DVD movie, and several short films. Additionally, I have had roles in a number of independent films and industrials. I have been an extra in several major motion pictures and not to be outdone, I even have my own romance novel cover… and that’s pretty cool.
The acting world, however, unlocked and unleashed a previously hidden and certainly as yet unutilized side of me, the writer. It began with subtle rewrites for “Atlanta Homicide”. Then I wrote my own episode, the one that really delved into my character. That was it. I haven’t stopped writing since. I currently have three screenplays in various stages of festival readiness and exposure. One is being back-written into a novel and I have copious notes for my next two. So, we’ll just have to see where this road leads us, but in the meantime, my creative little hobby is my passion.
But it hasn’t all been work-related living. Work just seems to have provided the catalyst in many of the occasions. Nowhere was work involved one night after a Kenny Chesney concert and too many of the aforementioned BudLights, when I successfully caught a opossum with my bare hands. Now, I say it was successful but I definitely do not recommend this. I had no idea how long their teeth were or how insanely flexible their necks could be. But he didn’t bite me and after my careful placement, Hurly, as I affectionately know him now, scurried off into the darkness and security of the brush, both of us unscathed. There was also the time while snorkeling over the Crystal River springhead when I ran head on into a Manatee and I do mean I ran into. To a twelve year old kid, this thing was like a submerged Volkswagen with eyes. I was scared shitless. Looking back, I don’t even think Manatees have teeth, but still, it was huge. Today, I can proudly say that it has been over twenty four years since I have killed another animal. Bugs and cold blooded reptilian creatures do not yet fall into this safe-zone category, nor do the ridiculously over-populated turtles that my mother has contracted me to rid from their pond, but I am learning. On a hypocritical side note: I am almost strictly carnivorous.
In an effort to protect the innocent and guilty alike, all names have been omitted from this next section. Personally, I have loved and I have been loved. I have hurt and I have been hurt. I was even married once. Wow, yeah, that didn’t really work out at all. But, uh, I do wish her new husband the very best. In friendships, like so many I, too, have been burned. And this is an area I which I am absolutely unforgiving. As a result I have a lot of acquaintances and one true friend, Major Wade Deliberto – ‘hey, Wade’. A friend to me is someone that no matter how good or how bad a situation might be, they are there. And they are there without expectations and without strings. Wade is that friend to me. Whenever I have needed him, which seems, at least to me, to be a lot, he was there. I can only hope that I throughout the course of our lives I can prove to be as valued a friend to him as he has been to me.
Life isn’t worth living without mistakes and just plain dumb decisions. How else are we to learn those lessons so infinitely valuable? Needless to say, I have made enough for several lives. And I didn’t always learn that valuable lesson on the first try or even ever in some cases. But I truly believe that without these experiences and these failures I would be a completely different person, and not necessarily in a good way. I believe that often my failures gave my father the opportunity(s) to impart his wisdom and teach his son those things he felt were most important for me to learn.
Throughout my life, I have drunk too many beers and I have smoked way too many cigarettes. I even experienced a Clinton-esque moment with Marijuana in college. Relax, it was like twenty-five years ago, and I didn’t like it. I got suspended from High School for a week one time and rather than fess up and tell my parents, I attempted to find a surrogate father to accompany me back to school when my sentence was up. Yeah, that was a really stupid idea, but thanks anyway, Amy. I even died my hair blonde in some misguided David Beckham Moonie moment. And I don’t even like soccer.
Through it all I have been selfish and I have been self absorbed, almost to the degree of megalomania mixed with the perfect balance of narcissism. But I am learning. I am learning to be a better person. I am learning to be more patient and understanding of others. I am learning to give rather than to take. Each new day, I am learning and more importantly I am applying Newton’s law that “for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” Peter Pan didn’t have that kind of insight, so I guess I’m evolving.
After our final breakup, my high school sweetheart, a pretty smart and well read young woman, gave me a poem which I think was supposed to make me feel better about the situation. It didn’t. But it did move and inspire me. And to this day its words still reassure me that everything is going to be okay, that no matter how bad I think it is it could be worse. Its simple words drive me to just keep moving forward and not look back.
Comes the Dawn
After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to understand that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises.
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head held high and your eyes open,
With the grace of a man, not the grief of a child.
You learn to build your roads
On today because tomorrow’s ground
Is too uncertain for plans, and futures have
A way of falling down in midflight.
After a while you learn that even sunshine
Burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and you decorate
Your own soul, instead of waiting
For someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you can really endure,
That you really are strong
And you really do have worth
And you learn and learn … and you learn
With every hello and goodbye you learn
So, with all of this worldly experience under my belt, the obvious question is ‘what’s next?’ To which I can honestly say ‘I don’t really know.’ What I do know is that I want to continue to enrich my life while hopefully adding value to those whose lives I touch. I have recently started a new career that I am sincerely excited about. But more than that, I want to continue to live and experience all that is available to me. I want to be able to look back over my next forty-two years with a sigh of contentment knowing that I got the best of this world. Sure I have goals and things I want to accomplish but the most important ones, the ones that really matter are not measurable, they are more intangible, more personal. I want a family of my own. I want to be able to share and pass on the love and tradition that was and is still so important to me, to give my children the kind of memories I have. I want to live up to the expectations of my family. This doesn’t mean I am going to be a doctor or a CEO, it means I am going to be happy, I’m going to be responsible, I’m going to become the type of role model that I had. I want to learn Russian and to play the violin. I want to write something really great and I want to change someone’s life for the better. And I want to maintain my traditional values. These are my life goals.
If I can do these things, I think I may finally and effectively relegate Peter Pan back to my more youthful days where he belongs and replace him with a man, a man in the truest Renaissance sense of the word, not a man for the moment, but a man like my father and like my grandfather. And that, well that’s my true end goal.