Wednesday, June 23, 2010

You're Not Too Big

In the movie Big Fish, William Bloom goes home to be with his family as his ailing father, Edward passes away. During his time there, William recalls the outlandish tales that his father told about his own life, always swearing they were true.

One tale involves a discussion between Edward and a giant, Karl.
KARL: Why are you here?

EDWARD: So you can eat me. The town decided to send a human sacrifice, and I volunteered. My arms are a little stringy, but there’s some good eating on my legs. I mean, I’d be tempted to eat them myself. So I guess, just, if you could get it over with quick. Because I’m not much for pain, really. Look, I can’t go back. I’m a human sacrifice. If I go back, everyone will think I’m a coward. And I’d rather be dinner than a coward. Here, start with my hand. It’ll be an appetizer.

KARL: I don’t want to eat you. I don’t want to eat anybody. It’s just I get so hungry. I’m too big.

EDWARD: Did you ever think maybe you’re not too big? Maybe this town’s just too small. I mean, look at it. Hardly two stories in the whole place. Now I’ve heard in real cities, they’ve got buildings so tall you can’t even see the tops of ‘em.

KARL: Really?

EDWARD: Wouldn’t lie to you. And they’ve got all-you-can-eat buffets. You can eat a lot, can’t you?

KARL: I can.

EDWARD: So why are you wasting your time in a small town? You’re a big man. You should be in the big city.

KARL: You’re just trying to get me to leave, aren’t you? That’s why they sent you here.

EDWARD: What’s your name, Giant?

KARL: Karl.

EDWARD: Mine’s Edward. And truthfully, I do want you to leave, Karl. But I want to leave with you. You think this town is too small for you, well, it’s too small for a man of my ambition. I can’t see staying here a day longer.

KARL: You don’t like it?

EDWARD: I love every square inch of it. But I can feel the edges closing in on me. A man’s life can only grow to a certain size in a place like this. So what do you say? Join me?
What Do You Want?
Since writing Deconstructing the Onion, I've been thinking a lot about the seemingly simple question, "What do you want?" I've been wondering about what makes answering such an easy question so hard.

My friend Jonathan has spent the last few weeks living in a rented apartment in a residential area of Nice, France. As I listened to him passionately sharing his experiences of the past few weeks, I thought to myself, Maybe New Jersey’s just too small.

Over past couple of years, at a time of life where most people have settled in to who they are, I've watched Jonathan, who was already somewhat bigger than life, grow and change remarkably. He can be simultaneously quite happy with all that he has, and yet, still hungry, still looking for something that doesn't seem to exist: I love every square inch of it. But I can feel the edges closing in on me.

This morning, I thought about how infrequently I meet people who are really exploring and recreating themselves; the numbers are statistically insignificant. That being the case, if you are exploring and recreating yourself, the likelihood of your environment (your town, your job, your social circle, your routine) becoming too small, is statistically significant, i.e., it approaches 100%.

So, it occurred to me that one of the reasons we find it difficult to put our fingers on what it is exactly that we want is that we've simply become too big, or, the options before us are too small.

I love every square inch of it. But I can feel the edges closing in on me. A man’s life can only grow to a certain size in a place like this. So what do you say? Join me?
Family Values
Another thought that occurred to me is that we often value what we're brought up to value. In this case, I'm not so much talking about moral code (although that may be a subset), but instead, about what's important to us in general: having a good job, raising a family, owning a home, getting ahead, living in the suburbs, living in the city, having many friends, being respected and well thought of, being recognized, safety, security.

So much of what we consider to be valuable was simply adopted. In a world where we are constantly buying and selling beliefs, when it comes to values, we tend to start with a full shopping cart; only occasionally do we put things back on the shelf.

The problem is that, what's valuable to our parents, to our teachers, to our communities, may or may not be valuable to us were we to start with an empty cart.

Yet, where we live, with whom we associate, our jobs, our partners, all our activities are defined by what we consider to be valuable. Perhaps it's difficult to answer, "What do you want?" because our stated values (the ones that we've adopted without thought or consideration) are not our actual values. What if we were to leave the cart in the middle of the store, go grab an empty cart and start shopping for values all over again? Would what we want suddenly emerge?

Greener Grass
Of course, oftentimes what we want is whatever we don't have. Some of us keep it a secret. Some of us talk about it. Some of us go for it.

My mom grew up in a mill town in the northwest corner of South Carolina. At a fairly early age, she knew that she was going to New York City. She dreamed of it. She loved the lights, the glamor, the excitement, the sophistication. She wanted to break away.

For her, the grass looked even greener close up than from afar. For others, having is not is often not as good as wanting. In either case, you never know, until you do.

What Lies Beneath
Of course, the opposite occurs as well. When I moved to the Berkshires, I did so because of the work I wanted to do, not because I was enamored of country living. In fact, I loved living in our townhouse in the city: no lawn to mow, a hundred restaurants in walking distance, the subway stop just a couple blocks away, never needing a car, and so on. The idea of moving to the country was, well, less than appealing.

I now drive a half-mile just to get from the house to the road. We have two cars (well, one's a pickup truck) whereas in the city we'd been considering having zero cars. There are trees everywhere and an acre of lawn to mow. Good restaurants (or clusters thereof) are few and far between. And you know what? I love it.

It didn't come quickly, but it came. I love being able to play music as loudly as I want at 2:00AM with no one anywhere near to be bothered by it. I love mowing the lawn. I love looking out the window and seeing the mountain in front me. I never thought I would, but I do.

I think it started with the resolution to actually live here, not to just be transient here. That somehow opened me to seeing past the surface of what I wanted and into the depths of what I wanted. For example, I like the city because the city is full of people. I like Cambridge in particular because it's full of people who think and talk about what they think. As I opened myself to being someone from Great Barrington instead of being someone from Cambridge who was living in Great Barrington, I found that Great Barrington is full of people who think and like to talk about what they think.

It's been amazing to see how you can find what you want right where you are when you finally decide to.

What Do You Want?
At first blush, much of what I've written above might seem self-contradictory, but I think it's just situational. Sometimes we simply outgrow what we have; we love it to pieces, but it's just too small. Sometimes others outgrow us and we become the too small part.

Sometimes what we've held valuable has nothing to do with what we really want in life; sometimes it forms the absolute core of who we are.

Sometimes the grass is truly greener on the other hill; sometimes it's not.

Sometimes everything we want is right there in front of us; sometimes it's halfway around the world.

What do you want?

Happy Wednesday,


  1. "If you realize you have enough, you are truly rich." - Tao Te Ching

  2. I want the sun!!! Just as I'm starting to benefit from the life I have constructed, I start wondering: am I living the right place? I love the city, but hate the noices from the cars.
    I love the heat when I am in the nature, but I would love to live near a warm beach - and not to mention some mountains I could go trekking in...
    I really want to walk the camino in northern spain.
    I need a new career - one where the location would be more flexible...

  3. I want to buy the ten acres next to ours and build mountain biking and hiking trails up and down the mountain.

    I want to walk the West Highland Way across the top of Scotland and then go to Edinburgh for Festival.

    I want to drive from Paris to Antwerp to Amsterdam to Hamburg to Copenhagen to Stockholm to Helsinki, stopping to play music in each city and then touring about.

    I want to spend some time living and working in California.

    I want to write a musical.

    I want to write a book.

  4. Mark, one day I want to be in France with you and Iris on june 21th.

    They have something called "FĂȘte de la musique" where there is music on all squares in all major cities. - it's a pretty cool idea.

  5. I just love this blog and the wonderful people that participate in it. You guys stretch me in such great ways. As I read this post, and the comments that followed, and considered what I want, I'm realizing that my wanting 'muscle' is much less developed than my accepting-and-loving-what-is muscle. This is not a new realization; in fact, I even know a couple reasons why. I guess I haven't wanted to build my wanting muscle much :-).

    Anyway, here goes:
    I want to travel all around Europe, meeting the people and experiencing all the different languages and cultures.
    I want to spend some time on a tropical island.
    I want all my relationships to be so full of love and growth that I sing about them from the rooftops
    I want to play tennis well
    I want my wife and kids to take a long bike ride as a family
    I want to publish a book of my photographs
    When I'm 90 or 100, I want Sowmya and I to be the coolest couple around, the ones our grnadkids want to hang out with.
    I want to pass on the joy of life to as many people as I can...


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