160,000 Gallons of Life

Last Tuesday, September 17 was, as far as the Roman calendar is concerned, my 31st birthday.  But, time being relative and limited and unlimited only by the things we measure it by, it’s hard to say how old I really am.  For example, yes, I’m 31 years old or 372 months old or roughly 11,160 days old but I could just as easily say that I’m 160,000 gallons of water old, if I were measuring time by the amount of water that dropped from a faucet since the day I was born.  The point is, age, as well as time, is relative, it’s just a number that is representative of a measure of time that we have created.  You can’t look at a chart and say, here I rest, just entering into the middle section of life because “middle section” implies that your specific life line will stretch until “The End”, presumably 90-something.

Which it probably won’t.
You, like most people, probably won’t live to a ripe old age.  You, like most people, will die earlier than you planned, leaving behind a lot of things unfinished and unsaid and unaccomplished because you, like me, like most people, never tried to do them all.
Age, like dreams, are only relative to what you do with them.  What are you spending your time with / on?  Are you bottling 31 “years” up inside of you with 31 years of “talent” and “hope” and “fear” because you’re afraid to show anyone anything or afraid to try because you’re afraid to fail or, worse yet, you’re afraid that everyone is going to sniff you out and know that you’re a fake.  He’s not a writer!  He’s not a director!  She’s not a musician!  She’s not a photographer / actor / artist/ restaurant owner / chef / Pie Eating Champion of the World!  I know him!  He worked at Subway!  She’s a mom!  She’s a barista!  You make coffee and that’s what you do
And I want to tell you that it’s bullshit.
Five years ago, on my 26th birthday, I was diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer; testicular, Lymphoma, heart and lungs.  I was looking down the barrel of a gun and pleading for my life and swearing that yes, when I came through the other end, things would be different and I wouldn’t be so complacent about my life and I wouldn’t be bored or boring and I would do all the things that needed to be done and say the things that needed to be said and if I died with a list of regrets when I was 90 or 80 or 70 or 35, that list would be incredibly short and pathetic and would contain things like, “Eat a pizza from the inside out.”
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ABOVE: CLOCK READS 12:02am.  MY BIRTHDAY HAS JUST BEGUN AND I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT’S HEADING TOWARDS ME.
I told myself that I would start a family… and I have; a set of twins with a third one on the way.  I told myself I would start directing; the entire reason I moved to this city… and I have.  I’ve worked on commercials both for the internet as well as broadcast and have gotten my personal work into several film festivals and have worked with musicians who’s work inspires me.  I told myself I would read Moby Dick… and I did and it was the worst thing ever but I finished it and can say with utter confidence that you should never pick it up.  I told myself I would read Grapes of Wrath… and I did and it’s one of the best things ever and I can say with utter confidence that you should pick it up.  I told myself that I would tell my father that I loved him on a semi-regular basis and even though, for some reason it’s very difficult for sons and fathers to say these things to one another for a variety of reasons… I have.  I told myself I would start camping… with my kids… and I have.  I’ve taken vacations and adventures with them.
I’ve written TV pilots and done podcasts and directed music videos and had 80s parties and made new friends have started a blog and am learning to play guitar and I play hide and seek at least once a week and, even though my kids don’t quite understand the concept of “Be quiet, we need to hide,” and they just scream instead it’s still so much fun!  I’ve started playing frisbee golf and hiking and I just got a membership to a gun range where I will learn the rules of steel.  I read.  Everyday.  Sometimes out loud with my wife.  I write.  Almost everyday.  I keep a journal but I almost never read it.  I go to live shows, both theatrical and band performances.  I started a financial budget with my wife and we’ve done pretty good at sticking to it.  I’ve loved those around me because I almost lost them all.
My point is just this; first off, don’t get cancer.  And I know there’s only so much you can do about that but do what you can.  Second off, just go.  Get out there.  Stop waiting because today, sadly, you and I and everyone, we are older and older and older and today I looked at a photo of myself when I graduated high school and I didn’t recognize that kid.  He doesn’t stare out of the mirror at me anymore.  Sure, some shade of him is still there but… we’re getting older and you can’t trade in your regrets for extra days.  They’re just baggage.
My last word here is this and it is a truly desperate plea…
Shut off your TVs.
That sounds righteous and high-and-mighty and maybe it is but television is killing our creativity.  It is sapping our time and melting our brains.  We say to each other, “I’d love to do this or that but I just don’t have any time,” but we still manage to watch 3 hours of TV in the evening after a full day of work.  Shut it off.  Pull the plug.  Throw it away.  Whatever you have to do.  Television is a crack in the dam by which all motivation drains out.  I would challenge anyone reading this to put their TV in a closet for a month and then examine how much they’ve accomplished.  Practice music, read a book, go to the gym, pray, meditate, play a board game and talk to your spouse but please, please, please, shut off your TV…*
Don’t wait to get sick.  Don’t wait until you’re lying in a hospital bed to have your personal revelation.  God made you a very particular way with very particular talents and you know what they are (and if you don’t, you need to start looking harder).  Stop building walls around your gold to try and keep everyone out.  Tear them down and let everyone see it regardless of your age because you are never too old.
Too old and too tired and too busy are excuses invented by lazy people with no personal ambition.  Age is relative.  Time is relative.  Even success is relative.  But what you do with your time and your 31 years or your 54,000 ocean waves or your 7 Summer Cycles – your every move, even your non-moves, are very, very relative.  Today, take your first steps; buy that used guitar, sign up for piano lessons, research small business loans, purchase a copy of Harry Potter.
Life is too short to be stagnant and The End already comes too swiftly; don’t be sitting back in a recliner with a TV dinner and a re-run of Pawn Stars on when it happens.  Don’t be caught off guard.
When Death finally comes to me, hopefully in 60 more years, I want to smile broadly and look at my To Do list and I want the last words I see to be, “Embrace Death.  You did everything.”
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ABOVE: ME LOOKING LIKE THE POSTER CHILD FOR THE MAKE-A-WISH FOUNDATION ON MY FINAL DAY IN THE HOSPITAL.
BELOW: ME AUDITIONING FOR CALVIN KLEIN’S NEW FALL LINE “CANCER CHIC”.
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*If you’re going to participate in this exercise, I would strongly suggest waiting until September, 29th when the finale of Breaking Bad airs.
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23 thoughts on “160,000 Gallons of Life

  1. Mimi says:

    Your awesome!

    • Haha, thanks, Mimi! But my wife still dresses me…

      • Maggy Barody-Bollack says:

        It must have been ‘second sight’ or something, because the last year Rog was healthy I had the un-nerving feeling that time was not on our side; that we were wasting what time we had. I kept telling him we should take the camper and go explore, or do SOMETHING. I felt unsettled, like a caged animal – but still he went about his usual day: coffee and TV in the morning, fishing or bike riding in the afternoon, dinner and then TV the rest of the night. And not even GOOD TV (like watching “To Kill a Mockingbird”),, but crap TV; reruns of one sit-com after another that we’d seen so many times I could quote them line for line. And then he was diagnosed with stage-4 cancer: 12 brain tumors and more in his lung and G.I. track. He only lived 3 1/2 months after that and it was filled with Dr.’s appointments, treatments and forms to fill out. Now I am all alone.
        I am SO DAMN grateful that you are doing so well, John Boy – I wish and hope for you to have a LONG and healthy life so you can watch those babies grow and see our Jade Girl into OLD AGE. I love you kids, and I hope your warning is listened to by others, because you never know how long – or how short your live may be.

      • Marge, you and I Rog are constantly on my mind. The shocking speed at which that happened to the two of you wasn’t fair at all… None of it was fair… But cancer, I suppose, doesn’t care much about rules and regulations. I’ve never been in your position so it’s eternally difficult for me to say but, remember to keep moving; photographing, gardening, whatever. Rog was always so relaxed (or so he appeared to me, haha) and I think he’d want you to have as much passion for life as you could. Now. Today.

        Go to Twin Dragon with a friend and have an egg roll for me!!!

        Sent from my iPhone

  2. Christina Garrett says:

    Johhnny, I am honored to read your story. Thank you for sharing, I know it might not have been easy. It was beautifully written and I hope that your words become actions by all those who are honored to read them. “Carpe Diem” is a motto I’ve tried to live by but I have to admit that laziness and being TOO busy is usually the easier route to take. Thank you for inspiring myself and others to pull the plug on the TV and get some fresh air… I just asked my brand new husband if we could turn the TV off for one month and he, like you, wants to wait until after Breaking Bad finale airs 🙂

    Take care and live on, Johnny– the 30 year old SOMEthing…

    Carpe diem!
    Christina Garrett (Ahrendt)

    • Oh, Breaking Bad!! You’re making us all (myself included) love drug dealers and hate sane people! IT MAKES NO SENSE, BUT I LOVE YOU SO!

      If you decide to follow through with your 30 Day Purge, I’d love to have you follow up and let us know how it went!! Definitely invest in Jenga and Uno!

      Thanks for taking the time to read my piece!

  3. Shaun Van Oort says:

    This is great Johnny, your a strong man. God bless you and your family!!

  4. s jones says:

    So wonderful, your outlook on life. That is what is keeping you going, your family and passion of your gift of artistry. I envy you. I envy the passion that makes you so determined. I envy the love that you have of your children. I envy the determination that you have to squeeze every ounce out of life. It is usually a near death experience/disease that makes people realize how finite we are in a world of infinities! Do not stop. Instill that into your children. They will carry you thru the darkest of times, and in them, you will become infinite.

  5. Joe Fisher says:

    I find myself thinking back to the stupid ‘fun’ we used to do. In retrospect most of it was stupid, although it was fun.
    Live life with no regrets!
    Still love ya Johnny boy.
    Keep it up and give Jade some love for me, I miss you guys. Give the lil ones some love too

  6. Janet Boyum says:

    You always make my day, what a story you have! Much more to come of course, really exciting stuff, like a new little life! Ok, if you don’t have cable and just watch Netflix, does that count as still watching TV? Thanks for the ok on Breaking Bad and I will download Grapes of Rath, thank God you have’nt put the 86 on the internet! Happy Birthday late, Johnny!

  7. Al/Terri Jacklin says:

    So in agreement on the television!! After staring at a screen for 8 hours in the cube farm the last thing I want during my 16 hours work release is hours more screen time! Okay – ‘Sons of Anarchy” and ‘The Soup” get a free pass every week. Watching TV together isn’t an ‘activity” – there is no communication other than “can you be quiet, I can’t hear what they are saying”. Kids get fat if they given a bag of chips, a soda and a remote. (But hey – at least they are quiet, right??)
    You sent a great message – get out, get moving, play (no matter what age) and enjoy life rain, snow or sun. As Ferris Bueller sad “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

  8. Myles Haines says:

    Hello Johnny, Its been a long time. Glad to hear things have turned out well and sounds like you have started a great young family. I have been a funeral director and mortician for about 9 years now since college. When people ask me what the hardest funerals are, sometimes its the ones that are our exact age and we have had a few classmates in that situation. Another reason being that it reminds how fragile life is and that it could happen to any of us. You have looked that situation right in the face and hats off to you for the bravery to journal it and share it. You shared some great lessons that you experienced first hand and hope we can all take something from it. “Tomorrow is promised to no one”

    • Hey Myles! Yes, whenever I hear of tragic news regarding one of our classmates, it always strikes a bolt of terror into me, reminding me that everyday is a gift in the truest sense of the word. This moment is something that can be here and gone. Scares me to death and makes me sick; gotta do everything we can right now!!

  9. Amy says:

    This is very inspirational John! I can’t even imagine what you have been through, but thank you for sharing.

  10. Lisa Neugebauer says:

    John, I always knew you were destine for greatness through your voice and wisdom beyond your years … What a beautiful story of courage and introspection. Strangely I was scanning Facebook posts when I came upon a familiar face and a catchy title; my lucky day. God bless you and your family and may your journey continue to be filled with many more adventures.

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