I approached the counter with the same enthusiasm of a convict stepping-up to the gallows on a Monday morning.
“Are you hiring?” I asked, praying for a ‘no’.
“You have to apply through corporate,” said the twenty-something skinny barista with purple, spiked hair and enough inky tattoos on his arms to fill a comic book. “Just go on our website. Can I get you anything?”
I had swung by the downtown’s Starbucks right after my second interview at T.J. Maxx where I made the mistake of complimenting the manager (30 years my junior) on her dazzling green eyes. I immediately sensed her discomfort and knew then I had blown my chances at a $12/hour job as a warehouse clerk (thanks Harvey Weinstein!).
I’m not creepy; simply gallant, but it seems our world is done with chivalry.
I guess you can say I’m a rare bird rapidly sliding towards extinction in an environment intolerant of my maladaptive quirks.
Given my predicament, splurging on a Grande Latte was an extravagance but I did it anyway, and sat down by a window to warm myself with the rays of a radiant autumn sun.
The first two volumes of my Memoir had been harvesting rejections at a steady trickle, then tapered to punctuated drops with the same insanity-producing effect as Chinese water torture.
Once again, I had painted myself into a tight corner, but now, my life-spring is timeworn; creaky and rapidly rusting. At 56, I do not have the same “bounce-back” I once had.
Flight and return to my previous life are nonstarters. Two years ago, I gave up the little I had to reinvent myself. Like Hernan Cortez at the start of his conquest, I also burned my ships.
The point of no return.
Would be the deathblow to a yearning I’d been denying since I was eight-years old.
Poet Mary Oliver says that the most regretful people on earth are those that felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave it neither power nor time.
I do not wish to die with that regret.
But here’s the thing, Mary, I have given it my power and time, and look: I have nothing to show but thirty-thousand dollars in debt and five-hundred pages chronicling my life, my loves, and my existential tumult spilling out from the wastebaskets of 150 literary agents.
“To crack the Memoir market,” said one, “you have to be a celebrity, or a villain.”
“So either a Kardashian or O.J. Simpson,” I replied, in a thin voice of dejection, laced with scorn.
“Pretty much. How big is your social media following by the way?”
“What? I’m supposed to be a writer!”
“I know…times have changed.”
Continuing the saga of my tribulations through life would squarely fit the definition of insanity no matter how much I believe my experiences can serve as a lighthouse to warn others of the dangers ahead. My beacon is shrouded in fog. More shipwrecks lie in store.
I was half-done with my coffee feeling the weight of my distress crushing my chest to the point of asphyxia. Everyone around me was sternly busy on laptops, swiping cell-phones, having animated phone conversations, while my gaze was transfixed by a quivering blaze of golden leaves against an indigo sky.
The tree’s flaxen hue must’ve have been what made me think of the Blonde Beast: Reinhard Heydrich, Chief Architect of the Holocaust.
A week before, I watched ‘Hitler’s Circle of Evil’ on Netflix and researched Heydrich’s background. His story was the proverbial drop that overflowed the glass I’d been filling with tales of atrocities committed by men who suffered severe trauma in boyhood.
Bullied, tormented, and humiliated all though early adulthood, Reinhard exacted his revenge on six million Jews.
The pattern was clear.
From Spain’s Francisco Franco, Stalin in Russia, Italian strongman Mussolini, Hitler of course, and now “Hangman Heydrich,” their stories blended their blood-stained colors with the ones of most perpetrators of mass shootings in America into one horrific, telltale canvas: wounded boys committing violence not knowing what else to do with their suffering.
Trying to contribute solutions to what many call a “Boy Crisis,” I had published two articles on the matter but they were not making headway. I had gone as far as linking climate change to men’s estrangement from their carnal selves, to ancient stories about nature and the feminine, and to our love affair with the myth of progress. Once again, my beacon was not reaching those at the helm.
That’s when the seed for my current book was first planted; a new call to a hero’s quest.
If the commanders of the ships are blind, my beacon must shine on the crew. Why not speak directly to boys and try to save as many as I can?
About the only messages boys are receiving today are: “You are not wanted, nor needed.” “You’re toxic!”
Google search predicts the future: four times as many searches for “foods to eat to conceive a girl” than “foods to eat to conceive a boy.” — from ‘The Boy Crisis’ by Warren Farrell, PhD, and John Gray, PhD.
I left Starbucks electrified, imagining my book in the hands of thousands of boys across the world; imagining a “Blonde Beast” in the making and my message reaching him just in time to save him and those about to be slain by his suffering.
The seed germinated on the morning of the new year after I stumbled upon this quote by Austrian psychologist Alfred Adler: “A man of genius is primarily a man of supreme usefulness.”
The Hero’s Journey
We all want to be heroes and save the world, but how?
First, let me swat-dead the images of a hero now flying inside your head wearing tight, red underpants or ejecting spiderwebs from their wrists. Those are super heroes.
At origin, the word “hero” means “defender” “protector;” from the root *ser-, from which we get the word “servant.”
How does a hero start on his journey in service to the world?
For Harry Potter it was pretty straightforward.
In the first book, we find Harry in his ordinary world, living under the staircase at his uncle Vernon’s house or Privet Lane. Harry had been taken there after his parents were murdered by Lord Voldemort.
Owls deliver letters inviting Harry to join the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Uncle Vernon tears-up and burns them before Harry has a chance to read them. The letters keep coming, so uncle Vernon decides to take Harry to hide in a ramshackle cottage perched on a rock out at sea.
There, at the stroke of midnight on Harry’s 11th birthday, the giant Rubeus Hagrid knocks down the door of the cottage. “You are a wizard,” he tells the wide-eyed, bespectacled boy, and takes him out of his ordinary world to begin his hero’s journey.
What about Star Wars?
In Episode IV, ‘A New Hope,’ we find the main character, young Luke Skywalker, in his ordinary world, farming on the desert planet Tatooine. Like Harry Potter, Luke also lives with his uncle who took him in after his mother died and his father turned to the dark side. His father is none other than Darth Vader.
As the story begins, a battle in space rages between the evil powers of darkness (the Galactic Empire) and the forces of good (the Rebel Alliance).
Luke’s twin sister, Leia, is princess of planet Alderaan and has been captured by Darth Vader. Neither Luke or Leia knew then that Darth Vader was their father. Leia sends a plea for help to Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi on the planet Tatooine. A Jedi is a member of a mystical knightly order trained to guard peace and justice in the Universe. A servant of justice, in other words.
Leia’s message reaches Luke instead.
When Luke sees the message projected in a hologram by his droid R2-D2, he is drawn into a quest to rescue his sister and ultimately save the galaxy.
R2-D2 leads Luke to Obi-Wan who tells Luke he must come with him to Alderaan to learn about the ‘Force.’ Luke refuses this first call to adventure and tells Obi-Wan he cannot go with him and returns home. When he does, he sees that his home has been destroyed — the point of no return. He goes back to Obi-Wan and agrees to go with him and learn about the Force and become a Jedi.
So much for books and movies. But what about in real life?
In the real world, one’s destiny doesn’t make house calls with cute droids delivering messages or giants breaking down doors.
How then does a hero’s journey begin in the real world?
For me, it started at a small town’s Starbucks. Like Skywalker, my previous home lay in cinders and ashes. I had no choice but to answer the call born from my frustration with the dispiriting messages the world is sending our boys.
For Mahatma Gandhi it started when he was thrown out of a first-class railway compartment and beaten up by a white stagecoach driver after refusing to give up his seat for a European passenger.
The seed of the civil rights movement was planted in Martin Luther King Jr. when he lost his best friend at age six. His friend was white; his father prohibited him from playing with Martin. The call grew louder the day he and his teacher were ordered by a bus driver to stand so that white passengers could sit down. King initially refused but complied after his teacher told him that he would be breaking the law if he did not submit. During this incident, King said that he was “the angriest I have ever been in my life.”
Anger was the fuel that led 15 year old Greta Thunberg to go on strike, leave school, and sit in front of the Swedish parliament to demand that adults stop talking and start doing something to avert what she believes is the greatest calamity confronting humankind: climate change.
Next to her, she had a stack of leaflets which read:
We kids don’t do what you tell us to do. We do as you do. And since you grown-ups don’t give a shit about my future, I won’t either. My name is Greta and I’m in ninth grade. And I refuse school for the climate until the Swedish general election.
The seed of Greta’s hero’s journey was planted when she was nine years old and in the third grade.
She said teachers were always talking about how kids should turn off lights, save water, and not throw out food. When she asked why, they told her about climate change.
“I found this strange,” she remembers thinking at the time. “If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and wouldn’t be talking about anything else. As soon as you’d turn on the TV, everything would be about this issue. Headlines, radio, newspapers…you would never read or hear about anything else. But this wasn’t happening.”
You should know that Greta doesn’t have any superpowers except one: she is autistic.
“For those of us on the spectrum,” she says, “almost everything is black or white. We aren’t very good at lying and we usually don’t enjoy participating in the social game. I think, in many ways, we autistic are the normal ones and the rest of the people are pretty strange.”
Like Gandhi, Greta first became the change she wanted to see in the world.
She became convinced eating meat was bad for the environment, so she stopped. She learned that buying stuff we don’t need harms our planet, so she stopped buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. Greta felt flying in airplanes was also environmentally unfriendly, so she stopped and convinced her parents to do so as well. Her family installed solar batteries in their house, grow their own vegetables, and own an electric car they only use when necessary; the rest of the time they get around on bikes.
In January of 2019, she spoke at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland. While many of the ‘movers and shakers’ at Davos arrived by jet, Greta rode the train for 32 hours from her hometown. Once she got there, instead of staying at a hotel, she camped out in zero degree weather.
When she was asked where she got the strength to speak in front of the world’s richest people, Greta said she harnesses her rage. “I used to be angry at these people,” she told a reporter, but now I’m not angry at them anymore … I’ve sort of transformed that anger into doing things, so I use my anger as a sort of fuel.”
Inspired by Greta, more than a million school children around the world skipped school on March 15 and went out to the streets to add their voices in support of Greta’s hero’s journey.
Frustration, a sense of injustice, anger…these are the giants trying to break down the doors of our indifference.
There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man, someone standing with a hammer, continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people. Anton Chekhov
Who is tapping at your door? What bugs you?
For nine-year old Gabrielle Vaughn it was the story of a little girl at her elementary school who was feeling lonely. This bugged her and made her ask this question: “How would I feel if I was in that position?”
Gabrielle stepped into the little girl’s shoes and felt her sadness. “If you don’t want to feel that way, you need to do something about it.”
And she did.
Gabrielle heard about the ‘Buddy Bench’ which helps bring kids together and feel more included. Together with her teachers, she worked to get her school a bench of its own.
“It’s not just a regular, old bench where you can sit and eat your lunch,” Gabrielle says. “It’s a bench where you can make friends.”
The idea is quite simple: when a child sits alone on the bench, that’s when a classmate goes ask him to play.
Two thousand buddy benches have popped-up across the country, many of them placed in schools by students like Gabrielle. Written on the bench she helped install is this message: “A friend is only a seat away.”
Aristotle said that one’s vocation lies at the intersection of one’s talents and the needs of the world.
Look around you, find that sweet-spot, and start your hero’s journey.
It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering, I tell boys in my book:
Helping a blind man cross the street because you have the power of vision is a heroic act. Helping a friend with his math homework because you’re good with numbers is the act of a hero. Cooking dinner for the homeless in your neighborhood because you love to cook is heroic. If you make just one positive difference, you’re a hero.”