Thursday, June 11, 2009

Being a better main character

Years ago, I was assigned a writing exercise that was designed to give the writer focus in an attempt to better approach daily life. We were tasked with writing our own obituaries, not to make us better writers, but to make us pause for a bit and try to outline an arc of our next 50 years.

I've done this a few times since then - less lately, because my wife found a copy once when we were dating and it totally creeped her out - and depending on when I write it, the end products are wildly different from each other.

Like I said before, I now see the reasoning behind such exercises, but my frame of reference keeps shifting and the results move accordingly.

A few weeks ago, I flew back to Minneapolis for funeral services for a friend of mine who had passed away. Maggie was my mentor at the training school, where she taught me pretty much everything I now know about dogs. She is gone far too soon, but has again given me reason to pause and reconsider and try to figure out where that elusive perfect arc should travel.

A few hours in airports and on planes left me with ample time to think and as I am prone to do in these types of situations, I am amazed at how different the experience of another's passing is for everyone (and I mean everyone) involved.

There's a great sequence in both the novel and movie versions of High Fidelity where each character is progressively less interested in the passing of Laura's father. I notice that a lot more than I have in the past. Much of every individual's life is spent as the star of their own television show, with everything impacting them and not enough thought devoted to how the same events are playing out in everyone else's little shows.

While I was very much in the moment and focused on trying to reason with the loss of a friend, I also had the white noise of a flight to catch that evening, timelines for returning the rental car and phone calls to return from work while I was away. It may have been a funeral episode in my life, but the overall story of the Matt Show needed to keep moving forward, too.

I consciously try to focus on the departed as intently as I can, but always end up as everyone does - deeply engrossed in my own show. Not that any of this is bad or wrong, it's just something I become acutely aware of whenever there's a big event like a birth, wedding or death.

What really grabbed my attention at the memorial service was the frame of reference that was applied, depending on the circumstances where Maggie met different people throughout her life.

Those who knew her as a mother thought she was an amazing mother. Those who met her at the training school knew her as one of the best trainers. Those who worked with her raising money to fight domestic abuse saw her as one of the best fundraisers and bosses.

In short, I don't expect Maggie was much different than you or I and that she was the star of the Maggie Show, but damn if she wasn't one of the best main characters I've ever met. While her day to day life was probably no more exceptional than anyone else's, she did it all with such grace and perspective and a wonderful sense of humor that the whole was worth much more than the sum of its parts.

In the past, I've filled out my obituary with dreams of opening my own newspaper (not a strong business plan these days), having a house full of children (working on it) or writing well past my golden years (still on the table).

Having seen Maggie's friends and family say goodbye, I have a new goal - to be the best and brightest star of the Matt Show. To be the best father for those who knew me as a father. To be the best writer to those who knew me as a writer. To be the best friend to those who knew me as a friend and to be the best boss to those who knew me as a boss.

It's a tall order, but one that's totally attainable. I've seen it happen before.