A lesson from Gary

Television gets a lot of flack for mostly being full of shallow garbage. And to be sure, most of the television landscape certainly is full of superficial humor and entertainment, mere popcorn fair. But every once in awhile, there’s a show or an episode of a program that comes along and really hits it out of the park. Every once in awhile, a show comes along with great acting and quality writing and a creative team that really wants to connect with the viewer. It’s the rare show that comes along and really hits a chord with the human condition, really makes us reflect with just the right blend of humor and pathos.

Taxi is one such show. Taxi  was a sitcom from the late 70’s/early 80’s that starred Judd Hirsch, Tony Danza, Danny DeVito, and Christopher Llyod, Andy Kaufman, and Marilu Henner as taxi drivers in New York. I recently started watching the show on Hulu, and I highly recommend it for anyone out there who’s looking for a great show to binge watch. Today, though, I watched a particular episode that really resonated within me. It sounds odd saying something so profound about an episode of television, but this particular episode really created an epiphany in me, helped me coalesce a lot of thoughts and feelings I’ve been kicking around.

The episode is called “Jim gets a pet.” In it, Jim (Lloyd), the aging, drugged out hippie, wins a long-shot bet on the racetrack and collects a cool $10,000. Being the hippie that he is, Jim uses the money to purchase the race horse with the intention of setting him free so he can live a more dignified life. He even names the horse Gary. Partway through the episode, though, Gary dies, and it really affects Jim, who had become quite attached to the horse. Everyone notices that Jim is really depressed about the whole thing, so Alex (Hirsch) suggests that Jim give Gary a eulogy right there in the garage for everyone to hear. What follows is probably one of the best pieces of television I’ve ever seen:

Part of the humor in this scene is that Jim, who is more often than not a completely absent-minded and scatterbrained eccentric, has these absolutely shocking moments of clarity every now and then. It’s a testament to Lloyd’s acting that he pulls this off so well. But more than that, what he’s saying is something that everyone watching that show can connect to at some point in their lives. He’s talking about a fundamental truth about being human: youth doesn’t last forever.

It’s a simple message, but the delivery here is very eloquent and laden with emotion. Youth is literally here today and gone tomorrow, and at the end of the day it’s best that we surround ourselves with people who truly know and love who we are as human beings, people who can appreciate and support us when the physical strength and resilience of our youth begins to fade. It’s a humbling message and a humbling scene.

For me, it really it home. In one month I’ll be 30 years old. And while I’m far from being old, just like Gary I’m starting to notice some things. The hair is a little thinner. My hands are a little more worn, the veins easier to see. I’m starting to notice that what once was easy for me now requires a little more effort. In short, I don’t look like I did 12 years ago, I don’t perform the same way. On an intellectual level I understand this–you get older and your body changes. But what I wasn’t prepared for, and what this speech from Taxi drives home, is that you don’t feel that way on the inside. You don’t feel like you’re older, like you’ve changed. You can look in a mirror every day of your life and see the wrinkles start to form and the gray creeping in at your temples, but you still feel like a kid, you don’t feel like you’ve changed.

I see that in my dog, too. I’ve had her for almost seven years. At the end of this year she’ll be 8. If she runs too much or jumps too high she’ll limp for a day or two afterward. She’s a little stiff when she gets up in the mornings now. But she still has that puppy spirit, she still wants to run and leap and play even though her body can’t do so the same way it used to. It’s just like Gary in that episode, and it’s a rather sobering reminder.

I mentioned that upon seeing that episode of Taxi, I had an epiphany of sorts. Lately I’ve been feeling restless. I couldn’t quite define what I was feeling, I just knew that something somewhere within me wasn’t sitting right. And now I know what it is: I haven’t been living for the present. I’ve been living everywhere else–the past and the future–but I haven’t been living for the moment that I have right now.

When I was young, people gave me that age old axiom when I was trying to decide what to do with my life: “Do what you love and the money will follow.”

Well, I love writing, so I decided to go to school for that. Only when I graduated, the money didn’t follow. So then I decided to go back to school and do something where the money WOULD follow. So I became a nurse. And indeed money has followed. I make an okay middle class income. I make more than double what the best paying job I ever had before I was nurse brought in. And you know what? It doesn’t mean anything. Not a damn thing to me.

The money hasn’t changed my life. You’d think it would–more than doubling the amount of money you’ve ever made? But really it hasn’t. I don’t have any more freedom or peace of mind than when I made less money. My life isn’t qualitatively different at all.

“Okay, Ryan,” I hear you saying, “But it must be pretty rewarding being a nurse in other ways, right? Intellectually and emotionally, helping people?”

Well, yes and no. It can be those things, for sure. But a lot of times it isn’t. A lot of times my job is 90% office politics and bureaucratic bullshit, 10% actually helping people. Sometimes it’s intellectually satisfying, but most of the time it’s very repetitive. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb by saying that this isn’t just because of the place I work at–it’s the nature of healthcare in general.

And so I found myself living the past. I was thinking about all of the things that I could have done, all of the things that I should have done. Hindsight is always 20/20, right? I should have done something else with my life. Shoulda, coulda, woulda.

And then my thoughts started drifting toward the future. What if I never really know what my true potential is? What if I never really live up to the full extent of my natural creativity and intellect? Is it too late? Can I start all over again–again?

But today after watching that episode of Taxi, I realized that I’m thinking about this all wrong. Because it’s the present that matters. Life will always change, that’s the way of the world and it’s something that I can’t stop. But I can’t measure the success of my life based on what I have done or what I will do. I can only measure the quality of my life by how well I live it in the present. I can’t let my intelligence be defined by what a piece of paper hanging on the wall says. I can’t let my success as a human being hinge on what I tell people I do for a living at dinner parties.

Because look at what that has gotten me so far: I spend so much time working that I have no time for anything else. Income and socioeconomic status be damned, that’s a wasted life. That isn’t what I want for my life. When I think about all the things that are truly important to me–my health, relationships, friends–a career is almost antithetical to all of those ideas.

We slave away most of our lives at careers and jobs that are horrible for our health and rob of us time we could spend with loved ones, time we could spend experiencing what the world has to offer. And for what? For things? For a bigger house? Well, not me. I won’t play that game anymore. From now on, I live for the present. I live for a work/life balance that fits MY goddamned needs, not the needs of the company. I live for me, and I live for now. Because now is all I have.

Whoever said, “Do what you love and the money will follow,” had it half-right.

Just do what you love. It’s as simple as that. Enjoy the time you have, because it won’t last, and tomorrow isn’t a promise.

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