35 Comments
May 1·edited May 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

Here's the way I see it, Tom. I think your gung ho description was hilarious, all the more so given your realisation that you were indeed an effing idiot. We all tell stories about ourselves. Your train one reminded me of something in one of Stephen Potter's one upmanship books. Someone was telling a group of people about his dangerous escapades during World War 2. This person had been nowhere near the front. "I managed to stamp the flaming stuff out with my foot just in time". Potter says: Only I happened to know that an ember from a firework had blown into his garden, and that's what he was talking about. Chortle. Please don't become TOO down to earth in your old age!

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I hope not to become too “down to earth,” if only because “down to earth” in my family has become a sly shorthand for saying that someone is totally full of shit! But I take your meaning. I’m trying to find the line in writing personal essays where I tell a good story while not puffing myself up to be something I’m not. It’s a tricky business … makes me want to just write fiction.

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Out on a ledge is exactly where you want to be when you're writing! If you fall off a cliff, it's easy to get right back up and try again.

I'm torn by your comment about the different versions of the story, e.g. hero vs. fucking idiot. On the one hand, I'd tell you that "bullshit" didn't stop Hunter S. Thompson from telling the story. Does everything have to be the objective truth? Can it not be a version of the truth? Your subjective truth? Because you and I both know, "hero" and "fucking idiot" don't have to be mutually exclusive. (Sometimes, it only comes down to who's in the passenger seat.. lol)

On the other hand, Thompson was very comfortable with living in the personae he created. I guess you'd kind of have to be.

I think in this social media world where we live Internet lives, that question has never been as important. The kids seem to have a lot less angst about it though. Maybe we should follow their lead and show only our very best selves? Jump the train for our 'gram; wave at the engineer at the train crossing for our life.

(I admit though, I'm not sure that answers the hero/idiot conundrum... lol)

For the record, I'd say keep doing what you're doing -- I'm enjoying reading it!

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Thanks Graham, appreciate that perspective and encouragement (as always). It makes me aware that I have this very strong aversion to blowing smoke up my own ass. There are people in my life who do this, who paint a picture of themselves that is ever flattering, and I chafe at that … perhaps more than I should. Because you’re right: all we writers owe the reader is a good story. I’d be a fool to presume that I should or could only tell the truth … though I do want to face the truth myself, to know full well when I depart from it.

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Ha -- yes. That does speak of the "on the other hand..." part of the caveat: you have to be comfortable with the web you weave. I know this from experience! A careful balance between a good story, and a story that you feel looks good on you.

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May 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

Terrific perspective presented here Tom, thanks for a nice read. I think we all want to be the hero in our own stories, and I can tell you that there are PLENTY of times where I thought I was a hero too...at least until a bit of time passed by and I was able to see the situation quite differently, just as you have with the train incident. Fortunately, in the case of this train story no one was hurt, so that makes it easy to look back with a bit more reverence on it. A good lesson learned.

Some of my own stories that had me playing the hero ended with plenty of hurt feelings, and thus it's far easier to see the situation more clearly for what it was, meaning me being either selfish or just plain dumb and unable to see the world from the perspective of others. As you pointed out quite correctly, the passage of time can sure have a way with how we remember things. I would further add that I think it's a very intelligent thing to do when we analyze our past actions, as a lot of people are likely quite incapable of doing so.

A truly disturbing version of this took place in my own family, as my mom held my birth father up on a pedestal 35+ years after their divorce. We all want to love our parents for sure, but my father did not deserve this type of feeling through his own failed actions and choices, and thus it was really bizarre for me to witness it happen. However, the passage of time really does have a way with us, and of course my mom had the right to feel the way she did even though others didn't agree with it.

You have earned the right to take a needed break, but your fans will be here waiting for your next story when you are ready to tell it!

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Thanks Steve, lovely of you to say. That story about your mom is really something! My mom did the opposite: she tore my dad down the whole time they were married, then didn’t speak of him for years after the divorce. Here’s hoping we both learned from their examples.

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I don't think I have a single story where I could classify myself the hero or truly courageous, as in, storm the beaches of Normandy courageous. Even impulsive decisions were usually the simple act of deciding to do something for the mere pleasure of it, but nothing all that significant or dangerous. Not many of us are provided those sorts of opportunities. You're an adventurous guy as I see it, and every adventure worth remembering has some level of stupidity.

As far as how our experiences shape us, especially those we communicate with others, I also struggle to understand if I learned what I think I learned, or I'm only sharing what I think I *should* have learned. Occasionally, it's just fun to share that I accomplished something or had a (mis)adventure someone might find entertaining. That's okay, too.

And now I feel like I need to go do something.

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I think your essays have been getting better and better as time goes on. I really appreciate your point about how it's hard to write a good essay if you have no idea why you did what you did in the first place. I think it's kind of hard to improve, in general, if you don't know why you did what you did in the past.

I think racing a train is an excellent thing to examine. I've raced trains before and did a lot of risky things when I was younger. I could break it down and say things like, "Well, I was raised in sort of a crazy family that did stuff like that" (which is true), and "I didn't really think my life had much value" (also true). But, it's also a spontaneous act. You don't deliberate, you just do, and I think that implies some sort of reptilian brain switch. I can appreciate something like that. I think more interesting questions are: What did you get out of telling the story like you were a hero? What do you get out of telling it like you're more self-aware?

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Ooh, those are great questions at the end! Thank you for those (and for the compliment at the beginning). Your comment and Graham Strong’s above both make me aware that I’ve got this aversion to over-heroicizing my actions that I need to come to terms with. But that reptilian brain switch … wow, that’s such an interesting thing and so hard to “intellectualize” and talk about. I suppose we all have different explanations for why we’ve taken excessive risk. I know mine tend toward I just don’t think I’ll ever come to harm (itself just such an implausible assertion).

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I think the feeling of immortality is a common reason people take risks. It's so funny how death is literally the only thing life ever guarantees, but no one ever believes it.

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May 4Liked by Tom Pendergast

Absolutely -- some deep, dark function of the brain. Only during discussions like these, I recall being a small child who would purposely dart across our small, suburban street in front of moving cars (in the 1960s) for the adrenaline rush . I can still see their grills looming above my head. What the F??!!

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WTF is the operative question!

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Well, I'm glad you're still here to talk about it!

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Interestingly enough, after this set of posts I saw an interview on the Daily Show regarding young children needing to be allowed to experience simple risks (the topic was looking at today's young children not getting enough outdoor playtime away from screens) that help them to develop their confidence and resiliency. All interesting -- specifically, the writer alluded to being allowed to play on "dangerous" playground equipment like spinning merry-go-rounds and teeter-totters. Risk/fall/get up/learn/grow/adapt stuff: just need to survive.

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I played at on that sharp mental equipment and clung to the bars of the merry-go-round as bigger kids spun it as hard as they could. Even then, I thought, "this is crazy." Now, when I see all the plastic and foam playgrounds, I wonder if the parents are doing their kids any favors. There must be a happy medium between a metal and concrete death-trap and nerf-everything.

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May 8Liked by Tom Pendergast

PS -- Thanks, Amy!! Then again -- I can count three instances in young adulthood that should have led to my demise. Every day is a gift, no?! Experience, expertise, resiliency, will, fate, or .... luck? Why me? Why now? Boggles the mind.

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I can't even count the number of times I could've easily died. (I don't know if "should" is the right word, especially when it comes to death.) It's too chilling to even think about.

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May 1Liked by Tom Pendergast

Is it wrong for me to say I'm not surprised you tried to beat a train?

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Oh, you’ve seen this side of me for sure … in fact, I do think you provoked it!

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May 2Liked by Tom Pendergast

Maybe it was because you got a bit of crazy mother fucker in you, eh? Most of us live such insulated, managed lives, perhaps what you did was your way of fighting back against it if just for a moment. I'll confess that this is the kind of thing I think best mulled over with friends while sitting by a fire and sipping whiskey out in the boonies somewhere. But that's just me.

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Was that an invitation? A little whisky by the fire sounds good to me.

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Wow, I was on the edge of my seat with this one, Tom - and I don't know whether I'm more impressed or more horrified! Both equally, I'd say.

More than that, though, this post has give me a great deal of food for thought about the message which I'm trying to get across - to myself, mostly - in what I write.

I relish your posts - always a fabulous read!

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Both equally is the right answer; it’s sure how I feel. For me Rebecca this story grew out of my desire to be very self-conscious about how I told a story about myself: to be aware of when I was casting myself in a certain light and to really question whether that was accurate (as much as any self-depiction can be accurate). What’s clear to me is that I’m choosing which character to present, even when that character is me. You too, I suspect.

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“ I just dont think I’ll come to harm”. Tom’s words.

As Tom’s Mom I have read this piece and all the comments with a great deal of interest. While you all and Tom ruminate on all the reasons why, I think his above quote hits the nail on the head, plain and simple - we feel we are immortal when we are young. It sounds good and we do it, a train rumbles by and we race it.

I was a pilot. In training for my commercial and flight instructor rating I had to stall an airplane ( sure- raise the nose high enough so that there was no more air under the winds to hold it up) and I had to spin an airplane just in case a student put it into a configuration that would cause it to plummet to the earth. John Kennedy did that a paid the price that Tom and I got away with. Then I even risked my Dad’s life and took him with me as I practiced commercial maneuvers . Was I irresponsible? Not an adjective usually used for me. Was I naive? Perhaps. Now, as an 80 year old, looking back on the many risks I took in my younger years, the answer that keeps coming back is what Tom said above. I simply did not imagine that any harm would come - I was skilled and I was competent. So I went for it and I have the stories and incredible memories to savor.

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I think you raced the train because you don't like waiting.

As other people have commented, your essays are getting more and more interesting. I've been thinking a lot recently about the random moments that alter our pathways and later on either get forgotten or "rewritten" in our personal narrative.

Here's one crazy one that always gets left out of my story, even when I tell it to myself. When I was 21 I had moved to an Eastern European country because I'd worked with and fallen in love with a girl over the summer who was from there. After a few months of trying and failing to find a job, I was down to my last pennies and was building myself up to tell my girlfriend that afternoon that I had to go back to England. This was 20 years ago, so no smartphones etc, so I'd go hang out in the internet café while she was at uni during the day. Anyway, on this day, for some reason, I checked an old online gambling account of mine and saw that I had two pounds in my balance (I had thought the account was empty).

Long story short, just to kill time I bet those two pounds on a three-horse accumulator and sat and waited as the results came in. ALL THREE HORSES WON! Suddenly I had 1400 quid in my account. And a week later, a language school phone me up and offered me an interview, which then became a job and three years living in that country. And my then-girlfriend never knew how close we were to never having those three years together.

If I hadn't made that bet, my life today would be unrecognisable. When I think of all the countries I've lived in, the languages I've been fortunate enough to learn, the way I view the world, it's possible that if I'd returned to England, back to my parents' house, lovesick and depressed, I can't even imagine where that path would have led.

Life is exactly as you describe it.

*Footnote: I in no way wish to glorify or condone gambling.

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That’s a good story, Kris. It’s funny how one turn—one bet, one girl you spy across a crowded dance floor—changes your life.

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One bad decision. One worse decision. One crazy decision. And there's your life story.

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May 6Liked by Tom Pendergast

I think you raced the train purely because it was there. Which is enough of a reason. It may not be a good, reasonable, logical, safe, etc. reason, but those qualifications are only relevant after the fact.

A great essay - though when I read your opening line - 'I sped west out of Snohomish along the Lowell River Road in my blue Infiniti G35' - my mind completed it with 'which was when the drugs began to take hold.'

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Oh my Bryan that’s the most wonderful compliment that you would put me in that neighborhood!

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May 7Liked by Tom Pendergast

Tom, I can relate to this so very much. I'll just say this. If there was an Idiot event at the Olympics, I'd have more gold medals around my neck than Mark Spitz did in Munich, 1972. We're talking GOAT Idiot status. Not proud of it to be sure but it is what it is.

I think it's a mixture of things. 1.) The whole youth/invincibility/right of passage/no consequences thing 2.) Somebody says you won't or can't do it - probably my own personal biggest idiot flaw 3.) Midlife... 4.) For lack of a better term. The Rush. Anyway thanks again. Really enjoyed this post and it made me remember that I should be thankful for somehow making it to 69 years of age. - Jim

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The Rush … yeah, I like that one. Still seeking it out!

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I admire your humility so much and I respect your decision to pause, though I will miss reading you! It's bringing to mind a time I told a story where I thought I'd been very sensible in dealing with a family member, only to have a friend react in shock at what I'd done. It took me a long time to see that I was the villain in this story, not the hero. Each story we tell holds this risk--we think it means one thing, but the reader takes away something different.

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That sounds like an interesting story! I know I’ve been the villain in a few, a few too many. Hopefully mostly in the past. As for my pause … I wasn’t quite sure what I meant by it when I wrote it, but I think I know now: I’m really just pausing from trying to ascertain the precise reasons why I do things, my motivations, and just allowing a story to be a story. I was driving myself a bit mad with this whole free will question. Does it really even matter?

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