George Plimpton – 50 Years of Partying Like a Rockstar, acrylic & mixed media on cardboard, 16.5″ x 23″, 2003, Stuart Sheldon
“WHAT DO YOU DO?”
I’ve always disliked this vague question, so often the very first when meeting someone new (particularly in America). Of course, what’s being asked is “What is your job, and how do you make money?”
For years, I had the luxury of answering simply, ARTIST, because I earned a good piece of my rent selling paintings and curating shows. I was single and didn’t need much then. Now, because I have two kids who feel compelled to eat every single day, I’m back in the “real world” with a solid technology gig. Still, I often feel an insecure awkward need to qualify and explain when asked what I do. I’m in Cloud communications by day, I’ll say … but, I hasten to add, that is not who I am.
Frankly, if you really wish to know me or anyone, a much better question is “WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
I’m not suggesting you be one of those eyes-a-bit-too-wide and leaning-in-a-bit too-close types who gets too deep too fast with a stranger … but the answer to THAT question is where life gets interesting. Or “What do you love?” Or “What do you fear?” Now, we’re in the deep end of the pool.
One of my heroes is George Plimpton (1927-2003). Though born into privilege, he rolled up his sleeves early on and got into the trenches of real life. He drove a tank in WWII and straight out of college joined the illustrious Paris Review where he became editor-in-chief. He spent the next fifty years surrounded by the most spirited and engaging people from all walks. Iconoclastic. Fearless. Just the right amount of crazy.
In a stroke of total genius, he chose to attempt a wide range of esoteric pursuits, many sports related, and write about each. He quarterbacked a few plays for the Detroit Lions, recalled in his best-known book, Paper Lion. He trained as a hockey goalie with the Boston Bruins and boxed a heavyweight champ and played percussion with Leonard Bernstein’s NY Phil and swung on a trapeze. I can only imagine what he said, when asked over cocktail weenies, “So George, what do you do?” Perhaps he answered simply, “Everything!”
What Plimpton DID was collect experiences. And then reframe them from the POV of a “normal” person. He made dreams accessible. THAT’S WHAT I WANT TO DO.
WHAT DO YOU WANT?
This question is harder than you think. If you woke up tomorrow and money was no object, how would you spend your day? Now, fast forward six months, once you’ve sailed the Mediterranean, taken your Thai cooking classes and learned to kick box. Now, what do you really want? How do you propose to spend your life? What is your legacy to be?
The challenge isn’t doing what you want. It’s knowing what you want. Specifically.
I want a life surrounded by folks like Plimpton. People both interesting and interested. People dedicated to helping others live bigger lives. To eradicating boredom. To leading by example … but not taking themselves too seriously. In the later years of his life, Plimpton ran the Paris Review out of his brownstone on the Upper East Side of NYC. A friend who interned there told me Plimpton used to finalize the layout of each issue on his pool table, often in his pajamas. That’s how I want to roll. Creating at the top of my game in my undergarments!
WHAT DO I DO?
If you must know, I do many many things. I sing dumb songs, I study globes, I scribble words into wet paint, I sell VoIP technology, I write handwritten thank-yous and skinny dip with my young sons every goddamned day. I try to be an honorable husband. To keep my garden organized but jungly. To buy people a drink when they deserve it. To look after my parents.
I collect experiences … and, if I’m lucky, my collection will be significantly larger before too long.