Idiot of the Later; Genius of the Now

Idiot of the Later; Genius of the Now February 17, 2011

It feels weird to have lately made my blog so much about me personally. But I suppose that’s all a blog really is anyway.

But having come this far, I find that I do now want to share with you the biggest way in which my childhood affected me. (For those new here, see, for a very quick wrap-up of my childhood, The 10 Biggest Things That Ever Happened to Me.)

Because of the way that as a child the main players in my life changed so much (dad disappearing; mom disappearing; dad reappearing; sister disappearing), the one true fact about life that permanently permeated itself throughout the entirety of my consciousness was that things change.

Everything is fluid. Nothing remains. What is won’t be.

People leave.

This core, informing conviction that all changes always had two majorly significant impacts on the way I think and live. One of those impacts is negative; the other is positive.

The negative effect of having little to no sense of the permanent in life is that I’m the worst ever at anything resembling long-term planning. It didn’t even occur to me, for instance, to think of planing ahead for college. At the end of my senior year of high school I had at least one extremely significant scholarship offer on the table (born of my theater work); and I at least liked the idea of continuing to avoid real life by staying in school. But it never occurred to me that you have to do stuff to end up in college—that, six months out, you’re supposed to fill out forms, and … call people and stuff. I never made plans for lunch, much less for the rest of my life. When I met my future wife, I’d never reconciled any of my bank statements, or done my taxes—even though by then I’d been working and living on my own for six years. Later in life, I did go to college, full-time—but didn’t take a degree, since I only took the classes I wanted. It’s why, at thirty-eight, I was making eleven dollars an hour working a job a teenager should have. It’s why I didn’t own a home until I was fifty. I just don’t care about money. My attitude has always been that as long as I have enough money for today, I’m good. And if I don’t have enough money for today, I adjust my needs until they match whatever money I do have—and I’m good again. Great for living out in the wild, in prison, or on the streets. Pretty lame for regular life, though.

The positive impact of the way my consciousness was formed is that I am (if I can say it myself) a genius of the now. Now, I get. I’m Joe in the Moment. I have this really deep, abiding conviction that everything worth knowing is present within every moment. You just have to not try to change the moment, is all; to find the everything that any given moment has to offer, you simply have to park yourself in and on it—to trust that moment, hear it, let it unfold for you. Dive! dive! dive! is my motto. It’s why, at such a very young age (ten), I became as enamored as I did of Zen Buddhism—a love that continues to this day. (And yes, calm down: I’m a Christian.) I get that philosophical system; Zen is the language I naturally speak. It’s also why I was a good actor; you cannot get more in the moment than acting. It’s why I’m basically such a slave to art; appreciating and even creating art is all about the moment.

It’s definitely why I write. Writing is nothing if not about sinking into and exploring a moment outside of any context but that moment. I was born to write, basically. And I’ve always known it.

And now you know a bit of why that is.

So … yeah.

More stuff about me personally. What a thrill for you this must all be.

Do you think that any of the big things that were sort of imprinted on you as a kid led you to experience life, yourself, and others in the profoundly unique way that you do or have? If so, share! It’s so interesting, isn’t it, the way we’re all formed?

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  • RayC

    Yes! Like you, I have never, and I mean, never planned for the future. Until recently. I’m not sure I even lived in the moment. I was raised by a Jehovah’s Witness mother and an Irish Catholic father. Ostensibly, I was raised Catholic, but my mother is the one who really held court with my sister and me as we were growing up.

    The idea that the end of the world was “just around the corner” permeated everything in my life. I wondered, seriously, if I’d even make it to 17 in order to get my driver’s license, something I really wanted bad. I left the Catholic faith to join the Witnesses in my 20s, only to get disfellowshipped at the age of 30. I entered college to get a degree in philosophy. Afterward, i drifted around, as you can imagine a degree in philosophy is negatively marketable and I was still sans life plan.

    It was really only until I got married in my mid 40s that I began to *get* the future. It was the understanding of the gravity of responsibility for another person that the future began to mean something to me, that and the complete shedding of the apocalyptic state of mind, which isn’t as easy to get rid of as you’d think.

    So, yes, I related to your blog post very much. And thanks for being as honest as you are…!


  • God, that is so interesting. Amazing. And yeah, it’s true, isn’t it: as you age, these sorts of imbalances naturally correct themselves. When you’re 20 and 30, you can sort of AFFORD to never think of the future; when you’re 40 and 50, the future isn’t quite as distant a concept as it once was, and you start to get more serious about tomorrow. But, yeah! Great stuff, Ray. Thanks for sharing.

  • Ray, I’m in that drifting stage now – my useless degree is in Greek & Latin. I always structured my concept of the future around going to university, and now that I’ve graduated I’m completely clueless.

    I think, deep down, I always believed that the zombie apocalypse / plague that wipes out nine-tenths of humanity / dramatic climate-change disaster would happen before I ever needed to, you know, find a career. My generation imbibed the narrative of world-shattering climate change alongside our baby formula, and frankly I’m surprised to have made it to the age of 22 without being cast adrift in a post-disaster landscape, trying to rebuild a little corner of civilization with a ragtag band of survivors.

    On a less apocalyptic level, my family moved around a lot – I’ve lived in the US, Kenya, and the UK, with brief stints in the Netherlands and Israel – so I find it very hard to conceive of settling down in one place long-term. When the minister at my old church talked about people my age still attending the same church in 20 years’ time, I just about plotzed. 20 years from now, I expect to have lived in at least three or four different places – assuming the apocalypse hasn’t happened by then…

  • Linda

    Hi. John. Linda from Nashville, TN, here. I can so relate to this. I started college in 1978 only to finish in 2005 after attending 7 schools in 6 states. At least it wasn’t 27 years straight! Two years after getting my college degree I checked myself into rehab to stop drinking. Now 3 years sober I live one day at a time. Might seem like a silly slogan to some, but it has made all the difference in the world to me. I don’t regret the past but I also don’t dwell in it, worry over it, and feel guilty over it. Guilt was a huge issue for me. I also don’t worry about tomorrow or next week. Well, I do plan some, but within reason. But, like you, I know that this moment right now is really all we have. This moment. And I am very grateful for this moment. Peace.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    I have a degree, and I love to waitress. So I waitress. It works for me. One of my fellow workers, in a very critical tone, asked me what good was going to college if “all I do is waitress?” Um, my answer was, “I went to college to get an education, not a job.” It is so true. I am going back to school for my masters, so that I can get a degree to get paid for what I already do, in my free time. (I need a state license.) I am 47 and my body isn’t very fond of the physical labor any longer.

    I find it sad that people apologize for what they do or who they have become. There is so much value in everything that we experience. If all we do in life is set goals and achieve them, then we are missing out on freedom. If we are constantly trying to control the activity in our life for gain then how are we open to the spontaneous experience that happens every moment while we are busy making other plans?

    With that being said, I sure wish I could retire :O)

  • Mary G

    John really needs “like” or “thumbs up” buttons on the comments section. You’d definitely get a thumbs up/like on this one! LOL


  • Mary G

    Are you my husband? Just kidding. He was raised Methodist and became a Baha’i, but we didn’t marry until he was 40, and he STILL doesn’t “get” the planning for the future/being responsible for the welfare of others bit – other than being great at going to work every day. He’s really a workhorse about that. To his own detriment on bad weather days when he really OUGHT to call in!

  • Mary G

    Ah John, once again, you’ve nailed it for me. My family moved so often when I was a kid, I went to 13 different schools in 12 years. How pathetic is that? I was having so much fun in high school biology class that I went straight to college biology cuz I just wasn’t “done” yet. LOL I had one year of college before deciding I was now bored, and dropped out.

    The one bit of sanity was that my first “real” job (not counting flipping burgers) was as a bank teller, where I learned to balance my checkbook, and some basics about financial matters. That saved my can, but not in ways most people would think. It’s amazing how well I can budget an amount of money that seems like nothing to others. I lived for 2 years on $400/month when I went back to college to get my degree in horticulture in my late 20’s.

    I graduated 3 months preggers with my precious daughter, and only had one professional job, ever, that used my degree. (It’s a beautiful landscape though, and still looks great 15 years later!)

    My hubby’s pretty much the same, but for different reasons. He’s like Ray, in that we didn’t marry until he was 40 (to my 30), and his Anthropology degree (plus his Masters – ABD), didn’t do much towards his then-budding career in computer technology. 20 years later he’s finally making really good money, but at 60 his body is falling apart (literally – he starts dialysis in the next few months) and we have a measly 60K put aside “for the future”. We all know how long THAT will last. sigh.

    Thanks to my ability to manage what ever funds we DID have, at least the mortgage is paid off, as are our vehicles, and we have enough land that we could grow whatever food we need – assuming we have the physical ability to do so. LOL

    All this, and a beautiful 18-year old daughter who is the light of our lives. All things considered, we’ve done astronomically well!

  • Mindy

    I was thinking the same thing!! Like, like, like! I have an MA, and I love waitressing. I want to do it again. If only someone around here was hiring . . . I would. I teach, I write – and I love to wait tables. So much I want to write about this, John – but no time right now. I’ll try to later. Great post, great comment!

  • Mindy

    Hey Linda – I started college in ’77 and graduated in ’90, then graduate school in ’08! Not quite as many schools or states, but rehab in ’87, which made all the difference in the world!

    Congrats to you – on the degree and on the sobriety.

  • Marsha

    This is genius! I, too, have issues with planning for the future as a direct result of my mother being married 4 times, moving around a lot, and going to 3 highschools in 4 years. But, unfortunately, unlike you, I am a great procrastinator and never really been good at living in the NOW and making the most of it. Great write. Thanks.

  • RayC


    Yes! I’m happy to have rid my worldview of an apocalyptic end, although it does pop up from time to time, but am sad that you (we) couldn’t pursue what interested us most—for you, perhaps Classics, and me Philosophy—without it taking a toll on the practical aspects of life.

    I remember once thinking that I’d go on to pursue a PhD in Philosophy, but during my tenure as a student, realized, after witnessing a mad grab for a lousy adjunct position at my University, that becoming a philosophy professor was out of the question, especially since I’d be getting an awfully late start at it. I had to settle for being a librarian, which is not a bad thing, but it’s not my dream, either. I have to pay the bills and save *for the future* in other words!

  • Erika

    I think this post pinpoints just what it is about your writing and what you share that is so compelling to me, John. I am SO not this way – I worry about tomorrow and next year and 20 years from now, often to the exclusion of “being in” the moment, and so overwhelmed with everything that could go wrong I have a hard time just grabbing something and going with it. (So all my worrying and attempts to plan haven’t actually gotten me anywhere, but I do balance the checking account on a magnificent spreadsheet several times a week!) I grew up in a totally stable, good home, but I wonder if my mom being a war refugee immigrant skewed my perspective. Anyway, this “genius of the now” thing you’ve got is something I definitely don’t have and I really appreciate the glimpses of it I can have by reading your stuff.

  • kim

    My life as a child was not as chaotic, as destructive, as yours, but not a walk in the woods either. In response I planned my life from the time I was about 15 as an attempt to tame the chaos. I had great faith that careful planning would lead to a good life and it sort of did. I still plan. I have a detailed financial plan for my retirement that extends 2047 when I will be 109. I also have a living will, a will, powers of attorney, a trust and all that other stuff they say you should have. However, around age 35 I also had a large sign hanging in my office that said “life happens to you when you are making other plans”. That is the other side of planning, the realization life intrudes. It was the hardest lesson I had to learn and the most valuable.

  • Sam


    I plan to respond to this excellent post later tonight after concluding some other plans that have priority.


  • Melissa Chamberlin

    Hey Marsha, I too moved a lot, 17 times by the time I was 13, then I stayed in the same place for five years (all of high school) and by the time I was 40 I had moved 33 times. For the last seven years I have lived in the same house…and I am married…wow, my life was insane, and I did not even know it. I would love to talk to you about the positives that you had come out of that life. I have never known anyone else that has had this experiece. My dad just divorced his 6th wife and is now living the life of a “butterfly” in Thialand. I get this. I totally get this. Lets talk!!

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    I love your story. I too moved a lot. I would love to talk with you, in more detail, what that was like for you, and how it has played out in your life. Lets swap stories. I am just now finding people who have shared the disconnectedness of their childhood. I was ALWAYS, until high school, the new kid in the class.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    Mindy, I want to write about this too. I am at that age where I realize that focusing on the career and stiving to have “a real job” sure was a stinkin’ waste of time. Had I expended that emotional energy on something else, I could have soared beyond my shame. My entire family is educated and make the big bucks. I always bucked that system, but I also carried a bit of shame for not measuring up to their financial gains. As a result, however, in this ecomony, we sufferred little, but they suffered much because they were so invested in their assets, both emotionally and financially. Sure, it got harder for us, but we are used to making ends meet. It was interesting to see how entitled some of them felt when they became less sure of their financial futures. They are suffering a possible demise of something that they have expended a great deal of energy to avoid. They have much, they lose much. It makes me almost appreciate my ability to juggle finances. I don’t do without anything that I need. I really don’t do without a lot of stuff that I want. I have learned over the years, buy sheer reality of no money, that money doesn’t mean squat in the measure of happiness. Money, or lack of, just makes things easier or harder, not better. I happen to know, that regardless of my circumstances in my bank account, that life will go on. I will survive, and I will be happy. I will work the rest of my life, that is ok by me. Really, it is. Why wouldn’t it be? If it isn’t fine, the worst thing that could happen is I die, and that is fine too. I am not going to waste today by worrying about something that may or may not ever happen. Am I being irresponsible with my future, or responsible with my present? I suppose it is all in the spin.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    Hi Linda and Mindy, BA in 86, Rehab last year, starting my MA this year. I have had many years of sobriety in between, and sobriety sure is the way to live. Being an addict sure does keep me on my toes, one day at a time. I have absolutely no regrets, except that occassionally I had regrets…but not more. If I had it all to do over again, I would. I have learned so much and am grateful for the lessons. I have always turned my messes into messages, so all of that crazy stuff hasn’t gone to waste. I am grateful to have something to pay forward.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    Interesting Ray. I often wondered what it would be like to have that hanging over my head, and then I worked with a bunch of JW’s. They weren’t free by any stretch of the imagination. I love ’em though, they had morality down for sure. They represented something that I could never hang onto, and that was the appearance of conviction. It wasn’t until later that I realized that it was conviction based on fear. My relationship with JWs spurred me on to examine my beliefs. Everything that was fear based, I tried to figure out what I was afraid of. It was all religiosity from the pulpit and what I consider to be the twisting of scripture. During a very impressionable time in my life, I started to hang out with the conservative christians, and I ALLOWED myself to be spoon fed, and never really took time to examine it all. I was so busy trying to achieve something that is unachievable, but it is a gift, and that is acceptance into a life of being who I am at this given moment. I stopped jumping through hoops and started to appreciate what the church calls sin and I call my life. Don’t get me wrong, I am not out creating hell on earth, at all…but I certainly am not trying to achieve the perfection that I thought was important for God’s honor.

    When I realized one day that I was jumping through hoops because I thought that God needed my help for his will to be done in this world, I became very humble. God doesn’t need my help for his will..He is God, and how important do I think I am? haha. I think the way that I live my life is important, but I do it because it is my gift back to him…no preasure. If I stopped tomorrow, his will would still go on.

    So back to apacolyptic predestination jibber-jabber crud that people spend all of their lives worrying about and working toward…my take is that if it happens, it happens. I am not going to spend the rest of my breathing years working toward being on the winning side of that. I am going to live my life through my heart, trust that I am where I am supposed to be, and if I make it, if it even happens, if if if if… it is what it is. Seriously, I am going to party and laugh and have fun, live with purpose to make this earth a better place to live with every decision that I make, and then give the glory to God. I am ok with that. If I don’t make it, then I suppose I wasn’t cut out for it. I am ok with that too.

    John, sorry, I have taken over your platform for my own fodder today. Sorry if I crossed your boundaries.

  • Melissa Chamberlin

    * Side note:

    Happiness IS directly linked to the number of fabulous shoes that I can aquire, just ask my husband. If I go to hell for those, I am willing to pay that price. 🙂

  • I have a transient view of life, too… and something of a morbid one. I’m pretty sure I can trace this to the number of deaths in my family when I was very young. Around when I was 4-5, my paternal grandmother went. Then grandpa, then my maternal grandfather and at least one uncle… I remember my mother telling me “Grandad will be in your heart” and being dressed up as a pretty little thing to go to funerals.

    Add to that all the pets I lost as a kid. Grew up in a middle-of-nowhere place in the desert in Arizona. Had pets run off to become coyote-chow. Had cats killed by neighborhood (or sometimes our own) dogs.

    Where am I now? I collect the skulls and bones of wildlife and livestock, clean them, and paint/make artwork out of them. I was also rather thrilled that the apartment my guy and I found last-ditch in the forced move we had to endure is across the street from a cemetary. I enjoy taking walks there. Main characters in the stories that I write have a tendency to die in the end (yet I like to portray it as a good thing – a “finding peace” sort of thing). I’m perpetually facinated with “what’s beyond.”

    In fact, it’s what first got me learning about Christianity – it’s kind of sad that I learned my first real “wham!” of it from watching TV preachers (groan), but it came at a time when I was a teenager and thinking a lot about mortality. I’m obviously still morbid, but less afraid, I think. I’m still afraid that the atheists might be right, and while I fear oblivion, that’s really more about overall meaninglessness than actual “sleeping forever.” I really, really want Heaven, but if I slept forever, it would be okay so long as someone eternal remembers I or at least my species existed.

    I mean, I see people going on about “Don’t worry and enjoy your life” or “relax, there’s no God” yadda yadda – I have the *opposite* reaction. I come to think “these people are only thinking about life, they aren’t thinking about ineviablities, meanwhile, I cannot *stop* thinking about the inevitable.”

    Sometimes, I’m an anxious nut about the whole thing, but most of the time, I’m just a peaceful, eccentric person who likes skeletons and walks in the graveyard. I think people who’d want to change me to conform to their “less spiritually thinking” ideals would have to go back in time and change my childhood and shield me from all the death I dealt with back then.

  • cat rennolds

    yeah. this is the first place I ever heard anybody else say this. 17 different schools, nyah nyah I rule so far:). always the new kid, always the weirdo. when dad’s an alcoholic AND in the navy, your mom’s severely depressed for some odd reason, and you’re being raised to think the end of the world is due any minute now…making plans is not only foreign, it’s counterproductive. Try and make something happen and watch it get yanked out from under you. plus dad would come home with his paycheck and buy me a bike, take us all to the pet store, make huge gourmet meals and let’s not forget the package run….and then mom would end up having to feed us beans, rice and “blue milk” (dry nonfat) until the next payday. 42 years old and still trying to figure out how this planning thing works. I seem to be learning it…I think….

  • An addition:

    I have other problems with planning ahead too far or even being too coherent (hard to not have your dreams shattered by a world that wants you to have a different brain than the one you’re born with), but, really, I have this attutide of “I could die tommorow” that’s constantly with me.

    Maybe why I’m such a fool to seek after spiritual things instead of being “grounded in the rational.” It’s not that I actually think every day is going to be my last, but I do consider the possibility more often than less morbid invidivduals.

  • Reminds me of the place I’m in right now.

    I have an Associate’s Degree in graphic design – I liked using it when I could get work in that field, but sadly, the economy, dishonest people and my crazy kept me from becoming “successful.” I create art for art’s sake – sometimes sell some of it, but never have gotten into a fancy gallery (I don’t have the education required for New York, nor can I afford it). I write fantasy novels and the occasional short story as a fun thing – trying to get them published, to no avail. I’ve read John’s tips on getting to be successful in writing, but I’m not sure I could handle the stress, deadlines. It’s kind of my hope that I’ll be one of those rare writers that submits a novel to an agent at random and said agent goes “Wow, cool” and I’m on my way. Hasn’t happened yet. Thinking about Kindle or some other self-initiated route. I pretty much just have ideas all the time and keep writing, not for money, but for fun. I also write fan fiction for geek things that I like (anime, video games) and that’s all up online for free because it’s basically copyright violation the companies turn a blind eye to but that fans are never, ever supposed to make money on (rule of the hobby).

    At present, I work part time at a horse farm. I’m a stablehand – I muck stables. It’s only part time – so I can’t make a real living off it, but it helps me where I am now. The thing is, if I ever do get Disability (for my crazy), if I am able to keep the job, I will. If the job ever becomes greater pay/full time thing – I’d take it. I could do this job the rest of my life (as long as my body holds out). It’s not glamorus at all, or even skilled. Like waitressing, it’s one of those ultimate lowly jobs. I’m ankle-deep in manure at work for crying out loud! Yet, I love it. I just love it. I love the whole agrarian environment, I adore the horses… the barn cats are adorable, too… and I have a really nice boss.

    It’s like, I don’t even care that it’s a job pitching manure – I enjoy being there.

    I could never do waitressing, though. One of the reasons why I got the stablehanding job is that I work around animals, not people. I’m alright in text, but in real life, I avoid people, dislike people. Love animals. For me, humans are stress (why I’m unable to keep a normal job – panic attacks are triggered, and the people who cause them do not understand them). Animals are different, calming. I wonder if it’s because I’ve experienced a judgement and malice in the human species that I have not in others.

    But, yeah, if you’re happy in lowly work, who cares what the rest of the world thinks? Just say the word and I’ll hit people who bother you with my manure-rake.

  • I have nearly the exact opposite background that you do, John. My parents are totally stable and respectable members of the community. I only moved once and that was because my parents wanted their kids to go to better schools. In high school, I planned out every class I would take until I graduated in my freshman year and I stuck to it with maybe one or two changes. As an adult, I’ve felt controlled and confined since day one, although in most ways I’ve been pretty blessed.

    Living in the moment is something I really don’t do well. I’m more like “Waiting for Godot.” Waiting to graduate, waiting to go home, waiting to get married, waiting, and more waiting. One strength I have is that I often get things done ahead of time rather than procrastinating. If I wait until the last minute, the stress paralyzes me. If I do things in advance, I feel I have peace of mind.

  • Sam

    I’ve got nothing to add here other than joining “The clean plate club” due to parents born during the depression. I also enjoyed fried rabbit as a kid.

    I caught myself screaming at my kids once “We do not waste food! We do not waste food!” and coming to the realization of what I was doing and who I mimicked.

    My children accepted my apologies.

    I find it ironic that John once posted a short story featuring sort of the same theme that’s guaranteed to make most parents squirm.

    My degree: B.A. Communications/Journalism with a minor in Business Management

    Occupation: Customer Support Senior Associate. I work in a call center advising a corporation’s employees about their benefits.

  • Rhonda Sayers

    (Keeping in mind that I am now 50 years old, I realize that the things that so traumatized me growing up, is common place and acceptable now). I think that the 2 things that effected me the most were:

    #1 Growing up in a military family, living in Cuba, Japan, Okinawa and 11 states…I was desperate to settle down and never move again, but it made me adaptable to change, .

    #2 I am of mixed heritage. I learned to be tough and pretend that the rejection did not hurt. I think it has made me more sensitive and compassionate toward others that feel left out and unimportant.

  • Jim Cox

    I have a tee shirt… got it last summer… Here’s the front of it….

    My top 10 reasons I procrastinate:


    That’s it.. Has brought a laugh from a lot of people…