From Movie Stardom to Baseball: Childhood Dreams Leave a Mark on Our Lives
Recently, I had a long and winding talk with friends about childhood dreams. We each told our story, prompted by a “Question of the Week,” which is the way we keep in close touch during the course of our busy lives. All of us are bound to answer, unless there’s a tsunami or something.
“So, I asked, What was your childhood dream?”
My friend Ellen chimed in immediately. She has always wanted to be a writer and is one. Fiction has been a constant in her life – throughout moves, changes in relationships, child-rearing and illness. It has never left her side and she cannot imagine herself doing anything else. Not even when she was a kid, and her friends wanted to be fairies, firemen or just super rich. When it was Ellen’s turn to float out her heart’s desire, she always said “writer.”
However, Ellen was the exception.
What was so interesting was how the rest of us did not end up actually pursuing our childhood dream, but somehow that dream informed our careers, our sensibilities and lifestyles. The dream may not have been a constant, like it has been for Ellen, but more a constant companion. That friend who’s always whispering, “Wanna go on a road trip?” “Are you going to go all the way with him?” “Let’s ditch school and go to the beach!”
When I was a kid, I wanted to be Carol Burnett more than anything else in the world. I watched her variety show every week, memorized her skits, wrote my own – even filmed a few of them on an old Super 8 camera (it wasn’t old then). Being funny, making people laugh seemed an honorable profession to me, one as worthwhile and noble as being a doctor or a teacher. At my darkest times, during my most Charlie Brown childhood moments, Carol was always there for me. And I wanted to do what she did – make people feel good afer a rough day or year.
Of course, my comedy dreams were not exclusively altruistic. I loved watching people spit strawberry milk out of their noses after one of my cracks, disrupting class, earning a smack on the head from Sister Margaret Ann. She was built like a wrestler, and her meaty palms were powerful – but it was so worth the headache, the ringing in my ears.
To this day, being called funny is the highest compliment I can receive. So much better than being told I look beautiful. When asked by a mutual friend what first attracted my husband to me, he said, “She had a real sense of humor. Most women I’ve gone out with like laughing at jokes but never make any.”
That made my heart flutter.
Yet somehow, even though becoming Carol Burnett was without question my fondest dream, I became a novelist who writes thrilling spy adventures and epic, heart-wrenching young adult love stories. All very serious stuff.
But I can’t deny that there’s a deep current of humor in everything I’ve ever written. Even my most somber essays on this blog – about death or faith or true love – tend to be embroidered with some manner of joke. I guess because of Carol and her influence on me, I cannot stand taking myself too seriously. In even the greatest heartbreak, I leave room for the absurd, the ironic, or downright hilarious, and have little tolerance for victim culture. Not because I don’t acknowledge that victims exist and that their pain is real, it’s that I feel succumbing to victimhood is toxic. As unhealthy as smoking five packs of cigarettes a day and washing them down with a fifth of vodka.
I see good humor as a trait of good character, not just a fun personality feature. During the course of my life, a person with no sense of humor has typically been my natural enemy in the wild. We circle each other carefully, and usually end up just backing away.
But while chasing off the sullen and tedious, my childhood dream has sucked into my orbit people who share my world view, and don’t even blink when I tell them that Carol Burnett has had the greatest influence on my life. Not Gandhi, not Martin Luther King, but Carol. They not only understand, but say, “I totally see that!”
Because they have had a similar journey.
My friends Nick and Jess both took some of the best parts of their respective childhood dreams and helped calibrate them for their growth and changing needs.
Jessica wanted to be a movie star, but became a tech entrepreneur instead. Those are seemingly unrelated careers on the surface of things, but if you could see how Jess lights up any room she enters you’d understand. She loves making the pitch, and hatches approximately three life-changing, sh*t-disturbing schemes a day. She is a charismatic and ethical leader.
“You are a movie star,” I told her.
Her husband, Nick, wanted to be a baseball player, but now writes baseball mysteries. His alter ego, Johnny Adcock, is an aging major league pitcher who supplements his diminishing baseball salary with high-priced gum shoe work – helping rich friends being blackmailed by murderous gold-diggers and such. By writing baseball mysteries, Nick has gotten to hang out with a crew of baseball players he’s interviewed for research. He’s played ball with them, drank with them, lived vicariously through them.
And maybe that’s what I’ve hit on here. The vicarious part. My friends and I – all creative people like writers, actors, and entrepreneurs – are a curious combination of wallflower and leader. We desire an inexorable amount of control not only over our own lives, but the lives or our characters or products, made-up people and gadgets we endeavor to use as avatars for our worldview, for being able to affect a mood, a belief, perhaps a childhood dream of someone else’s.
Of course, not everyone has allowed their childhood dream to stick around, and share space with with their more practical choices.
We all have friends who wanted to be musicians, scientists, chefs and never took one recognizable step in that direction. They seemed to have no invisible companion standing on their shoulder and telling them to take the dive. Not surprisingly, their dream died, and when you ask them about it now, they just sort of shrug or change the subject. Perhaps it’s because they’re unsatisfied with the path they chose, and don’t want to talk about it. Or maybe their childhood dream really did lose its allure. Like a second grade crush – based on a freckle-faced cousin’s ability to eat a worm without flinching – their dream became a bit embarrassing once they’d grown up a little bit. As a result, what they became in adulthood was a reaction to the old dream, an opposing stance.
Whatever the case, whether we fulfill them, absorb and repurpose them, or reject them outright, childhood dreams give so much more than mere career direction. They leave their mark. Some might say a scar. As for me, they are a fond memory, like a first kiss. I remember the taste of his lips, the thrill, the way his hand stroked my back and inched its way under my t-shirt just to feel my sun-kissed skin. But even that kiss, as intoxicating as it was, doesn’t compare to the way my husband leans into me and looks into my eyes, holding me tight. That’s the stuff truly realized dreams are made of.