DUBUQUE, IOWA—Sitting on a concrete point poking into the Mississippi River, with a cigar and rye whiskey in hand, I’m sure Sam Clemons would approve of how I’m spent my last night on the road. Watching the moon rise and a tug chug under the Julien Dubuque Bridge, which will take me home tomorrow, I assessed the lessons learned on this vagabondage adventure.
On the self-improvement to-do list, my reward for overcoming my introverted tendencies were rich conversations with Lloyd Pitt, Dean at the Kregel Windmill Factory Museum, Richard Dean the retired nuclear worker in Arco, Idaho, and rekindling my friendship with my childhood buddy, Scott, now living in Portland, and making a new friend, his wife, Karla.
Pulling my belt tight strangled the penchant for over eating, and ordering the most interesting thing on the menu brought me memorable meals. First among them was shrimp and grits with Andouille sausage. And today I happily confronted an Angry Tenderloin at GG-Ma’s in Dike, Iowa. With a name like that, how could I not order it with everything: pepper jack cheese, grilled onions, tomatoes, lettuce, jalapeños, and horseradish sauce. Surpassing the circumference of the 4-inch bun by a good 2 or three inches on all aides, it was the finest tenderloin sandwich I’ve ever masticated.
An unexpected and more poignant reaffirmation of a lesson learned long ago came with the live music that was the evening’s soundtrack. At the top of the steps at my concrete point was a trio of 20-something musicians sharing a guitar. They were playing more current tunes, trying to figure out why the music in Disney’s Frozen has been so successful, and working on their own songs. Eavesdropping on their conversation recalled many long-ago discussions with friends and peers who, just starting our careers, were likewise united by shared journalistic and literary aspirations.
Playing on the patio at Tony Roma’s, the restaurant at the Grand Harbor Resort, where Ed and I are spending the night, was a trio of older musicians who were, most likely, like those kids in the 1980s, which was the musical era there were covering this evening. And I identified with them as well because they represent my life today.
Whether we’re musicians or writers, when we’re young life is filled with promise and daydreams of success. Now 60, there’s not so much promise left in my life, and the reality of the intervening years have taught their own lessons about daydream fruition. The kids didn’t mention the older musicians playing across the way, and maybe they didn’t give them a second thought. Surely they didn’t see themselves there in 30 years, and if they are lucky enough to get that gig, they should consider themselves successful because they are still satisfying their creative urges and living realistic dreams.
Failure, I’ve learned, is not achieving the fullest measure of your daydreams, is is quitting whatever it is that gives them life when reality intrudes upon unchallenged fantasy. Too many focus on success during the prime of their lives, which is a very small window. More important, I think, is to not peak too early in life because it leaves so little to look, learn, and work forward to.
Tonight, watching the Mississippi River flowing south, I found comfort in being well past my prime. More comforting is the belief that I haven’t peaked yet. Who knows when I’ll reach that point in my life, or what it might look like, but I hope I don’t achieve it until the eve of my expiration date. And I’m learning how to make that happen: pull your belt tight, order the most interesting thing on he menu, say hello to strangers, and never, ever pass up anything that piques your curiosity.