10/20/2013 01:13 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

What a Flying Deer Can Teach You About Your Priorities

It seems life's opportunities are not enough and I, like so many on the planet, spend lots of time distracting myself from the life right in front of me. You do it, too. Each of us numbs out from the realities of the world around us, gorging on -- take your pick -- drugs, porn, shopping, gambling, work, alcohol, TV, you name it. If you don't indulge at all, you're likely an ascetic and exercise your own version of extremism, one of "power-abstinence." There's a chat room for pretty much everything, and almost anything can be turned into a vice. These vices are what we use to fill voids, and sadly they are not true fixes and don't actually satisfy but temporarily. Why so many shitty distractions and less-than substitutes? Is living such a burden? For some, perhaps -- if you're reading this in a war-ravaged place or some other dire situation, you certainly do have real and urgent concerns for safety. But for so many whose problems are merely inconveniences, I ask: What's at the root of your unhappiness/dissatisfaction?

Underneath it all, I think each of us harbors a wish to live a more creative life. We all know deep down that there remain at least a few elusive ingredients in the mulligan stew each of our lives is... ingredients we still need to find and then add, and that when found will help us toward fulfillment and toward filling the voids better and in healthier ways.

I'm no ascetic and don't eschew all salves myself. Lately though, I have been thinking a lot of canceling my social media accounts, questioning their value on many levels. This is an action I've yet to actually do. (Even the act of typing this missive, written to be posted on a website, reeks of the dichotomy of tuning in to a memory while focusing on a screen rather than the real world outside the window. I'd feel less conflicted had I written this in pen on paper, which I often do.)

We live so much of our lives in front of screens: computers, TVs, smartphones, tablets. Some estimates place screen use at 12 hours/day; which, accounting for eight hours of sleep, leaves a short time taking in the immediate world. However, when we open our eyes and shut off the screens, we see that pleasure often is within reach and free, and also that many pleasures of life don't even come from the outside at all. In fact, core pleasures for all grown-ups can be listed as follows (in no particular order and with a few customized tweaks/additions from person to person):

-- a good meal,
-- a good sleep,
-- a good orgasm,
-- a good shit,
-- a good belch and/or fart.

[Note: For this to apply to kids, remove the third one, and while I acknowledge that a good belly laugh is healthy and should probably be on the list, I left it optional.]

In terms of focusing our attention on the real pleasures of life, there are breathtaking items that make us momentarily take stock, like sunrises, sunsets and other great nature moments, as well as precious moments with pets, children, lovers and friends, etc.

I find myself thinking about activities we pursue to extremes in order to supplant the ever-present difficulties of real life: orgasms, alcoholism, drugs and others on the above lists. I'm not suggesting that a lot of people out there ruin their lives (marriages, families, jobs and whatnot) by focusing too intently on achieving the taking of the perfect shit, but some items certainly are commonly abused. As kids, we are sold a bill of goods when Disney informs us of the black and white nature of things in the world and how they work. Perhaps it's what we need when small, but later we begin to see otherwise, and the learning curve of the treachery and difficulty of having two feet on the planet becomes an uphill climb fraught with surreal, teachable moments and trying experiences. Over time, most of us come to see how bittersweet so many moments in life are, filled with the juxtapositions of glory and terror, each to some degree, and often intermixed. Online one can find stunning photographic efforts of the burning oil fields in the Persian Gulf. And a breathtaking sunset over Banda Aceh, Sumatra in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami isn't purely another beach scene. In part the beauty within these is activated through the juxtapositions and the friction from the two opposites. Shots like these leave tourism photos of Miami Beach or Cozumel, Mexico in the dust. Adver-tourism at its best is still pretty shallow.


As a personal example of bittersweet friction, I'll relate a memory:

My father died suddenly at 59. He was admitted to the hospital on a Friday with a severe temperature seemingly capable of being brought back down, and he told me of his improving condition over the weekend. By Sunday evening he was feeling much better. His fever that produced what he called "super-shakes" was all but gone. But at 3 a.m. that Sunday my oldest brother called and woke my roommate, Jose, who in turn woke me. Robbie didn't call often anyway, so the late hour was additionally unusual.
"Paulie, are you sitting down?"
"No." I was standing on the gold, plush living room carpet lit only by the ambient kitchen light.
"Sit down."
"Robbie, is dad alive?"

I sat down with Jose and we watched The Princess Bride for the umpteenth time, alternating between my tuning in to it to escape a bit and tuning out and crying. The first bus home wasn't until 6 something.

Of course, the following days were surreal, and because I didn't own a suit, I wore one of Dad's, which was too big, but seemed quite fitting. From those days, one image sticks in my mind above all the rest, as clear as if it were today: My grandma flies in from Florida for her son's funeral. She uses a walker and no longer drives, so we go to get her. My other older brother and I drive the hour to Newark airport to pick her up. The first available flight has her arriving at 6 a.m. and we get on the road before dawn and watch it get light out as we drive the Palisades Parkway.

The sunrise is lovely with October morning dew hanging in the air. Tranquility. Only one other car on the road just ahead of us by about a quarter mile. Up at 3:30; on the road at 4. We aren't talking and might even be listening to some music to soothe the pains of loss... coupled with the knowledge of picking up our dad's mom, who we know, save for mom, is perhaps the only person alive for whom this is even harder on than us. And suddenly a deer darts from left to right across the highway in front of the car ahead of us, and we see the brakes, but its too late to fully swerve and that car hits the hindquarters of that deer at 65 mph. What happens next is the surreal part: The impact launches the deer upward, and, combined with her forward momentum, seems to catapult her into the sky toward the woods on our right. The car connects with the deer in such a way that she remains upright as she ascends, but it also causes her to rotate clockwise slowly.

Perhaps she was only stunned, but I've always imagined she was killed instantly. And because we are far enough behind that other car, I witness the whole thing from the passenger's seat with the dawn sidelight illuminating the whole scene quite majestically.


I've always remembered this with slow motion clarity and focus. Was it that way because we were still waking up? Or the potency of the unfolding events all taken together? Or was it just that way?

This deer, slowly rotating on a vertical axis like you might be able to do to a merry-go-round horse. One rotation. Two rotations. Up to about 40 feet, then slowly down. Upon return to Earth, the deer understandably collapses in a heap. I can just see the landing behind us as we round a curve. The collapse signals a snap back to real time, but what I'll always remember is the slow motion flight of my dead deer.

I've never been able to divine meaning from this, and it's been 25 years... until now, perhaps.

The new daylight streaming through branches, mixing with fog, and casting long, sideways shadows.

Our deer, brown with a white tail, head held slightly up and quite still, showing no signs of pain, supported magically in space, as if still alive and willing itself to take to the skies.

Up and up. Slowly now.




The meaning I can take from this memory is as follows: I think death is one of the large events that strips away certain veils and offers opportunities to put things in perspective. But does it have to be something this severe that catapults us out of our routines and into a new mindset? I'd prefer to think not, but if it does, can we at least try to keep ourselves there long enough to understand where it is? That we can find our way back soon?

It is through those portals we can find what's important, and what holds true meaning; and we can use that meaning to sniff out clues to what we are lacking. The missing ingredients to our creative lives are to be found there, too.

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