Missing your mark

by Wolf Pascoe on October 17, 2011

You know, most people in life miss their mark. — My friend Jonah

Sometimes, something someone says just sticks with you. It’s so with the thing my friend Jonah said to me a couple of years ago. I think about it now and again. I worry Jonah was right.

Before the new folks moved into the house across the street, Jonah lived there. Jonah had inherited the house, but it proved too much for him and he had to sell it.

Jonah was a musician. His teacher, Charles, had owned the house. Charles got sick and Jonah moved in to take care of him. When Charles died, he left the house to Jonah.

I liked Jonah. He and I used to go to see plays together and got to know each other pretty well. His mind had a philosophical bent. We had long conversations about life and career. One of his greatest pleasures, he said, was watching me and Nick play.

Sometimes, talking to Jonah, I felt as if we were characters in a Chekhov play. It was during one of our conversations that Jonah turned to me and said the words I’ve quoted above: Most people in life miss their mark.

He actually said it in a consoling way. He meant that people shouldn’t be too hard on themselves, that they screw up, being human after all. But Jonah wasn’t just talking about the little screw-ups. He was talking about the big screw up: the main chance missed.

I remember how the words dropped heavy in the still air between us. They could only have been born of long observation. It was one of those things there was no answer to, unless you’re a character in a Chekhov play.

This is how Jonah lost the house:

Jonah lived alone after Charles died. He had become dissatisfied with music, and had an idea for a screenplay, though he’d never written much. He met a charming, rumpled man named Frank, who had completed several several screenplays, none produced.

Jonah and Frank began working on Jonah’s screenplay. Frank needed a place to stay and didn’t have any money, and Jonah offered him a room in the house so they could continue to work together. Jonah never told me much about project, but he felt fortunate to have found Frank. I think Jonah was the idea man; Frank turned the ideas into dialogue.

During the four years Frank and Jonah worked together, a stream of young woman flowed through the house. These were always Frank’s women, never Jonah’s. According to Jonah, none of the relationships were sexual. Frank was a mentor and father figure to the girls.

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It all blew up the year before Jonah lost the house. The screenplay was only half finished after four years, and Jonah demanded Frank complete it or move out. Frank moved out, taking the unfinished screenplay with him. Jonah got a lawyer and sued Frank.

Jonah had spent a lot of money feeding Frank and the girls. The lawsuit was costing a lot of money. Although the house had been paid for when he inherited it, Jonah had taken out a mortgage to finance his lifestyle. Now he couldn’t pay both the lawyer and the mortgage. He decided to sell the house.

“Why are you suing Frank?” I said. “He has no money.”

“It’s the principal of the thing,” he said.

After he moved out, Jonah took an apartment nearby. Nora and I invited him over several times for dinner, but he always said it was too painful to look at his old house, which you could see across the street through our dining room window.

The last time I saw him, Jonah was about to move to another apartment across town. I didn’t ask how the lawsuit was going.

THE MEMORY BOOK

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America is the land of the main chance. It’s why people are here. It’s why we love stories of winners and losers, of con men and blind men, of rise and fall and rise. I don’t blame myself for being curious about these things.

In particular, I’m curious about people who miss their mark. I wonder about myself, and walls I’ve pushed ladders against and climbed over, only to figure out later they were the wrong walls. I wonder about Jonah missing his mark. And I wonder about Frank. Frank hit his mark, of course, which was Jonah.

The bravest words I’ve ever heard about hitting your mark are these: a thing succeeds when it is itself. I believe this with my whole heart, but then I forget it. I need stories help me to remember.

I have an idea for preserving stories. Every dwelling in America ought to come with a memory book. Everyone who lives in a place, from the first on down, leaves an entry. It doesn’t matter how long they stayed. If they lived in the house, they’re a part of it. The book contains, in clear longhand, an account of every soul—their names, dates, loves, hates, what they did and dreamed, how they came hence, and how left.

The story I’ve just told belongs in the memory book across the street. Such books deserve their own desk or alcove.

Their safekeeping is a high office.

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EXPRESS YOURSELF!

Which mark did you miss? Which did you hit? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)

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{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Alan October 17, 2011 at 6:49 am

What a lovely, melancholy post. Sometimes I wonder if fathers are particularly sensitive to this concern, as we worry about setting a life example for our children.

If there is one mark I have missed, it has to do with eduction. In hindsight, I think I should have done more to figure out a writing course of study. College is too focused on career versus life aspirations, I think. I probably should have tried to get into Iowa’s writing program. Such is life.
Alan recently posted..Why We Named Our Sons After Spider-Man

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Wolf Pascoe October 17, 2011 at 7:06 am

Thanks, Alan. And thanks for visiting.

Apropos of setting marks, readers can find Alan’s prayer for his son here: A Father’s Prayer

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BigLittleWolf October 17, 2011 at 10:58 am

Alan’s mention of the Iowa Program makes me wistful. In fact, this entire (lovely, thoughtful) post makes me wistful.

Perhaps we all miss our mark in some ways, but hit other targets we never anticipate. Maybe this is simply something to console myself, for missing my own mark.
BigLittleWolf recently posted..We May Not Live By Bread Alone, But. . .

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Wolf Pascoe October 17, 2011 at 11:46 am

Oh, dear. I wish I could be one of those cheerleaders you find all over the place on the I-net.

Bruce (Privilege of Parenting) said something I found really consoling the other day: All failure, in essence, is a failure to love.

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Mitchell October 17, 2011 at 12:15 pm

The universe works in such interesting ways. I am always happy to see the notifications that you have a new post up, but I rarely have time to sit down to read it right then. This time I did and this beautifully written post spoke directly to me about some walls I am facing – walls that I am wondering if I should push a ladder against and climb over. Your words arrived in my inbox exactly when I needed them to.

I appreciate you sharing your stories with us.

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Wolf Pascoe October 17, 2011 at 11:56 pm

Hi Mitchell,

I’m glad you visited and am delighted the post spoke to you.

Readers will enjoy Mitchell’s reflective and lovely blog, Thoughtful Pop

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Sirena October 17, 2011 at 6:05 pm

A very poignant post about loss and maybe NOT loss. I think we all miss our mark sometimes and sometimes we don’t. Thank you for writing this from a father’s perspective and urging us to keep our memories in our homes and hearts.

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Wolf Pascoe October 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

Thanks, Sirena. For some reason, your comment made me think of friends on my high school track team, who used to say, “Sometimes you win. Sometimes you lose. And sometimes you’re rained out.”

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Pauline October 18, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I came across the link to this post this on Big Little Wolf”s site. It reminds me of Daniel Gilbert’s work, that the things we think are going to make us happy often don’t. Your telling of Jonah’s situation is lovely and poignant. It’s impossible to know if something “works” until we get to the other side. That’s where acceptance comes into play…

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Wolf Pascoe October 19, 2011 at 7:47 am

It is impossible. And the mind is the last to know.

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Kate October 18, 2011 at 8:46 pm

I love the idea of the stories of our houses. It’s been a while since I truly was house hunting, but when we visited four or five or ten houses in a day, the walls often tried to talk. Some houses felt sad and lonely. Some loved and carrying treasures in their special memory books. The happy houses were always prettiest to me.
One of my neighbors lived in a house filled with tragic tales (three suicides in the last four owners) I don’t know if I could live there.

There are a few marks I have missed, or so it seemed at the time, but they always led me to a better dream, or so I hope. But that’s the starry optimist in me. The pragmatist is often much louder.

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Wolf Pascoe October 19, 2011 at 7:45 am

I do believe that another door opens when one closes. Your comment also got me thinking about haunted houses. The psyche holds a welcome mat for those who’ve gone before, and they come right in.

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Alameda October 18, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Missing the mark is always after the fact, when you look back. In the meantime keep at it!

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Wolf Pascoe October 19, 2011 at 7:46 am

I like that. As Satchel Paige said, don’t look back. Someone might be gaining.

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Privilege of Parenting October 19, 2011 at 12:20 am

“Nobody important, really. Just a movie writer with a couple of ‘B’ pictures to his credit. The poor dope! He always wanted a pool. Well, in the end, he got himself a pool – only the price turned out to be a little high.” Sunset Boulevard

Was it a pool, or was it a house? Occupy the house, sign the guest book.

Is that Gatsby in that pool? Is it Jonah? After all it was always you and me…

One of my favorite con artists, who went by the moniker, “Count Lustig” held that the con artist always preys on the mark’s greed.

Occupy Greed. Occupy the trickster. Occupy Willy Loman. Occupy Norma Desmond. Occupy compassion. And most of all occupy Love.

Get ready and occupy our collective close-up.

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Wolf Pascoe October 19, 2011 at 7:48 am

It just shows to go you. I had no idea I’d written a movie.

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pamela October 25, 2011 at 8:06 pm

A thing succeeds when it is itself.

That is the loveliest thing I have read in a long time.

Poor Jonah.

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Wolf Pascoe October 26, 2011 at 9:43 am

Yes. Thinking about Jonah just makes me sad.

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Barbara S. October 25, 2011 at 9:53 pm

Missing the mark. I feel I’ve missed a few but prefer to look forward to what’s over the next wall. My problem right now is trying to choose which wall to climb over – or how to climb all that have popped up before me. I worry I’ll only make it up halfway and never over the top. But as I told someone today – maybe we’re not meant to go all the way down some of the paths that open before us. It’s the journey that counts, not the destination, right? (Right? Sigh.)
And your memory book idea reminded me of one of my favorite books – have you heard of The Little House by Virginia Burton? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Little_House
Barbara S. recently posted..Ambience Lost

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Wolf Pascoe October 26, 2011 at 9:48 am

What a beautiful book. I just reserved it at the library. Nick might think he’s too old for it, but I’m not!

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