After seventeen years of dancing to the rhythms of the 24/7 news cycle, eleven of them as the founding editor of the Huffington Post, I decided to try a different beat.
Thankfully, the success of HuffPost afforded me the rare luxury to allow my mind—and my body—to wander.
As my always-revved inner motor slowly downshifted, I relearned what it was like not to place “respond to 50 emails” at the top of my daily to-do list—ahead of “brush teeth” and “empty bladder”—and to revel in the sublime satisfaction of snagging a prime spot in the carpool line at my daughter’s school.
I knew that before I could figure out who I was outside of my role at HuffPost, I needed the mental equivalent of the Master Cleanse—heavy on the cayenne pepper.
So, for months, I willfully resisted all creative urges, stubbing out even the spark of any idea that might grow into a concept or, perish the thought, an actual endeavor.
Eventually, my psychological detox accomplished, I began to contemplate what I might want to do next. And what I realized was: I had no freaking clue what I should do next! Free to consider anything, I came up with nothing.
Then, without warning, my unconscious decided to get involved. But it didn’t tap me on the shoulder and whisper Hi, Roy, have you thought about . . . ? No, it came rushing up to me like a crazy person on the street, shrieking in my ear: HEY, ASSHOLE . . . DO THIS!!!
Every day for a week, I woke up in the middle of the night—often multiple times—my mind racing with ideas. It wasn’t a manic episode—but you could definitely see manic from where I was standing (or, more accurately, sitting up in bed). Not wanting to forget these late-night musings, I started sending myself emails with notes about stories I wanted to tell. Stories from my life. Some of these were tried-and-true tales I’d been telling over dinner or drinks for years. Some were stories I’d only told my closest confidantes. And some were stories I hadn’t even thought about for decades.
Night after night, story idea after story idea. One night, I sent myself thirteen different emails between 2:00 and 5:30 a.m. I soon realized that if I ever hoped to get a decent night’s sleep again, I was going to have to get these stories out of my head and onto paper.
My new book, Lacks Self-Control: True Stories I Waited Until My Parents Died To Tell, is the result.
Since many of the stories are about things that happened in the early years of my life, as part of the writing process, I dug through a collection of papers and mementos my mother had squirreled away, hoping to fact-check a few memories and kick loose some others.
A trove of well-preserved report cards proved particularly enlightening. It seems that my essential character was in place quite early. According to my preschool teacher, four-year-old me had “a wonderful sense of humor which is enjoyed by all—including his teacher!” (Although I apparently had “trouble coloring inside the lines” and was only “fair” with scissors.) And my first-grade teacher noted: “Roy enjoys creative writing and should be encouraged to do so more often.”
So, by the age of seven, I was showing signs of being a funny writer. Why the hell did I then spend so much of the ensuing three decades in existential turmoil, struggling to figure out what I should be doing with my life?
The one thing all my teachers seem to have agreed on was that I desperately needed to sit still and shut the f*ck up.
Year after year, grading period after grading period, I continually got check marks for Lacks Self-Control (“A check mark indicates the pupil needs improvement”). In the “Additional Comments” section, my teachers sounded like a broken record:
Kindergarten: “Although he’s generally agreeable, Roy lacks self-control.”
First grade: “Roy is often too talkative and disturbs others.”
Second grade: “Roy needs to work on his self- control.”
Third grade: “Moving forward, Roy should try to reduce his talking and excessive movements.” Fourth grade: “It would be most helpful if Roy would practice more self-control.”
Fifth grade: “Roy often talks too much, thus sacrificing quality of work.”
Sixth grade: “Roy verbalizes about improving his behavior but for the most part does little about it.”
At the time, I wore those check marks like a scarlet letter. But from the vantage point of middle age, it feels more like a badge of honor.
Indeed, as I mentally fast-forward through the movie of my life, I see that, without planning to, I have made Lacks Self- Control something of a guiding philosophy.
That’s not to imply that I habitually act impulsively, or recklessly say and do things without considering the consequences. For me, Lacks Self-Control means:
Speaking up and speaking out. Not only saying that the emperor has no clothes, but also pointing out that his penis is smaller than average.
Refusing to stay in your assigned seat when there’s a parade passing by outside the window.
Being willing to risk looking foolish—and embracing it when you do.
Not self-censoring (there’s already an ample supply of folks eager to do it for you).
Taking the road less traveled—even though it often has massive potholes, scary-looking hitchhikers, and many long, lonely stretches.
Frequently asking Why?
Frequently saying Why not!
Questioning authority—whether it’s your tightly wound eighth-grade history teacher or a tight-fisted executive who’d rather say yes to a proven mediocrity than an innovative but unproven new idea.
Understanding that daydreaming isn’t wasting time; it’s a high-intensity workout for your imagination.
And never, ever passing up a killer punch line—whether it pops into your head at a parent-teacher conference for your kid or while pitching a $30 million project to a stone-faced board of directors.
In baseball, they say that a tie goes to the runner. In my brain, when competing impulses are racing to the bag—my superego saying maybe you shouldn’t, my id saying go on, give it a shot—the tie goes to the id.
I guess I’m still having trouble coloring inside the lines.
This approach to life has landed me in a fair share of sticky situations over the years, and produced a lifetime of shaken heads, tsk-tsks, and “I can’t believe you just did/said that” reactions.
But it has also led to a lot of laughs, very few boring days, and a bunch of stories I think are worth sharing.
Maybe now I can finally get some sleep.
Published with permission from Lacks Self-Control: True Stories I Waited Until My Parents Died to Tell by Roy Sekoff.
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