“Jack Bauer never sneezes.”
“What did you say?”
“Jack Bauer doesn’t just sneeze. He doesn’t just cough.”
It came randomly from the back seat through a mouthful of food. I looked in the rear view mirror at my son in time to catch him wiping his mouth on his sleeve. I suppose the magnitude of his epiphany necessitated an immediate broadcast, even if the words had to sneak past a double cheeseburger. He had that look he gets when he’s thinking hard on something, head tilted to the left, eyes up and to the right.
“Explain what you mean, Sweetie.”
“We sneeze or cough or trip over our shoes in real life, and it doesn’t mean anything. When Jack Bauer does any of those things it actually means something, or it will mean something later on in the program. He never just sneezes.” I watched him hold his stare for a moment until his taste buds came calling for a sip of Dr. Pepper.
24 was all the rage in our home at that time, and Jack Bauer was our hero as he saved the world from sure annihilation each week. Though my son’s observation didn’t carry any planetary implications , the ten year-old had accomplished a rather impressive feat of his own by noticing something that took me years of writing to discover: everything in a story–dialogue, actions, non-actions, revealed information–should work to move the story forward.
Hemingway mastered this concept of streamlining. He could tell a story with the sole use of dialogue as in “Hills Like White Elephants”. The conversation between the main characters gives us all we need to see the themes of love, control, security, and manipulation. Writing, however, was not the subject of my thoughts that day as my son swallowed his remaining fries. His observation propelled me onto a great what-if. What if I looked at my life like a writer looks at creating an episode or a book or a movie? Though I can’t escape the common reflexes of sneezing, coughing, and blinking like Jack can, what if I tried to capture all that I did under the category “On Purpose”?
Realizing that this concept was also known as “mindfulness” (in self-help books and Whole Foods) and “action” (in the business world), I stuck with the juvenile term “purpose” since an oft-used complaint in my childhood home was, “Hey, you did that on purpose!” But what I tried to lie my way out of in my youth I would now embrace and celebrate. After years of living on purpose in every action of the day I would be able to look at the fruits of my labor and proclaim, “Yes, I did that on purpose.”
My experiment design was as flawless as it was simple. That night I made a list of all the things I would like to see change as a result of my journey. I set my alarm for the next morning for 6:00, despite the fact I had been up at that hour maybe four times in my life. I resolved that every step I took that day–every word I said, every bite I ate, every task I performed–would be with purpose, non-reactionary, and mindful. Somewhere along the way I’d heard that when you’re trying to form new habits it’s best not to try to change so many things at once. Keeping this in mind I decided to leave some of my metaphysical aspirations on the back burner and focus on small, easy-to-measure goals, and though I don’t remember most of them, I know they included being healthier, being more disciplined in my writing, and being wiser financially.
My Day of Living on Purpose started with success. At 6:23 when I finally noticed it was the alarm ringing–not the fire truck in my dream–I made my first decision with purpose. Since I stayed awake so late the night before thinking about all the ways my life was going to get better, I found myself tired on this first day. Of course now that I was striving for better health I found that extra sleep was the prudent choice. My husband had to take our children to school in deference to my wise decision, and as he said goodbye I made a mental note to include the importance of cooperative spouses in a piece I would inevitably write about purpose-filled living.
Around 10:00 I rose out of bed with purpose and put on my exercise clothes. This was going to be a great day. I ate a healthy breakfast and wrote a few paragraphs of an article that was due by the end of the week. As I headed out the door to start my new running regimen my friend Joan called and asked me to hang with her at the pool. It was only 12:00, and I had to make my second important choice of the day. I told my friend I would call her back after giving careful consideration to her proposal.
By 12:01 I decided to meet her at the pool because relationships are a key component of one’s overall well-being. In keeping with my goal of eating only nutritious foods I packed a small cooler of raw carrots and broccoli, a little bit of fat-free ranch dressing, and a little to-go bottle of wine, which is made from grapes.
At the pool Joan confided in me about the struggles she was having with her teenage daughter, who had adopted an air of disrespect towards authority. We watched a mother comfort her toddler who was becoming frustrated with her doll. I lamented at the heartache Joan’s daughter was causing the family. I remember Joan’s daughter as a sweet little girl playing with her dolls by the pool like it was yesterday,
“What do you think Michael and I should do about it?”
“Maybe she just needs a swift kick in the behind,” I said. We laughed at the ridiculous suggestion, perhaps a little bit louder than we realized, as we got a few looks from people around us.
“I’m really worried about her. Maybe things will be better once she goes to college.” Joan sadness was apparent as she watched the little girl whose crying was now transitioning into a full temper tantrum.
I reached for a carrot and took a sip of wine (only my third of the day) to wash down the last of my lunch. That’s when I noticed the little girl losing her balance. The mother had walked away and not wanting to waste a moment I jumped out of my chair, lunging for the screaming toddler before she fell into the pool. In my rush to help the girl I must have swallowed my food the wrong way, and the carrot had become lodged in my windpipe. Before I could panic about my own predicament the girl’s mother tackled me, sending me to the concrete and onto my back, dislodging the carrot and wine in the process.
Unfortunately the landing place my lunch found was the angry mother’s face.
Later that evening I waited for Joan to explain to the detectives that the charges of assault against a child and public intoxication were based on a complete misunderstanding of the situation. My cellmate was Hector, a nice, elderly man brought in for true public intoxication. Tears crept down my dirty face, and I could barely walk due to the pain ripping through my back.
“Jew wan sun of my chez burr?” His outstretched hand held the remainder of a jalapeno-laden cheeseburger from McDonald’s.
“Sure,” I shrugged, taking the sandwich, grateful for his kindness but wondering how he managed to sneak it in.
My Day of Purpose was marked by productivity in my work, maintaining both a healthy body and friendship, and an altruistic urge to look out for the needs of those around me.
I took a bite of the burger, and one whiff of the spicy peppers sent me into a sneezing fit.
Jack Bauer never does that.