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Walt Whitman washing the feet of former slave; illustration by Lewis C. Daniel
"I learned almost by accident that my words inspired someone yesterday.
How humbling was that?"

What big, hairy, audacious things have I done in my life? I sincerely hope my answer will continue to be, "Nothing." Not that I've achieved nothing, just nothing that might be construed as big, hairy, or audacious. I've done my work, but hardly ever with the intention of cornering any market, making any kind of a killing, or achieving fame or fortune. I thought once that I might get discovered and gain wide popularity, just like every baby boomer did, for we were the first generation raised in the proximity of celebrity. Prior generations read about the rich and famous or heard them speak on the radio, but our generation invited them into our living rooms where they dazzled us with their mastery, brightening our otherwise drab existences. That these demonstrations were heavily produced and edited to ensure that only the best of the best ever showed, was not obvious to us casual observers. We thought pure talent poured out the ends of these performers' fingers. We marveled at their skill.

We learned that popularity might just be the purpose of life, that we should rightly strive for broad audiences.
We subtly learned that the one man band on the street corner wasn't much, him not having been discovered yet. We absorbed the conviction that notoriety mattered, that celebrity counted, and that popularity measured personal value and worth. We were all wannabes waiting in the wings. I wrote songs and performed them in a small coffeehouse, perfectly unsatisfied as if I was merely biding time until my big break came along, as if larger venues would somehow improve the intimacy my performing had already achieved. I played larger venues, finally opening the show for a touring Scottish rock band. That audience had not come to experience intimacy, but head-banging audacity. They screamed for my head while I sang my fool head off. That experience soured me on my long-held dream to perform in ever larger venues. I'd never intended to bang anyone's head, especially my own.

I later became a consultant, though I never warmed to the expectation that I should tell anyone what they should do. I preferred to help them decide for themselves, recognizing that my experiences were no more transferable than my conclusions and would never, could never, scale up. I encountered that poisonous question dozens of times. A breathless client, impressed by what he suspected me capable of providing, would ask, "How does this scale?" I wrestled with this question for many years before finally, reluctantly, concluding that it doesn't scale. It's not supposed to. I could have, I suppose, produced some sort of spectacle, scripted a message intended to sort of hypnotize an audience, and delivered it with all the flash and bang of one of those television programs I'd imprinted on in my youth, and more or less head-banged people into a frenzy. I knew that wouldn't really be me performing up there and that, if I had insights to share, they'd just have to be shared more humbly, in what might prove to be a more conducive context; perhaps a small stage in a candle-lit basement coffeehouse.

Now the magic word has morphed into "reach." People count their number of followers and 'friends,' and feed them carefully crafted memes to excite that cult of personality television variety programs used to promote. How many millions of followers receive my messages? Multitudes fewer than even a baseline million. 'They' tell me I really should expend more effort packaging my messages, that I should go strategic, targeting high-impact audiences, specifically recruiting 'connectors' to amplify my signal. All of that seems rather audacious for a guy like me, one who, I finally admit, seeks humility here. I'm an aw-shucks sort of character, not greatly impressed with my work but still interested enough in producing it to get me up and out of bed in the morning. I'm more of a Cast Bread On The Water sort of strategic thinker, indifferent as to my eventual impact. I manage to attract a blessed few who appreciate my presence. I need not fill any coliseum to satisfy my expectations for myself or anyone else's expectations for me.

I get to be my own man now, not contingent upon any sort of popularity. I might finally be at that point in my 'career' when I'm hardly trying to please anybody, even myself. I simply do what I do without expecting to garner riches or notoriety, finally enough all by myself (with the grateful appreciation of The Muse and a remarkably few very close friends and family members) to simply accept myself. Given that I came from a culture that almost denigrated self in favor of fans, I've come a very long way, indeed. I spent decades hoping to be discovered only to discover that I only needed to discover myself to achieve what had always been my heart's desire. No notoriety needed, only a rather disarming humility. My work matured to become its own reward, a sort of grace nobody ever aspires to. Reviews arrive almost surreptitiously, unbidden and deeply satisfying. I learned almost by accident that my words inspired someone yesterday. How humbling was that?

©2018 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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