by Corey Mesler
When I was a senior in highschool, back in the days of real music, the staff of the school annual gave out their end of year awards. I was voted Most Ambitious. This rankled me at the time, perhaps because I associated ambition with business, with commerce, with men in suits, with the sort of person who would happily tread on anyone to get ahead. I really wanted Wittiest, but this went to my friends, Jimmy and Glen, who were certainly very funny, not to mention wonderful companions. Or, in my heart of hearts (O cruel deceiver), I guess I really wanted Best Looking. I didn’t stand a chance, especially after my pal, Mark Whitaker, who looked like a young Paul Newman, also did not get Best Looking. Mark got Best All Around, which was possibly a higher honor, and emphatically, again, out of my reach. I was Best, perhaps, but not All Around, maybe 1/3 of the way round, an arc on a good day.
So I have carried this apperception around in my pinball brain for the rest of my life (so far), this poorly constructed idea that ambition is ugly, demeaning, shameful, even somehow caustic. It’s Ayn Rand-foul. And, concomitantly, I didn’t want to seem ambitious so I didn’t want to be caught trying. I wanted to be laid-back, insouciant about where life took me, a passenger instead of a captain, floating downstream, merrily. I wanted to wear that sinsemilla smile and nonchalance that I had mastered in my teenage years, even long after I gave up weed as a social tool. I wanted to be the dude, and the dude only abides.
Friends, this is hooey. Self-knowledge is a slippery concept but I have learned a little bit about myself in my 60 years here in Gaia’s Realm. I believe I have earned some points for honesty, for knowing, oftentimes, when I am right or wrong, though these things can get murky quickly. So, honestly, I say now: I am ambitious. I might not be Most Ambitious, but I do care where life has taken me, or where I have taken it, and I admit that I want it to appear, to my fellow astronauts, as if I have made some progress, as a human being, as a business owner, and as a writer. I want future.
And, being a writer is what first illuminated this little dank corner of my self-knowledge.
When I was tadpole, and penning my first poor attempts at poems, I told a friend that all I wanted, someday, was to have a little chapbook published, some small press collection of 20 or so poems, staple-bound, with nice artwork on the cover. This seemed like the one thing that would make me permanently happy. This seemed like the goal. And, for this goal, I didn’t mind if folks perceived that I was trying.
I achieved this. I held the little chapbook in my hand and it made me smile a secret smile. That secret smile stayed—but something else entered in, a question: what’s next? And so, subsequently, I told another friend that someday I wanted to have my own ISBN (International Standard Book Number, given to almost all books published by reputable publishing houses; this was before the day of the big self-publishing boom, which has muddied many waters), just one ISBN to call my own. That would be my ultimate happiness. That would sate me.
I achieved this. I should just say, here, etcetera, because you get the picture. So I’ll fast forward to today and say that the latest thing that I have said I wanted, after 40 years of publishing, was one nice advance for a novel I’d written, one paycheck. Recently I achieved this, a modest paycheck, but an authentic one nevertheless. Now, what does hungry Corey, rapacious Corey, ambitious Corey want next? Stay tuned.
It yet begs the questions: am I really never satisfied? Do I really want, will I continue to want, more and more, better and better? I don’t know. I still see that as the shadow side of ambition.
I can find a sexual metaphor for this satori flash of awareness, because I can find a sexual metaphor for everything. Back again to my teen years: if I espied an attractive member of the opposite sex, someone who turned that unfathomable key in me, I would say to myself, “If only I could kiss her. I would be happy just to kiss her.” Of course, if I did happen to kiss her, then the kiss quickly became accepted, quickly became historical, and I moved the bar higher (or lower, if you see what I mean).
Ambition and desire, fleshly desire, appetite-desire, are cater-cousins. I admit here that have great dollops of both in the cosmic soup that makes up Corey Mesler. And today I am feeling most ambitious.
Corey Mesler has published in numerous anthologies and journals including Poetry, Gargoyle, Good Poems American Places, and Esquire/Narrative. He has published 8 novels, 4 short story collections, numerous chapbooks, and 4 full-length poetry collections. His new novel, Memphis Movie, is forthcoming from Soft Skull Press. He’s been nominated for many Pushcarts, and 2 of his poems were chosen for Garrison Keillor’s Writer’s Almanac. With his wife, he runs a bookstore in Memphis.
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