Writing Your Memoirs and Documenting Your Past

Reading someone’s memoirs changes your perspective of the writer and inspiration for the reader.

Photo by Michael Competielle

A few years ago I received an email for one of my best friends and mentor. Written in the body of the text was an explanation of how my friend 33 years my senior was entrusting me with his memoirs or at least the start of them.

Living an exciting life that he had created, my friend is quite the renaissance man. From a War Veteran to a banker, entrepreneur, Potter, filmmaker, botanist he is what we would call eccentric. With a remarkable passion to experience and explore, he dives headfirst into the turbulent waters of challenge. Armed with little more than an open curious mind and the tenacity to embrace the unknown.

As I began to read the letters of my friend whom I’ve spoken to almost daily for 10 years, I found a different person than I felt I had known. The same person but a different version of who he portrayed daily.

Armed with little more than a computer, Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft and a vibrant life of experiences my friend began to write. His style is not dissimilar to his storytelling with incredible detail and topics you’d often struggle to believe. Not because he stretches the truth but because he’s an opportunist that always finds himself in amazing situations.

However, some of what I found out was about a dark side. Not that he is evil or misguided. Actually how he came from a difficult beginning. With parents that struggled to parent, he and his brother and sister found themselves bounced around amongst relatives that opened their doors to help raise the family.

Money was tight making a normal childhood in a traditional household tough, combined with bad parenting.

The stories of his summers with Grandparents in the Poconos or hanging out at Monmouth beach are vibrant and entertaining. Always making new friends and often doing without things other kids had, his amazing character placed him into situations where people would show their love for him.

Christmas around his house was rough with little work his odd job lawn mowing father could round up to make Christmas magical as other kids enjoy. But my friend had generous and kind friends that invited him to their home to open their presents with them and play with everything they received. And always under the tree would be one present, the most special one of them all. The gift they had all chosen for my friend. He never felt more love and a sense of belonging than one those Christmas Days where he was accepted as one of the family.

Always struggling to fit in he played basketful for the High School team. Making what he believes a horrible game losing error, he rode home on the school bus mortified. The next day he dropped out of school and signed up for the Army.

After basic training and struggling to find an identity, he was pleased to be stationed in Alaska, which at the time wasn’t even a State.

With little more than some Superior Officers who liked my friend, he embraced his surroundings and was finding himself.

Upon returning to New York after his Army career, he applied for a job at Citibank. Dressed sharply as a soldier would, he walked into the employment office with his resume. The employment officer recognized that my friend not only didn’t have a college degree but he also hadn’t finished high school.

Photo by Michael Competielle

He was sent around the block to the employment office for tellers. The room was filled with a lot of sloppily dressed people hardly interested in obtaining employment. A hiring agent walked into the room and scanned the room and noticed my friend, well-groomed and professional looking. He was hired on the spot because he looked like he wanted to be there.

That evening he headed home on the train and cried, saddened by again his rejection and knowing he needed more from his life. He got off the train and headed to the Community College and enrolled.

Working full time, raising a family while going to school, my friend pushed himself to succeed. Immersed fully into every course and absorbing knowledge like a sponge. He was single handily reversing his course.

Then the oldest son became sickly. Life became more challenging and difficult than ever before. Working full time, college in the evenings full time and nights studying by his son’s hospital bed my friend saw no other choice but to continue.

Telling the stories and understanding the man his internal narration of his life helps to understand him and appreciate our relationship. He’s honest and forthcoming and I’ll go to him for advice and mentoring often. Armed with his worldly knowledge and experiences and a passion to help others succeed he will tell me if I’ve gone astray.
We’ve visited his boyhood Hoboken home, and shot films in his childhood playground of Washington Square Park. 
He is certainly the single most person that impresses me as much as I impress him. Daily we challenge each other to take steps outside of our comfort zone and embrace the unknown. His mind is still sharp as he tells his stories and experiences.
This weekend he and his sons are heading into New York and have a boys weekend. He plans to show them some apartments he lived in New York so they have the perspective. 
In the coming weeks, he begins his video memoirs where he plans to sit and record his life experiences. As he struggles to write what he thinks he’s using the technology of a voice recorder that he will dictate into and software that will convert those recordings into written text. The challenges of life hardly challenge if you find a way to circumvent them.


How I Went From Being a “C” Student to an “A” Player

Photo by Michael Competielle

My High School education was at a mediocre school in a middle class town. The curriculum was your standard 1990’s mixture of mathematics, English classes, foreign languages and hands on electives.

Most of the teachers were boring, tenured puppets, pushing the importantance of GPA’s and focusing on passing shitty Scantron tests such as the High School Profiency Test or the California Standardized Test. Tests designed to be administered where each questions answer fits into a box with choices generally A,B,C,or D. Trickery was used to generally have two of the four listed answers to appear very close to being correct however with only one correct answer generally.

This form of testing paved the way for Software Testing Metrics and State Accountability Metrics. Shitty ways to analyze shitty educations with crappy fill in the box exams.

Ironically 3 out of 4 workers sitting in cubicles are expected to think outside the box. Kenneth Cole

Critical thinking and conceptualizing aren’t taught as it’s challenging to grade concepts and philosophies.

I didn’t struggle in school I honestly just didn’t give a shit.

Refusing to study, take notes, do homework and other forced educational tasks I hardly passed any classes with better than “C”.

I’ve never crammed for a test as I felt storing pointless facts in short term memory is like exceeding a sponges saturation point.

Overfill a sponge with fluid and it’ll drip out the excess. If you don’t commit the information into long term memory, your just a test taker and a drippy sponge. Plop,plop… Good luck with life, passing tests and failing at retention and comprehension.

I always loved the first day of school walking into class while being handed a syllabus by an overzealous educator. Grabbing a seat and listening to a teachers introductory formalities about weighting of homework, quizzes, tests and class participation would be discussed and I’d glance around the room looking for the Neo Maxi Zoom Dweebi that would ask about crap like extra credit reading assignments and book reports.

Mathematics I struggled with “showing my work” as the answers always just appeared in my vision mind.

It’s doubtful I ever finished a book report completely as I always refused to create index cards, outlines and rough drafts. My final grades always included demerits for lacking the supporting documents and other time wasters.

If I can get to the correect answer who gives a fuck how I got there?

Teachers that encouraged cramming would review answers to questions that could foreseeably be on a test never anticipated the futureGoogle. Why crap your brain with useless facts such as the 5th President. Does anyone really give a crap? Doubtful.

So why cramming? To take tests obviously.

Enter Mr.Hughes

Photo by Michael Competielle

Sophomore year English changed it all for me with the greatest teacher I ever had. With a reading list of The Glass Menagerie, Johnny Got His Gun, 1984, Twelve Angry Men…. I was certain it would be another crappy class and another crappy year.

Guess what… I was wrong, way wrong.

His grading style was unorthodox as tests and quizzes hardly weighed anything and class participation was the main grading parameter.

Were the dweebs pissed? You bet your ass they were… and me? I was in heaven, all I had to do was read a book and participate in open class discussion. I was in, all in.

Feverishly I read every book on the list plus others. Huxley, Salinger, Orwell, Kerouac. Every evening all I did was read, ensuring full comprehension so the following day I’d engage in the classroom discussion. Hell I’d even lead it.We would argue, fight and force ourselves to reread and reevaluate.

When it was time for grading, Mr. Hughes would walk around with his grade book listing his students names however absent of any grades.

He would stop by each of our desks and ask us what we felt our grades would be.

He was an early adopter of self assessment.

Always a “C” student I was content with a “C” and Mr. Hughes would always say “Mike you deserve an “A”.

To my parents and my shock I aced Sophomore English.

I remember one day in class Mr. Hughes sent me to his car to grab a bag of tennis balls. When I returned Mr.Hughes ask me my favorite song. At the time I was heavy into Metallica and so I chose the song “One” based on the book Johnny Got His Gun. I was instructed to write a few lines of lyrics on the black board.

I can’t remember anything

Can’t tell if this is true or dream

Deep down inside I feel to scream

This terrible silence stops me

Now that the war is through with me

I’m waking up, I cannot see

That there is not much left of me

Nothing is real but pain now

Hold my breath as I wish for death

Oh please God, wake me

Back in the womb it’s much too real

In pumps life that I must feel

But can’t look forward to reveal

Look to the time when I’ll live

Fed through the tube that sticks in me

Just like a wartime novelty

Tied to machines that make me be

Cut this life off from me

Hold my breath as I wish for death

Oh please God, wake me

Now the world is gone, I’m just one

Oh God help me

Hold my breath as I wish for death

Oh please God, help me

Darkness imprisoning me

All that I see

Absolute horror

I cannot live

I cannot die

Trapped in myself

Body my holding cell

Landmine has taken my sight

Taken my speech

Taken my hearing

Taken my arms

Taken my legs

Taken my soul

Left me with life in hell.

“One” Lyrics by Metallica

Mr. Hughes handed me three tennis balls and said ”juggle while you recite your poem”. Puzzled I remember saying it was a song, not a poem. And Mr.Hughes proved me wrong. With three tennis balls in hand he recited my “poem” while juggling.

He created a rhythm by accenting certain syllables while he was reciting. I as well as the rest of the class were in amazement. Thinking back almost 30 years later, the experience is still fresh and life changing.

Having found the way to a real interactive education based on comprehensive, free thinking, discussion, debate and re-evaluation I’ve found a path to how I interact with new life experiences. Free, opened minded and impressionable.

And how did my remaining years work out, I failed Junior English and subsequently called my teacher a talentless hack. There was only one Mr.Hughes.

So how am I an “A” player?

Daily I do self assessments to check in with myself and give myself a grade.

I don’t set an alarm clock. My bodies internal clock awakens me early and the first thing I do… read. Every day I read.

Read, Read, Read. Werner Herzog

My morning breakfast routine consists of oatmilk lattes, avocado toast and a banana. My ritual is mindless so I can read while making it.

Grab a shower, dress and walk the dogs, again while I read.

Getting through my busy day directing others, designing and building I’m personally motivated to keep moving myself and my project tasks forward.

Driven by my own rhythm and self motivation it’s my job to push others. I’m a self starter, a self motivator…. a self assessor. And thats how i manage.

Not everyday do I give myself an “A”. Some days I fail and occasionally miserably. However I will assess the situation and right my off course ship, set her sails and regain my course.

I’m certainly not the smartest person, nor the best writer nor the greatest communicator. But everyday I awaken with a fire, sparked in a windowless classroom by an educator that said “be who you want to be. Just be honest to yourself”.