misc

On scratching the itch

Route 66 - A glimpse over the top.

So here’s the plan: fly into Vegas on Friday, Sept. 10 around 9:30 at night, grab my compact rental car, and start driving. Leave the Sin City behind and hit the road.

Next, make it to Springdale, Utah, just south of Zion National Park, check into a room at some low-rate motel, and hit the park. Hiking and picture taking. A day, maybe two, then hit the road again, southeast this time, toward the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. Find a spot to sleep, maybe with the rental car as my tent, build a fire in the desert, and wake up to do some more hiking – to the bottom of the Earth.

Last time I was in the neighborhood, I passed up on the Grand Canyon only because of time constraints. By the time Route 66 wound through Arizona, there was too much left to see along the actual route – and when I got to California, I had to turn around and drive all the way back home.

But I always knew I’d be back, and it only took four years. So it’s time to do the largest gorge on Earth justice and explore it righteously.

My only concern is gear: since I’ll be flying and not driving West, it’s not like I can fill the car with tents and pots and backpacks. In fact, I want to travel as lightly as possible. One option is to pick up everything I’ll need there, use it, and ship it home. I’m still working this one out.

After all the parks, it’s on to New Mexico, and to Albuquerque to see Cowboy and Sarah and Kita, their nice, skittish dog. The last time I was in town I had a burger and malt at a ‘50s-style diner, and became a member of the Albuquerque Public Library System to use the Internet. That was only an hour or two, but this time I’ll have days to explore: visit the Route again, maybe do some hiking, definitely go swimming in the Myers’s apartment complex pool.

That’s until Friday night. Saturday morning has me hauling ass across the desert to make it back to Vegas and take a red eye flight back home.

It’s an adventure like the old days, when time and money were no object. My last big trip was New England, and that seems so long ago that I get experiences from that trip mixed with the others. Which trip had my knee hurting? (New England) Which trip had fears of car trouble? (Route 66 and Pennsylvania/Columbus) Which trip was I hit on by a gay guy? (All of them)

This is how I get my head straightened out. Me, sitting in a car, blaring the radio, windows down (yes, even – and especially – in the desert), seeing things I’ve never seen before. It’s cathartic and therapeutic and fun all at once. It’s the “me” that I’ve gotten to know so well, and it’s time to revisit that feeling.

There was a story in Ken Burns’s “The National Parks” documentary about the head of the national parks, Stephen Mather, going bat-shit insane if he didn’t get out and explore the country on a periodic basis. He spent so much time in Washington that he would up in a mental ward for 18 months until his family took him out West and – lo and behold – his soul and sanity were restored. I can relate.

After a certain amount of time, I get The Itch – the feeling that there’s adventure out there somewhere. Really, it’s because there’s not much room to sit and think around these parts. Sitting and doing nothing but thinking, with some hiking and picture-taking mixed in, allows for time and space totally dedicated to reflection. What have I done? Where am I going next? Why didn’t I stop at that last rest area? These are questions that need to be answered.

So I’ll answer them at the bottom of the Earth, and in between tunnels of rock and dirt, and in the middle of nowhere – amongst my best friends.


30 And Under – ‘Don’t Settle’

[I gave a shorter, punchier version of this essay at Jackson Magazine’s 30 And Under banquet, as a way to warn these ambitious young professionals what was in store for them. They probably already knew the second part, but the first part was 30 And Under wisdom after I was honored last year.]

There’s not much tackier than unasked for advice, so we’ll call these next two tid-bits “tips” instead of advice.

Tip one: whether anyone who is honored as a 30 And Under winner likes it or not, you’re going to become a celebrity in Jackson. The picture and profile will show up in the magazine and you’ll have strangers on the street saying “congratulations!” It happens. And grandma and grandpa and that guy you owe money to will all call and say they saw you in Jackson Magazine.

It’s a heavy burden, those first few months after winning. You’ll be famous to a group of people who have a very local sense of fame. You’re now in a select group of people that will probably make appearances on JTV or United Way billboards.

And in case you weren’t busy enough now, you’ll have community groups and committees asking for your help for their next big project. Jackson needs help, so being an up-and-coming hotshot means groups are pointing their volunteer laser beam right at you. Be prepared.

Tip two: listen for what people say about Jackson, especially when they pipe up about an idea, project, or event being “too good” for this town.

I heard it even before I was honored, but now I pay more attention. Too often, someone will claim an idea will never go over, never be attended, never be supported – because Jackson just isn’t that classy of a town.

Don’t think about that wild project you want to tackle, because it’s too good of an idea. And don’t even attempt to tackle some barrier in town, because they’ve been there and tried that and it doesn’t work around here.

Jackson has a crisis of confidence – a low self-esteem that rates somewhere between Chelsea and Hillsdale. Maybe it’s too much bad news in the past generation, or maybe it’s something in the water. Whatever. It’s very real.

It’s also true that good ideas have died on the vine in this town. But I’d rather have too many good ideas than a hum-drum philosophy that accept mediocrity and doesn’t break a sweat.

So don’t settle. Don’t let “good enough” be good enough, or think that something exciting is too exciting for Jackson.

I often think about AKA Sushi, the little boutique eatery up by Starbucks on West Ave. A business owner could have played it safe and threw in another McDonald’s, or Tim Horton’s, and offer another chain restaurant. Those are good enough for Jackson. Anything fancier would never make it, right?

Instead, there’s a hip sushi joint that draws a crowd on a Friday night. Not settling has been good for business.

Jackson’s chapter of the American Red Cross took a chance on a pop-up art gallery. With real art! And people had to pay to get in! The result was a smash success. The RED committee didn’t settle.

But many of my 30 And Under compatriots understand this already. They don’t go to work and go home and flip on the TV, day in and day out. They don’t settle for a life lived as usual – if they did, they wouldn’t be honored by Jackson Magazine.

The way we make Jackson raise its chin is by doing what we’re doing: not settling. Experimenting. Taking chances.

It’s tough, and it draws attention to your efforts, but the payoffs are pretty cool.


Literally

This post took me literally 15 minutes to write.

“Literally,” it seems, has become a word used in just about everyone’s vocabulary these days. Literally. We don’t just say, “I’m five minutes away.” We say “I’m literally five minutes away.”

The use of “literally” has spread so fast and so aggressively that even smart, well-intentioned people are prone to literalize everything.

Here’s what bothers me about the overuse of “literally”: it adds emphasis that doesn’t need to be there. It’s okay to say, “I jumped out of my seat,” or “There were two people in the theater.” You don’t need the exclamation point “literally” provides.

Is the overuse of “literally” a reaction against metaphor? When I say, “The dog had three legs,” what else could I be saying that would necessitate a “literally” in between “had” and “three?”

Now, if you want to clarify a point and make it clear that you’re not using a metaphor, saying “literally” notifies the listener that you are, indeed, speaking in a literal sense. So you can say “all hell broke loose” if a situation gets hairy, but it’s not appropriate to say “all hell, literally, broke loose” unless a hole in the earth swallows your house and little imps and demons carry away your pet llama, while in the background some maniacal laughter signals your doom.

Because unless that happens, hell does not literally break loose. There’s a difference.

Metaphor is a powerful agent in the English language, and we use it – along with similes – every day. I’m as high as a kite, fit as a fiddle, sharp as a tack, happier than a pig in shit, and as rabid as a dog. Also, we are all snowflakes.

But often metaphor isn’t needed, like when we say we’re driving 90 down the highway. The silliness with “literally” is that saying we’re driving 90 down the highway implies meaning and conjures up a visual automatically. There’s no metaphor involved. You’re really driving 90 miles per hour. We get it.

So why the hell would you ever say, “Honey, I’ll be there in a minute; I’m literally going 90 down the highway.”

Was there any confusion? Would your honey not believe you? Was speeding and driving recklessly enough of a stretch in behavior (there’s a metaphor!) for you to qualify your statement with a “literally?”

No. There’s no qualification needed.

Using “literally” goes along with the overuse of “to be honest” or “honestly” (replacing “basically” as the overused phrase of the decade): am I to assume you haven’t spoken to me truthfully before? Why add “honestly?” Are you being super grownup serious when you say, “To be honest?”

Same with “literally.” If you’re implying that you’re using a metaphor in a denotative instead of connotative way, then by all means use “literally.”

You’re literally a pig in a poke? Great. Can’t wait to see you in a dead cat costume, climbing out of a bag, yelling “fooled you!” You literally flew down the road? Super. Can’t wait to see your supersonic hovercraft.

Otherwise, leave the “literally” behind. Because, to be honest, I’m so sick of it I could puke. Literally.


We were watching TV

Did you ever see that episode of Gilligan’s Island where they almost get off the island and then Gilligan messes up and then they don’t? I saw that one. I saw that one a lot when I was growing up. And every half-hour that I watched that was a half an hour I wasn’t posting at my blog or editing Wikipedia or contributing to a mailing list. Now I had an ironclad excuse for not doing those things, which is none of those things existed then. I was forced into the channel of media the way it was because it was the only option. Now it’s not, and that’s the big surprise. However lousy it is to sit in your basement and pretend to be an elf, I can tell you from personal experience it’s worse to sit in your basement and try to figure if Ginger or Mary Ann is cuter.

Something is better than nothing, says Clay Shirkey, especially when “in the U.S., we spend 100 million hours every weekend, just watching the ads.”

I don’t hate TV. In fact, there’s a lot about it I love. “The Office,” “Mad Men,” football – I don’t get much done when these programs are on TV. Sometimes that’s great. My mind can stand to have a few minutes of down-time each week. So can yours.

But more and more, I find myself using that leisure time (the “social surplus” of time, Shirkey calls it) to do something productive: write a blog entry, or make a web site, or help out my recycling group, or just goof off on something creative. It’s all entertainment.

Sometimes, my heart aches at the silly YouTube videos people gobble up, or the hours spent managing a fake farm. But then I think about what’s going to come out of all this – how we’re all just goofing off and creating a new and vibrant culture.

Before, TV execs told us what to watch, and when, and we voted with our remotes. Now you and I and all of our friends make all this stuff and tune in to what we want, and vote with our mouse clicks and encouragement. My roommate can star in a video, and I can share an article that I read, and we’re having just as much fun. Plus, we’re using our brains way more.


On being an advanced beginner

There was a time when I could hear a song on the radio, pick up my guitar, and strum it out until I got the hang of the song’s chord progression or riff.

In high school, after I picked up my first guitar for $100, I could sit for hours and learn my favorite songs. Over time, I built up a competency for guitar playing. No, I couldn’t hammer out solos like my friends. I didn’t have a knack for songcraft, either. But I had enough skill to play what I wanted to play, and to learn something I heard and liked.

I like to think I still have that skill set. Like riding the proverbial bike, from time to time I pick up my acoustic guitar and everything comes back to me. The time I spent in high school was an investment that pays off every time I play.

My guitar playing came to mind during Merlin Mann’s 37-minute-long video on expertise and fake self-help. Mr. Mann learned that there are several levels of expertise, ranging from novice to expert, and your placement on the gradient is proportional to the time and attention you place on whatever it is you’re studying.

A novice, the thinking goes, starts out knowing nothing, and learns by doing exactly what they’re told. Learn the basics. Simple enough.

My journalism professor, Dr. Dennis Renner, said that “rules are made for smart people to break.” That little maxim always stuck with me because it makes so much sense. Learn the basics before you go sprinting off to change to world. You have to know something before you can’t start messing around. You don’t get smart until you move past the novice level.

So the expert and the master, as Mann labels a sixth level, are free to break the rules because they know the rules inside and out. They know the rules so deeply and personally that the rules fade into habit.

It’s the step above novice, what Dreyfus calls “advanced beginner,” that has me thinking.

For years now, I’ve dabbled in many things and have become an expert of none. It’s the Renaissance Man Syndrome: know a little about a bunch of stuff, enough to talk intelligently during dinner hour conversations, but not enough to go out and change the world. Or get anything practical done. Just knowing is different from actually doing.

Take graphic design. I’ve been doing design work for almost seven years now, from my first design class in college, yet I wouldn’t call myself anything next to an expert. I know enough to get my job done, to dabble in freelance projects, and that’s it. Mostly, I think it’s because I never developed a strong enough foundation. No art training and little design sense handicap me, and prevent me from developing my craft to an expert level.

Writing, however, is something I know deep and well. My whole life, I’ve studied grammar and story telling and expository writing. It made English an obvious bachelor’s degree choice, and helped journalism come naturally to me. Writing isn’t easy. But I know enough to do well, help others, and critique bad writing when I see it. This comes from years of doing writing.

As Merlin says, every writing book on Earth has one shared piece of advice: sit in a chair and write. That’s the only way to get better.

Well, that and pick up a goddamn book now and again.

But besides writing, I don’t have a particular skill I can call my own. Sure, I can fix a computer – but I get the knowledge to do that from online searches and a bit of history. And yeah, I can take a decent photograph – but that comes from seeing how others have done it, not from any particular depth of knowledge.

I respect men and women who can work on cars so much. They have to know a vehicle deep and well or it doesn’t get fixed. It’s a skill I’d love to pick up (and it has me researching some ways to do just that).

Mann argues that so much of our knowledge about a particular subject doesn’t get much deeper than a Wikipedia search and a few how-to articles. We become beginners at something and never really advance beyond that. It’d be like Michaelangelo putting tracing paper over a painting he saw and transferring it the Sistine Chapel. From afar, it might look nice, but up close – well, anyone could do that.

That little bit of knowledge makes us arrogant. We end up thinking we know more than we actually know.

Renaissance Men and Women of old, especially some of our founders like Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin, knew a great deal about many things. They were deep and wide. Their lives were dedicated to learning and thinking, and – in all fairness – few of us have time for that today.

Instead, we take up hobbies and learn a lot about one or two subjects. But knowing something deeply doesn’t simply affect what we do in our free time. It also affects our prospects for employment and advancement.

And shucks, it makes us interesting people. Deeply interesting. Like, magazines-or-NPR-will-interview-you-for-your-expertise interesting.

That’s not for everyone. Some people (and you know them well) are comfortable with a mile wide and an inch deep. I respect that, and it’s naive to think that everyone will become an expert in something.

But man, wouldn’t it be great if we had more people who knew what the hell they were talking about when they open their mouth?

Wouldn’t it be cool if more of us moved past the “advanced beginner” stage?


The One True Way

Which brings us, finally, to the One True Way to get a lot of traffic on the web. It’s pretty simple, and I’m going to give it to you here, for free:

Make something great. Tell people about it. Do it again.

That’s it. Make something you believe in. Make it beautiful, confident, and real. Sweat every detail. If it’s not getting traffic, maybe it wasn’t good enough. Try again.

Then tell people about it. Start with your friends. Send them a personal note – not an automated blast from a spam cannon. Post it to your Twitter feed, email list, personal blog. (Don’t have those things? Start them.) Tell people who give a shit – not strangers. Tell them why it matters to you. Find the places where your community congregates online and participate. Connect with them like a person, not a corporation. Engage. Be real.

Then do it again. And again. You’ll build a reputation for doing good work, meaning what you say, and building trust.

It’ll take time. A lot of time. But it works. And it’s the only thing that does.

Via Derek Powazek, courtesy of Merlin Mann.

Again and again and again, marketers (or people that do things similar to what I do) ruin a good thing because they want to make more money.

When you job is to make web sites appear higher in Google rankings, you’re abandoning effort on the actual content of that site in favor of snake-oil tricks in the form of Search Engine Optimization (SEO).

Sure, it’s fun to have your page creep near the top of Google’s rankings. But it’s way more fun to have it happen organically.


The Facebook Divorce

The Facebook Divorce


Will Work for Macs

MacBook Pro - glowing keyboard

For the third time in my life now, I’ve been directly involved in the purchase of a new Macintosh computer.

The first was my first, an iBook G4 that still serves as my home base computer. The other was helping Katie buy an iMac.

But this one, a 15" MacBook Pro, is strictly professional. It’s the result of our credit union’s umbrella organization, the Jackson Co-Op, taking a chance on my design skills and hiring me as a contract freelancer.

The deal goes something like this: my design skills will be available to non-profits as a Jackson Co-Op service. I’ll make whatever they need, like newsletters, web sites, and – our specialty – giant paper banners. I’ll work on my own, away from work, and the entire thing will be run from the new Mac.

Sure, the extra money will help. And I’ll get a chance to stretch my marketing muscles beyond the credit union. But the new Mac is really what sealed the deal.

And man, it’s a beauty. Fifteen inches of enclosed aluminum, a complete Adobe Create Suite 4 package, the world’s most advanced and gorgeous operating system, and something to do with all that free time I have.

Right?

I’ll be the sole employee of the Jackson Co-Op unless my workload becomes too great for me to handle. If we get super busy, they’ll hire someone to work with me.

My freelance work, in the past, has come in fits and spurts. I won’t get any jobs (which I get strictly from word of mouth and referrals) for a long time, and then a bunch of people will be looking to get projects done. Just last week I had two going at the same time – one big, and one fairly simple.

The solo freelance work I’ve done has been more to keep my skills sharp and to help out local non-profits with their marketing. All too often, I’ve come across a brochure or flyer and though, “Jeez, they need some help.” Some organizations are smart enough to realize this themselves, so they give me a ring.

And that’s not to say I’m some super local talent. There are tons of way more talented designers in Jackson. You just get what you pay for. I purposefully charge a bare-bones rate just to help the non-profits out. I asked for double from for-profit companies because, hey, they can afford it.

Now, I’ll still be doing freelance work, but under the guise of another not-for-profit organization. It’ll no longer be Dave Lawrence, for hire. It’ll be the Jackson Co-Op, and this fella Dave Lawrence, for hire.

But golly. A new MacBook Pro serving as the base of operations? In this case, it can hardly be called “work.”

I’m a bit nervous about the workload. I know I’ll have to give up a few things, (Newton Poetry may have a few fewer articles each week, for instance) but the deal works out on a bunch of different fronts. I’ll be stashing away extra money, helping out local groups, and…oh yes…the Mac thing.

Here I had planned on grabbing a new iMac after the latest operating system, OS X 10.6, comes out. I’ll probably still do that, but now I’ll have an easier time paying for it, and I’ll familiarize myself with OS X 10.5 Leopard (I’ve been running OS X 10.4 Tiger on all my Macs).

So things should get interesting. In the meantime, I’ll be working on infrastructure projects, like the co-op’s web site and mailing lists and so on, while reaching out to local organizations and offering my/our services.

All I need is a “Now Open” sign for my window.


On ‘Into the Wild’

Americans can be placed in two diametrically-opposed camps: those whoe view Henry David Thoreau’s experiment next to Walden Pond as a great idea, worthy of copying, and everyone else.

I’ve long placed myself in the former category. The idea of spending two years alone in the woods, with a self-built shelter and a bean garden, sounds pretty darned gnarley. Thoreau allowed himself walks into town for shopping and visits with friends, and that would be fine, too. But the romantic ideal behind Walden is enough conjure visions of daily journal entries, long walks in the isolated woods, and lots and lots of book reading.

For that other group of Americans, Thoreau’s experiment sounds like a trip into madness. Living alone in the woods? Finding yourself in solitude with just your thoughts? Cue the spine shivers and dry heaving. For some, an idea like that is not in the cards – now or ever.

I’ve always done well alone. As a child, I could entertain myself for hours. And now, as an adult, I’ve taken several long excursions all by my lonesome, and no suffering ensued.

“I don’t think I could do that all by myself,” people tell me. So it is.

But even the idea of Chris McCandless – the 24-year-old vagabond who starved to death in the Alaskan wilderness and subject of Jon Krakauer’s magnificent Into the Wild – heading out alone and unprepared seems like madness to me.

McCandless, if you’re not familiar with the story, was a well-to-do college graduate who gave away all his money and hit the road. He preferred an uncertain life in the American wilderness to a comfortable, normal middle class existence.

I can respect that. I admire someone who takes the ideals of Thoreau and Tolstoy (or Jesus, for that matter) and other ecstetics and lives them out loud. Living close to the bone is, arguably, the only way to live. For some, giving up all their possessions and lending their life to chance makes our mortal existence more worthy. I dig it.

What I don’t dig is a life led foolishly. If you’re going to take a chance, then you’d better be able to accept the consequences. In McCandless’s case, he paid the ultimate price for his ascetic lifestyle. It didn’t have to be that way.

Krakauer paints McCandless’s tale as a mixture of preperation and cares-to-the-wind gambling, mostly stemming from the kid’s stubborn moralism. McCandless came to idolize Thoreau, Tolstoy, and the stories of Jack London so much that common sense seemed an afterthought. Like taking a canoe down the Colorado River, hoping to reach Baja California and the Pacific Ocean – even though there was no direct route. Or sleeping in his car in a salt flat, only to have a flash flood was everything he owned away.

Breathing the neon of life is a fine way to live, but man – there are always consequences. If I take a cross-country driving trip, sure, I take my chances on exact details. But you can bet I’ve got the general outline planned out, and that I’ve done my research. Life can be exciting and well-thought-out. They’re not mutually exclusive.

All I know is, heading into the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 10-pound bag of rice and a rifle is far from proper foresight. It’s suicide. What’s sad is that McCandless probably knew his chance of survival was nil, but the experience? Well, that was everything.

I feel the same pull that McCandless felt, if only to a lesser degree. Tramping off to climb a mountain or hike through the woods in solitude restores some reptilian center in my brain to full health. Thing is, I want to take more trips and experience more adventures sometime in the future. To do that, I need to keep living. I have neither the constitution nor the wherewithal to survive like some Neolithic hunter-gatherer, and I have the humility to recognize that.

It’s a shame that a bright, resourceful, strong-minded young man could’ve had plenty of more adventures if only he hadn’t been so foolish. Hubris is a helluva thing in the face of an uncaring, unsympathetic Nature. Odds are, you’re going to lose.

But all that is obvious. Any idiot can see how foolish McCandless was. What struck me was that McCandless was such a rigid moralist that it cost him his life. In the face of overwhelming odds, the kid had no sense of pragmatism. Even Thoreau, alone in the woods, built a woodshed for the winter. His character was not lessened by his prep work. But like most absolutists, McCandless picked and chose Thoreau’s lessons to fit his worldview. People often pick Bible passages to prop up their evil. McCandless took only those maxims that justified his rash existence.

So he died. Maybe, in his final agonizing moments, he felt justified. The suffering was the living, and starvation brought him closer to the live wires that light the world.

For me, though, I’ll take my adventure with a bit of planning. The sights I’ve seen and the places I’ve been have brought me closer to some Ultimate Experience. A glimpse over the top was all I needed.

To guys like McCandless, they’re not happy unless they’re dangling from the edge, rope frayed from rubbing against their own moral scaffolding.

Lots of luck out there.


The Best There Ever Will Be

“You can be a good person and do everything right and it doesn’t guarantee you anything.” – Owen Hart

I can place the era that I started watching wrestling again, when I was 13, and it was mostly because of two events: the return of the Undertaker at SummerSlam 1994, and the fact that Bret Hart was the reigning WWE (then, the WWF) champion.

It’s astonishly easy to admit: Bret “Hitman” Hart is a hero of mine.

I can blame Andrew for my renewed interest in the Bret Hart’s career. His video collection is stock-piled with classic WWE pay-per-view events (including all the SummerSlams and Wrestlemanias). We spent a good portion of my time in L.A. – at least at night – watching classic matches from the ‘90s.

I watched wrestling religiously back then, after taking time some time off in my pre-teen years. From 1994-1998, I watched almost every pay-per-view event with my buddies Josh and PJ, and caught many of the weekly TV shows in college. My interest traces as far back as the rivalry between Hulk Hogan and Randy “Macho Man” Savage in the mid ’80s. At least that’s as far back as I can remember.

No matter who came and went, Bret Hart was always my favorite.

Mostly, I think it was his work ethic and overall “averageness” that made me a fan. His Hitman character was simple: technical, proficient wrestler who took on all comers. Bret wasn’t big, he wasn’t flashy, and he didn’t have quite the charisma guys like Hogan or, later, The Rock, had.

But man, he knew his stuff. I just finished his autobiography, and the biggest thing that sticks out is that he was a consumate professional who worked hard and gave everyone an opportunity to shine. His success came as it should have: through dedication and sticking it out. It wasn’t his size or his ego that got him to the top. It was his skill and professionalism. His co-workers respected him for that.

“There was always something different about my fans,” Hart writes in his autobiography. “They really believed in me as a person.”

And that’s true. The Bret Hart in the ring was the same guy as the Bret Hart in the locker room.

Bret Hart was one of the few wrestlers to use his own name. He didn’t appeal to the crowd during his matches. He was a loner, a history buff, and true to the friends who didn’t betray him.

That kind of thing appeals to me. I always respected how Bret Hart’s character, as World Champion, gave everyone a title-shot opportunity – even guys like Doink the Clown. He was an egalitarian.

And good lord, what an excruciating finishing move. The Sharpshooter, a modified Scorpion Death Lock, was intricate and beautiful to watch.

The Undertaker, always my second favorite, had the mood and the atmosphere and the spooky persona down. He was talented, yes, but it was his theatrics that made me a fan. Bret Hart appealed to the average guy in me. When you don’t have a lot of charisma or athletic gifts, you try to out-work everyone. I understood that.

Bret Hart’s hard work paid off in a lot of ways. He’s, by far, the most decorated wrestler of all time: two tag teams championships, two intercontinental championships, seven world titles, two King of the Ring tournaments, various other championships, and so many fan and industry awards (including induction into the WWE Hall of Fame in 2006) it’s impossible to list them all. Again, it’s something I see in myself. Overachievers get my respect.

What’s tragic, however, is what has happened to Bret Hart since November 1997 – the infamous “Montreal Screwjob” that served as his inglorious ousting from the WWE. Since then, it’s been one misshap after another: a so-so career in rival WCW, the death of his fantastically-talented brother Owen in a freak accident, the drug abuse of his fellow comrades, a concussion, a divorce, and – in 2002 – a debilitating stroke after a bicycle fall.

In other words, my childhood hero is human, just like the rest of us, and that’s helped me to respect him even more.

His autobiography lays the imperfections out there: infidelity, a bit of drug and steroid abuse, a chaotic family life. Still, when seen against the tableau of what was going on in the rest of the wrestling world, Bret Hart’s life was pretty tame. That’s why it’s such a shame to read about what’s happened to him since the glory days.

My fear, like his, is that his legacy will somehow be erased – that people younger than me won’t remember what a great performer Bret Hart was.

I suppose that’s why, after I returned from Los Angeles, I immediately hit Amazon and bought his book. For my own mind, I wanted to hear Bret Hart’s story. Maybe it’s my dread that my best days are behind me now, or some strange need for nostalgia, when I watched a purer form of wrestling entertainment than what’s on TV now.

Whatever. It’s been great to relive the days of my boyhood hero. After all, when you grow up with few male role models around, you look up to what’s available at the time. Bret Hart, a hero in his home country of Canada, was one of them.

Of course wrestling is staged and the outcomes are pre-determined. Telling that to a wrestling fan is like telling your parents Santa Claus doesn’t exist. It doesn’t take away the fun, and it doesn’t take away the real people behind all the hooplah and exhibition. They get hurt and they have problems and they deal with real life just like the rest of us do.

To me, Bret Hart was more real than most.

Here’s to you, Hitman.