Be it a fine thing or petty, ambition is the standard to which all men may be measured. For a goodly lot of otherwise impoverished souls may contain surprising wells of talent, either in writing, acting, drawing, building, dancing, moneymaking, politicking, speechifying, haberdashery or necromancy, but ambition divides this – to the naked eye indivisible – mob into the pioneers and the hobbyists. Ego is no gauge of success, for egotism is the instinctual necessity of all creatures that prefer life to the latter. And where talent supports ego, and ego may cradle talent, neither is as fundamental to the dissemination of the pioneer’s legacy as ambition.
Talent alone has never been the lone variable, for the talented starve or live quiet and contented as mellow clerks in wholesome coats. The egoists survive in every echelon of society, from the errant tramp to the sly confidence man and the dapper chief executive officer in a numbered block of his aseptic office park and the snide japester on the information superhighway.
And imagine my great surprise – no, do not imagine; feel my sudden cavity, that carved bite of dry sand whose tumbling wall slid in variegated shades of tan, black and white, shifting like the beach melting in miniature, as immediate as a blow yet the aftermath of a gradual process years in the making, decades of slow, sandy confusion; to know, in examining my great assets, that what little talent I had was of no consequence, and ego notwithstanding, for my ambition was vestigial at best. It had never been forsaken; it had been an afterthought, a niggling detail for my talent and ego to gnaw upon in the absence of what I believed were more pressing concerns. To be old, and in America, without the accidence of ambition, was merely to be old, possessed of artistic idiosyncrasy, and not so different from you or the mob.
My ego the only buoyant – however ill-mannered – vestige of worth, I floundered for some time, looking for some other reason that my grand artistry had not been recognized, my natural pride not shone as a beacon to guide wealthy patrons to me. It was my lack of ambition alone, my lackadaisical footrace with my projected achievement, that kept my art from crystallizing, my joy becoming my life. That joy remained a meager, dehydrated organ in my body, nourished at only the end of weary days when I pretended there was more to my body than all else.
And feel, do not imagine, that realization do nothing. I was not born ambitious, could not be made ambitious, only surprised that I was not and would not be. I am a mellow clerk in a wholesome coat. I draw sunsets in pen on the back of your deposit slips. I sleep on linen. My breakfast is toast. My dreams have sharp lines and gray endings, and I wake up, every day, more or less how I came to sleep. It does not trouble me, save in the dreams that have some color, an emergent palette from some ambitious nocturne I may sketch tomorrow, if I find the time.