I’d known Otto Baumeister for five years and had heard the story of his birth countless times. He always started with “My story began the moment I was born… dead.” No one will ever argue with Otto that he isn’t a great showman or that the beginning of his story was in fact “compelling.” However, his story goes on to talk about being revived by a passing doctor who should never have been in the hospital that day, and then about the smell of the floor, the peeling paint on the wall and the whiff of talcum on the nurse’s neck. Oh! And he never cried; not once.
After Otto’s great first line his story hits a free-fall into nothing. He doesn’t talk about his thoughts, his feelings, or even try to expound on the few adventures he did take. For a man who led an average life, he left the remarkable things out which we all have. He left out his loves, the birth of his children, his passions, hobbies and in the end you may know little else about Otto than that he was born without a beating heart.
So, what’s the problem with Otto’s story? To Otto, his birth was the most amazing story he’d ever heard. Anyone who knew Otto for any length of time – a bus stop included – would find this important detail out just as quickly. Otto’s problem was that he was so fixated on a memory which he didn’t have that he ignored everything else. Think about this for a moment. The only memory Otto would ever talk about was one which he has no recollection. He assembled the story from his mother, father, brothers, uncle, sisters, and grandparents.
While interesting, is this where Otto’s “life” begins? This story is interesting, yet it will not tell the story of Otto. At least, it will not tell of Otto’s life, his dreams, goals, and achievements. It will not tell his thoughts, beliefs or ideals. It will tell an interesting, yet short, story. So, then, where does Otto begin? Perhaps, it begins the rainy summer afternoon when he finished the first of many books his parents banned him from reading which he’d smuggled to his bedroom in a laundry basket of clothing. In 1987, Otto, then a fifteen-year-old boy read “Of Mice and Men,” and it changed his life. Over the next three years, Otto would hide books outside his family’s laundry room window from the outside. He would race around to the front of the house, head to that laundry room and grab a basket of clothes he washed and left the previous night. He would walk past his mother in the parlor, “Otto, open your bag please.” He would open his backpack as she dug through it, then zip it shut. Otto told me, “There were many times I could just barely hold my smile back long enough to get to my bedroom at the top of the stairs. Throughout high school my parents suspected nothing.”
This was when Otto knew that his parent’s desire for him to become clergy had dissolved in his mind. He was destined for something much bigger in his mind – the pursuit of literature. He is currently a professor of 20th-century literature.
You can see that while Otto had an interesting story to begin his life, his story didn’t begin until much later.
Your life begins with your passions or endeavors. If your love is cooking, then perhaps your story begins as an eight-year-old helping your Aunt Rita roll meatballs for Christmas. If you are a marathoner, maybe your story begins with hating that your parents signed you up for track as a high school freshmen. Or, if you are a pilot, perhaps your story begins with the first time you experienced a fear of heights as a kid.
Your story can begin with a fear you’ve overcome or something you just happened to be a natural at. Maybe it was that cute girl you had a crush on in the eighth grade who sewed her own clothes. This led you to buy a sewing machine so you could teach yourself to sew and have something to not only talk about with the girl but something in common. That is the story of a young fashion designer I worked with from Oregon.
Where do you begin your story? That depends on where your life has taken you, or where you are going. Then step back and ask yourself, what was the very first moment that brought me here? For Otto, during our interview, he was afraid to mention the story about his book smuggling because he didn’t want his parents to find out (almost 30 years later). But, as we probed into his love of books, his career, and his passion it was evident that this was where we would begin.
One day, our fourth interview, I met Otto at Starbucks. He had a smile on his face and let out a long sigh as he sat down. “Jody, I need to tell you a story. My love of books started in a laundry room.”