I've pondered the nature of success a lot lately. Ten years ago this month I graduated from college. Full of ambition. Full of hubris. Full of ideas on how I would change the landscape of American life . . . if not life on earth. Well, it is nothing short of astonishing what the first 10 years of life after college will do to one's perspective on his or her role in our global community. Not to mention one's perspective on how exactly success is attained.
Having spent my formative years in Vermont and my college days in Boston, I had experienced my personal quota of New England winters by the time I received my cherished bachelor's degree. In searching for just where I would take my burgeoning skills - I was an English major, folks - I decided Memphis was the place to begin. My father grew up in the Bluff City. Many a family vacation wound toward "the capital of the Mid-South" for visits with my grandmother. Being near her was a major factor in my deciding to take this regional leap. I even convinced an old high-school chum who had never been south of the Mason-Dixon to climb aboard the good ship Murtaugh for the journey south. The fact that he had a car helped.
Two months before I donned my cap and gown, my grandmother suffered a fatal heart attack. She knew I had decided to move to Memphis and was looking forward to catching up on time we had lost during my years in New England. To say this dampened my exuberance for the move wouldn't do justice to the affection I held for my last living grandparent. I miss her to this day, and her loss was the first of many, shall we say, twists on what I had drawn up as "the plan."
In part to honor my grandmother's memory, I kept Memphis in my crosshairs. My buddy and I drove down in June 1991 ready to conquer our first corner of the world. "The plan" held that I would cultivate my love for sports and become the next Red Smith, or at least the next Al Dunning. A well-connected friend arranged an interview for me with Lionel Linder, at the time the editor of The Commercial Appeal. Mr. Linder graciously shook my hand across his sizable desk, sat me down, and explained that there simply was not a lot of turnover in the paper's sports department. Tilting his head, he pointed out that sportswriters generally like what they do, they aren't promoted into different departments, and vacancies are hard to find for 22-year-olds armed with clips from their hometown newsweekly (circulation: 1,600).
My path to the press box had been interrupted, to say the least. When you aspire to be a sportswriter and the only daily in town says get some experience, well, you start knocking on doors. I was able to arrange an interview with this very magazine. Management (I won't name names) kindly gave me a tour of what I now see as the nicest former coffee warehouse in downtown Memphis. I was then told that my best approach would be to live here a while, get the lay of the land, learn the difference between Union Avenue and Poplar. Once I knew where Beale Street was, the theory held, I might be more able to write about it.
I wound up as a gopher for a downtown real estate company. Thankfully, for only 10 months. And god bless the women I worked with in that little sales office. They taught me volumes on what it means to have to earn the money that would pay my utility bill, pay for groceries, pay for the many calls home to Vermont. They reminded me that work is just that; it's not an exploration of one's creative energy before an audience of countless admirers. I had bosses for the first time in my life. I'm lucky to say I also considered them my friends. Wherever they may be, I thank them.
This is where we come to the success part. Somehow, I managed to convince the woman I had grown to love to join me in Memphis. A born-and-bred Vermonter, this amazing person - her roots on a farm no less - took a profound leap and followed me to the big city eight months after I had arrived. Had she not, I'm not sure if there would be a story here. She is now the finest paralegal this town has to offer. She is also, now for almost seven charmed years, my wife. She reminds me every single day of what I get up for, what I work for, and why I come home in the evening. Considering my current occupation, I guess you could call her my muse.
As you might have gleaned, the South's finest city magazine did finally hire me. As a veteran gopher, I made a rather seamless transition into my new job as assistant to the publisher. After three years, through some trickery (and a few mirrors), I convinced the same management that had patted me on the shoulder and sent me on my way to give me a shot as managing editor. Six years later, we haven't missed an issue. So knock wood, if you will. As for Red Smith, his spirit need not worry. Though I can tell you more about three years of Memphis Redbird history than you'll ever need to know.
Two years ago this month, my success story arrived in the form of a six-pound, three-ounce baby girl. Since my daughter was born, any and all preconceived notions on what constitutes a priority have been tossed out. Every "first" has been transcendent: smile, tooth, step, word, baseball game. You name an event. Sofia's mother or I will tell you the date and time. You want success? How about the first time your child makes a special request for you, Daddy, to change her diaper? Joy . . . and I kid you not.
I imagine the time will come when a decade lived will seem short. The past 10 years for me have been, if brief, voluminous. My first million is still a lottery ticket - or a free-agent baseball contract - away. My wife and I share a car, and it's no Mercedes. My house will never highlight a home tour. On the other hand, my job has taken me to China, Northern Ireland, France, and Peru. I've learned about ostrich farms, miniature horses, and what makes Rufus Thomas shake a leg. I've even interviewed the most famous fire-breathing bassist on the planet, Gene Simmons of KISS. (We all need heroes.) On a deeper level, I have come to take immense pleasure in my wife's laugh and my daughter's smile. A walk around the block as a trio is a ritual I would no more sacrifice than I would my left arm. Success? I'll tell you more later. Right now, I've got to change another diaper.
[This story was first published in Memphis Magazine, where Murtaugh is the managing editor.]