Last week one of my idols died, and last night I had a dream about him. It wasn’t a particularly exciting dream. Just me and Jimmy Buffett sitting and talking in an empty theater. I wish I could remember what we talked about, but I can’t. I just remember him smiling and laughing and me feeling like everything was going to work out fine.
When I was a kid, my dad would play Jimmy Buffett albums on the record player. I remember the album covers for “Havana Daydreamin’” and “A White Sport Coat and a Pink Crustacean” had “Roark” written on them in black sharpie for some reason. I still have no idea why. My favorite song was “Gypsies In the Palace” and it was all about people throwing a wild party at Jimmy’s house while he was away. I thought it was hilarious.
I suspect I was shielded from some of Buffett’s bawdier songs like “Why Don’t We Get Drunk and Screw,” but I knew that song because my dad would sing a parody version to our basset hound, Edsil. He changed the lyrics to “Why don’t we get loose and chew?” and generally sang while Edsil worked on a rawhide bone. To this day, whenever I see a basset hound, I immediately think of those lyrics and sing them out loud if I think I can get away with it.
I’ve seen Jimmy Buffett play live about a half dozen times (some I remember better than others) and I bet I’ve listened to more of his music than any other performer over the course of my life. His music, however, is not why I’ll always remember him.
I’ll always remember Jimmy Buffett because of what he stood for, and what he taught me about life (and medicine). Buffett symbolized the loveable hero who was far from perfect. His songs gave us the chance to embody a pirate, a sailor, a smuggler or a lover who was destined to fail spectacularly… and who would laugh about it when it was over.
I’ve written recently about how much fear I see in veterinary medicine – fear of failure, fear of irrelevance, fear of losing control – and Buffett’s songs showed a life and a perspective that could laugh those fears off. His self-deprecating sense of humor was refreshing, and it made us feel that our own struggles and shortcomings weren’t something to be ashamed of as much as they were a membership card to the best club around.
Buffett’s songs were never about striving or achieving. They didn’t celebrate the acquisition of wealth or status. All he made us want was a pair of flip flops and a frozen drink we could make in our own blender. His music made us feel that holding on for the weekend was enough, and that we deserved to relax for just getting through the insanity of the world around us. God that’s a perspective so many of us in veterinary medicine should get more comfortable with.
Jimmy Buffett taught me a lot about being present in the moment, experiencing the world with a joyful and mischievous heart, and trying not to take anything too seriously. His songs also taught me to accept that life will be both hard and beautiful. In the song He Went to Paris, Buffett tells the story of a man seeking adventure who ultimately loses his wife and child. The song ends with the man at age 86 and the line “some of it’s magic, some of it’s tragic but I had a good life all the way.” I think this may be one of my favorite song lyrics.
Finally, I learned lessons from Buffett on what it means to age well. When I was in my 20s, I loved his songs about parties and cocktails. Then when I got to my 30s, I was moved by his songs about finding meaning in life. Now in my 40s, I enjoy the songs he wrote about his children. Maybe when I get into my 50s, I’ll discover that I like his more recent music. Who knows?
If Buffett had been in his 60s still writing songs about drinking until he couldn’t remember things, that would have just been sad. But he didn’t do that. He celebrated that part of his life and then found inspiration in the next phase, and the phase after that, and the phase after that. When I think about how I want to age, I want to be like him. I don’t want to cling to what worked in the past, but to be comfortable with and true to where I am in the present. I think this is the essence of aging gracefully.
I hope I told Jimmy all this in my dream last night. It’s what I would want him to know, and it’s what I’ll always remember about him. Goodbye to the original Parrot Head. You brought so much joy to this world. Thank you, and… Fins up!