The Double-Aughts: A Personal Retrospective

The arrival of a new year provides us with the opportunity to reflect on the past year and to commit to a plan for the 12 months ahead. The arrival of a new decade acts similarly, but tenfold. Obviously. As I survey the carnage of the double-aughts, I see the smouldering ruins of epic failure and the tender green shoots of success. Let’s pray that the ’10s provide more fertilizer for the shoots and less fuel for the fires.


The decade began on January 1, 2001. I had just moved back home after spending the fall semester in residence at Christopher House, the minor seminary for the Diocese of Grand Rapids; the facility was located in the old convent attached to St. Stephen’s parish in East G.R. before the diocese closed the House altogether. At the time, I was fresh off of a week-long retreat with the Legion of Christ in Connecticut, and I had been employed by Spectrum Health, doing secretarial work part-time, for about six months. I was also a fresh-faced columnist for the Western Herald, full of piss and vinegar and supremely convinced of my own persuasiveness and rectitude. Simultaneously, I continued as an undergraduate at Western Michigan University, where I remained active in the student government and was, at the dawn of the decade, serving my second term as chief justice of the Western Student Association.

My first major formative event of the decade occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. I had arrived at the Herald’s newsroom fairly early in the day. Because the paper was released every morning, staff usually worked second shift to produce the next day’s issue. The only other employee present at that hour was the general manager, who supervised the business side of the house. Not long after 9 a.m., he waddled into the newsroom, arms flailing, shouting, “Something’s happening! Turn on the TV!” Sure enough, a plane had crashed into one of the towers of the World Trade Center, and the talking heads on CNN were speculating that the impact resulted from some sort of equipment malfunction. I saw — live — the second airliner enter the video, then, a moment later, a fireball erupt from the second tower. I still remember the exact thought that went through my mind: “Oh, shit.” I sprung into action by default — calling the other section editors, trying unsuccessfully to contact the editor in chief, coordinating early assignments for staff writers and photographers, writing the editorial. It was a nightmare. I was in the office from 8:30 a.m. until nearly 2 a.m. the following morning, with only a few brief breaks for food and mind-clearing. My experience in the newsroom, of being the first editor on duty during a major incident in history, made the vocation of journalism come alive for me in ways that other assignments over the years — analyzing Gov. Granholm’s budget travails, covering local visits by George W. Bush and Desmond Tutu, writing the obituary of a friend — never approached.

In the spring of 2003, as I graduated WMU with a double major and triple minor, I enrolled in grad school and left home. Truth be told, my mom sold the house, so my options on the domicile front were somewhat constrained. I moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Kentwood, and proceeded to live a busy life of working two full-time jobs, attending grad school, commuting daily between Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, and spending my free time stretched out on a chair, eating pizza and ice cream and watching hour after countless hour of cable TV, when I wasn’t glued to the computer enjoying the various sights and sounds of high-speed Internet. PPWW … pizza, porn, warez, WoW: the quadrifecta of mid-20s dorkdom.

The next major kick in the ass came at the tail-end of 2004. A person can burn the candle from both ends for only so long before he runs out of wick. By this time, I was an analyst at the hospital and editor in chief of the Herald. During the 2004 Bush/Kerry race, my staff were evenly divided, so in order to deflect the partisan passions in the newsroom from “we hate everyone” to “we hate the boss,” I chose to single-handedly dictate the paper’s endorsements. Although this power was always held solely by the EIC, in practice the editorial was a consensus decision of some or all of the editors. Typically, given any pitch, if the chief agreed, and the news editor, the opinion editor, and the copy chief concurred, then that was the editorial. This time, I simply imposed it by fiat.  After the senior staff attended a media conference just a day after the election — I believe we spent half a week in Nashville, where I first met Emilie’s husband-to-be  — and as Thanksgiving approached, I experienced a series of increasingly vitriolic conversations with the chairman of my board of directors about that endorsement editoral. Truth be told, I think that the reflexive liberal in him was pissed that I endorsed Bush, the first time in the 75+ years of the paper’s existence that the paper endorsed a Republican for president. If I had forced the issue with the full board of directors, I would have easily prevailed. Instead, I simply tendered my resignation.

To be fair, other things were happening simultaneously. First, my grad program was going up in flames. My advisor had succumbed to breast cancer, and most of the ethicists in the department had left over the year. Of the five major ethicists who were on staff when I began, only Michael survived my first year, and he was required to focus on undergrad teaching. Sylvia died; Richard left for a tenure-track position at Madison; and Joe and Shirley retired for health reasons. A top-10 nationally ranked terminal M.A. program in moral philosophy bit the dust in one academic cycle, a shame that has yet to be corrected. Second, my brother and his wife were expecting a child. My younger brother. A baby. Kyler, who was born in early January 2005.

A.D. 2005 was a pivotal year for me. I started in early January by leaving the Herald and dropping out of grad school, the same week Kyler was born. I began a weight-loss program that resulted in the reduction of 110 lbs. from my frame by autumn. I got religion about aerobic fitness, spending 60 minutes a night on my exercise bike, six or seven nights per week. Over Memorial Day weekend, after having lost about 70 pounds, I traded my dorky glasses for contact lenses, turned my old-man-style side part into a tousled, highlighted look, and updated my wardrobe to include clothes trendier than Meijer-issue solid polo shirts and elastic-waistband chinos. Although, I must admit, I went overboard on clothes … I have photographic evidence of wearing skin-tight shirts that allowed innocent bystanders to count my ribs (yes, I was that skinny).

As the summer progressed, my grandfather, who had been diagnosed in 2003 with myelodysplastic syndrome, passed away; the MDS compromised his immune system until he was no longer able to fight off a bacterial pneumonia. He died on Sept 11 — that date, again. He was buried the day before my 29th birthday. I was the lector at his funeral. In December, I joined a gym and a dojo, aiming to build a new life based in part on the lessons of his death.

The next 18-to-24 months was a period of consolidation. From early 2006 until the early months of 2008, I spent significant amounts of time studying karate and running, either at MVP or on the mean streets of Kentwood. In fact, in the summer of 2006, I ran an eight-mile circuit several nights per week. After 11 p.m., and almost always well after sunset, I’d suit up and run from 52nd and Division, cruise along Division to 60th, then to Kalamazoo, then to 44th, to Division, then back to 52nd. I made no substantial progress in terms of, say, running a marathon, but I maintained the gains I made in 2005. In 2006, just days after my 30th birthday, I presented at a national conference in San Diego and enjoyed the many delights of that city. In late 2007, Tony and I took our first trip to The Happiest Place on Earth (aka, “Las Vegas, NV”) and not long thereafter I abandoned my Kentwood apartment to return home to pay off debt. In early 2008, I became certified as an open-water diver and became heavily involved in diocesan worship activities, serving in several roles for special Masses presided by the bishop. Before and after THPOE, I spent time planning what I wanted to do with my life, long-term. Project 810 was born.

My world turned upside down in the middle of 2008. I met Andrew online the week before Tony and I took our second trip to THPOE, just after Memorial Day weekend. Although I had dated women before — and retain fond memories of Holly and Rachael, although I still shudder about Dawhn — I had not explored the male half of my bisexual side until Andrew. In retrospect, I should have understood certain behaviors for what they were, but I was a stranger in a strange land and accordingly withheld judgment. The gay culture in Grand Rapids cannot shake its twin characteristic hallmarks of bitterness and repression, and few escape it unscathed. I don’t quite know what it was with Andrew and I; we were friends, I suppose, but he introduced me to a world that I had not explored before. Later, I met and briefly dated Dave. Then I met Edmund, a fatally wounded soul at the time, and Matt, a codependent Chicago stripper who wanted me for no other reason than because I was decent to him when others used him solely for sex.

“Jason’s Big Gay Summer” of 2008 took its toll, in myriad ways. I blew through money like it was water. I became immersed in a corrosive culture that took months to undo. I burned out on most things, including religion and physical fitness. When, just before my 32nd birthday, I couldn’t keep pace with my performance from a year prior at the gym, I knew things weren’t right. I hunkered down after the debacle with Matt and vowed to stay single and build a respectable life for myself.

Most of the planning came to naught; in early November, I met Ryan and Jess. The story of those two is intricate, and in any case, not worth retelling here. Too many people are too quick to pass judgment, and too many family members are willing to let me in peace while, bizarrely, holding my mother responsible. Let it suffice that I met a fascinating young man, his loyal friend, and a cast of characters who taught me much about family and integrity.

The last two years of the decade were, in a sense, a glorified holding pattern. Having set aside some things of value to me — including church and karate — I found myself waiting for something I couldn’t quite articulate. Some of it was related to Ryan, but the majority of it was not. In this period, I was the master of setting grand plans that never came to fruition.

On my brother’s birthday in 2009, I was in an at-fault auto accident that resulted in my Grand Cherokee being totaled and my niece bruising a rib from the airbag; I didn’t drive again until the summer of 2010. In mid-2009, I moved to an apartment complex in Standale. I left at the end of February 2010. I returned home, but was planning on leaving Michigan not long thereafter — a plan that, yet again, fell through. In late December, I moved into a new apartment, a lovely two-bedroom unit in the Heritage Hill district.

In the summer of 2009, I started to fall ill to a general malaise — and unlike Carter’s stagflation, mine had a definitive diagnosis, rendered in early 2010. The culprit? Severe Vitamin D deficiency. I had gained a substantial amount of weight over 2009. Although I held steady in 2010, I was unable to appreciably reduce my weight, mostly because I had limited access to the environment I needed to restrict my calorie intake.

At the close of the decade, things are looking up. My business is doing well (I’ve made nearly $10k in the last 16 months, just doing random contract assignments); I love my new abode; I have the infrastructure in place to cut the weight like I did in ’05; I have a set of clear and achievable goals for the coming year; I’m debt-free (except for remaining student loans).

Life looks pretty good. 2010s, here I come, bitch.

Lessons Learned

A few take-aways:

  • Know yourself. Too many people conflate the person they are with the person they aspire to be, then they lose the ability to tell the difference.
  • Don’t think, do. Introspection is good, but introspection without action is a unique form of self-flagellation. If all you do is plot in secret, you may as well find a different and more productive hobby.
  • Cultivate serenity. A calm outlook allows for patience, and for ample time to reflect on experiences. Plus, a general amiability helps preserve relationships with others.
  • Retain a healthy skepticism about the integrity of others, but don’t let their misdeeds jade you about human nature.
  • It’s OK to dream big, as long as you are willing to pay the price for seeing it through to completion. Most people aren’t.
  • It’s the toughest thing in the world to be yourself in an environment where people expect you to be someone else. Either conform, or don’t. Don’t conform in secret and live a double life. All you will do is give yourself an ulcer. Whether it’s a demanding family, or a particular boss, or a social circle — don’t let others force you to be someone you aren’t.
  • Stay slender. As you age, obesity is an ugliness multiplier.
  • Keep your word. Pay your bills, do what you will say you will do, and take the high road even when the low road looks so damn inviting.

And that wraps up a decade.

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