Of Bourbon, Blizzards and the Underwear Gnome

The howl and rattle of the wind through my dining-room storm window, just moments ago, heralded the return of arctic air to Grand Rapids. The approaching winter storm provides a perfect minor-key counterpoint to my mood of late. Last week, Michigan enjoyed single-digit temps; this week, we pushed into the upper 60s; in the next few days, we’re predicted to sink into the low teens with subzero wind chills. Meanwhile, it seems I’ve been the poster child for whiskey-induced introspection. Fitting, I think. In winter’s heart, both blizzards and brooding go better with bourbon.

It’s been a rough week at the office. Rough enough, that the storm-window barometer jarred me from exploring memories I hadn’t touched in quite some time. Memories of my sophomore year of high school, actually, when it felt like everything sucked and the worst moment of the week was bedtime on Sunday night because I knew I had a full five days of hell ahead and I’d give anything to skip to 2:35 on Friday afternoon. I know — in a mental sense, anyway — that my loathing of West Catholic stems merely from the echo of adolescent angst; I fit in maybe 85 percent of the way with my peers, but that missing 15 percent slices deepest when you’re a teenager with no sense of perspective. I concede that my high-school years weren’t really all that bad. Not really. But much distance lies between today’s considered judgment and yesterday’s painful memories.

I remember laying in bed as a 15-year-old and fantasizing what my life would be like when I was 30. Would I be married? Would I have kids and a nice house? Would I have earned a DVM or Ph.D? Would I be an Army officer or a business tycoon or an elected official? I just assumed, like a protean Underwear Gnome, that something undefined but surely magical would transpire between those lonely teenage nights and my inevitably glorious future — some Happily Ever After that would stitch all the pieces together into an elegant tapestry of contented prosperity.

Didn’t. Happen.

But that’s not to say that as a 36-year-old, I’m full of rage over broken expectations. I’m not. It’s taken a while, but the intimate relationships I enjoyed in my early-to-mid 20s with my dear friends Envy, Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Wrath and Pride provided an experiential framework that, recently, has proven astonishingly useful in my everyday life in the fullest Johnny Cash sense of the idea. Plus, I’ve got enough miles under my belt that the inner serenity I fought to cultivate just a few years ago comes easier now — to the point that I chuckle at the irony of fighting for serenity, even though I really did struggle with it. Experience puts meat on the bones of theory. Adversity makes for the richest experience. Thus, self-inflicted adversity in youth yields early-onset wisdom, through which prism one can say, “Been there, done that, it’s going to be OK.”


My friend Duane used to laugh at me because during our heyday playing World of Warcraft, I’d roll a dozen low-level characters and couldn’t ever commit to leveling one up. I’d travel a certain distance down the character’s path, then select a new one because I thought it might be better in some vague and usually inaccurate way. Years of casual playing, and the highest I ever got was a Level 45 Undead warlock named Elianna.

Duane had a larger point, methinks, expressed in his usual gentle and roundabout way: The only path that really matters is the one you’re on, so quit worrying about the trail over the next ridge. Just keep marching in your own boots.

Which brings me to my current introspection. I suppose it reduces to a single question: Which path provides the surest footing on the journey to my 70th birthday and the ultimate moment of truth, when I look in the mirror on a September morning in 2046 and ask myself if I have any regrets?

I know that having fairly unconstrained options as a 30-something is a luxury few enjoy. Still, as I survey my banquet of existential riches I’m left woefully undecided, paralyzed by choice. I have my bucket list and my annual goals list and whatnot. It’s not the long-term or even medium-term stuff that’s vexing. Its the short-term path. It’s tomorrow and next month, not next year or next decade.

You can fix one big problem in your life at a time, or three little ones. Try more, and you’ll fail; the enormousness of the challenge overwhelms. So you have to decide which problems you’ll tolerate and which you won’t while you rank-order your solution set. It’s like juggling with flaming tennis balls. If you have five balls and one is on fire, you can manage the one. You might even be able to manage two. When all the balls are on fire, though, you’ll end up with singed fingertips.

So which short-term problems to tackle first? Knowing, as it happens, that the decision you make today will shift your path to September 2046 in ways yet to be revealed?

Thank God for bourbon and blizzards.

Doors, Open or Bolted: A Reflection on Past Choices

I finally built the second bookshelf for my office yesterday. I had the materials for a while, but I didn’t do anything with them; I needed to saw some boards and drill holes and stain everything, which seemed like a bother every time I thought about it. At long last, my disappointment over seeing a pile of books on the floor outweighed my tendency to tell myself I’d take care of it “later.” So, now all of my books are sorted and shelved, and I feel a sense of great relief. Almost like I accomplished something meaningful.

As I was basking in the glow of a proper home library, my eye caught the youngsters across the street at play. A group of three guys and one girl — they looked to be in their late teens, with the air of skateboarders about them — were doing handstands and hackey sack in the grassy half-lot across the road. Ordinarily I’d not give them a passing thought, but one of the kids looked like I did when I was in junior high — short, pencil-thin and a bit uncoordinated. Daydreaming being what it is, the sight prompted some reflection about the choices I’ve made that have put me where I am today from a starting point not radically different from the view from across the street. A few decisions stand out, for good and for ill.

The first major shock occurred in seventh and eighth grades. Up to that point, I was scrawny — the kind of kid who would would totally rock today’s super-skinny jean trend. In fact, I was so underweight that my pediatrician suggested steroids to prompt growth. But when my mom took over as the maintenance supervisor for our church, I started the “early teen munching” and soon started to flesh out. Fat, by no means, but I can remember looking in the mirror and noticing the weight gain, even when I was probably still on the low end of the “normal” range. I looked — and although I wasn’t exactly thrilled, I didn’t change course, even though at that age I considered exercising. Yes, I was a kid, but still. A door to good health and social acceptance began to close, and it remained bolted for more than a decade.

After that came high-school socialization. In those days my social confidence wasn’t all that high. The social environment at West Catholic High School was more cut-throat than at St. Anthony’s. Cliques formed. I tried to stay above the fray; St. Anthony really didn’t have cliques, so I didn’t know how to adapt. But although I had plenty of friends — and was even elected senior class treasurer — I never really felt like I fit in. Nor did I try to. I deliberately chose  to endure high school instead of diving into it, and in the process there were certain rites of passage that most people experienced that passed my by entirely. I prided myself on being too mature and too dispassionate for the antics of high school, but in the end the only person I ended up fooling was myself.

From West Catholic, I enrolled at Western Michigan University — largely by default; I “chose” WMU because my friends Jeni and Aaron were going there  — and three separate situations transpired my freshman year that reverberated for a lifetime. First, although I went to WMU in the Honors College and under an Army ROTC three-year advanced designee full-ride scholarship, I failed out after my first year. Not because I wasn’t capable (when I returned after a one-year “sabbatical,” I was full dean’s list), but because I never went to class. I sat in my room for the most part, and spent all my money on food. My “freshman 15” was more like “freshman 45.” Second, I joined the student government. The Western Student Association led to the Western Herald, and my entire WMU experience was colored by the influence of the twin basement wings of the Faunce Student Services Building. Third, I surrendered the ROTC scholarship. I told myself that I couldn’t meet the program requirement of graduating in four years because I wanted to major in practically everything, but in truth, part of it was fear of being successful. If I applied myself, I could have been wildly successful — and who knows? Today, I may well be a field-grade officer somewhere, serving a career as an Army officer.

In those early days, my bad choices stemmed from one, pervasive root: Fear of success. I thought I was smart. Hell, I thought I was well-nigh omnipotent. So what better way to preserve the fantasy that you could be larger than life at something than to never really strive at anything? To avoid doing your best so that your failures are either someone else’s fault (usually the “system”) or because you told yourself that if you had really wanted it, you could have done it, but you know you didn’t really try so the inner fantasy remains intact?

And to top it off, I acted as if the rules didn’t apply to me, with legal and financial consequences that were not exactly insignificant.

The first kick in the pants came from my grandfather. Just knowing he was Disappointed — capital D — was the one thing that ever got through to me. Not my own lack of self esteem, not my mother’s lectures, not being trapped in low-paying jobs with no real future. Just him. And eventually I got to experience the full brunt of it.

From there, I went back to WMU and did well enough to graduate with a not-terrible GPA despite the damage from my first year. I continued to balloon physically, and I remained socially insular (to this day I regret never doing the Wednesday night Roadhouse thing), but my focus moved toward getting out of college to go into the seminary. The goal was laudable enough, but I got caught in Catholic politics — it’s a risky proposition to be more theologically conservative than your vocations director, and in Grand Rapids it would have been hard to be to the left of him. A few years of effort came to naught but a bachelor’s degree.

Seminary having been taken off the table, I went to grad school because, well, it’s what comes after undergrad school. Right? Bad choice. I wasn’t ready for it in the sense that I didn’t have a purpose. Today, I’d like to go back — I have a research angle in mind and already know what my thesis would be. Then, though, I tried to delay the inevitable by means of more schooling, with the usual less-than-impressive outcome attached.

I’ve said before, and I’ll reiterate — 2005 was a watershed year. Until then, I went with the flow and had no sense of structure. No teleology. I floated along with whatever current was strongest. Overweight, reclusive, angry — I simply existed with no goals and no real ambitions other than to win the petty battles of the day.

The biggest choice of all, then, closed the door on my life from age 18 to age 28. I left the grad program, left the Herald, went on a diet (and lost 110 pounds), took up running and karate, updated my appearance, and first started thinking about what direction I’d like for my life to take. The changes were dramatic, and the decisions were all rendered in the first week of January.

The intervening years have been something of an exercise in maintenance. I lost some traction with my series of annual moves and the whole Vitamin D issue, but I didn’t appreciably lose ground. Then again, I didn’t move forward, either. October 2008 through December 2010 marked off an odd side-journey wherein I finally gained social confidence and a well-balanced sense of self-worth by seeing how really disappointing the dating life was like. So far, 2011 has been a good year — recovery and renewal.

But I cannot help but ponder what would have been different had my choices fallen in a different direction:

  • If I integrated in high school instead of remaining an outsider, would things have changed?
  • If I had gone to Michigan State to study veterinary medicine as I had originally planned, instead of political science and philosophy at WMU, what would have happened? What different set of friends and what other experiences would have opened doors for me?
  • If I had aggressively pursued a priestly vocation instead of letting the vocations director send yet another potential seminarian away, would I be at a parish now?
  • If I stuck with ROTC, would I have seen combat? What career specialization would I have entered?
  • If, instead of leaving grad school, I forged ahead with the M.A., what would I have done with it? Would I have been tempted to pursue a Ph.D?

Life is like a maze of cubicles, stretching from birth to death. Every choice leads to another corridor, like the branches shooting off from another branch, from another branch, from the main trunk. The choices we make — deliberate, or accidental (my journalism experience began over a simple too-long letter to the editor, for example) — open some doors while closing others. Sometimes, those closures are temporary; sometimes they’re permanent.

It’s easy to lament the roads not taken. It’s harder to recognize the choices that had long-term salutary outcomes. I think that the failures I’ve experienced over the years proved to be necessary correctives — they cured me of my arrogance, my dogmatism, my inflexibility, my disdain for social interaction. In most of the ways that matter, I’m a better man now than I was one or five or 10 years ago, a proposition worth celebrating.

And I’ve seen through the mental charade that clouds the eyes of so many — namely, that a fear of confronting one’s own limits stops us from achieving greatness. There is no “aspire,” there is only “do.” Or “do not.” As they say, “shit or get off the pot.” I’ve identified a life strategy, I’m actively working toward it, and my self-awareness is less clouded than it used to be. These are all good things. I grieve for those who are still stuck in “aspire” mode, and may well be for life. Despite the ups and downs I’ve experienced, I’m currently happy and stable and focused. That’s a good thing, even if I couldn’t have predicted even a few years ago where I’d be today.

Yet I look out the window, and wonder — what if I never became addicted to trans fat as an adolescent?