Eyes Wide Open

I’ve recently made a new friend. She’s funny, she’s clever, she’s talented, and, as of today, she’s probably the most influential person to enter my life in a very long time.

My friend is strong, not because she loves going to the gym, but because she splits wood to fuel the only heat source in an off-the-grid homestead powered by solar panels and devoid of running water. She lives with random relatives and other people in a place specifically designed to exist tomorrow regardless of whether the rest of the world suddenly vanishes. She receives random checks every so often which put Subway sandwiches in her hand and pay the meager charges the world has levied against her life.

Unless fortune finds her, my friend will continue to live this way indefinitely. She was raised in a somewhat crippling way; educated, but not formally, and kept from typical avenues of employment, she now struggles to find success in a competitive and spiteful professional world which shows little love for anyone without a resumé that sparkles. It seems in many ways she never had a chance.

And yet I, I keep getting chances. Despite the countless ways my laziness, carelessness, and selfishness have seemed destined to derail my trajectory towards anything but misery, I continue to be incredibly blessed.

I’ve been incredibly blessed all along. I’m typing this on a laptop I bought with a fraction of the thousands of dollars that were simply handed to me when I graduated high school, money I otherwise squandered on fast food and video games. Nothing remains of the second ten thousand dollars I was handed — again, for doing little more than what I was dealt — when I graduated college less than two years ago. I’ve regretted my spendthrift ways in the past, but my friend has me actually swallowing my own vomit at the thought, the agonizing thought, of what she could have done with her life had she been given a mere fraction of the opportunity I’ve had.

Humbled seems too weak a word, as I sit here typing on that expensive laptop, connected to one of two Internet connections in my house, hearing the new Satellite television system my parents are watching upstairs on a 56-inch television, lights on all over the house despite an absence of occupants in their rooms, the automatic dryer beeping to let me know that the clothes I just decided to toss in there are ready to be folded and put away, or can just be rewashed and dried for fun if I’m too lazy to deal with them now.

Mortified. There’s the word.

I don’t deserve to be happy or optimistic about my future right now. I deserve to be paying the penalties for years of squandered potential and copious prodigality. Instead I’m looking forward, past a few “hard” months of maybe having to work an easy-to-get job at some grocery store, towards a fully-funded education I barely even had to raise a finger to be offered.

I don’t want to brood. It’s not helpful to revisit the mistakes of one’s past over and over again. Regret’s natural but not productive; I can’t undo what I’ve been, what I’ve done. But looking forward, I have a chance to actually change, to truly apply myself to being something, to refusing to ride the coattails of my jackpot-winning life even if I could, perhaps especially because I could, because I’ve been given a gift so valuable I no longer feel comfortable accepting it. I’ve got to earn this. I’ve got to at least try.

Long-time readers know this isn’t the first time I’ve been struck by something and promised to reform. It’s almost a running gag — I could hashtag it and you could go back and read it as if it were just a recurring topic in the annals of the failure to try that is my life. But you know what? I don’t accept that. I won’t own it. Because after a decade of weight gain, I pushed back the needle on the scale twenty pounds. I killed the writing and reading sections of a standardized test a year and a half after leaving an academic environment. I got accepted to one of the leading schools in the nation for my field on the assumption that I can back up my words with actions.

The past couple months have seen real, tangible change in my life. I’m not going to let that die. I have a new-found reason to be a better man. If I’m to ride any wave, let it be the wave of Citius, Altius, Fortius I spoke of last summer. Because if a reality check of this sort does not galvanize me into improving, for real, well…then I’m not worth the air I breathe. Someone else out there needs it more…for those cold days and nights she has to go outside and put another log on the chopping block.

So thank you, friend, for opening up my eyes. Here’s to keeping them open.

April Showers

I’ve been pretty (digitally) quiet for the last month or so. After haphazardly launching God in the Game and a little bit of chatter here my writing fell silent. One wonders why, how a person with so much motivation could accomplish so little with it — but really it comes down to focus, and I didn’t have any. It’s May, and now I do; but presently I want to focus on the rain that led to the flowers beginning to bud.

There’s a fine line — perhaps not as fine as I’d like to think, but fine nonetheless — between optimism and delusion. For years I avoided that line like the plague, treading so-called “realism” and coming across predominately as a pessimist. That line is terrifying, because it calls for bright-eyed dreaming with an understanding of the practical, and I’ve always struggled with letting go of the nasty “what-ifs” and a dire need to know exactly how and what I’m going to do before I can start. I like to have a plan, a blueprint, an outline.

Lacking those, I flounder. Where others might see a world filled with limitless potential, I’ve tended to see a world filled with limitless potential for failure; as Mae sings, “I can do anything, but I can do anything wrong.” Every cost/benefit analysis seems to end with risk seeming insurmountable, so I’ve failed to take action on just about everything. Articles I couldn’t see the end of never got written. Jobs I couldn’t guarantee working out were not applied to. Diets never started. Messages never sent.

But the rain began to fall.

Boston did a great many things for me, but perhaps most useful was the clearing of my tunnel vision. For some time now the impending end of cash-flow has led to a narrowing of scope and a deadening of ambition that I realize now was simply unhealthy. I could see — if not with perfect understanding — the dire need to make ends meet, and could understand my parents’ growing concern that when they really needed the money I’d have nothing to show but an empty wallet.

But that fixation resulted in a sort of desperate Catch-22. I needed to live at home because I didn’t have money. But I couldn’t get money because home is nowhere near any reasonably good jobs. Prior to Boston I couldn’t get past the first half of that equation, which means I spent a great deal of time not even considering opportunities beyond the 35-40 minute scope of reasonable automotive commuting.

Yet being with friends from all over the country (and then some) and considering the many times they had relocated in pursuit of work made something click. I might not be able to afford living away from home right now, but staying at home is a one-way ticket to poverty (not to mention the loss of soul along the way). It’s time to broaden my horizons.

Well, the seeds were planted, anyway, and that was a start. And seeing these friends (most for the first time) encouraged me to be more intentional about maintaining those relationships — not for something as base as networking (though that too), but for the simple fact that getting to know other people is as much a nourishment as food or drink, and for the past several months I’d been allowing myself to starve.

Boston was great, but only this past weekend did I experience the downpour necessary to truly revive what had been dormant long before winter struck.

Looking back, my trip to Grove City is merely a highlight reel of life-affirming moments. It began with a car ride in which two great friends demanded the truth about my life status and encouraged practical steps towards changing it. I chuckle now as I recall how Ryan unknowingly echoed Ken Levine in Boston, who said that ideas suck — that “there is no good idea without execution.” Protest as I might, no amount of wishing will make a career fall into my lap. Ryan and Jordan wanted to know what steps I was taking to ensure the next year didn’t look like the previous one; when answers were lacking, they made suggestions, ones I’ll be damned if I don’t follow.

Friday evening was when I finally hit rock bottom. Not emotionally — to be sure, I was having a great time — but when I earnestly answered Tom’s inquiry (what are you doing with your life?) with “squandering it,” no amount of laughter could take away reality’s sting. His response, impressively candid, was “Well, that’s a start. At least you know.”

Welcome to Deadbeats Anonymous. Step One is Admitting You Have a Problem.

I suppose “squandering” has a silver lining; one can’t do it if one has nothing to squander. Time and money, sure, but when I said it I was thinking more about how many times people (and most recently, Ryan and Jordan) have told me I’m a nearly unparalleled writer. I was thinking about how I hadn’t written anything in a month. I was thinking about a passage from The Dark Tower:

“For now the writer was fine, happily frittering away his time and valuable imagination on some meaningless project while the world he’d been born to imagine continued to gather dust in his head.”

It was all a setup for Saturday’s One Acts, which (while all enjoyable) all pointed like a massive neon arrow to Johnny Sikma’s “The Snoozist,” that turned out to be one of those pieces of drama that makes you wonder whether you’re secretly (a la “The Truman Show”) being watched. Johnny has since assured me that his play is autobiographical, but I can’t stop thinking about just how well he managed to portray, well, me.

“The Snoozist” is the story of a guy who tends to sleep in, “bartering” away everything from his morning joe to a shower to attending class. A few heart-to-hearts with a philosophical suitemate, an attractive but maddening peer, and a crazy (but in a wise way) English professor, and our good friend the writer learns to stop wasting away his potential and actually, you know, write. There’s other stuff in there too — commentaries on romance, parallels between life and literature, etc. — but for me, it was a deadbeat writer who never writes anything because he’s too busy wasting away his life. “The Snoozist” was a mirror and, ironically, a wakeup call.

The remainder of the weekend simply reaffirmed and defined the lesson I’d begun to learn in Boston: that these relationships with people I rarely get to see face-to-face are really, really important to me, and that I need to (and want to) make a much better effort to keep them alive. More than that, to help them grow.

I’ve talked so many times about how “this time things will be different” and “i’m going to change” and “i swear, you guys, there’s a wolf out there” and I’m happy to see that this time things already are changing. I applied for a job last week…the first time in months. I’m writing again. I’m reading again.

It’s May, and the flowers have begun to grow.