Thursday, February 20, 2014

Editing the Story in My Head

I have this story in my head that I carry around. I use it to explain much of what has happened to me, particularly my relationships: My first, too-young, marriage and it’s too soon divorce, another relationship, then meeting Amy, who died too soon, then meeting Lori and falling in love again. The story in my head explains how the thread of unbroken events goes back to my senior year in high school. It starts with how I wound up at Virginia Tech instead of Penn State.

I wanted to go to a school with an Engineering program since I was told I was good at math and science and should be an engineer. I also wanted to go to a big school to go to football games and to party. I grew up in South Jersey, and from there, back then, the big school with engineering, football, and parties was Penn State. That is where I wanted to go. A good friend of mine, a year older, was at Penn State. I had good grades and SAT scores like my friend and knew I would get in so I planned to go to Penn State.

If you know a little about Penn State you probably know there are multiple campuses around the state. If you apply to the main campus at State College and don’t quite have what it takes, you might be accepted to one of the satellite campuses. After two years at a satellite, if your grades are good enough, you can transfer to State College. Well, that was not an option for me. I had decided that when I am accepted to the main campus in State College, there is where I’d go. The satellite campuses were not an all an option: No football, no big parties. So I applied to Penn State and Rutgers as the in-state safety. And someone mentioned Virginia Tech. Tuition was cheap and I guess it counted as a big engineering school with football and the application was easy, so I applied there too, and waited.

After a couple months, or so, the letters started to come back. Rutgers: Congratulations, you’ve been accepted! Virginia Tech: Congratulations, you’ve been accepted! Penn State: Congratulations you’ve been accepted to our Altoona campus.


Sorry, Altoona, I confess to having never visited. And don’t take it personally. I was young and naive.

When I look back on that moment, I can’t even assign a feeling. Was I sad? Angry? I felt rejected, that’s for sure. Defeated. It was quite a letdown. Like getting up the courage to finally ask out that girl and she says, well, “I’m not free that night.”

So, my Dad suggested we take a road trip to Blacksburg, VA and check it out. And we did. And it was okay. Virginia Tech was not my first choice, but they’d take me. They seemed welcoming. The campus seemed nice, though I recall it was a gray and overcast day. There is a reason, I learned, that we’d call it “Bleaksburg” in the winter. Because it can be. I didn’t fall in love with Virginia Tech that day, like some do – those who visit in the spring or fall when campus can be the most wonderful little place in Virginia, if not the east coast. But, that day, my future-college heart was still two states to the north. But what choice did I have? I didn’t want to stay in-state. For some reason I really felt I just had to get out of New Jersey. Had to. And this isn’t some New Jersey joke.  Even though some very good friends of mine were going to Rutgers, I just, somehow had decided I needed a new start. And Penn State was going to be it. Except now it wasn’t.

After the Va Tech campus tour, my dad wrote the $100 housing deposit check for my dorm room and I signed my acceptance. And that was that.

And then what happened next I remember this way: We get home and the phone rings. I pick it up and it’s the Admissions Office at Penn State. There had been an error and about 120 kids had received the wrong letter. I had been selected for the main campus at State College after all and the offer was still good. How about that! My first choice wanted me. It’s like that girl calling me back and saying “guess what? Turns out I’m actually free this Friday!”

Looking back, I would have thought I’d have been excited.  “Really? Wow! What do I do now? I had already accepted somewhere else, but just maybe . . .”

But that is not what I did. No. Without any question on my part I simply told the person on the other end of the phone call from the Admissions Office at Penn State that I had accepted an offer elsewhere. “Thanks anyway,” then I hung-up.

And that, as they say, was that. Here was this major fork in the road and that’s how I went down the one side.

As time went on, I would tell this story about how the fates, or God, or whatever, had conspired to get me to Va Tech; were I struggled to find myself, experimented with drugs, and had difficulties with relationships. I met and fell in love with the woman who would become my first wife. We moved to the Washington D.C. and three years later divorced. And then after another relationship I eventually met, fell in love and married the woman who gave me my two sons. And then 10 years later she died tragically and quickly.

That was nearly 4 years ago and I was thinking of this whole story of my life again as I was going for a run. The narrative of choices I have and those given to me and how my life is where it is right now. I am happy, again, having found new love and new inspiration in my work. And I was thinking about that fateful error in the Penn State admissions office and how the universe had aligned to set me on the trajectory I am on.

And then I stopped. Literally stopped running.

What if that wasn’t the message? Maybe the Universe hadn’t aligned. Maybe the Universe was asking me a question: Are you really sure? What if the message wasn’t that things just happen, but that we sometimes get second chances? It never occurred to me to say to the Admissions Officer, “oh, wow, this is interesting news. You were my first choice but I just accepted somewhere else, so I don’t know what to do. Can I think it over?”

Then I could have talked to my parents, asked what about the $100 deposit and so on. Who knows, maybe I still would have gone to Va Tech, but I never even had that conversation with myself or my parents. I accepted my fate as simply that. Fate. How it is.

Married, divorced, married, widowed, married: I’m a pretty good example of second (and third) chances, at least as it goes with relationships. Yet I have still being carrying around a story in my head about how things happen to me. And now the story that I have carried for nearly 30 years no longer really describes my reality like I thought it did. Maybe the fates, or God, or whatever was trying to teach me a lesson but I couldn’t even hear it back then.

Certainly, there are things that happen to us, but maybe we don’t need to always accept them as first presented. I'm 47 and it's exactly 30 years ago this winter and spring when I was learning of my college fate. And now, 30 years later, I see that maybe I could have wrestled even a little control from the Fates. So now I am thinking of how to re-write the story in my head.

My father, the writer, might say something about how “editing and re-writing” are just part of it all.

Ok then, back to re-writes.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

My Clan Drives Better than Your Clan

Here is a conversation I recently overheard:

“You know, I was driving the other day and a driver from That Other State Next To Us graciously let me in to the line. It was so kind of him.”
“I know what you mean. There is a person from That Other State Next To Us in our neighborhood. She always comes to a complete stop at the intersection and uses her turn signal appropriately.
“I really like those drivers from That Other State Next To Us. They are the best drivers."
“I know.”
“Especially with the snow we’ve had.”
“I know, those drivers from That Other State Next To Us are the best drivers in bad weather.

Okay, I lied. I didn’t overhear that conversation. I made it up in my head.

I grew up in South Jersey and back then drivers from Pennsylvania were The Worst and drivers from New York were Crazy. Of course New York drivers would have to be Crazy. They are from New York and that is crazy! Here in Maryland, Virginia drivers take the cake. And I know this for sure because I used to live in Virginia. And could I tell you a few stories. And D.C.? Well, no one is originally from Washington D.C. so they all drive like the maniacs they are from their other states and countries. And with so many transplants, everyone knows that no one, absolutely no one, here knows how to drive in the snow. It’s unbelievable that just 3 inches of snow and the whole town is paralyzed. Because where some people are from, like the upper Midwest, or Greenland, or someplace where they actually get snow, they somehow know how to drive in the snow. But not here! What is up with the people that live on the edge of the south and see snow 2 or 3 times a year not knowing how to drive in the snow? Geesh!

I was talking to my friend, Jane, about this. Jane is from North Carolina. Born and raised. And guess what? She reports it’s the same down there. Maybe even worse, if you can believe it. No one from Those Other States can drive a lick down there. And get this: Drivers from Those Other States have taken over and have decided to just live in North Carolina. They are from somewhere else but now they are there and they drive on the same roads and they just don’t drive the right way. Problem is, there are so many of them and they’ve been there so long you can’t tell by the license plate anymore.  It’s gotten to the point where no one knows who really belongs or not.

A little while ago, like 10,000 years ago, or so, before license plates, it was easy to know who belonged and who didn’t. If you lived in My Clan on this side of the mountain, the right side, where the antelope graze, then you belonged. If you lived on the other side of the mountain near the sea and ate fish, then you are a suspicious stranger. As a species we’ve come along way since then. But, as Robert Frost observed, we “have miles to go before [we] sleep.”

Barriers to access based on gender, race, sexual orientation, and nation of origin, have come down, a lot, in the past century. But I won’t even begin to pretend that discrimination no longer exists. It very much exists. And it maybe it's even more insidious in some ways since it is no longer as obvious. We may have driven some bigotry away but some we have simply driven underground. Politicians, and their talk show mouth pieces, on both sides, use code-words like “real Americans,” “family values,” and the like, to describe what they can’t say out loud: My Clan, the right clan, is white and heterosexual and you are not and that is not right. Now before anyone calls me out on this, you need to know that some of my best friends are white heteros. I actually work with one or two. They are really nice people.

Curiously, while we, as a society, are no longer “out” with our racism or homophobia, we are more than comfortable with our political bigotry. Republicans and Democrats don’t seem to get along so much anymore. It’s as if all our collective fears and animosities towards “the other” have been channeled into our politics. Now we take sides based on our position on guns, abortion, the environment, taxes, and so on. We can blame our elected leaders. We can blame the massive influx of corporate and Super PAC money. But we are still a Representative Democracy. They allegedly represent us.

Perhaps that political party association provides some safety. I know I still belong somewhere because I belong to a political clan. Or, at least, I know I can hang out with them and they'll look out for me. As our older tribal boundaries of white/black, gay/straight, and so on, blur, it seems like we still crave that protection that comes from the clan. That is, My Clan, because Your Clan, is on the wrong side of the mountain. Maybe someday you’ll decide to leave Your Clan and come over to our side of the mountain. Which is The Better Side. Actually, it’s not just better. It's the Right Side. Until then, I will continue to look down on you.

Oh, and you don’t know how to drive in snow either.