Editor’s Note: This one is a bit late (sorry that there was no parking available on Sunday), this one borders on the maudlin (although I’m in a great mood, just reflective, as the holidays do that to me), and hopefully this will be the last deep-thoughts Park for a while (but I’m not signing anything).
We all have regrets. If you don’t, you’re probably lying to yourself or you don’t understand what a regret really is. I’m skeptical of the people who proclaim that they don’t have any regrets, because they usually do so with much more insistence than necessary, which enforces the idea that they are trying to convince themselves and everyone else that they always make the right decisions. No one is that good. So, after a comment conversation with leggypeggy at “Where to next?”, during which I fessed up to one of my many lingering “fork in the road” snafus, I thought it might be interesting to share some of my own regrettable decisions and compare them with yours, if you wish to share such. And here we go…
ONE. Not following the example of the girl who danced in her underwear.
I’ve told this story before, although it escapes me right at the moment on the where and when. (These words feel travelled, so they must be out there, somewhere.) When I was a wee bairn, with my family living on 6th street in Tulsa, there was a comparable family across the road who had managed to produce a girl child about my own age. I don’t recall her name. I do recall her defiance.
She was fearless. And I was in awe.
We were initially allowed to play together, via whatever protocol had been established between our respective parents. Things were more simple then, although the societal rules were more firm. Whatever the case, we had a green light. She always had the best ideas on what might prove interesting during our recreational romps, and we were often racing about on innocent larks that might not be viewed as such by any older beings concerned with decorum.
Then, one day, she crossed a line that we weren’t aware of until she crossed it. She burst out of her front door, sporting nothing but frilly panties and a smile, and she proceeded to perform a rather exuberant interpretive dance on the sidewalk. I reviewed said performance from across the street, probably hiding behind one of the many incongruous evergreen trees on our property, because I always did my best to hide from my father who never approved of anything. Still, I was exhilarated at her display of freedom.
Her parents were not. They quickly whisked her away into the inner sanctum of The House Across the Street, and the decree quickly came down in my own limited world that I shan’t ever play hopscotch with her again. I don’t know what eventually happened to her, because we moved shortly after, but I do know that I yearned to dance in my panties with such abandon. She was the first of many free spirits I have encountered in my life, some temporary and others more long-term, who celebrated the concept of living in the moment. I’ve never quite gotten there, although I’ve tried.
TWO. Ignoring the call of the mockingbird.
I was raised in Oklahoma, a concept which should automatically trigger an alert that something might go wrong in this situation. It often did, and one of those somethings involved the auditions for “choir” in my middle school. (Background bit of trivia that serves no purpose other than to help set the stage: The school system in my hometown of Broken Arrow was, at that time, the fastest growing in the state. This meant that our previously quaint educational structure, wherein there was time for personalized attention for each student, exploded into a groaning factory production line, wherein details went out the window and the focus now involved getting massive hordes of kids in the door every morning and out the door every afternoon. Student discipline started to get a little bit sketchy.)
Music was a still a required class then, as the conservatives hadn’t yet focused on the fine arts as something that reeked of democracy and free-thinking and therefore must be destroyed. As such, there were quite a few folks in my music class who had no desire to be there, and they had no qualms about sharing their disdain. The teacher, Mr. Alsop, did his best to maintain order, gamely sitting at his piano and urging everyone to sing along to John Denver songs. The hooligans in the back rows had no love for John, already dipping their adolescent toes into hard rock and pharmaceuticals, and they countered with catcalls and the skewering of innocents who were meekly warbling about the Shenandoah River. It was a constant battle to see who could control the room.
It was within the confines of this turbulent environment that Mr. Alsop decided to hold the tryouts for choir, a decision that I met with dismay. Why not hold the auditions in a safe zone, such as after school when most of the hooligans would be serving detention in another part of the school or running from the police? Instead, three or four brave souls at a time had to stand in front of the class and attempt to harmonize whilst dodging epithets and spitballs.
I wanted very much to be a part of the choral group. I wasn’t a particularly admirable singer, yet I hoped to be, and what better way to grow than by joining a special club where everyone presumably wanted the same thing? But I was still very shy then, and there was no way in hell I was going to stand in front of that raucous crowd and let anything come out of my mouth. Instead, I stayed on the sidelines, watching as others defiantly marched to the head of the class and shared their varying vocal abilities whilst Mr. Alsop tickled his keys, and the hooligans howled and marked time until their own appearances at the head of a courtroom, where they would be gifted with enforced public service and prison sentences.
THREE. Running for the hills instead of facing the mountain.
By the time I reached college, I had much more confidence. (I had already been Class President in my junior year and Student Council President my senior year in high school.) And I did respectably well in college, on the surface. I had some healthy scholarships, I excelled in my coursework, and I kept winning or getting elected to things. I was well on my way toward the goal of being an international journalist.
But under the surface? Not so good. After all, I was a young gay man in the early 80s, when the AIDS epidemic exploded. Times were already hard enough for the Rainbow People prior to the virus, with most of the country already either completely against us or at least very uncomfortable if we were knowingly around. Post-AIDS, if there was even the slightest, tenuous hint that you might be gay, you could lose everything, social, vocational and familial. The only way to survive was to hide.
This kind of life beats a person down. Some can hang on that way. Others, like me, get to the point where the incessant deceit of telling cover stories and the quelching of being yourself becomes too much. I had to get out of there. After my sophomore year, I dropped out. I worked in a convenience store long enough to build up some cash, and then I fled to Dallas, where I knew no one in particular but I also knew there were so many more people like me, tired of a clandestine, stunted existence. I gave everything up that I had worked so hard on during 14 years of my scholastic journey, even though the finish line had been in sight, just a bit in the distance, over there.
I suppose I could have sucked it up, endured two more years, and then landed a lucrative career at a great company. (It was still conceivable to make such a trajectory back then, as the attainment of a college degree put you miles ahead of anyone else trying to find a good job. These days? Not so much.) But if I had done so, the sucking and the enduring, I firmly believe that the person I would have become by that point would have been broken, locked-down. I couldn’t take the chains. And I still wanted to sing, someday. So I left.
FOUR. Turning down the proposal of a Frenchman who offered kindness.
On one of my Paris trips, this time with my mother and grandmother (aw, how cute!), we stayed at a hotel where my mother was friends with the owner. The proprietor, a well-educated and courteous gentleman, thought I was a decent-enough fellow and he got to know me somewhat during a week’s worth of dinners and conversations. Upon learning of my interest in languages, he eventually offered that I could stay in his hotel, sans charge, so I could strengthen my French on the streets of Paris. This extremely gracious proposal came with the deliciously-vague duration of “however long it takes”.
I should have immediately jumped on the chance.
But I didn’t. I was too practical, too measured in my analysis, and far too anal to let the fuzzy details work themselves out. How would I pay for things? Where would I get a job? What about my home and pets back in the States? Speaking of things back home, what about the job that I did have, the one where the pay level was reaching a point where it was very hard to walk away? And perhaps the most important thing: How does one go about acquiring a French lover? I was having a hard enough time finding an American one who stuck around long enough that we could purchase matching luggage.
In the end, I did the responsible thing (one of the curses in my life) and said no. What I should have done is leapt off the cliff and made it work somehow, the wind buffeting my frilly panties until I figured out where to land.
FIVE. Willingly participating in the echo chamber of nothing.
I worked at a mega-company (rhymes with Horizon) for thirty years. I could write volumes about the experience, but I’ll limit it to this: If you are an overachiever who cannot rest until you have done everything you can to complete a project in the best possible way, you shouldn’t work for a company that doesn’t care how much it took out of you to get that project done. Oh, and before you sign out, here are two more projects.
Thirty years of that mess and I finally did leap off a cliff, into a completely variable retirement where I may or may not ever have to work again. It’s perhaps the most uncertain thing I’ve ever done. And it only took me five decades to do it. Somewhere, hopefully, there’s a taller version of my little neighborhood friend, dancing a jig of celebration on the cracked sidewalk in front of her house. (That’s assuming, of course, that they ever let her out of her bedroom.)
Now I can write whenever I want.
Now I can learn a new language whenever I want.
And now I can look back at all those dusty forks, contemplate the other roads, envision what might have been at the ends of them, and eventually come to the realization that I probably would have made the same exact choices if given a do-over. We all grow at different rates and destiny is a sliding scale. Sometimes you have to learn a few things before you can know other things. And after all, without those particular choices, I wouldn’t be here now, in this house, at this desk, writing these words, and smiling at the fake snowfall drifting across my screen…