Gratitude

For second acts.

On the 28th day, I’m grateful for second acts.

I’ve debated which story to tell to illustrate this concept, but here is one example:

I have friends who were pressured as kids to be certain things – their future already set out for them, as clear as a road map. They were not children, but future accountants, future farmers, future lawyers, future truck drivers. I knew lots of people with that story – but it was never my story.

My parents never pressured me at all.

I went through a phase when I was about 9 years old where I decided I was going to be a superhero when I grew up. And because I am me, I had elaborate plans – I mean, actual plans – I drew blueprints to my Fortress of Solitude, which would be hidden behind some trees on the back of our property by the hay field, because that was where I went when I felt overwhelmed.

I went through phases – I was going to be Thor at first, and went around telling my family I was a Norse God and was now immortal. Then Dad had me look up the definition of “Norse” and “Immortal”, and I decided to be Cat Man instead.

It was all consuming. I built grappling hooks and climbed trees with them and once fell off the roof of the shed when nobody was looking while “training”. I must have been exhausting. They would patiently sit and listen to my latest schemes, Dad would answer my questions about what type of rope had the most strength for the least amount of weight, and how to make grappling hooks and I got Mom to commit to helping me sew my costume, even though I never saw my mother sew anything more complicated than a hem on my church pants.

They never told me it was impossible. They never told me to be realistic. They never ridiculed me, and if they told their friends, it was never in my presence. I felt 100 percent affirmed, loved, and believed. And that was pretty much the story of my whole childhood.

Lord (and the therapists) knows my parents got some things wrong, and I have no idea how some first time parents in their twenties in the early years of the Reagan administration in Byhalia, Mississippi had the emotional intelligence to know that their quirky, introverted, nerdy bookworm kid needed them to embrace his weirdness, but they did.

But what I also needed, and they didn’t have the tools to give me, was management.

There is this lovely scene in the original Rocky movie, where the boxing veteran Mickey is trying to explain to Rocky why Rocky needs to hire Mickey as his manager. Mickey tells of how he never got the good shots because nobody explained the facts to him, nobody watched out for him, and so he took the easy money instead of planning for his future.

“I had no management, kid!” he tells Rocky.

Well, the downside of being raised the way I was is that I had no management. Nobody explained to me that I really should have taken algebra in 9th grade, instead of the general math class I was allowed to take. Nobody in my world explained that I really would want to go to college. Nobody in my world sat me down and explained the long game to me, explained how college aid worked, that I didn’t have to risk being sent to a war zone in order to get college paid for.

I’m not blaming my parents – it was the whole system. We had a guidance counselor at school – she basically pushed poor kids into the service and richer kids to college. I didn’t understand how financial aid worked. I scored in the 98% percentile in Mississippi on the ACT – not only did nobody really explain that I could have went to any state college for free, there was nobody recommending that I go to college in the first place.

It was as foreign a concept to me as if you recommended I consider going to the moon. I accept that some people have done that, but I have no idea how to go about getting there, or how to pay for it, or what the process is.

So instead I went in the Marines. And there I learned that college was probably a good idea, but I was years behind by the time I got out. And because I didn’t take college prep courses in high school, the first year was virtually all remedial, non-credit classes. And I had to work while going to school, so it was a lot of night classes and summer seminars. I never lived in a dorm, never pledged any Greek organization, never met with any industry recruiters, never went to a college sports game, never went on study abroad trips. Every single thing you liked about college, I didn’t do there. The totality of my college experience was to write them checks and take tests and fight traffic leaving the parking lot before going home to collapse in bed, exhausted.

I would flounder for more than a decade. Before I was 35, I would quit three different jobs that dumber people than me have made good, lifelong careers doing. I made good money at times. I got married for bad reasons, took jobs for bad reasons, quit them for bad reasons, got divorced for questionable reasons, got into relationships that dead people would have known were doomed for failure, and generally drifted. I first read Kerouac because a woman I dated said I reminded her of him. It took some time before I realized she was not complimenting my writing style but instead meant I was drifting and goalless.

When I was 35, things both fell apart and came together. I moved to a new town, took up a new course of study, met new people, and reached out to people who were successful at what I wanted to be, and I learned from them. I had direction, goals, and mentors. It’s like a whole different world.

I have read a lot of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and in one of his essays, he said that he used to believe there were no second acts in American lives. I did too. But I had one, all the same.

I wonder sometimes what my life would have been like if I had been more directed as a kid. If I had had people in my life that valued formal education. If that guidance counselor had done her job. If my 98th percentile ACT score had attracted the same sort of attention from college recruiters that my 99th percentile ASVAB score did from military recruiters. If I had gone to Ole Miss right out of high school? Majored in English and learned to write when Willie Morris was still there? How would it all have come out? If I had gotten not only a degree at college, but a network and a fraternity and mentors as well?

I will never know. That wasn’t how the first act played out. But I’m really grateful for the second one.

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