One of the first clues I had that life might not be fair happened when I was 8 years old and I asked my mom if she would get me a rocket belt. She told me I could have one when I turned 16, and then conveniently forgot about it when the big day arrived. Not that I was terribly surprised. Moms are great at selective memory.
When I was 22, I got drunk and called up a friend to whine about how my life was not working the way I thought it should. “I don’t ask for much!” I slobbered. “All I ever wanted was to have what John Lennon had when he was my age!”
Okay, I’m the first to admit that I suffer from delusions of grandeur, but I’m still baffled by the societal trophies you’re expected to accumulate by the time you reach a certain age. The Ward Cleaver Academy of the American Dream taught me that I would go to school, meet some woman, marry, have a career, and then children would suddenly appear, along with a house, two cars and a satellite dish. Supposedly, it would all magically arrive, like the rocket belt I’m still waiting for.
A while back, I went to a 30-something birthday party and reminisced about how I felt when I embarked on my 30s. It is, after all, an age that’s long been considered the gauge by which adulthood is measured. At that time I had a job waiting tables and was a dedicated practitioner of better living through chemistry. I was also impatient to get on with life, so I managed to get myself entangled in a so-called “committed” relationship and took a “real job” I secretly loathed. I thought this was how it all worked. Appearances were everything. Never let ‘em see you sweat. Never let ‘em see you bleed.
Without going into a lot of details, I can say that the relationship went south and the painful consequences of a miserable dead-end career saddled with addiction mandated that core lifestyle changes be made. So for the past 20 years I’ve been engaged in a conscious process of self-discovery, something you never really arrive at as much as integrate into your day-to-day life.
About 15 years ago, I had an inkling that things might be turning out okay when one day I called my college alumni office to update my mailing address. They asked me what I did for a living and, to be perfectly honest, I didn’t want to tell them (I was underemployed at the time). So I said, “I work for the City of Louisville.” Then they asked exactly what I did for the City of Louisville. Since I had written a couple of poems that had been published on the Internet, I impulsively blurted out, “I’m a poet!” They took my word for it, and for 10 years my alumni directory had me listed as “Poet for the City of Louisville.” Not a bad accomplishment, even if it WAS a self-bestowed title.
I could write a book about my experiences during this process, but to cut to the chase, I will say that one thing I will always be grateful for is the advice my friend gave me when I called him up to complain about not being John Lennon. “Paul,” he told me, “whatever you do in life, don’t peak too soon.”