No second chances

Sitting on the rooftop of the New Swedish Hostel, a sharp cool breeze cut through my shirt. I hunkered down and shivered. It was still fairly early in the morning, and a few moments before the haunting call of the muezzin had stopped. It was calm—there were no cars within earshot, and the normally bustling streets of the Old City of Jerusalem hadn’t filled as of yet.  When the bells of the Greek Orthodox Church a hundred yards away began to chime, I leaned back, staring across the city at the golden Dome of the Rock.

Nearly twenty-three years later, the smells, sights and sounds of that time in my life are still quite vivid: in some ways, more so than the activities of my life in the last 30 days.

Bear with me here. This is going to be quite a long post. I’m writing about some deeply personal stuff, but I have a point to make. I’m in my early forties now, which probably makes me ripe for a mid-life crisis. Instead of getting a sports-car, I decided to spend some time doing some real introspection.  Among other things, I’ve been digging through my journals of more than twenty years ago, curious about the person I was, and what it says about who I’ve become.

As a teenager, one of my greatest fears was a life lived in mediocrity. Boring. Going to the office every day, then home at night, watch tv, blah blah blah blah. Boring. Yuck. No life at all. I pictured a life like that as no life at all. I wanted to drink up everything that life had to offer, and live it to the fullest.

So, at eighteen, instead of going off to college like most of my friends, instead, I spent the summer after my senior year waiting tables, saving every dime, and in the fall I bought a ticket for Tel Aviv.  I arrived in the country with a few hundred dollars in my pocket, three changes of clothes, a journal, and a hefty 50-or-so pound electronic word processor which my parents had given me as a high-school graduation gift. I spent the bulk of the next several months living and working in the Old City of Jerusalem, the first few weeks in a shared dorm room in the New Swedish Hostel, and after that, a small room at the Tabasco Hostel, where I cleaned toilets, changed the sheets, and occasionally manned the kebab stand alongside the Via Dolorosa, in exchange for free room and board and 2 shekels per day (roughly $1 in 1989).

Looking back, I wasn’t exactly the nicest guy in the world.  I’d broken a girl’s heart that summer. I’d done some other things I’m still not proud of.  But, on the other hand, I was living my dream.

When I finally ran out of cash I was in Limassol, Cyprus. I flew home right before Christmas, and started college at Georgia State in January.

And I was SO BORED.  My college education at that point lasted exactly one quarter before I enlisted in the US Army, which promptly sent me back to the Middle East as an Abrams tank crewman.

Anyway, what I’m getting at about that trip, about high school, about the war, is this: life was just so intense. Emotions, experiences, sex, love: it was just all so freaking intense.  I was an experience junkie.

If you’ve ever read Michael Chrichton’s book Travels, he says something that has stuck in my brain for more than two decades: “Often I feel I go to some distant region of the world to be reminded of who I really am. There is no mystery about why this should be so. Stripped of your ordinary surroundings, your friends, your daily routines, your refrigerator full of your food, your closet full of your clothes–with all this taken away, you are forced into direct experience…. so travel has helped me to have direct experiences. And to know more about myself.”

Here’s the thing. I pretty much never stopped being a bit of an adrenaline and experience junkie. My adult life led me to found two nonprofit organizations. To travel all over the United States doing speaking gigs, meetings people all over the place.  I got to testify before Congress and meet the President of the United States.  I got to marry a wonderful woman in my favorite bookstore, and raise two great kids. I published my books and still regularly get mail from fans who read Republic or Prayer at Rumayla and were somehow touched by them. That is fantastic.

But in some ways, it all came crashing down in 2008, when the nonprofit funding disappeared, and along with it my job. In 2009 I had to suddenly grow up and get a real job. For the first time in my life really, I did what I had so dreaded as a teenager… I took a job to pay the bills, not based on my passion, but solely in order to pay the bills.

So the question is, have I turned into the zombie I was afraid of turning in to? Because, to be honest, some days it’s all I can do to get out of bed and go to work. Some days it’s all I can do to come home, crash into a recliner, and dial into Netflix or sink into a book.

What I’ve learned in the last couple of years is this: whether or not I end up in that mediocre, unhappy place I always dreaded is entirely up to me.

It’s not about the job you are doing. It’s about how you do that job. Sure, I’m not hobnobbing with policy analysts and ambassadors anymore, but I am pushing every day for excellence. Every day I go in and try to take care of my customers. Every day I try to take care of the people who work for me: to shield them from the bullshit, to inspire them to excellence, to help them survive in an environment where they work harder and get paid less than anyone I’ve ever worked with before. My employees deserve nothing less than the best I can possibly give, every single day.

Living a vivid, intense and amazing life is mostly about paying attention.  When I watched falling stars from the top of my tank in Saudi Arabia, it was forcefully brought to my attention by the sheer strangeness of it. The smells of the suq in Jerusalem were so intense because they were different than anything I’d ever experienced before. The beautiful scenes in San Francisco, New York, Portland, every city I’ve ever visited are vivid precisely because they were new.  But in this new life I’ve found that by paying closer attention to my life, by simply sitting down and slowing down and paying attention, there is fantastic beauty all around me, from the birds singing to each other at 5 in the morning before I go to work, to the fantastic panorama of the moon next to the clouds as I drove home last night.

Above all, the real fantastic experiences are these: taking my children camping in the mountains.  Reading my sixteen year old son’s fledgling first novel. Going to dinner and really listening to my wife. Going zumba dancing with my daughter. Enjoying a get-together with friends.  Sitting beside the Chattahoochee River with my Mom and remembering how much we miss my Dad. The real amazing and fantastic experiences in life are all about people, not places. They’re all about the people we love.

If you’re like me, and you’ve been dislocated from your career, and your questioning the value of your life; if you’re caught up in a midlife crisis, my one suggestion is this: pay attention. Pay attention to the little things that matter. Watch a sunrise. Spend time with your family and really really listen to them. Do someone a kindness that they didn’t expect. Because a life worth living doesn’t just happen: it’s something we make, every day, by our choices of what we do, what we say, and how we act.

If I could go back and trade those months in Israel, or my meeting with the President, or the hundred trips across the United States for work; if I could go back and trade all of those things for just one more day spent goofing off with my Dad, I would.

There’s no second chances.

Make life worth living, by taking care of the people who matter.


P.S. If you find any of this worth sharing, please pass it on to other folks.

  1. Robert Roth

    Your words are spot on as the Brits say. Reminds me of an old song that Cat Stevens use to sing…what was that song. Oh, “Cats in the Craddle”…something like that. When you listen to the words, you will understand.

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