20 years ago, today — June 24, 2000 — I graduated high school from a backwards lil’ slice of quasi-incestuous Upper Appalachia, in a town I was neither born in, nor am I from, and while I had friends and activities there, I could never wait to leave. I wanted to explore the world — just as I always literally drew my ambitions on my driveway in chalk as a youngin.
Yeah, this lil’ ol’ Eagle Scout graduated with high honors from Whitesboro High School, and immediately after the ceremony, I bleached and spiked my hair, and preceded to have between 1 and 4 beers, at between 12 and 30 parties. We dropped a toilet in a bonfire. The shorter list was who I did not make out with. For better and worse, that was always the shorter list.
In the intervening two decades between then and here, three utterly bizarre things happened; I’d like to describe them to you here in painstaking detail — as if there’s another kind of detail in which I describe things to you.
I. The World Only Ever Got Worse
Truly. The world literally never got any better. At 18, as a sophomore in my third college, I watched 2,000 people plunge to their deaths off a skyscraper just down I-87, and, like … I don’t know … would I take that over the fascist kleptocratic plague-state of 2020?
Like, would I be cool with one more 9/11 to avoid the multiple 9/11’s we’ve had on an all-too-regular basis this year? Isn’t that wild to think about?
In between, we got addicted to surveillance social media apps, life expectancy started falling, suicides and addiction are way up, the average American dies in debt, I’ve lost count of who we’re at war with, and we’d be in the midst of another recession if we weren’t trying our damnedest to Make Depressions Great Again.
But, we’re not here to talk about dystopia … not fully, not this time. We’re here to talk about my second-favorite subject … me.
II. I Wasted 90% of My 20s
My life, specifically, was really mediocre for a long time. No, really. I mean, shit, read anything I wrote on this platform from before late-2017.
So, on June 24, 2000, I took that high honors diploma and over the next decade-plus tarnished it through a bat-shit three-major, four-college tour of destruction, where I started out as a broadcast journalist, did acid-trip versions of the weather, worked and went to school full time, skipped half my classes and still graduated in four years, was on the Dean’s List three times and Academic Probation twice, bartended, did some blow.
My first job after graduating from my fourth college was as a survey taker for $9/hr, only because I thought I wasn’t cutting it as a banquet server. I got promoted six times at that place in 16 months because I’m a mediocre white man and people just give me shit. Even at my apex, I was still only making $24K per year. I was 24.
Then I tried to move to North Carolina (for the third time) with my ex, I decided I didn’t want her to come, then I just didn’t go, and so then I had this weird telecommuting job where I basically just read Deadspin on the clock and pretended I could write if I wanted to. [I wanted to. I could not.]
Then, I’d eat shells and cheese, nap, then watch football in a dive bar when I wasn’t playing three atrocious songs at a local open mic at an even divey-er bar in downtown Buffalo, an area where I had moved to for the third time — and spent 20 of my first 28 years there.
But life got a little better, I met my three best friends toward the tail end of the 2000s, and we spent 2008, 2009 and 2010 driving around in my Black 1985 BMW 745i — and, later, Frank Sonata, my crooning 2009 Hyundai, who I still have — trying to see what bar we could get kicked out of for smashing the bubble hockey machine or kicking down a bathroom door. (Fact-checker’s Note: Both those events happened on the same night, within 30 minutes of each other.)
Those summers were dope and magical and we grew to be great friends with other people besides our mildly degenerate but far-too-smart-for-the-commoners asses.
Then, I stunned the world — errr … county? some of it, anyway? — by saying I was moving to Austin, Texas, and everyone thought that was kinda weird, but after having wandered around and lusted over wandering around for as long as I had, I realized the moment you stop moving you start dying.
I literally told my friends when they’d ask me why I wanted to leave, I’d say, “I do not want to die in Buffalo.” Just like I didn’t want to die in Utica. I guess we all gotta die somewhere. Maybe off the top of a skyscraper in New York. Too soon? Nah, it’s been 19 years. Almost 20. And everything was different then, as everything feels different now. It feels heavier, lighter, darker, dimmer.
Lest you think I rode off into the great southwestern sun of Austin and found fame and fortune, well, motherfucker, you weren’t out here in these streets for the Great Ruin of 2011–2012, when I legit lost so much money from such a pitch-perfect combo of bad luck, bad deals, bad people and bad work ethic that I ended up sleeping in a WalMart parking lot for several weeks when I was too broke to afford the $30/night Red Roof Inn that offered me free hookers and crack so long as I wasn’t the fuzz.
You haven’t lived until you’ve panhandled for food on your lunch break at a corporate HQ for a $100B multinational tech conglomerate, before resigning yourself to stealing un-SKU’d produce from H-E-B. Bananas, green apples and bell peppers. Breakfast and lunch. Christ that sucked, but I lost weight. I also made like $12K that year. I was 30.
III. The Phoenix Rises, Scorches the Earth
Look, then, after all that … the weirdest thing of all happened … my life got incredibly, impossibly, improbably good. Really. I’m as stunned as you are.
The great reclamation project that is my life’s bizarre and yet incomplete redemption arc, that’s darker and more complex than a straight line upward, but more heartwarming than a typical tragicomedy, started in the Summer of 2012 when I decided, “fuck it, I’ma be broke. Lemme write words and play music.” And I did that. I just … did it.
And I made more money … $50K, $60K, $70K, $80K, $90K, $100K (?!?!) you ever 10x your income and go from homeless to six-figures in a half-decade? I did. It’s fucking weird. It’s never not been fucking weird. I’m still not adjusted.
This ride is absolutely nuts. I think of all the random — and I do mean RANDOM — friends I’ve made around the world, the places I’ve wandered, the cities I’ve indulged in, the hundreds of concerts I’ve seen, the Internet cancellation but not until after I had a goddamned Sports Illustrated byline out of nowhere.
You know what else happened? People started to read my writing. (Wait, that’s right … in my 30s I started writing. In my 30s.) Then, a half-decade later, I got a lil following.
I wrote some things for some progressive politicians. Hell, I wasn’t even a progressive 20 years ago. Now I’m like ghostwriting the socialist revolution from a one-bedroom condo in Austin, Texas, and a woman who now goes by three letters was and still is my favorite human to write for. Then came my crack at a Green New Deal, and … well, it’s out there … somewhere …
And then the asthmatic ran 14 (!!!) half-marathons and a full 26.2! Then I went and did a bunch of psychedelics, got really into activism, got really Internet-famous for being someone who did a bunch of psychedelics and got really into activism — and I hate calling myself an activist, because you bet your ass your man over here who’s been in the clink seven times doesn’t want to go back and is a bit petrified of police, yes, even as a white man and the grandson of a police chief — and then my entire life soared like a rocket into stratospheres unknown.
I went rogue. I traveled the world. I decided devote my day-job (to the extent that exists) to write policy and branding, essays and speeches, but mostly I authored my own life, to the extent of it that I could.
My friends from part II, I still see every year. They’re fantastic.
And the hell of part I, while it touches and torches and twists every fiber of my being and lord almighty how I hate it all so and I cannot believe the fuckery I have to stay present for, it cannot take away from who I’ve become, where I’ve been, who I still need to thank, and who I’ve yet to be.
I’ve been damn near everywhere. Done damn near everything. Grew beyond my limits. Loved with reckless abandon. Slept next to dumpsters and in Vegas penthouse suites. Been too drunk to walk, too sober to be fun, too empathetic to not cry all the time, too smart for my own good.
I am lucky, skilled, ambitious, kind, erratic, loving, curious and the fiercest, most cantankerous — and by orders of magnitude most idiosyncratic — drum-banger for dignity, equality, liberty and justice amongst my fellow other residents at the top of the privilege totem pole around.
Not because I’m woke, no, I don’t take pride or pleasure in trying to stave off dystopia with my pen and my brain. Truly, I’m just an all-too-sensitive, hyper-attuned, grossly-empathetic insomniac and it’s an actual problem. I cry during teen movies. I cry during every Hurray for the Riff Raff song. I sulk, expressionless and catatonic, at the news, daily, each passing headline I grow more listless and unstable than the headline before.
I can’t just shut that shit off, and so I have to … shut that shit off. Whatever that all means anymore.
Now, two decades into the “real world,” I can unequivocally say it mostly sucks. The people I know and keep are damn close to perfect. The cities I adore, I could get lost in for weeks. The oceans are paradise. My family is, on balance, moderately tolerable and I effusively love them so.
There’s also jazz, sex, cookies, lucky breaks, just desserts, surprises, cats, baby giggles, Indian weddings, WhatsApp calls from halfway around the world, endless open roads and the dark corners where you find your inner light.
Yeah, the “real world.” I didn’t get married, have kids or a buy a house. But I kept a record of all you motherfuckers who did, who call me up and tell me how right I was doing it, unprovoked, telling me my words mattered and the world needs them now more than ever. Stop it, I’m getting a complex.
Still, for as long as there’s new places to go and stories to tell, you can bet your ass I’ma go there and tell them. I don’t know what else to do. It’s all that I’m good at … that and, well, my family’s reading, so, I’ll save that one for my premium membership tier.
But, hey. I’m a catch, a riot, a gem, a fighter, a comeback kid and a [so you tell me, anyway] word wizard.
I don’t even know how much money I make anymore, or where my career is headed, because I’ve learned all that matters in life is:
- how you spend your time,
- how you take care of your body, and
- how you show up for other people.
I’m 37 now. I’ve been alive longer post-high school longer than I was ever alive as a kid.
I don’t even remember the version of me you see pictured at the top. I just remember all the hope I had, of someone ready to forge his legacy … the working-class nobody made good in a world that stretches as far as your dreams and will lift you to reach them.
That generous, just and compassionate world does not exist. I, on the other hand, held up my end of the bargain.
The world got dark. I got awesome. And I swear on my dying asthmatic breaths as I cross the tape of the longest run of my life, I ain’t gonna stop sprinting until this world that is so ceaselessly corrupt, ugly and utterly devoid of unproblematic radiance is exactly the “real world” you — and I suppose I, too — deserve. Thought we could get there in 20 years. Eh, maybe it’ll take 40.
I got time. I ain’t got nowhere else to be, for once, and in my saudade-fueled wandering, I realized I’m home wherever there’s love, wisdom, truth, adventure, laughter, kindness, health and peace. You find that shit; you hold onto it. May it carry you out of the darkness; may you find home in their presence.
20 years ago, today, I graduated high school. It wasn’t until after that I realized how much I’d have to learn, how little we learn is absolute, and how much we learn gets lost and buried under an endless sea of lies, and a cacophony of memories that only in retrospect make up a story.
One day you’ll describe those events to strangers in painstaking detail — as if there’s another kind of detail —mistaking observation for wisdom, stories for truth, and your life existing within an extricable vacuum, set apart from life itself. It isn’t.
This life is all we get, whether it’s your life or Black Lives or life itself on Earth. Once it’s gone … it’s gone.
That’s the only lesson worth learning, because it’s the lesson that keeps you, and us all, alive. Daring for greatness, yearning for better, never forgetting it can all be taken away ever-more-easily than you earned it.
Study hard, students. Class dismissed.