A version of this essay appears on the PeteBrownSays podcast, season 2, episode 5.
My teenage son likes to sleep.
Some days, he gets home from school and sleeps for three hours, before we wage an epic battle to wake him up so that he can eat and do homework. I can’t really explain what it’s like trying to wake a teenage boy from a late-afternoon, early evening REM-driven slumber. It’s like trying to move a mountain using only your voice. Lately, it has taken a combination of loud noises, a plant sprayer and a cat to just get him to stir.
I know some of this is normal for a teenage boy who’s in his prime growing years. What I don’t know, however, is if I was like this when I was his age. Because I don’t remember that I was, but then again, I surely must have been, to some extent, right?
In high school, I was always staying after for one activity or another or heading out with my friends to grab Subway sandwiches or Big Macs before going home for dinner. That used to drive my Dad crazy, by the way, when I’d eat a whole fast food meal before I came home for dinner, and I guess now that I’m an adult, I can see why.
I think the difference is that my Dad was retired for most of my growing up, so he was always at home, working on cars, making US Navy-sized portions of meals like Shipwreck and City Chicken. And one thing I remember for sure was that he was not-cool with late afternoon naps. Though I asked him recently if he remembers me being extra sleepy in high school years, and he said he remembered one time that I came home from school, took a 15-minute nap, and then headed out with my baseball glove.
Now, I was pretty much done with baseball by the time I was in high school, so I asked him how old he thought I was when this happened.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe six?”
Regardless, when I went to freshman orientation at my college, I was so convinced of my ability to be up-and-at-em that I scheduled all of my classes between 8 am and noon, and I was foolish enough to think Great! I’ll be done by lunchtime and have a whole half day every day to myself!
I’ve told this story to my son numerous times. Because if there is one thing I feel absolutely driven to tell him before he heads off to college, it is this: Do not sign up for any classes before noon.
It took me almost two full years of skipping classes, scrambling to pull it together for midterms, and borrowing someone’s notes before the final before I figured it out. Sometimes I had to drop classes altogether before it really sunk in that I was, at best, a mid-to-late afternoon learner, and to be honest, I found night classes worked the best for me. Like my son, and like my late Mom, I’m a night bird. If I miss a go-to-sleep window at a regular hour, odds are I won’t be able to fall asleep until well into the wee hours.
My son is a junior in high school as I write this, and so we’re starting to do things like take the ACT and visit college campuses, and with each visit, I think back on the mistakes I made in college, and I feel a sudden and strong urge to confess them all to my son in the hopes he won’t do the same. It’s folly, to be sure. We have to let our kids make their own mistakes in life. But if we can help them make one decision that might make the way a tiny bit easier, for me, it would be this business about not scheduling morning classes.
Because for a night bird with a morning schedule, it’s not just the waking up and walking across campus that you struggle with. Part of your brain seems stuck in a weird half-woke slumber until well into the afternoon. Not much by way of a curriculum is getting in there, and the decisions you make are not always the greatest.
Today’s story is about another one of those decisions, and the massive impact I have always thought that it has had on my life. I don’t want to say it’s about regrets, but I’m afraid that by the end of the story, it will seem very much so. Because this particular decision is what always springs to mind when someone asks if you have any regrets. I’m just not sure if I regret it, or just feel viscerally and surely how my life came to a fork at this specific moment, how naive I was to not even recognize it, and how it’s impacted me to this day.
Do you know how people sometimes say you have to meet your moment? It was like that. Only, I passed on the meeting. For the dumbest of reasons that you can imagine.
And believe it or not, this whole story came to mind this week when I was reviewing the stats for the podcast and noticed that I have a small but faithful contingent of listeners in France.
Bienvue, mes amis. Je suis tellement heureux que vous êtes ici.
Yes. I speak a little French. Far less than I should, given the number of years I studied it. And, after college, when I joined the Peace Corps and learned Russian, it felt like the Russian was pushing the French out of my head, as if my brain had drawn a line and said I could have fluency in only one foreign language, and only remember bits and pieces of others. I tend to mix the two up whenever I have a chance to speak them, which is not often.
I took three years of French in high school. My Mom was a francophile who decorated our home in a pseudo-french country motif, and she encouraged me to take French over Spanish, which I initially had said would be more useful to me in life. But then my Dad said “all the pretty girls take French,” and so I was all like “Bon Jour, mes petite chou-chou!” (He was right on this point, I should mention. The one steady girlfriend I had in High School, I met in French class.)
And anyway, I do have a good head for languages, and always did well in French without a lot of effort, which was my primary MO in high school. If you were late to French class, you had to sing La Marseilles, which is the French national anthem, in front of everybody. Needless to say, I still know every word of it to this day.
I’ve never really had a chance to speak French, though. My family didn’t vacation very often, and certainly never overseas, so the language always felt more theoretical to me. The highlight of French class, beyond the pretty girls, was when my friends Jacque and I translated Queen’s We are the Champions into French, and then would sing it when our groups would win various classroom competitions.
I don’t hear from Jacques too often. His real name is Jay, by the way, and we also called him Flip for a short time, since that is what he did in his Chevette during a snowstorm one winter. The last time I heard from Jay directly was the day after the Cleveland Cavaliers won the NBA championship in 2016. I found I had a message from him waiting the next morning. “Nous sommes les champions” it read. “Du le monde!”
But let’s leave the late 1980’s of my high school years and step into the early 1990s of my college years. To 1992, in fact. I’m 21 years old and running around campus with a six buck haircut, cutoff jeans and for some reason, construction boots. I regularly and radically switch between unbridled idealism (for example, I volunteered for the Jerry Brown campaign in 1992 because I believed his $100/limit per donor would a good thing for politics) and biting cynicism (I also smoked cigarettes with other staffers in the alley behind the campaign office and referred to that same contribution limit as our death sentence). This was a rare case in which I was right on both counts.
By 1992, I had been through a few different majors and minors, and had settled comfortably on Creative Writing and Political Science. My courses were now much more focused on my interests, and most of them were in the evenings. I think of this time as the happiest I’ve been academically. I wrote every day, literally, hundreds of pages of comically awful short stories. And my professors were patient with me, and let me work through the awfulness with gentle guidance and coaching.
But at a visit with my advisor prior to spring quarter, I learned that as an English major, I was required to have two years of a foreign language. But, he told me, the school was trying something new, and if I wanted to, I could take computer sciences to meet this requirement. Did I want to?
Hell’s yeah I did! Computers! Like in the MacLab in the basement of the Ellis Hall?
You have to remember that this was a time before many people had access to a personal computer, a time in which the Internet and laptops were barely even a thing, and the few cell phones that existed came in giant suitcases. When I first arrived on campus in 1989, you could rent typewriters from the student center for 2 cents a minute, and you’d sit in a loud clackety-clack room pecking out your screeds for Freshman comp.
But change was in the offing. My freshman year, as I’ve mentioned before on the show, I used my very first credit card to buy a word processor, which had a very small screen that let me see what I had typed before I pressed print, which was kind of mind-blowing at the time. And I could save my work on floppy discs. It was all unreal, and my production of horribly wrought short stories easily tripled after I bought it.
So I was, as I would have said at the time, totally stoked to get to take computers instead of French.
I think of myself at this moment in time often. Young, brash, unmedicated. My brain was spinning fast and full of ideas. There I was with the prospect of taking computer programming roughly 18 months before some of the greatest developments of our lifetime first make their way to market: affordable personal computers, laptops, the Internet. I can’t say for sure that I would have been a startup mogul in the very first wave of such people in the mid- 1990s. I can only say, looking back, with two years of programming under my belt, that a lot of the ingredients would seem to be in the right place at the right time for something good to happen.
Except for one hitch: the only programming class I could get in was a morning class. An 8 am class at that.
Again, as I would have said at the time: duuuuude.
Still, I signed up and convinced myself that I could do it. That I would cut back on my late nights of drinking beer and smoking cigarettes so that I could get this class down cold. Which is to say, I began to lie to myself, the kind of absurd, exorbitant lies that seem more and more true as they get bigger and more complex.
I made it on time to the very first class, which I ended up considering kind of a waste, since all we did was review the syllabus. To give you a sense of how mainstream computing was in its infancy, the classroom had a total of 0 computers in it. Instead, the prof wrote lines of code on the overhead projector and explained how they would work in a computer, if we had happened to have one. This — by the way — was at a very well-funded state university, the first in Ohio, as it happens. We dutifully copied the lines down in our notebooks.
The reason we had no computer in the classroom was that we were scheduled to have one class per week in a computer lab, where we could type in our lines of code and test them out. So twice a week, we did this analog thing, and on Friday mornings, we got to the good stuff. We each got to sit at our own computer — no sharing — for a full hour. Wow!
I was about twenty minutes late for the second class, having woken up that morning in an unfamiliar dormitory. It had taken some time to re-situate myself and take a quick emergency shower by splashing water from the drinking fountain in the hallway onto my face and tying a bandana over my head, which was something we did back then because, you know, it really topped off the cutoff jeans/construction boot/flannel shirt aesthetic. My fellow Computer Science classmates looked at me with some distaste as I arrived in class and tried to borrow a pencil and piece of paper.
I should admit, here, that this idea of letting the liberal arts majors learn computer sciences for their foreign language requirement was really pretty unusual, and those of us who had taken the U up on the offer were definitely a breed apart from the part-and-parcel students in the computer sciences building, none of whom, as far as I could tell, ever wore bandanas to class, or stuck around after to play hacky sack or smoke cigarettes and muse about the fate of the proletariat in the post-Reagan era.
They were organized students in clean, crisp clothes, carrying just the right things they needed for their day in their well-kept backpacks. They saw me for the hot mess that I was, and, I assume, waited bemusedly for me to fail out. The student who lent me a piece of paper and a pencil for the second class was an exchange student named Hong whose English was pretty tricky to understand. Still, he managed to say “Just once” and “Pencil back to me” as he handed over the goods.
Still, in those first few classes, I thought that I was going to be pretty good at writing code. My knack for languages was an apt overlay onto the syntax and construction of code, and the internal logic was clear to me, even reassuring. Where I tended to mess up was usually due to my awful handwriting, which made my written-down code difficult for the graduate TA to read, or, in my excitement to see the logic play out, I’d accidentally drop in a misplaced comma or semicolon, either of which could bring an entire program crashing down.
I’m not sure how the very first class in the computer lab went, because I slept through it entirely. Not simply because of the deep REM-driven sleep growing boys need at that time, either. It was probably more due to the fact that on Thursday nights at a local bar favored by my friends and I (because it was also favored by many pretty young women) Thursday nights was something called Quad Night.
On Quad Night, you would order a “quad,” which was a mixed drink with four different shots of alcohol in it, and usually mixed with cola and garnished with a lime. They came in tall glasses with a red straw, and we felt very grown up about the whole business of ordering and drinking them as we headed back to the foosball table, which was another unique feature of this bar. Quads were cheap, about 2 bucks each, so I didn’t need much cash to get myself into trouble.
Luckily I had devised a system. A terrible system, now that I look back on it, but one I was crazy proud of at the time. You see, every Tuesday and Thursday, I sold my plasma to this research lab in town.
This selling of plasma was an awful, painful business, by the way, in which they took your blood out of one arm, spun the plasma out of it and then put the remains back in your other arm. I blacked out in my chair each and every time I did this, but instead of telling me not to come anymore, they told me I needed to get more iron in my diet.
“Oh, for sure,” I’d say. “I’ll do that. Iron, baby. Iron.”
The net result was that on Tuesday and Thursday nights, down a quart of plasma and still lightheaded, I usually had a crisp ten-spot in my pocket, which covered $2 for a Whopper at the uptown Burger King, then a couple of bucks for drinking, and then, if I was cogent enough when the bar closed at 2 am, another $3 for a burrito from the burrito buggy.
Um — ok, 47-year old Pete here for a second, sitting in a coffee shop and looking at the previous few paragraphs with something not short of horror. I should note that I’ve been encouraging my son to apply to my alma mater, but as I think about it in detail, I’m wondering if maybe that’s not the best idea. And also, former college friends who listen to the podcast, anybody ever think of maybe pulling me aside and advising me to dial it down a notch or two? No one? Really?
Anyway, I missed the first class in the computer lab entirely. I woke up around noon that day in the basement of a fraternity house. I wasn’t in a fraternity, by the way, and to be honest, I couldn’t remember how I got there. But one of the pledges started poking me with a broom and told me I had to go.
The next Monday I made it to class on time and with a notebook and a pencil, which I showed to Hong when I got there, and at which he nodded appreciatively. This was the best computer class I was to have in my short career as a budding computer scientist. I copied down my lines of code carefully, missing nothing when the TA came by to check them. He made a check mark at the top of my page.
I was, again, as I would have said back then, I was so stoked by this that when class ended, I said out loud “Anyone want to grab a smoke?” And the room kind of stopped for a second — like everyone who had been in the process (or inproc, as we said in computer class) everyone who was inproc of loading up their backpacks for a moment just stopped and looked at me like they couldn’t quite fathom the question I had asked.
“No?” I said. “No takers?” Then, “Ok, then. Cool beans. Cool cool beans. Coool coool coool coool beans. Cool beans.”
We said Cool Beans a lot back then. Just trust me. It was a thing.
So at this point in the story, it’s starting to seem like I made a series of poor choices around the time I was enrolled in CSC100, and truth be told, if I strung them together with a few other stories from the time, you’d not be wrong to conclude that I had, if not an out-and-out drinking problem, then certainly an unholy addiction to binge drinking on Thursday nights.
And also Tuesday nights, to be honest, because this was something called “Drink and Drown,” at another local bar, where you paid $3 at the door for all the beer you could drink. Which I can assure you was a lot of beer. Now I know $3 doesn’t seem like a lot for an all-you-can drink promotion, and that probably tells you what you need to know about the quality of the beer they were serving, but 3 bucks was definitely worth more then than it is now, and when you’re as broke as I was in college, it seemed like a lot.
So on that Tuesday night, the second week of my computer class, it’s fair to say I hit beer, burritos and Burger King. I know that I made it back to the house I lived in with anywhere between 4 and 7 other young men at any given point in time, because I woke up around 10 am on the couch, still holding a half eaten-burrito in my hand.
I always slept on the couch in this house, because in my bedroom I had a 1970’s style waterbed that made me seasick, and also the heater was broken, so the water-filled mattress was pretty cold to lay on. But still, a waterbed!
I was pretty angry with myself for missing class that Wednesday morning, especially since Monday’s class had gone so well. My monkey mind went nuts denigrating myself for my shitty decisions, and only paused between long paragraphs of negative-self talk long enough to mentally swear oaths to all gods, know and unknown, that I would make it to the computer lab on Friday morning at 9 am so that I could type in my code that I had so carefully copied into my notebook.
So on Thursday, when a few of my housemates asked if I was going to Quad Night, I said no, thanks. I had some important stuff to do the next morning.
It’s hard to describe how the three of their faces fell at that moment. Like they were stuck dumb by what I had said. One of these guys was my very good friend Brady, a big guy who always had my back during the tight scrapes my mouth often got me into back then. Brady spoke with a slight southern Ohio twang, but what I found most interesting about him was how he could win any argument not by using logic, but instead volume. Which is not to say he was illogical — on the contrary, he has the internal logic of those people you know who can take anything apart, fix it and put it back together again without breaking a sweat. One time, he built an almost life-sized model of a great white shark using nothing but empty cans of Keystone Light and a stapler. It’s jaw opened and closed and there were extra rows of teeth behind the front teeth, just like a real shark.
Brady had a phrase he used when he doubted something I had said, which was often, because, again, as a creative writing major, it was kind of my deal to be making shit up all the time. He veritably shouted this phrase at me when I said I was passing on Drink-and-Drown that evening.
The phrase was: THE HELL YOU SAY. I typed that in all caps, podcast listeners, because I don’t think I could ever hope to come close to his performance of it. He was a true artist with this phrase. THE HELL YOU SAY!
“I’m serious,” I said. “I’m still feeling woozy from the plasma thing today and I have to be at a class at 8 am.”
One of my friends took a seat, as if he couldn’t parse this information standing up. What?
Brady, however, immediately changed tack.
“You sold plasma today?” he asked. I think all of us had sold our plasma or participated in medical studies more than a few times back then. I did these things often enough that I can tell you I was a bit relieved that neither of my children were born with two heads.
“Listen,” he said. “Just come with us to Burger King. The food will do you good.”
I had to admit, a Whopper sounded good. It sounded good enough that I was willing to endure the shade that would inevitably be thrown my way whenever we ate fast food, which was pretty much daily, because, and I hesitate to even share this now, but back then, I didn’t like French Fries.
I’m not too crazy about them now, either, but back then, I was pretty vocal about it. Despite my minor in political science, I didn’t understand how not-liking-fries could raise some serious doubts about your character. The first time I said it out loud, Brady’s ensuing “THE HELL YOU SAY” shook the windows at Burger King, and the normally quiet Cadillac (whom we sometimes also called Sidecar) said “Jump Back” in the exact way and manner that Kevin Bacon’s Wren character says it in Footloose when the other kids tell him that dancing is against the law, and then Brady followed up by asking me if I was a communist or something.
Brady sensed my hesitation, and he said: “We won’t say anything about the fries.”
He always could — and even to this day can — read my mind a little bit. One time on a road trip out west we drove past a sign that read “Federal Prison: Do Not Stop for Hitchhikers,” and I had barely read the words when he started turning the car around because he knew I would demand to be photographed standing in front of it, hitchhiking. (If I can find this photo, I’ll post it to Instagram this week, by the way. It’s a classic. I framed it and gave it to my Mom for Mother’s Day one year.)
“OK,” I said. “I’ll just go to Burger King with you.”
I think that the moment I said it, I knew this wasn’t true. But I was still young, and not always able to catch myself lying to myself. Just get some food in my stomach, you know. Turn in early. Sounds reasonable, right. That’s the ticket.
When we were in line at Burger King, Brady asked me to order a Whopper meal so he could have my fries. It was the same price as trying to order a whopper and a drink individually. You’d think for all the free fries I gave them. my friends would have let up a bit. But I’m telling you, short of saying you don’t like puppies, there aren’t many other things that I’ve said that upset people so much as “I don’t like french fries.” And seriously, don’t get me started about tater tots.
It’s likely there are quite a few friends from that time whom I’ve lost touch with that only remember this one detail about me. Pete Brown? They may think one day. Pete Brown? Bad haircut. Hates fries, right?
For example, I had a friend named Ogre in college (Ogre was not his first name, by the way, but I don’t know what it actually was. Nor do I remember his girlfriend’s actual name, because we called her — and yes, 48-year-old-me is wincing — we called her Mrs. Ogre. For four full years. After graduation, I actually sent them a wedding card addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Ogre, not because I thought it was funny, but because I couldn’t remember their actual names. I want to say Steve, maybe?) But the reason I’m sharing this is because I lost touch with Ogre shortly after graduation, and when we reconnected some years later, his first and only question was “do you still hate french fries?” when frankly, he’d have been totally justified opening with “Hey, why don’t you stop calling me Ogre already, you motherfucker, and stop calling my wife Mrs. Ogre.”
Look, hate’s a strong word. I’m fine with a few fries. I just never got what the big deal was. (This, by the way, is pretty much what my wife says about music by the Beatles, who she claims she doesn’t like. The psycho.)
Back at Burger King, Brady’s now suggesting I just come out for a drink or two after we eat, then head back home. One or two beers will help you get to sleep early, he reasons. Just come out for a little bit. It’s probably not even crowded.
Initially, I resist this logic, but then he offers to pay for a drink if I go ($2, in case you haven’t done the math). Now, I should be glad that my friends usually wanted me along on these misadventures. I want to say it was because I was a funny and insightful presence who well-contributed to the general joviality of any one evening. But I think its more because once I put three beers in me, I would do pretty much anything someone suggested, and that often resulted in some pretty funny fail states, as we would have said in Computer Science class.
Nowadays, I refer to this time as being in my life as being “a bit of a risk taker,” which is true, but hardly expansive enough. More accurately, I was a bit it of a stupid risk taker, and by bit I mean huge and by stupid, I mean, lucky to be alive today.
I will share just one example of this before we move on. My friends and I are on a road trip out west to watch Spring Training baseball games in Arizona’s Cactus League. En route, we find ourselves on the rim of the Grand Canyon. It is 9 am and for some reason we have been up and drinking beer since 7 am, which was the time when the convenience store nearest our campground opened. This part of the canyon is not so developed for tourists. There’s just a small parking lot, and if you walk 50 yards further north, the fence ends and then there is nothing between us and what looked like a 200-foot straight down drop.
But standing about 7 or 8 feet across from us is one of those spires, a column of rock about 10 or 15 feet around, rising from the canyon floor. I think these are legit called hoodoos, in case you wondered.
So, and again, 47-year-old me hesitates to share this, but after some of us may or may not have peed off the edge of the Grand Canyon (and there is some divergence of remembering on this point and who did what exactly), my friend Brady says “I wonder if anyone has ever jumped to that,” by which he means the hoodoo.
In response, I took three fast steps and jumped.
This is one of those stories that makes me wonder how and why I’m still alive today. When I look back at it, I see how easily I could have been a headline in a Northern Arizona paper: Idiot Buckeye Dies in Ill-Considered Leap to HooDoo; Alcohol suspected.
But the problem wasn’t making it to the hoodoo; I made it with some room to spare. The problem was stopping myself once I landed, which I managed to do, but which included an unsettling slide across a few feet of rock during which, I won’t lie (I mean, why start now), a #2 threatened to peek out of my butt. That kind of almost-lost-control-of your-bowels risk, that was my bailiwick. Also, after I jumped, Brady shouted THE HELL YOU SAY at me so loudly that it reverberated across the canyon.
I have to admit that being on the hoodoo wasn’t as cool as I thought it would it be. I mean, I had hoped to have this kind of peaceful moment on this truly exclusive bit of earth that for sure had only been visited by a small handful of people, and by people, I mean, fellow idiots.
But it wasn’t peaceful. It wasn’t peaceful because Brady was across the divide yelling things at me like “Jesus Fucking Christ” and “What’s wrong with you? and “If you die there’s no way I’m going down there to get your body.”
“Don’t worry,” I called back from the column, collecting myself and taking a knee because my legs felt a little shaky. “They have people for that.”
This elicited a laugh, and a few moments later, my friend Lothar jumped across.
“That was scary,” he understated, as he skidded to a stop.
Then I sat on the edge of the hoodoo overlooking the canyon and dangled my feet down. “What a view!” I said, which was kind of a lie, because it wasn’t all that different than the view from the edge 6 feet away, where Brady stood cursing us.
A moment later, I heard my friend, the normally conservative and not-wont-to-curse Cadillac land on the rock behind me, and grab onto my shoulders to stop his skid. “Jesus Christ!” he said out loud. “That was fucking stupid!”
And that was the truth. It was stupid. Crazy-stupid. And radically out-of-character for him.
I didn’t think before I leapt to the hoodoo. I was trying this thing out in my life when I was trying to force logic out of my decision-making process, trying to “go with my gut,” as it were, and to “just do it,” which is what it said on my keychain, which my sister Amy gave me for Christmas one year because she sold Nikes at the Foot Locker, although if she knew some of the decisions “just do it” led me to during this time in my life, she would be understandably horrified.
A busload of tourists started to wander over to take photos of the three of us sitting on the rock. “I could jump over there,” Brady said aloud to no one in particular, “…but why would I want to?”
I was glad he didn’t, to be honest, because space on the hoodoo was now at a premium, and while I wouldn’t want to deny Brady this right of passage, the truth is if he jumped over, the odds were good that he would knock one or two of us to our death, bowling pin-style.
After spending a few more minutes sitting on the rock and posing for tourist photos, I started to reconsider my circumstance. In particular, it dawned on me that there was nowhere near enough space on the hoodoo to allow me to take the 3 fast steps I had taken on the other side before I had leapt into space. I was remembering doing the “standing long jump” in gym class in 7th grade to earn my presidential physical fitness award, and thinking I had back then jumped nowhere near as far as the hoodoo stood from the edge.
“Does that jump back look farther to you guys?” I asked Lothar and Cadillac.
“Huh,” said Lothar. “That’s odd.”
Seven feet never looked so long in my life. And the more I thought about it, the more nervous I became about making it back.
“We’ll scooch over here,” Cadillac said, “and that will let you take a step before you jump.”
It was unstated that I would be jumping back first since I had ostensibly gotten everyone into this mess. If I didn’t make it, Lothar and Cadillac were sure to put out a call for help. They do, as we so fiercely believed, have people for that.
“Hey, no biggie here,” I called out to Brady. “But would you stand kind of by the edge in case I, you know, need to grab a hand or something…just to steady myself.”
THE HELL YOU SAY! Brady bellowed.
But he did it. He always had my back, and he does to this day. He baby-stepped himself close to the edge and stood sideways, bending his knees a bit to brace himself.
“OK, let’s not overthink this,” he called out.
And so I thought for a moment about my keychain, then took the step available to me and leapt. And as I crossed the gap I saw that my front foot seemed sure to make it, but the rest of me was very much in doubt. But the split second that that foot landed, a huge hand reached out and grab my shirt and twisted it up and yanked me to safety. Then, before letting go, Brady pulled me by my twisted shirt in close to his face, where he very vehemently whispered “Don’t EVER do that again. And I am not fucking around.”
“I’m not fucking around” is what we said back then when we wanted to be taken straight on something, a cue for us to park our nascent cynicsm, odd sense of humor and misunderstood sense of irony at the door.
“Ok,” I said. “Done deal.”
For Lothar’s return, Brady and I stood sideways, facing each other a few feet apart, and Lothar leaped to the space between us. He would have made it without help, but still we grabbed him and slowed his skid.
And finally for Cadillac, Lothar and I stood on the wings and Brady stood between us, like the anchor on a tug of war team, and guided him in.
So we all made it, obviously, and once we had walked silently away from the edge, we began acting like the whole thing had been no big deal. Then we got in the car and drove to a taco restaurant that was featuring 25 cent tacos, and a taco eating contest broke out, in which I lost to Brady 10 tacos to 7, with Lothar posting a respectable 5 and Cadillac saying he wasn’t much hungry at all. Incredibly, those seven tacos would prove, later that day, to have been a bigger mistake than the leap to the hoodoo. I mean, there were some consequences I don’t much like talking about.
So, that’s what I mean about being a stupid risk taker. It was almost as if the risk wasn’t stupid enough, I’d pass on it. And as I sat in that Burger King not eating my fries, thinking about my lines of code in my notebook, eager to be typed into a computer so that they could make something of themselves, I told myself another lie.
“OK,” I said. “Just one or two drinks. Then home to bed.”
I don’t have to tell you that it wasn’t just one or two. In fact, the night was a rare four-bagger that included me thinking a young woman was interested in talking to me, then her boyfriend indicating he was not interested in that happening at all, then me getting shoved about in a bit of a scrum, throwing up in the bathroom and waking up with a black eye, still a little bit drunk, in an apartment complex way the hell off campus, with no idea where I was nor how I had ended up there.
When I did wake up, it was early, around 7:30, and I hustled myself out of there and started the long walk across campus to the building where the computer lab was. I knew I didn’t have time to stop in my own place to get my notebook, but I figured I’d remember most of my code once I got to sit down at an actual computer.
I didn’t think I was going to make it on time, so I started a light jog, but stopped almost immediately and got sick in some nearby bushes. My head pounded like Thor’s hammer, but what was worse was this unsteady feeling in my legs and a weird shaking in my hands that I couldn’t seem to calm. And for as bad as I felt, I just kept telling myself this simple plan: get to the computer lab. Type in my code. Go home and sleep. Get to computer lab. Type in my code. Go home and sleep.
It was probably a quarter after 8 when I got to the building. And I should tell you, this was one of the larger classroom buildings on campus. It housed some huge lecture halls for those big classes that half the freshman class has to take. The classroom for my Computer Science class was on the fourth floor, but as I opened the door to the building, I realized I had no idea where the computer lab was, and this was going to be a big building to search. After looping through the fourth and third floors, I sat down and tried to picture the syllabus in my head. And I swear I could see a B next to a number, and I thought maybe that was for Basement, which would make sense. The computers in the English Department’s building, where I spent much more of my time, were in the basement.
So I headed down there.
I was not prepared for the labyrinth that met me. The hallways were thin and twisty down here, with pipes and wires running along the sides and ceiling. I walked for a long time, and started to suspect that maybe the basement was connected to the next building over’s basement. I knew the time I had left to get to class, get on a computer and type in my code was dwindling fast. I tried a light jog again and managed to do it and not get sick. But on top of how poorly I felt, my brain wasn’t working right down there, as if my usual pretty-good sense of direction, my ability to map out an area as I moved through it, it was all askew, like a magnetic compass sitting on the pole, the needle spinning wildly in circles, looking for some purchase.
And here’s a not-really fun fact about me: I have a hard time asking for help. I know a lot of people say that, but it can border on silly for me. Last year, my kids and I walked about three miles home from church (church!) where the battery had died in the minivan. And my kids kept saying “why don’t we ask for help?” and I would reply “It’s not far now.” When I got home, I rode my motorcycle to the store to buy a new battery for the minivan, then I rode it to the church and installed it. Then I rode my motorcycle back home, got my ten speed down, pedaled back to the church, threw it in the van and started it up and drove home. Easy peasy. Who needs help?
When I explained this to my wife (in response to her very reasonable question of ‘what did you do all day,”) she frowned in the way that suggests no idiosyncratic behavior can remain charming across 23 years of marriage, and she said “You know, people at church like to help out people. It’s kind of their thing.”
And I wish I was better at asking for help, but it’s one of those unnatural things for me, that I’m so awkward at that I hate myself for needing help at all. And I’ve worked with my kids on this — trying to teach them a balance between asking for help and figuring shit out on their own, pointing out how my inability to ask for help leads to things like 3-mile walks home from church. To their credit, they seem to be getting it.
And believe me, I was worse about asking for help when I was 19, and badly hungover, and lost in the labyrinth basement of the science building looking for a computer lab whose room number I could not remember. And I had one of those ‘how did I let my life get to this place’ moments, and stopped walking, and huffed a big sigh, and then made the decision that I believed for years and years altered the course of my life dramatically.
“Fuck it,” I said out loud. “I’ll take French.”
And that is what I did. No computer sciences. No foundational knowledge of code and networking delivered to my idea-crazed mind literally months before the Internet would become a thing.
Fuck it, I said. I’ll take French.
I can’t tell you how thoroughly I believed my life changed there. Years later I would work a spell as a technical writer for a few software companies, a job I was good at, because, like languages, I understood systems pretty well, and that’s about the level you needed to get to be a good technical writer in those days.
I worked alongside software engineers for years. I’d pop into their offices unannounced to share great Ideas I had for software and plugins and browser extensions and, when the time came around, apps. How they would smile politely and tolerate my intrusion. If I started scribbling maniacally on their whiteboards, they’d clear their throats and say things like “Man, I have got a ton of shit to do today.” And I would put the marker down. Look sadly at whatever idea I had just sketched, and head back to my cubicle, the one in the corner over by the printer, which most people thought was my job to unjam when they ganked it up. I’d bid a farewell to the idea that was almost born that day and move along.
A few of my ideas, over time, became realities, for what that’s worth. One was a single button that I would click which would then generate about 600 pages of technical documentation. In essence, it did my job for me, but I remained employed because I was the guy who had to click it. I would then scroll through those hundreds of pages looking for empty cells in tables, and then emailing developers and asking them to fix it. I did this every Monday for two years.
One idea that a few guys thought was fun enough to actually build was a coffee maker that emailed you when the coffee was ready. This is still a great idea, by the way. We hacked one together with an old print server and a Mr. Coffee that beeped when it finished brewing a pot. We had to cut up an old parallel port cable — thing those giant printer computer cables of the past — and wire it in to work, which it did. But then the company’s big boss got all worried about “fire hazards,” and e-coffee, as I called it, was shut down. I think it ended up in the dumpster behind the building.
Have you ever been in a completely foreign country, unable to communicate what you need and resorting to weird pantomiming that only seems to be confusing people? That happened to me a lot when I was in the Peace Corps (a period of time I will go into in some detail in a future season of the show), but the feeling was the same when I was an energetic young turk in the early years of my professional career, bursting with a new idea every day, but unable to make them happen because I just didn’t know the language. It’s a frustrating feeling, if you know it.
My career took me out of software development after a few years, into all other sorts of writing, experiences I am glad to have had. I’ve managed to raise a family, get braces for the kids, win a Golden Panda. College is now coming up for my offspring. I’ve got all the trappings of a happy life, and it has been in so many ways.
But if I ever daydreamed about being “own a helicopter” wealthy, it’s always connected to that moment in my life, where if ever I were to head down a different path, it was then, if I’d only gone home after Burger King, only asked someone for help, only gotten out of my own way.
I just want to pause for a second for my French listeners, to point out that I liked studying French tres bien, and got good grades in it, and still like to speak it now and again. Je suis un homme meilleur parceque J’ai etudie Francais.
If you listened to Season One of the show, you might remember the episode “The Orange Badge of Courage,” which was about the weekend I played Nerf-gun based Humans versus Zombies across an entire weekend on the campus of my alma mater. My son and I went with my buddy Lothar, from the HooDoo, if you’re keeping track, and his son, and while the boys appreciated us taking them this weekend, the price they had to pay was an all-out assault of college stories around every turn, all weekend long. Hey! That’s where the Oasis was! I used to buy smokes there, and now it’s a parking lot!
“Yeah, yeah,” my son would say. “You went to college here. We get it, Dad.”
It’s a fun episode, if you haven’t listened to it. And here’s the thing: the game that weekend was headquartered in the same building, where the science classrooms and giant lecture halls were back in my day, where somewhere in the maze of the basement there had allegedly been a computer lab where, had I only gone home from Burger King, had I only asked someone for help, I would have typed in my code and marched down the highway to riches and my own helicopter.
And sure enough at one point, as we were walking from one briefing room to the next, my legs stopped. Just stopped. In their tracks. Of their own volition. Because my body recognized before my brain did that we were standing in the exact spot where it had happened, 25 years earlier. Where I made that choice. Mon dieu, où ma vie a changé pour toujours.
And I pulled my son aside and re-told him this entire story — albeit an abbreviated one that left out what in recollection looks like a pretty serious drinking problem — framing it up as a huge opportunity I missed because I couldn’t get out of my own way and didn’t ask for help. And because they were nearby, Lothar was subjected to the story (again, it’s likely one he’s heard many times in the 30 years we’ve been friends), and because he was too polite to move away, I told Lothar’s son Liam the whole story too. This exact spot is the whole reason why we came here in a minivan instead of a helicopter! I exclaimed.
This story that I have been telling for years, and believing for years, never once holding my own bullshit detector up to it and deciding to cut myself a break.
And then my son, 16 at the time, and frankly sick of it, looks at me with that same look his mother gives me (I seriously wish he hadn’t picked that up) and he says something that legitimately never occurred to me over all this time, something that didn’t really seem possible because my career had taken such a different trajectory.
He said, “Dad, you can just go back to school and take a class.”
Which I believe was the universe telling me it has had more than enough of this story. Because it hit me like a ton of uneaten french fries. My kids are in high school now, which is when you start to get back a little bit of time in your life. And there was a community college just down the street. One that I learned, when I got home that week, offered a four-course series in app development.
Put up or shut up, Pete, the universe was saying. And seriously, we mean the shut up part.
I should mention here that over years, I’ve picked up the basics of coding for the web, just enough to fix a troublesome website or tweak a WordPress install. And I’ve also signed up for my share of online courses, weekly email courses, even ‘learn to code’ apps. And while I’ve started strong in these, I inevitably fizzled out a few weeks in. Not that the courses were too hard or not well-designed, but usually because I had too much going on in my life that was taking priority over them. And without sustained, small efforts, learning a new skill from online resources is a tough row to hoe.
But taking a course at a community college? Paying some real money and having a teacher to hold me accountable? I mean, I do keep saying we’re starting to get some of our life back from the kids now, right?
I probably should have connected the dots and presumed night classes were also canceled, but I did not. I mean, if all the classes were canceled, why would they bother calling it the first day of the semester, right?
Making matters more complicated, we had a blizzard roll through that afternoon and drop six inches of snow on Columbus. But still, I left early 2 hours early and slowly drove my way downtown for my first class.
<Reporting Live> segments
So…not the best start to my programming career.
The first few weeks of class went well, however. We downloaded the development environment on our laptops and followed along as the teacher wrote code to build small programs. My only worry was that once I got home late Monday night, I didn’t do anything programming related until the following Sunday night, almost a full week later. Despite being a grown up with kids and a mortgage and everything, I was still deprioritizing the homework until the last minute.
At first, it wasn’t such a big deal. I was grokking the code and things were going well. But by 4 or 5 weeks in, things got to be more difficult. I wasn’t doing the reading at home, and it was making it harder and harder to follow along with what was happening in class. Getting my homework done was starting to take 4, then six then eight hours on Sundays. And it involved me doing a lot of googling for code snippets, copy and pasting them in and hoping that they would work.
And that’s one way of learning, I suppose. Not a great one, I’ll admit. Sometimes, even when I got the program to work, I wasn’t sure how or why it happened. And my in-class tests reflected this as well.
By week 6, I was facing two truths: 1) programming is hard. I knew this, of course, otherwise, we’d all be doing it. But what I meant was that my good head for languages didn’t necessarily overlay onto writing code in the way I thought it would when I was 21. It helped on a system level, but not so much once you got into the details of the code, where a misplace semicolon could bring eight hours of work crashing down.
Truth #2: Learning to code was a much lower priority for me than lots of things in my life, which is why I wasn’t getting to the work until the night before class. Could I have worked harder to prioritize it and make more time to learn? Sure I could. But I found I didn’t want to. I wanted to go see my kids’ orchestra concerts, and drive my daugther to and from play practice and binge watch horror dramas with my wife. All of which led me to believe that maybe this wasn’t the right time to try and squeeze in an extra class into my life.
I liked the work, I should add. I liked the trial and error, and the feeling I got after a few hours of failing when I got the program assignment to do something close to what it was supposed to do. I just didn’t like it enough to set aside other things in my life to do it.
So instead of half-assing my way through the course, I raised the white flag. I sent the teacher a note thanking him for his time and attention, and let him know I was withdrawing. And I turned over my shoulder and spoke back in time to 21 year-old-me, standing in that hallway unwilling to ask anyone for directions to the computer lab, letting a hangover nudge him towards French and away from code.
“Don’t worry about it, kid,” I say to him. “Turns out, nothing is as easy as you think it will be.”
“Nor as hard,” he replies, because he’s an upstart braggadocio, 21 years-old and well-pleased with his cleverness; he looks 48-year-old me up and down, takes in my graying hair and my worry lines, assesses with some disdain the 50 lbs I’ll put on in the 25 years to come.
But between the two of us, we somehow had hit on the truth of the present moment, had we not? Nothing is easy; nothing is hard.
Everything simply is, and the rest is the product of our monkey minds, running amok and inventing things like regret and disappointment as a way, I think, to pull us away from the present moment, incessantly creating narratives to somehow explain the distance between things in our lives as they are and whatever idea we’ve attached ourselves to about how they should be.
I want to tell you that when I started this piece, I thought for sure it would end with me explaining how I forgave myself for making such a poor choice in that hallway those many years ago. But forgiveness, like regret and attachment, is a construct we created on our own. It implies the presence of a wrong that may or may not have been righted, and a dissolution of any latent guilt still clinging to it.
And that’s not what taking and ultimately dropping this class has led me to. Rather, it’s just given me an easier acceptance of what is now, and a way to reach back in time and share a few words with my former self, and let him know that this was just one of a million decisions I’d go on to make, none of them easy, none of them hard. To encourage him to pump the brakes on judgment and seek balance in the present moment, which is, after all, all that we actually have.
I have a quick follow up story for those of you who stuck this one out:
It’s 2012 and a good deal of my business is happening in the UK, where I am traveling frequently. My wife joins me for a long weekend in London, where we spin about visiting literary landmarks and trying to see plays and visiting art galleries and open-air markets. It is late on Saturday night as we are taking the tube back across town to our hotel.
We are alone in our car for a while but a few stops on, three young, happy French people get on the car. A young man and two women, early 20s, the lot of them, laughing and having a good time.
The young man and one of the young women sit across from us in the car. the third young woman, for some reason, sits down next to me.
“What are you sitting over there for?” the young man asks.
It takes me a second to process that he has asked this in French and I understood what he said.
“I want to be alone,” the young woman replies, also in French.
“No! You want to sit with your great new friends over there,” he replies. “They’re tourists! Look at them!”
The young woman glances my way and smiles.
“He has no idea what we’re saying!” the young man replies. “Some friends you have there.”
And then. And then, I cleared my throat. I leaned forward and I said in the best French I could muster.
“Nous sommes des touristes, garcon, mais on comprend le français.
Pensez-vous que nous sommes des idiots?”
We are tourists, young man, but we certainly understand French. Do you think we’re idiots?”
And this threw the young man for a moment before he broke into a wide smile and laughed. “I joke, I joke,” he said, and then, as the car came to our stop and we stood to leave, “Your French is pretty good.”
“Merci,” I replied, and stepped off the car. And while I told my wife (who doesn’t speak French, by the way) what had been said, I thought back in time to 21-year-old me, standing in a basement hallway in a giant classroom building in Athens, Ohio. I give him a nod as he turns to leave the hallway, and then shout after him: “Hey! That’s one for you kid.”
And that is the only time I can remember that I’ve ever needed to speak French in my life.
Bien temps, everybody. Good times.