The past six weeks have been a whirlwind, the kind of roller coaster one experiences only a handful of times in his or her life. I left my job, turned 30, finalized a divorce from my high school sweetheart, bought a new vehicle, and decided to live life on my own terms. The first four were circumstances or events. The last was a deliberate shift in perspective.
When you turn sixteen, you can’t wait to drive a car. When you turn twenty-one, you can’t wait to drink all of the bottles- yes all of them- at the dive bar around the corner from your college apartment.
Right after I turned thirty, I thought a lot. Most of the thinking occurred on a stretch of desolate road in East Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, or Arkansas. Some of it occurred on county roads in the South Texas brush country. Some of it in the shower or at the gym.
I have avoided going through old photos for months for reasons that should be apparent. But I finally did it. And I found a picture taken on my 25th birthday. The weekend of April 7, 2011 was pretty heavy. I remember sitting in my XXL-sized Hawaiian shirt, drinking beer and smoking cigars with friends, and thinking about all that I had to accomplish in the coming four months: pass 18 hours worth of law school finals, move to San Antonio, study for and pass the bar, and try to get a career off the ground. It was the toughest of times, or at least so I thought. But life has a way of throwing curve-balls, many of them self-inflicted. I couldn’t help but wonder- as I looked at that picture- what I would tell myself if I could go back in time for just a few moments.
This is what I came up with:
- Time is the most precious commodity.
- Be kind.
- Make friends who are not like you and embrace your differences.
- Trust your instincts.
- Set measurable and achievable goals, but don’t be afraid to shoot too high. The accomplishments aren’t rewarding, the journeys are.
- Recognition is worthless. Feeling and being worthy of recognition is priceless.
- Heartbreak- in some form or fashion- is inevitable.
- If someone is kind to you, but rude to the bank teller or file clerk, he or she is not a kind person.
- You cannot control what the world throws at you, but you can control how you respond.
- You will not find happiness at the bottom of a bottle. Have seen too many promising lives ruined.
- Do not live to work. Work to live.
- Forgiveness feels better than revenge.
- It is never too late to get in shape.
- Nothing tastes as good as feeling thin feels.
- You can make money, find success, buy a big house, drive a nice car, and be a miserable person.
- Find habits, hobbies, and rituals that energize you.
- A carefully crafted public image cannot hide a rotting soul.
- People are doing the best they can, and we are all a work in progress.
Aristotle once said that “we are what we repeatedly do. Excellence is not an act but a habit.” I am a big believer that if we want to change outcomes, we need to change routines. It stands to reason then that if we want dramatically different outcomes, we need dramatically different routines.
My life followed a distinct pattern for a long time. Read the news first thing at 5 am. Rush through a workout. Hammer through a to-do list. Constant focus on the presidential campaign or the mayor’s race or the gubernatorial primary. Happy hours that ended late. A fitful night of sleep. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Those who know me well know that one of my favorite authors is Hunter S. Thompson. In Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, he wrote:
This is one of the oldest and most effective tricks in politics. Every hack in the business has used it in times of trouble, and it has even been elevated to the level of political mythology in a story about one of Lyndon Johnson’s early campaigns in Texas.
“The race was close and Johnson was getting worried. Finally he told his campaign manager to start a massive rumour campaign about his opponent’s life-long habit of enjoying carnal knowledge of his barnyard sows.
“Christ, we can’t get away with calling him a pig-f****r,” the campaign manager protested. “Nobody’s going to believe a thing like that.”
“I know,” Johnson replied. “But let’s make the sonofab****h deny it.”
I once read this story with admiration and amusement. Now it just makes me sad. I thought that the perpetual search for achievement, particularly political achievement, was my life’s defining work. There are those in local, state, and federal government who help me maintain a modicum of hope. But they are becoming fewer and farther between.
For now and the foreseeable future, I am swearing off political ambition. As it stands now, I do not foresee a circumstance under which I will be a candidate for public office in the next several years. I will continue to work with NNOD and the North East Educational Foundation, because if there is one big lesson from my parents and grandparents, it is that community service is necessary for a full life.
Professionally, I have taken a job at a small boutique law firm working with small communities throughout South Texas. We are building public libraries and water infrastructure projects and the newspapers I read focus on science fairs and softball scores. My boss said it best: “we are helping real people with real issues.”
Lately I have made a conscious effort to enjoy life more and experience new things. I am dating someone, and we are shaking things up together. We go for long hikes early on Sunday mornings, which I have found far preferable to a pounding head and puffy eyes. We take the new Jeep on adventures throughout the Texas Hill Country. We are even doing hot yoga.
She is a communications strategist at the City and a former political activist, so we still talk current events. But, for now, I would prefer a quiet hike along the South Llano River or binge-watching Breaking Bad with her over just about anything else.
It’s not a life I ever foresaw for myself, but sometimes you don’t know what you want until you have it.