Friday, January 15, 2010

Ninety-Four, Part Twenty-One: Wherein, I Finally Do Jump Ahead To The Morocco Part... Almost.

Everyone has one year in their life that has a greater impact on them than any other year. Mine was 1994. From time to time, I'll recap that year. This is part 21; click here for a table of contents.

When I left for Morocco, in June of 1994, I had never ridden on an airplane before and had never been out of the country before.

I had picked out Morocco as the object of my foreign study through a process no more selective than "I could afford it." I didn't know, when I signed up, anything about Morocco. The brochure had said something like "Study in Rabat," and not only did I not know what Rabat was, but I never even bothered to check into it. I'd stumbled across a poster in a hallway in a building on the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee campus about a year earlier, seen something about foreign study, picked out the cheapest alternative, and applied to the program. Then I'd thought no more about it until I'd gotten accepted into the program.

After getting accepted, you might think I would have researched the trip in some way, but I didn't. Instead, I left for Washington D.C. and spent months there doing not much of anything useful... in the short run.

In the short run, most of what I did in Washington was extremely unuseful to me (or to anyone I worked for.) I didn't study particularly hard. I didn't work particularly hard. I didn't learn very much about the "ins and outs" of government, or meet important people who would someday help me on my career path...

... although I did, as I've mentioned, meet some important people. They just would not help me out on my career path because my career path would change quite a bit after that, meandering more than the Uncle Wiggly game path, and they would not help me out because I wouldn't bother to keep in touch with them or cultivate those connections, so they'd never really get a chance to help me out. Looking back, I should probably have gotten more mileage out of meeting a Supreme Court justice and the son of the Shah of Iran than simply a photograph on my wall and a story about strip-club sandwiches. Or maybe not. Maybe Supreme Court Justices and Sons of Shahs aren't, in the end, any more important than anyone else in the world, objectively speaking. They may be very important, subjectively, to people (like litigants before the Supreme Court, or mullahs overthrowing shahs) but that importance may fade when they are confronted with a lackluster student who's more, or at least as much, interested in going to look at pandas as he is in talking to that "important" person...

I didn't do much of anything that one would consider life-changing or fulfilling or fraught with portent. I didn't get a job, a reference, or even a skill, out of it.

And yet, I think that I learned a lot in D.C., and grew a lot, and in the long run - meaning right up 'til now -- I gained a lot from that trip, and from Morocco. It just wasn't much that most people would see the value in.

What I got from that, and from Morocco, and from the year -- spoiler alert! -- is the ability to be happy in my life. That's the conclusion I came up with today, anyway, as I sat down to write this part. What I got from riding elevators with Bob Packwood, and seeing the Canadian embassy, and trying to take photos of sharks through glass at the National Aquarium, and jogging past the Washington monument 32 times in the course of a 16 mile run, what I got from all that was the ability, now, at 41, to spend a lazy Saturday morning doing nothing more important or dramatic than to be in a McDonald's playland, trying to climb up a slide so that I can get Mr Bunches out of the jungle gym against his will because we've got to get home, and to be happy doing that.

I wouldn't have been happy doing that, I think, back in 1994, and it was what I did in 1994 that allowed me, fifteen years later, to be that person, a person who incorporated the restless soul that got on trains and planes and moved around and ate eyeballs, but a person who did not need to do that anymore.

When I went to Morocco, fifteen years ago, in addition to not knowing what to expect of the plane ride, I also didn't know that I would eat an eyeball in a few days. I'd have still gotten on the plane, though, even if I'd known that.

How could I know I'd eat an eyeball, or even that there were parts of the world, parts of the world outside of Indiana Jones movies, where they eat an eyeball? I'd never taken any classes in which they taught that kind of thing, and I wouldn't have paid attention if they did. I might have slept through them if they'd taught that. In fact, there's every bit of a possibility that I did take a class in which the professor mentioned that they eat eyeballs in Morocco, but I slept through it.

When I went to school as an undergrad, back in the days before cell phones and laptops and iPods and PSPs, I would mostly while away the time in class sitting in the back and doing crossword puzzles or reading a book or magazine I'd brought along. I'm not sure why I bothered to go to those classes, since I didn't pay much attention to them when I was there. It probably had something to do with the feeling that I should at least be there even if I wasn't going to get anything out of being there.

Things got worse, though, as I got busier with my three jobs and began trying to get in shape on a drastic diet in which I would eat only 1,000 or so calories per day and work out for up to an hour, a diet that got me to lose 108 pounds in six months but which also left me exhausted, a condition made worse by working at two different Subway restaurants and a movie theater. I got so tired that I'd fall asleep all the time; I was constantly tired (a state of existence mirrored now by living with hyperactive 3-year-old twins), and so tired that sitting still could cause me to fall asleep. The situation was so bad that I began to voluntarily sit up front in large lectures, right smack in the front of the room about a foot from the professor, hoping that by doing so I'd be able to stay awake.

It didn't always work.

One time, I dozed off and woke up to see a pair of professorial shoes right in front of me. I looked up to see a professorial face staring down at me, and people on either side of me were looking at me. The professor didn't say anything. He was lecturing, and I had no idea whether or not he'd said something before I woke up. So I just acted like it was business as usual and sat through the rest of the lecture. After that episode, I went back to sitting in the back of the class. Just in case.

That class was something on International Politics, my major, and the fact that I didn't care about sleeping through it shows you how seriously I took actually learning anything during college. College was something that I had to get through to get to the next part of my life. Each thing that I did, at that time, was something that I had to get through to get to the next part of my life. I needed to get to college so that I could graduate college. I needed to graduate college so I could get a job. I needed to get a job so that I could do something important. I needed to run for office or travel the world or go to law school, or... do something. Important.

Strangely enough, even though I never put any serious effort into it, I got really good grades. Which shows you how seriously colleges took me.

It wasn't until Washington D.C. that I began to stop looking towards the next thing and instead began looking at the thing I was doing. I didn't make that transition all at once, or even completely, and I certainly didn't know I was making that transition at all. If you'd have come up to me at that time, and said "You know, I bet in fifteen years you'll look back on this and realize that your personality and ideals were slowly shifting so that you would learn to live more in the moment, and less for the future, and also you will learn what's really important to you as opposed to what you're now believing is important to you," I'd have likely nodded, made some small talk for as long as I had to, and then ditched you to go to the Jefferson Memorial or Holocaust Museum. But even if I had listened to you, I'd not have understood what it was you were getting at because nobody recognizes transformations while they're going through them. We only recognize them after they're done, and even then, only when someone or something points it out to us.

Or, put more concretely, I didn't realize just how much weight I'd lost in 1993 until Christmas Eve. I'd started to get in shape in June of that year, beginning to jog and diet and be more health conscious. I didn't tell anyone I was doing that, or make a big deal out of it. I just began working out. I was aware, over the next six months, that things were changing, a little. I was aware that my pants were at first a little loose, then baggy, then useless and I needed new pants. I was aware that I was able to jog a half-mile, then a mile, then three. I knew all that, but I didn't know how different I really was until I went with my mom and my sister to my Uncle Joe's house for Christmas, in 1993. I hadn't seen my uncle in a couple of years, and I was the last person in the door. He hugged my sister and wished her a merry Christmas and said "And who's this?" turning to me.

I said "It's me, Uncle Joe," and he said, and I quote:

"Holy shit."

He later explained that he hadn't recognized me, at all, and thought I maybe was a friend of my sisters or her boyfriend. I had no idea that I was unrecognizable because, while I'd dropped nearly a whole me -- 100 of 270 pounds -- I'd seen it go little by little by little, so I'd never noticed the changes as a whole.

That's what began happening in D.C., in 1994 -- I began changing little by little by little. I got on a train in January full of the importance of the moment, recording my every thought in that little red notebook that I no longer have -- and I left D.C. five months later still, in part, thinking of the next thing, the next thing being Morocco, and still, mostly, imagining that Morocco was not just a destination, but a stop on the way to a destination.

Mostly. But something had changed and would continue to change, as I'd stop being the person I was then and start being the person I am now, a long slow transition that I never noticed happening until I stopped to compare the person I was 15 years ago, bubbling with excitement over the prospect of getting on an airplane headed to another continent with the person I am now, bubbling with excitement over the prospect of putting the new They Might Be Giants CD on in the car while I drive home from the library. If I could put those two people together, side by side, if I could know only 1994-Me and then suddenly know 2010-me, I'd probably echo my uncle: Holy shit, I might say, amazed at the transformation.

Then I might tell 1994-me a couple of tips, tips like this: It's not so important to have chewing gum on a plane, and tips like this: Eat the eyeball, but don't drink the water, no matter how much people tell you it's okay.

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