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The other life

I had a conversation with a friend today. In that discussion, I said that if I had life to do over again, I would make some different choices. At the same time, I wouldn’t trade away the life that I have.

This got me to thinking: How can I have two conflicting impulses about who I am and what I’ve done? To tell you the truth, it’s easy.

I have been lucky enough to live a couple of different lives in my 56 years. There’s a sort of “during drinking” part of my existence and an “after drinking” life. While they are separate distinct parts of a whole, there’s continuum between the two. My basic personality and way of looking at life—hopeful, optimistic—has remained constant. I’m always ready and always have been ready for something terrible to happen when times are good. I remember the trauma of childhood and see that this, more than anything, formed my perspective.

While I was drinking, I lived contradictions. I was adventurous and afraid to do anything different. I was outgoing and friendly, while I was also isolated and withdrawn. I would go out with friends to a bar. One drink led to another—when I started, I couldn’t stop. I made friends easily and had a large social life.

With a caveat: I was the guy in the crowd of friends who drank too much. I used to come to in various parts of the city, not knowing where I was or how I got there. I often passed out a friends’ houses, and often in strangers’. Half the time, I was lost, not knowing where my car was or how I arrived at the place I woke up in.

Over time, I became wary. I might have a drink or two with friends, but I would retire to my house or apartment before I lost all control and made a fool of myself. There, I would drink by myself until I saw double and then would totter off to pass out in bed. Sometimes, I didn’t make it to bed and would wake up on the couch or thee floor.

I took risks both silly and sustained. Fantastic schemes would come to me. I would strike it rich with a new investment scheme, though I had no money to my name. I got caught up with people who went to work in various places that promised high wages and easy lives, but then find out that it would cost something upfront to get involved. I dated dangerous women, people who were bad influences on me. But I loved them all the same. I got involved with loving women who would, after a time, distance themselves from me. They were unable to watch or be a part of the self-destruction.

When I was at my worst, I made a decision to sell all my stuff and find a new life in Germany. I established myself well and then blew it up by chasing a woman back to Kansas City. This was a disaster of the highest magnitude. But it was in keeping with a self-defeatist tendency I had, as if I didn’t deserve anything better.

Maybe, too, this is why the distance promise of a long-term relationship with an impossible woman appealed to me. I had it good in Germany. I had to commit. But that commitment meant that I was actually doing myself some good. Chasing the woman, well, that was more indistinct and based on dreams of someday being happy. The indistinct possibility was better than the reality. So, I sandbagged what could have been a good life.

On return, I lived what I look back on now as a sordid and pointless life for a few years. I drank harder as time unfolded. As the drinking increased, my surroundings became more threadbare. I moved, quite literally, into a closet, then to an empty attic, then into a small room in a house with another drunk.

My pessimism augmented too. I came to see life as a series of absurd events. Everything I experienced reinforced that point. Almost everything I touched turned into dreck. I could do nothing right. I took jobs that would accommodate my drinking. They were almost always minimum-wage, flunky sorts of occupations that demanded little effort of skill on my part.

Meanwhile, I became more isolated, got used to drinking alone at night in front of endless reruns of MASH before passing out. I woke in the morning to live it all again. Days melted into one another. I couldn’t tell you what day it was. Weeks turned into months into years.

I finally reached the end, and it wasn’t spectacular or flashy. I had gotten to where the pain was so great, the physical ailments so numerous, and the isolation so thorough, I couldn’t continue doing what I was doing. I gave up, went to AA, and started a new life.

After drinking, I thought I had to make up for lost time. For a long while, I believed I had wasted years goofing off, staying drunk, and being isolated. I struggled to become legitimate. I went off to graduate school, leaving behind an infant with her mother. This was not a mistake, as I wanted something better than what I had. By some prescient impulse that if I made myself more marketable, more educated, this would benefit my daughter. It was a very difficult situation for sensitive people to be in.

But I made it, and so did my daughter and her mother. I came home from grad school and spent a heartbreaking summer finding out just what kind of work a history degree earned for someone like me. Libraries wouldn’t have me. Historian jobs were nonexistent at the time. The economy was in a downturn. I took a job waiting banquet at a large hotel. Somehow, I made it through the next couple of years, though I was often broke and feeling all the time that I was ruining my daughter’s life.

Then, I couldn’t take it anymore. Something had to give. Trying to become upstanding, legitimate, was killing me. The job drained the life-force right out of me. The endless days of repairing hotel furniture and waiting banquets was taking me nowhere.

So, I walked to Montana and canoed back to Kansas City on the Missouri River. This really began what I can say was the best part of my life, the one I live today. By the time I had worked that hotel job for a couple of years, I finally had to admit that all I ever wanted to do was write. I took the steps it took to become a writer. That long walk and canoe trip started me in my career as a writer, one I continue today.

If I had it to do all over again, I would skip the part about becoming legitimate. I was forming my life to an unattainable standard I thought people expected of me. It turns out now that I see those first years of sobriety to have been integral to the great life I have today—two great children, a loving wife, a middle-class life.

But had I known that no one expected anything of me, I would have made choices that would have made things completely different. I wouldn’t have settled down. I would have found some way to live up to my responsibilities as a parent to my daughter, but I would have traveled, become a writer long before I did.

I can’t imagine what that life would be like. I might be living like some of my writer friends day to day, week to week, never knowing where the next paycheck is coming from, never having the security I have today.

Or maybe not. I might have landed in another place with a whole other set of choices.

In any case, I can imagine myself living exactly as I do today. Things are precarious. I depend on my wife’s job for the major part of out livelihood. She is tired and I’m having problems finding the kind of job that will give her a break, pay the bills, and get us things like life and health insurance. But it’s good today. We live comfortably. The kids have grown up in a stable home, safe, sure of themselves.

I can also imagine this other life.

But, the way I look at it, everything I’ve ever done and all that’s happened to me brings me to the period at the end of this sentence. And that’s not a bad place to be.

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