Go West, Young ... Man? Part 1
Truth be told, I've been considering how I should start Part I of this post-1,000-trips edition ever since Sept. 7, when I set out from Knoxville, Tennessee, for the Grand Canyon and wound up way the hell out in San Francisco, 2,500 miles from home—over-thinking and over-writing and over-questioning with each new hotel and each new spare room in each new city. So I'll beg your indulgence, at least for these first few hundred words. I don't know when I'll officially hit "post," but I'm sitting here now on Sept. 12, in a fancy coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, humming Sheryl Crow and wanting to just have some fun. But all I can seem to do is wonder about the man I used to be, and the man I've become.
Before I travel any farther (or further, if we're being existential), I should say that I have no delusions about this sojourn, no delusions about how little fruit it often bears, other than reminding you just how minor your existence is in the scheme of things. I am not the first person to embark on this pilgrimage, nor will I be the last person to eat or to pray or to try and love again. My sins are not original, nor are my rhetorical questions profound. Brother Socrates has asked them all before, as have many, many men and women after him, most of them a whole sight smarter than me.
But when exactly did we decide that life's great questions have a shelf life?
"Why are we here?" is the copyrighted existential inquiry, although "Why do we get to do what we do, and earn what we earn for it, while we are here?" is perhaps the question we'd all really prefer to have answered. Those of you who've been following along (and I appreciate it) have already read an unnecessarily long trilogy (Part I, Part II, Part III) that attempts to answer why I'm here, or at least here writing to you and living back down South. But as I said in my light-hearted prelude, I had no expectations when I signed up to be an Uber driver back in January—back when I was a senior editor at ESPN and owned a condo in Hartford, Connecticut, back when I could and would spend on one dinner what my grandmother spends on one month's worth of groceries. I recognize now, 1,000-plus Uber rides later, that much of my unrest stemmed from the fact that I'd gotten caught up in "first-world" problems, or "white boy" problems, or whatever other politically incorrect qualifier you want to use to say that I'd stopped appreciating my circumstances, started creating perceived chips on my shoulder to justify my own unhappiness, my unhappiness within society's above-average norm.
I'd lost touch with humanity, perhaps even with reality, while I sat behind a desk in an office on a gated campus that requires a key card for entry, a fitness center and a cafeteria that will grill you a steak on demand at my fingertips. That is certainly not meant to be an indictment of anyone who has such things, certainly not those people whose happiness is no longer theirs and theirs alone, whose success is inextricably linked to the well-being of others—but I'm learning that the chasm between one person's definitions of "success" and of "happiness" and another's can be wider than that grandest of ravines out in Arizona.
That is to say, why is one person wearing his or her shoes and not mine? Why do I have the luxury of sitting in a coffee shop on Santa Monica Boulevard, pecking away at my "problems" on a MacBook Air? Why have some folks found sleep within their success and their happiness, when sleep for me is the hardest thing to find? Those are dangerous questions, I am aware, ones that can leave a person gawking into the void. But would Brother Socrates and his successors not still have us consider them? Did Brother Socrates not tell us that we damn well better get to know "thyself," lest we be swayed by the masses, lest we let society dictate our definitions? Or did Brother Socrates have it all wrong? Is this search for "thyself" simply a naive notion of the privileged, those of us who can afford an over-priced espresso, those of us with the spare time and mental capacity to sit around in coffee shops and turn over such thoughts?
There are those who'd say I oughta spend this year holed up, readin those folks who have already followed these questions till they've hit an inevitable root, or just plain couldn't dig the shovel any deeper. And while I am doin some readin and some learnin from folks like Brother Baldwin and Sister Didion and even ol' Thomas Hobbes, who's persuading yours truly that we've always been in a mess, a mess that we try in earnest to clean up yet make worse in spite of ourselves, mostly cause we're an awful selfish lot, born finger-pointers. But this is my Good Will Hunting moment, this is my year to smell the inside of the Sistine Chapel for myself, cause what good can I do anyone, if all I know is what someone else said between two covers, if all I can describe for you are the four walls that I'm rentin in North Knoxville.
The "truth" behind why I'm driving folks around, why I drove all the way to the Pacific Ocean, why I'm telling these stories for free on Facebook and on Instagram and incorrectly using Twitter as a platform, well, that remains ever-elusive, a "truth" that I will explore further in Part II, but one that I believe lies somewhere on this quixotic quest of mine, this quest to determine what "true happiness" looks like to me, whether it is even achievable for me, for anyone really. Or if "true happiness" is and always will be dictated by the nature and by the nurture and by the circumstances that coalesce to create "thyself," if "true happiness" will always be dictated by the societal standards that, unless we reach that coveted 1 percent, we must succumb to for survival—if "true happiness" is predetermined, if it is, God forbid, beyond my control.
As an Uber driver, I cross paths with so many people, so many stories that I do not chronicle here, mostly because they are less slices of life than slivers, but glimpses nonetheless, glimpses that remain lodged in my memory. Not until these snapshots have been examined, not until I've discerned how they illuminate my understanding, can I begin to see their purpose, can I begin to decipher the signs and make sense of the roadmap. Sitting here now in another coffee shop, this one in San Francisco, the Pacific breeze blowing through, I'm reminded of Darius and of Tim and of Mike, three men I drove on three separate days leading up to trip No. 1,000, three men who have nothing more in common than their chromosomes and their beating hearts and the coincidence that they spent a few miles in my car. I have thought about them often since dropping them off, pondered what turns their paths have taken, wondered why theirs crossed with mine.
On a Friday around noon, at a healthcare facility near downtown Knoxville, I picked up Darius, a young black man with a clean, short hair cut and goatee who'd just finished peeing in a cup, hoping to begin his new job on an assembly line soon. Darius, who was wearing khaki slacks and a navy hoodie, told me he was so relieved to finally be on salary, that he was worn out with sixty-hour weeks as a stock boy at two different grocery stores. He'd arrived in Knoxville from Atlanta four years ago, a 20-year-old with nothing in his bank account, so he needed those long hours to pay for his one-bedroom apartment, to put food in his refrigerator and clothes on his back, maybe even splurge on a cable package that would allow him to keep up with his favorite sports teams back home. I could sense the enthusiasm in Darius' voice, the speed at which he explained how he would start out at $15 per hour, with the promise of a raise in six months, with the promise of overtime pay for every hour beyond forty. Darius told me he was single, no kids, that he'd have enough left over from his check to save for a reliable car, maybe even splurge on a flat-screen to watch the Falcons and the Braves and the Hawks.
"I left Atlanta cause my boys were movin weight, makin it the wrong way," Darius said. "Only legit job I could get was as a janitor, and I didn't want to clean up after nobody. I had to leave the scene. Knoxville's quiet. Not got all that noise. My boys back home, they ask me why I work my a** off for nothin. But it'll pay—hard work pay off."
I smiled to keep from wincing, to keep from letting my doubt show, to push down the pain that flares up when what you've seen out in this world is in direct opposition to Darius, this young man who has, against society's odds, seemingly worked his a** off to outrun the caricature of other young men like him, his reward an assembly line. I let my mind wander to those socratic questions, to why Darius had his safety net pulled out from under him, while I grew up in a family that didn't have much extra, but one that would allow me to land softly, should my outsized dreams never pan out. I let my mind wander to why I was allowed to keep my outsized dreams alive, while Darius' dreams deflated, to the point that he could only afford to dream of one day making an honest $15 per hour, with the promise of a raise in six months. I let my mind wander to Darius' "true happiness," if his definition is simply to have a reliable car and to watch the Falcons on a flat-screen and to turn screws as they pass instead of picking up and setting down boxes filled with canned goods.
I dropped Darius off at Kroger for his ten-hour shift, nothing but his backpack and his one-bedroom apartment and all that's in it to his name. "Good luck," I said, the harsh truth being that luck, not working his a** off, is about all that will move this young black man into a higher tax bracket, to hell with Horatio Alger and his bootstraps. Darius raised his chin, a reverse nod, and flashed his index and middle fingers. And I thought then, if only you and I could find it.
Three days later, on a Monday, around 5 in the evening, I arrived at a one-story brick house about ten minutes from downtown Knoxville to pick up Tim, a bespectacled, middle-aged, clean-shaven white man with thinning brown hair. He was standing in his front yard wearing an un-tucked, un-buttoned, short-sleeve polo and knee-length shorts, hands on his hips, smoking a cigarette. He was squinting into the yellow sun, into the clear blue sky. A beat or two passed before he acknowledged that I was parked in his driveway. Tim took a deep, last pull and stomped his cigarette out on the concrete.
He climbed in, and I asked how his day had been through the rearview. Tim mumbled, nearly inaudible: "Fine—still here." I assumed he was in no mood to talk, so I cued up some unobtrusive indie folk (read: my middle-aged white folk fall back) on Spotify and started the trip. "Well..." Tim said. I raised my eyebrows in the rearview. "How bout you?" he asked, forceful enough to rise above the music. I lowered the volume.
"Alright," I said, "just tryin to make a few bucks."
"What it's all about, ain't it?" he said, his voice a mumble again.
"Wish it wasn't," I said, "but I've come to learn it's a fact we can't escape, hard as we try."
"Sad that some are better at it than others," he said. "Probably make things a lot easier, if we could all just be equal."
The complexity within the simplicity of Southern men is something I missed up yonder, the way we speak in aphorisms, the lack of explanation necessary, the osmosis of emotions through a single phrase, the way every word is pushed out through the pressures of the Bible Belt, which is always cinched tight around our waists, no matter how far we might travel from God's country.
"There was a time when I was good at it," I said. "But I decided it wasn't for me."
"Why in the hell would you quit being good at makin money?" Tim asked, slapping his hands down on his knees for effect.
That monologue had arrived, the one that I tend to steer clear of, the one that I have down pat, the one where I have to joke away my existential crisis, to justify why it is that I left a W-2 that a lot folks will never see, those folks who were destined for a certain tax bracket before they ever even filed. Tim nodded a couple of times in the rearview while I attempted to relate the reasons for my exit from The Worldwide Leader, although he grunted too, at one-liners like "I'd lost myself behind a desk," like "what I was doin with my life didn't satisfy me," like "being married to a career doesn't make the other side of the bed warm at night." I don't blame his skepticism, don't expect him or you to empathize or to sympathize with my plight—if I've learned anything, it's that you can't expect anyone to put themselves in your shoes, much less take off theirs long enough to come inside and have a cup of coffee or a beer, to stay a while and tell their story, or listen to yours. There is work to do, money to be made.
"What about you?" I asked. "You any good at makin money?"
"Same job for twenty-five years," Tim said. "Bout to lose it, though. I run a distribution company that's getting farmed out to a bigger company. The son of the dead owner thinks they can save money. They can't, but he's a tech kid. He thinks he knows numbers. People have worked there for forty years, and I'm gonna have to let 'em go, to tell 'em we're shuttin down. What do they do now? What do I do? I have to type up a resume for the first time in my life."
It all coalesced now, at least the nature and the circumstances. Tim was of the old school, the company-loyalty generation. I was driving him for that drink or three downtown on a Monday evening, the one(s) that you have as you reflect on all you could've been doing instead of being loyal to a company that inevitably lumped you in with the bottom line. Tim was in the wallowing stage, a state of mind that doesn't deal in small talk, a state of mind that you can't poke at or prod without a warrant, without the person who is gawking into that void letting you in on his or her perspective, cause that perspective, at that point, is the only one that makes any sense, all a man like Tim believes he has left.
But I risked it anyway, cause what do I have, if nothing to lose: "Could be a clean slate," I said.
"Could be," Tim said. "But clean slates don't pay much, do they? How you gettin by, anyway?"
I told Tim that I'd counted my pennies at The Worldwide Leader. I told him that I'd grown up around a grandmother who'd only buy a gallon of Mayfield's if it was on sale, and around a grandfather who wouldn't eat out cause he said the only restaurant with any return on the dollar was the Shoney's buffet, and around a mother who picked up part-time jobs to bury her husband and keep her teenage son in over-priced school clothes so he could fit in. I told Tim that I'd skipped out on two serious relationships with women, monetarily unscathed. But I told Tim that living every day like somebody might take it away can wear on a person, that spending all of my twenties around men who were worried about the size of their direct deposits and their place in the corporate pecking order doesn't add up to much perspective, that when those are the only men you have to look up to, that when that becomes your barometer for worth, then, well, that kind of mentality doesn't offer much piece of mind.
I told Tim that what I make driving folks around will get me by just fine for now, that I can make my own coffee in my eight-cup percolator and eat on a pot of chili for a week at a time. I told Tim that I'm trying to spend my money on the only thing that has any real return. I told Tim about leaving the U.S. for the first time in May, at thirty-one years old. I told him of Ireland, of driving on the left side of the road, of communing with the sheep, of nights that bled into mornings at pubs in towns that weren't on maps. I told Tim of Bonnaroo, of all those kids who didn't seem to care much about color or creed, just the music, and of my return to Connecticut and to New York, of my ghosts, and of my upcoming trip out West, to the Grand Canyon, possibly all the way to L.A. And finally of Italy, of my trip to smell the inside of that chapel, to look up at that ceiling for myself.
"Easy to say and do when you're young and don't have anyone to worry about," Tim said.
"You got a partner?" I asked.
"No," he said.
"No kids," he said. "But I've got a mortgage and a car payment. I've got responsiblities."
Tim wasn't in a state of mind for me to test his logic, for me to question what exactly his responsibilities are, or what his house and his car amount to in his life. Like I've said before, I'm not here to deconstruct anyone else's matrix, to bend anyone's spoon or tell them which color pill to take. We'll all write and rewrite our priority lists in our own time, and most of us ain't on the same schedule.
"You know what I'd do," Tim said, "if I were you. I'd drive the Pacific Coast Highway—I'd take as many days as I wanted, stop every chance I got."
"You could do it," I said. "That house payment and that car payment will be here when you get back."
Tim didn't respond to that, and I can commiserate. I know the layers that have to be peeled back before you can face these questions I'm asking, to perform an audit of your life, an audit that can undermine whatever stability you've created, that stability and structure that we often need in order to roll out of bed every morning. Tim must've decided that all he wanted to entertain on this Monday evening was a stiff drink, perhaps a pretty barmaid who might not poke or prod at his logic like me, or who at least had a prettier face than mine.
Tim didn't reverse nod, or throw up his index and middle fingers. He just walked out onto Market Square, headed to find whatever peace he could, in however many drinks he'd decide would offer comfort, however cold. And I ain't judgin—I've known plenty of days when Tim's version of "true happiness" was my own, when "true happiness" seems so far out of reach, that if tomorrow does decide to come, well, then the bottom of a bottle is as good a place as any to wait for it.
The next day, a Tuesday, around the same time, I picked up Mike at a hotel downtown. Mike was in Knoxville for business, a pharmaceutical sales manager from a small town in North Carolina. Mike was a clean-shaven, bespectacled, balding white man himself, although he was wearing slacks and his Oxford was tucked in, and he looked much younger than Tim, or perhaps it was the grin, that enthusiasm for life that has a way of softening a man's eyes, adding a sheen to his cheeks. I'd obviously never met Mike, but he sure was happy when he climbed in, like two old buddies reuniting for dinner, one who'd left to see how far he could swim up stream, while the other was content in his pond, figured the Lord had put him there for a reason.
Mike's questions were so rapid fire that I could barely answer one before another. He wanted to know how long I'd been Ubering, how I'd known precisely where to be even though the app had dropped the pin in the wrong place. He wanted to know what I did when I wasn't Ubering, and he didn't skip a beat when I told him about my exit from ESPN, about my passion for story-telling, about my existential crisis, about believing—perhaps in my egotism or perhaps in my naivety—that I have something to say worth hearing.
"I love to read," Mike said, "especially writers whose stories make me think. I was a philosophy major, believe it or not. The Lord put me on a different path, but I still like to consider why anything is the way it is, hear how another person thinks about it."
Truth be told, I was surprised that Mike mentioned philosophy and the Lord in the same sentence, to hear him say that he wanted to appreciate life beyond his own pond, to read anything that might be in direct opposition to what the good book says. I've long considered the two—philosophy and religion—mutually exclusive, always thought that someone who entertained "why are we here" or "why bad things happen to good people" would eventually philosophize himself or herself out of believing there is any one true answer to what might exist beyond this life. But that is admittedly my own short-sightedness, to assume that someone can't both question his or her own blind faith while also remain steadfast in it. Like I said before, I'm not here to deconstruct anyone's matrix, what solidifies them, which is why I tend to avoid religion in these posts, a topic that is more polarizing, in my opinion, than any topic that will be debated by The Donald and Sister Hillary, although I'm sure the higher power will be indirectly and subliminally and subconsciously present in every speech and every jab and every tweet right up until inauguration day.
It is not a discussion for the faint of heart, what our purpose is here, where we go when we die, why it is that we were given the chance to hang around any longer than the next person. But if I'm honest, I was envious of Mike, of the fact that I might never be as genuinely content or as genuinely certain as Mike seemed to be with whatever life puts him through, with whatever the good Lord puts in front of him, that whatever questioning he might do, he has found some peace within his purpose, or at least with who is moving his plot forward, that his story isn't being written by his own hand (or on his smart phone, as it were). When Mike learned that I'd published short stories and that I was writing about my Uber travails, he was eager to read my work. But he said that he'd abstained from any social media outlets other than LinkedIn. I told him that I was on LinkedIn and that he could read my fiction there. He immediately "connected" with me, and he laughed when he read my current title of "Writer, Uber man, Existential Mess."
"I know all about that existential journey," Mike said. "Keep writing—maybe you'll be this generation's O. Henry. Maybe you'll be the next great philosopher."
Mike never asked about my higher power, about what or who I believed in. Mike did not profess to me, did not express concern for me as a man. Mike was simply glad to meet me, interested in what I had to offer. He encouraged me to search, even if I might not find an answer, much less his answer. And it dawns on me now that Mike never mentioned having a wife or of having children, only that he had a sister who'd married a poet, that Mike often wishes he had the capacity for that type of creativity, that it might've taken him much farther in this life than North Carolina and business trips to East Tennessee. But Mike said that he's just fine with pharmaceutical sales, that he's happy, that he was looking forward to having sushi, maybe a beer, with his client that night. To hear Mike tell it, sushi and a beer and a conversation is reason enough to smile.
I'm home now, in my own coffee shop, my eight-cup percolator sputtering as I write. I'm back from the land where caricatures of men become manifest, where men tip ten-gallon hats and wear cowboy boots and bolo ties—without a hint of irony. It's Sept. 25, the day before the first presidential debate, nearly a week since I drove the 2,500 miles back to Knoxville. As is often the case with me, I've been concealing the impetus behind this particular diatribe, what has been nagging at my subconscious, what has me considering my manhood, and the manhood of Darius and of Tim and of Mike, how we fit in this America, whether we're the ones who will make it great again or bring it down.
I'd never been one to take much stock in signs, or in the following of them. To do so takes believing in the old adage, "Everything happens for a reason." Or at least takes, like Mike, having enough faith to be secure in knowing that the thing you do believe in is moving this plot forward. But when you become an Uber driver, ignoring signs and disobeying them can be bad for business—and when you're on a journey like I'm on, when how you spend every minute of every day is your choice and yours alone, you can't help but start to wonder why anything happens from day to day, why anyone happens to climb into your car, or why anyone appears in your Facebook timeline.
One month ago today, as the universe would have it, I sat up and said good morning to my laptop and scrolled through various news outlets before my inevitable turn to the Facebook, which had plopped in my timeline a post by Dale Partridge. I was not familiar with Mr. Partridge until that Thursday morning, although I probably should've been. In 2011, the same year that my then-girlfriend and I moved from Queens to Hartford and shared a postal address for the first time, Mr. Partridge co-founded Sevenly, a company based in Southern California that gives $7 back to charity with each purchase. The company cleared a million dollars in its first year, when Mr. Partridge was only twenty-six. The for-profit company (named "Sevenly" because it rhymes with "heavenly" and because the No. 7 represents completion, Biblically speaking) boomed, and Mr. Partridge was divined a social-startup wunderkind—until Facebook altered its algorithms in 2013, and consequentially Sevenly's business model was disrupted, its stock price hit, causing baby-boomer stockholders to question whether Mr. Partridge's bottom-line savvy was being overshadowed by his charitable intentions. Less than a year later, Mr. Partridge was ousted from his own company, as a twenty-nine-year-old millionaire.
In the two years since, Mr. Partridge has reinvented his pride and become a stay-at-home author, family man, and motivational speaker, "teaching leaders and organizations how to position their brand, love their people, and develop profitable corporate social responsibility programs." On April 10 of this year, Mr. Partridge turned thirty-one, just twelve days before I did. Mr. Partridge has a wife and two children, a boy and a girl. Here is the opening line of Mr. Partridge's post, the one that he paid Facebook to incorporate into its algorithms, the one that found its way into my timeline on Aug. 25, three months after it was first published: "I'm not sure when men decided that 30 was the new 15," Mr. Partridge writes, oblivious to the fact that fifteen was the very age that I lost my father, the very year my father's head hit the concrete and I lost the man that Mr. Partridge has often referred to as his role model, his own father who is still living.
Mr. Partridge continues: "Our culture has a boy problem. In Italy, they call it Peter Pan Syndrome. I call it immaturity and selfishness. Men so focused on their dreams, their visions, and their desires they find themselves wealthy, known, and alone." Mr. Partridge says that this America needs men "who hold a moral code and [do] not compromise it. [Men] who love women, treat them as they would their own daughters and lead them when everything doesn't make sense." Mr. Partridge, whose Facebook author page has more than 125,000 "likes," who's white and calls himself a "Business Person" and a "Follower of Christ," writes in another post that twelve years ago he was "broke," which he defines as living in an apartment and making $48,000 a year.
This is the first time in all of these posts I've written to you that I'm concerned about lines being drawn, between Mr. Partridge and me and you. I'm concerned about putting words in Darius' mouth, telling you what that young black man would give to make $48,000 a year, what he would give to have the education to start a company that would make him a millionaire. I'm concerned about assuming why Tim can't bear to return to a salary as low as $48,000 a year, to assume why he does not have a wife or a child, if he would agree with Mr. Partridge's definition of a man. I'm concerned that I can't begin to assume that Mike would be happy with $48,000 a year, if he would be happy if it was what the Lord intended for him to have, if perhaps Mike does not have a wife or a child for reasons that Mr. Partridge cannot fathom, reasons that Mr. Partridge has been afforded the luxury of not having to face.
I'm wondering if I need to repeat lines like "[men] who love women ... and [who will] lead them when everything doesn't make sense." I'm wondering what your definition of a man is, if it's what Mr. Partridge is proselytizing, or if your definition is less rigid, if perhaps you don't believe it's your place to define what a man should be. I wonder what doesn't "make sense" to Mr. Partridge, if it's the senseless killings I wake up to every morning, or if it's the men who don't love women in our America, the ones who were senselessly murdered in Orlando. I wonder if Sister Hillary being on the ticket, if her being a leader of men doesn't make sense to Mr. Partridge, or if it's men like Darius and Tim and Mike and myself who don't make sense to Mr. Partridge, the men who do not have wives and do not have children, the men who do not have that nuclear portrait on the mantle, whose next Christmas likely won't be spent in expensively woven, brightly-colored sweaters, with cards adorned with our names in calligraphy to prove that we are men.
I'm not sure whether I should be ashamed, if I shouldn't have respect for Mr. Partridge, if perhaps he is the lion and I am the sheep, because he is firmly drawing the line behind which he stands, because he is firmly espousing what he believes to be the definition of a man, while I am tilting at windmills, trying to examine all sides, the whys of Darius and of Tim and of Mike and of myself, instead of getting in line with what society expects of me, to love women blindly and lead them now, especially now, when everything doesn't make sense.
We are a nation that has prided itself on the separation of church and of state, yet a nation whose citizens bring whatever ideology they believe defines them to the polls. It's the ultimate display of hypocrisy. We are a nation at odds with itself because its citizens are conflicted with what it means to be an American, to be a man and to be a woman, with the idea that speaking English and believing in Christianity and practicing heterosexuality are not requisites for a Social Security number. We are a nation whose citizens are struggling to come to terms with redefining their nation, with redefining what it means to be a man, and to be a woman in America. Like our nation, I too am conflicted. Maybe Mr. Partridge is right about me. Maybe when I fly to Italy in a couple of weeks, to drink more expensive espresso, the Italian men there will tell me I am Peter Pan, that I pushed away two women because I'm afraid to grow up.
A friend and former ESPN colleague, an editor and writer and father of three who I highly respect, recently read my confession, the essay in which I admit to cheating on my girlfriend of six years, and he told me that he sees "a man seeking a deeper truth through the prism of his failed relationships." He told me that he worries I won't find truth that way. He told me that he worries I'll only grow to hate myself. My friend is the reason that I went back and read Brother Socrates. My friend told me that I must know "thyself," that I must explore my limitations, mark them, and make some sort of peace with them. His was heartfelt advice that I took to heart, but advice that I couldn't help but question, advice that made me wonder if my "limitations" as a man are simply those that society has deemed "limitations." I couldn't help but wonder, if it weren't for Mr. Partridge's ideologies, if my manhood would even be in question.
When my friend told me that I must "mark" my limitations as a man, I imagined a child's drawings, those drawings in which we, as children, color outside the lines, make our clouds orange and our sun blue, those drawings which our parents applaud, hang on the refrigerator, chalk up to a child's creativity. I wondered when and why coloring outside the lines and making our clouds orange and our sun blue becomes problematic, becomes a marking of "limitations" that can no longer be displayed on a refrigerator, when we decide that those markings belong in a drawer, when those markings aren't something we applaud as creativity and imagination but instead as our "limitations," when those markings are something we keep hidden for fear that it might render us different, less of a man, or less of a woman, or perhaps not able to fit into society's norms.
I've searched for the second part of Brother Socrates' advice, the part that advises you how to proceed once you've gotten to know "thyself," his advice for when you realize that "thyself" is simply a product of the nature and the nurture and the circumstances that you were given. But Brother Socrates doesn't seem to have instructed us on what to do with our "limitations," with our inability to live up to Mr. Partridge's standards of a man, of society's standards of a man. Brother Socrates did not bother to tell us what to do when society finally decides to break it to us, that the sun is yellow and the clouds are white and the sky is blue, that, as Mr. Partridge might say, men should love women and men should lead women, and that $48,000 a year and a roof over your head, at least to hear Mr. Partridge tell it, is damn near broke.
Truth be told, my mother, God bless her, has said more than once that maybe I ought to talk to someone, that maybe a pill or two, just to take the edge off, might not be a bad idea, until I get through whatever this "thing" is, this thing I keep calling my existential crisis. I wonder what Brother Socrates would think of that, needing a pill or two to live with "thyself," to keep the sun yellow and the clouds white and the sky blue.
I've already written more than I should, already deleted an entire section that recounted my convoluted journey to manhood without a father, my existence within corporate America, when a kid mistakes employers for father figures, when all the men around you are living multiple lives, one at work and one at home and perhaps even another one that is theirs and theirs alone. But that would just be doin what ol' Thomas Hobbes said we're destined to, that we oughta internalize instead of project, that we oughta start with "thyself" before we start finger pointin.
A few months before I put in my two weeks at ESPN, a former boss, the man who had given me the opportunity to become a full-time editor, the job that would relocate me and my then-girlfriend to Hartford, Connecticut, told me that he didn't believe "true happiness" was in the cards for me. But that he was worried about my pessimism having morphed into misery, into a palpable hatred for the environment I'd found myself in. In the moment, I thought how cold-hearted that statement had been, that "true happiness" was unachievable for me. But perhaps there was some truth to his psychoanalyzing, perhaps there will always be the Mikes of the world, those that are predisposed to be "truly happy," and then there is me, the one put here to question it.
I hadn't thought about this exchange since it'd happened, nearly a year ago, not until I woke up after a Labor Day weekend cookout at a friend's house, a man who I've known since we were boys. I woke up on his couch, in the haze of a hangover. Through the cob webs, I could see him on the opposite couch, watching SportsCenter, catching up on the scores from college football's opening weekend. I could hear his wife blow-drying her hair, getting ready for church. Then his three-year-old daughter stomped into the living room wearing tiny heels and a dress, wanting her daddy to see how pretty she was in her Sunday school outfit. Sitting here now, on Sept. 25, it's a tableaux that seems so far out of reach, one that brings water to my eyes, a tableaux of what my life perhaps could've been, if I'd been more like Mr. Partridge's definition of a man.
I wonder if all this soul-searching is nonsense, if happiness is preordained, if I'll never be Mike without a pill, if I'll never be Darius because I've known what it is to be in a certain tax bracket. I wonder if Mr. Partridge would say my drive out West, up the Pacific Coast Highway, was a childish thing to do, a symptom of Peter Pan Syndrome. I wonder if Tim will ever make that drive, if he'll let go of whatever version of "thyself" he thinks he should've been or could've been, if he'll find himself anew, if he'll find his true happiness, somewhere out there along the ocean, under the blue sky and the yellow sun.