Hello, and welcome back to the story of my life. This is a series that came about somewhat accidentally, but has been a very interesting experience to write. I’ve also received amazing feedback – supportive, humbling, and warm. So, thank you.
If you missed the first couple parts of the series and have no idea who I am or what’s happening here, I’d recommend heading back to Part 1 to get the background on the series and start the story from the beginning.
Now where were we…
Somewhere in my early-to-mid 20’s, I quit my service industry job, maxed out a credit card, moved into a tent on a dropzone in Hinckley, Illinois for a month and got my USPA skydiving license. It all happened because a friend of mine (the same guy pictured in the spring break photo in Part 2) dragged me along to do a tandem jump with him and his friends one summer. I didn’t want to go… I get sick on rollercoasters and had never been comfortable flying on planes, let alone jumping out of them.
But then I did it… and it was the single most incredible thing I’d ever done.
When we landed, the instructor asked me what I thought about the experience and the first words out of my mouth were “I don’t want to be doing anything else ever again!”.
I didn’t realize it at the time – but I loved it because it forced me into the present moment and out of my head, my thoughts, emotions, worries about the future, regrets about the past, or anywhere else I generally lived. The “flow state”, as it’s often called, is automatic in skydiving. You have to get into a flow state… there’s really no way around it.
And what is the flow state? It’s presence. Being in the present moment, fully focused on the exact now in every way… and it’s amazing.
So, what I’m getting at, is that it’s not the adrenaline. Adrenaline rush actually feels pretty awful, and so does the come-down afterwards. And honestly, after you get over the initial nerves during training/early in your skydiving career – there isn’t much adrenaline involved (unless something goes wrong). I thought at the time that I was an “adrenaline junkie” and that became part of the persona I created for myself. I didn’t realize it at the time – but that was false… I was hooked on access to the present moment, to the flow state, to actually feeling something.
I spent the better part of two summers at that dropzone, mostly on the weekends, being just as reckless and delinquent in the sky as I had been in most of my life. Barring a couple scary moments and bumps and bruises (that were all my fault…), I completed over 100 skydives without major incident. I’ve still, in all my explorations of various types of meditation, breathwork, psychedelics, and other inner journeys, never been able to consistently recreate the same peace and pure enjoyment that I found in the sky.
I still look up almost every day and fondly remember my time among the clouds, playing in a forbidden playground with fellow adventurers. There’s nothing more beautiful and perspective-shifting than watching a late summer sunset under canopy at 14,000’ in silence with yourself.
As a side note, I was still very depressed/entertaining suicidal thoughts. If something were to happen while skydiving, at least I’d be able to go out doing something I loved. Flirting with death was attractive to me during that stage of my life.
Eventually, I ran out of money/the ability to do that and still pay my bills, take care of my responsibilities, etc… and had to sell my stuff to pay off the credit card bills I’d acquired.
I had every intention of getting back into the sport “when I had the money”, and I’ve almost done so a number of times. But aside from doing a few jumps about 8 years ago or so, I’ve never made it back into the sky.
Considering the situation with my wife’s health (which I’ll discuss later in the series), and the fact that skydiving makes life insurance very expensive/difficult to get, I’m not sure it’s something I’ll ever be able to get back into. While I feel a sadness, grief, and loss around this – I also have a deep appreciation for the experiences I did have, the friendships I made, and for the introduction to the pristine, divine present moment.
Changing course a little, I’ve mentioned that I spent much of my 20’s in the service industry after leaving teaching. I was a server, bartender, and a couple times… against my wishes… served as front-of-the-house manager.
Here’s where I’d like to give a shout to all the wonderful people I worked with in my decade in the service industry. Some of the hardest working, most genuine, fun-loving, and friendly people I’ve ever met – who don’t receive nearly the acknowledgement or respect they deserve. I worked everywhere from a dive-y biker bar/Bavarian restaurant to high-end seafood in one of the wealthiest zip codes in America and everything in between.
I learned a ton about food and cooking, about wine and various liquors, about the value of staying calm in the face of chaos, and learned to read people, observe closely, and to predict and meet the needs of others. Many of these skills have served me well over the last decade as I’ve made my way – both professionally and in my personal life.
There is a downside, however – at least there was for me. The late nights, wads of cash in my pocket, and being constantly surrounded with temptations in the form of food, drinks, socializing, and general shenanigans was more than I could handle responsibly. Something had to change, or I wouldn’t make it to 30. I was going out after work, staying out all night, living dangerously and recklessly, and was unhealthy in every single way.
I knew I didn’t want to be living like I was. I knew it wasn’t sustainable. I’d seen where that road ended.
At one point, I made a couple half-hearted attempts to reach out for support. I shared with a few close friends and family members that I was depressed, that I didn’t want to drink anymore, and felt hopeless about my future. The idea of seeking professional help of any kind didn’t even cross my mind at that point. What could a “shrink” possibly do for me? And they cost how much?! No way…
There’s something I haven’t figured out where to fit, but it needs to be shared… so I’m gonna’ do it here. (Sorry editors, I know this is unorthodox and probably the “wrong” way to write this story…)
My family acquired season tickets for the Chicago Bears before I was born. My dad, godfather (who passed away when I was very young due to drunk driving), and uncles started going to the games in the late 70’s. For those who don’t know NFL history very well, the Bears were very good when I was a kid – winning the Super Bowl in 1985 (and never since!). That was the first year I attended a regular season game, and I still remember being lifted up on the seat from some stranger behind me so that I could stand on the chair and cheer.
Over the years, as I grew up, I learned to grill in the south lot next to Soldier Field. I learned that drinking beer and acting crazy was fun. Slowly, I started attending more and more games – and it became a bigger part of my life. By high school, my friends and I started going to a few games a year. In college, I’d time out my weekends coming home with home Bears games. After college, my friends and I bought an old cheap van and turned it into an ultimate tailgate mobile stocked with a couch, multiple grills, TV, and a bunch of other ridiculousness.
We threw tailgate parties for dozens of people. Our food was featured on the TV news more than once (bacon-wrapped lobster, anyone?!) – and we became quite famous in the parking lot where the festivities took place. We’d start preparing food on Saturday morning before the Sunday games – and it would take us until Tuesday or Wednesday to fully recover from each tailgate/game/party.
We got in fights and other assorted general mischief. I have a scar under my left eyebrow where an unopened bottle of beer was used as a weapon on my face and missed my eye by a quart of an inch. I’ve been to the “jail” in old Soldier Field once, and the new one twice (I think). I had a “family” at the stadium – people who were in our section from when I was a small kid and watched me grow up. A couple of them even invited me to their wedding! My “Bears grandpa” just passed away at the age of 95 years old. My friend and I went to the Super Bowl (yes, we actually attended the Super Bowl) in 2007 when the Bears lost to the Colts in Miami. It was one of the best (and worst) days of my life rolled into one!
There was a period where I went to something around 100 consecutive home games, if not more, with a dozen or so road and neutral games sprinkled in. We started taking Michael when he was 5 – and my family still owns the tickets, although I’ve only been to a couple games since I moved out west and I barely watch football anymore.
When I’m there now, I feel somewhat out of place – and it brings up quite a bit of shame and guilt around how I used to behave, ways I used to act, and what I did to myself and others. Somehow, miraculously, everyone (except Charlie and Uncle Phil… long stories…) in the section still loves me and it was really cool to see them all last year when I went to a game. They don’t seem to judge me like I judge myself – perhaps there’s a lesson there…
Ok, back to the story.
Most of my 20’s was a blur of working my way up in the restaurant/bar industry, intoxication, depression, and spending weekends with my family/Michael. I constantly felt like a failure, a bad influence, a degenerate, outcast, and a genuinely bad person with no hope for the future. I was also hitting a very common despair point well-known by activists and those who fight for a cleaner, more just world.
Although parts of me felt Michael would be better off if I were gone/weren’t in his life/left this world – he is what kept me alive through all of that.
It was January of 2007, l was working my way towards an early grave in the service industry and knew that I needed to make some changes. I’d kicked around the idea of getting a dog to force me to come home after work and be more responsible. I’d made several “I’m never going out again” claims, but they had never lasted more than a few days or a week.
That’s when fate brought me into Jim’s Pet World, a small family-owned pet store in my old hometown (where I no longer lived – I don’t even remember why I was there…). Inside, I found a plywood pen with a handful of puppies in it. That night, I went home with my new best friend and wisest teacher in this life, Marley. (There will be much more on Marley later in this story…)
Having a puppy did force my hand. I had to come home after work and be responsible for everything a puppy requires. As I’ll get into later, I was fortunate to stumble upon the lowest maintenance puppy of all-time… but it was still enough to create the structure and responsibility I was looking for. What I didn’t realize at the time, is that I’d also acquired a living sage. A Buddha dog. The best friend I’ll ever have, and a dear companion for the next 13 ½ years.
Ever since I was a kid, I’d wanted to move to Florida. When I was young, we’d take family vacations to the Tampa area to go to the beach, and Orlando for Disney adventures. The palm trees, blue gulf water, gorgeous sunsets, warm weather, I loved it all. It was summer (and vacation) all the time – and I longed for that feeling. I hated the winter, cold, snow, ice and being in Chicago most of the time.
In 2007, I decided that’s what I was going to do. Me and Marley were gonna’ move to Florida. Michael was living in Texas (his mom married a soldier who was stationed at Ft. Hood), I didn’t have money saved up, and I had no idea how to make it happen – but I decided that within a year, I’d be moving to the beach and escaping the winter forever.
I ran it past Marley, he agreed. And the wheels started turning…
Part 4 Preview:
The seed of a new career and path in life is planted
A coin flip chooses grad school
“Escaping” the midwest, trouble in paradise, rock bottom
Quitting the last job I’d ever have
Somewhere in between two worlds