the examined life

thma tech

Sometimes I look back and think about the course of events and influences that lead me to where I am today. The occurrences that formed my opinions and personality. I believe it was Socrates that said “the unexamined life is not worth living”.

I grew up in a rural area of Western New York. The oldest and only boy of the family, I had two sisters and the closest male friend of mine, or any boy my age, lived 2-3 miles away. So I didnt grow up with the all American ideal of the boys playing football in the yard or meeting at the sandlot to play baseball. My days were filled -when not at school- with running around the woods, reading books, plinking cans with my .22 or shooting arrows up in the air and dodging them as they came down (my Mom never knew about that one), and some small game hunting when I was old enough. Consequently, I never got into team sports in school which kept me out of the “popular” cliques. I had good grades but not good enough to be a “geek/nerd”.

Somewhere around 8th grade I made friends with a kid named Paul. Our fathers went to high school together, we had common interests like the martial arts, Dungeons and Dragons and the military… we hit it off right away. This was the early 80’s and the ninja craze was in full swing. We had the full get-ups, boots, masks, the works. I was studying martial arts and we used to spar each other in the backyard. I used to spend the weekends at Pauls house down by the lake, or at a mutual friends house who held D&D parties. We used to crash in Pauls parents camper which was parked next to his house. In the middle of the night we used to go out on “missions”. Things I now chase kids down for. Nothing (too) illegal or damaging. We would meet other groups of kids in the woods and have padded sword and bow and arrow “wars”. We’d go crawling up to parties on the beach and swipe the reminants of a 6 pack from right next to a partier. Climb up on the roof of the high school or walk 2-3 miles to Evangola State Park in the winter…across frozen lake Erie and climb the cliffs near the park. Rappel off of abandoned railroad bridges, stage special operations strikes with our .22’s and homemade mannequin “terrorists”. Shooting over each other as we low crawled to position. Stupid, testosterone addled, teenage boy stuff. But as I say “every boy likes to fancy himself a Warrior…and inside every man there is still a boy running around wondering if he measures up”. In another blog post of mine about the “Suburban Warrior Syndorme” the author writes:

In Western culture, “how to be a hero” instruction has roots that go back to 12th century Norse sagas and ancient-Greek epic poems, points out University of Michigan Law School professor William Ian Miller, author of The Mystery of Courage. These legends taught both psychological and moral lessons, and pointed the way to bravery. “In Icelandic sagas, the character would say, ‘I have not yet done anything saga-like,'” Miller says. “This type of epic wasn’t just escape, but was designed to fantasize yourself into this action and this behavior.” These heroic narratives featured imperfect characters who accomplished great things, despite their flaws.

However, kids raised on Thor or Tolkien don’t predictably gravitate to modern-day “hero” jobs like policeman or firefighter. Nor can you ever guarantee who will act bravely in wartime, Miller says. Courage is learned by practicing it day by day-by speaking up when you get cut off in line, not by waiting until you come across a maiden tied to the railroad tracks. “You have to train yourself to be courageous,” Miller says. Taking small daily risks prepares us for unexpected tests of courage, and he worries that “the upper-middle-class disease of risk aversion”-meticulously organized playtimes, the rush to protect children from any potential conflict or harm-has deprived children of chances to test themselves.

I think that we, like many other boys, were just playing out that imperative thats imbedded in our Y chromosomes and flogged on by the aggressive and self-testing influence of testosterone. This is something that I believe is currently under assault in our country. Boys are routinely classified as ADD and drugged into submission, boys acting like boys are becoming viewed as threats and discipline is being doled out without understanding. I think that the more we force boys to bottle up whats inside them, the bigger problems we are going to have.

As strange as it seems to me now, I can say that there was a definate turning point in my life and that was when I went skydiving. After that, everything I used to dream about but never thought could happen suddenly came into the realm of possibility. As a “rite of passage” it can be a great tool for looking inside yourself and realizing what you can be capabile of. I was at the ideal point in my life too. My early 20’s. That stage between childhood and truly being an adult. Where you know that you have to get your life started but dont know what to do or how to do it. When you dream big about what you want to do but your fears tell you you are kidding yourself and to settle for the “sure thing”. Like the quote I posted above stated. The way to big accomplishments is by taking many consistant smaller steps. After skydiving it was like throwing a switch. I wasnt afraid of the risk anymore, I accepted the consequences and made some decisions. I went rockclimbing, joined the military, took the civil service exam and wound up in a job I enjoy and am advancing in it.

As we got older, Paul joined the Marines, became a martial arts instructor, an English teacher and got married and I went on my path of college, graduate school, military service, work, marriage, career change. Paul and I have stood up in each others weddings, are godfathers to each others kids, we wound up in the same Army National Guard unit and went to Bosnia together. He lives about a 1/4 mile away with his family and his son uses us as a second home.

So to tie all this together… I think that the circumstances of my life -growing up with little male group contact- and solo vs. team persuits resulted in my current interests. I run, hunt,climb/rappel (rarely these days), weightlift, practice martial arts, all solo stuff. I think that background, coupled with a lack of male group “testing” resulted in a tendency to have to “prove myself” to myself. The interest in fantasy roleplaying games and the fantasy warrior stuff my friend and I did being a manifestation of that. But, fortunately for me, my friend and I used this as a motivation for action in our lives. The catylist of which was my skydiving experience, which lead to a series of macho self validating decisions and put me where I am today. Some people never take the step from dreaming of what they want to be to making themselves into what they want to be. The translation is never perfect. Real life is never the same as fantasy and sometimes you fail or realize that you just arent going to be an Astronaut or Green Beret. But you can take satisfaction that you tried and will realize that the journey toward your goal has many branches just short of it, but you are way closer to than you would have been if you never took that first step.


3 thoughts on “the examined life”

  1. Wow. That’s a great summary of a lifetime up to now, yours and mine 🙂 so far.

    For me the turning point was when I was standing at the MEPS station the day I was suppose to leave for Marine Corps Basic. I found out that my recruiter had lied to me (go figure) and that I could A: walk away from my contract with the USMC since the contract I signed was bogus to begin with OR B: resign on the spot and pick from the MOS’s that were available right then and there.

    I had already been through the whole mental and emotional roller coaster: Saying good bye to my friends and family, seeking ‘closure’ with the necessary people (because in my youthful imagination this was equivalent to going to ‘war’ and I might not live through it), solidifying a relationship with my then girlfriend and all the cliche moments made famous by a million coming of age movies. Now, here I was with a Willy Wonka-ish Golden Ticket that would get me out of this terrifying moment with a totally legit excuse. For once, I could really put the blame on someone else and get to keep all the ‘street credit’ of having the guts to join the Marines. In the end, obviously, I did stay and sign for whatever was available. After experiencing that whole emotional crap, I knew that I would not sign again if I left that day. I also knew that if I walked, I’d feel like a loser and a quitter.

    So, unlike the ‘warrior myth’ of facing an enemy or whatever the case may be, that was my crucible. It was in an office in Buffalo, NY when I had the most legit excuse from the legal and social perspective. I didn’t know the quote then, but there is a saying that says something about the true test of character is what we do when we have power, not when we are powerless. I’m not perfect everyday, but I do know that this was the first consciously ‘right’ thing I did as an adult (albeit a new one).

  2. To tag on again, I do remember that we clearly stated that all the crazy kid stuff we did during those years was about the experience, not about destroying something or getting back at people or anything negative. The actions, admittedly were definitely over the line of legal, but the motives behind the actions were at least ‘noble’ in the sense that we were working from a mentality of leave not trace and/or do no harm.

    I remember thinking in terms of ‘Counting Coup’ where the goal is to demonstrate courage through action w/o necessarily having to destroy.

    I’d say that stuck with me through the years.

  3. The thing to keep in mind is that those were the “pre-Columbine”, “pre-9/11” days. And over 20 years years ago now if you can fathom that. There was a good chance that if we did ever get in trouble for our youthful escapades, it may have just been a ride home in a squad car to face the wrath of mom and dad. Growing up in a small town was different than it would have been growing up out here in the “burbs” too. While some of our dumber adventures may have been enough for one of the local cops to get out of his car, most of the times we did draw attention it was just a “what are you kids up to?” out of a patrol car window. Its gotten even tougher these day for “boys to be boys”. People seem to be less tolerant and more afraid of teenage boys these days, its kind of sad.

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