“I saw that everyone is leaving New York City. It’s sad, really. I will always remember our time there. We always had the best time there.”
My dad told me that yesterday on the phone.
It made me think of New York City. It made me think of my parents. It made me think of how “different” everything is now.
I never understand when people say to “let go of the past.” The past has been my present’s greatest guide.
I then spent the next several miles on my bike-ride thinking about my life and the times that everything I knew no longer felt familiar.
I grew up in a small town in the middle of America where sports were central to culture. Actually, it was culture.
I played football. I was good enough to get the chance to play college ball. Then I suffered a series of massive concussions, and had to quit. Literally, my brain was about to explode. So I quit. And leaving that dream felt like I lost my entire identity. Everything I knew, gone. I was sad. I was lost. I was scared.
But then I changed my major from something that was easy to something I really wanted to learn. When I switched my major from business to liberal arts, communication and english writing, the dean of the business school wrote me an email.
“You’ll never make money as a liberal arts major, and this is a huge mistake you are making leaving the business school.”
He was wrong, twice.
Because when I changed my major, I changed other things.
My classrooms were full of people that did not think like me. They didn’t care about football. They didn’t care about my 40 time. They didn’t care about my body fat, or how much I could max on a bench press.
My teachers didn’t care about where I was from, or how much money I wanted to make, or what my parents did. They were gay. They were straight. They were Jewish. They were Catholic. They were American. They were not American. They told me to take chances. To leave the state. To leave the Midwest. To leave the country. To leave the box that we never chose to live in. At 19 years old, this was radical for me to hear.
Then I had my summers free. I was no longer training 4 hours a day. I had no practical work skills. I was strong and a hard worker. So I took a job as a server at Applebee’s. I worked 70 hours a week. I worked there for 4 years. It was the best job I ever had. I made friends with the cooks. It was the first time in my life that I had friends that were African American. I was 19. They called me the “fly white boy.” They were kind to me. Some of them had worked there for years, others were on prison release, and others with a number of stories and past lives. They were eager to share with me. I drove them home after work. I got close to them. I cared about them, and they cared about me. One of my favorite co-workers was a guy named Corrie. He lived in the projects on the south side of Peoria. I had never been to the projects. He showed me the street where most of the drug deals went down. We sat in the car on the corner of a street late one night and he explained everything to me as if it were happening in real time. I felt scared and protected all at the same time.
“I’ll never do that again. Stay away from drugs. They will ruin your life,” he told me.
Ok, I promised him.
I moved to San Francisco after graduating college. I made less than $12,000 a year, slept in a laundry room, and lived on food stamps. I remember visiting the government office to apply and being so confused by the process. I kept thinking how difficult it must have been for non-native English speakers to navigate this system. They gave me a card that looked like a debit card. The idea was to make it ambiguous to alleviate the stigma of public assistance. I was never on public assistance before. I never lived in a laundry room before. One night I had a date and then brought the girl back to my room. “You live in a laundry room?!?!” she asked me. We didn’t hook up. I didn’t bring anyone back to my house the rest of the year.
A year later, I moved to NYC, where I graduated from the City University of New York School of Law. Then I took the bar exam. I was in a pizza shop in Washington Heights when I got my results. “Failed.” I failed the NYC Bar exam. I didn’t want to eat my pizza that day. I was embarrassed, ashamed, not good enough.
I could share dozens more stories like these over the past 20 years.
And today, in August of 2020, I find myself here again.
This place where most of what we know is no longer what we knew. My business has been flipped upside down because of COVID; no one is having conferences, no one is hiring for videos. My Latin America tour for Uniendo Las Americas, cancelled. Even though I have a few very special people in my life here, my social circle is smaller than it’s ever been, and not one person from my last 20 years has any idea what my day to day life looks like in Montevideo. How the sunlight kisses the sea before setting for the night. The smell of mate as the hot water turns the Yerba from dry to wet. The first thing you see when you walk into my house. The streets I walk to buy the food I buy.
But if there is one thing I love about life is that it’s really just one big game of pattern recognition. So I find myself thinking back. Or better yet, feeling back to what all of these past experiences showed me. Sometimes looking back is the best way for me to fully feel here. The present feels more manageable, or even exciting when you realize whatever you already lived led you to having a present moment.
Because when my brain almost stopped working on the college football field, curiosity and courage helped me pursue a classroom major that stimulated my damaged brain back to life.
Because when a safe job in the comfortable Midwest was the route nearly everyone around me was taking or encouraged to take, I had a few professors that told me to fly far away.
Because when my friends worked in law firms and fancy offices for summer internships, I was experiencing first-time friendships and learning about second chances with the cooks in a scorching hot Applebee’s kitchen.
Because when $12,000 a year showed me what a free life actually feels like, I had the best days of my life while spending my nights sleeping in a laundry room
Because when I failed the bar exam, I learned that you are only as free as the power you give to your secrets. And today I write freely the words “I failed” hoping to encourage you to do the same; both fail and share the failures.
Because when I get “stuck” in Uruguay for the past 6 months with a life that looks nothing like what I’ve lived for the last 20 years,
I am reborn.