40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 22

Keeping up is easier than catching up.

Early in my college career, I tried to do too much and ended up getting behind in several areas. I was at a private university that specialized in engineering, but I was studying English. I wanted to live in private housing and drive a car, but I had to work two jobs to pay the bills. Even with those jobs, I got behind on bills, and because of the jobs, I got behind in class.

After two years of higher education, I realized that I was in over my head. The best choice at the time was to take a break, get caught up financially, and try again.

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 21

If you find yourself in a hole, one of the best things you can do is simply stop digging.

By midway through my second year at Bradley University, I was working two jobs to pay for a car and an apartment–both of which I didn’t really need–and I was missing lots of class and homework to make it all work. I missed payments on my insurance, got into a car accident, and got a speeding ticket, all in a couple of weeks.

With some helpful guidance from a friend (same guy who had been chased out of my dorm in entry #20), I decided that the expensive private university might not be the best option for me at the time.

I left Bradley after four semesters and took a gap year (not exactly in the traditional gap year manner) to wait tables, sling java, and get caught up on bills. I stopped driving without insurance, and I stopped putting things I couldn’t afford on credit cards. (Partly because they’d canceled my cards, but you know… progress, not perfection, right?) I started working my way out of the hole, slowly but surely.

Now, pushing 40, I can nearly see daylight over the rim!

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 20

Even assholes can be insightful. (Or spot bullshit, anyway.)

The first visitor I had during my freshman year at Bradley University was a friend from 12-step meetings, a middle-aged man who was sort of a mentor/advisor in many ways. It’s wild, looking back on it now, to think that I’m older now than he was when he came to see me in my dorm and deliver a mini-fridge.

He chatted up some of the guys on my floor as was his usual M.O.–talking to young adult males–and then he and I stepped out to get coffees from the cafe across the street. When we returned to my dorm, someone had scrawled a note in all caps on my dorm door:








On one hand, these guys were assholes.

On the other hand, decades later, I finally began coming to terms with how my relationship with that man warped my sense of who I am, who I want to be, and who I should be… largely because of his warped senses of all those things. I’ve heard that hurt people hurt people… And maybe misinformed people misinform people, too?

Would I have been better off if I had heeded the words of the cowardly, bigoted, anonymous residents of my dorm? Maybe. But the reasons would have been all wrong.

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 19

The more capable a person is, the more a mid-level manager will want to hold the person back.

I worked in food service a lot as a teen and young adult–frying fries, shaking shakes, burging burgers, waiting tables…

As someone who is conscientious about basically anything I do, I found that my managers always tended to be nicest to me when I was about to move on and do better things.

At Hardee’s, a manager spent hours trying to talk me out of going to a state math competition so that I could stay in town and work the drive thru that morning. At IHOP, the manager did everything he could to try and convince me not to move away to begin my freshman year at the university, so I could stay on as the weekday morning server.

Those were just two of my many food-service jobs, but at every food service job I held, I saw it happen to me and to others: If a person shows any promise or merit, a manager will attempt to hold that person in place to get quality work for minimal pay.

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 18

Alcohol and other drugs aren’t safe for me.

By the time I reached the age of 16, I knew without a doubt that I can never predict with much accuracy what is going to happen when I put mind- and mood-altering chemicals into my bloodstream.

Since 16 January 1998–when I was 17 years old–I haven’t used those types of substances for recreational purposes… and only very rarely for medical reasons!

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 17

Living in society involves being indoctrinated.

Between the ages of 15 and 17, I read books like Fahrenheit 451, Brave New World, and 1984, and I quickly found myself feeling fairly disenfranchised and disillusioned with the world.

It wasn’t until I read Ishmael by Daniel Quinn that I finally started to realize that I was having truly counter-cultural feelings about the society in which I had been raised.

Sure, Mom was one of the very few Democrats in an otherwise Republican county, and Dad’s religious persuasion was “so open-minded that my brain fell out”–so I wasn’t unfamiliar with going against the grain a bit.

However, Quinn’s novel really called me to question some of the most basic fundamental assumptions that seem to belie “civilized” society and discourse.

Decades later, I can say that those early experiences of disillusion were absolutely necessary to put me on a path toward doing some good in the world. How far that will go remains to be seen…

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 16

Sometimes, snitches should get stitches.

At the math and science academy, my friends and I were always up to no good. Sneaking off campus, shoplifting, gambling for real money, smoking cigarettes… and, on occasion, smoking week, drinking liquor, and eating magic mushrooms.

My closest friends and I had decided we didn’t like my roommate one bit. He was loud, obnoxious, pushy, arrogant… All around un-enjoyable. Being so self-centered that I couldn’t imagine how I would tell him “no” if he asked to room with me for the following year, I decided I needed a plan to get rid of him. My friends agreed to go along with it–some of them reluctantly, others with little hesitation. But the plan was mine.

We urged the roommate to shoplift. Then, we ratted him out to store employees.



At several stores in a single day, he managed to either rid himself of the shoplifted items or successfully keep them hidden when questioned by store employees. He didn’t get caught shoplifting.

So we urged him to buy alcohol. A handful of us put in our liquor orders with “rat boy”–the 22-year-old clerk from the video store–and we peer-pressured my roommate with full-court-press to overcome his reluctance to get a pint of schnapps. He caved, and we collected our wares from rat boy later that evening.

Then, a note was slipped under the door of the resident counselors’ office. “Search room XXXX for contraband. You’ll find alcohol.”

All of my contraband had been stashed away in friends’ rooms. Only my roommate had illicit items to be discovered when our room was tossed. Soon, my roommate was tossed, too.

One of these days, I’ll find a way to make it right.

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 15

Make sure there’s gas in the car before you steal it.

I first began taking my mom’s car out for joyrides around the age of 12 or so. It didn’t matter whether it was her mini-van before it broke down, the little Chevy she borrowed from Uncle Pat for a while, or the next mini-van she got–I knew that she left her keys in the vehicle(s) every night, so a few times a week, I would sneak out to the car around 11pm or so and go for a spin. Sometimes I would make arrangements to pick up one of my friends to cruise the country roads with me, other times I would roll solo. We occasionally took down road signs as trophies to store in the basement; Mom never asked where they came from. Once, when joy-riding through Dogtown with a handful of friends, I hit a deer, leaving a huge dent in the front quarter panel. Mom thought someone had hit her car in the parking lot at work.

One night, as my friend Ben and I returned to Paxton on a back road from Champaign County, the engine started to sputter. I had never been at the wheel of a car that ran out of gas before, so I wasn’t even sure what was happening. The car came to a stop at the side of the road, and we tried to get it started again–no success. Finally, we agreed that we needed to go up to the farm house 50 yards or so up the road and ask if they had a gas can.

“No gas can, but don’t worry–I already called the sheriff to come help you out.”

Ben and I hid behind the second and third row seats of the minivan while the sheriff took down the plate numbers and looked through the front windows. Just before he was probably going to drive off, we realized we would be missing our chance for assistance if we took advantage if we were successful in hiding… We reluctantly got out of the vehicle, realizing that we would be facing the consequences sooner or later, anyway. Now’s as good a time as any.

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 14

If your campaign slogan is too ridiculous to get you elected, the student council will still create a position for you.

I served as treasurer for my junior high school student council during the 6th grade. As far as I can recall, the only money I ever handled as treasurer was the change I handed back when selling people popcorn in our refreshments area at the school’s basketball games.

When campaigning for a spot as VP on the student council for my 7th grade year, I used the campaign slogan “Vote for Experience!” After all, I had been on the student council for a full year! My opponent in the race, an 8th-grader named Katie, had been on student council for two years… but whatever. Maybe that’s why I lost–people followed the guidance offered in my campaign slogan?

In any case, I wasn’t the VP of the student council in the 7th grade, but the teachers who oversaw the student council made a spot for me anyway: club historian. I didn’t have to know anything about the history of the school or the student council, I just had to make sure we took pictures at all of our events. I guess we probably did?

40 Lessons in 40 Years: Entry 13

Model rockets aren’t jetpacks. (Sometimes adults don’t take kids seriously.)

I was obsessed with the movie “The Rocketeer” when I was in the 6th grade. Maybe it’s a testament to the magic of cinema, but I simply couldn’t see why–if it was so easy to make a rocketpack work on screen–we couldn’t have real life jetpacks.

So I went to work on a remedy.

I looked up the design basics for rocket engines, and then I drew a basic sketch for the interior arrangement of the engine parts in a jetpack with the same exterior design from the Rocketeer. I also suspected that I might have inadvertently discovered a design for perpetual motion along the way, but that was simply a spinoff idea.

I showed my design ideas to Mr. Geerken, the 6th grade math teacher who also ran a baseball card shop, to see if we might be able to get my project off the ground. (See what I did there?)

He gave me a model rocket and told me to have fun.