(Ed. Note: I wrote this after a weekend in a place that had no wifi, no cell service and more deer than people. I was stuck in the Newark Airport in what appeared to be a “boarding call auction” when it came to when we were going to take off: “3:30? Got it. Do I hear 3:45? Thank you! Anyone for a 4 p.m. delay? Yes! in the corner! Do I hear 4:15… A said if I could post before midnight, I’d be fine. Consider this early by journalistic standards. Hope you enjoy it. – Doc.)
I spent the weekend in the middle of nowhere to attend the wedding of a former student. As a teacher or a professor, you get a lot of these and since the students are usually transitory, you tend to get asked to fly all over Hell and Creation trying to meet your responsibilities. In most cases, I send a card, a gift card and my apologies for not being able to make it.
This time, The Missus and I drove to Milwaukee and flew to Detroit, where we were told we might be bounced from our connection.
The reason? “Weight restrictions.”
The Missus, who had not been properly caffeinated and is likely to kill people who make “weight-related comments” to her, told the woman, “We have a rehearsal dinner tonight.” The response? “Well, I’m sure that’s important TO YOU.”
It’s a miracle we didn’t land on the “no-fly list” after that.
We eventually boarded the connection to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where we are quite certain we dropped a load of fertilizer on final approach and began a hour’s drive to some place that gets no cell reception. We lovingly started referring to this place as “Fugawi, Pennsylvania,” drawing on a somewhat racially insensitive joke and our own sense of how far from civilization we were.
The hotel was “quaint,” which roughly translates to a shed with a bed and an air-conditioner jammed into the wall. The bathroom was well worn, with 1960s tiling and some meat bits someone recently flossed out of their teeth stuck to the wall near the sink. When I tried to check in on FourSquare, my phone just looked at me and said, “You’re fucking kidding me, right?” It was also the first time I’d seen my phone just give up on trying to find service and just slap a big “O” on the reception meter.
On Saturday, we stood in farm field for about 10 minutes, watched a kid I taught exchange vows with a woman I’d never met and then drank until we nearly froze to death. Outdoor weddings always sound like a great until it’s 8 p.m., pitch black and you can see your breath when you are asking for your third or fourth whiskey of the night.
DJ was solid, restroom was a port-o-john and the local people (read: not us) brought a change of clothes, so they were toasty and comfortable and we were not. The night went from elegant strapless gowns to women stealing every available piece of clothing off of their men. By the time the night was over, The Missus was reduced to walking barefoot through frosted grass in an attempt to find our car in a field.
Under ordinary circumstances, this would have the makings of a rip-roaring, sarcasm-soaked post. Instead, I can tell you with absolute certainty that the Milwaukee-to-Detroit-to-Scranton-to-Fugawi-to Scranton-to-New Jersey-to- Milwaukee jaunt that cost about as much as my first car would still be worth every dollar I spent even if it cost twice as much as it did.
In my field, you can’t pick favorites. It’s not allowed. As an educator, you need to be fair. As a journalist, you need to be fair. Put the two of those together and you get me: the guy who has to make sure everyone feels equally good or equally shitty.
Still, sometimes, you just can help it.
The kid I went out to see was a favorite. I taught him his first major writing course and disabused him quickly of the notion that the bullshit he was used to slinging wasn’t going to work here. For years, he’d been told he was a great writer and thus, he learned to eat lunch off of that appraisal. When he got to the bigger pond with bigger fish, he still tried to rely on that. It worked in his gen ed courses and his intro courses and he seemed to think it should continue.
Despite his awkwardness, his bipolar level of self-assurance and his general ability to be a sarcastic smartass, I realized he was worth the effort. I felt like the trainer who first saw greatness in Seabiscuit.
He wasn’t the best.
He wasn’t the fastest.
He wasn’t the one you’d pick first.
And, yet he simply had something that made you want to make him better.
After that first class, I never taught him again, and yet he and I always stayed connected. I served on school committees with him, he found his way to our house for Thanksgiving and so forth. The Missus adopted him and treated him like the goofy little kid in the neighborhood who wore mismatched socks and always had a runny nose. She fed him and hugged him and when shit went wrong, she told him an important truism, long before it became a trendy term:
“It gets better…”
When he graduated, he quickly fell into a trap that befalls most of the students I taught at that university. When you are at the “best school” for anything, you feel you must have a “best school” job when you leave. The students measured their value by the size of the paper’s circulation or the market size of the TV station at which they worked. It became the purest of all dick-measuring contests and he was bound and determined to win it.
When his cohorts moved from writers to editors, he felt the pull to become an editor.
When they moved forward and upward along the circulation route, he sought worse jobs at bigger places.
When digital became a bigger deal, I wasn’t shocked to see him try to be a digital guy.
Each stop was “better,” but at each stop he felt worse and his personal life didn’t help matters.
He was a smart kid, a good kid and a kind kid, which meant that in the world of mid 20s relationships, he couldn’t find a date in a morgue. The lack of companionship was always a problem for him.
“At work, I work hard and I end up getting what I want. In school, I worked hard and I ended up getting what I wanted. In love, I work hard and nothing ever comes to me. Why? What am I doing wrong?”
Despite the best effort of his female friends and those of us who knew him well, he never felt comfortable with the answer that sometimes things don’t work out that way. It wasn’t much easier when his friends were getting married and he kept hearing the hollow cliché of “Don’t worry, you’ll eventually find someone perfect for you.”
My phone was constantly abuzz with calls from his latest outpost. He’d sadly recount his exploits and wonder if he’d ever be happy. I’d put on my best face and tell him what he needed to hear, even if he didn’t want to hear it.
“Do what makes you happy. Stop chasing pointless shit. Worry less about other people and more about you.”
“It’ll get better.”
Somewhere along the way, the calls of desperation and sadness slowed to a trickle before ceasing all together. He’d found a job selling websites to student media and he was good at it. He felt he was doing something important for people who aspired to be where he had aspired to be.
He met a nice girl, moved to nice place and found some peace, if not perfection, in the heart of Chicago.
Eventually, the calls started up again, but with a positive feel. He wasn’t asking anymore. He was telling.
Stories about the girl he loved and the wedding he was planning.
Stories about his home and his attempts at fixing crap around the condo.
Stories about how happy he was.
Saturday, as we watched the shortest wedding ceremony ever, I looked at him as he waited with his parents. He looked as awkward as always, but yet so damned happy. He and his bride-to-be had decided against anyone standing up for the wedding. Too many people might be insulted, he explained, as he’d stood up for pretty much every wedding from 2001-2010. (Hell, look back at your wedding photos. He might be in there.) Even more, though, I got the sense that he finally had the sense that he didn’t have to impress anyone anymore. He didn’t need to be surrounded by people who would tell him what to do or how well he was doing it.
He had become comfortable in his own skin.
As the bride made her way up the hill to the site of the ceremony, she smiled without ceasing. She had this look of unending joy about her, like she had found a treasure in that field and would give up everything to keep it.
When she arrived and they met by the minister, the happiness just glowed from them. Those of us who were with someone we loved instinctively reached for that person and cuddled in. It was the first wedding in a long time for me that didn’t end with a call to Vegas, checking the line for the couple’s divorce and then immediately taking the under.
We spend so much time telling high school kids who are picked on for their sexual orientation, social graces, lack of money or a million other things that “it gets better.”God love Dan Savage for his efforts in this area, because someone needed to say it and plug up the hole throughwhich the kids kept ending up in.
However, the view that high school is the hurdle that must be conquered seems troubling to me in some ways. Sure, high school sucks, but college isn’t much better. You’re on your own, you need to find your way and you often feel that everyone out there has it all figured out while you couldn’t find your ass with the help of a searchlight and a posse. The generation before you and the one before that view you as spoiled, ungrateful mysteries that need to shut up and sack up and do it the way they did, only better.
And then it gets worse, because you graduate, smile for the photo no one buys of you in your cap and gown and boom… You’re even more alone. Your friends also are foraging for an existence, the responsibilities set in and life goes from suck to blow.
You aren’t a kid anymore. You aren’t an adult in the eyes of those who have much more experience being adults. You wonder if you somehow decided to play the wrong hand and now you have no hope left.
Or, as Athenae would say, “I should have gone with the fours, but I didn’t, because I’m a dumbass…”
And then you suddenly get one good thing. And then another. And another. Your fortunes turn with luck, skill, work and faith. You realize that nothing is perfect and that’s fine. You figure out that you are grateful for things because they’re incrementally better than they were or not as bad as you expected.
And that’s how you find yourself in Fugawi, Pennsylvania on the top of a hill in a suit, awaiting the most beautiful woman you’ve ever seen who can’t wait to get to you so you can begin sharing the rest of your life together.
It’s why people from as far away as California and Georgia and as close as Hawley and Narrowsville travel to that hill and stand in appreciation of not just your love and your joy but also of your perseverance and your strength.
It’s why I find myself sitting in the Newark airport watching The Missus sleep and muttering cusswords under my breath each time Orbitz tells me we’re getting delayed again.
It’s because we all wanted to be there when “It Gets Better” came true.