Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial-arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, and devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.
-Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
If you want a quick lesson in humility, put down a non-refundable deposit on a rental car reservation that starts and ends two weeks after you arrive at your destination. Picture it: you’re in the humid Palm Beach airport (start the day at 40°F, end the day at 80°F), shuffling through a line of laden travelers, commenting to your patient wife how everyone at a car rental counter—on either side—just looks defeated. As if the war is over and we’re all just waiting to sign the unconditional surrender. You finally get to the front of the line and give the agent your name. She confirms the spelling and frowns. You pull out the confirmation, which you loaded on your phone for just such an occasion—wait until you get a load of—and there it is.
It was an important object lesson because this is the sort of mistake that the John Perich of ten years ago would never have forgiven. How do you make a NONREFUNDABLE deposit without double-checking the date?, he asks, his baritone thundering down the years. What is the reason for this? And you don’t know what to tell that proud, stubborn boy except: there is no reason. There is no reason to make a mistake. There is no reason for most of human endeavor. Autopilot and social cues can get you from bed to the shower to the office to home again to your microwave to the couch to bed again.
Okay, sending that message backwards in time will break the poor kid’s already fragile spirit. So perhaps I’d offer this: for years, you’ve been immersed and immersing in media that teaches you that strength comes from obedience to your own Will, even to the exclusion of others. You think that’s the hard road, and that being hard is what makes it good. Well, if you want to try something hard, chumley, try opening up to other people. Try being vulnerable. Try having relationships, or looking for common ground with people you don’t think you share common ground with, or striking up a conversation.
I was in Palm Beach this past weekend to attend my niece’s baptism. The ceremony was held in the back of an old, modest church in downtown Palm Beach. My niece freaked out when her great-aunt tried to put a bangled bracelet on her but was otherwise well-behaved. After the water was poured over her head, she stared at the flask, the font, and the priest with the wide-eyed awe of the new that all infants share. She reached for the font with both hands and said, “Agua.” After the ceremony, we repaired to her parents’ house, where we spent the rest of the day in the most American of pastimes: sitting on the back porch, chatting over beer and wine while watching the sun set.
When I agreed to be godfather to my niece, I took another step away from the free-wheeling, independent renegade I’d always fantasized I might be and toward a different future. In this newer, more plausible future, I have roots and responsibilities. I have people who depend on me. I have people whom I belong to and to whom I might belong. That can be a little daunting for someone whose vision of manhood centered on riding off into the sunset. But I had plenty of chances to enroll in distant Chinese monasteries, and I let them go, so I might as well do something hard with my life, like sharing it with others.