"Thank you, sir! May I have another!?"™, Day 14: You can't go home again

This is Day 14 of a 21-day effort to see the good in what might, at first, look like an irredeemable drag. Its name comes from a classic bit of dialogue uttered by actor Kevin Bacon in a classic film of my generation, Animal House. chicago

You have no way of knowing this, but I was a wunderkind.

Seriously, that's what they called me in Adweek. Well, that's how they referred to me, anyway; management would reveal neither my image nor my name, for fear that the investment they'd fussed over for six months in the copy trainee program and six more months after that would be stolen out from under them by some ruthless competitor. Har dee har har.

I was no more than a combination of garden-variety clever and lucky, the far-greater success of so many people I came up with is proof of that. It was my fifteen minutes, that's all, and I wasted it in advertising. Que sera, sera, I guess.

Anyway, when things started getting a little bumpy in paradise, I figured I'd follow my old boss to Chicago. Number 1, it was my hometown. Number 2, there was a boy there I'd been in love with since he kissed me after I barfed up four hours' worth of beer and cigarettes downed in an hour and a half and it was time to see what was what with that. And number 3, my money would go a lot farther in Chicago than New York City, where I wouldn't have to share my 1-BR apartment with a 6'1" amateur fencer/musical theater enthusiast, not to mention the usual NYC fauna.

Immediately, my life got exponentially worse. My new co-workers were suspicious, at best, openly hostile at worst. Not that I did anything to endear myself to them; I was an obnoxious, oblivious, ungracious intruder. The intrastate version of the Ugly American. (The Ugly Ultra-Urbanite?)

Then, two or three months in, my boss abandoned me to move back to NYC and for the first time in my life, I was acutely aware that I had no protector and was flying solo.

Also, my new-old boyfriend tired of me quickly once I was actually available. Plus his mother, for reasons I cannot fathom, despised me from the get-go, and he, for equally unfathomable reasons, worshiped her. I think the relationship officially lasted 11 months, but basically it was over as soon as I got off the plane.

With a few notable exceptions, I did not relate to my old friends, most of whom had not left the area ever, even to go to school. I had lost the rhythm of Chicago and taken on the pace of my adoptive city, which meant that I walked, smoked and talked like an alien. And being closer to family meant I was expected to be closer to family, which was...not my favorite thing.

Just about the only thing that was better was my apartment. That, at least, was a vast improvement.

What is horrible about being in the middle of a big, fat, mess for the first time, bad job, bad relationship, lonely, depressed, is that you have nothing to compare it to and thus, you are sure that it will be ever thus. There's no benchmark; there's no understanding of cycles or the fixability of things. You have for-crap life-management skills, and back then, there was no wikipedia to turn to for guidance. So, at 25, I thought, this is my life and I finally get why they say it sucks.

The thing was, I had moved away from NYC to Chicago to flee unhappiness and, like Dorothy Gale, found myself right back where I started. I was by no means smart, but having moved myself over 1000 miles and bought real furniture and made commitments, I figured it was cheaper to hunker down and fix it there than to chance that location was the issue and just GO. And thus, I began the business of untangling and analyzing the mess that was my life, which only took another 20 years.

Kidding, kidding. Of course, I'm not kidding, I'm still figuring it out. But I started the heavy lifting back then. Significant time spent alone. Significant effort making new friends, and attempting to determine my own landscape and values and interests, the real ones, not the theoretical ones I'd been coasting on since college. Significant money (gulp) committing to some of them, like therapy and real estate and art.

There have been a couple of 18-month periods of my life that were so black, I despaired of moving past them, but this is the one I always have in mind when I say I wouldn't be in my 20s again for anything.

And I wouldn't. (And thank CHRIST I don't have to.)

At the same time, I am utterly and completely grateful for my extended first year at the School of Hard Knocks. And I mean that: whatever gratitude I have now I can connect directly to that time.

So thank you, rotten academic year at the school of hard knocks. Thank you to all my teachers, patient (hi, Mary Ellen) and impatient (you know who you are, and trust me, all is forgiven).

I will likely skip the reunion once again, but you are forever in my heart. For you have made my heart what it is.

xxx c Image by L Castro via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.