Monday, November 26, 2007

1993: Crash and Burn

Freedom is a drug with different side effects for everyone. Some thrive, others panic; some take advantage of the opportunity, and others take advantage of the loopholes.

I got my first taste of freedom when I got my driver's license. At age 16, my parents were reluctant to give me that freedom - they had their reservations about turning over as valuable a piece of equipment as our 1982 Chevy Malibu to me - but they were also tired of making the 15 mile trip to school and back twice a day. (There was a bus route, but my extra-curricular schedule made that impractical.) It wasn't just the car, though; even on days that the car was not an option, I started riding my bike to school. And that, in its way, was even more liberating.

Freedom is scary. It can be as terrifying to let go of a child as it is to suddenly find yourself in free fall, without the nets of childhood. But there is a deep, satisfying joy in conquering that fear.

I had a pretty sheltered upbringing, and being a rather unfocused, daydreaming kind of kid, my parents were worried about the dangers of unleashing me upon the city. I found the whole experience exhilarating, and when the dangers they had always feared never materialized, I began to test my limits. It wasn't just in the area of transportation. I started to question all of the assumptions and boundaries I had been raised with... and discovered that many of their fears were unfounded. Many things I had been taught -- such as the mental capabilities of people from other faiths -- were downright wrong.

Freedom is a song. Ditching my old, preconceived notions meant discovering new joys. My self-imposed censorship of all things secular (before 1988, even some Christian rock was too racy for my taste) had always meant denying my attraction to modern, popular music. Changing my definition of "evil" meant I could embrace a whole world of wonderful things. The drum and bass, piano rock, the limitless possibilities of the guitar...

I won't elaborate too much, but suffice to say, I discovered a lot of things that gave me joy. Things that were taboos, sins, and pitfalls according to my upbringing. All of those rules that were there to protect me crumbled slowly away, and I found that there was a lot of leeway in life. There were no restrictions that I couldn't find a way around.

Freedom means being allowed to make the wrong choices, too. Yeah, I did that. It was fun. At 18, I got an apartment, had my own car; felt like a real Bohemian. Truth is, there are no real Bohemians in suburbia. I was really just a jerk.

My friends and I partied, we cut class, we stretched the limits of our finances, we got and lost jobs. Compared to my childhood, it was life with no boundaries - but no one can live like that forever. I was lucky. Nothing truly tragic happened, even though the choices I made were bad ones and I showed no respect for those around me. I hurt some people, and cost some people a bit of money. But I never did anything that could have landed me in jail. Never did any permanent damage, except maybe of the psychological variety.

Freedom's just another word for "nothin' left to lose"... and that was 1993. All of those bad choices came back to bite me. The car died, the roommate left the country, my long-time girlfriend rightly dumped me for someone else, and the scholarship was taken away... The White Suburban Country Song played out live.

I had no cushion, no chances left. My only options were of the fall-back variety. I moved back in with mom and dad (none of us were very pleased about that), walked 5 miles to a crummy retail job at a dying chain store, had to quit school, and lost track of all of my friends. It wasn't rock bottom by any stretch; I started out with too many advantages to be crying about my situation, and I knew it. But I could see the bottom, and there weren't many ladders around.

Freedom isn't free. Never let anyone tell you that the military "gives" you anything; just like real socialism, the military life provides you with your basic needs, but at some pretty steep costs. I guess calculating those costs depends on how much you value those freedoms.

I didn't really know the ins & outs of enlisting, but I knew I was down & out. It was peace-time, which made the decision easier. And I didn't have a lot to leave behind. So I took the plunge. I made the choice in early 1994, when I was 22 years old, and I've been lucky. Luckier than at least 30,000 other Americans who probably made similar choices in the decade after I left the military.

Freedom is relative. The word has always been bandied about in this country as a justification for all kinds of behavior. But it all boils down to this: you make your choices, and you live with the consequences. You may not understand what the consequences are when you go to make that choice, but that argument doesn't impress the universe.

Don't feel bad about that... the universe is notoriously moody.

NextPart One: How did THAT happen?

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