CHASING LIFE – INTRODUCTION
“The young man knows the rules, but the old man knows the exceptions.”
Life is awesome and full of experiences with many lessons to be learned (see the end of each chapter)! Everyone has a story to tell, and this book is about mine. As a “boomer,” I came of age in the turbulent 60s, a time when norms, traditional lifestyles, rules, laws and many other things were being challenged by an unpopular war, rock, the summer of love, drugs (especially weed) and countercultures. The call to “tune in, turn on and drop out” was changing our society and forcing us to re-examine everything we thought and knew. Of course, many say if you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there because just about everyone got high back then. It was a crazy and confusing time, much like society today, when I think about it. I’ll begin my story by borrowing the lyrics from an old Beatles song popular in the 60s.
“There are places I’ll remember all my life, though some have changed. Some forever, not for better. Some have gone, and some remain. All these places had their moments with lovers and friends, I still can recall. Some are dead, and some are living. In my life, I’ve loved them all.”
Here are some of the memories I’ll never forget: as a young boy, the wonderful aroma of my great-grandmother’s cooking; as a young frogman, the initial shock when my parachute didn’t open properly; as a young adventurer, a spectacular sunset on a beach in Goa, India; and as a more responsible adult, the joy of my sons’ and grandchildren’s births.
They are all part of life, and this is a book about life. It’s about staying excited about the unknown opportunities each day can bring. It’s about always looking to see what’s over the horizon. It’s about exploring ways to live better. I’ve shared personal stories that I never thought I would share and shown vulnerabilities that I never thought I’d reveal. I’ve written this book for the kid in me – the crazy, younger, mixed-up person I once was and to some extent still am – the kid who is still alive in me today at the age of 74!
“Chasing Life” is by no means intended to be a lecture from yet another aging baby-boomer who thinks he knows everything, or to discount the difficult circumstances many young people (and old people, too) are facing today. Times are different for better or for worse, and generations have criticized each other for as long as I can remember. It’s healthy. After all, we Boomers coined the phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” when we were young. I’m very impressed by today’s youth, the skills they have developed and what they’ve accomplished under today’s conditions, which are very different from those my generation experienced.
I’m writing this simply to share my experiences and the valuable lessons I’ve learned during my seven-plus decades. It’s valuable to look at where you’ve been and where you’re going. This book is a collection of my failures (numerous), successes, heartaches, hurts, adventures, reflections, experiences and observations from my journey through life. The adventurer and explorer in me have taken me to exotic places, exposed me to risks and nudged me into many different careers, some of which were fraught with danger and fear, like the military. Age may have dimmed some of my memories, but I’ve been as honest and accurate as possible.
I was always out on the edge – dancing on the edge half the time. Even as a young boy, I deliberately took risks. From the age of eight, I spent long summer days without any adult supervision on the beach body surfing large waves that occasionally pinned me underwater and hurled me into the coral, scraping my face, shoulders and back raw. I guess that’s where I learned to hold my breath for so long. It was exhilarating and frightening.
When my father taught me how to use weapons and knives safely, I went into the Florida forests and swamps hunting alligators, snapping turtles, raccoons, rattlesnakes, water moccasins, black bears, deer, squirrels and just about any other poor creature that ended up in my sights. As I got older, my passion turned to fast cars and high speed. It’s a wonder I made it out of my teens when I think of the high-speed driving and numerous car accidents I had in those years.
As I got older, I continued to take risks. I’ve always wanted to “steer my own ship” and find out what was over the horizon. I was eager to sail into uncharted waters where “thar be dragons,” which is how cartographers labeled unknown and unexplored areas in the old days. I was motivated by curiosity, passion, purpose, fear, pride, goals and willpower, to name a few. The unknown and uncertainty have always been my rocket ride in life. They taught me that hard work and “good pain” pay off.
If it was crazy, dangerous, exciting and sometimes just plain stupid, I had to try it. I’ve had diving accidents, parachuting accidents, aviation accidents and car accidents. I won’t even begin to list the numerous injuries that my body has suffered (or the heartbreaks) on my journey! But it’s been worth every minute!
I’ve always had an enormous hunger for life. I’ve heard and heeded the call to adventure. I’ve come to many forks and crossroads, and it hasn’t always been easy to know which path to choose. I have chosen correctly, but I have also chosen incorrectly. I’ve learned that the only easy day was yesterday, that slow is smooth and smooth is fast, that two is one and one is none. I’ve learned to strive for simplicity and that simple isn’t easy. Our brains tend to complicate things.
I follow a few simple rules that work for me: Be here now. Wake up, grow up, clean up and show up. Everything takes much, much longer than it’s supposed to, so plan for it! It’s not what you do but how you do it. It’s not how good you are, it’s how you are good. Never make a major decision when it’s darkest. If you get too comfortable, you lose the edge. Most of all, I’ve learned never, ever ring the bell (quit).
I’d like to say that my personal relationships have always been smooth, but they haven’t. I’d like to say that I’ve always been a good, kind and loving person, but I haven’t. I realize now that I can be a difficult person to live with (ask my ex-girlfriends, two spouses, two sons, daughter-in-law and grandchildren). There has always been a storm in me that I’ve sought to calm for much of my life (especially during my years as a diplomat), mostly unsuccessfully. At times, it raged like a Category 5 hurricane, which helped me during my military years. At other times, it became a gentle breeze that allowed me to maintain good relations with the world.
Like many people, I waged a constant war with the voices in my head until I decided to accept them and be friends with them instead. That marked a new start for me! Getting along with the voices and accepting them as part of me was probably the best thing I ever did! It gave me the resilience, grit, flexibility and ferocity I needed to enjoy life.
Never content to sit on an inner tube and just float down the river of life, I’ve wandered the world searching for answers and have found many, although my journey is far from over. I’ve embraced new cultures, examined different religions and explored altered states in search of enlightenment. Despite my many affairs with other “substances,” the unknown and adventure have always been my real drug. I’ve been around the world four times, including one year when I circumnavigated the world twice in opposite directions. Despite those trips and numerous others to all corners of the world, this globetrotter’s wanderlust has not waned in the slightest. I’ve still got four items left on my “bucket list”: The Trans-Siberian Express, Svalbard, Tierra del Fuego and Antarctica.
I’ve tried different lifestyles to see which one fit me best. I spent years traveling with a good friend all over the world, often living out of a backpack and camping on a beach, in a jungle or in the mountains. The ocean, jungle, mountains, solitude and silence are great teachers! They helped me slow down the crazy and make good decisions when the “shit went down.” They still do today.
Homeless and happy is how I would characterize the nomad period of my life. Without much in the way of possessions, but without many cares or responsibilities, either. Life was simple. We could change our travel plans at the drop of a hat and head off in the opposite direction based on a story we heard around a campfire the night before. It was a glorious time, and I recommend that everyone spend time traveling. Many decades and countless adventures have passed, but these experiences remain with me today.
Along my journey, I’ve taken the time to stop and learn from many others with greater knowledge and experience than mine. People who had great stories to tell and from whom I learned much. I’ve been mentored and have mentored others. I’ve learned to take all that life has thrown at me with a pinch of salt, and it’s worked out quite well for me for the most part. After all, it’s not what happens to you, it’s what you do with what happens to you that counts.
Another personal quest has been examining the ups-and-downs and cycles of life closely, discovering how being sad can also make you happy, and finally understanding that you don’t have to be happy all the time. In fact, you need the sadness and the lows to appreciate the happiness and the highs. If life were simply an endless stream of joy, it might become a bit boring. Life has taught me a great deal, including the lesson that you should always look for what is good and positive in people. As Plato said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
I’ve been a loner, a group person, a leader and a follower, a nomad, an adventurer and a rebel. I’ve been a jack-of-all trades and a master of none. But more than anything else, I’ve been a seeker. In fact, I’ve been everything from a UDT/SEAL, cleaner, dishwasher and bouncer to a pilot, university lecturer, CEO, diplomat and senior gamer. I’ve done a lot of things I never thought I would do. And I’m still hoping to do more. My crazy career path has allowed me to meet presidents, celebrities, royalty, prime ministers and other heads of state while representing the US as a diplomat.
Great fun, but I can’t honestly say that meeting them gave me more than meeting ordinary people, who have struggled to get through life and who carried the scars of their journey on their faces. People whose occupations and trades were once highly valued, but who have been replaced by currency traders, influencers and financial engineers. That is, however, the nature of the beast, and it’s a process we all must experience! It’s part of the gritty front lines of life. Let’s face it, life isn’t all rainbows, butterflies and unicorns.
Have I been afraid at times? Yep, scared shitless, but it’s what you do with that fear that counts. Fear is a fantastic motivator no matter what abyss you stare into. Shit happens, and if you just want to restrict yourself to things and places where shit doesn’t happen, you’re not ever going to do anything very interesting. Fear is good. It’s a survival mechanism. Use it but use it wisely and be willing to take risks.
Now that I’m 74, I can look back and connect the dots of what might seem like a discombobulated life. Although I’m retired, the young boy in me continues to look for new challenges and adventures. And there’s no better way to stay young at heart than to challenge yourself in new and interesting ways. One of the best things an older person can give a young person is the wisdom gleaned from experience. A young person might not accept this gift, but if he or she does, then they are starting on their own journey to wisdom. As Churchill said, “He who knows only his own generation remains forever a child.” Don’t worry about dying – worry about not letting your dreams die while you’re still alive.
The old have the advantage of much experience, but the disadvantage of little time, while the young have the advantage of much time, but the disadvantage of little wisdom. And that’s why the old and the young must establish a relationship and work together. Life isn’t a dim candle, but a raging torch you grasp to move forward until it’s time for you to pass the torch to the generations behind you. And when we do, we should ask that they use this wisdom properly and fairly.
The recent trend of dismantling the past and re-writing history concerns me. Millennials seem to think they are the most progressive generation that’s ever lived. Newsflash, people! Every generation has always been the most progressive that’s ever lived, not just you guys. Generation Z will probably look at you and laugh when they come of age. So, when it comes to the idea of rewriting our history, I think we should be careful about demanding that those in the past should have lived their lives according to our current norms and values. Hindsight is always 20/20.
Rather than tearing down statues and monuments and insisting that our forefathers conform to 21st-century values, younger people should realize that ideas and values constantly change and that they, too, will one day find themselves and their actions on the firing line. Don’t tear down everything the generations before you built – even if their actions seem brutish, unfair and nasty by today’s standards. If you do, you’ll be no better than the Soviet Union and China I grew up with, who simply removed people who fell out of favor from photographs. We should always endeavor to improve, and protesting is a great way and a human right. But rioting and meaningless destruction? I just don’t get it.
Some of my stories you might laugh at, others might bring tears to your eyes. And you’re certainly going to discount some of them, if not many of them, thinking “OK Boomer, whatever.” There are many adventures and experiences I’ve chosen not to share, so this is far from an autobiography. They will remain private for the time being to “protect the innocent.” No matter what type of life you live, it’s healthy to pause to reflect on the ups and downs and failures and successes in life.
As Plato said, “The life which is unexamined is not worth living.” Learn to read between the lines, as you will need this skill as you get older. Stay enthusiastically curious. Question your sources. Follow a river and see where it leads. Search for a trail to hike or, better yet, blaze your own trail. Take care of your body. You may need it longer than you realize now. Staying healthy is all about consistency. Every day of your life, you should find some way to move because our bodies are designed to move. If you can’t find time to take care of yourself, you won’t have to worry about it for long. Put yourself on your to-do list. Do it today!
Lesson learned: Carpe the fuck out of the diem!