My pal and former coworker Courtney posted a lovely piece on Medium last week. A year ago, she turned 26 and emailed people she knew about what they remembered about when they were that age. I don’t think she’ll have trouble remembering this past year. But it got me thinking about what I remember about being 26. Which, as you might guess from the topic of this newsletter, includes a few things.
From right to left: the cat, and the carrier she was soon to befoul
The year didn’t start off great. Two days before my 26th birthday, I’d set off in a moving truck from Illinois, the only place I’d ever lived, toward New Hampshire, where my wife had started grad school. The trip wasn’t going great; because my moving truck had a car trailer attached to the back, I had to drive extra slow. And I drive extra slow anyway, so five states’ worth of angry drivers whooshed past me giving dirty looks. Also, the hitch on the car trailer snapped off as I pulled into a gas station in Ohio, letting off sparks as it scraped against the ground. I knew I wasn’t great at road trips, but I didn’t think I would come that close to blowing myself up.
So I woke up on my 26th birthday in a hotel in Syracuse, New York, figuring that if I was already freaked out, exhausted and way behind schedule, at least I had nowhere to go but up. Which is when the cat coughed up her motion sickness pill and peed all over herself, howling the whole rest of the ride. I’m pretty sure I was driving over 45 miles per hour for that stretch of our trip. That night I got to our new apartment, where a random guy in the building helped us unload our stuff, just to be nice. We never saw him again, which, thinking about it almost 20 years later, is kind of spooky. My wife made me a birthday pizza, my sister called from California for our first coast-to-coast phone chat, and I slept for a long time.
And then… I had to figure out what to do with the rest of my life. I’d spent close to a year figuring out how to disentangle from my old life to move east and go back to school, but only my wife had actually gotten into a grad program. I hadn’t yet figured out how to fill the large amount of time I now had on my hands. I ended up doing this pretty enthusiastically, though only after a short break. I had to start slow; after three days of nonstop cross-country driving with a neurotic cat as my only company, my brain needed time to be off high alert. I spent my first week in New Hampshire dropping things and walking into the boxes I was trying to unpack.
After that I was packing boxes again. Not my own stuff, I should say; I’d gotten a temp job in the warehouse of a company that handled standardized tests for school districts. I was there to tape up the boxes they sent out. My boss, Corey, was a volunteer firefighter who started most days chugging coffee because “I was on a call last night.” I feel like a disturbingly high percentage of these calls started with people trying to burn things they probably shouldn’t have been: piles of leaves, piles of garbage, old car parts, etc. and then the firefighters had to swoop in and save the day. The other temp worker in our small department, Mohamed, was an artist with a packing tape gun, probably the hardest worker I’ve ever seen, though he would tell me at the end of the day to “always take it easy.” I didn’t come close to his output, but I did eventually get promoted from taping boxes to putting shipping labels on them.
The only misadventure I had was when I tried to walk home from work on a very hot day, forgetting that I lived like eight miles from the warehouse, and gave myself a bad sunburn. There was a pro wrestler in our part of the state known as Lobster Man, who wrestled in a lobster suit complete with giant red “claws.” After that walk home I was redder than him.
One of the shops in my first New Hampshire hometown sold “Fruit and Real Estate.”
Mostly being 26 for me was getting to know my new home state. And it was fun. I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago; where one town ended, another started up. In New Hampshire, there was space between towns! And hills! We definitely didn’t have those in Illinois. The ocean was almost incomprehensible, to think that you could look east out over the water and the next bit of land was, like, Spain. There were whales in it. I liked candlepin bowling (the pins were thinner than tenpin, hence the name, plus you threw a smaller ball and got three tries a frame instead of two) and visiting working farms for fresh maple syrup and apple cider doughnuts; I was less excited about square dancing (close contact? with other people? no thanks) and presidential primary events, which even then were more spectacle for TV than anyone outside the state let on. Still, it was all new and exciting and made for good stories to tell everyone back in the Midwest. I even got into grad school myself, starting on a January day that was so cold the city’s subway system shut down and I had to walk to campus. It was 30 degrees below zero but I kept out of the sun just in case.
Onstage (though not at the place without the microphones and PA, of course)
I think my favorite story from that year was the time I accidentally became a bar band for a night. I had been playing a few shows because of a record I’d made, mostly short sets of my own songs. I somehow got myself booked on a Saturday night at a place that had expected me to bring my own microphones and PA system, without me knowing. I was about to put my stuff back in the car and drive home when the bar guy said something like “why don’t you just set up there in the corner and play? We’ll still pay you.” I was being paid? Yes, I will just set up there in the corner and play – virtually every song I knew. They offered like ten bucks for each paying customer in the bar, which turned out to be eleven. None of them applauded but all of them counted toward my pay for the night.
So what I learned from being 26 was that sometimes it can be good to shake things up, to start over, to get out there and see what there is to see. Sometimes you can get into the unexpected and occasionally all you end up with is a story to tell later. A few times you might end up with a bad sunburn. But it can be very rewarding, too. All of them (ok, not the sunburn) were experiences worth having, at a time when the path forward wasn’t too clear.
And then, suddenly, it was clear. A month or two after my 27th birthday, I volunteered at the local public radio station for an afternoon. One of the producers there offered to give a station tour to the people answering phones for the fund drive, and in one of the studios I asked her, “Is that an Electro-Voice RE-20 microphone?” “It is!” she said. “How do you know about those?” I explained I was in an audio production program in Boston, hoping someday to work in public radio. “You should apply for an internship here,” she said. “I’d love to,” I replied. “Who here would I talk to about that?” “Me,” she answered.