What I Would Have Missed
In two days I’ll be 63. Each time March and April come around, I realize the year-clock on my mind-wall is about to tick up to a new number, and I try to feel my way into it. The number 63 doesn’t rattle me too much. It’s still safely ensconced in the lower sixties. I could claim to be a young old man.
I’ll be working on Thursday, but will be taking the next day off to celebrate. And celebrate I will! Did you know I was born on Patriot’s Day and the anniversary of both the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Bicycle Day?
Taking stock, the changes I notice are that I’m slowing down, but also calming down. I seem to be getting more content, the fire in my belly mellowing like glowing logs in a hearth. I’m a little more tired. A little more apt to want to stay home with Shelley on a Saturday night. To savor the tastes, sounds, feel, looks and aromas all around me here on my plateau.
And more apt to recall the climb, and enjoy the view.
And part of the view is to survey some of the paths not taken on the way up here. I like the concept of parallel lives – that in some alternate (or parallel) universe, there’s a Charley living a different life that’s due to different choices he made along the way.
So I wonder what would have happened if I had actually followed through with my friends and had left New York to start that coffee house in Sonoma in ’76.
Or had stayed at the executive recruiting firm and had built up that 401K.
Or had the foresight to ask my father for a down payment on a house in Park Slope in ’78?
Or had managed to withstand the loneliness of a breakup a little longer, and had not lunged out of longing, and on the rebound, for the woman who was to become my first wife.
Or if she and I had accepted that baby that had come up for adoption.
But up here on my current plateau, I look back from those parallel paths to what I would have missed had I taken them.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say, and my parents, who grew up in the Big Apple, had a son who decided to live there. And there I bloomed where I have planted myself, and have lived a life that was not built on accumulating money and what it could buy. Which meant that I left that recruiting firm, and didn’t adopt that kid, and instead decided this time around would be primarily for my own benefit and for what I could give to others. Which meant I could take the financially imprudent choice of jumping career ships at age 40, and go back to school to learn to be a therapist. And as I’ve said before, from the moment I decided to do that, all the shit I’d been through in my life to that point was suddenly transformed into fertilizer for the benefit of my future patients. I got to do work that truly meant something to me, because working just for the money had left me with the gnawing, hollow feeling that I was wasting my life. This was a path forged earlier by being raised in an upper class suburban town called Great Neck, where I got to see first hand what money could not buy. This freed me from growing up with the slavish devotion to its pursuit. As Billy Joel would later put it,
“Working too hard can give you a heart attack, ack, ack, ack;
You oughtta know by now.
Who needs a house out in Hackensack?
Is that all you get for your money?”
Instead, I made choices that left me financially insecure but therefore having to stay on my toes, always looking for new ways to reinvent myself.
And as a result of all these choices, I have less money than I would have had, but more to show for it.
And having stayed in one town for so long, I got to know a life of having friendships that have lasted 25 and 35 years and more. And of getting to see a city through its worst time, and now into one of its best. There’s been so much to learn here at NYCU, I may never graduate.
And that first marriage? Well, I had to go through it to learn lessons that were unavoidable, and that then left me painfully single once again and learning so much about how to go through a divorce and traverse the dating wilderness that I started a workshop called Breaking Up Without Breaking Down, and began teaching wilderness skills in a course called The RelationShop. Which landed me on TV, coverage in the Times, and a full-page feature spread in Newsday, where they proclaimed me The Love Doctor.
Which all culminated in a second tying of the knot that has felt like a reward for all the work I’ve done on myself.
Yes – what I would have missed!
So I certainly did it my way, as Frank would say. For better and for worse.
And from here I can see a clearing up ahead. Either a long and slow decline, or a fertile void I can grow and create something new and exciting in. Or both.
But I’ve done so much with my life already, that if I were forced to exit the stage now, though I’d be greatly saddened, the show would not feel to me like a tragedy. And that alone is as good a commentary as any on the choices I have made.