Nobody gets to age 50 without making mistakes, some of them catastrophic. But I regret very few of my mistakes, not even most of the catastrophic mistakes. For one thing, I'm probably engaging in hyperbole when I call some of them "catastrophic;" arguably a phrase that should only be used for mistakes that are life-wrecking. But more importantly, I can look back at most of them and say that, sure, I wouldn't have done that the same way if I'd known what I know now, or if I'd had the emotional maturity I have now, but I can honestly say that I made the best decision I was capable of at the time, being who I was then and knowing what I knew then. But two of them stand out in my mind. And they're causally related; if I hadn't made the first one, I might have avoided the second one.
My first really serious regret is that I went to college.
I blame the Christian fundamentalist private high school my parents plunked me into to get me away from the bullies and the drug dealers and the frequent race riots in the nearest public school. In addition to the heavy propagandizing they gave me for false pro-Republican pseudo-Christianity, I picked up a heavy heavy dose of peer pressure to do something nobody else in my neighborhood had any intention of doing, but that every other kid in my new school took for granted they were expected to do, which is to go to college. So by my sophomore year, I had a plan: go to a Christian college, get a degree in math, come back to some Christian high school and teach math.
The Man of Concrete was dubious. He took me aside early in my senior year, while we were filling out college applications and financial aid paperwork, and told me he'd back whatever decision I made, but that he thought I was making a huge mistake. He told me that if I went to college, I'd end up working in an office somewhere. He told me he'd tried office work, after The War, and he hated it, and (he told me) he knew for a fact that I'd hate it, too, that I just wasn't cut out for it. So he made a counter-offer. He said he knew a guy who owned a locksmithing shop, that he could get me an apprenticeship as a locksmith. He told me I was much better suited to that work and that life, that he was giving me the chance of a lifetime because locksmithing apprenticeships are hard to come by, that I should seriously consider it. But no, after three-plus years of pro-college indoctrination, I was unmovable. And he was right and I was wrong. I can't begin to imagine how much happier and safer and healthier my life would have been if I'd spent the late 70s and early 80s apprenticed to a locksmith, if I owned my own locksmithing business by around the time computerized electronic locks became huge business.
It's an absolute certainty that if I'd listened to the old man, I wouldn't have spent twenty years being bullied by the kind of petty bureaucrats that give me flashbacks to the school bureaucrats who betrayed me to my would-be murderers and then sided with the killers over me. There's an even bigger chance that if I'd listened to the old man, I wouldn't have ended up unemployed so often, from failing to get along with those petty bureaucrats. There's a very real chance that if I'd listened to the old man, I'd still be relatively sane now. And I genuinely was warned by someone whose judgment I knew full well to trust more than I trusted my own.
The second mistake that I really regret was picking up a massive sugared-soda addiction.
My parents raised me on a high protein, high vegetable, low carb, and very low sugar diet. We literally never had soda in the house; we drank Kool-Aid with half the recommended amount of sugar, or very lightly sweetened iced tea on occasion; soda was something I only got when we ate out, which happened maybe twice in any given three months, counting fast food. We ate two desserts a day, but the portions were tiny. Going to college and being on the meal plan switched me to a low protein, mushy inedible vegetables, insanely high carb diet with ... and here was the real catastrophe ... unlimited free refills on soda. And I was a dual major in math and computer science, immersed in a culture that was explicitly macho about caffeine tolerance, where nobody would deign to talk to you if you weren't strung out on caffeine from the moment you woke up until the last possible moment before you crashed, an environment where caffeinated beverages were openly ranked by their relative caffeine content and only the top two were socially acceptable, and where people who couldn't handle caffeine were scornfully told to switch their major because they'd never make it. By the end of my first semester of college, I'd picked up at least a six liter a day (classic) Coca-Cola habit, probably more than that on really busy days.
All the sugar in those sodas plus all the carbs in the dining hall put over 100 pounds on me in three months, weight I have never taken off. That sugared-soda addiction, and yes, by the end of that first semester it was an addiction, something I couldn't get through the day without, turned me from a socially maladjusted mentally ill but not actively unattractive guy to an equally socially maladjusted, even more mentally ill, ugly as all hell and morbidly obese guy, and in hindsight I don't think there's any way anyone could dispute the fact that my depression got worse in no small part because I got a whole lot uglier. Over the course of the next roughly decade and a half, I got significantly better socially adjusted. If I hadn't been morbidly obese and if I weren't being bullied all day long roughly half of the years of my working career, I would almost certainly have been a much saner, romantically successful, and happier person, too. (And my knees would hurt a whole lot less, too.)
I mention this, not just because the subject came up in conversation at Archon last weekend, but because it was fresh in my mind and thus colored my reaction when I read this story, yesterday: Margot Adler, "N.Y. Seeks to Ban Food Stamps for Sugary Drinks," NPR News, 10/7/10.