So I am having lunch with my new friend Valerie at a local Red, Hot and Blue. We are enjoying the food and enjoying getting to know each other a little better. Our relationship so far has consisted of my patiently building a website for her business. We started to trade brief synopses of our lives. As two white Anglo Saxons as well as Unitarian Universalists, we discovered that we had a fair amount in common. We are both married and with children, although in her case there is also a grandchild. I’m still involved in a long process getting my twenty year old daughter out the door.
Val, a seeming model of decorum, at least confessed to having let her hair down a few times growing up. In the early 70s, like many of her classmates, she had smoked some weed and did other naughty things. I went back and frantically examined my childhood, and adolescence looking for similar naughty things I had done. I couldn’t turn up anything other that would qualify as more than a minor venial sin.
It’s not that I am without sin, because like most sinners I have done my share of it, but I could rarely find anything egregious to confess to the priest. There were times I was forced to go to confession when I made sins up. What priest would believe me if I said I hadn’t sinned since my last confession? I was blessed/cursed with two freakishly sober and responsible parents. They didn’t smoke. They didn’t drink, except perhaps a sip of wine at a wedding or at communion. Neither had ever been drunk, although my mother had brothers who were drunks. That is in part why she married a teetotaler. Moreover, I had little in the way of older siblings willing to be bad examples. I had one older brother who developed a taste for European beers and for a brief time smoked cigars in college. That changed of course when he met his wife and reverted to a more natural clean and sober style. He did so with such a zeal that he made my father look like a sinner. Vice was just not part of our upbringing. The neighbors did not help either. They did most of their sinning indoors, rather than in the streets.
When my turn came to grow up, I too stayed unnaturally unsoiled. To this day, I have never put a cigarette to my mouth, lit or unlit. I do drink alcohol, but only a few times a year, occasionally to the point where I feel slightly lightheaded, but never to the point of public drunkenness. I occasionally smelled pot in the hallways at school and saw students take furtive tokes. Yet, I never felt the desire to join them; in fact, I felt something like disgust watching their behavior. While I never embraced puritanical behavior, even in the days before AIDS I felt little desire to jump into bed with any woman on the first date, no matter how attractive she was. It was not like I saw any virtue in chastity. It helped I suppose that I inherited my parents’ natural shyness, so I was not particularly inclined to make the first move.
So here I was this afternoon, age fifty plus, in many ways unsullied by vice, being clean and sober (not to mention proper) with my new friend Val enjoying a meal at a Red, Hot and Blue and wondering whether I had missed something. It is likely I will never know. I did suggest to Val that perhaps it was not too late and she should take me to a bar or tavern and get me stinking drunk and silly. Perhaps once in my life I should get in a bar fight, or puke out my guts into a filthy restroom toilet, or engage in some weird indiscretion I would later regret.
I am not sure I could. Because the downside of all that righteous living and sobriety is you are afraid to take many chances. Most people who gamble lose and often lose big. Sometimes they win big, and revel in their momentary wealth. In any event, whether they win, lose or both, they seem to be living a broader life than the one I lead. Instead, I live a risk-averse life, usually moving toward an area that I perceive to be safer. Six years ago, this need for safety caused me to switch jobs from one in downtown D.C. to a much safer location a few miles from home in the Northern Virginia suburbs. With my window looking down on the National Mall (where I daily watched freight laden trains running in and out of the city), it did not take much for my imagination to conjure up a vision of some terrorist stuffing a boxcar with explosives, and taking me out, much like Timothy McVeigh took out over a hundred people in Oklahoma City in the mid 1990s. Better to find another job.
“Be prepared,” is the Boy Scout motto. That was also my father’s motto (an ex Boy Scout himself). It seems to have worked well for my father, who is in remarkable health at age 83. Yet, is there any point to making it to 83 if you spend much of your life simply trying to optimize your survival and comfort, rather than grasping life by its reigns? Is it better to have a shorter life lived well than a long live lived in a pedestrian fashion? How many others have an earthquake and sewer backup rider on their home insurance policy and umbrella insurance just in case someone wants to file a lawsuit against them?
Since alcohol no longer agrees with my wife, I am hoping my new friend Val will finally be the one to corrupt me. I have no idea where the local bars are, but I suspect she can find out. Perhaps she could introduce me to a drink that is both tasty and likely to have me quickly lying on the floor. Perhaps under the influence I could let my mouth get the better of me by trading political opinions with the Republican by my elbow. Perhaps I would wake up in the morning hung over, hurting and regretful, but knowing for some small period, I had walked outside the bounds of my self-imposed safety zone.
I hope Val will hurry up. I’m not getting any younger and I don’t seem to be able to do it by myself.