Writing a letter to my younger self about that day
I spent many years as a geek. Sheldon from the Big Bang Theory had nothing on me. I spent a long time being reviled for thinking outside the box. Years later, I would discover that being a nerd was cool, but in December 1965, I was just plain nerdy.
Above my desk, in my bedroom, I had a wind-chill chart taped to the wall. Wind-chill is a common idea now, but back then, it was cutting edge. Every day I would listen to my AM radio for the temperature and would use my windchill chart to figure out how cold it actually felt while I was waiting for the bus.
For a kid who froze both his hands and almost had them amputated, this was a big deal.
In December 1965, The Mamas and The Papas released the song “California Dreamin.” That winter, where I lived in upstate New York, was one of the worst on record. My AM station, WTRY, played that song every morning when I had to go out to the bus to go to school. I would listen to it, staring at my wind-chill chart and dream of the warmth of Southern California.
I swore I would live there one day.
I would tell that 11-year-old Michael,
“You need to have some patience, boy. And you’re going to need to hit rock bottom before you’re ready to change your life, but you’re going to change.”
Along the way to living a reinvented life in California, I would go to college, drop out, get married, and have an awesome daughter.
I would tell that 25-year-old Michael,
“You’ve got to learn to trust the flow of the universe, boy. Dig in, listen to people smarter than you, and take a chance.”
At 25, I joined the Navy after trying to make a go of it at minimum wage jobs to support my wife and child. In the course of a year, I flew on planes to Chicago — to go to boot camp; Mississippi — to go to training, and the Philippines — to join my ship which was already on deployment.
It takes some belief to do those things.
I would tell the 26-year-old Michael,
“Hey, son, you’re in the right place at the right time. Hang tight; your life is about to become astounding.”
In the Navy, I would wind up as the Education Services Officer and fall in love with higher education, earn a Master’s Degree, a bunch of awards and medals, and wind up teaching in a small school in the desert of southern California.
I would tell that 34-year-old Michael,
“You came here for a reason. Teaching is your new career. Be the best you can be at this, and your life will change.”
In a 20 year career in education, I helped hundreds of students and teachers get on their right paths and change their lives. And at the end of that time, I would tell that 54-year-old Michael,
“There’s something new for you to take care of. A new adventure, a new part of life, something you need to release from your past.”
And I did.
I had to let go of the idea that I was chained to the way I grew up. Poor, grungy, never quite good enough. I’d spent a lifetime trying to escape my past when all I really needed to do was let it go.
So I did.
There’s always something I could tell a younger self of mine, but my mind drifts back to that freezing cold December in Watervliet, New York, and the first time I knew I wasn’t going to spend the rest of my life eking out an existence and living in misery.
The present day
I’ve got great children, wonderful grandchildren, a beautiful wife, and a career I love. I know there’s a lot of awfulness about the people who were in The Mamas and The Papas, but their song changed my life.
Here is the best version of it I’ve ever heard online. It’s by a Belgian women’s choir, and the harmonies are pitch perfect. Every time I hear it, I’m transported back to my bedroom in a dilapidated farmhouse where I’m staring at my wind-chill chart figuring out how long I can stand outside before my hands freeze.
I always cry when I hear this because my life has been awesome and if there were only one thing I could tell that little 11-year-old Michael only one thing, it would be,
“Your life is an adventure waiting to be lived. Get up, get going, put the pedal to the metal, and love who you are.”
Thank you to my Medium friend, Nicole Akers, because she suggested I write this story.
Here is the version of California Dreamin’ I love best now. It’s by Scala and the Kolacny Brothers.
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