People can’t Change but They can Evolve
Our orientation leader asked us to introduce ourselves and state, basically, what we wanted to be when we grew up. It was college freshman orientation and there were maybe thirty hotel majors in one of UNLV’s lecture halls. Everyone’s answer was along the same lines. “I’m So-and–So. I’m from Portland, Oregon. I’d like to run my own chain of hotels, maybe open a few restaurants. I want to be rich. Really rich.” I was last to go.
“I’m David Himmel. I’m from Chicago. Being rich would be great, but as long as I make enough money to afford a bowl of Cocoa Puffs each morning, I’ll be happy.”
The room laughed. I was going for the irony, going for the laugh, but I was also deadly serious. At eighteen years old, I was still simple enough to believe that as long as I could afford at least the most simple of joys, I’d be richer than any of my classmates could dream of. I was living the lesson George Bailey learned at the end of It’s a Wonderful Life. I was funny, but I was also ahead of my time.
I decided from before I arrived in Las Vegas for orientation that I wouldn’t join a fraternity. I wasn’t going to buy my friends, as the saying went. I had plenty of friends who had gone Greek, and many of them worked hard to convince me to join their organization. No thank you. I wasn’t interested. I didn’t need the automatic brotherhood that came from wearing a T-shirt with the same Greek letters embroidered on it. I had no interest in the lore of the founders that found a way to resonate with men like us hundreds of years later. Fraternity dues would cut into my Cocoa Puffs allowance.
By spring semester freshman year, I was miserable. Depression kicked in for the first time in my young life. Not the I’m sad-because-Kim Bartholomew-doesn’t-like-me depression, but the walking-back-from-the-dining-commons-lose-your-breath-to-panic depression. Yes, I had friends and I had good times with friends but I felt unsure of who I was and what I really wanted out of college and out of life and, most of all, what my value and contribution to the world was, if I even had any of either to offer. I was convinced this was my life. I would be uncomfortable and aimless forever. I would be a loser with nothing to show for his time on earth but chocolatey breath from so many bowls of Cocoa Puffs.
By spring semester sophomore year, I decided that something needed to change. My attitude. My approach to college and life and career and socialization. I went to bed one night with a plan to do everything different starting as soon as I woke up. It was early March and the day greeted me with the usual high desert sunshine, but this morning it looked and felt different. It felt new. But that’s all poetry and emo kid pornography. Point is, I was determined to go at each day as its own and at angles of trajectory I’d never tried before.
To start, I caved to the pressure of one friend suggesting I rush a fraternity. I went to one party with the goal of drinking all their booze and taking their women. I drank almost all their booze. I did not take any women. But I did meet some guys who I liked. Two months later, after countless arguments with myself and child-like pushback against the brothers of the Zeta Kappa Chapter of Beta Theta Pi, I joined a goddamn fraternity. HOWEVER! I never wore letters. I never found an interest or connection to the lore. I just liked the guys. A good handful of them became, and remain, some of my closest and most trusted friends.
At that time, cellphones were gaining in popularity — pagers were still the rage — and I refused to own either. “I will never own a cellphone,” I would loudly proclaim with the same punk energy as Henry Rollins singing about something important. “What do I need a cellphone for? Look, if I’m not with you, it’s probably because I don’t want to be with you. Call my apartment. Leave a message on the machine.”
Three months before graduating college, I bought a cellphone. A fraternity brother was working for Sprint at the time. I bought a cellphone from my fraternity brother. I still appreciate the irony and that there’s a good chance eighteen-year-old David would take great pleasure in beating the living shit out of twenty-one-year-old David.
Who the fuck had I become? What was I?
Nurture versus nature. That’s a battle royale every waking day. And it should be. Because what we are must constantly war with who we are and who we are becoming.
I’m a social person. But I’m also a bit of a loner. I have to balance the two. I’ve always been this way. Since I was a kid. Being married with a child doesn’t change that I want and need to hunker down in the house with the blinds drawn, the music loud, and an action movie on the TV. And it doesn’t change that I want and need to leave the house to tear up the streets with friends or, more calmly, make new friends in a more polite setting.
What we are is determined to a strong degree while we’re buns in the oven. I’m already seeing traits in my son that strongly resemble, even mirror, traits displayed when he was a newborn. How seriously studious he is, how curious and active he is. And yes, this sounds like every baby–toddler who isn’t autistic. But there are small details that make Harrison, and every other non-autistic child, their own kind of curious and active. My boy is, God willing, going to be a very different person when he’s forty compared to when he was seventeen months. But not because of what he is, but because he’s evolved into who he is. At that time. For a limited amount of time.
I am impulsive and calculated. I am involved and I avoid. I sometimes want nothing more than Cocoa Puffs until I remember I also want a lake house, a boat, and capital so my wife can open a restaurant if she wants. The contradictions I face because of what I am are undying. And at so many pivotal moments in my life, their wrestling has led me to make some gigantic mistakes. Serious fuck ups. Lifelong regrets. Failures that cannot be rectified. Mistakes that cannot be forgiven.
Or, perhaps the failures can be rectified, the mistakes forgiven. Not because I’ve pulled myself back up after being knocked down (by myself or others) or because I’ve apologized umpteen times enough, but because I, and, hopefully, those around me, recognize that the failure is temporary and the mistakes were not character flaws but stupid, gross, human foibles. And how or why would anyone recognize that?
Because we can evolve. We learn from the shit. We accept teachings. We welcome the ironic and contrary and we actually allow ourselves to truly trust those we tell ourselves we trust. We look at ourselves and reassess. We make the choice to go to bed one night determined to approach life differently when the new day hits. We climb out of the piles of our own make, the primordial ooze of dumb, hungry, angry and horny, and we remember that riches are nice but only if we can find simple joy in a bowl of Cocoa Puffs when the going is amazing as well as when it’s all fucked to shit.
And when we can do that for ourselves, we can forgive others who have yet to evolve as quickly as we may have at this point. Not everyone goes through puberty at the same rate, but we all get ingrown hairs in our bikini areas at some point.
We evolve to better manage what we are. We become more familiar with the blind spots and short comings. We are always going to have the tendencies of the beasts who lash out and lunge from reason — like an ape, an alligator, a human toddler. But our ability to come to recognize our new surroundings gives us the opportunity to adapt, to evolve.
Sometimes, our evolution requires the help of fraternity brothers with booze or patient parents or professors with loose office hours or spouses with foresight to know that you’re not a lizard. You’re a human.
And hey, if you ain’t got any frat bros or patient parents or professors or insightful spouses, just remind yourself. Start with you. At some point, you might just have to say, “Fuck everyone else who isn’t on my side, I’ve got an evolution to grab by the short hairs.”
And funny enough, that’s usually the kind of war cry that gets ‘em all clamoring for you anyhow. Hopefully, you have enough Cocoa Puffs to share.