Our eyesight may diminish as we age, but among the things that are easier to see when we’re older are the inflection points of our lives. It may be a day, a weekend, or just a moment. When you look back, you can see that after it passed, everything was different.
I experienced a time like this some twenty years ago. I remembered it last week not because I’d been to Green Bay and the Packers were playing San Francisco in the playoffs – that would have been a more logical reason. No, it was simply because I happened to slip on a parka that I bought in some forgotten town in Wisconsin. You know how they say your olfactory sense can trigger memories? Mine was triggered by the touch of fabric. Go figure.
The trip started out far too simply to be momentous. My college friend Mike was getting married in his fiancée’s home town of Davenport, Iowa. It was autumn, leaf-changing time. I had another friend who had grown up in Door County, Wisconsin, who had regaled me with tales of its bucolic beauty – its parks, its antique stores, its lakeside views. Because I have that Californian misconception that every state east of the Rockies is really close to each other, I told Mike I would attend the wedding, and then drive to Wisconsin. (Don’t bother checking the map – they’re really not close to each other.)
Emotionally, this was an important trip. It would be the first time I’d be traveling alone, something I’d never done on a vacation. I’d spent a good chunk of the previous few years in therapy, and one of the upshots was that I finally felt comfortable with myself. Embarking on this jaunt meant I would be by myself 24 hours a day, and you really have to enjoy your own company to do that. I suspect not too many people do.
One of the other outcomes of my therapy is that I had finally stopped working for start-ups and low-paying jobs. I was actually making a living wage, and I could afford an extended vacation. I still harbored dreams of writing screenplays, and even had an agent in Los Angeles, but it was becoming clear that that was probably not going to be my path to riches.
The trip’s initial simplicity changed. Between the time I responded to Mike and Beth’s wedding invitation and the trip itself, I started dating Monica. Usually the first time a fledgling couple goes away together, it’s someplace romantic like Cape Cod or the wine country. I invited Monica to Iowa, and she accepted. She had met Mike and Beth, and it seemed like a fun jaunt. She had just started a new job, so she didn’t have enough vacation time to accompany me on the rest of my itinerary (nor would it have been prudent to spend so much time together so early in a relationship).
We flew into O’Hare, rented a car and drove across Illinois to Iowa; we danced at the wedding. I took her back to O’Hare and continued to Door County, driving through Green Bay on the way. I ate at restaurants advertising fish boils. I stayed in quaint bed-and-breakfast inns. I walked by myself on trails through trees turning fall colors. I bought that parka one day when it rained.
One of the reasons I remember this trip so vividly is not just because Monica joined me for the first part of it. On the way back to Chicago, I stopped for lunch at a huge suburban shopping mall just off the interstate. The name of the town has long since faded away. I used a pay phone to check my messages, and heard the voice of my agent in Hollywood asking me to call – matter-of-factly, not excitedly. She had circulated one screenplay of mine through Hollywood, without success, and none of my subsequent ideas for movies ever excited her. And now, she informed me when I called her back, the small agency was closing down. The guy whose name was on the door was retiring, and she was going to work for a small production company. She wished me well, and I the same to her.
I’m not sure why I did what I did next. I stopped in one of those typical mall jewelry stores and bought a Westminster chime clock. One like it had sat on the mantel in the house of my childhood, and I suppose, in a time of change, it represented some semblance on constancy. The salesgirl promised there would be no problem shipping it to California. I drove back to O’Hare, turned in the rental car, and flew home.
After that, everything was different. I never tried to get another agent, and my dreams of Hollywood inevitably faded away. I began a gratifying career as a technology journalist, just as PCs and the Web were taking off, and embarked on an amazing rollercoaster ride that in many ways continues today. I proposed to Monica the following month, and I never vacationed alone again. Monica taught me the wonder of the NFL, which means I can never return to Green Bay without a pilgrimage to Lambeau Field.
Mike and Beth are about to send their youngest child off to college. The chime clock sits on the mantel in our house, sweetly announcing the inexorable passage of time.