“Stories live where things go wrong.”
I still remember writing this down in the Notes app on my phone, a hopeful mantra for and from myself, on the day I graduated from high school. I was in the car with my parents on the way home from dinner when my dad was prompted to retell one of his famous stories, which I had been hearing since I was a toddler, about him and his idiot college friends.
Let me be clear, my father is not an idiot, and neither are his friends. But when they were 20, they were prone to significant lapses in common sense, and when they get together now, they still revert back to that sophomoric state, losing several hundred collective IQ points along the way. Their shenanigans as young men are like folk tales in my family, and they seemed to promise that similar antics, adventures and flat-out blunders (made hilarious by hindsight) would fill my young adult years.
I was on the verge of leaving for a summer of travel and my freshman year of college not long after, so my parents were frequently prompted to break into reminiscence of their own time at school and as young adults, providing insights and advice along the way. I don’t remember which story my dad told that night in the car. Maybe it was about the time they scaled a wall to sneak into a castle in Salzburg, Austria, a “Mission Impossible” feat embarked upon simply to avoid the $6 cost of the ticket. Or it could have been the one about hiking down the Grand Canyon for spring break, in a surprise snowstorm, and realizing they all forgot to bring water (no worries, though, they each had a snake bite kit and a bottle of Wild Turkey). There was also the time they rented a houseboat on Lake Mead for the weekend, flew the Jolly Roger pirate flag and proceeded to pelt an unamused Coast Guard boat with water balloons from a giant slingshot.
Needless to say, my dad has a lot of stories. They generally involve poor judgment, alcohol and a series of miscalculations. Yet he survived and has been telling the tales for almost 40 years. They still make him laugh every time.
I have never been one to make mistakes if I can help it. What does that even mean? I love order and preparation, completing assignments at least 24 hours early and making no undue noise in public spaces. In middle school and high school, I quickly earned the reputation of the “mom friend,” hanging around with a group of guys who, like my dad, scaled new heights of lovable stupidity. I made sure they didn’t get themselves killed doing things no common-sense person should have to be told not to do (there is no situation in which you need to duct tape kitchen knives to your hands, and yet …).
In the car that night of graduation, I started thinking about my aversion to stupidity. Since I was little, I’ve always been praised for being responsible and mature. I got good grades in school and could carry on coherent conversations with my friends’ parents. I was the one left in charge when the adult left the room. I started to wonder if that was always such a good thing. Was I too controlling? Would I miss out on years worth of adventures because I was too caught up in potential consequences? Could I be missing out on something disastrous enough to still make me laugh 40 years from now?
I mentioned this to my dad, and he just sort of sighed. “Yeah,” he said, “You need to learn to be stupid sometimes.”
So, I wrote down the line that began this column as a little reminder to myself, that stories so often are grown in the places where things are calamitous or out of control, or not particularly smart. I set off on my summer of travel and hoped that I could heed my own advice and learn to chase idiocy.
Anyone that knows me knows I failed to do so. I am equally as organized and controlling as I was the day I graduated high school. But as I sat down to write this column, I started compiling in my head a list of my stories, the ones I tell so often that I begin to laugh on the front side of the punchline. There’s the time I skipped school for senior skip day with two friends, but was so stressed about missing classes that I was miserable and later wrote apology emails to all my teachers. Or when I went on a first date and the guy admitted to having imagined a whole future together after our hour-long chat (it was the first time we had ever met). Or the one when my friends and I were delayed five hours on a standing-room-only train from Edinburgh to Northern England, and everyone began looting shortbread and Cadbury chocolates from the snack cart. We spent all day standing between cars by the bathroom, laughing, joking and gorging on stolen snacks. It is one of my favorite memories from the trip.
None of my favorite stories were born solely from me letting my hair down and suppressing forethought. Stories so often live where plans are lacking, but luckily for people like me, you can’t plan life. You can, however, choose how you react to its randomness. As seriously as I may take myself in my day-to-day life, I have never been afraid to look back and laugh. You can choose to see something as a calamitous embarrassment or inconvenience, or it can be embroidered, embellished and refurbished to make your kids laugh 30 years from now, as long as you’re willing to be laughing at yourself too. There’s no need to chase mistakes when they will come rushing at you anyway, so you may as well be ready with a game group of friends and a bottle of Wild Turkey close at hand.
Kendall Hecker can be reached at email@example.com.