The year before my Peace Corps Philippines departure I wandered the country from Los Angeles to Taos to Houston to New Orleans and finally to Brooklyn, where I spent the summer subletting in hipster Williamsburg and Polski Greenpoint and industrial-wasteland Bushwick.
In Bushwick, my roommate was a heavyset gay man with a quirky sense of humor and a tendency to wax philosophical. He invited me to a Scientology meeting (I accepted); I invited him to an open mic (he accepted); he invited me to a Turkish bath house (I politely declined). One night, in one of his socratic moods, he told me a story.
In a small village there was a farmer who lived with his son. They were poor. They had only one old mule to do the farm work. One day the gate was accidentally left open and the mule wandered off. “Lost your only mule,” said the farmer’s neighbor. “Too bad.” The farmer shrugged. “Maybe so, maybe not.”
A few days later, the farmer woke to the sound of thundering hooves. His mule had returned, followed by a half-dozen wild horses. “What luck!” exclaimed his neighbor. The farmer shrugged. “Maybe so, maybe not.”
The next week, as the farmer’s son was breaking the new horses, one of them bucked. The son fell to the ground, hard. Paralyzed immediately. “What a tragedy. Too bad,” lamented the neighbor. The farmer sighed. “Maybe so, maybe not.”
The following winter the army came through the village, enlisting every able-bodied man younger than thirty. The farmer’s crippled son was, of course, spared from service.
And so on.
It is a windy Brooklyn night. I lean over the edge of my buddy’s rooftop, surveying all of Manhattan in its starry-night goodness. We are two sazeracs to the good and halfway to great with a bottle of pinot noir, and we’re talking about my recently published first novel, which is about the great American subculture of videogaming. Suddenly conversation plants itself squarely and unequivocally in the 21st century: I hear myself proclaiming, in drunken earnest, that a person’s gaming style is the ultimate study in personality.
If you ever want to understand somebody, really understand somebody, I shout to the wind, watch how they game. Consider the purists, refusing cheats and hints no matter how desperate. Consider the fast-trackers, cheats and walkthrough always at the ready. Consider the risk-takers. The play-it-safers. The perfectionists. The teamsters. The loners. The gameaholics.
Interesant, interesant, says my buddy. So how does Mark game?
I’ve been thinking about that. And I’ve realized something. From the beginning, across all videogame genres, my raison d’etre was always the same: engineer the perfect game. Catch Carmen Sandiego with an elegant minimum of turns. Discover the perfect pattern of residential, commercial, and industrial Sim City units. Build a civilization with across-the-board first-place demographics. If anything went slightly wrong–if I made a wrong turn tracking Carmen from Bapedi to Oslo, if the godzilla monster thrashed my city, if barbarians ransacked my empire, I’d quit and restart. CTRL-R was my trusty toolkit for the ideal outcome, the perfect story.
Interesant, interesant. What does that say about your personality?
My particular path to the Peace Corps was a winding one, poorly paved, had few roadsigns, and featured more than one detour that found me bemoaning my rotten luck. But if things had happened otherwise — if the proverbial butterfly had flapped its wings a little quicker, a little later, a bit more to the left or right — well, would there have been Peace Corps in my path at all? Maybe so, maybe not.
1999. I am a music performance major at USC. I am determined to make it in music despite Dean Larry Livingston’s caution to the incoming freshmen that 99% of us will not become the concert soloists we dream of becoming. I hit the practice rooms night and day. The trumpet studio recognizes my progress. I’m selected to play in a quintet with all grad students.
But then, gradually, something goes wrong. I am developing an embouchure problem. I can’t play as long or as high as before, and then I can’t play long or high at all. Too bad.
Over the next two years the problem doesn’t improve and I eventually resign myself to the fact that I can’t pursue a performing career. I finish off my undergrad degree, a B.A. in Music with an emphasis in Uncertain Future. I resolve to go to grad school. I will study English. Maybe afterward I’ll join the Peace Corps.
2005. I am doing laps in the Boston College pool. It is halfway through my first year of English lit grad school and I love it, I love studying day and night, the 70-plus hours a week, the scholarly community, and I’m considering applying to PhD programs. The fact that the average English PhD takes 8 years doesn’t faze me. I climb out of the pool, take a drink from the water fountain. I feel something funny in my chest. Not funny funny. Scary funny. I go to the hospital. An irregular heartbeat, says the doctor. Atrial fibrillation. Your heart has reverted to normal rhythm for now, but it may come and go. Too bad.
It is August, weeks before my PhD program is to begin. Something doesn’t feel right. I have gotten scholarly cold feet. It’s not the 8 years thing. Maybe a PhD is starting to feel narcissistic and self-serving. Maybe it’s the feeling that I could make a bigger impact teaching at a community college. Or through Peace Corps. Maybe it’s the worry that I might not be able to hack PhD-level work. I recuse myself from the program. Friends and family shake their heads. Too bad. I shake my own head.
2008: I have been teaching English in community colleges for two years and I’ve worked hard and I love my work. My partner and I are becoming more serious. We talk about the housing market. Baby names. I have all but forgotten about the Peace Corps application I started right after quitting my PhD program.
I decide to apply for a tenure-track teaching position: I’m ready to make this community college thing a career. There are hundreds of applicants. I am granted first interviews at two schools. I am granted second interviews. I am one of three finalists, which means I have two 33% chances of being selected. I start researching Roth IRAs.
But I do not get the nod. At either school. One committee member tells me, confidentially, that I was “within an eyelash” of getting picked. Too bad.
Soon afterward, and for unrelated reasons, my partner and I break up. As she puts it, she is too bull-headed and I am too sensitive. Too bad.
2009. Three years after beginning it, I have completed my Peace Corps application. An interview follows, then an official nomination. I have requested to be stationed in China and am given reason to believe this will happen. I complete my Peace Corps paperwork and medical evaluations and await further details. I begin learning Mandarin. My future is no longer uncertain, and I am excited. I am also nervous.
January, February, March. I learn over 600 Chinese characters. April. I get an email. There is a problem. Because of my past irregular heart, I have been put on a restricted-country list. I will not be going to China. Too bad.
May. Official nomination finally comes. Peace Corps service is a go: August 19. Teaching English. In the Philippines.
That’s quite a few paths separated by only eyelashes and butterfly wings.
And I couldn’t be happier about the path I’m on.