Burning Down the House: An Aberration Story

“From this aberration; this single traumatic event in my life, I can draw a line to the present and all the blessings I have today.”

If you’re anything like me, you probably have a plethora of stupid choices, ridiculous, risky behaviors, and negative outcomes stuffed into a chest that sits in the back of your mind. Some of what we keep there is easily forgotten, written off as youthful indiscretion. However, for many of us, there is one or more pivotal events or choices that shaped our early lives. If we’re lucky, the resulting shape is something positive and meaningful, and that shaping comes naturally. But regardless of the shape we end up in, it’s never too late to re-evaluate the past, to find meaning and direction in the poor choices of the past.

Don, Phillies fan, father of four, writer, and author of A Field Guide for the Rookie Coach, has joined the Aberration Nation. Since 1992, Don has coached numerous boys & girls’ basketball, softball and baseball teams, and sat multiple terms on the Board of the Academy Sabres Youth Athletics Organization. Don remains active in the Philadelphia area youth athletics community conducting seminars that help new coaches (and not so new coaches) develop and refine the skills that keep kids having fun and coming back year after year. So what does this Philly community role model have in his chest of youthful indiscretions? Here’s a peak.

You are sharing what I call a situational aberration. Can you first explain what happened?

I burned my family’s house down when I was 18 years old. It was an accident. I’d had too much to drink and decided to cook myself a midnight snack. By the time my father awakened me from my drunken stupor, flames had consumed the kitchen and were billowing along the ceiling of the living room where I’d passed out on the couch while reading the paper. He, my mother and I made it out of the house. My two brothers were sleeping out that night so in the end, no one was hurt. We rebounded from this tragic loss, and as you can imagine, learned a lot along the way. From this aberration; this single traumatic event in my life, I can draw a line to the present and all the blessings I have today. This disruption in my life provided me with the impetus I needed to leave behind the things I knew best and embrace the unknown. To stop clutching and clawing at a future I thought was my destiny, and to let go and allow my destiny find me. I’ve been lucky.

At 18, how did you cope with knowing you were responsible for such a devastating situation?

In the context of my 18-year-old life, I wasn’t all that devastated by it. I thought, “No one was hurt and most of the family keepsakes, photos, scrap books, etc, weren’t burned.”

My family had grown complacent, taking each other and everything for granted. This event served to jar us all into a closer, more appreciative relationship. Now a parent myself, I realize my own parents’ perspective on the experience is probably very different, but in the immediate wake of the fire, I went through a pretty fast transition from feeling very bad to feeling lucky.

How long did it take for you to overcome the guilt, and what was that process like?
Scarily quick–like 48 hours. My recovery was directly related to the loss, but the overall context of the event is important.

I’d been an overachiever my whole life in a family of underachievers. I never had to study to get top grades. I was a good looking kid and had an engaging personality. I had a girlfriend and the future looked bright. But it wasn’t MY future, it was the future my parents wanted for me.

I was a freshman in college at the time of the fire, enrolled in a premed program and doing well, as usual. But I hated it. I wanted to travel. I wanted real adventure and risk in my life that had been, up until then, pretty darn mundane. My girlfriend was smothering me at a time when girls were falling out of trees. In the midst of my inability to break out of this rut, I became hospitalized with an ulcer at 18.

During my stay in the hospital I had two visitors that, to this day, I credit with shaping the life I now lead:

1) A teacher came to visit and gave me Kerouac’s On The Road to read. He could see through to my discontent and I found out, some years later, that he’d decided to see if throwing that grenade into my psyche would spark me to take charge of my life. He had no idea how much it would.

2) The other visitor wasn’t technically a visitor, but rather the doctor attending to me. He closed the door as he came into my room on the day I was discharged (after being there a week), and essentially urged me to let go of everything I was hanging onto. To cut all ties with everything weighing on my mind. He said that I should take a year or two to follow my heart.

Are you thankful now that you had that experience? Although it was certainly a negative one, did you come to see value in it and fate at hand?

The most valuable thing that came out of it was the display of overwhelming kindness and charity that followed. It came from everywhere, even from very unexpected places.

I’m not so sure how I view the event in terms of fate, because I’ve always considered myself abundantly blessed when compared to the pain and suffering of so many people. Remember, it was just a house; just some stuff, nobody was hurt, so in my opinion, it was a fortunate inconvenience which eventually became the first in a series of dominoes whose falling led to my escape from the life I was so bored with.

Most teenagers and young adults take risks and assume nothing bad will ever happen. Is there any way to combat this belief in teenagers, or is there no way around it? The ability to take risks is important for long-term success in life so how can we hold that in check while instilling the positive aspects of it?

By being honest about it. By being honest about your own youth. I know I sound like a broken record but context cannot be ignored in this either. When I say to be honest, I mean age appropriately honesty. For example, I wouldn’t tell my eight year old I smoked pot when I was younger, but I would tell my fourteen year old who might be faced with making decisions about using marijuana on a daily basis. If I’m able to explain the risk from a perspective of experience, it makes a whole lot more sense than telling them to “Just say no.”

I’m also a proponent of letting my kids take age appropriate risks while providing them with a safe environment to discuss their experience–as long as it’s age appropriate (can’t stress that enough).

I have four kids, ranging from age 14 to 21. Every one of them was faced with going to a keg party in the woods when they became freshmen in high school and every one of them asked me if they could go. Imagine asking your dad if you could go to a keg party when you were 14. I let them go with the stipulation that I wasn’t giving them permission to drink alcohol, just hang out with their friends and check out the scene. I knew this was a time when paths would diverge; when some friends would gravitate to partying and others not. My kids felt empowered and trusted and they found out the keg parties in the woods were muddy, dirty, bug infested affairs with a lot of sloppy, stupid behavior. If I hadn’t let them go, they may have glamorized it based on the stories they heard later. As it was, they knew the stories were glamorized because they’d actually seen the events.

In every case, my kids parted ways with some of their grammar school friends and went on to make new friends in their bigger high school environment. They gravitated toward kids with similar interests and values, having made their own decisions to move away from the inappropriately risky behavior of their other friends.

I’ve been burned by this philosophy too, so it doesn’t always have a rosy outcome, but the underlying foundation of self respect I give my kids by trusting them with the truth about my own behavior when I was their ages, and my willingness to let them fall on their face, gives us a safe place to talk it out when all is said and done.

I also take the time to watch and read everything my kids do, and find ways to discuss the risky behavior and poor choices illustrated in popular media and literature. I make a point to emphasize when something is “Hollywood” or when risky behavior is glamorized into something romantic. I’ve also taken my kids to volunteer at soup kitchens so they can see the impact of substance abuse on otherwise good people and they have relatives who are examples of taking risky behavior to unhealthy extremes.

What advice do you have for anyone struggling with poor decisions and choices made in the past?

I’m big on self forgiveness. If I wasn’t, I’d have hung myself in the closet a long time ago.

Don’t hinge your happiness on the approval of others. Accept responsibility for your own occasional lack of good judgment when you screw up, try hard to learn from it, and move on. It’s bound to happen again, so come up with a process for dealing with your own mistakes that enables you to move forward cleansed by the experience, not just tarnished by it.

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