I’ve been out in the world for 20 years. Even though I moved out at 18, I didn’t really go very far for a few years. Then at the end of the year 2000 I set off on a journey to explore the world, or at least the world as I saw it. A friend of mine told me once that my mission was to “boldly go where you haven’t gone before”, a self application of the Star Trek mantra.
Bolding going would take me to New York City, London (England), Lusaka (Zambia), Johannesburg (South Africa), Nairobi (Kenya), Amsterdam, Atlanta (Georgia), Columbus (Ohio), Austin (Texas), Chicago (Illinois), Los Angeles (California), Nashville (Tennessee) and so many other amazing places over the last 20 years. I’ve lived in New York City and Nashville (Tennessee) while spending considerable time in Los Angeles, California.
But before that journey began, another journey was ending, the journey from childhood to adulthood. As children – particularly adolescents, we don’t tend to think of others or wonder what others are going through.
This lack of awareness is covered in many life cycle development texts as well as studies. But I’d never heard it put so succinctly as a line in the popular television series “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”. In the episode “Earshot” written by Jane Espenson (and delayed due to the Columbine shooting), the protagonist Buffy finds herself with the ability to read minds and hear people’s thoughts. She learns of a plan of a fellow student Jonathan – involving a firearm and finds him in a tower, loading the gun. She believes he is going to shoot students, while he intends to kill himself.
Buffy: “My life happens on occasion to suck beyond the telling of it. Sometimes more than I can handle. And it’s not just mine. Every single person down there is ignoring your pain because they’re too busy with their own. The beautiful ones. The popular ones. The guys that pick on you. Everyone. If you could hear what they were feeling. The loneliness. The confusion. It looks quiet down there. It’s not. It’s deafening.” (Jane Espensen, 1999. Buffyverse Wiki)
As I write this, I don’t blame anyone for not knowing things about me. In some cases these are things I’m learning about myself, 20 years later:
- I was orphaned during the Vietnam War. I was left at the An Lac orphanage in Saigon. My birth parents were presumed killed. During the Fall of Saigon, I was evacuated to the U.S. via a special airlift by “The Angel of Saigon” Betty Tisdale. I spent my first few months here under extreme medical care as I was one of the sickest of the orphans brought over. This initial loss of my birth parents and the circumstances of my arrival in the United States as an infant shaped the way I saw the world going forward, even if I didn’t understand it at the time. You can read my full story here.
- I was adopted by an American couple. They were both business owners – at least on paper. What followed was a very American upbringing. In fact they built a home in the country in the early 1980’s. What I didn’t realize back then is that this was not normal. Being business owners, they could afford things many people couldn’t. Many pointed out that my family seemed ‘rich’ or that the house was big. I was truly unaware we were really any different than anyone else growing up. I was also unaware – largely – that I wasn’t white. Think “Navin Johnson” in the Steve Martin film, “The Jerk”.
- Somewhere between the 7th grade and 9th grade, my adoptive parents went through a change. My adoptive father started taking trips overseas – longer and longer ones. Eventually my adoptive parents announced their divorce and my adoptive father remarried overseas and moved there. It wasn’t just a regular divorce. My adoptive father was gone – out of the country – seemingly forever. I don’t think I totally understood the impact this would have – his absence – but looking back I realize my entire world collapsed – again. The trauma of losing one’s birth parents is one thing – but then losing one’s adoptive parents to divorce – compounded things. Dual losses leave you struggling to find something you can control.
- During Middle School and High School if I considered you a friend, that was saying a lot. Losing everything twice over means trust was hard to establish let alone establish twice. When you lose your world not once but twice it changes you. The divorce wasn’t just a loss of my father, it was the loss of family, the loss of traditions, loss of Christmas, the loss of security, and my life was changed forever in that moment. Losing everything twice over left me feeling powerless. It wasn’t something I chose, it was something that happened to me. I struggled with closeness and trust with close friends. So if I even called you a friend, that was saying a lot. Quite often I enjoyed just being around you and your family. It was refreshingly normal. But I also kept my distance – I didn’t want to lose everything yet again.
- During the divorce, I moved and I should have changed schools but instead tuition was paid for me to do one more year at my high school in the town where I grew up. I got rides in every morning until I could drive myself. For me this was critical as I was trying to find my way in this new world I found myself in post-divorce. I was also not the child of affluent parents anymore – that money was gone. I was now the child of a single parent also in transition. I needed the things that I knew and the people that I knew – so much that even after I transitioned to a new school I wrote myself out several times to go visit the old school. I needed to. I was ripped away from everyone and everything I knew. I was desperately trying to anchor myself to anything I could familiar while trying to find my way through something new. I kept turning up at my old High School and often walking through the hallways during classes because I needed to. I was trying to hold on to something so I could survive.
- During my teen years I had to work. It wasn’t by choice. My family was down to a single income. The resources were not there that were there for my older sibling. I had to work for a car, take out loans for school, etc. I placed a big emphasis on work as a teenager – working at a food court fast food place, Toys R Us, a sell-through video store, a mall based novelty store, and more. I sunk myself into work – perhaps the first thing that I ever found stability in. I even worked overnight at Toys R Us my senior year of High School. Work became the stabilizing anchor I needed in my life – the consistency, obligation, and routine.
- The internet changed everything for me in the late 1990’s. I started building websites and was discovered by Sonja Norwood, the mother of R&B singer Brandy. That discovery began my journey into the world and my departure for New York City and a life I’d never believed possible that took me to on an incredible 20-year journey in the entertainment business, music industry, film industry, financial services, orphanages, working with the homeless, adoption, inner city community outreach, Latin American outreach and animal rescue.
I am sure all of you reading this have stories too and things you are discovering about yourself, how you were brought up, and how it impacts the way you see the world today. I’d love to hear them.
Special Thanks to those who knew me then – and never knew how important they probably were to me – because I didn’t know myself: Martin Green, Brian Gochenour, Matt Newman, Armando Hartman, Andy Jamouneau, Brent Burkey, Marta Janowski, Jim Keeley, Alison Hampton, Jennifer Sabol, Dennis O’Brien, Desa Sampson, Kevin Wagner, David Mavretic, Lou Strawser, David Rubinic, Mick Spencer, John Martens, Megan TenEyck, Shannon Quigley, Lisa Quigley, Lindsay Rodenhaber, and Melanie Byers.