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If You Weren't There, You Wouldn't Understand

  • 5 min read

The summer after my senior year of high school was the opposite of a sad Springsteen ballad. Instead of youthful freedom fading into an ankle chained to a company town and a predetermined factory career, I had 3 months of a last hurrah before all social debts would be wiped clean and I would start life anew. Good times were behind me. Great times lay ahead. 


As summer drew to a close, my group of friends began to dwindle as we each quite literally moved on. In the final 7 days before I left to go to the University of Wisconsin, only my friend Aaron Stronberg and I were left. Gone were the 3 am group runs to Denny’s and nightly parties with anyone and everyone. It felt as if we were standing inside the big top while the crew took down the tent and began to move on. 

The night before Aaron left, we decided that it would befit men of our stature to smoke celebratory cigars. Pickings were slim, but he found a box of Phillie’s Titans in his brother’s closet. Having nowhere else to go, we drove to the playground of a nearby elementary school, sat on the swings, and smoked tobacco that was never meant for anything more than being emptied into a garbage can. With the windows of Aaron’s former rental-car-fleet red Ford Escort rolled down, we slid Alice in Chains’ “Jar of Flies” EP into the aftermarket head unit and proceeded to wax philosophical. 

John Hughes would have been proud. We talked and talked. Sitting with a guy who had been one of my best friends since we were 6 years old felt comfortable in the way that only home can. The topic of conversation was simultaneously exciting and isolating. We speculated about the future. Life would be what we would make of it. Our ignorant innocence let us believe that no doors in life were closed to us. We would be stepping into the future together, but mainly alone. It was as if anything could happen next, except for what actually did. 

A cop walked up from behind us with his Maglite shining in our eyes. After questioning us about our activities, he was rightfully full of disbelief that we were actually smoking unadulterated Phillies. A quick search of Aaron’s car proved that we were in fact as lame as we claimed. With a laugh that persisted as he walked back to his cruiser, the knowledge that we had been cited, tried, and judged for being losers was quite literally the end of our summer, but it also was the beginning of the rest of our lives. 

Two decades later, I spotted an ex-girlfriend in a Hudson’s Booksellers in an airport somewhere in layover country. There was no question that it was her. There was no  “You’ll Never Guess What They Look Like Now” mental clickbait. As I walked over to say hello, I caught the scent of her perfume. It was that same Nina Ricci shit 20 years later. 

Like Neo being jacked into the matrix, a flood of random memories came rushing forward. Memories I would have thought were lost to the darkest, most cobweb-iest corners of my mind emerged from their crypts like the rising dead. 

But one thought cut through the rest like a fat white guy’s samurai sword through a bottle of water. We used to have sex. It’s impossible not to think about that. The other memories were plain; the simple moments that are the filler of life. No one else will ever know exactly how her head felt on my chest as I smoked a Sunday morning cigarette, or how we laughed about how much our assholes burned after insisting that we could handle the spicy stuff at the Laotian take-out place. Those moments were, and forever will be ours and ours alone. 

Less than 6 weeks ago, I was riding down a two lane highway on a 2.5 horsepower not-motorcycle with 3 friends from the internet. It was a hot summer night in South-Central Romania. A group of us had traveled one third of the way around the world just to be silly with each other. 

In an effort to cover 1000km in 6 days at a maximum speed of 28mph, we’d been riding all day. Since morning, we’d covered 120 km; traveling through an old Saxon citadel, rural villages where horse drawn carts outnumbered internal combustion powered vehicles 10 to 1, and logging trails that demanded some technical capabilities. Our destination was a bed and breakfast at the base of the Carpathian Mountains. The next morning we would make our way up the Transfagarsan Highway,  generally regarded as one of the best driving roads in the world. 

As we crested a small hill at a crawl, we were presented with a straight line of tarmac that stretched off into the distance and ended at a small village. The sun was a giant yellow-red ball falling towards the horizon to our right; the mountains beckoned us on our left. A thunderstorm raged up near the top, obscuring the peaks and echoing thunder down into the valley. Although we were together as a group, I was alone with my thoughts and the music blasting through my headphones. 

In that moment, Avicii’s “Waiting For Love” wasn’t an old, overplayed pop song. It was an epic ballad of adventure. The context matters. If I heard that song on my drive this morning, I’d surely skip ahead. It’s the difference between hearing Neil Diamond in an office building elevator and singing along to Cracklin Rosé with a lighter in your outstretched arm as the bartender yells for last call at 3 am.

The other guys? They probably weren’t listening to Avicii. I trust they have better taste in music than I. But they know what it sounded like, because I know that they heard it too. Whenever I see Stony, Ryan, or David again in the future, we’ll all remember that road, even if we never talk about it. 

Sometimes when I’m scrolling through Instagram, I think about these stories. On the surface they are the boring and mundane experiences that bond us to others. How odd that burying our faces in the curated windows that look into the lives of others have us so enthralled. Are we trying so desperately to touch and understand the experiences outside of our own? Clearly this shows us how valuable shared experiences are. And yet, try as we may, we’ll never touch those moments through a picture, a video, or through a phone. You have tobe there. Really be there. 


Maybe one or all of these stories strikes a familiar chord. Maybe something similar happened to you and your best friends. Or maybe it was with strangers. But you’ll never truly know whatmy story was like. The intimacy that accompanies personal and shared experiences can’t be given, faked, or replicated. It has to be earned. Others might relate, but never perfectly. If you weren’t there, you just weren’t there.

John Lennon said that life happens while you’re busy making other plans. Voyeuristically watching the lives of other people is akin to planning, hoping, and dreaming of doing those same things yourself. Maybe we’ve forgotten the point of social media, which is to share things that are real with the people we’d still want to share those things with in person. This means that real things should come first. We can still learn from the stories of others, but we should live through our own.

Die Living.