It's My Birthday, and I Can't Believe How Much I've Changed in the Last Four Years
Guess what? You *can* teach an old dog new tricks.
Back when we lived in Seattle, Brent used to get together every three months with a group of friends he’s known since high school. They’d been going away together to play Dungeons & Dragons for something like thirty years.
I remember one weekend, before he left, he asked me, “Are you going to hang out with anyone?”
“Lisa’s got plans,” I said. “And you’ve got the car, so I can’t see Sarah and Lori. So, nope.”
“Oh,” said Brent, sounding like he pitied me. “Well. Have…fun.”
I smiled. "I will." Actually, I had a whole list of things I wanted to do. The weekend would fly by.
Sure enough, I marathoned some TV, rode my bike all over the city, and listened to my NPR shows.
But by the time Sunday evening rolled around, I was definitely ready for Brent to be back.
When he finally arrived home that night, I asked him, “How was your weekend?”
“Great!” he said, launching into all the exciting things he’d done.
His voice was hoarse, and I asked him if he was coming down with a cold.
He laughed. “No. We just didn't stop talking the entire time. How was your weekend?”
“Good,” I said. “Really good.”
I don’t think I spoke to a single person except the Starbucks barista, I realized.
“Great. I'm glad. I hope you didn't get…”
He shook his head. “Nothing.”
Lonely. He was going to ask if I'd been lonely.
Had I been lonely? I hadn't felt lonely. But I had to admit that Brent’s weekend sounded pretty great.
I knew I had fewer close friends than most people, but I didn’t consider myself lonely. I had reasons for the way things were. Unlike Brent, I’d chosen to leave my hometown and move fairly far away. Heck, I’d even gone to Australia as a high school exchange student my senior year. Maybe that’s why I’d long ago lost contact with the few friends I’d had when I was younger.
Or maybe I just wasn’t a social person. Maybe I was like that old Simon & Garfunkel song.
I am a rock, I am an island.
Except the guy in that song is kind of kidding himself, isn't he? He says he feels no pain, but he obviously really does. He's not a rock at all.
Well, I was a rock. I was perfectly fine with things the way they were.
Besides, zebras don’t change their stripes. Especially not fifty-year-old zebras.
Then life took a pretty surprising turn. In late 2017, Brent and I sold our house, got rid of most of our possessions, and left Seattle to become digital nomads, indefinitely traveling the world.
Our lives might have changed, but that didn’t mean I was going to change. I was still a rock. An island.
Our first stop as nomads was in Miami, sort of a getting-our-feet-wet soft-launch to this new lifestyle of ours.
We spent three months in Miami, in a coliving facility with a bunch of other nomads. There wasn’t a gym nearby, so we quickly joined the group of folks who worked out together every morning.
That first morning, a tall, willowy young woman stretched near me. She had to be in her early twenties, close to thirty years younger than I was. But when she smiled at me, I took a chance and said, “Hi. I’m Michael.”
“Well, I’m Miek.” She pointed at a young man with spiky hair just joining us, trying to rub the sleep out of his eyes. “And that’s my boyfriend, Mike.”
“So it’s Michael, Miek, and Mike,” I said, and we all laughed.
Mike was American, and Miek was from the Netherlands. They’d met the year before in Thailand, and Brent and I quickly became friends with both of them.
This coliving facility had a ton of other social events: group dinners, movie nights, even a bowling night. Every night, people would gather in the courtyard by the pool for drinks — often wearing animal-themed onesies.
Before I knew it, I had a whole social circle.
And I really liked it.
But I knew it was only temporary. We were nomads, after all. And sure enough, after a few weeks, Mike and Miek left for Nicaragua. By the time Brent and I left Miami for Europe, almost all our new friends had left before us.
Oh, well, I thought. It was nice while it lasted. But a zebra really can’t change his stripes.
But in Matera, Italy, we quickly made another group of fast friends, including a young woman from Montana named Gillian.
And then we made another circle in Bansko, Bulgaria, where, as chance would have it, we ran into Gillian again. Her next nomad destination happened to be the same as ours.
On one of our first nights, we were invited to a local restaurant for a group dinner.
I sat down next to a dark-haired young woman who smiled and said, “Hello, I’m Marianne,” her perfect English just tinged with a Norwegian accent.
“I’m Michael,” I said. Then nodding across the table at Brent, I added, “That’s my husband Brent.”
Marianne’s face lit up. “Oh good! The gay ones are always the best.”
I laughed, and the conversation took off from there. By the end of that dinner, I was pretty sure I’d made a lifelong friend, and now, three years later, I know for a fact I have.
In fact, we’ll be seeing Marianne very soon, in Brent’s and my next nomad spot of Prague, Czechia. After that, he and I will be meeting up with Tyler, another friend we first met in Bulgaria, in Split, Croatia, where we’ll spend the winter.
This has turned out to be one of the very best parts of being a nomad: meeting up with old nomad friends in new locations. We’ve lived with Mike and Miek in Thailand and Vietnam, and we’ve traveled with Gillian in five different countries now.
And the really interesting thing? I’m now far more social than Brent, who still considers himself a complete and total introvert.
Me? I guess I’m still an introvert too. But I’m an introvert who’ll never pass up a game night, or a lunch out with friends, or a weekend getaway into Armenia.
This week happens to be my birthday.
Unlike Brent, I'm not big on self-reflection. He says he over-thinks everything. Maybe I under-think them. That's just who I am.
But birthdays can make even someone like me think back over my life.
The fact is, I’ve changed more in the last four years than in any year since I lived in Australia as an eighteen-year-old exchange student. The changes have been so dramatic that even someone like me is forced to ask myself: What’s going on here?
Why, in my fifties, did I change so dramatically? Why have I become so much more social? Wasn’t I a rock and an island? A zebra who can’t change his stripes?
I think it’s partly been a question of proximity. Brent and I are both writers who lived and worked at home. Being around so many more people now has opened up more possibilities for me, rather like what happens when living in a college dorm.
But more than that, at the very heart of it, I think this New Me was something that had been part of me all along but was inhibited by circumstances and sheer bad luck.
The fact is, I had tried to make friends over the years, only to have a series of bad experiences with a series of weirdos, along with some sadly missed connections. After a while, I guess I'd stopped trying.
Plus, it’s harder to make friends in America in general, especially when you’re older.
So maybe zebras really can’t change their stripes. Then again, I suspect I was never a zebra in the first place.
Maybe I was more a caterpillar who spent a little longer than most inside the cocoon.
So now I’m a social butterfly. How fun is that?
Might I change dramatically yet again? I don’t know. But I’m looking forward to stretching out these wings and seeing where they take me.
Michael Jensen is an author and editor, and the “Michael” in Brent and Michael Are Going Places, a couple of traveling gay digital nomads. For more about Michael, visit him at MichaelJensen.com