The Things You Could’ve Done Alone Instead

Posted: May 6, 2015 in A Little Less Profound
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"I have nothing to show from these years on the road but these songs that I wrote for you." Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Elva, 2014.

“I have nothing to show from these years on the road but these songs that I wrote for you.” Mikel Jollett of The Airborne Toxic Event. Photo by Elva, 2014.

By Glen

Your frozen mind begins to thaw
You think my God my God my God
Where was it I began?

A few months from now, I will cross that invisible threshold that has traditionally separated young from old(er). They say 40 is not what it used to be, and I hope that’s true, though quite frankly recent events have left me feeling even older than my birth certificate would suggest.

On the one hand, it’s just another day on the calendar: Day 14,610 on a timeline that hopefully will wind up being at least twice that long when all is said and done. On the other, its position somewhere in the vicinity of the presumed midpoint of one’s life inevitably leads to reflection on all that’s come before and what might lie ahead… much of it centered around one question.

What if?

It’s a hopeful question: one that inspires and excites and ignites imagination. What will I do? Where will I go? Who will I go there with?

It’s a sad question: a memorial to opportunities lost. What have I done? Why did I do that? Where did I go wrong?

It’s a dangerous question: a breeding ground for disappointment and regret and resentment. How did I get here? Why didn’t life turn out better? Who can I blame?


Though it may seem at times that rock stars have discovered the Elixir of Life, they are as susceptible as any of us to the passage of time. And indeed, Mikel Jollett, singer/songwriter for The Airborne Toxic Event, beat me across the 40-yard line not too long ago.

For someone as introspective as Jollett, it’s hardly surprising to find him wrestling with these matters in his music. Airborne’s work has always delved into the weighty issues of life and death and purpose and mortality, and a decade of churning out songs hasn’t reduced the urgency of the questions. In fact, from the numbed incredulity of “The Fifth Day,” referenced above, to the anguished admission that “I just know I can’t live like this no more” on “The Way Home,” the intensity only seems to be increasing.

The theme continues on the recently released Songs of God and Whiskey, which finds Jollett approaching the “What if?” question from two opposite directions.

The first time it rears its head, a younger Jollett raises it in the midst of an existing relationship.

All the endless conversations, you know
Like the things you could’ve done alone
Instead, instead, instead, instead, instead

In “Change and Change and Change and Change,” the singer wistfully recounts – what else? – a failed relationship. Conversations turned into arguments turned into words that couldn’t be taken back turned into an exasperated writer despairing that he was clearly born to be alone. And though those toxic discussions no doubt covered a lot of ground, the crux of the matter was, “What if?”

What if I wasn’t with you? What could I have done instead? What am I missing out on? What if life is better apart?

We all wonder what could have been. Every door we elect to pass through leaves countless others unopened. It’s only natural to ponder how life would have turned out if we had chosen Adventure A rather than Adventure B. Approached lightly, it can be a fun exercise to imagine what could have been, given different circumstances.

But cloaked in discontent and blame, the same question can be crippling, as it was for Jollett and his lover. “What if?” gives way to “Why me?” and, soon, “Which way to the door?”

Sometimes that’s for the best. Other times it leaves us looking back years later, remorseful and lonely, wondering just how exactly the train ran off the tracks.

If “Change and Change” looks at it from the perspective of what still could be, in “The Fall of Rome,” it’s far too late for that. The die was cast years ago; the ship has sailed.

I saw a picture of you the other day in your wedding dress
And I wondered why I’d walked away like I had with the rest
You were the only thing that was worth saving
And I swear that I did my best

And sometimes at night I dream of you now in your wedding dress
And I hope it doesn’t seem somehow like I gave you less
I have nothing to show from these years on the road
But these songs that I wrote for you

Here, Jollett doesn’t have to wonder, “What if?” He’s living it. The things he could have done alone instead included life on the road and a book full of songs. And though that may satisfy him on many days, at this particular time, it doesn’t seem like a winning trade.

That’s the thing about what-ifs: you just never know. It could be better. It could also be a hell of a lot worse. Until you live it, who’s to say? And it’s not like there’s any right answer, anyway. What’s best for Jollett is not best for me, nor vice versa.

What if I hadn’t gotten married at 19? What if I hadn’t changed my major? What if we hadn’t moved across the country – twice? What if we’d waited a few more years before starting a family? What if we hadn’t adopted? What if… what if… what if?

It’s kind of eye opening to daydream about having more money or more freedom or whatever else I think I could have had instead. Sometimes it feels like something I lost.

But then…

What if I never got to experience growing up together with my wife? What if we missed out on the grand adventure of starting fresh with nothing to lean on but each other? What if I had never known the wonders of my children? What if I never discovered how deep a bond you can form with a son born to other parents? What if… what if… what if?

Yeah… Sacrifices were made. Opportunities were lost. Regret is real.

But ultimately, I’m okay with the life I chose. I suspect he is, too.

Glen, Fan of The Airborne Toxic EventGlen is the founder and editor of This Is Nowhere. He’s grateful for an understanding wife and kids who indulge his silly compulsion to chase a band all over the Pacific Northwest (and occasionally beyond) every time the opportunity arises.

  1. Susan S. says:

    Beautifully written, Glen. Maybe I’m shallow but I’ve never wondered, “What if?” I’ve always felt that I was right where I was meant to be. And might I add that the 40’s truly are wonderful!

    Liked by 1 person

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