“Your children are not your children.
They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.
They come through you but not from you,
And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.”
It was the summer of 2002 when I graduated from Kenyon, begrudgingly, and was kicked to the pavement. That summer was a void. I had actively procrastinated on landing any sort of real job or further education following graduation, so that was no surprise. I knew I liked to write and I knew I liked sports, but that was basically where the knowing stopped. The world was big and full of opportunities, opportunities like sheer mountain faces: infinite possibilities but infinite challenges I had never encountered. I’d never paid taxes, I had never been responsible for my own health insurance; ties were for chorus concerts and formal events, not Monday mornings.
I ended up somehow at the only place my imagination could go in the face of a void: my father’s couch. Or rather, the removed third row of the 2nd iteration of the Dodge maroon minivan he had driven throughout my childhood, staring out the back of of the porch into the green leaves of a gentle, breezy summer forest. I picked up the guitar there, learning one, then two, then three chords to repeat over and over, the best result of that era.
“Professionally,” I wrote for the AP, which is apparently a thing. I remember covering a little league baseball game, a regional game at Rentschler Field and making about 20 dollars for writing an article on it, based on word count. To the degree I was aware of my “status,” it was humiliating: after occupying the king’s throne as a senior at college preparing for a prestigious career, I was now doing the equivalent of mopping the floor at Wendy’s for less than minimum wage and no guarantee of consistent work. I was walking crumbling infinity dust.
My father of infinite patience was… well, my father. We had spent the last twenty some odd years going through countless epochs: darling diapered toddler and sparkling new parent, to awkward child and angry ward to teenage opposition and flustered overseer to something beyond that. We had jumped the metaphorical shark as these things seem to go. There’s only so many debates you can have with a person over brushing their teeth and picking up their dirty socks before you relationship transcends a human plane altogether. It was a ghost of a ghost of a ghost, and I bounced between those various spectral planes on a joyless pogo stick, subject to the various moods of my father because… well, it was, afterall, his house. It was his routine, his life– and while I was halfway the sparkle in his eye, I was also halfway a pesky vampiric rodent that couldn’t pay for his own juice boxes. It was pure and stale.
That fall, I managed to land an amazing six-month internship at ESPN as a production assistant through some family connections, which I promptly blew. On New Years, I skipped out on my duties to get drunk with some friends in West Hartford and never really recovered. In the end, I recall standing for hours in the dimly lit hallway to a giant production room rewinding blank video tapes endlessly as a form of meaningless penance; a year later they shifted entirely to digital.
Finally, I threw everything I owned, which wasn’t really much, into a Ford Escort and left for Los Angeles in a bit of a triumphant emotional fit. There waiting a friend of mine from college with a job and a meager place to live in a dilapidated defunct fraternity house with bullet-holes in the windows and broken glass in the pool. In the summer the maggots would emerge from the walls after eating dead mice and go to war with super-highways of ants streaming through the building. I ate all meals at “Buck-fifty” a food stand where you could get a hamburger, fries and a soda for a dollar and fifty cents, as long as you asked no questions. I managed the house for a while, worked at grocery stores, answered phones as an office temp, and played a lot of poker.
To his credit, my father cut me off altogether. Parapolegically, I learned to crawl on the broken sidewalks and overgrown ivy vines of downtown Westwood, a melted tar and hot garbage education. I pawned my guitar. I took over as the manager of the dorm a year later, and they took to calling me “ghetto-ass beard” because I never shaved and didn’t really have a job; they thought I had grown out of the cracks in the driveway. But somewhere in the afternoon sun that went on in perpetuity in Los Angeles, somewhere in the endless rounds of Texas hold ’em and butt-shaking keg parties, somewhere in the endless circus mayhem of immortal delights, I found that I was empty and miserable. Time had stopped moving, and I was in danger of falling into a very pleasurable nihilistic abyss.
It was around then that I began helping the undergrads staying the boarding house for its basement-cheap rent with their essays and realized I had an ability of value beyond poker and keg stands. I explained the art of topic sentences and use of evidence to the kids who lived in the boarding house and went to UCLA. They seemed like trivial skills to me, but seemed to wow the younger gentlemen and get them good grades. I went overnight from clown to man of standing. Soon after this subtle realization, I applied to Dartmouth and got into its MALS program for creative writing, and only then was I on the formal road to adulthood.
“Coming of Age” in the contemporary age is a phrase that means everything and very little at the same time. On the one hand, it spans from about 12 to about 30, when any of the events between have arguably the most significance in becoming an adult. The variation for each individual and treacherously long era length make it vague beyond human measure, but it is also an undeniable shift and the most profound in a human life. While it is entirely subjective based on individual, it is also a distinctly recognizable process. “Maturity” is a term that I would argue offers a fair degree of consensus, and the “immature” destroy property and well-being everywhere. So while everyone takes a different route, there are a few bits of universal truth I have noticed about the process from my own experience and in witnessing hundreds of others go through it personally and professionally:
- Autonomy- Without being granted some degree of autonomy, smothering will occur, and smothering produces arrested development. That is a universal truth.
2. Shark Infested Waters- The opposite is also true. If thrown in the deep end too soon (again, highly variable when that is), drowning will necessarily occur. Chum is chum in the deep blue sea.
3. The “Big Bad World” Clause– At some point, a young adult must face that they are in a big bad world that they can either manipulate to their will infinitely or be destroyed by infinitely. That’s jarring.
4. Train Wreck Phenomena- It seems to be a universal truth that at some point you must watch your progeny do something incredibly stupid, and your ability to maintain unilateral neutrality in this dismal failure determines their success. What a world…
5. 25, the magic number- In my experience 25 is the average over/under for when a human brain (definitely those of the male variety) actually becomes adult, and can make rationale, future-thinking decisions. It’s an average, but you may just have a slow cooker on your hands. Patience… Seething, open-festering-wound patience… Ugh.
With all these relatively universal truths in mind, I leave you with a bit of parting advice on those tricky ACs: let them fail, but, if possible, let them fail in a way that won’t obliterate them entirely, especially if they’re under 25. Beyond that, it has to bet out of your hands. And good luck in the vitality of letting go.