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Friday, July 10, 2009

Work In Progress

I’m sending this one out to all the young people in the world.

It’s no secret that I’ve become a little crusty in my 30’s. I didn’t want to be like this. I remember being very positive about the future. By the age of 30 I was going to be living the high life as an actor in Hollywood. There I would be, sitting by the pool of my palatial estate, while Susanna Hoffs brings me another mojito. Hey, it was 1989 and I was only 14. Give me a break. Apart from the fact that we didn’t get any flying cars, this was going to be a reality by now.

But somewhere along the way, I lost the mission. I don’t know if it was when I graduated high school and started being assaulted with all the crap that is the superficiality of college freshmen, but it seems to be a place to look more closely at. Seriously, after surviving the culture shock that is your first year of college, you look back at the next group of rookies to join the ranks of higher learning and you just want to vomit. Maybe we were all like that and didn’t notice it. I always felt that people, who were younger than me, didn’t handle things better than we did at that age. It always seemed like they looked smaller or acted less mature. Apparently, I wasn’t seeing the trees for the forest like I did back then.

Inverted, agricultural idioms, aside, this newly self proclaimed age of wisdom, that was my sophomore year, took place in 1994. Kurt Cobain was already dead from self inflicted lead poisoning and grunge was on life support. Being from the subural (part suburb/part rural) part of Western Pennsylvania, we were often considered hillbillies and red necks, but we were proud of it. There was a joke that the Mason Dixon line took a detour and ran through my hometown separating the city from the farm communities. In any case, usual attire of the denizens of my hometown did consist of at least two to three flannel shirts. That being said, I had a moment, one day, where I just snapped. I was walking back from the Student Union and I saw freshmen congregating outside the dormitory lobby wearing flannel shirts tied around their waist. I was appalled at this desecration. How could they be so…impractical?

Soon, however, the look was replaced by a retrospective musical trip down through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, over the next two years, leading to a vintage look manufactured in present time. Peasant blouses and flared jeans were sold in these little boutiques that pretended to be vintage but were just made a year before in some sweat shop overseas. Superficial fashion and musicality took on a whole new distressed look and it just made my blood boil. It was like we were all afraid to be original. The music industry and clothing designers phoned it in, and we began to cling to our previous roots to try and find something that could identify our generation’s entrance into adult hood. We were just shy of being in the age of the Reality Bites and Singles characters and too old for the Mickey Mouse Pop Tart Boy Band Brigade. We were lost and this schizophrenic soundtrack we had going on didn’t help much.

What didn’t change was the influx of college students that brought their high school hang-ups into the social culture. High school was a fashion show and popularity contest. Every day was American Idol results and elimination day. However, college was all about being comfortable. Granted, on Thursday nights, when girls would go out to the bars and meat markets, they glammed it up, but it was nothing to see the same coed sitting in Intro to Anthropology in a sweatshirt, pajama bottoms, slippers, and pony tail pulled through the back of a ball cap. As soon as kids shed that last bastion of peer pressure to fit into a clique in their high school microcosm, they finally began to transition into the real world and their ambivalence towards society was near complete.

Now, I’m going to pull out a pop culture guilty pleasure reference here, and believe me it took two years for me to even dare to watch this show, but Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a perfect encapsulation of what real life was like for young adults. And before all you Twilight geeks start saying, “Oh Buffy was the Twilight/True Blood of your generation” I’m already giving you the middle finger from my childhood. Buffy was not the (insert knock off Vampire franchise of 2008/2009 here) of my generation. The Lost Boys was. Near Dark was. Twilight and True Blood are the 90210 and Melrose Place of your generation. Twilight is the kids in high school. True Blood is the adults living in an apartment complex, sleeping with, and trying to kill each other. Granted, I will give True Blood more credit than Melrose Place. It’s still a popcorn confection, though. Yeah, I know Buffy was trendy and hip, but it wasn’t as mainstream and it didn’t get the attention that it deserved. That was probably for the better.

Now, I had a point here…

Oh yeah.

Go back and watch Buffy’s fourth season, paying close attention to episodes entitled "The Freshman" and "Harsh Light of Day", then go out and buy the series box set and realize that Twilight is crap.

Here you have a female lead who is the chosen one to fight the forces of evil in the world. In high school she wasn’t the most popular girl, but she was the strongest person in her peer group. OK, go with me on this. It’s a metaphor for being at the top of the high school food chain.

Then when she starts college, she meets a group of college campus vampires that basically stomp her into the ground. This is what happens to you when you bring that social inflexibility into a bigger pond. The small fish will get devoured. She finally makes that transition and defeats the group. In "Harsh Light of Day", the parallel of her emotional being gets destroyed after investing more heart and soul into a one night stand, only to find that she’s just a notch on a guy’s bed post. This is college in a nutshell. You come in like a glass tiger and end up being shattered by a well thrown grain of sand.

By the time I graduated I was about to be in pieces. I was still convinced my future was paved in red carpet and Oscar gold, but afterwards, I had lost some of my hopeful spark. I joined the ranks of the temporarily employed, then unemployed, then near homeless, and finally started over again at the bottom. 12 years later, I have attained some delusions of mediocrity but the engine is running and I am moving forward, somewhat. Perhaps somewhere along the way from graduation to working class, I lost the rest of my goodwill. I just started to feel some of it come back but that changes with the weather a lot of times and I find myself spending more time climbing the hills then coasting along the tops of them.

But it was after college that something happened to the average coed. There was a massive swing in genetics and attitude. Kids that were two to three years younger than me looked and acted five years older. I remember being very drunk and very inappropriate at a college campus, right after I graduated, and at some point in the darkness there was this realization that I can’t be that guy. I can’t be the guy that pretends to be worldly and wise. I can’t pretend to be cool and the older tougher man, when I was still immature and broken. It wasn’t fair to other people and I didn’t want to hurt anyone in my suicide bombing of the relationship marketplace. It was like a midlife crisis where the balding 50 something guy starts dating girls in their 20s. Here I was trolling college campuses, still smarting from a college relationship gone sour, and I really needed time to work on me before I could work on a “we.”

Now, I am grizzled and jaded and scoff at the youth of the world. “Damn kids, get off my lawn.” “Pull up your pants. “ “Put your hat on, facing the front or the back, not off to the side.” But what I really want to do is sit some kid down and give them reassurance that things will change for the better if they just keep moving. Kids are swirling around a turbulent nexus nowadays. The economy, wars in multiple countries, health care, the job market, and social security all threaten to prevent them from succeeding in the world. Add to that the reports, lately, of teen relationships turning violent and murderous and you have a generation in crisis. Now, these relationship issues are not a new thing. Go read some Shakespeare. There was all kind of angst and family disapproval and extremes in terms of devotion to significant others all while the characters were younger than 18. Take Romeo and Juliet, for instance….no, not the Leo DiCaprio version. Pick up a damn book. Crack open that musty goodness for once. Don’t YouTube it.

Everything is magnified tenfold to a younger person. I see the inability to understand this concept of time in my two year old daughter and it just resonates adolescence to me. If you tell her that we are going to go “bye byes” she is at the steps, with blanket and bottle in hand, ready to go. You may have another five minutes worth of trip prep in store, but she wants to go, now. In essence, we were the same way as teenagers and even into our early 20s. We thought that the present state of things was going to last forever. My two longest relationships before meeting my wife lasted just shy of two years apiece but I thought each one was going to be forever. I was going to marry and raise a family with them both during our respective times together. I never allowed for flexibility in personality or environment and they both ultimately failed.

When I met my wife, I wasn’t in it for the long haul. I just didn’t have it in me to get heavily invested in something that had hit the wall previously after two years, especially with the gap in age between us. I was 23 and she was 19. She had a lot more growing to do and basically, so did I. I had to step back and realize that the behavior and personality traits that she is exhibiting now will change and I need to recognize that she will eventually meet and surpass my level of maturity and that’s when I’ll know that we are ready to move to the next level.

Now, it sounds as if I was testing her and putting her through some kind of probationary period before I would commit to a life with her. It was quite the opposite. I was the one under the microscope. I had everything to lose. She had to wait for me to learn to walk. I considered myself damaged goods and she was the one test driving me to see if I could earn her love and that was the best thing. I learned a lot about patience and communication. I learned how to grow with someone instead of dragging them down. She taught me more about being an adult then I learned on my own.

The culmination of all this occurred when she was diagnosed with MS in 2001. After the initial diagnosis she told me to break up with her. She didn’t want me to put my life on hold because she was broken. She thought it wasn’t fair to me that she was diseased (her words), and I shouldn’t have to devote the next 30 years of my life to pushing her in a wheelchair. Was it a little dramatic, yes, but not far from the real fear a lot of people experience in a similar situation. But, it was that moment when I knew it was time to put up or shut up. She was willing to resign herself to a life of solitude, thinking she’d never find anyone willing to take a chance on someone with an expiration date. And I realized that perhaps my biggest problem with commitment was actually having something to commit to. Maybe my purpose in life was to be with her. We were kind of like a lava lamp. She kept me tethered to the ground, never letting me float away and I kept her from falling down completely. For the record, she’s fine. She’s had two real flare ups in eight years and has a lot of her Mother’s spirit in her to fight.

This is one of the main problems I have with organized sporting activities for children. I’ve seen some soccer groups where they don’t keep score. T-Ball is not challenging to kids. We’ve taken the pass/fail option away from the children and when they grow into an environment, such as a middle school or junior high, that pressure to do well is not ingrained in them because as a child, everyone played and no one lost. If you can get past the tangents and exposition maybe you can find that real nugget of wisdom in all this. “Kids, it’s ok to fail.” In fact, I think everyone has to fail to understand how to deal with success. Whatever is bothering you now will make you laugh later. So, I say to the youth of today the following truths. WORD OF NOTE: These are by no means personal experiences. However, you should be able to identify with each one.

  1. That guy who shit all over you at the prom by going off to some dark corner with his ex, you will love someone who is ten times the man this jerk could ever hope to be. He will worship you. And you will lose him too. A few years later you will find someone else. It will probably happen by accident and all the crap you put up with and dished out over the years in previous relationships will only serve to make you ready to deal with the reality of love.
  2. Remember that popular girl you fawned all over in English? You know the one who smiled at you, instantly sending out that misunderstood subliminal message that she was ready to stop dating assholes on the football team, and be with someone who would treat her like a princess. She would confide in you how her boyfriend is cheating on her and that you are such a nice guy and a good friend. No lie, she’s going to write that in your yearbook as well as every other guy she’s not interested in, too. Guess what? She’s going to continue to date stupid assholes and there’s nothing you can do about it. You’re going to meet someone who has a heart and soul a hundred times more powerful than this person and she will call you to the floor on every little bullshit thing you do for your own good.
  3. You there with the sad sack look and emo fashion sense. Did you just break up with your girlfriend? That’s ok. Yeah, I know you both said you would be together forever. You had baby names already picked out and knew exactly what your house would look like when you got married in a big old church with a string orchestra playing the wedding march. It doesn’t matter. She’s going to finish college, get a job at an investment firm and meet this other guy. They are going to get married and move to some other state, far away. She’ll quit her job to have three gorgeous kids. He’s going to become a top account manager at his firm and she will start on online business at home, doing consulting work. Where’s the silver lining? She’s going to find you on Facebook one day and though you won’t ever know it, she became the person she is because of you and she still thinks about you from time to time. If she would have stayed with you, you both would have ended up working two jobs to make ends meet. Besides, you weren’t really ready for a heavy relationship and you’re only a few years away from that CD release party for that album you put together because of the experience. In fact, there’s a track on it named after her. Just keep plugging away. It’s going to happen.
  4. And you, yes you there with these grand plans to be a world famous chef. No one can tell you otherwise, I know. You are so sure that you are going to succeed that you decline all advice to take business courses or any other well rounding subjects into consideration. You are going to drop out of culinary school and get a job working in a restaurant as a Sous Chef. You’re never going to be appreciated and you will always get shit on at work regardless of that talent you know you have. So, instead of waiting for that casino or resort to open near you, solving all your problems, take some business courses or something else and give yourself an edge when it comes to your career. You’ll open that restaurant and do quite well. But you have to be patient and allow for some detours in life. Be flexible and not so headstrong. Learn to sail into the wind as well as running.

Now, all of you go out there and make the world a better place…and pull up your pants and stop listening to that God awful music.

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