Monday, October 05, 2015

Growing Up

I suppose all of us can point to some piece of art or other that has had a direct, significant, and positive influence on our lives. For me, one of those was the Talking Heads song "Once In A Lifetime."

I was a 19-year-old college freshman when this song was released along with this video that blew our minds when we saw it on MTV. It still shocks me that this seminal song about a mid-life crisis was written and performed by such young artists, but I also know it's true that youth often sees things more clearly than we old people. To this day, lines from this song dance through my brain with such regularity that they have become part of who I am.

And you may ask yourself
Well, how did I get here?

And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful house.
And you may tell yourself
This is not my beautiful wife. 

Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was
Same as it ever was . . . 

And the line that lives in my head almost every day:

And you may say to yourself
"My God, what have I done?

I vowed back in 1981, that I would never be that man. I would never be in a position to ask myself "How did I get here?" I would never look around and say, "This is not my beautiful wife." I would never live a life that was the "same as it ever was." And while I've often found myself thinking, "My God! What have I done?" it was not going to be because life had snuck up on me. It's because of this song that I can honestly say that I lived a relatively conscious life; striving to be aware each day; to be certain that I am doing what I should be doing, or at least headed where I should be headed; of not merely going from one thing to the next because it's on some "to do" list or map; and never letting others do my thinking for me.

It's not always easy living this way because it usually has meant that I'm always at least somewhat dissatisfied. Sometimes it seems like it would be cool to just coast for awhile, let my mind go numb, let the days go by, but I think that's how you wind up in places you don't recognize as your own. I like knowing exactly how I got here. This is my beautiful wife who I choose every day. No one has ever lived a life like mine. And while I've done things I wish I hadn't, my regrets are at least about things I did rather than didn't do. I stand today without a single reservation about where I am or where I'm going. If I was given a chance to start over, I'd do it exactly the same way, eyes wide open, never plodding, never a drone, never getting lost in the herd. I just can't imagine having a mid-life crisis . . . Either that, or I've lived my entire life as a kind of crisis and the mid-life one just sort of blended in. I honestly can't say which, not that it matters in any material way.

That doesn't mean I'm a goal driven zealot. On the contrary, I've quite consciously drifted through careers and countries, having no plan other than to hang out with smart, comfortably eccentric people. I guess if I've ever had a goal in life, it has been to become a smart, comfortably eccentric person, and my strategy has been to hang out with smart, comfortably eccentric people, not to become like them, but rather to become one of them. The best part of consciously drifting, of course, are the unanticipated rewards. I was just drifting about after college three decades ago when I met the smartest, most comfortably eccentric person of them all. Jennifer and I have had an action-packed, ton-of-fun, one-critical-moment-to-the-next kind of journey, one that simply doesn't permit us to go unconscious.

The price we've paid, of course, has been in terms of anxiety and stress, but I find that infinitely preferable to numbness or the horror of one day waking up to realize you've waited your life away. No amount of sports cars or hair plugs can fix that. The anxiety and stress, like the joy and love, are evidence of being alive, right now, in this moment. The satisfaction is always mixed with dissatisfaction: you enjoy one and do what you can about the other, knowing always that there is more dissatisfaction awaiting. Without the dissatisfaction you might as well be dead.

When people talk about those jobs of tomorrow or planning for the future or permanent records or college and career readiness or whatever, they are talking about "growing up," about sacrificing yourself on the alter of same as it ever was. The two-year-olds I teach don't give a hoot about your growing up, because, unlike most of us, they're focused on the only thing that's real: today and the things and people they find there. We habitually coax and quiz them about what they are going to be when they grow up, and they sometimes play the game with us, pretending they care, but they don't, they can't, not really. Honestly, we should stop doing that to them and instead learn to enter into their world alongside them, because that's a real place, unlike the fantasy lands of tomorrow and yesterday where we usually spend our time, worrying in anticipation or stewing in guilt.

I am incredibly grateful to the Talking Heads for this work of art that has had such a direct impact on my life and even more grateful to the two-year-olds in my life who continue to teach me what it really means. I have this mental experiment I like to perform, a dream really, in which I imagine that this current generation of two-year-olds all decide to live their lives as dancers. That's it, dancers, all of them. I mean, isn't that kind of what all of us would do if we really lived for today? Dance. Imagine even if ten percent of them decided to live their life as dancers. Our world would never be the same. We would have no choice but to build a world based upon dance. It would be a place where no one bothers to grow up.

Because what "growing up" usually means is to live dumb and numb until one day you ask yourself, "My God, what have I done?"

In the early nineties, Jennifer and I found ourselves living in Germany. It wasn't something we'd planned, but when the chance to wing away to a foreign land came up, we leaped. She had been a lifelong entrepreneur, so the Volkswagen corporate bureaucracy was exciting and exotic, but it wasn't long before we realized where that particular road lead, however: twenty years of keeping our noses clean, promotions, then a comfortable retirement. Same as it ever was.

While Jennifer was trying to wrestle her job into something that didn't leave her pissed off every day, I wound up coaching the Wolfsburg Yahoos baseball team, at the time a second division club comprised of young men in their 20's. Most of them were either VW factory workers or students. Their lives, however, revolved around baseball as did mine. I'd played and coached ball in the states, but I'd never had more fun than with these young German men who once listed for me their life priorities as, "Family first, hobbies second, and jobs last." It seemed like they had it figured out and my "today" was these guys, and the rocky field on which we played, surrounded by elderly Turkish immigrant women who emerged each day from the nearby apartments to watch something they could hardly have understood.

Jennifer managed to turn her job into one that involved tons of travel, often in the company of rock and roll legends (Rolling Stones, Genesis, Pink Floyd) or to places hosting exiting events like the Olympics (Barcelona, Lillehammer), but we both knew it wouldn't last. The dissatisfactions were coming to outweigh the satisfactions. And besides, we had always been on borrowed time there. She and I were nails that were sticking up in a world that pounds them down, so instead of waiting to be told to grow up, we one day did the most courageous thing we had done up to that point. Few ever voluntarily leave the golden handcuffs, but we did, inspired in no small measure by "Once In A Lifetime."

It was right around this time that another piece of art came into my life, a song by Tom Waits called, "I Don't Want To Grow Up."

The idea of working with young children was still more than a decade away as I listened to this song over and over again, feeling so much like the man-child hiding out in a cardboard box playing my tiny guitar, spending my days playacting the role of baseball coach and husband of a very serious German business executive, who was herself playing a role. Waits is singing about the dissatisfactions, the meaningless things we're taught to care about, the things that take us away from our true purpose in life, which is to be dancers.

I don't want to have to shout it out.
I don't want my hair to fall out.
I don't want to be filled with doubt.
I don't want to be a good Boy Scout.
I don't want to have to learn to count.
I don't want to have the biggest amount.
I don't want to grow up.

When I see the 5 o'clock news,
I don't want to grow up.
Comb their hair and shine their shoes,
I don't want to grow up
Stay around in my old hometown.
I don't want to put no money down.
I don't want to get me a big old loan.
Work them fingers to the bone.
I don't want to float a broom.
Fall in love and get married then boom,
How the hell did I get here so soon?
I don't want to grow up.

And there it is again, that question, "How did I get here?" It's a question I've never asked and I will continue to strive with ever fiber of my being to never find myself asking it.

Seems like folks turn into things
That they'd never want
The only thing to live for is today.

And that's it in a nutshell. Growing up is most often just a nicer way of saying "selling out." Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional. You'll only find out what you're going to be and where you're going when you get there, but you can, today, consciously choose your life, embracing the satisfactions and doing something about the dissatisfactions. In the meantime, I've learned, the only thing that matters is today and the things and people I find there.

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It took me decades to start to figure out what "growing up" really means (or should mean). What I've concluded so far is that it (at least) means two things:

1) Thinking for oneself (a topic which is wrought with subtlety and is probably deserving of its own essay, but is ultimately rooted in skepticism [even of one's own positions], avoidance of intellectual sloth, and attribution of proper weight to information one receives independent of one's biases); and
2) Becoming self-reliant (and ultimately reliable to others under your care).

It's sad we don't focus more explicitly on learning these skills, mindsets, etc. Instead, as you point out, we seem to place inappropriate importance on merit-badge like "accomplishments" that (I'm guessing) were meant to serve as proxies: college, marriage, home ownership, having (but not necessarily nurturing) children, getting promoted, accumulating power, etc.

Perhaps becoming self-reliant has been correlated with these behaviors in the past, but drawing the conclusion that, if you tick off these boxes, you will become self-reliant probably (and dangerously) inverts any causal relationship. Worse, it loses sight of what's really important: integrity, and critical thinking.

Thanks for the post.