Archive for September, 2009

On Aging (30 Years at Once)

Saturday, September 26th, 2009

One of my favorite birthday card greetings reads, “Youth is fleeting but immaturity lasts forever!”. This really resonates with me. Although I turn fifty next year, to some extent, I still feel like a kid. Every once in a while, I catch myself thinking about something that I’d like to do in the future and I say to myself, “I’ll do it when I grow up.”

I’ll go out on a limb here and venture that this permanent adolescense is a mostly male thing. Certainly, girls seem to mature quickly whereas “boys will be boys” and it’s only the price of toys that changes. I’ve known 20 year old women with comprehensive life plans and 40 year old men without a clue.

Recently, however, I’ve felt myself getting older — let me explain why. No, it’s not the gray hair, the paunch or the wrinkles. It’s not that I have one kid in college and another driving. It’s not that the I get the creeps when I see Hamilton Ford making out with Anne Heche in Seven Days and Seven Nights. It’s the sense that I’m finally an adult.

As a child, my world was controlled by my parents. I relied on them for my basic necessities as well as other things like transportation, advice and spending money. While I argued often with my father about the difference between age and wisdom, I recognize now how much I took for granted that he and my mother would take care of me. I knew that if I got into trouble or needed anything that I could rely on them to help me out.

When I went off to college, I learned to take care of myself, but still relied on my parents for the tuition bill. Even after graduating and getting a good job, I remember getting help from my parents to buy my first house.

Years later, having been very lucky with my timing in the high tech industry, I no longer relied on my parents for any financial reason (ultimately, I would help them buy a house). Nevertheless, I still talked to my parents about important decisions and knew they would at least listen and be supportive. Even when I was disagreeing with my father, I realize that he was, minimally, providing a foil that helped me think things through more clearly.

Beyond my parents, even though I was in my 20’s or 30’s, I still found myself deferring to older co-workers and admiring their experience, knowledge and their ease at dealing with life’s problems.

When I turned 40, some significant things happened. First, my father became increasingly senile and increasingly needed my help with things. Effectively, we switched places. The most dominant male in my life suddently became dependent on me. Second, I realized that I was no longer intimidated by anyone, that I had become the person to whom others looked for help and advice. In my work and personal life, I could deal with any situation that I encountered.

I think that I finally became an adult when my father died in 2001. At that point, not only did I lose my instinctual protector, I also took on the role of patriarch. Now, in the modern nuclear family, this isn’t the job it used to be. I don’t feel personally responsible for cousins, aunts, uncles and their step-counterparts. Even if my domain is limited to my immediate family (and, to some extent, my wife’s), however, I still feel the weight of my responsibility.

Fortunately, my patriarchical duties are still easy to carry out. I have to make sure that my mother is healthy, happy and comfortable (increasingly difficult now that she’s 88). I have to assure that my kids get into and/or survive college (I have one in college and another that’s a junior in high school). I have to make sure that our family’s finances are sound enough to do the things we want to do.

Nevertheless, this is no job for a child. When you realize that people are looking to you for protection and that you have no one else to turn to, it ages you immediately.

Great Expectations

Tuesday, September 8th, 2009

Several years ago, my daughter, Danielle, asked me if I’d be upset if she got a “code” violation at her school (the rough equivalent of a “detention”). I told her that I would but that, on the other hand, I’d also be concerned if she went through 13 years of schooling without ever getting one.

My point to her was that pushing limits and getting in trouble is behavior that is expected of teenagers and that, while I would be unhappy at one level, at another level I’d be more understanding.

A few years later, I had another discussion with her regarding the wisdom or folly of high school romances.  She commented out that they were pointless since everyone would head off to college and end their relationships. She thought that the short-term value was not worth the heartache and drama that would inevitably result. I countered that getting your heart broken, like getting in trouble, is also part of the teenage experience and that by not allowing it to happen that she was missing out on valuable experiences that would be more painful to suffer through later.

I further counseled her that, while the emotional trauma of breaking up is painful, that she could experience it at two levels at the same time. She could wallow in the drama while, deep-down, understanding that it would pass and life would go on. I explained that this was not cynicism or lack of genuine emotion; her heart would be broken. Tears would be shed. My point was that, in the middle of this pain, that she should still be able to understand that all of it was normal.

So, last Friday, as I prepared to leave my daughter at college, I had the opportunity to reflect on my own advice.

Dropping off a kid at school is hard. Think back to the day you left yours at Kindergarten and multiply that by 100. I’m heartbroken to set only 3 plates for breakfast this morning. I’m forlorn when I walk past her room and realize that she won’t be coming home to it tonight. There is a new emptiness in my life.

And, of course, I expected all of this. I can figuratively sit back in that smug corner of my brain and observe the drama of my response. I can anticipate that I will be sad until I hear from Danielle in a few days. I’ll then be momentarily elated only to be depressed again, unsure when I’ll next hear from her or how much more detail I’ll ever get on the happenings in her life. I’ll fall into a pattern of waiting for the next holiday that brings her back home or looking for opportunities to visit her.

Eventually, as with all things, the highs and lows will attenuate. I’ll get used to the idea of not having her around. In a couple of years, I’ll go through it again with my son but I know that sooner or later I’ll start enjoying the empty nest.

Yes, all this is normal. No, knowing it does not make it any easier.