A friend once sent me, How to Be an Adult, a book on what it takes to grow up and live as a mentor, leader, and a caring hopeful person. In my years on the planet, I’ve always appreciated the good mentors I had as a young person and the qualities they lived as generative adults. The book reaffirmed many of their good qualities and gave me ideas on how to be an adult.
In general, I’ve tried to be like them, and while I’ve not always succeeded, I’ve often felt that if I needed adult models, I could find them easily enough. But adults are hard to find these days; I don’t mean people older than 18, I mean real adults that know how to engage in difficult conversations without melting down into clumsy, oafish, insecure or defensive postures. It seems as if civility has left the stage in the dramatic play we call humanity.
But I call everything I’ve learned into question when talking with my son. This is good. I’m not afraid of critical thinking, and though I’ve not been parenting him for a long time, I still see him whenever I can. I listen and try to understand what he is and how he’s doing.
Living alone in a small wilderness cabin, he’s fired by the adrenaline of deep woods and testosterone. Around him, I feel out of touch, like an old-fashioned adult showing up to a party at the wrong address.
I guess this is what it feels like to be dismissed and irrelevant; both men and women feel this sometimes, but maybe now more than ever. For those of us with sons or daughters, its’ not just the inevitable generation gap we deal with, it’s also the political zeitgeist taxing our sensibilities.
When I’m with my son, it’s obvious he thinks I’m over-the-hill and out of it. He mocks my statements and ridicules the clothes I wear. He laughs, but means it when saying my grey leather jacket is effeminate (not the words he uses), and says, “It’s a good fit for Michael Jackson.” For fun, and to show that humor is a good aside to have in any play, when I see him I wear the leather jacket with a hat and one white leather glove. His howl of derision sounds like his Siberian husky.
He makes fun of my pants as too baggy or tight. My opinions are subjects of derision – even when he agrees with them – yet insists that I should be like someone else. He mentions a man about my age with more gray hair, a more broken-down body, a shaggier mustache and a questionable character history. He’s a guy I wouldn’t call an adult. This sounds judgmental, but it’s not, it’s critical; and I’ve already stated my admiration for critical thinking.
While his rhetoric sounds mean, most of the time its more negative than angry; as when dissing participation in voting, or hash-tagging society a waste of time, a veil of tears, a raggedy retinue of pain and occasional pleasure.
He sees relationships, like most everything else, as temporary; and according to him, I’m soft and getting softer. “You just need to start working hard man. Go somewhere and cut wood from sunup to sundown until you work the pain out of your arms and shoulders, “he said.
This summer, we went to a brewery where he pointed out a beautiful young woman. I noticed tattoos. “She shags like mink,” he tells his old man, and I see his lips flash his ‘cock o the walk’ smile. I thought of “Percy’s Song” and Bob Dylan’s voice echoed in my ear:
The judge spoke out of the side of his mouth
turn turn turn again.
Sayin,“The witness who saw he left little doubt”
turn turn to the rain and the wind.
In that moment, I wished I was not an adult; it’s the dramatic act in a play where the antagonist and protagonist meet and someone gets the upper hand. I wanted to leave the stage. Adulthood is too hard I thought. Instead of being a responsible human, I could be the rain or wind, and as rain or wind, I would not sting myself. I could go where I wanted and fall where I wanted with no questions asked.
My imagination welcomed the idea of someone or something baptizing me anew or taking me up in a cloud of escape so I could join Ezekiel sawing his wheel way up in the middle of the air. Adulthood sucks but there is always more.
“It’s all corrupt. It’s painful. I can hardly stand the world’s hurt,” he said. I was alarmed, so I questioned him about suicide. He assured me he was not going to do it. I was not at ease. Like Leonard Cohen, he wants it darker if it can’t be kinder. “The dealer wants you thinking that it’s either black or white,” Cohen wrote, but adults deal in the shaded space between. Like Bob Dylan, I follow the shadows and think to myself that it’s not dark yet, but is damn-well getting there.
His howl comes from a place of deep betrayal and I understand my role in that. I face darkness too. I feel the gravity of bad cultural mojo too. I understand pain too. Still, my ego does not want suicide.
I look at the cards in my hand and I don’t know what to play. I think the dealer was el coyote, and he dealt a hand most foul. I have no trump-card; my possible moves are choices between terrible and horrible, and I now understand Woody Allen and existential angst.
At the mercy of false-fingers and false-faces; my hand leads me to think there was never a true card in the deck. All cards are fake, and I’m alarmed to learn the food of our republic is fake too: so are the jobs, the games, the reality TV shows, the boobs, the butts, and the idea of freedom.
I’ve come to the sad realization that the game I’ve been part of is called “Who’s the Greediest,” and I’m glad to have lost. Many of us lost. The shark tank is everywhere. El coyote shuffled the deck and the Trickster won; Las Vegas is the Capitol in the New Republic of gaming.
He thought of traveling
heard an approaching train
drown out his desperate heart
a song with no refrain.
-Elvis Costello, “Country Darkness”
What I can do is affirm and index his pain. And because he takes pride in his ability to overcome, I avoid minimizing. He would be insulted by denial of his truth and his right to say it. I’ve been transparent with him and he knows I’m ashamed of my weaknesses: a self-critical and frequently self-defeatist attitude. He understands me too, because both of us are Midwest sons of guns and roses; and these objects of threat and blood, love and death, give me the guts to be honest with myself and to hear the pathos of his honesty.
If I know anything about the Midwest, it’s that we don’t have the weather to grow laid-back and cool, so we take pride in bearing a hope most stubborn, fooling ourselves into thinking severe weather is nothing, so we rage against the machine with big odds piling up against us.
The times are nightfall, watch a world undone.
-Gerhard Manley Hopkins
Some friends live in the woods. They chose to build far from society. They work hard to avoid popular commerce and its all-consuming shallowness. Living deep in the forest, there’s no driveway to the front door and getting to their home requires walking steep hills through rough country and then following a small path to take a suspension bridge over a creek. They host an alternative 4th of July party and gather together a drum circle once a month.
They are adults of another stripe, aware enough to distrust society and see it as I do: a boiling humanity deep fried in greed and fired by a non-ending appetite for evermore junk. They eschew America as they would a group of diners at a greasy spoon, chewing on food that will not satisfy; tired Americans preferring walls over windows, and stuffing their faces while asking themselves between spoonsful of instant mashed potatoes and gravy, “Where’s the beef?”
My son is not in the diner, but neither is he completely one of the woodsy neo-Luddites; he’s not far enough away from roads, not quite done with commerce, not yet completely self-sustaining. But he’s like them: standing apart, distrustful and cynical about government, believing in his own cunning and capability. Like them, he’s resourceful and athletic and has as much endurance and capability to carry, bring, and bear as anyone I’ve known.
In a few weeks, by the power of his arms, along with axe and chainsaw, he split and stacked wood for the cold months. It’s required when living in wintry northern Michigan, an area that brings freezing temperatures for months; where snow can fall continuously for 48-hours, piling up by feet, not inches.
To survive not just this winter, but the cold and violent climate of society, he’ll need to call on all his endurance. This winter, snow and gravity will test both him and his roof, taxing their capacity for heavy load-bearing.
The principalities and powers have let him roam. I can almost see the gods of Olympus toying with him; the spoiled prisoners of their own divinity casually throwing him a bone for sport. I imagine them watching him float or sink on a sea of his own making while occasionally sending pieces of driftwood on which to rest. I love him and fear for him. I love and fear for my daughters too, and I fear for the future of the US republic and I’m worried for the health of planet Earth.
Much writing offers a “how to.” I don’t really have that, but I do have a what now for adults. A “how to” cannot fix existential dread, a list cannot effectively patch a deeply wounded populace of men or women, a “how to” manual on anything deeply humane is a Red Herring.
Solutions are local, individual, centered in the core of real conversation, real love, real and honest hard interpersonal work, real community, and real sacrifice. Solutions are not in a book either, but they are in the words of a book lived into the act, the play, the dramatic dialogue and fabric of US.
A first truth is my commitment to an inclusive human family: my head is hanging low because I am Tom Dooley in North Carolina, I am Trayvon Martin in Florida, I am Hussain Saeed Alnahdi in Wisconsin, I am Rosa, a hard-working, tired woman sitting on a bus in Alabama, I am my son in a cabin, I am the neo-Luddite in the woods. Yes, I feel clumsy, oafish, and insecure; but I admit this truth with the same honest ferocity I have to change the foundation of its narrative.
A second truth is that I will keep this bigger tribe in the great prayers of my ancestors, and that I will offer myself as warrior and host here and now. It’s not yet my time to dine in the victorious great-hall; the eschatological banquet will have to wait.
A third truth is that I am going to participate in and support: local artisans, local businesses, local families, local libraries, local museums, and choose local commerce whenever I can.
A fourth truth is that I am working to be a better man for myself and those around me.
A fifth truth is that I am going to be critical; adults can handle critical thinking.
A sixth truth that I will look for ways to exchange materials and work for money. I will be pleased to give less to the machine and its inhumane machinations. This machine has everyone tied in knots. Here’s my job: learn to untie knots.
A seventh truth is that when the time calls I will engage in Civil Disobedience, which is really, a higher form of moral obedience.
It’s likely my son would ridicule my list, but he would understand my preference for countercultural investments and cultural divestments. He knows there is something rotten in the play; it’s not Denmark, it’s here.
Here I stand in a culture that’s focused on locks and keys, walls and scapegoats, guns and security. That’s not what I want. And maybe my son is smarter than me. When I talk to him, it seems like it. Without question, he’s stronger. But I will give more to see him live, give more to see him prosper, give more to see him at peace. I will give more for my daughters, give more for my partner, and give all for my tribe.
That is my strength and the strength of real adult men, real adult women, and all real people that won’t be defined by divisive labels of any kind. I may be insecure in the America without empathy, but I’m not alone, and like others, I’m willing and able to exert my generative will to give all I have in manning up to the dramatic dialogue in search of adults.
Richo, D. (1991). How to Be an Adult: A handbook on psychological and spiritual integration. New York: Paulist Press.