Thursday, August 28, 2014

5 Things I Wish They’d Told Me Growing Up

Childhood is the infusion of lies into a gullible mind yet lacking in the capacity to discern reality.  No matter where you grew up or from what culture you hail, the bromides are typically the same:

Boogeyman and/or men reside under the bed.

Tooth fairies and bearded fat guys bring gifts like reverse-thieves in the night.

Fluffy went to “live on a farm.”

Everybody can be friends with everybody else.

You can do and be anything you want.

Those illusions get swept away early, much to no one’s real chagrin.  Of what I speak today are some of the larger lessons that I’ve culled over the past 14 years of my post-college life.  Hindsight being 20/20, it’s always easy to look back and say “what if?” but it’s ever more illuminating to look back and say “Why didn’t anyone tell me this?  Surely they knew it all along.” 

They probably never told me so that I could learn it for myself. 

Here are just a few, from the mundane to the sublime. 

1) Acne doesn’t magically go away when you turn 21 

And here I thought pimples and breakouts were nothing but adolescent scourges that would disperse the instant I could legally buy my first beer.  Little wonder considering that all sufferers on those commercials were teens seeking to “Oxycute” their zits into blackhead heaven.  

Nope, here I am in my mid-thirties, still battling the red and white blotches that creep up on my face, my back, my limbs with frustrating regularity.  Like irritating neighbor dogs or dates who never stop talking, the little mounds of irritated pussiness refuse to relent their campaign against the perfect skin I was promised awaited on the far end of voting age. 

I could have gone through two adolescences by now, but the result would be the same.

Plus, since I’m a dude, it’s not like I can just cover em up with makeup (I mean, unless I’m going to an ‘80s party dressed as Nikki Sixx). 

2) You will fall madly, stupidly, hopelessly, impossibly in love with someone who does not feel the same way about you 

If you’re one of the lucky few, you will experience this soul-crushing, humiliating, devastating death of hope only once.

If you’re unlucky like me, it happens not less than thrice. 

And if you’re Taylor Swift, you’ll make millions of dollars. 

3) 90 to 95 percent of everything you ever learn in school in useless 

Remember how your parents and teachers and church leaders and Bill Cosby drilled you constantly to stay in school, get good grades, blah blah blah?  While those goals are, in and of themselves, both valid and viable (especially for poorer communities, which I was fortunate not to grow up in), what nobody tells you is that you’ll spend the first 13 academic years of your life stuffing your head with facts, figures, dates and texts, most of which are, in the adult world, forgettable or unprofitable. 

To date, the two most valuable classes—as far as ROI goes—I have ever taken were Spanish and typing, both in 9th grade or earlier.  I got decent enough to type 80WPM and my Spanish is such that that were I to be airdropped into Central or South America, I’d probably do well enough to find my way to the embassy before being kidnapped.  I’ve worked in several restaurants and menial jobs over the years, where Spanish is as often the language behind the scenes as English.  I worked in a Pasadena restaurant where the pastry chef and I would talk not only to the support staff in Spanish but also as a windtalkers language to one another within earshot of management, who, though they spoke English and French and Armenian, could not speak Spanish.

I remember hating hating hating solving polynomial equations in Mrs. Patterson’s 8th grade math class.  I mastered the skill well enough to pass the tests and get a B (or, more likely, a C) but in my nearly 36 years of living on this planet, not once has Grand Master Nefarious come down from Planet Zutroid and thrown me into a maze of death that could only be escaped by successfully uncracking a polynomial phrase. 

I’m still waiting.  And if such ever comes to pass, I’m pretty much fucked, but I’ll surely die laughing.

Point being, the aim of young education is basically twofold—pass the tests, and get grades good enough to get into college.  Where yet more tests and more grades need to be passed to get into either another college or get onto the job market with a piece of paper. 

When I look back on my secondary and high school educations, I know that I had it damn good, and I truly appreciate it.  My aim here is not to discount the importance of education per se, but simply to point out that what is fed to us as “important” as children really isn’t.  What is important is that kids be given encouragement and options to increase their acumen outside of the “typical” realms of math, science and reading.  Many people just aren’t made for school or structures environment.  Many of us just need to find out our ways to chess club, drama, debate, our fellow nerds, etc. 

It’s a great thing to be educated and to increase your knowledge about the natural world.  But people who want to learn are going to learn.  Those who don’t won’t, no matter how many Scantron sheets you put in front of them.  Furthermore, “education” is a lifelong process that neither begins nor ends in the classroom.  I try to learn something new daily.

But there is a vast difference between being educated and being informed.  I personally define being “smart” as the total summation of your entire lexicon of knowledge—your so-called book smarts; I define “intelligence” as a person’s ability to use his or her accumulated wisdom to successfully navigate real-world problems and situations. 

Smart people can actually be amazingly unintelligent.

For instance, I dated a girl a decade ago whom I will call “Chary” (long, heartrending story).  Double major in computer science and pre-law.  Spoke several languages.  Could fix your computer like nobody’s business and was an expert on case law. 

But dumb as a fucking rock.  D-U-M-M (misspelling intentional).  The girl had absolutely no capacity to solve her way out of any problem that she couldn’t just throw money at (her family had some serious coinage).  Nor could she carry on any kind of intellectual conversation or engage in abstract concept construction or analysis in any way.  I remember she and I went to see Troy with Brad Pitt and afterwards we sat in the Jacuzzi at her apartment complex in Irvine, California, where I tried desperately to engage her in intercourse (no, not that kind—at least not at that moment) about the history and theory of warfare in the ancient world and how it had basically remained unchanged for millennia up until the 20th century, the film’s interpretation of such an ancient text as The Iliad, even the filmmaking process inherent onscreen. 

I got nothing.  Not even when I uttered that phrase men everywhere are loathe to ask their women: “What do you think?” 

It always bothered me in that relationship that we could never really discuss anything beyond surface level.  For shits and giggles (more shits than giggles), I Googled her a few years back to see that she’s doing well and is married.  She never had to work a day in her life, and no doubt is living well now.  “I’ve always had everything I’ve ever wanted,” the princess would say whenever I discussed the price of gas or the price of anything, for that matter.  I was then unemployed and struggling.  (Chary started a rather troubling pattern of mine to seemingly be drawn to spoiled rich women with little empathy for others.) 

In all of my dozens of job interviews over the years, no one has ever asked what my GPA was.  Nor even mentioned my degree, period.  Despite my attending a rather prestigious (to be read: expensive) private institution of higher learning, I cannot say that my degree ever got me anywhere in the job market.  In fact, I got hired for my first job in 2000 at a McGraw-Hill magazine because I tore apart some press releases my future boss had me edit with a red pen.  He was impressed that I’d been so “aggressive” in editing for readability.

I probably hadn’t diagrammed a sentence since grade school, nor edited anyone’s work but my own.  I’ve never taken a journalism class in my life, yet the lion’s share of my career has been in editing and writing.  I “trained” in fiction and poetry and filmmaking, so I basically entered a job for which I woefully unqualified and untrained.  Now my workdays are spent writing headlines—a skill for which I never trained but for the school of hard knocks and experience. 

Ask anyone if their degree comes to use in their professions.  Except for the rare specialists (scientists, engineers, medical professionals, lawyers), pretty much anyone with a liberal arts degree of any stripe brings home a paycheck in a business as far afield from their training as could be envisioned.  (See also: theater, philosophy.) 

The aphorism goes that you don’t go to college to learn, you go to college to learn how to drink.  I did no more or less than the next guy—though I’ve certainly made up for in adulthood.  But if I’d known…seriously known…that the job market was going to be so unsparing, I likely would have done things differently.

I don’t really believe in regrets.  I believe that any and all experience is instructive and to be learned from: Mistakes are more far more instructive than triumphs.  But if I seriously “had it to do all over again,” would I have allowed my 17-year-old self to go to college to train in film and TV and English? 

I came from a family where you went to college, you got a job and you bought a house within ten years.  To this day, my parents continue to marvel about how “your generation got screwed.”  I still do side work as a courier that my teen self could have done, and it pays about the same…and remains about as fulfilling.  Yet I’m thankful my parents believed in me and my artistic desires to be a writer and a filmmaker.  In fact, as I type this, a buddy and I are putting together a documentary film, and since I’m posting this blog…well, I’m writing, aren’t I?  :) 

But did I need a fancy degree and thousands of dollars of debt for such a privilege? 

About a year ago my younger brother and I had a late-night conversation over booze “and such.”  He’s a musician, a guitar teacher, and he has his own band.  He, my sister and myself were all privileged to attend expensive private universities to prepare us for careers.  Both he and I studied the arts.  So over stiff drinks, in the what-if-we-could-do-it-all-again arena, we more or less both came to the same conclusion:

We should have joined the Navy.  Put in our four years of service, gotten paid by Uncle Sam to travel the world and been trained in viable job skills.  Then gotten out, had the government pay for our educations, and then made “real” money by day while pursuing the dreams at night. 

There’s something to be said for stability.  Perhaps it makes you lazy, but there’s not much nobility in going hungry (he wrote over a sumptuous lunch of Ramen noodles). 

Selling out just means you can trade in for sushi.

As I say, I don’t believe in regrets, but it’s interesting using what I know now and applying it to what I might have done in another life.  Fact is, I didn’t have the confidence or the physicality at 17 to be in the service—even though they would have certainly provided both.  It’s ultimately existentially pointless to second-guess life, but my brother and I were only acknowledging, if but for ourselves, that if we’d known how it would be out there…maybe we would have chosen otherwise. 

But you can’t take what you know at 35 and cram it into a 17-year-old’s head.  He has to figure it out for himself. 

I tell my friends’ kids who are in high school that they should go to trade school, or do two years at a junior college.  Figure out what you want to do then, or at least start working on acquiring a viable job skill.  That’s not to say to forget the dream; nay, don’t ever forget the dream!  Just give yourself permission to develop a little bit of cynicism in conjunction with a bank account. 

You’ll thank yourself for it later. 

4) Your parents are just people

About two years ago I was hanging out with some buddies of mine in L.A.—a night of beer, LPs, smoking and conversation about all manner of topic.  One of my buds, Steve, and I grew up together in New Jersey, so we’ve each known the other’s family for decades.  Naturally the subject of blood relations and our aging parentals came up.  Steve was going into some anecdote relating to his mother when he said the following…in what I can only describe as one of those life-stopping instances:

“It’s a crazy moment when you come to the realization that your parents aren’t superhuman; they’re just people.” 

Little wonder that as kids our parents seem gigantic.  In addition to the plain fact that they, naturally, tower over us physically, they are also worldly.  In charge.  They know things we don’t and seem to be the gatekeepers of knowledge and the “secrets” that lie on the far side of that plateau to be breached only when you “grow up.” 

But then you get bigger and find out that the wisdom promised isn’t really like the opening of the Ark of the Covenant in Raiders.  There’s no formal ceremony welcoming you to adulthood, no pamphlet handed out on your 18th birthday entitled “Here’s the Stuff Your Parents Knew But Kept From, and So You Can Now Hold Back From Others.” 

Becoming an adult basically comes with the crushing existential discovery that there is no secret font of knowledge nor book of shadows into which one’s name is written upon maturity that our parents were privy to.  Rather, it’s get a job, pay bills, try to be a good and decent citizen, maybe marry and raise a family of your own and live as well and as long as you can. 

You essentially become what they once are or were.


We all take issue with the ways were raised.  The Ex, for all of her flaws, said something similarly profound about parenting: “They did they best they knew how to do.” 

That’s really all anyone can ask.  Try hard to get the little buggers from infancy to self-sustainability.  That’s not to say the “job” ever ends, because you’ll never stop being your parents’ child. 

Roger Ebert once wrote that a time comes in your life when your parents must relate to you as an adult—as an equal—or not at all.  I don’t even pretend to know what that would even look like as my folks still relate to me like I don’t know any better.  They mean well, of course.  No matter how old you get, you’re still treated like you’re about 10.  It’s what parents do.  Even into your adulthood. 

It’s a disinclination to relinquish a control and power they’ve had over you since infancy, when all life and all destiny rested within their hands.  Admitting to one’s child’s adulthood is the same as admitting that time is having its inevitable way.  A last-ditch pitched battle against the fading of the light. 

“Make sure you call if you’re going to be out late.”

When I lived at home a few years back, I fought the inquiries the best way I knew how: with ludicrous answers.

“Who are going to meet?  Do these people have names?”
“Oddly enough, they don’t.  It’s really weird.  I can them One, Z and Hey You.”

“Where are you going?”
“Pick up the hookers and drop off the drugs.”

“When do you think you’ll be back?”
“Sometime in 2018.  Don’t wait up.” 

Most parents are good people.  I believe in my heart that nearly all of them mean well.  But they possess no superpowers.  They’re flawed and frail, just like the rest of us.  Raising the next generations of uncertain and precious continuants of the species.

We do the best that we can.

5) Dating is often a better way to make friends than to find a mate

Dating fucking sucks.

In your teens and twenties, sex is almost everything—the end all and be all. 

In your thirties, it’s just another way of saying “hi.” 

When you’re younger, the “typical” courting pattern is you’ll meet someone, go out on a few dates, get it on, and then either start becoming more serious or not.  In your thirties, it’s the exact opposite: Sex comes first, and then maybe you’ll figure out if you actually like one another enough to tolerate the person’s non-drunk daytime conversation.  (As I get older, I find that most of the time, I prefer the silence and the solitude.) 

No one told me that’s what dating was going to be like.  Nor how awful it is “out there.”  How much sadness and brokenness exists amongst those who have crossed my path.  How that nearly four decades of singlehood—and one extremely tumultuous long-term relationship—might actually make me more disinclined towards an eventual partnership.

Nor was I AT ALL prepared for the fact that dating scenarios might actually be the road to making some of the best friends I’ve ever had. 

Here’s something else they never told us: A true friendship between a man and a woman cannot be equitable and trusting until any sexual tension has first been acknowledged, discussed and addressed.  Then—and only then—can undeniable confidence in the relationship (small “r”) blossom.  If it’s really there—and ESPECIALLY if it’s felt by one party and not the other—mature adults will find a way to either deal with it in a healthy way or move on to other platonic relationships unencumbered by such tension. 

(Or you can like I did and hold it in, lie about it, and then have it come out in a destructive way.  But thankfully, I learned from that one, but I was as naked and broken in that moment as is possible for someone to be.)

I hate those movies where the two long-suffering “best friends” eventually realize they are perfect for one another 90 minutes from now (although When Harry Met Sally... is an absolute gem).  While I’ll acknowledge that this can and does happen, what’s far more common is the path from romantic to platonic than the other way around (alcohol notwithstanding). 

One of my best friends I met through a dating website a few years ago.  Neither of us were at a place in our lives where we wanted anything serious.  So she gave me only one caveat: “Whatever you do, please don’t ever lie to me.”  In the early months, I was unfortunately not able to be as truthful with her as she asked (often about my other dating activities), and she rightfully called me on it.  But, as time went on, though we realized we were not meant to be a couple, we found that we seriously, seriously enjoyed the other’s company.  There germinated an understood, implicit trust.  She’s someone I now call a friend—a best friend.

Not only that, but she’s someone I can go to for advice about other women since she knows my habits (good and bad) and what it’s like to date me.  Because I did A with her, maybe I should try B this time.  She won’t sugarcoat, and often says, “Oh, honey, you can do better.” 

I’ve made other friends in the dating realm as well.  Alcohol and chemistry made the initial days what they were, but things then either fizzle or die or change. 

Or you become friends.  Which is actually often better sometimes than having a partner.  I’ve been “single” now for nearly six years (though anyone who knows me even passingly is aware of how I use that particular loaded term), and I find it more fun to collect friends than to find a mate.  Frankly, I’m tired.  And at this juncture, I’m enjoying my time alone too much.  I still date, I have adventures, but there’s nothing like the hours I spend punching away at my keyboard while downing some bourbon. 

No music.  No TV. 

No talking.

Silence and my thoughts.  And the unencumbered race of the cursor across my laptop screen. 

And one final thing they never told me:

Silence is more than golden; it’s precious.

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