Sunday, April 1, 2012

Turn! Turn! Turn!

"For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven." (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

I suck at this. Always have.

At a "well baby" visit, when my daughter was about a year-and-a-half old, the doctor asked about twenty developmental-progress kinds of questions. One of the last of these was whether the child could jump and get both of her feet off the ground. We didn't know; we'd never asked. So, while the doctor went away to get something, my wife and I jumped up and down in the exam room, and tried to get the kid to do the same. Turns out that she could, and the doctor checked off another little box on his form.

This experience has become a kind of shorthand for thousands of parenting choices we've had to make since then--"Is this a jump-with-both-feet-off-the-ground thing?" Have we forgotten to age the child: in our expectations of her capabilities, in the freedoms she should have acquired, in the independence she should be granted? Somehow it's almost always a shock for us when we find out what other parents allow, or expect from, their children.

We've gotten it wrong the other way too. We never tried to push the whole Santa Claus idea: "Some man we don't know personally is going to break into our house and give you whatever you want. As long as you're good. Good kids get stuff, which must mean that those without stuff must not be so good." We kinda just opted out. When she went to school, she started to ask questions. My wife explained that Santa Claus is based on a real person, who was kind and generous, and lived a long time ago. Armed with this information, our daughter returned to school and told everyone that Santa Claus was dead.

Also, I think our daughter was one of the first of her peers to know the real deal about sex--sometimes you want to get there first with your own version of things--and probably among the first to get a cell phone--overprotective sometimes means that you try to protect them with items that you think will improve their safety. I'm not sure that we got it wrong with these things, but we seem to be consistently out of step with other parents whom we would have assumed shared our values.

Being the oldest in my family, I do know that aging kids appropriately and fairly isn't just a problem with only children. In families with multiples, parents tend to guess at all of this for the first kid, and then age the youngest only slightly behind the first. This sometimes means the first child can watch R-rated movies when he's 16, and the youngest when he's 11, as long as it's a year or two after the first.

Teaching high school, I have watched about a dozen-and-a-half classes worth of seniors go through their own version of this, as they look toward graduation and their future. There seem to be two distinct approaches (and any number of gradations in between):
  1. The hangers-on--How can I miss you if you won't go away?
  2. The escapists--I already miss you, like you're already gone.
Getting the balance right is very difficult, and few people do. You have the glory days hangers-on who never want to leave, and in some cases keep coming back (see also: The Onion). The other extreme is the ones who decide they're fed up with the whole thing midway through junior year. Anyone who knows that I attended college exactly 17 feet from my parents' house may be rather surprised to learn that I fell into the second category.

Step one for me was to get a girlfriend who lived more than thirty miles away. She and I met at Diocesan Band (kids from seven Catholic high schools, picked to play in a band, and find out what happens...), and kept something of a relationship going until I graduated from high school. Since the West Shore (of PA anyway) wasn't quite enough distance between myself and my home, I also enlisted in the Marines. As I mentioned before here, the Marines decision was multilayered at best, and fairly insane at worst. One of my primary motivations, and I'm sure that of many other recruits, was freedom. This analysis is underscored by the fact that I'd signed all of the papers, and booked myself into the MEPS before I'd discussed any of this with my parents.

Let me stop right there and clarify that I had a great childhood, and have a great family. Whatever was driving me to get out of there was much more primal and complicated than I could have been talked out of at the time.

I did a similar thing right out of college. Colleges graduate their seniors by roughly Mother's Day. It didn't occur to me at the time that high schools graduate a month later, a couple of Fridays after Memorial Day (in PA at least, even later in NJ and some other surrounding states). This meant that I was panicking about my lack of a job before most schools had packed up books and covered bulletin boards. It meant that when I was offered a long-term substitute position, not only did I accept, but withdrew myself from the job market completely, canceling some interviews and declining others as they were offered.

I began work on July 1, preparing the band for, and then leading them in, a parade. I then, after renting and moving into an apartment, re-sized the drill for marching band, and ran band camp. My first paycheck came after the start of school in September. By this time, many of my more sensible and patient friends had full-time, permanent positions in the very districts where I'd declined interviews.

You'd think this would have taught me a lesson. Nope.

The following year, after the expiration of my long-term substitute job, I got a job teaching choir (where I still work now). My wife and I did an apartment search, but couldn't find anywhere that would allow our dog. We switched over to the idea of buying, and within a week found a house we wanted to buy. Meanwhile, we'd moved into my parents house. Again, lest you get the wrong idea of this living situation, my parents own both sides of a double house. We were essentially no-more "living with my parents" than we had been living with the landlady in our first apartment (we rented the second floor, she lived on the first). Still, we were so eager to get started in our new house that we insisted on a quick closing and did so against the advice of council. Our lawyer wanted the previous owners to complete the mandated sewer hookup before closing. We basically told him shove his ideas up his escrow--this was our lawyer I'm talking about.

Why drag all of us through all of the foolish decisions of my life (by the way, if you think these are all of the foolish decisions, you underestimate the fodder I have for this blog)? Because these particular foolish decisions were made by ignoring a basic and fundamental truth of life: Life is long.

You've heard otherwise. In fact, the opposite view is so important people say it in Latin: carpe diem. Well, sometimes seizing the damned day is as dangerous as letting the opportunities pass you by.

One of the problems with the stock market (for more problems with the stock market, see also: here) is that it requires growth. It's not okay to just make something well and sell it for a good price. The whole thing requires that companies improve and grow. The whole fetish surrounding sustainable financial growth ignores the fact that sometimes you need to just stay where you are.

I wonder if we sometimes have this whole carpe diem thing the wrong way around anyway. What if seizing the day isn't about being aggressive, but about making something worthwhile from the situation you're in? What if it's about noticing that you only get one chance at senior year (of high school or college), or buying your first place, and that there are opportunities there that you'll never get again after you leave?

Then leave. Go on with your life. Immediately.

Knowing whether to hold your ground or to take a leap of faith is one of the most important and difficult parts of major life decisions. Deciding not to act is a decision, and it can sometimes be the brave one. This is especially difficult for people who are supposed to be growing and changing every minute, but it doesn't end with adolescence. There is a Turkish proverb that says, "No matter how far you've gone down the wrong road, turn back." Because of this, you don't get to stop making decisions, ever. Life is long, and therefore it's vitally important to start living it right now, both in this circumstance and in the next.

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