24 Aug Onward Towards Adulthood
About 15 years ago, when I was transitioning from being a “musician” to being a filmmaker, I was having a very difficult time with my father. I loved my father deeply and in general we communicated really well. I was a passionate young man; passionate about music, about art, about opposition. I’m not exactly sure why, but I always despised norms and beaten pathways. Even though I knew that I wanted to be a photographer, I didn’t go to art school. That would have been too easy.
I think that some of this impulse had to do with growing up in a college town that was stifling in its calm coddling comfort; especially for the children of professors. Something about the University system seemed so…. wrong to me. I’m not sure why I felt this way, perhaps it was the crowds of privileged seeming frat boys and sorority girls that crowded the streets of the small university town. They didn’t seem too interested in learning. I also saw that in some ways that setting had taken away some of my father’s passion. He had gone soft. A lot of my friends ended up going to the local college but I had a need to get out. I wanted to learn about the larger world, but I didn’t know what I wanted to “do with my life”.
I ended up at NYU when it was still largely a commuter school with no sense of campus life. As such it was much less cloistered than the schools my friends went to, something I reveled in and suffered from. My mother is quick to remind me that I had a rough time the first semester. I had sought the energy of the city but was homesick for the comfort of a bosomy campus. As a photographer and observer I found myself exhausted from simply walking down the street. The details of the city were overwhelming. The classes were intense as well. On my first day I had an 8:00 am class and was told to read the first three chapters of Sartre’s “Being and Nothingness” by the next class. I picked it up and then spent the next three hours trying to understand the first page- which was one of those half pages because it was the start of the chapter…. (this is not an exaggeration). I eventually understood the book and learned to notice less. This pained me on one level, but it was either adapt or die.
Over time I thrived intellectually and artistically at the school. I met some incredible people who took me under their wings and I focused on my photography and started a band. After college i wanted to continue to focus on these artistic pursuits. However, my …. juvenile resistance to doing things the “right” way made it difficult for me to turn these pursuits into a “career”. This is where the conflict with my father came in. Each week when we talked on the phone he couldn’t stop himself from ending the conversation with, “Write when you get work”. This drove me crazy.
My mother was a serial supporter. She was complimentary even when I had failed at something. As such her opinion didn’t mean as much to me. My father was supportive but critical; at times very critical. He couldn’t keep his mouth shut even when he was putting his foot in it. His painful honesty, coupled with my vast respect for him, made his thoughts even more powerful. My father was sharp, funny, and interested in everyone. He made people laugh and he made them feel special. Even the check out girl at the supermarket couldn’t escape his questions, and I witnessed how often it led to extremely “human interactions” that pulled people out of the furrowed habits of their lives. I wanted to be like him, so it was hard when he couldn’t see how much he hurt me.
I wasn’t making a lot of money, and I wasn’t having any great success with my work, but I was in a wildly creative period of my life. Almost all day was spent in some creative pursuit. Even when I was working as a messenger I was taking photos and observing how the “real world” turned. On the nights I wasn’t practicing with my band I was out going to shows and taking pictures of other bands, or at the darkroom printing them. I was part of a mutually supportive creative community and I felt completely on track. However, with his one simple jokey question he would derail my fantasy of a life lived creatively, and it certainly didn’t help to put me on a better track.
At 41, without the comfort of any kind of job security, I understand why he was trying to gently nudge me in the direction he was. At the time though, it was supremely undermining. While my father had a tendency to be an asshole in this regards, to his credit he was good at owning up to his failings. When I exploded in rage at his jokingly veiled put downs he always demurred and apologized and then did it again the next week.
In some sense I knew that he was right, but I also knew that if I didn’t follow my passions when I was young, I would never have the chance to follow them. I don’t mean to create the impression that he wasn’t supportive of me as an artist in any way, but instead that while he was was often complimentary he still left me with the impression that I would never, “make it” as an artist and that I better line up “real work”.
I was reminded of all these thoughts and emotions as I skimmed through this weekends NY Times magazine story on the 20 somethings. Even as my father was proud of the work that I made, he would point out that I would “never make it” as a musician. I know that as a parent he had strong feelings about helping to make sure that I would be ok. What he wouldn’t listen to was that I never intended to “make it”. In fact, my goal was to “not make it”, to find some way to be creative outside systems that I saw as hopelessly corrupt. I still see them as corrupt but i wouldn’t mind taking some kind of payoff to be a part of them now….
My father could be an asshole, but as a psychologist he was trained to listen, and he was good at it. Over many years we worked together to move past our antagonisms and we were able to communicate in a more supportive way. In working through our issues I realized that one of our problems was the lack of ritual in our modern non-religious lives. Rituals, like bar mitzvahs and communions used to pack a lot more meaning. The young entered the ritual a child and exited as an adult. That transition involved both the child and the adult and it changed the way that they related to each other.
In our current world, our young people travel far away to go to school where they have life changing experiences that their parents do not perceive. When the return in the spring they are changed, but since their parents have not been privy to the transition- because they haven’t experienced the ritual of change with the child- they often find it difficult to see them as changed. At the same time, because the child goes through this process without the adults of their community it is difficult for them to see themselves as a part of their parent’s adult community. There is no transition to a more peer based relationship.
One theory that I have, which has been somewhat borne out by being a parent, is that in some ways it’s important for younger children to see their parents as all powerful. When we believe that adults can do almost anything, then we are secure around them. In the safety cocoon, of our belief that our parents can and will take care of us in a “perfect way”, we have the freedom to experiment and test our own abilities. Adults rely on this sense of power to keep order in the community. However, if there is not formal transition, welcoming the young into the world of adulthood a certain dissonance arises. Intellectually we know that the adults are not perfect, but in an underlying way we still expect them to be, and that expectation causes all kinds of problems. On a basic level I believe that we expect too much from adults, and when they don’t live up to our idea of perfection we get unfairly angry with them. In addition, this idea, that they should be perfect, also gives us the idea that we too can attain perfection and we tend to be too hard on ourselves.
If instead both parties can see each other as peers they can forgive each other their transgressions, and forgive themselves when they make mistakes. Without some form of transition it is extremely difficult for them to have forward moving, productive relationships. My father and I realized some of these things together by trying to work through our own issues in these areas. I suggested that we write a book together, to kind of go the last mile towards being peers. He agreed, but it was tough. This was his provenance. I had no real training in it, so it was a little unfair of me to expect him to see me as a peer in this process.
We sent a series of notes back and forth but it was clear that we had different ideas for the book. I was looking at something that was more pop culture oriented, a series of tools to aid parents and children in reaching these goals. He wanted to quote other psychologists and reference their studies. We were never able to finish our work on the book as it started to cause more problems than it was worth. Still, the process did bring us to a better understanding of each other and ourselves. When he was hit by a car and killed a few years later one of my first thoughts was, “at least we were in a good place with each other”. I didn’t feel like I had missed an opportunity to let go of my anger with him, he had helped me to do it.
At his funeral a former grad student of his approached me with a folder. It was our notes. He had asked her to type them up and comment on the work. She told me how happy and proud he was to be working with me on it. Maybe it’s time for me to finish that book. Clearly the world needs it now more than ever.