Talking with My (Younger) Self

Stew tries to get through to his youthful self.

Passing Strange was only on stage for a few months in 2008. I heard about it on NPR, as composer/author/narrator/lead singer Stew talked with Terry Gross and and Kurt Andersen about his autobiographical brainchild, a two hour coming-of-age rock opera filled with humor, angst, and gorgeous music. The snippets I heard on Fresh Air and Studio 360 were enough to make me want to see it or, barring that, to listen to the soundtrack; and yet somehow I never did. It faded from my memory until, scrolling through the Comcast menu (we just switched), I discovered it had been filmed by Spike Lee and was going to play on Showtime.

Amy and I watched it Sunday, and it was riveting. Stew is on stage for the entire show, singing the story of his youth with such power that we could not believe he could sustain it for a single performance, let alone a three-month run of nightly shows. All the performances were of that caliber. The music was flawless, not a false note in the show, with several choruses that knocked us back as few rock concerts ever have. And the content...

The story itself is simple: a youth (that's all he's called in the show) chafes against his single mother's love, finds himself in rock music, and travels to Europe to hone his craft. In Amsterdam, he has his first experiences with sex and drugs, but everything there is just too mellow for him, so he travels to Amsterdam, where he pursues a more nihilist, avant garde approach to music while living in a community of iconoclastic artists. Then his mother calls to plead with him to come home for Christmas. He brushes her off, not realizing she is dying. The plane ticket he ends up buying is for her funeral. Through it all, Stew is commenting on the story, inserting knowing insights, rolling his eyes at his own youthful narcissism, and finally, in a hair-raising duet with his younger self, driving home the truth that he will never see his mother again, that his quest for artistic perfection has cost him the chance to say goodbye to the only person who ever believed in him. The youth seems to hear, but then falls back into idealism, telling himself he can make his mother immortal by turning her into a song. He sings that song with the help of her spirit, and the play ends.

The duet between Stew and the youth affected me for a deeper reason than its musical and dramatic brilliance. For over a year now, I've been writing about my personal transition from youth to middle age, and in this amazing theater piece, it was put to music. So many times I've wished I could summon up my 20-something self and tell him what I've learned, as Stew struggles to do and, inevitably, fails. Young men just can't listen to the voices of experience all around them. They have to figure things out for themselves.

Even so, I've got a few things I want to tell that 1980s Mark. My last post was all the advice I had for my children, and wish I could share with him, about the end of relationships; but there's much more he needed to hear. Things like:

Don't take yourself so seriously. Youth is a time of energy, health, and creativity. It's also a time for being taken down a notch. 20-somethings make huge mistakes. They choose careers before they've experienced enough to know whether they even like that line of work. They marry people based on a few months' courtship, then have children with those near-strangers. And when these choices blow up on them--when the career proves disastrous, when the marriage sours, when raising children is far more difficult than they ever imagined--they become deadly serious. I look back at my terribly serious younger self, and cannot believe how ridiculous I was in my too sober assessment of life.

Listen to your parents. And your supervisor, your professors, your pastor, your rabbi, that older guy at the gym, the waitress who knows you better than you know yourself, and on and on and on. They may seem impossibly dated in their take on reality, but that's an illusion. In fact, there is very little new under the sun. Every problem you're facing, they once went through. Okay, they were probably never cyber-shamed by having naked selfies go viral, but everything else you're going through--work, parenting, buying a house, struggling to stay married, changing careers, changing spouses--someone in your life over the age of 40 has experienced, and knows more about it than you. Talk to them and, more importantly, listen to them. They know a thing or two.

Family matters. Your parents may be squares, your siblings may annoy you to pieces, but they really do know you better than even your spouse. They were there as you grew up, and shared more experiences with you than anyone you've known at this point in your life. And they love you. It may not be a healthy love, may indeed be laced with enough codependency to keep an AA chapter going for years, but it's a love based on who you are, rather than what you do. Cultivate it. Visit more often, talk on the phone more often, text message more often; and however enticing it may be to spend a holiday at a resort, remember you will not always have youth family to share that day with.

Friends matter. The people you knew in high school can stay your friends, but only if you stay in touch. The people you know in college can also stay your friends, but again, you have to stay in touch. I lost contact with my high school friends so quickly that, at our five-year reunion, they all seemed like strangers to me. I held onto my college friends a little longer, but not long enough. These were people who shared formative experiences with me, who comforted me through some of those terrible failures I took much too seriously, and still loved me despite both the failures and my overreactions to them. I miss the connection we had, and I wish I could bring it back, but so far I've only managed an occasional Facebook "like" with them and, every couple of years, getting together with one or another of them for a beer.

What doesn't kill you really does make you stronger. Part of the truth in this cliche is that our disappointments feel like death because we don't know any better. Yes, divorce feels like the end of the world, and in a way it is; but life gets better. In fact, I'm happier now than I ever was in either of the failed marriages I grieved so deeply when they ended. Realizing that neither of those divorces killed me, and finding myself emerging from the dark clouds of grief, I marveled at the new muscles I had discovered. I also learned some things about myself, many of them summed up in the post last week about breaking up. In truth, much of what we consider strength of character is simply the wisdom of having survived a trip through hell. "That was horrible!" "Did it kill you?" "No." "Guess it could've been worse, eh?"

Look before you leap. Look long and hard. Both of my youthful marriages came after less than a year of courtship; and in fact, the engagements came, in each case, after less than three months of togetherness. After the second marriage came apart, I finally made a promise to myself: I would not again enter into a fully-committed relationship until I had been through at least a full year with my future partner. The truth I had learned was that people change from one season to another, and that only with time can those changes be put into perspective. Perspective downgrades the intolerable to merely irritating, possibly even endearing. It also reveals patterns that can be far more troublesome, and may cause one to have second thoughts about a lifelong partnership.

 The same goes for careers. I attended a liberal arts college, but was in a professional degree program, so I never got the full experience of sampling all the disciplines. If I had, I might now be working for a newspaper or a senator, or teaching political science in a university; then again, I might be a respected novelist. Don't get me wrong, I love teaching music; but there are so many pathways I never even looked at, or just dabbled in.

Be patient. You're not going to be a master teacher, win a Pulitzer, or fill an arena right out of the gate. Every person you look up to had to start small. Some started more brilliantly than others, but none got to the top without hard work and perseverance. Most teachers have a hard first year; many have a hard first decade. It doesn't just come naturally. After you've been doing it awhile, it will seem like it does, but that's the ease of experience. If you give up too quickly, you'll never earn that sense of knowing exactly what to do, no matter what happens. Speaking as someone who did give up (in 1985), then came back (in 2002) and, at 53, is finally finding that rhythm, I can tell you it's worth the wait.

There is much more I wish I could tell my younger self. I look back at that lonely, insecure young man, so fiercely dedicated to his principles, so clueless about how to apply them diplomatically, and so utterly ignorant about love, sex, and marriage, and I want to put an arm across his shoulders, introduce him to the beer he won't discover for another decade, and tell him it's all going to be all right. Just look at me now: sure, I don't have as much hair, and I'm still struggling to shed the same forty extra pounds I was carrying around when I was that age; but I'm happier, less serious, more optimistic about where life is taking me. And that's all I ever wanted. The ambitions I had were simply for contentment which, at the time, I defined as having an intact family unit, husband, wife, children. And that brings me to my final, and most significant, piece of advice to the younger me:

Be happy. Embrace the life you have. Stop telling yourself happiness is just around the corner, that if you can just overcome this obstacle, get past this crisis, your marriage will finally be secure and then you can be happy. Be happy now. Let go of the suffering you keep channeling into your heart. You don't have to have the life of your dreams to be happy. The life you have now is enough--if you let it be enough.

This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, and I'm not sure I could even begin to convince 22-year-old me that happiness is not in finding the right girlfriend and landing the perfect job. It took me until my late 40s to figure this out, and until I did, I kept trying to achieve that dream I'd had since the age of 5. (Seriously, that's how old I was when, after reading Richard Scarry's The Baby Bunny, I set my sights on my lifelong ambition: to be a daddy bunny. Really, just a daddy. Hopefully you get the point.) Marriage, parenthood, career, avocation--whatever I was chasing, I finally came to realize, was, in the words of Ecclesiastes, vanity, a longing after wind. Placing all one's hope in the future is futile. It may never come. Finding contentment in the now is what makes life truly meaningful.

So there it is, young Mark: find happiness today. Tomorrow will take care of itself. And the happier you are today, the better chance you have of being happy tomorrow, as well. Happy people are much more attractive at interviews and on first dates. Leave the angst to the philosophy majors, and start living.

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