Thursday, April 7, 2011

Why Youth is Wasted on the Young

A case of arrested development. Miguel and Michael clowning for my camera.
My one and only son Miguel and I were driving around Gainesville the other day. Miguel was reminiscing about his years there, pointing out various apartments he’d inhabited and locations of crazy experiences he’d had in them. I remembered visiting one of his places back then and being awakened by a phone call at 5 a.m. Miguel was asleep. I told the young lady looking for him that her pre-dawn call was in very poor taste. She did not seem impressed by my scolding.
    “Just around this curve there’s a straight part in the road,” Miguel said. “And then a bridge. We used to love speeding right through here.”
    He told me that once he’d nearly gone to jail for speeding at this spot in the road. He’d been sneaking drinks in a club. The way home took him through the aforementioned straightaway. With youthful exuberance he’d floored the gas pedal, and sped down the flat toward the bridge. On the other side of the bridge, a cop cruiser awaited.
    “Either you’re stupid or you’re drunk,” the cop had said.
    Irretrievably caught, Miguel confessed to being both stupid and drunk. When the cop asked him how much he’d had to drink, Miguel replied “just one or two,” like they do on Judge Judy. The legal drinking age was 21. He was 19.
    “I could take you to jail right now,” the cop said. “But since you’re honest and reasonable, I’m gonna give you a big ticket instead.” The speeding ticket cost him $285. 
Miguel and me. New Years Eve, 2010.
    The 32-year-old Miguel of today chuckled ruefully at the foolishness of the brash young man he’d been. Then we talked about how kids do stupid things, and what a treacherous time youth is for even the best people.
    “What will you do if someday your own son comes home with a $285 ticket for speeding over that same bridge?” I asked him.
    He sat silently, mulling over my question.
    “Maybe nothing like this will happen to your kid,” I said. “Maybe your own son will be smarter at 19 years old than you were at that age.”
    “Mom,” he said, “that's not possible.”

    He’s right. Kids do behave foolishly and impulsively and dangerously and short of tying them up at night there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. Youth is fearless. Young people live with the impunity of youth, the vast majority of them surviving their teens and growing up to become the tortured adults we call parents. I once read that this sense of reckless abandon is necessary for the human race to advance. No doubt a teenager invented the wheel. An adult would have thought such movement way too risky. The Wright brothers were teenagers when they endeavored to fly. Romeo and Juliet did it all before they were old enough for learners’ permits. Adults don’t take those kinds of risks. Only dumb kids do, and we who love them must bear witness to their absurd confidence in their own invincibility.
    “Why did you do that?” parents ask their misbehaving kids.
    “I don’t know,” their kids truthfully answer.

    The next morning, back in Key West, my husband Michael and I took our breakfast out onto the deck. As we ate I told him about the story Miguel had told me.  I said I felt like having a kid was like having a chunk of your heart out there in the world, alone and unguarded, naked and vulnerable on this ever more terrifying planet. I told him that parenting was the worst job in the world.
    “You can’t stop them from making the same universally ridiculous mistakes that you made,” I said. “They don’t hear you when you can see exactly what they’re doing wrong and tell them that you’ve already been down that road they’re traveling and the road is a dead end. You have to stand by and watch them being stupid, getting hurt, having their hearts broken, suffering . . . doing all the dumb things they don’t have to do if only they’d listen to you.”
    The sun was shining. Palm fronds clacked lazily in a soft breeze. Two doves cooed on a wire over the church across the street.
    “So now you know how God feels about his children,” Michael said.

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