Life is not a playground. It's a classroom where you get the test first and the lesson afterwards.
Getting old isn't for sissies and neither is growing up. But growing old is mandatory whereas growing up is optional. Some say growing up is a path paved with stumbling blocks and stepping stones. My growing up was more like sailing a course than traveling a road. I was free to choose one course over another and the winds would be favorable or not according to the set of my sail.
When I was a boy, the set of my sail was to turn 16, buy a car and take a girl to a drive in movie. Those manly goals matured as grownup men and women taught me that those were merely outward signs of growing older, not inward signs of growing up.
When I joined the Boy Scouts, my father bought me a folding knife. A few weeks later, the leader of a gang at my school took it away from me. When I told my father, he said, "Best way to get on the right side of yourself, Son, is to find the gumption to get on the wrong side of Eugene."
Eugene was bigger than me. So the next day, while he was flirting with Suzy at the lunch tables, I snuck over and found my knife in the bag on his bicycle. I started to sneak away, then remembered what my father had said. So I walked up to Eugene and waved my knife in his face.
"It's not right you took my knife, Eugene."
Suzy frowned at Eugene, then walked away. Eugene chased after her. "Was just teasin' him, Suzy. Was gonna give it back."
Gangs attract boys looking for a leader because their father didn't take that role himself. And boys who submit to the role forced on them by the gang get trapped between adolescence and adulthood. My father's leadership made my family a good gang because it helped me discover my true self and learn things I'd need on the main street of life—not on a back street where drugs are sold and boys are stabbed. Boys need fatherly leadership, not a punk with purple hair, a ring in his nose, and a mindset poisoned by toxic masculinity.
When I graduated from high school, my English teacher gave me a list of coming-of-age stories. "You'll forget the capitol of New York, Billy, and when the war of 1812 was fought, but don't forget that a good story is loaded with clues for shaping and navigating the sticky web of real life."
Despite the make-believe predicaments in those stories, what happened to the characters happened to me because their thoughts and feelings were psychologically valid and emotionally realistic. I became the young hero, the wise old man, the transformed fool. One of the lessons in those stories is that we grow up under the influence of people, real and imaginary, who teach us about life. This is especially true in coming-of-age stories where a boy or a girl struggles to find the meaning of life and his or her place in the world. The struggle takes place in the School of Hard Knocks where he or she learns to accept, deep down, that...
Life isn't consistently fair.
People may not be reciprocal.
Only a very few pay it forward.
The world doesn't owe you a living.
People will exploit you if you let them.
Giving may not return in equal measure.
Hard work may not bring you promotion.
You have nothing if you're given everything.
Success and failure rely on competition and luck.
In my second year at UCLA, I walked out to my car one day for a sandwich. Suddenly, like Newton sitting under an apple tree, it hit me. I don't want to be an engineer. So I drove to a recruiter and joined the Army where I discovered another kind of gang, one where boys grow up or down under the influence of men who think they're mentors but who are actually tormentors. My time in the Army was another test of whether the winds would be favorable or not according to the set of my sail.
Thanks to my father's mentoring, the set of my sail was to obey orders and do my job but resist attempts to make me somebody I wasn't. It was my decision to join the Army, so I also learned that boys become men by taking responsibility for their choices—not by inventing excuses for the consequences or by blaming somebody else for their problems. Once again my father's mentoring paid off because he held me accountable for the mistakes I made, and gave me credit for doing things right.
When I got married and fathered a son, I became the leader of my family and gave him and his mother as much love, support and guidance as I could muster. His death nineteen years later became another lesson in the School of Hard Knocks. Suffering is not an excuse to take shortcuts. So I trudged through every stage of grief and became a better man because of it.
Looking back on what my son had done to be remembered with love and respect inspired me to examine my own life. That quest became a memoir. As sentences and paragraphs snapped into place, I discovered that growing up isn't killing the boy so the man can live. It's embracing the boy you were because he still plays a role in who you are.
Now, with the years piled up like pages in a book, I see the milestones of manhood as a journey, not a destination. We are boys becoming men. It's an asymptotic, incremental process. We don't slide into home plate, 100% manly and victorious. But every time we step up to the plate, wait for a good pitch, and take a swing, the world sees less of the boy and more of the man.
WHEN I WAS A BOY
God was a bearded old man—
an unapproachable Father
who came down from the mountain
with a long list of naughty and nice.
In my prodigal youth, I was Godó
a lawless young man,
a coming-of-age Adventurer
who chose self over service,
growing up over buckling down.
When I grew up,
God became a long-legged Goddess,
breathlessly beautiful and mellifluously
mine on moon-lit nights.
After the war,
God was a grim Reaper
bleeding my world of art,
leaves and common sense.
Now, with the years piled up
like pages in a book,
one on top of the other,
God is a Mother
birthing and nursing
our times together and apart.
Only She knows,
when it's time to say goodbye,
what severance we will suffer,
what separation we must endure.