I have to be careful what I say, because he reads this thing and I don’t want to leave him feeling like grist for my blogging mill and/or like some sort of internet celebrity. But I do feel there’s more to be said about the past few weeks than a bare-bones description of where my nephew and I have been and what we’ve seen. We’ve been back in New York City for a week now, some of which has been blazingly, unbearably hot, but most of which has been almost unnaturally pleasant and cool, more like the Bay Area weather he’s used to than the muggy, furnace-like heat that usually settles in around this time of year, and only a few days remain before he goes back to California for another year.
As I may have mentioned previously, it’s been a real learning experience, and in an almost entirely pleasant, even revelatory way. My father once cautioned me against remaining single for too long: “After a while you get so wrapped up in your own ways of thinking and doing things that you’ll never be able to get along with somebody else.” As with most parental advice, I completely ignored it at the time, though not as completely as I thought, since I still remember it vividly and often reflect, especially as I get older, that the old man might have had a point.
Apart from sharing a couple apartments with roommates, I’ve lived alone since 1985, and to say that I’ve gotten stuck in my own ways would be giving short shrift to solipsism. It’s not that I dislike people or don’t feel comfortable living with them; it’s just that I seem to have lost the ability to understand why they would want to think or act in any way that departs even slightly from the way I would like them to think or act.
People (including, most certainly, myself) being the obtuse creatures that they often are, you can imagine that finding companions willing to live under those conditions has not been an easy or rewarding task, so for years now I’ve taken it as given that I’d continue to live alone for however long I ambled, shuffled, or otherwise puttered about this mortal coil. And while I’m still inclined to think this is the case, living with Jackson these past three and a half weeks has caused me to reassess a number of things about myself, including – especially – my ability and willingness to get along with others.
You might not think a 14 year old whose primary interests include skateboarding, Facebooking and iPod listening was the ideal candidate for Lessons In How To Get Along With Others, but Jackson is more than able and willing to tear himself away from those pursuits, even when it involves things you might expect most teenagers to have to be dragged kicking and screaming into. For example, when I was 14, I would have died of humiliation if I’d been thrown together with a 10 and 12 year old, since much of my rebellious young life revolved around demonstrating that I was no longer a “kid,” but at last week’s Fest, Jackson happily spent hours running around with 10 year old Tre and 12 year old Keegan, yet could and did just as easily shift gears to have adult (given the context, I use the term loosely) conversations with the 20, 30 and 40-somethings attending the Fest.
Not to mention this particular 60-something: while much of the past three and a half weeks have been taken up with traveling, seeing exciting new places and meeting fascinating new people, even more of the time has been devoted to simply talking, to wide-ranging discussions involving everything from what it was like when I was 14 (and, conversely, what it’s like for him at that same age) to history, art, politics and (especially) the infinite variety of human foibles, not excluding our own.
One subject that has come up a lot is drug and alcohol abuse, something which, after two Green Day shows and a weekend-long Fest, we’ve had numerous opportunities to observe firsthand. Having seen otherwise normal people reduced to inarticulate, gibbering wrecks or drooling carcasses passed out on the side of the road, and knowing that I myself have a history of drug and alcohol abuse that sometimes left me in a not dissimilar state, Jackson has several times asked me some variant of, “But why would people do that to themselves?”
At the same time, he’s at an age where classmates and cronies are starting to do similar things to themselves, and telling him that, “Hey, it’s fun, why don’t you try it?” He expressed dissatisfaction (and I don’t blame him) with the level of drug “education” he’s receiving at school, which he summed up as, “Hey kids, drugs are bad, don’t do them.” Even a relatively inexperienced 14 year old is going to have noticed that all “drugs” are not equal in their effects or consequences, and lumping them together as though they were is no way to gain the attention or confidence of curious teenagers. So we’ve talked quite a bit about the difference between the various drugs (including alcohol), why people might find them attractive, and what can happen as a result of using or abusing them.
As someone who hasn’t used drugs or alcohol for close to nine years now, and whose life is immeasurably better because of it, I have to be careful not to fall into preaching or lecturing, in effect saying, “Do as I say, not as I used to do.” I’ve had other young people tell me, “Oh great, you got to have all the fun, but now you’re telling us we shouldn’t because it might end up badly.” That might be what they’re hearing, but it’s not exactly the message I’m trying to convey, which is that the “fun” was not all it was cracked up to be, and that I’m still living with and trying to undo its aftereffects.
My ongoing efforts at self-improvement (an area which, I know, provides almost infinite latitude) led to one of the most intriguing discussions I had with Jackson, and one from which I gained a valuable insight. I was telling him about certain defects of character that I felt were impeding my ability to live a full and fruitful life, persistent habits that I’m aware of and yet have difficulty ridding myself of. The examples I gave were my tendency to be critical and judgmental. I don’t doubt that these are real issues; over the years I’ve had innumerable people complain to me about them. And yet Jackson protested, “Wait, those are actually strengths, because you’re able to see through bad ideas and arguments, and aren’t willing to accept any old thing that you’re told.”
And I had to admit that he was correct as well, which led me to an epiphany of sorts: the understanding that my problem with being critical and judgmental was not one of essence, but of degree. While I’d been operating under the assumption that those characteristics represented streaks of rottenness that needed to be excised from my personality the way you’d slice the bad sections out of an apple, what was actually the case was that they were useful and valuable qualities that I’d become over-reliant on, too quick to resort to when a more measured and thoughtful response would have been in order.
I talked this over with a wise and trusted friend and got a similar response: “All of what we perceive as faults started out as sane and rational responses to real-life situations; it’s only when, because of fear or anger or resentment, we resort to them when they’re not necessary or appropriate, that they become the sort of defects or bad habits that we feel the need to get rid of.”
That being said, it’s not that I’m going to stop trying to be less critical and judgmental, but that instead of thinking of myself as a tragically flawed person when I’m not successful at it, I can operate more from an “Accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative” point of view. Just one thing I’ve learned from hanging out with my wise and sensible nephew, and if you need another, it’s that living with other people, even at close quarters, can be pretty awesome. I’ll miss him when he goes home later this week, but I hope the lessons learned from our time together will stay with me the rest of my life.