Change often takes us unawares. Disaster comes with little or no warning. We get fired. Loved ones die. Very rarely in life does a major change loom fixed within our sight, like a door in the distance, one we knowingly walk up to and through, entering into whatever lies beyond. I hit upon the door metaphor a few weeks before graduation in 1978, and I’ve been thinking about it lately with the graduation of my first nephew a couple of weekends ago.
I got a phone call from him the other night. He was in my neighborhood and needed directions. I didn’t get the chance to ask why he was going where he was going—he’s a man of few words, at least with me—but I presume he and his buds were off on some adventure. And I wonder whether that adventure feels any different to them now, coming as it does after they’ve walked through that door. They still have the summer, of course, but it’s going to be like no summer they’ve ever had before. Remember it? You were still the person you’d always been, but you were also conscious of the fact that soon, you would start becoming somebody else.
My transitional summer, I worked at the gas station with no customers. I got off at 9 most nights, which left plenty of time to hang with the Crew. Several of us had known one another since grade school, and even though we were headed for different colleges, we hoped to remain close. But we were smart enough to know that we were never going to be the same after September, that we would make new friends, that this particular summer was a last hurrah. And so some of those nights got fairly wild as we clung to our familiar rituals, and to one another, back when the drinking age was 18.
Sometime that summer, I suffered my first hangover. I can remember dragging myself out into the light of the kitchen, clearly damaged. Had my mother been home that particular morning, I’d have had to explain what was wrong, and then listen to a lecture about my behavior. But she had gone somewhere, and my father, at the table having his breakfast, said nothing beyond “hello.” I am convinced that he knew, but he was kind enough not to say, figuring perhaps that what I was feeling was penalty enough.
If we had some kind of final blowout before school started, I don’t remember it—although maybe I intended it to be the big, parentally approved party I recall throwing at some point that summer. I invited almost everybody I knew, but the thing turned out to be a bust. Half of my guests staked out the garage and the other half the basement rec room, and they never mingled. Somehow, I’d never noticed how I was straddling different social groups until I tried mixing the oil and the water in my own laboratory.
Maybe it was a sign that the organic whole I thought I was part of was neither organic nor whole. Maybe it was a sign that clinging to the familiar and fearing change was neither necessary nor smart. Maybe the whole thing happened in some summer other than 1978, which would pretty much cut the nuts off its symbolic value.
I am guessing that to my nephew, September and his freshman year of college seem fairly distant yet. But I also suspect that in scattered moments, he sees the next door in the distance, the one between carelessness and responsibility, between young and not-quite-so-young . . . between today and tomorrow. The best song I know about all that is Rod Stewart’s 1978 hit “I Was Only Joking,” presented here in a 1981 live recording—a little faster than the delicately paced original, but just as moving.
Quietly now while I turn the page
Act one is over without costume change
The principal would like to leave the stage
The crowd don’t understand