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Elder Wisdom

To My Daughter, The Graduate: This Is All Your Fault

Students at the University of Birmingham take part in their degree congregations as they graduate on July 14, 2009 in Birmingham, England. Over 5000 graduates will be donning their robes this week to collect their degrees from The University of Birmingham. A recent survey suggested that there are 48 graduates competing for every job.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

To my kid,

Well shit, here we are. Before you became a senior … before you had hit middle school, even … I used to write an annual graduation message over at Deadspin, a website that was very good but now essentially functions as a malware dispensary. I started off writing those speeches to mock traditional graduation speeches. You’re likely to hear one such message at your own commencement ceremony later this month. It’ll be from someone older than you who is dressed very nicely and occupies a respectable place in American society. It will be self-aggrandizing, clichéd, and so boring that the audience will be silently praying for a bomb to go off. Did you know you’ve got your whole future ahead of you? Did you know there’ll be challenges, but you now have the knowledge and grit to overcome them? Yes? Maybe we should skip the whole affair and just split a bottle of champagne instead.

That’s why I made fun of the Graduation-Industrial Complex. But then, something awful happened: Over the course of a few years, the grad speeches I wrote slowly morphed into ones that, not unlike the one you’ll be subjected to, gave its audience 300 percent of their recommended daily allowance of earnestness. I still made jokes. I still cursed (like this: FUCK!). But I wrapped everything up in a sweet little bow. I had become what I had always mocked.

And it’s your fault.

You did nothing wrong, mind you. You just had the temerity to grow up in front of your mom and me. You have lived in the same house your entire life and, because I have worked from home for almost all of that time, I have been with you for every day of it … except when I had to go on the occasional business trip, which was always a godsend. I didn’t know how to be a parent when we had you, because no new parent ever does, but more to the point, I’m not certain I wanted to learn. I came out of high school intent on taking care of myself, mostly in the form of getting drunk and getting myself a brand-new girlfriend. I came out of college still intent on taking care of myself, by moving to New York to get drunk every night and hang out with said girlfriend. I had little interest in anything except my own needs, if you consider beer, money, and sex to be needs. I suppose two of those things count as such.

Then I met your mother, we moved into a house, and had you. Then one child became two. Two children became three. Three children became three plus a dog. And I had to help take care of all of it. I had to take care of your spit-up getting all over the glider. I had to take care of you crying in the middle of the night if it was my turn. I had to take care of shit in the house when it broke. I had to take care of keeping us all insured. I had to take care of your brothers, and your school lunches, and helping put up the fucking Christmas tree. College me thought I’d be living in a house on stilts in Malibu by now, with 16 supermodel girlfriends, $100 million in the bank, and a cocaine habit that was well within my control. Instead, I had to go and get an actual life. Some real bullshit right there.

This is what awaits you, starting right now. You have to get a life. You’re gonna go to college and you’re gonna have to take care of shit. You’re gonna have to take care of your coursework. You’re gonna have to take care of your dorm room so that it doesn’t smell. You’re gonna have to take care of your body by seeing a grown-up doctor, one that doesn’t have a waiting room filled with board books and plastic crocodiles. You’re gonna have to take care of your friend when she drinks too much and starts spewing all over the quad.

Then you’re gonna graduate, only to have more duties heaped on top of you: a job, rent, money in the bank, social media accounts, a spouse, a child, those four cats you say you want (careful what you ask for). To paraphrase Steve Martin (he’s an old comedian) in Parenthood (it's an old movie), your whole life will be “have to.” If you’re like me, and your genetics say there’s a risk of that, you will dread this responsibility and then resent it once forced to take it on. Every kid wants to grow up, but no college student does. I can’t blame any of them, nor will I blame you. I know you got Senior Week at the beach coming. Yes I’m envious. No you can’t take my car for it.

For your mother and me, your graduation is, in a way, our own. You are legally an adult now. We’re done taking care of you. This should be a relief, because now I can just sit in my chair and chill the fuck out every night instead of having to wash whatever fucking dishes you left in the sink. Then again, I get bored sitting in my chair. I’ve gotten so used to taking care of things that I don’t know how to live without doing so.

This sucks and, again, is all your fault.

You taught me how to care, and that was very rude of you. I’d say that you owe me money, except that it was worth it. It was worth changing your diapers. It was worth frantically searching for a playground to burn the clock every dead summer afternoon. It was worth schlepping to the bus stop with you every morning when you were little. It was worth yelling at you when you fucked up, and then hating myself for it. It was all worth working for. You were worth working for. In fact, you and your brothers are the only reason I work at all.

Because taking care of things is the point of living. Sometimes, as in my case, it takes decades to realize this. You, I suspect, will not need as much time. I’ve seen you in action already. You take care of your homework. You take care of your wardrobe, often crocheting your own pieces for it. You take care of Carter, although sometimes I have to yell at you to take him out for a piss. You take care of your mental health. You take care of your boyfriend. About the only thing you don’t take care of are those dishes in the middle of the night. You need to work on that.

This is usually the part of the graduation speech where the speaker talks about the big, scary world out there, often in vague terms that refer to all of the bad shit—war, genocide, inequality, corruption, oppression, Emily in Paris—without sounding too judgy about any of it. I don’t have to do that here because you know the deal with all of that already. So I’m gonna blow this out instead, all the way to Pale Blue Dot distances. Down on the ground, you live in on a planet rife with violence, pollution, rancor, and ugly electric trucks. But from billions and billions of miles away, you live.

It’s true. You are a resident of perhaps the only planet in the universe, and in the history of the universe, to harbor life. I don’t believe we’re alone, but that’s yet to be disproven. Earth has life, and so much of it, so much so that people like me assume that more of it has to be out there. As such, we have rovers stationed on other planets to find it. The scientific community on Earth would consider it a miracle if one of those robots unearthed the fossil of a fucking single-celled organism within the Martian soil. Meanwhile, you and I are covered in such organisms, so much so that we have to wash them off as a matter of routine. There is life everywhere you look here, and there always will be. Even if climate change wipes out all of humanity, life on Earth will go on for billions of years.

It’s impossible to live here, on Earth, and not take the existence of life for granted. Even Mother Teresa (she’s dead now but was very famous for being a nice person) took life for granted at a certain level. It can’t be helped. You wash off bacteria, you step on an ant, you eat other plants and animals. You interact with the life around you in ways both collegial and vicious. That’s the nature of things, and you can’t spend every day gaping in awe at the teeming mass of vitality, in near infinite specimen forms, that surrounds you. You’d be a dipshit goody-goody if you did. Or worse, you’d be in a cult.

Because life, for the living, can’t help but be a pain in the ass. This is true whether you’re graduating from high school or if you’re a working professional whose kid is about to graduate from high school. You have to figure out how to live, and you have to figure out how to do so amid the chaos of all that other life around and on you. Again, this is work.

It’s also the point. Turns out that I love taking care of things. I love taking care of you and your brothers. I love taking care of your mom. When I make dinner, I love fussing over it like I’m preparing a repast for the fucking King of England. I love taking care of my work, both in getting it done and in making sure it’s up to my standards when it’s done. I love taking care of this website, because my friends and I own it and want it to prosper. When I stay with a friend, I love taking care of their dishes, because it makes me feel more homey when I do. And I love taking care of the dog. Carter sleeps in my bed now with me and your mom. My favorite nights are when he sleeps between us, but still within my petting reach. Sometimes he turns on his back to sleep and his paws stick straight up in the air. I love to cradle one of his paws in my hand when he does this. Or I stroke his belly and feel his abdomen going in and out, in and out with each breath. Then I reach over to your mother and poke her sleeping body just to reassure myself she’s there. Just to make sure there’s life near me. I used to adore living alone as a bachelor. I couldn’t fathom doing so ever again.

That’s what I’ve learned since graduating, and you’ll go through the same process. You already know that love is good, but you won’t understand it fully until you’ve spent your life seeing love in action, and putting love into action. You love your friends, so you take care of them. You love your pets, so you take care of them. You love your free time, so you take care of it. You love a fancy cocktail, so you take care to order the tastiest one. And the more you care for things, the more care you get back in return. That’s a trite thing to say, but it’s the truth. And again … totally your fault that I’m saying it.

But I forgive you, because I love you so, so desperately. You’re going away soon, and I’ll be devastated in all of the ways that every parent is devastated when they have to cut the cord. But within that grief, I’ll feel a bone-deep satisfaction that I wouldn’t have experienced had you never existed. I’ll be happy, and not in a fleeting way. I’ll be happy in a way that’s as permanent as the ground beneath your feet. It’s the care that lasts.

So go on out there and do all of that fun graduate shit. Party with your friends. Go to college. Post dopey shit online. Savor it all before adulthood hits you like a brick and you have to start minding everything, and everyone, in your personal orbit. That’s when the real fun starts.

Now take care, girl. Your mom and I will be here whenever you need us. We couldn’t imagine being anywhere else.

And clean your fucking room.


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