As an introduction, I offer two lists to sum up the last year of my life, from say 12th June 2010 to 11th June 2011.
List 1: Israel (Tel Aviv, Even Yehuda, Herzliya), New England (Burlington, Boston, Nantucket, Cape Cod, Hampton Beach), Michigan (Ludington), Israel (Tel Aviv, Herzliya), Europe (Amsterdam, Hamburg, Denmark), Israel (Tel Aviv, Jerusalem), Africa (Rwanda), the broader U.S. (Burlington, New York, DC, Durham, Nashville, San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco), the North American North (Ludington, Grand Blanc, Sarnia, Toronto), Massachusetts (Burlington, Boston), the Midwest (Chicago, Ludington), Massachusetts (Burlington, the Berkshires), New Orleans, Burlington, Michigan (Ludington, Ann Arbor), Israel (Herzliya, Even Yehuda), the Midwest (Ludington, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Chicago), Israel (Herzliya, Even Yehuda, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv), Michigan (Ludington).
And a possibly less obnoxious list.
List 2: Library Aide, Model United Nations co-coordinator, M.A. Student, online journalist, tourist, volunteer with genocide survivors, Greyhound bus customer, job-seeker, construction volunteer, job-seeker, cat-sitter, long-term substitute teacher.
The former list includes all the places I either spent significant time in (a full day) or slept a night in over the aforementioned timeline. The latter provides an order of the various positions I filled over that year. It's been some year.
While finishing my time in the final role, as long-term substitute teacher, I had the privilege (read: obligation) to attend a high school graduation. As the bright and hopeful valedictorian and salutatorian read fine speeches about the future and all the possibilities that awaited them in this ever-changing world, I sat staring into the flat chicken fields that served as a staging for the ceremony, wondering whether we are ever presented limitless opportunity, and wondering if that limitless opportunity evaporates at some point, whether that window closes, and lastly wondering whether I have taken advantage of that opportunity or squandered it, and whether that window remains open for me.
Excuse the excessive wondering and pondering and spiritual blundering. 26 is not old. I'm not sure what 26 is. I'm not sure what the normal position for someone of my age is, nor how I measure up, which makes it excessively difficult for an eternally competitive person (if one developing a sense of Buddhistic-esque acceptance) like me to assess my life and whether it is on the rails or wandering in the wilderness that are the 20s. I know that, coming from a pedigree of top high school and top college, my circle of acquaintances and friends, as it were, is successful and forming themselves into what they want to be. Perhaps that's why I'm not so close to most of them, the lucky bastards.
I should clarify. In the new economy or the 21st century or whatever excuse there is to tag onto our condition, working immediately after college is not a foregone conclusion, and finding out who you want to be takes longer than it might have 20 or 30 years ago, or in other countries like the Soviet Union my parents grew up in. We are faced with the paradox of choice, where more options impede our decision-making and ultimately make us less happy because we can weigh many more alternatives to the life we chose. This is related to the concept discussed in one of my undergrad economics classes, the idea that Person X is happier making $70K a year when his neighbor (or co-worker or brother or whoever he compares himself with) makes $70K as well than when Person X is making $75K a year and Comparison X is making $80K a year.
Here stands I, a competitive person but one who, I'd like to think, has never begrudged my friend his/her due. One of my favorite parables comes from the New Testament of the Bible:
Matthew 20.1 For the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which went out early in the morning to hire labourers into his vineyard. 20.2 And when he had agreed with the labourers for a penny a day, he sent them into his vineyard. 20.3 And he went out about the third hour, and saw others standing idle in the marketplace, 20.4 And said unto them; Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right I will give you. And they went their way. 20.5 Again he went out about the sixth and ninth hour, and did likewise. 20.6 And about the eleventh hour he went out, and found others standing idle, and saith unto them, Why stand ye here all the day idle? 20.7 They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. He saith unto them, Go ye also into the vineyard; and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive. 20.8 So when even was come, the lord of the vineyard saith unto his steward, Call the labourers, and give them their hire, beginning from the last unto the first. 20.9 And when they came that were hired about the eleventh hour, they received every man a penny. 20.10 But when the first came, they supposed that they should have received more; and they likewise received every man a penny. 20.11 And when they had received it, they murmured against the goodman of the house, 20.12 Saying, These last have wrought but one hour, and thou hast made them equal unto us, which have borne the burden and heat of the day. 20.13 But he answered one of them, and said, Friend, I do thee no wrong: didst not thou agree with me for a penny? 20.14 Take that thine is, and go thy way: I will give unto this last, even as unto thee. 20.15 Is it not lawful for me to do what I will with mine own? Is thine eye evil, because I am good? 20.16 So the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen.
The essence of the parable is that one should honor their agreements, but even more that one who has reached satisfaction in some way should not allow that satisfaction to be tarnished by viewing others' conditions as a sign of what one could achieve instead. In other words, I am not only a jerk for comparing myself constantly to others, but failing at life and at happiness by not staying in my lane and worrying about how I can do right by myself and those who matter, rather than other people. Or as a friend puts it (and I swear I've quoted it here before, but I can't find it), one should win at life based on the rules of their own game; and as I amend it, one should not judge others by the rules of their own game. If eating peanut butter daily is what makes me happy and successful, that shouldn't mean that you are failing because you don't eat peanut butter daily. (Though you are. I mean, come on.)
This is a long way of saying that this whole essay rests on treacherous ground: the art of finding out where one (read: I) should be at the age of 26, and what is the appropriate path to lead to this point and to extend from this point. The answer of course, is that there is little or no exact answer to those queries, and looking at other people's paths will only add misery and doubt to the pondering process. And yet, here I go.
Last fall on my road trip through much of the continental U.S.A., I visited many of my friends from high school and college. Most of those friends were in my age category, i.e. second half of their 20s. I did not do some sort of list-check to compare the pros of cons of their lives vs. my life, no matter how much I enjoy making lists (very much), but I did listen with interest to the plight of the mid-20 something.
Again, I come from a privileged background and am mostly friends with similarly privileged types. I met few friends who were in dire circumstances: one had the misfortune of moving cross-country to follow a girl who promptly broke up with him upon his arrival; another told me about her parents' struggles to achieve a tenable retiree status due to pension cuts and disqualifications after a lifetime of working as educators; a couple either just had or would shortly thereafter break up with reasonably long-term girlfriends at times where they were, while independent, thrashing about for a direction or a mission in life. Not even the National can spin real sob stories out of those situations. (Well, maybe...)
What impressed me about my visiting and traveling was the number of peers who had undertaken the process of consolidating their self-definition and had launched themselves on a path towards who they wanted to be. 26 is apparently the age for grad school - the number of friends or acquaintances I know in law school, business school, PhD programs, or other MA programs (if not MD programs) has increased tremendously. Even further, I saw friends pursuing dreams with a passion and a focus that thrilled me; two had gone, on separate paths, to LA to pursue Hollywood style dreams; two were invested in their research and academic goals; my brother was in his favorite place of the world and doing all he could to achieve his dreams of making music or movies, whichever came first. And then those who weren't necessarily pursuing dreams were still making life work on their terms: one was a cop and happy about it; another had the next four years of his life planned out and still managed to sound like the same wild-eyed kid who used to try to get lost driving in his hometown in high school.
There are caveats to this pursuit of dreams or this acceptance of the now, of course, in either direction. One of the Hollywood success seekers ended up getting screwed over by his boss, a Mr. Paulie Shore. The cop is on the verge of (if not already having been) getting laid off. Hearts, or at least relationships, have been broken. So the 20-something world turns.
On the one hand, I can 'fess up to feeling pretty good about who I am at 26, amidst the whirlwind observation I have taken of my peers on that trip and otherwise, constantly. I came away from college realizing that I love music, reading, writing, and traveling. I would say my efforts in three of those four fields have been very successful, and I'm still figuring out how and why and in what form I should be writing to feel best about it - I don't think I've achieved the "success" I want as a writer, but I haven't failed either. I have long thought it would be cool to be multilingual, and now I can set a reasonable goal of knowing six languages with decent proficiency and four fluently by the age of 30. Further, I think I continue to plumb the process of becoming the person I want to be, and beyond that I've been blessed to find the person I want to undertake that process with. Shed no tears for me, in other words, and worry not about my whining.
There are sacrifices and tradeoffs everyone makes when blazing through life, one way or the other. For example, as part of sharing in that process of becoming, I will find myself a month from now in Luxembourg. I'm sure Luxembourg will be great. Under no condition, however, would I be choose to live in Luxembourg, a place largely unsuitable to any of my ambitions, whether career-oriented or artistic or otherwise. C'est la vie, as they'll say there, and perhaps the strictures and sacrifices will create new opportunities.
But in contrast to my friends who are carving out a relatively clearer path, who are pursuing dreams, who are having "career" success, I still haven't really figured out what I want to do, never mind how to get there. Another thing I picked up, among the few, in my economics education was the idea that people must feel useful to feel fulfilled. Yes, like most of the useful things I learned in economics, it is a bit of common sense backed with some theory and empirical evidence. Still, it sheds light on the reason I beach on the shore of confusion, of wondering, of the need to defend myself, and not just at home (though, not coincidentally, I'm finally putting this together while sitting in my father's house. Hmm...).
While hardly claiming all trades, I've become a jack of many things, and it's very true that it's hard to do many things well. The idea of a renaissance man is nice, but in practice the well-rounded ideal means many of one's edges are blunted. My resume boasts of a nice variety of positions, but I'm not sure any are strong enough to get a decent job, to get my foot in the door somewhere, to get me on any sort of path. And then there's the problem that I'm not sure I want to be on a path - there's a liberating sensation to not being tied down to a career, to existing as more than a worker. Liberty does little to pay for a room in the hot Luxembourg real estate market, though.
What is 26? Has all this dithering brought us anywhere?
Let's argue that the essay you are now reading is mimetic. That it models itself on the process of living through one's 27th year in the year 2011. The process wanders, it strikes upon a few general themes, it pushes forward in some directions or for some "users" quickly, and in other users' hands and other directions aimlessly. And here we stand, wondering what the point is.
I'm left to make two cultural references that I believe bring this feeling all together. The first is to Calvin & Hobbes. There's a Sunday strip where Calvin goads Hobbes into taking off on his wagon, where they aim to go so fast they will eclipse the speed of light and travel through time. They race past various obstacles, discuss the theory and what they might see in the future, and ultimately crash-land. Upon arrival, dusty and bruised but still enthused, they find that they've moved forward two minutes from the time they took off. That's what 26 is.
Or there's this: "And here I sit so patiently, waiting to find out what price you have to pay to get out of going through all these things twice."
Bob Dylan said that. He was 25 at the time. He's 70 now. I'm 26. I'm still figuring out what I have to say.