The unwritten rite of passage for every ripe new 20-year-old is a conversation about one’s childhood perceptions of what it meant to be 20. I see it every time. The minute the clock strikes midnight and the teenage persona tumbles to the floor, the birthday girl or boy fumbles through the cabinets of their mind in search of a way to make the day seem meaningful, usually finding that the best way is to turn to a friend and mention that when they were 12 they thought everyone in their twenties were full grown adults. I, usually standing by the cake at these twentieth birthday parties, often overhear these conversations from afar and nod my head, acknowledging that no matter how overplayed the idea is, it rings true: 20 really does catch everyone by surprise, and somehow no one ever imagines it correctly in middle school. But 20 is still something special.
Lately, I’ve been trying to keep track of the things that keep me going. My faith and my family and my fondest memories all start out the list, but sometimes it takes nothing more than a fleeting moment to remind me how charming this existence really is.
A couple years ago, my parents and I loaded up the rental and embarked on the fabled highway 95 New England college road trip. I made a last minute decision to beg for a detour to Ithaca to visit Cornell, and eventually we found ourselves on the Arts Quad, listening to a smile-prone sophomore give her tour-guide spiel about the University. Halfway through the tour, we passed the Johnson Museum, and our guide began to describe the programs and displays it hosted on a regular basis. At some point during this talk, she mixed up her words and referred to the museum as “my Johnson.” She immediately corrected herself and moved on, but there was no going back. She’d said it.
In college, there’s a big temptation to consider every failure in our lives to be evidence that we’re falling behind. But every time I talk to someone who’s tasted even the crumbs of their childhood dreams, I hear the same reverberating message: the trek is always tainted.
Because we have put-together friends with top jobs, impressive abilities and satisfying relationships, we often forget that everybody’s got either a few big slip ups in their past, a few in their future, or both.
Over winter break, I went out with a few friends and took a train home alone through downtown Dallas. It was the late afternoon — too early for the post-bar bunch and too late for the usual work crowd. Soon after I chose my seat, a slender Casanova wannabe with a can of cheap beer and a green pullover jacket hobbled into the seat behind me. When a young woman entered our section a few stops later, the man took it upon himself to personally give her a warm welcome: “You married?” “Yes,” she said.
I shuffled past neighborhood streets with a new friend, proclaiming the 12th grade misadventures of love, football and Whataburger. Our conversation made its way into tales about my high school’s $60 million football stadium when she began her string of allegations of affluence. “Our stadium was a set of portable bleachers,” she said. “You told me you grew up in a middle class neighborhood.”
I scrambled to defend myself. “uhh… it was a big tax district and we were the only school for the money to be funneled into and…” I ran through the list of economic-struggle-related mumbo-jumbo to prove that anything in my life that was $60 million dollars was an anomaly.
Over the summer, I heard an old Drake song that mentions star projectors and soon became fixated on the idea of buying one myself. I think the appeal comes from childhood memories of seven-year-old astronaut-wannabe me, sprawled out on the carpet flooring of a friend’s bedroom, staring up at a fake version of the night sky as if seeing the real one when I went outside wasn’t enough. When last semester began, I made my pilgrimage to the toy section of a department store and bought a new star projector, for old times’ sake. Oddly enough, it feels deeply profound to lay on my hardwood bedroom floor and stare up at colorful light-shapes on the wall. It’s introspective and placid and energizing, all at the same time.
“You were real. That’s what made you so good to watch.”
If you’ve ever seen The Truman Show, you likely remember the film’s final scene, when Truman and Christof, the creator of the counterfeit world in which Truman lives, finally meet, partaking in the exchange above. The film is part social commentary and part absurd apologue, all centered on the story of an everyday man whose life, unbeknownst to him, is actually a popular TV show. As evidenced by sporadic cuts to images of various friend groups watching from their couches, the outside world loved the show and tuned in because it felt so genuine: Truman’s experiences and reactions were all real. Truman didn’t know he was on TV, which was the film’s most important narrative conceit.
Last summer, I fell victim to my longings for spontaneity and crashed a wedding. The hunt for viable festivities took guts and perseverance, but once I arrived at the venue’s floral walkway with my date for the evening, we knew our labor was worthwhile. Inside, it seemed to be the aftermath of a rowdy affair. The drunk aunts and uncles rocked and gyrated on the edge of the dance floor with blank stares that make you want to give them a pillow and a blanket. In the middle were the three of four most passionate couples, rubbing up against each other in slow motion as the DJ spun his late night playlist of R&B songs you don’t recognize until the chorus.
The period between the moment one casts their ballot and the moment the next President of the United States is announced feels far more heavy than I’d ever imagined. It’s the American population’s collective gasp — like that pause in music when the audience isn’t sure if the song is ending or if they’ve simply reached the silent millisecond before a beat drop. Last week, when I encountered my first introduction to this feeling, I watched a few campaign-recap videos to curb my pre-election jitters. The videos were reflective, taking an emotional look back at the election cycle and its ups and downs. To me, it all felt so personal: each scene a reminder of its context in my life.