On the Occasion of Emma’s 21st Birthday

A recent picture of Emma
Yesterday was a multifaceted milestone for my family and me. It was our daughter Emma’s 21st birthday (her brother Eric is 24). Both our kids are now (by most every standard) officially adults (though still not at the age 25 threshold that will allow them to rent cars and be adult counselors at Unitarian-Universalist youth community events). And since they both have their health, reasonably good jobs, a supportive circle of friends and paths forward for their lives, looks like they have both now survived their “childhood” and “adolescence”, those two iconic labels (fraught with ambivalent connotations) for phases of ones life that are not so idyllic for kids today (particularly urban kids).

I will have to ask both of them if they have any feelings of nostalgia for the youth that is now officially behind them. My guess would be that they don’t have much, but then they can surprise me at times. They have grown up in a megalopolis at the conclusion of the second millennium of the Common Era, with perhaps 20 million people living within a hundred miles, all in the same media market, with plenty of fears that they (or maybe more so their parents) have to wrestle with. Fears real or imagined (or amplified by local media coverage of the doings of those 20 million people) that I still regret have limited their independence in ways that I hope have not held them back too much.

I can remember the fear of letting Emma at age 16 drive for the first time by herself the 27 some miles to her best friend Riva’s house, traversing surface streets and four freeways (and some tricky transitions between them), which included her return trip on her own after dark. It would certainly have been tempting to not let her do it, or not let her get her driver’s license at all, but how would she otherwise develop the same level of autonomy and agency that she now possesses?

In a society still bristling in ways with patriarchal thinking (and the violence or threat there of associated with it), plus the added vulnerability of youth, how do you give a young person (particularly of the female gender) the “safe space” to spread their wings?

But somehow her mom and I prepared her as best we could, let her go, let her roll the dice and cast herself to the fates. And I must acknowledge (though Emma being generally shier than her brother always seemed perhaps more naïve and sheltered) her good sense, inner toughness and determination to overcome any obstacle to getting what she wanted, what she needed, and what she felt she deserved. More so in ways than her mom or I at her age, she has created her own reality, envisioned what she wanted to do and somehow done it successfully. She could give all the rest of us lessons at being the maestro of ones own life.

When I turned 21 I was a college student, just transferred from Western Michigan University to the University of Michigan in my home town of Ann Arbor. I had in the previous year given up on being a theater major and had some vague notion I wanted to get into television and film production. After two more years of classes I would graduate with a BA in Speech, which turned out to be pretty much of a mulligan (requiring a do-over starting five years later to get me a more practical college degree). But at least setting off in that direction took me to Los Angeles where I eventually met Emma’s mom and led to Emma and her brother Eric being born.

Emma too probably has significant course changes ahead of her, but for over a year now she has been pretty much running her own life with work that earns her a living wage, a supportive significant other, and an ongoing writers group to help her pursue her goal of being a science fiction writer. I recall that it wasn’t until I was about 30 that I was earning a comparable wage. But beyond that money stuff, Emma seems plenty capable of setting a goal for herself, mobilizing the needed resources, and then making it happen, whatever direction she decides to go.

Seems like our contemporary American culture (with its unsafe streets, test-obsessed schools, tough-love parenting and fetishistic sexualization of youth in the media) has shot to hell any remnants of the whole idyllic youth thing. It would have been a socially approved path of least resistance to keep our kids (particularly of the female gender) cloistered, scrupulously managed and “helicoptered” up to this point in their lives. It took courage to just say “no” to all that and let go of that ephemeral sense of control and comfort, and as much as possible let our kids live their own lives.

And even though I continue to celebrate having Barak Obama as our president (and what he symbolizes about the evolution of our culture and the whole world) it would have been nice to have had Hillary Clinton truly breaking that profound glass ceiling of power to inspire Emma and the rest of her generation of female youth and young women. Maybe in six years Clinton still can, if she can continue to look good and thus escape the patriarchal irrelevancy of older women.

So here’s to you Emma! I think you are a lot farther along your path than I was at this milestone. You certainly seem more confident of your path forward than I was. The world is what it is, and your grandparents, parents and all their comrades have done what they can to push things forward in a progressive direction. So good luck with that… and know that we love you and will try to stick around as long as we can to be of assistance and enjoy sharing the path forward.

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