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The Death of Promise; or, I Was a Young Turk Once Too

London Calling. Summer 1985.

London Calling. Summer 1985.

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood,
To say as I said then!

Antony and Cleopatra, William Shakespeare

The somewhat weary-looking young man posing in front of “Buck House” is, of course, yours truly. Sorry for the fuzzy image, but this was the pre-digital age, at least where consumer electronics were concerned. Nearly 30 years ago. Not sure how that’s possible, but, well, there you have it.

I stumbled upon this photo the other day when I was cleaning up from a small leak in my basement, because, hey, that’s how these things work: Freshman college kids run off to exotic locales to work(?) for the summer while, unimaginable years later, their slightly paunchier middle-aged doppelgängers mop up furnace rooms and generally putter around their homes trying to keep them in a fit enough state of repair to support human habitation.

Sorry, did that sound bitter? Every day above ground is a good day, I’ll admit, but, my, oh my, how our perspectives change over time.

This particular blog has been rattling around in my head since last summer — OK, probably well before that — when, on a fine July morning at the start of our family vacation, I found myself in a trendy coffee shop in downtown Ottawa, surrounded by a cadre of lithe, well-dressed / -coiffed / -shod teenagers. As I drank my small $3 cappuccino, however, observed their frenzied fingers assaulting innumerable BlackBerries and MacBooks, and caught a snippet of a few of the conversations emerging out of the general din, I soon realized these weren’t teenagers at all — these were the Young Turks of the sprawling federal government bureaucracy at the heart of the nation’s capital. Fresh faced, tireless, indestructible.

I suppose I had been a “playa” once too, a “contenda”. Hadn’t we all? Too naive to know our own limitations. What blissful ignorance — at least in peacetime. (In wartime, of course, that naiveté is frequently a death sentence, but that’s a whole ‘nother blog). Quitting jobs with nary a second thought, ‘cause, hey, I’m wasn’t about to do that for another 40 years. Seeking the unique, the novel, at every turn, since I certainly wasn’t going to get trapped in a rut for the rest of my life. I had it figured out. I had it goin’ on!

Not that I want to get all nostalgic here. I’m not so old that I can’t still remember the agonies of those days as well. Residual teen-age acne and far fewer “friends with benefits” than I felt were my due. No real security — other than the resilience of one’s youth — if you made truly poor choices; very little respect for whatever it was you were doing — because you hadn’t earned any yet; and the nearly visceral fear that you’d get it wrong when you were finally backed into the corner and compelled to make the “big” choices.

The difference between now and then, however, is that then, more often than not, you swallowed your fear and actually jumped. No guts, no glory. Maybe you drew on that childhood memory of the time you screwed up your courage and flung yourself off the really high-diving board — and lived. Or when you asked that super-popular girl to the dance. She declined, but your heart didn’t cease to beat and you haven’t been living as a hobo under a bridge ever since. You closed your eyes and took the plunge.

Now, of course, you own the rut, or, more accurately, you have a mortgage on it. But what other choice do you have? There’s simply too much at stake now, too much too lose. When I lived on campus during a couple of my university years, I often used to go for a Sunday night walk around the residential part of the city that flanked the campus to try to clear my head for the upcoming week. Here, in the evening darkness, I would  stare longingly at the complacent single-family homes with their decorative shrubbery and well-tended lawns and think to myself, would I ever get there? Would I ever be rid of these days of constant psychic anxiety, of exams and terms papers, of loneliness and striving, always striving? Well, flash forward: here I am. Be careful what you wish for…

Somehow, though, my thesis isn’t hanging together here as neatly as I had anticipated. I know I’m being inconsistent. Leading with the premise that our unsullied youth represents the proverbial high-water mark in our lives, then quickly backing away that idea at the same time. Peel back the layers, I guess, and maybe we start to wonder whether there’ll ever be a time when we’re truly comfortable in our skins, when our reach no longer exceeds our grasp. The worst thing in the world is not getting what you want; the second worst thing, damnably, is getting it.

Like any other component of our fragile psyche, our identification with our youthful selves is, doubtless, a complex one. For most of us, there probably remains something “golden” about these years — whether real or garnished by nostalgia. More than anything I imagine this can be attributed to all the latent potential we retrospectively ascribe to the pulsating firmament of our youthful selves. We tell our children, and our parents probably told us, “Dream big. You can do whatever you want.” And maybe before we leave middle school — statistically at least — this is not exactly un-true. With each passing year, and every consummated choice, however, we are further constrained, our options further limited, our selves somehow reduced. As philosopher and Harvard professor Roberto Unger puts it in a podcast lecture I stumbled upon the other day:

We cannot be everything in the world. We must chose a path. And reject other paths. This rejection, indispensable to our self development, is also a mutilation. In choosing, as we must, we cast aside many aspects our humanity. If, however, we cast them aside completely, we become less than fully human. We must continue somehow to feel the movements of the limbs we cut off. To learn how to feel them is the first major work of the imagination.

Later on, as adults, we struggle in the world and against it. We settle into a way of living and of doing. A mummy begins to form around each of us, diminishing our reach and our vision by accommodating them to our circumstance. We begin to die many small deaths. Our aim should be to die but once.

“Beyond the Small Life: A Letter to Young People” (

Admittedly, I seem to have now passed over into that potentially distressing phase of life during which I can genuinely commiserate with such banal “man-o-pause” compulsions as trying to snag that classic red Corvette or the big chrome-plated Harley before it’s too late (though I hope I’ll never be old enough to understand why anybody thinks a “comb over” is a good idea). And I grapple with the challenge of trying to apprehend the age-related constraints of personal potential as a constant companion in my writing. With this in mind I’ll go so far as to give over the closing credits of this blog to my fiction-writing self. Here, our unnamed protagonist, in a work-in-progress novella provisionally entitled Still Life, is staring at himself in the mirror before his morning shave, wondering what exactly happened to his own Young Turk self:

Like Coleridge, awakened by a traveling salesman before his reveries in Xanadu were complete, it would dawn on him that the dream from which he had awoken and to which he would never again return was youth itself. But, by this point in his life, he knew the game was rigged. That it had always been so, and that it would continue to be so. By the time you figured out how to play, you had already lost and there was no possibility for a make-up match. Youth, as the old saying goes, is wasted on the young. And yet there could never be an effective method to offer it up to the old. The elders, in their wisdom, wouldn’t waste it — and, if not wasted, it could hardly be considered youth at all, could it? That was the catch. The ultimate cosmic “Fuck you!”