I knew that you loved me since I knew what love was. You always took great care of me, showed interest, were available, warm, firm and encouraging. And I could tell that you were great parents as soon as I got to the age that my peers started complaining about their parents. I rarely had anything to add to those conversations. I loved you and respected you too, but I was of course ignorant of just how lopsided our relationship was.

Two months ago,  when Margo was born, this deep, strong glow of love and devotion gripped me, and I thought, “Oh my God, Mom and Dad felt like this about me!” It’s been a major shock to and reorganization of my emotional system, that all this time you have had this in your hearts for me. It’s been on my mind during every interaction with you since then.

It’s a sad, almost tragic, part of human life that children have to be ignorant of the intensity of their parent’s love. I suppose it might be too much to bear for us as children, especially if it came along with the knowledge of how much it takes to provide that safe and safe-feeling life. But we stay ignorant into adulthood until we have children of our own, long after we could handle that knowledge, long after we need it, really, to understand who we are and where we come from.

So almost forty-five years of ignorance precedes this letter.  Sorry about that! But mostly, thank you. I learned how to love from you, since the day I was born. Thanks for how deeply and effortlessly I love my daughter!


Fam of 3

Dad, Mom & me, 1971. Photo by Stan Zarakov

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Me & Margo, 2016. Photo by Reanna Alder

It is difficult to know when you are an adult in our culture. It is easy to find people in their 20s and 30s wondering if they are a “real” adults, and what that even means. They don’t “feel” like an adult, and their archetypes of adulthood—parents, mentors, maybe bosses, celebrities—are moving targets. This was not the case for our ancient ancestors, and maybe all of our ancestors before the 20th century. There was a moment in your life after which you were an adult, by community decree. What you could expect from others and what others expected from you changed forever. It was this renegotiation of relationships that made you an adult, not how you felt and not even really what you did. I imagine this was in some ways terrifying but far less prolonged and anxiety provoking.

The downside of the old system, from a modern perspective, is the loss of freedom. Along with ka-chunk adulthood came a tightly prescribed life in terms of age and gender roles that most of us would find intolerable today. It’s very difficult to imagine moving back to that. And that’s the sticking point. An initiation is meaningful to the extent that it has permanent consequences, but permanent consequences tend to mean a loss of freedom that is difficult for an individual to choose.

Here are some thoughts about our various initiations into adulthood:

Turning 18 is pretty weak. On the plus side, everyone does it—it just happens to you—and it comes with privileges and responsibilities; in a sense it is a renegotiation of your relationship to the state. On the other hand, your life and personal relationships do not change, especially now that kids have unlimited access to pornography on the internet. The ritual itself, the birthday party, is barely worth mentioning.

Turning 21 is also barely worth mentioning except to say that the freedom to drink legally, while a renegotiation of a few relationships, is a step backwards from adulthood for some.

High school graduation is a little better. The ritual is easy and boring, but there is a major consequence: You can never go to high school again. This means a major renegotiation of lifestyle (in most cases) and expectations. On the downside, not everyone does it and no one considers you an adult because you did it.

College graduation is not as effective as high school graduation. It’s available to a much smaller subset. In some ways, your freedom increases—certain jobs may be open to you—but the major consequence is that you start having to pay off your debt, which you can always put off by going for another degree. If your family is rich enough to pay your way, you are shielded from all consequences.

Boot camp in some ways may be the best initiation into adulthood we have. Only a small subset do it, but it is a before-and-after ordeal and it carries major consequences, in the self-image of the initiate, in lifestyle, and in role shift between teenager and soldier.

My wedding was by far the most powerful initiation ritual I’ve experienced. It felt meaningful, carried strong role consequences, and involved the participation of most of the people who are really important to me. Unfortunately, not everyone has access to marriage, at least in a way that is supported by our culture. And it is badly timed for an adulthood ritual for some people. It took me decades of adult life, for example, to find a person who I wanted to marry and who wanted to marry me.

Self imposed ordeals can be valuable, but have limited effectiveness as an initiation into adulthood. Many young adults try to use solo travel or some other ordeal to induce a feeling of adulthood, but it doesn’t tend to work because the ordeal doesn’t carry cultural or relational consequences. They may have an increased sense of their own power and others may be impressed with their accomplishment, but without the buy-in of the family and culture, without a role shift as a consequence of undergoing the ordeal, the young adult is left with a sense that nothing has really changed.

In my first round of thinking about this, I thought maybe we could remedy the situation one individual at a time: Each young person could decide what adulthood would mean for them, design an ordeal or ritual, and invite everyone important to them to witness and support them in their new, adult roles and relationships.

After talking with a bunch of late-adolescents about this idea, though, I realized it won’t work. They either reported being completely uninterested in the idea, interested but not ready to do it, or (very rarely) already identifying as an adult and not interested in doing all that work. Once you are ready, it’s too late.

So it has to come from the culture, not from the individual. It has to be the individual participating in the culture. And unfortunately, that leaves us with just a few, mostly tepid initiation rituals, and a lot of young adults wondering when adulthood will come to them.

I am piloting a new project this year at Not Back to School Camp called “On Becoming a Man.” I thought it would be a salient topic for many of the 13-18 year old males at camp. This is how I described it for campers looking for a project at camp:

“This project is for campers who are interested in becoming a man. It will include exploring the issues of what it means to be a man, the difference between manhood and boyhood, and the freedoms and responsibilities of manhood. Each participant will be supported in coming to a personal definition of manhood and, if they so decide, design a ritual entry into manhood.”

I’ve been thinking about the meaning of manhood a lot for many years, so I feel prepared for that part of the project. I am least prepared for the part where we design a coming of age ritual for each camper who chooses to have one. I’m doing some reading on it (Imber-Black and Roberts Rituals For Our Times) but not having had a coming of age ritual myself, I have next to no concrete examples. The gom jabbar ritual from Dune springs to mind, but I don’t have a poison needle or a pain box. (Plus I don’t think the NBTSC consent forms cover the possibility of death by poison needle!)

Did you have or have you witnessed a great coming of age ritual? Why was it great? Any horror stories? Thanks!

On 10/9/10, I woke up 6:54 am, vibrating with fear. I said this into my voice recorder. Imagine a super groggy voice. (Warning to the squeamish–I say the F-word and the SH-word, and it’s kind of gruesome, and worst of all I say “like” a lot.)

“Holy crap, what a nightmare… I go to a dentist to get my two fillings… and, uh, they gave me like shot after shot and were doing like brain stimulation stuff [this was the “dentists” shocking my brain through my skull over and over, making large parts of my face numb] and uh… shooting into my gums and eyelids, and drilling into my eyes… and when I left there I realized it was like 7 in the morning. I’d been there… I’d been there all night. I was like, “What the fuck?” and I went back. And I basically killed ‘em…. by banging their heads together… cause I realized—in the dream I was certain of this, though they totally denied it—it was like they hadn’t even drilled my teeth. My teeth felt the same. And I like, I kind of like worked out their scheme. It was like they had given me AIDS and like drilled into my brain. It was really creepy, just really creepy. Holy shit! I don’t want to have dreams like that. That’s fucked up. It started off nice enough, I was just going to the dentist. It was in a big house in the woods, kind of like Vermont….. Also, there were people that I knew in the house downstairs. I passed them on the way out. I forget what they said but when I came back I brought one of them up with me for moral support.”

Yesterday, I got two real fillings. Anticipating them is probably what prompted that nightmare. The dentist was very nice and very competent. The fillings are good ones. And it was brutal. Getting needles stuck deep into your gums to pump fluid in, getting holes drilled into your teeth, with a drill–these are undeniably brutal experiences.

I tried to teach myself something during that process. “Nathen, this is the result of putting off finding a new dentist. If you don’t like this, don’t put that kind of thing off.” My dentist in southern California diagnosed the cavities (the second and third cavities of my life) last December and said they were so small that he wouldn’t have to numb me or drill. Just a little sandblasting and a dab of porcelain. But then he got sick and couldn’t do the work before my term started. I came back up to Eugene and just hated the idea of finding a new dentist. All the dentists up here are way more expensive than mine, and who knows if their work is good? So I waited (Maybe I can make it to my next visit home! I take such good care of my teeth…) and agonized and eventually had my brutal fillings.

One of my definitions of adulthood is the absence of that kind of behavior: An adult is someone who just does what needs to be done. No agonizing, no procrastination. By this measure I am still working on adulthood. Perhaps this lesson will speed up my development.

Staff of NBTSC

NBTSC 2010 Oregon Staff

I’m in the woods of Vermont, preparing for the start of the east coast sessions of Not Back To School Camp. Today is staff orientation and the campers arrive tomorrow–over a hundred teenaged unschoolers. If I’m counting right, this will be my thirtieth session. I’ve only missed two since 1999.

In our first go-round of our first meeting, Grace asked us to say why we come to camp. This was my answer:

First, because this is where my people gather. The staff here are like family to me and for the rest of the year, they are dispersed. I can visit them one at a time or in clumps, by traveling. Camp is also where I am most likely to meet my future people. I’ve met almost all of my post-high school close friends at NBTSC.

Second, NBTSC provides the perfect supportive atmosphere to practice how I want to be and serve in the outside world: I want to be a space for love and inspiration to show up, strong and clear, for every person who crosses my path.

Third, since NBTSC happens once a year, every year, with the same basic mission, structure, and community, it provides a consistent backdrop to check myself against. My outside life continues to change, but here I am every year, back at camp. How am I showing up differently? How have I grown? Here that is quite clear.

Last, it’s super, super fun. The young people are beautiful, inspiring, and open. There’s lots of music, dancing and hilarity. I love it.

2010 Oregon session one group photo

NBTSC Oregon Campers (session 1) 2010

This is a question I’ve come back to many times in my life, and it’s a tough one. As a kid, there seems such a difference between kids and adults that it appears dichotomous; first you are a kid, then you are an adult. The actual transition is so gradual, though, it’s confusing.

The rituals our culture provides are pathetic and seem more and more pathetic in retrospect as I get older: graduating from high school, registering for the draft, being able to purchase pornography, being able to drink. Even graduating from college is pathetic in terms of an adulthood ritual. I just watched a bunch of people graduate from UO and they sure seemed like kids to me–certainly not children, but still dependent on parents, still at best vaguely aware of what they would do with their life, still without anyone depending on them.

There are biological markers, but no one I know was an adult at sexual maturity, even if they did manage to have sex or even conceive. Physical maturity doesn’t seem to correlate with emotional maturity at all. And brain scientists keep pushing back the age at which our brains are fully mature–lately I’ve been hearing 25 or 26, but fifty years ago it was 7, so in another fifty will we not have mature brains until we’re 45?

We could use financial independence, but what does that really mean? That we only ask our parents for help when we get into really expensive trouble? We could wait to say we’re adults when we are supporting our parents, but that’s tough for us Gen-Xers, whose parents will mostly die richer than us for social and political reasons.

I imagine the “real” answer is a combination of a bunch of factors, not amenable to a simple scheme, but I have come up with two, simple, adult-identifying schemes to offer. They are pretty subjective and fail to provide a distinct moment in which adulthood occurs, but they are my favorite ideas about this so far.

1) Gratitude for parents: We gradually become capable of understanding what our parents have done for us. Perhaps we are adults when we are able to, without idealizing them, fully appreciate our parents. This could be a good indication that we have moved past egocentricity.

2) The ability to distinguish threat from non-threat: A bus bearing down on us is a threat. Someone disagreeing with our opinion is not a threat, even if the disagreement is strongly worded and about religion, politics, or contentious-topic-of-your-choice. Perhaps we are adults when we can easily respond in an appropriate manner to the reality we are presented with–when we can consistently use reality testing.