A Father's Notes on Turning Twenty

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My younger son Justin turns twenty today. Happy birthday, dear Justin!

We were talking on the phone the other night and I mentioned, in a musty way, that I had just been reading a passage of Shakespeare that I liked, something from Macbeth. I pronounced the first few words of the quote. Justin completed the quote for me, rattling off the next several lines.

I said, "You know it!"

"Of course I know it," Justin replied, with an air of late adolescent condescension... How sharper than a serpent's tooth!

Well, family and culture are both forms of the endless relay race. A father's feelings when the torch is passed may sometimes be a little mixed. I mean, it's one thing for Justin to beat me at any reference to contemporary music, movies, literature, or general day-to-day hipness. He does that all the time. Justin is a beginning writer and filmmaker. As for me, there is no one on the planet less hip. I am your father's Oldsmobile. I am, in fact, your great grandfather's Studebaker, a crock from the Pleistocene. I am embarrassingly out of it. In fact, I always have been. When I read PEOPLE magazine, I do not recognize one celebrity name in ten. But it is another thing for Justin to start whupping me at Shakespeare.

Twenty is an impressive gate, through which one passes from one country to another. It was such a crossing for me. Behind me lay the squalid hormonal shambles of adolescence—which I remember as a roller coaster through a haunted house, myself as a skinny kid riding at breakneck speed through a heritage of bad dreams, my wildly careering, breakaway energies slamming against seemingly interminable captivity in the hands of my parents' obsessions, parents' errors, parents' judgments.... and in the hands, as well, of my own ardent and melodramatic ignorance of the world, and of what I was, or might be. Anyone who would sentimentalize adolescence either is a fraud or has a bad memory.

But ahead lies straighter track, open air, solid ground, and your own work. A life.

I remember thinking, when I turned twenty—the odometer rolling over an ominous zero into a new decade—how terribly old I had become, and how little I had accomplished. Twenty already! I'd done nothing. On further reflection, I thought that entering my twenties meant I had begun something irrevocably serious at last—gone through a sea-change, crossed a Rubicon. All birthdays with zeroes will tend to make you feel that way. Wait til you get a load of sixty.

I turned twenty in a different world from yours, dearest Justin. Late Ike, pre-Camelot. My birthday was the first day of autumn, 1960. John Kennedy was running for President. He was a bright new dime fresh from the mint. That seems like a very long time ago. You round the corner into a world that is in so many ways so much better... and in many ways, terribly worse. But in any case, your own.

I thought that Jesse Jackson committed hilarious though pardonable blasphemy when he introduced Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. to last summer's Democratic National Convention by saying, in the voice of God, "This is my son, in whom I am well pleased."

But what proud father does not understand the thought, or repeat it, most lovingly, in his heart?