an open letter to my younger self

Dear Kid,

I came across a photo of you dated 1978 and I had to write.  You’re like, what—11 going on 12?  I’m 45 here in 2012.  I thought you might want a heads-up on what life’s going to be like for you for the next 30-some odd years.

Let’s review.  Your folks divorced when you were in 3rd grade, which was about 4 years before this photo was taken.  You live with your mother in Phoenix, AZ and she’s had to work two jobs.  Things are looking up, though: you live in a nice place, you have friends, and you go to a good school.

After your 7th grade year ends, you and your mother will move to Maryland because there are much better jobs there.  You won’t like this at first, but moving to Maryland will profoundly change your life, ultimately for the better.  I’m still here, many years later.

Life on the East Coast

Your new surroundings in Greenbelt, MD, just a few miles from Washington, DC, will be very strange to you.  First off, they have distinct seasons: there are definitely differences between spring and summer, and summer and fall.  Secondly, greenery: where you’ll live has a bunch of woods for walking around and exploring.  Right across the street from where you live is a perfect place to take a dog.  Yes, there will be dogs—lots of them.  But we’ll get to them later.

Living in this area will introduce you big-time to professional sports.  Though you won’t be much into baseball or hockey, once you move to Maryland, your two favorite teams will be the Redskins and the Steelers, and you’ll be able to see lots of their games.

DC has plenty of museums, which, of course, your mother will take you to.  The Smithsonian’s Natural History museum will be your favorite, especially the live insect zoo and the dinosaurs.  Yes, dinosaurs!  Seriously!  You don’t have anything like that in Phoenix.  You’ll also like the Air and Space Museum, but the first year you live in Maryland, your favorite place will probably be the public library in Greenbelt.

School, School, and More School

7th grade is/will be awesome for you at your middle school in Phoenix: you’ll love your teachers, love your classes, have lots of friends, go to school dances, have a few girlfriends, even get elected to the student council and the National Junior Honor Society.

8th grade in your new middle school in suburban Maryland is going to suck.  Sorry.  Part of the reason for that is that the school itself is not that good, part of it is that many of the kids who go there are snobby or louts or burnouts, and part of it is just that 8th grade is often a sucky year for many kids, regardless of where they go.

I am happy to tell you that your four years at high school will be much better.  You’ll take German, French, and Latin, as well as AP English and history; you’ll write for the lit mag and the newspaper; you’ll learn to play guitar and how to juggle (which don’t hurt for getting girls); you’ll get heavily into Dungeons & Dragons (no girls there, but lots of fun nonetheless); and you’ll make quite a few friends, some of whom you’ll have for the rest of your life (at least, so far).  Keep an eye out for this fellow Pat that you’re going to meet in your junior year: he’s a good guy, and he’ll wind up being your best friend.

The Home Front

You’ll spend a good chunk of the summer of 1978 with your father in Redondo Beach, CA.  You’ll go to the beach a few times, go skateboarding a lot—you’ll scrape up  your side in a nasty fall, but the scars will go away—and you’ll visit Disneyland.  All in all, a good time.

That will be the last time you will ever see him.

Shortly after you move to Maryland, he’s going to stop writing, stop calling, for no good reason.  It wasn’t anything you did or said.  It’s just him.  He has issues.

You’re going to think he’s dead—why else would he suddenly stop communicating?—but he’s not.  He’s moved from LA to Oklahoma, changed his last name, and started a new life, one without you.  It’s going to bother you, a lot.  You’ll eventually realize it’s his loss, not yours, and you’ll get over it.

He’ll die in 2014.

Your mother’s going to remarry, and you’ll have something like a regular family again.  You’ll stop moving around, your folks won’t have money worries (not huge ones, anyway), and you won’t qualify for free breakfasts and lunches at school anymore.  You’ll even have a dog, just like you used to, before your folks split up.  You’ll love Terry, your mom’s new husband, and you’ll call him your stepfather.

A New Direction

You’ll graduate high school and the thought of moving back to Phoenix will never occur to you.  You enroll in college, you move out, and you work part-time to put yourself through school.  You’ll become a DJ at the campus radio station; you’ll suffer a bout of practicality and minor in business to complement your studies in English literature and creative writing; you’ll get into comic books and Led Zeppelin and this guy Prince.

Like other college kids, you’ll stay up late hanging out and partying; you’ll live in dumps (one is infested with roaches, the other has squirrels nesting in the walls).  Just like middle school and high school, you’ll do well enough in class: you’d do much better if you cultivated serious study habits, my lazy friend.  There will be girls, some of whom you are better off without, but you’ll learn.  One of them will call you one night and wake you up.  Take the call: you’re going to wind up marrying that one.

It might be hard for you to wrap your head around this, but in the 10 years from 1979 to 1988, your life is going to change more than it ever has or probably ever will.  You’ll start off as middle-school latchkey kid of a divorced mom scraping to get by in Phoenix, and you’ll finish thousands of miles away with a college degree, your own home, a job, and a wife.

 The ‘90s: a Decade of Struggling

In the years just after college, the economy is not good, so you’ll do boring, menial work.  You’ll find an affordable grad school and you’ll finally enjoy studying, but it will be far away, requiring you to drive long distances a couple times each week.

You’ll get through grad school with a Masters in English Literature and you’ll think about becoming a college professor.  Teaching looked easy, but you’ll find that just getting a part-time position is difficult.  When you do finally get your foot in the door and teach some classes, you’ll discover it’s not easy—and worse, it’s not very rewarding.  After a few semesters of this, you’ll decide that the academic life is not for you.

Late in 1992, you and Joni decide to have a child, and in November 1993, Elizabeth Audra Kilgore is born, not without some delivery-room scariness (the placenta detaches during labor, and Joni has an emergency c-section).  You were ambivalent about kids before, but you fall in love with Beth literally at first sight, there in surgery.

She’s a colicky baby—screams a lot and doesn’t sleep much.  Late nights, you working two jobs, and a lack of sleep don’t improve the situation.  But she’s worth it.  She’s going to look and act and think so much like you that Joni’s going to joke that Beth’s your female clone.  She’ll be your “raison d’etre,” your “reason for being.”

You’re going to get a scare in the mid Nineties when the docs find a funny mole on your back that turns out to be melanoma.  As in cancer.  You get a full body scan after swallowing some stuff that tastes like a pina colada, if pina coladas were made with Clorox.  They cut a piece of skin off you roughly the size and shape of a cocktail napkin, with a surgical instrument like a soldering iron—and you’re awake for that the whole time.  During the operation, you lose count of the anesthesia injections into your back.  But you go through all this with no fuss because the alternative is possibly death.  When your choices are, “Do ‘x’ or die,” doing ‘x’ isn’t that tough.

How’d you get skin cancer in the first place?  All those sunburns you got in the pool back there in Arizona, the ones that were so bad, your skin would peel off in long strings.  Why didn’t you wear sunscreen?  No one wore sunscreen in the ’70s.  Hell, they sold lotion to promote sun tanning.

You’re going to be spending a lot of time working in the 1990’s, thrashing about like a rabid ferret just to pay the mortgage.  Things will start getting better once you move to Kent Island, MD and get a job with the government.  You’ll still work a lot of hours, especially the first three years, but you’ll stop worrying about money.  You’ll be able to afford nicer things, to take vacations, and to start saving for college for your kids—yeah, “kids,” as in plural.

Alexandra Jane Kilgore will be born early in 1999 with a congenital condition called arthrogryposis.  Genetic testing will tell you and Joni that you’re carriers for this condition.  Don’t worry: Ally Jane will live—which is amazing when you consider that she’s diagnosed with the “fatal” type that, before her, wasn’t known to allow anyone with it to live long enough to be born.  She’ll walk (after surgeries and therapy), she’ll talk, she’ll be brilliant, and she’ll have lots of friends.  She’ll look like your mom, and she’ll be happy.

Speaking of which….

The Going Gets Good

What can I say about the years from 2000 on?  You’ll have a good career, your kids will be your greatest treasure, you’ll buy a nice house with awesome neighbors, you’ll go on some nice trips, and you’ll own a variety of more-or-less worthless pets.  For as much as you struggled in your childhood, adolescence, and your 20’s, the payoff occurs with the turn of the century.

No, everything won’t be peaches and milk by-products:  Terry and Joni’s dad are going to die, in 2009 and 2004, respectively.  You won’t always like your job, but at least it pays well.  You’ll write a book and struggle to sell it.  Friends and family will have traumas you’ll have to deal with and drama you’ll want to avoid.  But when you consider what life was like in your 20s?  Pffft: life on the other side of 30 is good, and it gets ever better in your 40’s.

Other Stuff Along the Way….

You’re not going to be a rock star or a movie actor, you’re not going to be a best-selling novelist, and you will never play wide receiver in the NFL.  You’ll witness a bank robbery (no one will get hurt), you’ll learn to ride a motorcycle, and you’ll develop some talents you didn’t know you had: you crush at trivia games, you’re good at tennis (though your serve sucks), and given some warming up, you can do a decent Robert Plant or Axl Rose.  You’ll learn to do web pages and you’ll loveWarhammer 40,000 and the aforementioned D&D.  You’ll become Catholic (which makes your grandmother happy) and you’ll become a Knight of Columbus.

As of 2012, you’ve traveled to 41 out of 50 U.S. States; been to Canada and Mexico; been back to Germany a few times, as well as France, England, Belgium, Austria, Luxembourg, and Switzerland.  You’ve been in a submarine, gone for a ride in a helicopter, and crawled into the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress.  Pretty cool, huh?

Maybe it’s because of all the places you’ve visited and lived, but you’re never going to feel like you belong anywhere.  You’re always going to feel like an outsider in any place or group you’re in.  Oh, you’ll enjoy where you are, but it’ll never seem to seep into your soul like it does with other people you know, people who have been born and raised in one place and their family has been there for generations.

Not you: there’s nowhere you wouldn’t be willing to walk away from, with nary a look back.  I’ve lived in Maryland for more than 30 years, but I don’t feel like a “Marylander.”  It isn’t home, but neither is Phoenix, either, or Germany, where I was born, or anywhere else I’ve been.

Nor will you feel particularly bound to most people.  A lot of them will waft into and out of your life, just as they always have, and though you’ll have many friends and loved ones, it will sometimes be hard to relate to them.  You are, and probably always will be, the Cat in Kipling’s Just So story: “I am the cat who walks by himself, and all places are alike to me.”

About Growing Up and Getting Older

I know that right now, just as you have for the last few years, you can’t wait to hurry up and grow up.  You think that adults have all the power and freedom, and make all the decisions, and you’re right, to an extent.  They can do all sorts of things, but they have to do a lot of things, too.  Their hands are somewhat tied by obligations and yes, fears.  Growing up does not mean the end of having things to worry about.  And you’re wrong to think that they know everything and always know what they’re doing: often, you’ll find yourself confused, or doing stupid stuff that you’ll look back on and ask, “Why did I think that was a good idea?”

From the vantage point of 12 years of age, you probably think that 45 is ancient.  The adult you that is writing this is much older than your mother was back in 1978.  It’s funny: everyone spends their childhood wishing they could hurry and grow up, and shortly after they do, they wish that time would slow down and they would stop getting older.

It wasn’t a big deal for me to turn 30, or even 40, and only when I look closely at the lines on my face do I realize that I’m into middle age.  I don’t feel “grown up”: in a lot of my dreams, I’m either a teenager or in my early 20’s, and when I wake up, I have a few weird moments of not knowing where in time I am.  I haven’t “outgrown” my love for superheroes and sci-fi movies and cheeseburgers and junk cereal and loud, stupid rock bands like KISS.  I tell people that the secret to staying young is to be immature.

But it’s not just me: a few years ago, I asked my mother when she finally felt “grown up,” and she said, she never has.

Some Parting Advice

I need to wrap this up so you can get on with living your life, but I’d like to tell you a few things I wish someone had told me when I was your age:

  • Not everyone you meet will like you, and that’s ok.  So long as more people like you than dislike you, you’re doing fine.  Don’t bother trying to make the haters like you.  You’ll just be wasting your time.
  • Similarly, don’t chase after people who aren’t interested in you.  Love the people who love you back, and let the others go.
  • Sorrow and rage are not your friends.  Don’t let them drag you around like a dog with a chew toy.  You will never lose the hurt and the anger, but you can keep a lid on it, and despite what some people say, that really is for the best.  Letting it out is just letting it rule you.
  • Don’t be tempted to dig up old wrongs or pick at old scars, because all the bad feelings are still under there, like magma trapped underground.
  • Some of the best things you’ve ever done are things that at first, you weren’t sure were good ideas, like going to college, or dating Joni, or getting into the government.  So go ahead and do those things.
  • Some of the worst things you’ve ever done are things that at first, you were absolutely sure were good ideas.  And the more strongly you felt about said idea, often the worse it was.  So try not to do those things.
  • Be good to yourself.  You’re the only “you” you’ve got.

Oh, and one more thing: get a haircut.

See ya around, kid.

Kenton Kilgore

January, 2012


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