I’ve seen the movies. I’ve absorbed those tales of boys becoming men, overcoming adversity and inexperience to claim their rightful destinies. Stand By Me. Can’t Hardly Wait. The Wood. They all conform to a pattern. At the beginning of the story, a young man is callow, unable to achieve his goals. By the tale’s conclusion, he has surmounted his obstacles and completed his heroic journey. Everyone likes him better, and he gets to do more making out and high-fiving. It all seems very appealing. So when do I get to come of age?
I’ve tried everything. I’ve driven cross-country. I’ve taken care of an aging relative. I’ve declared my love for a woman. And none of it has made me a man. No matter how many dead bodies I’ve seen, I still can’t change my own oil. I’m getting sick of it. What’s it going to take for me to grow up?
I don’t think you get it. When I was fourteen, I was possibly the least skilled player on my little league baseball team. During the last inning of the championship, I was, predictably, on the bench. Kevin, one of our team’s best hitters, cranked a double deep into the outfield. The coach motioned for me to take the coordinated, but slow-footed Kevin’s place on as a pinch runner. I was as surprised as anyone. One batter later, I rounded third and headed for home plate. Technically, I scored the winning run in the championship. A decade later, I was running an errand in my parents’ neighborhood, and the coach recognized me and praised my head-up base running.
Did that experience give me confidence in my modest athletic skills? Did it teach me the value of everyone having a role to play in making a team great? Nope! It showed me that sometimes a kindhearted coach takes pity on a gawky tween and throws him a bone.
When I was twenty-four, I went on a month long road trip with my friend Shawn. We visited landmarks from the Liberty Bell to the Hollywood sign. On our way through South Dakota, we skipped Mount Rushmore and flipped the bird at the highway exit in protest of a snowstorm that had slowed our eastward progress. We slept on the floor of a stranger’s hotel room in Montana. We attended a rodeo in Texas and visited a bootleg Elvis museum in Mississippi.
At the end of our trip, neither of us had reconciled with an estranged relative or decided to propose to a long-time girlfriend. Yes, we became much better friends than we had been before our trip. And we met lots of fascinating people that we’re still in touch with. But none of those new acquaintances pointed out my ancestors in a constellation and assured me that one day, when I was ready, I would ascend to the throne to rule over the Pride Lands.
Movies have taught me that these kinds of formative experiences should have led me to graduate at the top of my law school class or mentor a troubled teen. Well answer me this, Legally Blonde 2: Red, White, and Blonde: How am I supposed to graduate at the top of my class, when I’ve never even applied to law school?
Movies suggest that life moves along a pretty direct path. You go on a journey, and you learn a lesson. You build it, they come. Real life is different. Years ago, I had a magical first kiss with a girl as a band played “Please, Please, Please” by James Brown. It did not lead to a lifelong romance. It was, however, the beginning of a pretty satisfying relationship that fizzled out roughly two years later. I learned a lot about myself and about how to treat other people, but ultimately she and I weren’t right for each other. We talk every once in a while. That’s not how movies end! Except Annie Hall! And as much as I love Annie Hall, I do not want to live Annie Hall! No one does, except whoever wrote 500 Days of Summer. I want to live Star Wars, where things explode, and I live happily ever after, and my hand is a robot.
I’m tired of things improving incrementally through experience. I just want to achieve a symbolic success and then ride off into the sunset feeling like a grownup. The problem, though, is that sunset turns into night, and then the next day is just a regular day again, and you still have to cut your toenails and save up for retirement.
What I’m saying is, Tom Cruise gained a lot of maturity running that makeshift brothel in Risky Business. In fact, his newfound confidence got him into Princeton. But if the movie continued on, he’d have to go to Princeton. They never show that. There’s no scene where he freaks out in a library during finals because he can’t remember the intricacies of molecular biology. Tom Cruise the actor has to go on and fight aliens and fly jets. Tom Cruise the person jumps on couches to prove his marriage is legitimate. Risky Business Tom Cruise stays frozen in the glory of his college acceptance. He never has to demonstrate he can continue being an adult. He learns a lesson, pats himself on the back, and calls it a day.
I’d like that, please.