I owe Conecticut an apology. For six long months in my mid-20s I reverse-commuted from New York City to the suburbs of Connecticut for a job, and every day I wondered at the strangeness of such a nearby but utterly alien land. At lunchtime I struggled to feign interest in foreign conversation topics. “I installed a new mailbox this weekend,” someone would say. Enthusiastic responses: “Really? Wow! How did you do it? Did you take out the old one? Did you pour concrete?” And I would smile politely and think, “Are you people for real?”
I realize now that the culture shock I felt then was not so much about geography as it was about age. We like to think our minds are our own, but in truth our thoughts and feelings are strongly influenced by our age and stage of life. Three-year-olds everywhere will agree that the red bowl is meaningfully different from the blue one. Five-year-olds all know that butt and fart are two of the funniest words in the English language. Wondering six-year-olds can believe wholeheartedly in Santa Claus in a way that questioning 12-year-olds cannot.
Decades from now, I hope to be a spry 85-year-old traveling the world, but I may well be the typical octogenarian reluctant to leave familiar surroundings. I used to scoff at sensible shoes; now they’re all I wear. I’ve learned not to say, “I’ll never…” because when I get there, what I thought I’d never do may seem perfectly logical.
Before his birthday last spring, my five-year-old vacillated between excitement at turning five and anxiety of leaving four behind. “I’m going to miss my four-year-old self.” he’d say, wistfully.
I miss my old self too. I had to think hard to remember what good conversation was to me as an urban 25-year-old. What did we do then? Eat out? Go to the movies? But that wasn’t what we talked about. Oh – work! Right. Funny how hard it was to recall that my career had been the center of my existence, when back then I thought it would always be the driving force in my life.
But that was before matters of life and death came in the picture. Life – new lives, parents’ lives, personal health. And death – friends who died prematurely, friends’ parents who didn’t see old age, babies that didn’t live to birth. Real life issues, real adulthood. Not the stuff of light conversation.
So I apologize to Connecticut. I thought I was out of place there, but really I was out of time. Friends around the world and I are all living Connecticut time now, whether in city or country, Hong Kong or London, California or Ohio. We can talk about cabinet hardware, or weatherstripping, or torn knee ligaments. We are past the flash of youthful ideas and are deep into the building of real life.
Sometimes we can talk about the concerns of our time – building a warm shelter of family, friends and community for ourselves and our children; holding up shelter for our aging parents; remembering to care for longtime spouses. But sometimes it’s just too much. So we tell funny stories about our kids. We set aside the heavy stuff. And talk about mailboxes.