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April 20, 2007


I think some sort of rite of passage could've made a huge difference in my life. At the age of 41, I still don't think of myself as fully adult.

Beth - thank you for the kind words!

This question of initiation is an important one, I think. I can't say that I feel like I've really gone through one, not in the sense of something where you're a child on one side of it, and an adult on the other, nor in the sense of leaving one group behind in order to join another.

More, it's like a series of small rites, or struggles - getting one's period, earning a driver's license, voting for the first time, going to college, living on my own, moving in with D. - each certainly contributes to a sense that I'm learning things, but all too often it either feels like the meaning is missing or incidental. When you vote for the first time, it feels very serious and important - and yet when you proceed, you end up just punching a few holes in a piece of paper and walking out with a sticker. The ritual there is so thin and meager it's discouraging, and nothing like transformative. Ditto most of the other things - they are each personally important, but with the possible exceptions of learning to drive and going to college, they are not really transformative, peer-based coming-of-age moments. And even those are (a) not available to all, (b) not exclusive to youths, (c) are still bounded around by parental involvement and adult supervision, and (d) are more easily seen as a continuation of one's existing self than the creation of a new, adult one - at least as far as "bona fide" adults are.

I think it is not incidental that so many people in my age group (mid-to-late 30s) struggle with the feeling that they are still not "adults" - either in the eyes of society or our own. It's almost as if you don't fit a very rigid, narrow profile - holding a steady job, married, raising children - you aren't an adult. And that kind of adulthood comes on gradually, too.

(whoops, cross-posted Dave, there)

Growing up in Nigeria, my parents explained to me that the American rite of passage was that, once you turned sixteen, you learned to drive and (if you or your parents could afford it) you got a car. I filed that information away. Now, many years later, having lived in America and seen the importance of roads, and gasoline, and the myth of the expansion West, I see that my parents were right.

A child is someone that has to go up his/her room after an argument. An adult is someone who can slam the door, get in the car and drive away. Again, the rite of the rule-disregarding hero.

In Lagos how would you know you're a man and no longer a boy? Marriage and a job. Until both of those happen, you stay at home with relatives or parents. Living alone is almost unheard of (I don't necessarily celebrate this), and even living with roommates is rare.

Then there are other stages. Children. Building a house in one's hometown (even if one is living in Lagos). "O b'imo l'emo, o k'ole m'ole" (this person had child after child, built houses upon houses) is a common eulogy. Each stage is recognized and lauded. Those who don't achieve them are looked at with pity.

And those who don't fit, or wish to fit, those definitions: what about them?

Then there is the Red Road. Indigenous friends of mine who use to be into alcohol and drugs talk about getting back on the Red road. Going up to Pine Ridge Reservation, going on a 4 day fast and vision quest, taking sweats and doing the sundance. After that they feel like they are back on the path.

Losing one's virginity used to be a big deal. I'm not sure it is anymore. But that was a definite crossing-over, for many of us, into what felt like adult territory. That first visit to Planned Parenthood, all by yourself, without telling your parents...I don't know, for me the transition into a different way of thinking of myself - which happened while I was at college - was just that the balance of important decisions shifted onto me, and more and more, I wanted it that way - I definitely didn't want to be dependent or to have continuing financial support that put strings on me. So pretty soon after graduating I got very interested in getting a job and having my own place and car and taking responsibility for myself. Part of it was sexual too - I wanted privacy, the same kind of privacy adults had. Which meant I had to be able to support myself so I could live on my own. As soon as I did that, I was perceived differently by my family. We all were reacting against authority too, then; there was a big push to separate/differentiate from the older generation. Today, it seems like a lot of kids want the opposite - to come back home and stay there, having Mom do the laundry, as long as they can!

Mothers who do laundry for their grown or teenaged children mystify me.

Around here, the nuclear family model never really took hold. People set up their own households when they hook up, but try and stay as close as possible to parents and siblings in order to share labor, tools, fellowship, babysitting, etc.

Oh. Having children, definitely. Since I didn't do that till I was twenty-seven -- the same year I learned to drive, incidentally -- mine was a very prolonged adolescence.

The rite was attending on the first birth itself, I guess.

If I'd never had children, I don't know if I'd ever have thought of myself as an adult. I think it's true, that it's not easy to make the transition, in America. So few of the role models kids have are in fact adults: lots of performers of various kinds who are either teenagers or barely adults. Becoming an adult was less like entering the real world than like leaving the known world entirely :-) I had no idea how it was done.

I'm with Dave. There was never a moment when I was told "Now, you're an man." When someone refers to me as a man it still sounds wrong to me, though I don't have a word to offer in its place.

I turned 59 on Monday and it still feels wierd when some addresses me as Mr. Some men's groups out there are dealing with the issue of what it is to be a man and how one becomes a man.

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Who was Cassandra?

  • In the Iliad, she is described as the loveliest of the daughters of Priam (King of Troy), and gifted with prophecy. The god Apollo loved her, but she spurned him. As a punishment, he decreed that no one would ever believe her. So when she told her fellow Trojans that the Greeks were hiding inside the wooden horse...well, you know what happened.