My boy is now a man. He’s 6’3, 190 lbs. He has a beard and looks good in a suit. As of Saturday, he has a degree too, a BFA from the finest art school in the world. When the graduation ceremony was over, my sister texted me: Now what?
For some of Jack’s friends, the answer to that question is clear. They are the newest employees of some big corporation or another, a freshly printed job offer in their paws. Others are off on a grandparent-sponsored summer in Europe. And some are on to graduate school and a future of student loans. But Jack and most of his friends from RISD are getting ready for journey full of twists and turns. Being a creative person means living life creatively, with no clearly charted course, a brave foray into the uncharted. They are at their own helm as they sail into the foggy future, guided only by their sense of themselves as artists.
I think long and hard before I give Jack advice. I begin my dusting off my own post-graduate memories. I left school with only one plan, to avoid academia, politics or journalism, the three areas my degree in political science had prepared me for. The flame under my butt: my mother’s warning that I had to be out of the house by the end of the summer. I flailed in the job waters for a bit, then grasped at the first outstretched hand and ended up working in advertising for thirty years. It was a career, it provided security, I was good at it — but I always felt a tinge of regret that I hadn’t held out for something that more closely fit my values and dreams. No matter what I achieved, people would always ask me when I was going to quit and do what I was really meant to do. I don’t wish that for Jack.
I also graduated into very different world. It was the middle of a terrible recession. No sane person thought of starting their own business out of college. The goal was to work for a big, safe company with plush benefits and stay there for life. Advertising was a flourishing and respectable business. And the internet didn’t exist.
I also want Jack (and my) investment in his creativity to have a chance to pay off. That takes time, work and opportunity. If we give in to the desire for a swift and permanent solution to his security, he could end up in an ad agency too. Or worse. So I tell him he has time and freedom. He is responsible to nobody but himself right now, so he needn’t feel like he needs to embark on a career as yet,
But he does need a job. He needs to make money so he has options. And for a tall, smart, handsome guy, there are always ways to make money. So I tell him to start by focussing on that.
He is pretty smart about working. First, he decides doesn’t want a job that is too creative. Last summer he was a landscape gardener. He believes that if he avoids channeling all his creative energies into a job, he will still be able to paint. So he has some things lined up that will add to his coffers until he has a nest egg that will let him move out of our home and into his own. In the meantime, we’ll be sharing a studio where he can continue following his passion and I can get back to the kind of creativity I enjoyed when I lived in LA.
I tell him, try things. Be open, make connections. Soon you will find a way to make money that feels right. That feels in harmony with your creative self. It’s impossible to say what that will be. It could be some job we have never even heard of before, working with people we don’t know.
When he was first thinking about going to art school, I said, “Jack, most people don’t have a passion for anything. And most people don’t have something they excel at. You have both. Don’t walk away from it. If you love art and you are good at it, stick with it. That can’t be the wrong decision.” I still believe that. Neither of us think it will be easy in the short run, certainly not as easy as it might seem to be for those of his friends with corporate job offers in hand. But it will be easier in the long run, because being untrue to yourself is very hard indeed. Living a half-life, even with a full bank account, will leave you feeling hollow.
Being a parent isn’t easy. I am always balancing on the accelerator and then the brake, pushing him forward but not wanting to push him away. I am keenly always aware of the preciousness of our time together.
Last week I was watching some ancient videos I found on a hard drive, Jack at ten, shuffling a deck of cards for the first time, Jack on an early podcast of mine, reciting an African folktale he had made up.
In the old pictures of the two of us, he is still fresh and new with gleaming eyes, and I look essentially like I do now, a little less grey but the same. But of course I wasn’t. Patti was behind the camera, I was still a creative director, Bush was in the White House, Sketchbook Skool hadn’t been born. But Jack was another person, an energetic shrimp, his voice still high and clear, full of confidence and energy.
I want to shelter and harbor that optimism and ocean of possibilities, to protect him from the buffeting winds of reality, but I also know I can’t, he has to sail forth, he has to test himself against what the world throws at him.
I have faith in all that Patti and Jenny and I have done to make him, the opportunities and lessons we have provided. I have confidence in his intelligence, his values, his energy, his talent. But still I rewatch those old videos. Jack giving a speech about Patti’s disability, Jack marooned on a desert island, Jack playing the drums in his band, Jack parodying a kung-fu film.
A decade has passed in a heartbeat, the world has been shuffled, and Jack is a man.