My oldest is turning 17.
Here are 17 things I feel fortunate to have learned from him this year:
1. Kanye West is talented. Mental health is complicated. And art can be art without a dissertation on how someone has failed.
This is particularly true for someone who is still working, creating, and living. I don’t have to “approve” of him to appreciate his gifts. Or for that matter, anyone creating. And the more humbling part, I have come to understand, is that my judgment is not always necessary or relevant, particularly in situations that don’t involve my own actions. Which, as frustrating as it was to work through, might be what art and Kanye and life is all about.
This all hit me it the back seat of my own car during a Kanye song I had never heard. My son was driving us on a family road trip when I said, “This is fantastic. Is it Kanye?” “Yep mom, he’s a genius if you would just listen.” My judgments and opinions don’t really matter to much of this world. Art and life go on without it. And thank God—it’s just as it should be.
2. Watching him grow this year has provided me with a flashback to who I was when I was 17. I think I have reclaimed some pieces of that girl through him. I missed her.
3. I got back to the gym. In part, for me, and in part for him and his siblings. I thought I was too busy and turned around one day and realized he was juggling and balancing more than me and still made it a priority for his own mental health and confidence. What a reminder.
4. I have learned that facial and neck hair for a man can be more difficult to contend with than leg and bikini hair for women. I had no idea.
5. I realized that my parents were more insightful than I ever gave them credit for to let me explore different thoughts and political ideas than those I was raised with. I grew up in a small, conservative Nebraska town with politically active and vocal parents, but became a vegetarian when I was 14, joined Greenpeace shortly thereafter, and then went ahead and adopted a whale. And you know I was wearing “Save the Whales” T-shirts in front of my family and my parents’ friends.
They did a better job with an extremely passionate, loud, opinionated know-it-all than I was capable of understanding at the time. I can’t stop thinking about what I must have been like to live with at 16, 19, or 22. I was a lot—far more arrogant and condescending than my son is on his worst day. And they let me do it without trying to make me feel stupid. I hope they know that I now get it. I understand what they did for me and why. And I miss them. I ache to talk to them about him and these similarities. And about him turning 17 and growing up. God, they would love him.
6. That old mantra of work hard/play hard is the real deal. (Thank you to my sister for beating it into my head). That and to live with passion. Even if it’s a messy series of passions that are kind of all over the place and occasionally misdirected. That’s it. That’s the secret: work hard/play hard and live with passion. I watch this boy do it, and then I remember to do it too.
7. Your friends really do make your world. I think maybe no matter how old you are.
8. No one thinks their 15-year-old sister should go to a party where there are 18-year-old boys. But your 10 year old brother? Ya, I suppose it’s different. I get it now that it’s staring me in the face.
9. I wish I wouldn’t have swore and cussed so much in front of my parents. He doesn’t in front of me and says it’s about respect. It means a lot. I wish I could go back in time and give that to mine.
10. The theory that if you want something from someone, being good to them and kissing their ass is a solid strategy.
11. The horror genre has evolved. It’s 1,000 times more frightening than the stupid movies we grew up with. And it’s a good bond for my older kids, so I love that. But that doesn’t mean I have to watch it with them.
12. Try everything. Try it all. Want to join a new club? Sure. Thinking about volunteering for something because it’s special to you? Go talk to someone and figure it out. Why not. When you’re 17, what’s holding you back? When you’re almost 47, what’s holding you back?
13. A big smile really does get you out of most things. Until it doesn’t and perhaps gets you punched in the mouth and a trip to the ER. But usually it works—so keep at it.
14. When it’s all too much, go for a walk. Reach out to a friend. Do something. Don’t sit in it.
15. Your phone can be too big of a distraction. Say it out loud and own it. Delete an app, even if just for a week. Or a day. Or until you get what you need to get done done. And talk about it.
16. “South Park” is goddamn brilliant. Timeless. You can connect with so many people with a solid “South Park” reference.
17. Be good to your mom. I wish I’d have been better to mine now that I understand how much it all means.