Above my desk I keep a cartoon. A young man in Elizabethan dress broods at a Gothic window. Nearby a young woman in flowing gown, her hands on her hips, talks to an older woman. "He's like, 'To be or not to be,'" she scowls. "And I'm like, 'Get a life.'"
A few weeks ago we took our eldest child to begin college, a place where we hope he will get a life. Though our Prince never talked to skulls or wandered battlements at midnight, he had become increasingly irresolute before the shapeless void that is his future. At home we could see all the signs of tortured doubt. "Whatever," he would say 20 times a day to queries about his plans or thoughts. Or when the slings and arrows were especially outrageous, with a slight shrug of the shoulders and an almost imperceptible turn of the palms, "Like, whatever." I tried to think of it as Hamlet in torn baggy jeans and a backward baseball cap; Hamlet, to be sure, without the poetry.
I grew nostalgic for the clarity and passion of his childhood dreams. When he was four and wanted to be a garbageman, he would watch those muscular guys with pious attention. When, later, he longed to become a sports announcer, he taught himself math by memorizing batting and shooting averages, and history by reciting the legends of Mantle and Chamberlain.
But as he became aware of the multitude of possible futures shimmering before him, his passions quieted into an uneasy wariness. Last spring, after he suffered disappointments from his first-choice colleges, his eight-year-old sister asked him what he wanted to be. "An admissions Officer," he growled.
Of course, getting a life means a lot more than choosing a career. It means defining your beliefs, making sense of your experience, and weaving a meaningful story about your family and your place within it. Distant from home and those who would keep you in a familiar mold, college is that world apart where this work can take place free from the stranglehold of the past.
This struggle began tentatively before he left for college. It would reveal itself in strange and unpredictable adolescent melodramas. Once when we suggested the Battle of Gettysburg as a topic for an American history paper, he hit the table in half-teasing frustration. "That's the trouble," he said. "You're Civil War people, and I'm a Revolutionary War kind of guy!"
At other times he played the enchained subject rather than the freedom-seeking hero. As we sat on a stalled lift during a ski trip last winter, I observed—too casually, I see now—that his impatience with the wait was reminiscent of his father. He sat up stiffly. "Sometimes I feel like there is no way to avoid being like you and Dad. I find myself thinking like Dad, making the kinds of jokes he does. And then I see myself judging what people say the way you do." Unexpected as this volubility was, it was nothing compared to the astounding words that followed. "It's like in the part of the Aeneid we're reading in Latin. Aeneas thinks he's making choices to sail on or to stop in Carthage or whatever, but all the time the gods are making him do everything. I do something I think is me, but then I realize it's just like you and Dad."
I must confess to being dumbfounded—not so much by the meaning of the words he spoke or even by my unexpected glimpse into the undiscovered country of my son's psyche. It was rather the surprise that he was perhaps ready to learn to get a life rather than merely to suffer one, ready for an opportunity to bring to his inchoate self-discovery a richer language and perhaps even a little poetry.
So we sat in silence as the lift jerked forward. I called as he turned toward an expert slope I dared not try. He looked around, his scarf and goggles obscuring his face. Seeing the white expanse behind him, I thought of an astronaut on the moon. "What?" he asked impatiently. We looked at each other for a few moments, goggles to goggles in the snowy chill. "Whatever," I blurted stupidly. Beyond the crest, he disappeared.