This morning, I had a few minutes after dropping my son off to drive, alone, on a sterling summer day. I put the top down on my wife’s little Fiat, and asked Siri to play some Bruce Springsteen.
So there I was, sun shining, what is left of my hair blowing in the breeze, listening to the songs that fueled my teenage years, and I became suddenly aware of 50. If you set aside the comically trite archetype of a middle aged guy in a convertible listening to music a little too loudly (though my own banality amused me greatly at the time), I was having a moment – one of those air-quote moments that feels so important. So I am just going to roll with its importance for a few minutes – bear with me – and if you need to bail, I understand. This little diatribe might turn, sadly, into pretentious drivel.
So here is a flashback – I am 14 or 15 – it is late at night, and Bruce Springsteen’s The River is blasting through the cheapest headphones ever made. In that moment, I am transported to a working class town, full of rage, longing and nostalgia for times yet to happen. In that world, one conjured as if it were the love child of Faulkner and Hemingway raised by Brando’s sneer, there was a powerful sense of inevitability. For your 18th birthday, you would get a “union card and a wedding coat”*. Life was a dead end, unless there was an escape, a renouncement, an act of defiance…
My world was so different. I was a prep school kid, surrounded by privilege and seemingly limitless possibilities. I was aware of the distance between my life and those songs, but once the music started, that all faded. I was a Bruce Springsteen song. My family was complicated – stained by irrationality and anger. We were, like so many others, picket fences on the outside and landmines on the inside. But in that music, in Springsteen’s songs of purgatory and redemption, I heard a voice that spoke directly to me.
That night, my father, in one of his characteristic rages, came into my bedroom and ripped the headphones off of my head and screamed at me, “What the holy hell did I think I was doing? Turn off that shitty music and get to sleep.” In the process of ripping off the headphones, he pulled the record player onto the floor – he scratched Disc 1 of The River (my favorite album) so it no longer played.
I don’t remember what his issue was with me that night – nor could I tell you why my father raged at me consistently over the years. But the messages he sent were clear – that I wasn’t living up to what he wanted. His rage and disappointment burrowed inside of me. It blossomed into my own outrage. Who was he to make me feel like he did? In my head, I would imagine killing him and finally setting my family free from his impetuous rage. I had a theatre of redemptive victory constantly playing in my head.
But that was “…a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing…” ** My anger, my outrage at being misunderstood, my outrage at being held back or down, my outrage at being judged, my outrage at not leading some life that I considered to be authentic, was like music in the air – ephemeral. It was there and real, but not tangible. My anger at being the symbol of my parents worth had no roots, my outrage had no structure or shape, so it had no power. It simply floated away. But like a wailing Clarence Clemon’s sax riff, my anger reverberated, and I played that discord again and again. It fueled me, but I could never grab it and hold it. It never became a tool that I could use. I had no act of rebellion, I had no escape.
I wanted to be something real. I wanted to stand for something. I wanted to count. I never felt as if I did.
Somewhere along the way, I adopted my father’s view of me. I wasn’t good enough – never living up to my “potential”. The disconnect between who I was and who I thought I should be was a clanging, discordant sound I played over and over in my head. Like the scratch on Disc 1, it interrupted the music of my life. I spent years being defensive and fragile – detritus from my childhood – and I spent years trying to master skills to which I am poorly suited simply because they matched this fake vision of whom I should be. There was an inevitability to my life. It wasn’t ever going to work because I was very poorly matched with my adopted self-vision. I felt trapped in my life. The outrage of my teens became the inrage of my adult life.
“…is a dream a lie that don’t come true, or is it something worse…”***
That sense of being trapped lasted for years. I wasn’t ever trapped by the people around me. It was never the pressure of parenting or being a husband or the struggles of growing a family that made me feel trapped. It was the disconnect between flawed vision of myself and my faulty understanding of whom I thought I should be. I was hugely, and seemingly forever, angry at myself. At every turn, I felt that I matched my father’s expectations of disappointment. I consistently failed to achieve his definitions that became had become mine. I carried failure with me everywhere.
I am pretty open about my ADHD. (BTW, for any that don’t believe that it exists, you are wrong.) ADHD is everywhere in my life, from reading a book to being present with my family. When you have ADHD, you sometimes can’t make simple things work – promises, intentions, plans. All of those small failures can coalesce into a perfect accelerant – ADHD added gasoline to my inrage fire. I could imagine a brilliant future, and create a map to get there, but I could never fully pack for the journey. Part of ADHD makes you barely able to function as an independent adult and part of it makes you a superhero. For the vast majority of my life, it was the former, and never the cool cape-wearing part.
But through the unwavering love of my wife, the delicious love of my children and friends, and through true and deep understanding of my ADHD**** and it’s pervasive role in amplifying that disconnect between self, self-image and adopted self images, I find myself in a place where outrage is replaced with optimism (despite the Trump presidency) and inrage is replaced with joy.
This morning, the sun and the wind mixed with Springsteen was an intoxicant for sure, but it allowed me to articulate something clearly to myself. Maybe it is from the august perch of middle age, or maybe it is just because my beard is more grey than brown, but now, I am comfortable in my own skin – and I can feel that cape flowing behind me, truly, for the 1st time. I have no value-laden vision of where I want to go, or whom I should be in order to get there. I just know that I am on a journey.
To my truest traveling companion, my gratitude is immeasurable. It is because of you and your love that I have all with which I am blessed.
My goal is now to continue this journey, and I want to mark the miles and years traveled and yet to be traveled with true, continuing measures of appreciation for those with whom I walk. Regardless if we are together for decades or only a few days, each one of those steps we share helps me know and celebrate you. Just as importantly, it helps me know and learn to celebrate myself. For the rest of the journey, I want to use my resources to help any that travel alongside – the journey is best when fully shared, “…cause tramps like us, baby we were born to run…”*****
I am suddenly aware of 50 – and I like it.
* & *** Bruce Springsteen “The River”
** Shakespeare, “MacBeth”
***** OK, if you need this citation, I am sad for you, but here it is – Bruce Springsteen, Born to Run