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It’s hard to command any sense of gravitas with gravy stains on your shirt.
My mother points this out to me, indifferently passing by my indignant stance on why Walmart is ruining America, tsk tsk tsk-ing in her signature way.
“Why couldn’t I have had a son who could at least have an existential crisis without spilling his dinner all over himself?” she sighs theatrically into her macaroni casserole, tendrils of steam lifting up into her face.
To this, I have no response. Rhetorical questions like these merit the kind of silence they were meant to inspire. I sit down, defeated, and proceed to mull over, once again, all the decisions I’d made that led me to this sad, kind of pathetic current existence.
You see, when you’re a white boy in middle-to-upper-class American Suburbia, expectations are high, in the form of Ivy League colleges and six-figure salaries. And in my defense, that’s exactly what I tried to achieve. I made high honor roll every year in high school. I got into the best Ivy nearby -- Columbia. I plunged into a major I thought smart and respectable people did -- pre-law. I followed the step-by-step procedure, the guaranteed-victory-formula-for-life, got all of my shiny trophies and medals, my stupid certificates with the fake gold trimmings, so where was my payoff? When did I actually get to be happy?
I click on the quiet buzz of Nightly News, but poor Brian Williams didn’t stand a chance against my parents’ bickering. Still, I’d rather listen to the report on how Walmart is underpaying its employees for cheap crap made in China.
“Lorrie, let him live a little,” my dad points his fork accusingly at her, shaking his head. “Your son just had a mental breakdown in front of all his smartass Ivy League friends yesterday. The poor bastard was sobbing like a baby.”
“I understand, but he’s already an adult,” she snaps back, her usually quiet voice piercing and clear. She turns to me. “Danny, baby, you’re already twenty-one. What are you going to do? Are you going to go back?”
If it were up to me, we’d still be talking about the evils of Walmart. I still had, like, fifteen more points to make about the wretched institution. But I could see that wasn’t exactly what my fire-breathing parents wanted to hear.
“Do you ever wonder … like … what’s the point of it all?” I look down, fiercely stabbing the macaroni noodles into little pieces.
“Oh dear God honey,” Dad clutches his chest. “He’s going through his Freud phase again. Only this time, he’s actually an adult, Lord help me--”
“No! No, no,” I interject quickly. Once you get my dad started, he never stops. “I mean, like, why should we spend our lives doing the things we need to do and not the things we want to do? Can anyone really be happy doing that?”
They didn’t say a word. Amongst the clink of silverware and the heavy silence, my parents finally were quiet.
“Won’t I die a pointless death? What’s the point of me going to a lavish college where the tuition is insanely expensive when it won’t even matter in the end? What if I don’t care about law? What if I don’t care about if a stupid idiot should get two hours of community service or three for spraying graffiti on a wall?” But once you got me started, I couldn’t stop. My breath grew shaky, my vision like a broken dashboard.
My mother firmly places her hand on my shoulder, her lips pursed. “Honey, it’s okay. You’re okay. It’s going to be okay.” Surprisingly void of any sarcasm, she stares straight at me.
“Are you guys happy?”
I look at them. My mom, with her graying hair (“I forgot to dye it this month!”) and the old rusted locket she always wears, the lines across her face she desperately tries to hide with gallons of makeup. Her sharp, brusque manner, but also her teary-eyed face during my high school graduation or the adoring gaze in my old baby videos my relatives dig up. My dad, with old, blackened hands from working in his old tool shop for so many years, a place I barely visited because I hated the smell of gasoline. He’d wake up at six a.m. every day, even weekends sometimes, and walk downtown a couple blocks to a rundown garage of a place that somehow meant the world to him.
These were two people whose lives had been on display for me my entire life, and never did I once really contemplate if they ever had reached that elusive concept of “happiness” that I was trying so hard to find. And maybe I didn’t need to try so hard.
“Yes?” they both shrug, unsure of what exactly they were supposed to say. I grin, and push back the plate of mediocre cheesy shells to signify I was done.
“Get ready. I wasn’t done with that Walmart argument yet.”