“Ooh La La” by Faces is one of my favorite songs. Its chorus always warms me with nostalgia and the smell of pine trees on a summer night:
I wish that I knew what I know now When I was younger I wish that I knew what I know now When I was stronger
If I could go back in time to give my younger self advice, there’s a lot I’d want to talk about. However, knowing my younger self, I’d have to boil it down to a few key points. Here it goes then. My three wisest and most pertinent lessons for young Nick (and whoever else cares):
Don’t sweat romance
Read and play as much as you can
Superpowers hide behind tears and fears.
Don’t sweat romance
Like many boys growing up, I felt the pressure to be a ladies’ man. I wanted a girlfriend as desperately as Lloyd Christmas in Dumb and Dumber. I had no idea how to make girls like me. I had terrible acne in middle school that gave me confidence issues and Accutane-induced rage. I’ll never forget each pill of that stuff reminding me not to get pregnant with a crossed-out fetus and telling kids at summer camp that I took crazy pills because I was too embarrassed to tell the truth. I listened to heartache music by Matt Nathanson and Damian Rice and Goo Goo Dolls and so on. If I really bombed, my go-to was Tom Petty’s “You Don’t Know How It Feels.” When it came to romance, I was a failure, and it caused me a great deal of stress that I didn’t share with anyone besides the inside of my car and other encapsulated spaces.
This was a mistake. It’s kind of funny now, but just a little. I’ll spare you of all the details. All you need to know is that romance, by definition, is a feeling of excitement and mystery associated with love. I wish I could go back and enjoy the thrill of AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) or hear that someone had a crush on me or go out on an inexpensive date that felt like a five-star experience without feeling like I was defusing a ticking time bomb. Which wire do I cut? Is it the red, or the blue one? I also wish I could go back and not worry whether or not any of the aforementioned events happened. I’d love another chance to be myself, living in the moment, and realizing that I’m still a boy learning to be a man, and, that somewhere down the road, I might possess the knowledge to uncover the mystery of love.
So, don’t sweat romance, kid. You’re not old enough to understand it anyway. Focus on being kind and respectful, know that you are entitled to nothing and no one and can’t force anyone to do anything, learn everything you can about healthy relationships, and play the long game when it comes to the most important decision you will ever make in your life. Maybe it won’t take you as long to propose to a girl with hazel eyes and a laugh that clears your clouds.
Read and play as much as you can
When I was young, I actually liked to read. Roald Dahl was my jam. I re-read The Witches. I don’t re-read books. My mom would read the Harry Potter series to me and my brother. I liked it so much, that I started reading it to myself. Then, I didn’t like reading. I “grew up” and got too cool for books. My senior year, I confessed to my English teacher that I didn’t need to read Heart of Darkness to participate in the Socratic discussion.
This one is simple, young Nick. To paraphrase Gandalf, “Read, you fool.” I turned things around in college, but not after I was humiliated by my lack of reading. Now, I crush books. I eat books for breakfast, and on dog walks and car rides and while doing the dishes. Maybe someone told me when I was a kid that books will open your eyes and show you new worlds and perspectives and make you a better person and whatnot. If they did, I was too busy binging 24, practicing soccer, cooking Hormel chili with beans (what chili doesn’t come with beans?), or having a relationship meltdown.
So many people have already done the hard work of producing beautiful art and enlightening knowledge. All you have to do is spend less time on stuff that doesn’t matter. There’s going to be some scary research about what the internet and social media and screens do to your brain. You should check that out.
Oh, and play. I know you love soccer, but remember that it’s a game. It’s a game that you play. Your rounds of flashlight tag and laser tag and whatever kind of tag are numbered, so go wild. All those ludicrous (that spelling is correct and is not to be confused with Ludacris) games you come up with…they’re great. Play those as hard as you can. The older you get, the more people are going to tell you to stop playing games. Stop messing around. Stop acting like a kid. Grow up. Take this seriously. That’s not funny. You’re not a little boy anymore. Get angry or hungry or anything that gets that stupid smile off your face.
That advice will be tempting. It will sound like the right thing to do. It’s not. The world likes to tell boys to be men, act stoic, give ’em hell. That’s just noise. Play as much and as long as you can. Ideally forever. Do your chores — and turn them into play. You might just convince everyone that it’s not a crime to have some good, clean fun. Scratch that. You won’t convince everyone, and that’s fine, but try to spend as much time with other joy seekers and don’t take it personally when someone calls you a child. Consider yourself a miracle.
Superpowers hide behind tears and fears
Throughout your upbringing, from a combination of what you see on TV and hear in music and learn from your friends and adults, you are going to form the belief that you should never cry in front of anyone and that you should never show fear or weakness. This will be a problem for you, for a long time, for your whole life actually, unless you free yourself from that idea. As long as you hold onto that idea like a white-knuckled steering wheel, you will construct a box around yourself that keeps you from what people like to call Potential.
In the land of Potential is where you find things like freedom and belonging and love — and I almost forgot — superpowers. If you feel the urge to cry, explore that feeling. Superhuman strength is just around the corner. If you are scared, that’s a sign that you’re alive and your body is deciding whether to fight, flee, or freeze. There will be appropriate times to use the power of flight, and there will be moments where you are the superhero who can fight off whatever demons stand in your way. You’ll freeze a few times. You can laugh when that happens. You’re human.
When you stop pulling muscles trying not to cry, you unlock your true ability to connect with others. When you confront your fears and even share them with people you trust, you climb higher on the metaphorical mountain of life. I should have learned about vulnerability sooner. It’s a key I was missing, and I still fumble with it. With a lot of help and good role models, I’ve experienced what I have no words to describe to you. It’s something like jumping out of a plane, the initial horror of falling to what must be death, and then floating at terminal velocity. It’s something like learning to fly.
You are a boy — and contrary to what the world may tell you — that is not a problem. The problem lies in when you try to be a man you are not. That is a man who holds back tears at a wake. That is a man who does not say goodbye because he knows it will hurt. That is a man who starts writing a story he needs to tell and hits the little red circle because he’s no Kurt Vonnegut. You are not Kurt Vonnegut. You are you, for now, and evermore, exactly as you were meant to be. I love you. Conditions not included.