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A work in progress until termination

Sydney says that this picture of us together is her favorite. And, boy, I think it’s pretty good (of her, in particular). This is from several years ago. I don’t remember the circumstance or what we were celebrating, if anything at all. But it’s just like Syd to step aside and say, “Let’s take a picture.” I have a feeling this was one of those moments.

She’s not had it easy. Everything she has she’s earned herself. We tried to give her a good start, but she inherited my hard head and rejected our good advice. The good that comes from this approach to life is that a person who rejects the wisdom of others soon gains some of their own.

The first few years she was on her own, starting at the age of 18, she had it rough. She ran through a row of shitty jobs, bad roommates, and crummy apartments. She attended school on and off, made good in some classes and not so good in others. Many times, she came to me with her problems, wondering why life was so unfair. The only thing I could tell her came from my own experience: “These are the things that happen to young adults. You’ll find that you’ll look back on these times and see that you survived and survived well.”

Such words are little comfort to a person faced with rent and utility bills they cannot pay. Being on the edge of homelessness makes a person nervous. I know the insomnia that comes from worry. A job that seems meaningless where the days pass like eternity produces a feeling that there must be something better. After all, you look around and see others living easier lives or lives that seem easier.

And you work. Clocking in and clocking out every day . . . I’ve been there. Many times. Every time I reached a point where the drudgery overcame the fear of doing something different, I changed my life completely. Due to my inability to stick with anything and reaching the point of desperation, I moved on a whim to Germany and lived there for almost two years, working in the vineyards on the outskirts of the city of Trier. I’ve left jobs and apartments in Kansas City and toured the Southwest and found some spiritual relief in the desert. I once walked to Montana from Gillham Park in Kansas City, and then canoed the Missouri River back home. I’ve changed careers, moved from journalism to book editing to teaching, school, and ironwork.

Sydney has never had to do any of this. She’s more centered than that. Even in her worst moments, I had to tell her, remind her again and again, that she had more on the ball than I did at her age. I was a drunk until I was 27. Then, sobering up, I had the maturity of a sixth grader and had to go through all the psychic contortions that come with being an adult with the emotional capabilities of a child.

While Sydney has no always known who she was, she’s always had a great deal more self-awareness than I did until I was in my 40s. What she might have lacked, for a while, in executive functioning, she always had the potential to gain that function. I can’t say that for myself. The ability to see a bigger picture and make sense of the world in which it existed evaded me until I was middle age.

One of the greatest challenges Syd has had is that things are quite a bit different and more difficult for people of her generation than of mine. I came into college and work about the time the Boomers were dismantling the great things this country had achieved after World War II. On the way out the door were cheap public-college education, good, affordable healthcare, and infrastructure people could depend on. My forbearers, at least the white ones, came up in a time when even low-wage jobs paid living wages, college was cheap and degrees appreciated, and when they didn’t dread going to the emergency room.

That world was on the way out but I caught the last bit of it. My parents and their generation did not leave the world better for me and my kind. And we didn’t leave the world better off for Syd and her kind. The labor she sold brought a far diminished price. At least, I could work a minimum-wage job and pay the rent, drink, and have a little left over for food. She had to work two jobs just to pay rent and eat. She didn’t even have to figure in the money for liquor.

Her schooling, at the same time, was far more expensive than mine was. My first semester at the university cost $425. Adjusted to today’s dollars, that’s about $1,150, which is what a semester at a community college cost. She had to take a step down, though she was working harder and longer than I did. Further, the pay-scale of the service economy  puts people like Syd into situations where they have to take on incredible amounts of debt. I graduated college with $5,100 of student loan debt, and that was after being in and out of college for ten years. She accumulates that amount of debt for every semester she has to take on loans at a university.

So, the world is tougher for Syd than it was for me. I made many of my difficulties. She surmounted and continues to conquer the challenges other institutions, for-profit corporations, and people put in her way. What she does to herself, the obstacles she sets in her way, she learns from. I kept banging my head against the hitching post. She unhitches her horse from that post and rides away.

So, that smile says a lot about her. The challenges she faces are mere hiccups. She has down moments, those times when she thinks things are unfair—and they are. But they don’t seem to stop her. She’s got confidence, something that’s always eluded me. She’s got determination, something we have in common. But she’s got sense and maturity. These are the things that will make her even more successful than she is already.

I’ve always said that I’m a work in progress until termination. I suppose we all are. But some of us are raw clay to be worked over and over. Some take shape and mold themselves. Syd is one of these.

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