Today is my 35th birthday. 35 is the last major milestone for a while (I can run for President! Yay?), but it’s also a point in life where things are either actively changing, or have changed enough to reflect on. I believe that we all live several lives over the course of our 80-some-odd years (or more! Hopefully!) on the planet, and by my math I’m somewhere around my fourth.
Let’s talk about them. And, for funsies, let’s call them “Ages.”
THE AGE OF CJ
Childhood is weird. Memory is imperfect on our best days, and as we get further removed from childhood our recollection of it becomes a combination of unverifiable events and fantasy.
My childhood feels like staring at vague figures doing vague things in a thick fog. I remember being a generally happy child. I ran around outside, played with my friends, watched Saturday morning cartoons, played Nintendo upon waking up, and had an active imagination. That all sounds pretty good.
In reality, my childhood was filled anxiety and anger. I had chronic stomach pains that were never diagnosed, but in hindsight probably had to do with anxiety. My parents divorced when I was 13, and the years leading up to that were rough. Lots of arguments, snide comments, and a few physical altercations (none involving me).
To me, though, that was normal-adjacent. I had my coping mechanisms (wearing ear plugs and going to bed while it was still light out, for one) and so I didn’t think that the environment I was in might be unhealthy. Now that I have a son, though, for whom I want to provide an environment that supports his development in the smoothest way I can manage, I can see in what ways my childhood fell short. Some of that is because of my parents and their flaws, and some of it is because of circumstances they had no control over. They didn’t ask to be poor. My family didn’t ask to deal with mental and physical illness. We all had to deal with those things, and I think that contributed to a lot of the negative feelings in the house.
And so I’m left with frustration at all the things I never got but also am awestruck for what I had, given the circumstances. Sure, I only had two pairs of pants for an entire school year, but I never went hungry either–even if the food was often out of a box. My parents managed to pay for and take me to Tae Kwon Do three days per week, and then bought me equipment to play roller hockey after that. When you’re a kid you don’t understand that those types of expenses come with sacrifice.
We begin the long journey of discovering ourselves as children. My first identity was an angry, impatient child. After starting Tae Kwon Do I learned patience and how to direct my emotions into something productive. At home and at school I learned the value of being helpful to protect yourself. And I learned how to use sarcasm to deflect, and humor to engage. These traits have stayed with me, for better or worse.
Childhood is also when we begin to decide on who we want to be. I discovered reading and writing as a boy. I met my first best friend, who introduced me to hockey. I got a VHS-C camera from my grandfather and made videos with my friends.
I can recognize these things now, only because of how far away they seem, and how far I’ve come away from them.
THE AGE OF SIEGE
Many people say your teenage years are the best of your life. They’re absolutely wrong. Unless you stop maturing or run into tragedy as you get older, your teenage years won’t be your best years. However, they will be the most memorable.
My feeling is that this is because from the time puberty kicks in until you graduate college (or later) you’re a raw nerve and you feel every experience to maximum effect. Friendships are closer. Parties more fun. Sports harder and more exciting. Relationships deeper and more intense. To be a teenager is to truly experience everything in all its complicated glory for the first time.
My world expanded. I left my street for the first time and started to wander the neighborhood with new friends. I spent a lot of time on AIM, in chatrooms, and on Pogo. I went to overnight roller skating to meet a girl I only knew online. Later, I dated a girl from the suburbs, which was my first basic lesson in culture shock.
These new experiences also includes loss. As I moved into teenagedom, I let go of the friends I had made on my street (including my first best friend–the one that introduced me to hockey) in favor of new friends. My parents divorced. My sister joined the Army and left home. Pets died. I didn’t know how to deal with it.
I rebelled, in my own way. One year in high school I put my hair up in what I deemed “spider-legs” (basically, a bunch of tiny ponytails all over my head) and used colored gel to dye the tips green. I drank Mike’s Hard with my friends, when we could get it. Stayed out until 2 or 3 in the morning sometimes. Once, I ran into a friend’s dad outside while walking home late at night. He stopped me and asked if I was high. I’ve never been high, so the answer was no. He didn’t believe me. Most people didn’t. A consequence of living in a house where second hand smoke rolled out of the door like fog in a horror movie.
I also went to youth groups, despite not being religious. It was a place to hang out with kids my age, and if we went to the one with my friend’s older brother he would take us to the dollar show afterward (where I first saw MINORITY REPORT), and then we would help him clean car dealerships. Cleaning those dealerships made me think I wanted to work in an office. It seemed so fancy and stable.
I had my first heartbreaks (and did some of my own heartbreaking, as hard as that may be to believe if you’re going off the above picture), and poured that emotion into poetry, short stories, and screenplays. In those, I began to learn what it was I wanted in a relationship. Eventually, that rocky road would lead me to my wife.
But not quite yet.
THE AGE OF CRAIG
The time after high school is insane. I went a bit insane with it.
I moved out when I was 19, vowing to never go back. Technically, that was true, although I have lived with my sister on two separate occasions. My vow wasn’t because my life was bad at home, although I certainly believed that at the time. First was dorming for a semester, which was pointless. I was stuck in a room with three other guys, one of whom slept through his alarm (the chorus to Thrice’s “Artist in the Ambulance” on repeat) every morning. On weekends I worked and generally spent my time at home, anyway.
After the dorm, I got an apartment with a high school friend. A family friend was our landlord, so we got free internet and cable. This only turned awkward once–when my landlord got a court summons for downloading porn to his IP Address, which was actually my roommates doing. Luckily, some research revealed there was nothing to worry about. My roommate and I got along really well (at least from my perspective–I’m sure there were lots of things I did to piss him off), which I am eternally grateful for.
Those four years were some of the poorest, most exciting of my life. Parties seemed to happen every weekend. I had friends in the art scene, and was able to score comp tickets to plenty of theater and music shows. My roommate was into gaming, so we played hours and hours of Halo, Gears of War, and Rock Band.
I was active everywhere. I wanted to get to know my city, and so I explored whenever I could. On my own, driving the ’84 Firebird my father had gifted me (and I then proceeded to neglect) around the city. Working in the independent film scene and getting to step foot in places most people rarely think of, like the water pumping station on Lake Erie. My work on independent film culminated in my writing and being Assistant Director on GRANTED, which then led me to reconsider all my dreams of being a filmmaker.
My friends and I played lots of sports. Dodgeball (2008 WNY Dodgeball champs!), volleyball, some hockey, and working out at the gym. We had to stay active, considering how much we drank and ate out.
This time was when I began having trouble holding down a job. Not out of incompetence (not always, anyway, although I was fired from being a telemarketer after two days), but in trying to find something that paid well and I truly enjoyed. I did Burger King for three years, two separate stints of machining, landscaping that didn’t end well, teaching an afterschool science program (where I would eventually meet my wife), and then working as an usher at the Buffalo Museum of Science. I also made wooden plugs on a drill press in my father’s basement for a penny per plug. If I worked quickly, and the wood cooperated and didn’t break apart of clog my drill bit (fat chance), I might make 200 plugs in an hour. I hated it.
Creatively, I wrote a lot. Mostly short stories and screenplays. I joined several writer’s groups that met in restaurants or coffee shops. I tried to direct my own short film, but royally fucked it up and gave up. I think I disappointed people.
There were also girls. Each one a lesson learned about who I am and what I need from a relationship. None were bad relationships, not really. Certainly not from my perspective. A few of those girlfriends might disagree, and I wouldn’t blame them. Most of my deepest shames are from how I interacted with women at this point in my life. My own insecurities made me less than they deserved.
Until Hanh, anyway.
THE AGE OF MR. GUSMANN
Growing into a responsible adult is exhausting.
Now that myself and most of my friends are marrying and having kids, it sometimes feels like we’re transitioning from being participants in life to being observers of it. I spend way more time watching my kid grow than I do any growing myself. And I think that’s right. I think that’s how it should be.
Which isn’t to say I’m dead, or that I’m not longer capable of growth or dreams or whatever. My priorities have changed, though. Where I choose to focus my energies has changed. That change is because I’ve finally figured some shit out.
Now that I’m older, I have a lot of things that I didn’t in those other eras. Stability, a sense of my strengths and weaknesses, money. The only thing I don’t have much more of now than then is time. But that’s because my life is so damn full. It’s bursting with things I never expected to have. Love, for one thing.
I often wonder what 15 year old Siege or 25 year old Craig would think of 35 year old Mr. Gusmann. I think they’d have a lot of questions about why I’m not a famous director or screenwriter, but ultimately they’d be ecstatic with where I am. It’s a helpful gauge when I’m feeling down, sometimes. On my worst days, when I hate my dayjob and Elijah won’t let me sit down for five minutes, and the house needs to be cleaned, and God damnit something broke, and the cat’s sneezing, and fuck what now–I can still look around and appreciate how all of these little annoyances are a direct result of my filling my life with people and things I love.
For me, each age has been better than the last. I’m determined to make sure that holds true, which means the beginning of this new era should be the best yet.