As a child, I was always flummoxed when grown-ups asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. The question was moot, because I didn’t really want to grow up, let alone put my book down to answer the question. The polite thing to do was to fudge things with a white lie (concert pianist? astronaut? writer?). As a result, growing up seemed intimately connected in my anxious young mind with learning to become a well-intentioned, habitual, social fibber.
Which is not true in the least. Is it?
From an adult perspective, I’m still not sure why people ask that question. Is it for the benefit of the enquirer or the enquiree? Is it a genuine attempt to discover something about this child in particular, or is it a wistful projection of one’s own buried desires, making the child an oracle of all that might have been, or might still be if only we could stop fibbing to ourselves about the fact that we have been and gone and grown up and still don’t quite know what we want to be?
There was another path, of course: tell the truth and damn the torpedoes. Blurting “but I don’t want to grow up” might have led to some very interesting conversations, maybe even some that would have nudged my inner child past its seriously arrested developmental age.
Of course, many children are more intrepid than I was. Both of my sons, for example. The younger one is still not quite verbal enough to go on the record about his ambitions beyond hollering “Wookit me, I a firefighter!” while waving the vacuum-cleaner hose. But he barrels headfirst into unfamiliar situations (and unfamiliar people) with a giant grin on his face and the full expectation of a happy outcome for all. He clambers and climbs and leaps and then crashes to the ground and comes up smiling. It gives me grey hairs, but I love it.
The bigger boy is a fraction more sober and cautious. “I’m really a safety-conscious kind of a guy. By the way, want to see an awesome new stunt?” But as he rapidly approaches the official age of reason, he has no fear (for the moment, anyway) of growing up, and no fear of that open-ended question about what he wants to do. Most of the time, he doesn’t even wait to be asked. Every day, lately, half a dozen conversations – with me, the postman, the bus driver, his teacher, anyone who happens to be standing nearby -- begin (or end) with a familiar phrase:
When I grow up, I’m going to build a New Zealand town exactly the same as New Zealand, right down to the ice cream, so Americans can get a taste of what New Zealand is really like.
When I grow up, I’m going to invent a real toy steam train powered by tiny lumps of coal.
When I grow up, I’m going to become the owner of McDonalds and make sure the food is healthier and that the only alcohol they serve is red wine, which is good for you.
When I grow up, I’m going to run for President, and declare that every single street should have a crosswalk at each end. Not everyone can be President, you know, but it’s worth trying. By the way, why can’t people like me vote? I mean, people who are my age, but smart enough to understand politics? People who vote with their brains and not their feelings? And by the way, why don’t they have a rule that only smart people can vote? Whatever age they are?
When I grow up, I am so totally getting an iPod.
OK, I’ve finally decided what I want to be when I grow up. As incisive and as optimistic as this kid.
His intellectual curiosity knows no limit. He isn’t 100% sure what came before the Big Bang, but is keen that it’s sorted out in his lifetime, so he has told his father and his colleagues to look into the possibility that it was some sort of gas-chemical-atom reaction. They’re on it.
He may need to tone it down a bit, though. One of the things you discover as you grow up is that there’s a fine line between being a technically minded pedant, and being a bit of a dick. Sometimes no line at all.
The other day, for example, he interrupted his brother’s chirping rendition of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to point out that, in fact, stars only appear to twinkle because of subtle changes in the gases of the earth’s atmosphere, so it would be better to be silent rather than sing that first line.
Irresistible Force, I don’t believe you’ve met Immovable Object? Little brother, having the innocent poetic soul of a two year old, plus the skeptical mind and pachydermous hide of an experienced younger sibling, twinkled on regardless.
Speaking of newsflashes from the frontiers of science, we’ve all been quite excited about the launch of the Large Hadron Collider. Especially after being persuaded by astrophysicist dad and his clever colleagues that the chance of it creating a black hole that will instantly swallow up the universe is as close to zero as makes no odds.
Even with this reassurance, I nervously double-checked with our experts on the day itself. Because a) if it was the last day of the universe, I would skip cleaning the toilets in favour of smelling the roses, and b) what a bummer of a cliffhanger it would be, exiting the cinema of life before the final reel in that movie about whether the free world ends up in the hands of an earnest, smooth-tongued Ivy League intellectual, or an essentially unqualified moose-hunter who doesn’t blink.
I imagine it would have been even more of an eschatological letdown if you were one of the fundamentalist Christians who think the Book of Revelations is non-fiction. How annoying to be raptured with a bang -- a big one! -- but sans the whimpering of all the sinners condemned to suffer the torment of the last days. Where’s the fun in that? (No disrespect, but that stuff is wack. Give me a mercilessly anonymous universe with all its surprising beauty any day, over a capricious creator who’s already written the last chapter killing off most of my favourite characters).
Anyway. As I home in on yet another birthday of my own, I realise it’s not so scary to grow up. It’s relatively painless, and it certainly beats the alternative.
With two rambunctious, open-hearted young people in my life, every day I get to act my age and my shoe size. I still don’t know exactly what I want to “be,” but I sort of did become a writer. I never really put down my book, but I have learned to look up from it occasionally. And I got much better at answering questions, as well as more adroit at asking them.
Most encouragingly, it turns out that being a grown-up is less about fibbing, and more about marveling at the many forms truth takes, writing and rewriting your own story as you go along, while discovering other people’s endlessly fascinating narratives. I find that I do want to know, now, what other people want to be, whatever age they are. It's a good place to be.
Plus, I have so totally got an iPod.