I don’t know how I became an adult. But it must have happened at some point within the last couple of years, because here I am, selling my house and awaiting the arrival of my first child. I couldn’t have predicted this future for myself a decade ago. Few people, when they’re in their early 20s, believe they’ll one day settle down and become normal members of society. Most 20-somethings believe they’ll remain young and free forever, that The Man (whoever The Man actually is) will never pin them down with a mortgage, a steady career and all of the other so-called trappings of life post-30. Then all of a sudden you’re 31, selling your house (to buy a bigger house with more land, that classic American dream) and waiting for your offspring to burst forth into the world. You’re no longer “adulting,” but an actual adult. The sense of imitation fades away. How did we get here?
To be honest, I’m not sure. The transition from mimicking adulthood to embodying adulthood unfolds incrementally, organically. Or maybe it’s a matter of faking it until it becomes reality. Either way, being fully grown and part of The Machine (“Welcome, my son…”) isn’t nearly as insufferable as some people hype it up to be. As long as you make decisions in line with your values, and prioritize personal happiness (without losing sight of the happiness of those around you), everything else usually falls into place. This isn’t to say that existence is perfect. Life will suck sometimes — because it’s life, and that’s what it does. You’ll wake up some mornings feeling like you’ve been pummeled by Floyd Merriweather. On those days, you’ll have to convince yourself that getting out of bed is the right thing to do — the adult thing to do. And once you’re up and about, you probably won’t feel quite as bad as you thought you would. At least that’s how it usually works for me. I don’t know your situation. But I assume it’s similar.
Moving around in the world is important. So is interacting with people. I forget this sometimes. I’m an introvert by nature. I feel like I’m talking too much if I say two words during a group conversation. But we’re social creatures: even those of us who aren’t “people persons,” as it were, need to connect with others. I’m fortunate enough to have a strong bond with my wife — we drive each other bonkers sometimes, but that’s marriage — yet other, smaller relationships can supplement our basic need to be part of a group, to be understood by those around us.
Choosing to become a firefighter (a decision I made less than a year ago) has driven home that point. Being part of a community, and being included in something larger than myself, has given me a sense of purpose. And I’ve made friends. Guys I feel like I can be myself around. We cut up together, pat each other on the back. It’s a kind of therapy. So, too, is simply walking in public and smiling at people. Being seen. It seems overly simple — cheesy, even — but being noticed by society is satisfying. It lightens our burden. Living in the midst of a once-in-a-century pandemic has made this truth abundantly clear. Humans need interaction. Even seemingly mundane social contact can improve our mood; not every relationship needs to be as deep as marriage. Sometimes I forget this. But eventually I remember.
Being part of a community, and being included in something larger than myself, has given me a sense of purpose. And I’ve made friends. Guys I feel like I can be myself around. We cut up together, pat each other on the back. It’s a kind of therapy.
I don’t think I’ve ever felt more alone than I did in my early 20s, back when I didn’t value relationships, or other people, at all. Instead, I made a conscious effort to embrace hedonism for several years, just to see where the path would lead. It was fun, for a while, in its shallow way. The drinking and the hook-ups. There were moments of exhilaration, but they were few and far between, and almost always followed by a resounding hollowness: a feeling that I was shirking the true meaning of life, that I wasn’t living in alignment with my values, that I was straying too far from the path to true fulfillment.
The straying was the point, in some ways. The idea at the time was to stretch hedonism to its logical extreme, to go beyond where I knew I should go, to milk every last fleeting joy from it so I’d never want to indulge it again. I knew I was living wrong. But the goal, at that time, wasn’t to live right. It was to travel into the black heart of excess and destroy it. This approach worked to a large extent: nowadays, I rarely wonder if I’d be happier living selfishly. I understand that lasting happiness cannot be found there. It’s a place to visit once, but never stay. Like Las Vegas, maybe. Now, at the age of 31, the small things can be joyous precisely because I lived like a jackass a decade ago. I can drink a cup of coffee without wanting more. I can take my dogs on a walk and think this is where it’s at. I can be content with mundanity in my 30s precisely because I refused to be content with mundanity in my early 20s.
Am I rambling? Am I being preachy? Am I repeating myself? Very well, then. I’ll ramble and preach and repeat. I’ve spent much of my life trying to avoid tangents, because I often consider them a waste of time. But sometimes tangents are interesting. I understand that now — now that I no longer believe that all of life must be packed into each and every day, lest I die tomorrow.
I mentioned house-hunting a few paragraphs ago. That’s what we’re into right now: trying to find a place with more square footage and an actual yard, so our soon-to-be-child and our five animals (three dogs and two cats) will have room to spread out. It’s hard, though, finding the right home within our price range. Every time my wife, Caitlin, and I think we’ve found the one, an unfortunate secret about the house is revealed. We discovered a beautiful place a couple weeks ago and were ready to make an offer…until we looked at a satellite view of the area and realized the property butted up next to the biggest landfill in the county. Crap. Then we were interested in a gorgeous log cabin with a flat yard atop a small hill…until we realized the ceilings in the basement and on the second floor were far too short. “Cramped as hell,” we said. Then we moved on. Today we’re looking at a brick rancher on four acres of rolling pasture land (and 12 acres of woods) in Fines Creek, perhaps the most rural part of Haywood County, North Carolina, where we live. It seems great, but who knows? Wish us luck. Hopefully there will be no warts — or at least no deal-breaking warts.*
Everything in life looks better from a distance. This isn’t to say life is bad otherwise, but when we’re removed from a thing, we’re blind to its flaws. This isn’t a novel idea. Nor is it right or wrong. It’s just the way things are.
We got a third dog a couple months ago, and in our minds, her transition into our home would be smooth. Blinded by her cuteness, we failed to remember that she would need to be housetrained, and all of the other stuff that puppies demand. We’ve stepped in piss and crap on our carpet virtually every day since we brought her home, and we shout expletives each time it happens. This doesn’t mean we love her any less. We have no regrets about adding her to our tribe. But stepping in poop wasn’t on our radar. From a distance, the poop didn’t exist.
My wife and I will be forced to handle more poop when our son is born in March. His name is going to be Conley Thomas Schoeffel-Worsham. “Conley” is a combination of two family names: Conrad and Riley. It has the same Gaelic meaning as Caitlin: pure. It also means “strong-willed, wise hero.” Schoeffel is my last name. Worsham is Caitlin’s last name. We debated for a while about whether or not hyphenating Conley’s last name was the right move. We ultimately decided it was. He’s no more a “Schoeffel” than a “Worsham,” or vice versa. We want him to feel equally connected to each side of his lineage, because there’s much to be proud of on either side. Two of his great-grandfathers are World War II veterans. One built his own house, the other was a captain in the Merchant Marines. One of his grandfathers is a captain in the Richmond Fire Department. One of his great aunts owns her own restaurant. On and on like this. He won’t be more one blood than the other. He’ll be a mix of the two, the most recent branch in a family tree that stretches back to Germany on one side and the United Kingdom on the other. We want him to realize, in his own time, that he’s part of something much grander than himself.
Say the name: Conley Thomas Schoeffel-Worsham. He’s merely an idea at the moment, a bump in Caitlin’s stomach. He’s beginning to move around in the womb. Hiccuping and yawning. Even so, he doesn’t seem real yet. But when he enters the world in five months, screaming and covered in blood, he’ll be as real as a dog that poops on the carpet, as my aunt who owns her own restaurant, as a house with warts, as World War II. He’ll be here, in the world, with its beauty and its contradictions. And he’ll embody that beauty and those contradictions, like all of us do.
But when he enters the world in five months, screaming and covered in blood, he’ll be as real as a dog that poops on the carpet, as my aunt who owns her own restaurant, as World War II.
Conley will grow up and become whoever he’s destined to become. Or he’ll become whoever he wills himself to become. He’ll be spiritual, or religious, or he’ll be a humanist. He’ll cry, pee his diaper, learn his first words. That much is certain. Or actually, it isn’t. God forbid, but he could be miscarried. This would be devastating, but we can’t rule it out.
We’ll have high expectations for him, expectations that he’ll never be able to achieve, expectations that we should have never set in the first place. He’ll be a happy baby. Or he’ll be a sad one. Or both. There’s no telling. He’ll have brown eyes or blue eyes or green eyes or gray eyes. He’ll be a brunette or a blonde or a redhead. He’ll have freckles or he won’t. He’ll grow tall, like both of our fathers, who are each 6-foot-6. Or he’ll stay short, like my mother’s family. It could go either way. He’ll have a sister or brother or two. Or he’ll be an only child. It all depends on how ambitious Caitlin and I feel.
He’ll learn to play the piano and guitar, like my grandmother. He’ll love music like me. Or he won’t. He’ll take an interest in sports. Or he’ll find them boring. He’ll be artistic. Or he won’t have a creative bone in his body. He’ll be talkative and charismatic like his mother. He’ll be quiet and reserved like me. He’ll live a long, full life. Or he’ll die tragically young, while Caitlin and I are still alive. The future is a blank canvas.
Conley will grow up and become whoever he’s destined to become. Or he’ll become whoever he wills himself to become. He’ll be spiritual, or religious, or he’ll be a humanist. He’ll cry, pee his diaper, learn his first words.
He’ll lose his way during high school, or in college, or in his 20s — because almost everybody does at some point. Or he’ll be one of those freak people who has life figured out from an early age and never strays from that understanding. But I wouldn’t bet on that. Pretty much everyone struggles at some point.
He’ll be handy, like Caitlin’s mother’s family. Or he’ll be totally incapable of fixing things around the house, like me. He’ll grow up, get married and decide to have a kid or two himself. Or he’ll remain a bachelor forever. Or he’ll be gay. Or he’ll decide that he was born the wrong gender. Life will be easy for him. Or it’ll be difficult. Most likely both.
He’ll exceed our expectations. He’ll let us down. He’ll surprise us with his uniqueness. Or he’ll be boring and uninspiring. Anything can happen. He’ll inherit an itch for travel, to see faraway places. Or he’ll be content to stay in one place his entire life — which is fine, so long as he’s happy.
Which is fine, so long as he’s happy. That’s the ticket. There’s no telling how these things will play out, what his life will hold for him, because right now he’s just an idea, a bump in Caitlin’s stomach. Yawning and hiccupping. About the only thing that can be predicted is that, on some mornings, he’ll wake up feeling like he’s gone seven rounds with Merriweather. On other mornings, he’ll wonder how the world could possibly be so beautiful.
Both are normal, kid. Just keep living.
* – We put an offer on this property a couple of days ago and it was accepted. The sellers had the house and 16 acres listed for $370,000, and our realtor talked them down to $325,000. Simply amazing. There are still some road bumps to go through before we officially own the house — inspections, appraisals, selling our current house — but we’re well on our way to owning a slice of the American Dream.
Reflections on fatherhood and family history.
We spent a lot of our free time throwing rocks at cars. That’s just sort of what you did growing up in the sticks with not a lot of stuff to keep you entertained.
When I was in my early 20s, I took a bus to New York City for no reason other than to do it.