Growing up is more than a haircut

Inevitably we all change over time. Some more than others, but everyone does. The fun part is to look back in bewilderment at who we used to be.
During the past year, I’ve written all my columns at a coffee shop in Dinkytown. After spending so many Saturday nights and Tuesday afternoons there, I recognize a lot of the regulars: the guy with the shaved head in a hooded sweatshirt who is always drawing something in his sketchbook, the attractive, young woman with short, dark hair who sits in the back doing her homework and the older lady with her different paperback every week.
And of course there is Bill, the white man with one of the biggest afros you will ever see, a perpetually unbuttoned shirt and a peacock feather that moves from his hair to a glass on the table. I used to be more like him.
As an undergraduate seven years ago, I pulled my long, curly hair back in a ponytail. I wore tie-dyed shirts and a peace sign that dangled from my ear. I went to “Take Back the Night” rallies. I believed big-business capitalism was destroying the fiber of our country. I marched in protest against the Gulf War. I spent my afternoons sitting on the porch at the campus coffee shop drinking tea, smoking cigarettes and reading philosophy.
At the time, I was seriously dating one of my dorm-mates who went by the name Miki. She was from Kentucky, and I lived in Cleveland, making our first summer apart far from enjoyable. By August I was ready to visit, so I hopped in my car and headed south for a week.
While I drove, I was full of nervous energy. Miki’s father was an army colonel stationed at Fort Knox where he looked after an armored division. I had dressed reasonably well, but my hair and earring were a dead giveaway — I was a flaming liberal. Somehow I did not think that my dating his daughter was going to sit too well with the Colonel. Images of an “accident” on the rifle range kept forming in my mind.
I could tell that when he first saw me, the colonel was less than thrilled. Our conversations avoided politics and whether or not I was sleeping with his daughter. Nevertheless, things went better than I had dared hope. He even agreed to show me around the base.
When Miki and I found him in his office the next day, the Colonel put aside his work and took us over to the tanks. The three of us crammed into the turret chamber of an M-1 Abrams and the Colonel answered all my questions. I played with the scope, lining up a parked car a few hundred yards away in the cross hairs and measuring the exact distance with the infrared. The Colonel demonstrated the targeting computer, explaining all the variables it takes into account when calculating a firing trajectory, including wind speed, temperature and barometric pressure. I could have fooled around and pestered him all morning, but the Colonel had to get back to work. My enthusiasm was not lost on him; from then on, we got along fine.
It is doubtful my brush with destructive potential changed me, but it certainly pointed to something going on inside my psyche that continued for some time. Take a look at me today.
I keep my hair close cut. I dress for the golf course at my most casual with a small stud piercing my earlobe. I think Greenpeace is a bunch of crazy environmentalists. I own stock. I can do without women’s studies departments that think Principia Mathematica is a rape manual. When the bombs started dropping on Serbia, I cheered.
I grew up, and most of you will too.
Campus abounds with people who are just like I used to be. The ideals of the extreme left flow as freely as beer at a keg party. While we are in college many of us think we can change the world. We think we know what is best. We envision a utopia where everyone has what they need and mutual respect is the norm. We are modern-day hippies who want to protect the environment, end rampant capitalism and fight the good fight.
These things are fine while we are safe behind the walls of the ivory tower where students are free from the burdens of daily life, able to dream of what could be, not what is.
My younger self was certain he was right. He knew society needed to be fixed. He imagined changing everything. He thought about running for president in order to straighten the world out. Peace and understanding could win the day. Boy, was he wrong.
It starts simply enough. One of your friends gets married. He lands a high-paying job. He buys a house and a BMW convertible with heated seats.
It is easy to want to transform the world when you have little. But when you have things to protect, the game changes. A family, a job that provides a steady income, a home and a way of life that makes you happy all exist because of the system, not in spite of it.
Growing up means change, and change means re-evaluation. You find you can be happy within the corrupt world you hated so much. You discover that the system works well enough. You are glad the military is there to protect your country’s ideals. You appreciate the police officers who risk their lives to make your streets safer. Your hard work is rewarded.
You will not have to abandon everything you believed. You will merely look at your ideals in terms of a wider world that does not center around classes, homework and where the party is on Saturday night. Radical ideas will become tempered wisdom. Instead of blindly accepting politically correct agendas, you will rationally consider the facts before reaching a conclusion on the issue at hand.
Not everyone goes through this process. Some people cling to youthful ideals far longer than they should. These aging radicals are adrift in the real world. The hippies who refuse to grow up become philosophy professors or something similar. They remain safely hidden from reality on campus while fooling themselves into thinking they are in tune with the world because the young people still agree with them.
The rest of the world mocks academia not because of the ideas themselves, but because of the pretension their originators display. Despite being cloistered on campus, students and professors believe they understand the world better than everyone else. They rationalize it to themselves by thinking they have not been tainted by the rampant greed and immorality they assume exists beyond the edge of campus. In reality, they live in a fantasy world that ignores the genuine concerns normal people face everyday. Students will learn this lesson soon enough. Most professors are too far gone.
I still go to the coffee shops to relax, to write and to get my caffeine fix. But, as I walk across Northrop Mall for the last time next week, I will be amused by the students I see lounging between classes. I will see them and think about how naãve I used to be. I will not be laughing at the men with ponytails or the women with more pierced body parts than I care to count; they will grow out of it. I will be laughing at who I used to be.

Chris Trejbal is heading out into the real world. He welcomes comments and job offers to [email protected]