A few months ago, I turned 21 in London. I had reached the milestone of American adulthood overseas. It was in the last weeks of my year abroad. Several months earlier, in November — which now feels as much a juncture in time as New Year’s Day or the start of summer — I had registered the shock of the election through a computer screen. In the intervening time up to my birthday in May, I had but a few phone calls and opinion polls to encourage my imagination of home. And so, I was in London at the age of 21, which is a meaningless age there, and a citizen of a government confined to the margins of the British papers. The shifts that occurred after the election appeared to me the way an earthquake might to a seismologist a thousand miles away. I had the privilege of being able to close my laptop to escape that reality.
I came home to America in June. My age quickly meant far more than what I could legally imbibe; to be 21 meant to engage with all the problems of adulthood I had temporarily escaped abroad. Over that summer, my thoughts quickly turned from the serious to the mundane. My memory of that time is compressed into the course of one day.
Over breakfast, my mother reports some advice from a coworker: If you don’t pick a career, the world will pick one for you. I’m off to work, but the neurons in my head are firing thousands of miles in each direction. In before my boss. My stomach’s growling during a client meeting. How soon after lunch can I think about dinner? How early in the workday can I think about going home? I’m on the highway home now. I look forward to the hour I have alone. I think I understand that Louis C.K. joke about throwing away all the toilet paper just to get out of the house. Off to run errands before dinner. Everything is expensive on minimum wage. The barber asks me if I want to keep the beard today. I’m on my laptop before dinner. What can you do with a law degree? Are lawyers happy? Is anyone happy? My mom takes a phone call. We are attending a wake next Thursday. I dust off my black suit as she cooks. I try to read a book. I feel like a child. We’re watching “The Sopranos.” I need my family. I need my sleep.
To be 21 is one thing, but to be 21 in America is another. In London, I kept a cadre of American friends that reminded me where I was from; they were my protection from total dislocation. Now at home, I found everything strange and unsettling. I felt lost. I needed to keep up with the politics. I turned to television.
There’s a lot of “Breaking News” this hour. Is there a standard for “Breaking News”? Apparently not. “Morning Joe” is irritatingly entertaining. There is an odd mixture of levity and “deeply concerning” developments. I can no longer tell if someone is genuinely upset. The commercials make our politics sound like a game of football. They should let the news reporters talk more. I think there’s a love interest between Joe and Mika. Is this all just reality TV? I’d watch an “Evening Joe” if they made it.
The political theater on the television spilled over into everyday life. I was thinking about it at work, at home and on the holidays. I heard about polarization, and then I saw it in the town square. The rallies and counter rallies came through town. The Klan fought the man. It felt okay to wake up unhappy. I see disenchanted faces on the street. At Starbucks, people argue loudly. Most people don’t betray their emotions. They write about the fall of the Roman Republic. Or they don’t bother themselves at all. Sometimes, I’m stuck in uninformed conversations. I’m trying to explain why the Cabinet members matter. Then I listen to the benefits the Department of Social Services offers a family on a fixed income. And I realize how little I know about my own government. The Fourth of July is moody. I’m certain the world’s greatest deliberative body is not in this parade. Even Budweiser is political. I tell my aunt I get my news from C-SPAN.
And so I learned that to be 21 in America is to have a coming-of-age during a political depression. It’s like spending your childhood on the steps of a great courthouse, running between the marbled pillars. But when the time comes for you to join those on the inside, you look up to find the ceiling could collapse at any moment.
In Berkeley, I feel more than before the responsibility and unfamiliarity of the present moment. Sometimes, I want to be back in London where these problems recede in the distance. I busy myself to forget. I gather many of us wanting to go far away, stretching the expanse of the horizon. In the meantime, some of us are out marching or at home trying to write. Others spend the nights drinking or curled up in bed. We may not begin to understand the magnitude of being young and alive today for another 20 years. And perhaps then, we can judge what we should have done with our time. But I doubt we will ever forget this moment, when we were 21 in America.
Off the Beat columns are written by Daily Cal staff members until the fall semester’s regular opinion columnists have been selected.