Most of them, anyway, are arbitrary. Some, not so much.
2007 has been (and will be) a year of such milestones. My daughter turned eighteen. My father died. An old friend leaves work. And today, my daughter graduates high school.
It's the last milestone that means the most to me. For the first time in her life, she struggled with school. Like me, things came very easily to her, she comprehended the basic stuff with breathtaking ease, so easily, in fact, that when she did run into trouble in middle school, her work before then had kept her grades up, and so it was hard to notice.
Thanks, No Child Left Behind! When she needed help, when it really could have meant something, you were there to make sure the curriculum was dumbed down to the test, and that teachers were going to focus on the school as a whole and not a kid who could be brilliant.
She fought her way through this school, one of the premier high schools known to mankind. Put it this way: if it was a country, it would be credit with more Nobel Prizes than all but seven other countries.
For that, I'm proud of her, even proud of her for trying to keep up the image at home that things were going along OK, when in fact she was in danger of failing at times. That told me she gave a damn about her schoolwork, and at least she won't have the adjustment problem to college that so many teens do.
So yes, milestones. Some are worth noting, some (like the fact I turn fifty this year) are mathematical absurdities linked to the fact we have ten toes and fingers.
In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut, I'd like to "give" my commencement address:
Ladies and gentlemen, for that is who you are now, today, you begin the steps towards adulthood.
It's typical for the speaker at such events to talk long and hard about the struggles you'll face and to offer some advice and insight into how to overcome them to achieve your dream. Who am I to look askance at tradition.
Let's face facts: the vast majority of you will lead lives that are superficially comfortable, but just under the surface, a slick of peace and prosperity, boils a raging torrent of anxiety and tension. You've seen it in your own parents. You will see it in yourself.
You'll learn with time that your dreams change, that your visions change, that your ideals, things you thought were etched in stone, will adjust as you experience life. Experience is the one lesson learned only after you've already taken the test. How true that is.
So how do you deal with this? How do you deal with conformity when right now the last thing you want is to conform? Most people go with the flow and eventually lose their passions, frustrated and disillusioned with reality.
Don't let that happen to you. Don't give into the temptation to do something just to get along. Don't compromise your vision, even as that vision changes, for someone or something else. Find what truly makes you happy, and then find out WHY it makes you happy, because the world is filled with people looking to steal your cookie. You'll want to be able to replace it.
Reality hurts. It does. That can't be helped. You're walking into the maw of six billion other people on this planet, and you can become the short fingered vulgarian who steals in the zero sum game of life, steals food from widows and money from the poor sucker on the corner.
Or you can find some small corner that reality has a hard time penetrating. It can be a lover. It can be a hobby. It can be an avocation and if you're really really lucky, it can be a career. Find out what makes you happy, find out what makes you passionate, and along that path lies your true calling.
And let that path lead you where it must. Don't ever listen to someone who tells you, "No, don't go down that path! It's too...whatever!" This is your life and your path, and when you're dead and gone, those folks will not be clambering into your casket with you to accompany you on your path into history, so why let them choose your path today?
Your parents love you, but they cannot live your lives for you. That's your job...no, that's your privilege. Your spouses and partners will love you, but even they can only follow you on your path so far. If you're really fortunate, they'll make it alongside you to your ultimate destiny. Try to find that person, but failing that, try to find the person who's content to wait for you to report back in.
The Beatles wrote a marvelous little song, "When I'm 64." Memorize this song. This is the person you want to grow old with. And by that, I don't mean your partner. I mean you. Don't lock your own doors because you stayed out til quarter to three. Ultimately, you have to be in love with yourself, in love enough to forgive you your trespasses.
Do not look at life as a challenge. Life will win immediately on the first roll of the dice. Instead, look at life as an adventure, filled with dragons and maidens and princes. Just don't expect the fairy tale ending. Nevertheless, invest your life with the same emotion and passion and breathlessness you experienced when your dad read you a book to help you sleep.
You will become your own Prince Charming and your own fairy princess, and that will be the greatest treasure one could ever find.