Happy Birthday, Pepito!

Today is my friend Pepito’s birthday.  He’s 22: “I feel like 22 gives me drinking street cred. Like, it’s proof that I didn’t get drunk for the first time last week, which is what most people seem to think 21 means.”

(His name isn’t actually Pepito.  To protect his identity, reputation, and delicate future as an overworked document monkey, I generously describe him with a pseudonym.)

He makes an interesting point.  Pepito is a success by almost any standard.  He attends a prestigious law school, will shortly start an impressive law-type summer job, and is many times more together with himself and his life than I was at 22.  He can also grow a better beard than I could then.  Or can now.

But, he’s right about how people view his age.  At 21, you’re automatically a scrub, pretty much entirely because an arbitrary milestone (that in many countries happens years earlier) is recently crossed.  Now, his birthday last year wasn’t exactly a showpiece of mature restraint, but that was hardly because it was his first time drinking.  He was, in fact, celebrating his newly-legal drinking age extra-hard mostly because it was such an arbitrary convention — it’s not like he was drinking for the first time, and it’s not like the sleazy bar at which he celebrated was really a special accomplishment to enter legally.  But, because he was turning 21, a social benchmark, he got drunk off his ass and needed help to pee.

(Not my help, thankfully)

And, now he’s 22, and still feeling the social expectations of being 21 even as he escapes them.  It shows the kind of weight that gets put on 21 that it becomes both a goal and a stigma at the same time.  A 20-year-old drinking is cool; “Look how slick I am, just barely flaunting a widely-ignored law.”  A 21-year-old, though, is just a scrub; “Now that I can legally buy beer, I’m starting to notice that beer tastes gross.”

22, though, should represent some measure of freedom for poor Pepito.  Now, he is officially a real adult, and not just some sort of stunted trial adult.  He officially gets his “grown-up” merit badge, and can enter society as a productive and useful contributor.  He begins a grown-up job shortly, even if just for the summer, and that is kind of a big deal; he may not magically become a different person just because he is officially one year older, but a summer of cocaine and hookers will probably get him up to speed.

So, why am I babbling about all of this?  Yes, turning 21, or 22 (or 16, or 40, or whatever) may be just an arbitrary milestone, something socially-conditioned like a Hallmark holiday.  But, (like those holidays), all that really matters is that we take the milestone to heart and use it as a reason to move forward. Pepito is going to remember today for a long time,

(There may be… gaps, but he’ll still remember not remembering.  And, YouTube and Facebook can do wonders for preserving interesting details)

and he’s going to remember it surrounded by people who care about him and wish him well.  And we, in turn, will always try to remember him as the idealistic and hopeful friend who turned 22, and not as the burned-out syphilitic wreck that will doubtless return to us after a summer at the firm.

So, happy birthday Pepito!  May your birthday leave you with all the memories you hope for (and none of the ones you don’t…), and may the coming year bring you all the happiness and success that you deserve.

But, seriously, shave the beard you freaking hippie, at least for your birthday.

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