If you met my younger brother Ben and me, you wouldn’t think we were much alike. We both attended the same catholic high school and then went straight to college, but that’s where the apparent similarities end. I graduated from a nice liberal arts school, on the fast-track to a basically conventional adulthood. He enrolled in one of America’s least conventional colleges, where there are no grades and students invent their own majors. Six months in, he dropped out, precipitating a series of events that lead to him becoming a father two years later, at the age of twenty, much to the dismay of our parents, relatives, and any other responsible person in his life.
You know the trend in Hollywood of “rebooting” classic movie franchises, like James Bond or Star Trek? Basically, the filmmakers retain the signature aspects of the original, but update its style to suit modern tastes. Around the time he left school, my brother was a hippie reboot. His speech overflowed with flower child clichés that I thought had died with Hendrix: He talked about the healing powers of crystals, Freemason conspiracies, CIA horror stories (and not the real ones from Legacy of Ashes), the evils of money, the miracle of chakras, and on and on. So, of course, his first act upon dropping out was to follow the concert tour of the Grateful Dead.
His life became a blur of transience. Even he gets confused trying to recall all the places he lived. He spent time on the road; in a semi-commune in Lawrence, Kansas; on an organic farm in Hawaii; and back home with our parents in Colorado. Somewhere along the way, he met a young woman who trafficked in the same realm of ideas, and they took to the road together.
By this point he and I were a study in fraternal contrast. I found a boring job and a nice apartment, giving me all outward appearances of success. But as a consequence the most interesting thing about me was my younger brother. Whenever I met anyone new, I found an excuse to bring him up so I’d have something memorable to talk about. (He almost died, for example, because while hiking on Kauai’s famed Kalalau trail, he felt the forest calling to him, so he jumped of the path, started sliding down a hill, and nearly fell off a cliff.)
For the first year after he dropped out, Ben survived by scrounging, begging, and borrowing, but mostly by preying on my parents’ guilt. Whenever he wanted a big outlay, his line of reasoning went like this: Well, you paid thousands of dollars on Nick’s college, so you should spend thousands on me, too. This argument somehow convinced our mother to drop a grand on a beat-up Dodge RV from the ’70s that Ben found on Craigslist.
And maybe some of his talk of miracles was warranted, because that thing made it all the way from Denver to New York City and back. During the trip, Ben and his girlfriend attended a giant festival called the Rainbow Gathering in the forests of Pennsylvania, read poems on the streets of Manhattan for change, and, as they learned a few weeks later, conceived a child.
The ensuing months weren’t particularly happy for anybody. Ben followed his gestating progeny out to its mother’s home in Oklahoma, and when they struggled to stay grounded there, my parents flew them (first her, then him) back to Hawaii for the birth. That was when I stopped trying to understand the motivations of anyone involved in the situation. Ben seemed much happier once he returned to his tropical paradise, and that was good enough for me.
He’s settling down a bit for now, but it’s hard to believe how little our lives resemble one another. Almost anyone who compared us would see me as the model citizen and him as the black sheep. But I’m not sure that’s fair.
My first two years of college comprised a flailing, desperate, and sometimes destructive search for identity. I felt like a loser when I wasn’t going to parties with people I didn’t like, my oft-stated desire to “become a writer” was a sleight of hand to avoid thinking about my future, and I had plenty of expansive, half-informed theories about the universe I would have been happy to share with you. When I compare my mindset then to Ben’s at the same age, I see parallel trajectories altered mostly by environment. The difference was that I had a secure, highly-structured place to confront my insecurities. Ben didn’t have that safety net, so his actions produced tangible consequences.
But the punch line, of course, is that he now has a wonderful, adorable daughter who he loves. He may have traveled a rocky road to find her, but now that he has, I can’t argue with the outcome.