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The Mendel

October 29, 2012

Back in high school there was this older man the guys and I would hang out with. To an extent he was our enabler; we’d go to his house after school (and sometimes during) because he let us drink and smoke. Truth be told, he’d often be the one providing us with those choice – and illegal – substances. But there was more to the relationship than that. He was our connection with the older generation in a non-parental and non-authoritarian way.

This was more important than I understood at the time. I was a typical teenager in that I thought I knew everything. I had all the answers and people in my parents’ generation (aka old people) were hopelessly out-of-date. When they would confront me with blatant evidence to the contrary I’d either shrug it off or turn it on them somehow. I wasn’t able to hear their wisdom because of their position of authority in my life.

Our enabler, on the other hand, wasn’t an authority figure. He was a friend. So when he called us on our bullshit we had to listen. And the truth is, we ended up listening a lot. How could it be otherwise? We were learning by experimentation and most of it didn’t lead anywhere. We needed someone to tell it straight.

Some months ago I tried to describe this relationship to a friend. After several aborted descriptions she interrupted my by saying simply, “He was the Mendel.” She was right.

The thing is, after leaving home for a new state – after establishing a new circle of friends in a new city – a similar situation arose. One of these friends’ dad became part of our community. He was the token ‘old person.’ He would throw parties for the younger generation. He’d join us on skiing and river trips. His name was Mendel.

It happened every once in a while that somebody new would join our circle and comment on the oddity of the lone parental type partying with the youngsters. ‘Doesn’t he have friends his own age?’ they would ask, or ‘Does he have to hang out with young folk to keep from feeling old?’ Even then I would shrug, lacking an answer; I accepted and enjoyed his presence but didn’t fully understand it either.

This past weekend my household threw a Halloween party. The afternoon was dedicated to kids activities for the seven-year old demographic; in the evening it turned into an adult party. Thirty-something adults, that is. A little less experimenting, a little less bullshit. By now we’ve – for the most part – discovered what does and doesn’t work in our lives. Though we were still drinking and smoking.

My dad had flown in the evening before. He was without a doubt the Mendel at the party; he had at least twenty years on every other guest. And over the course of the night, as our paths intersected, he would comment on how odd it was to be around such a young crowd. He simply couldn’t relate to some of our conversations. He was experiencing generational shock.

I’d never much thought about the Mendel’s side of the relationship. What do they get out of bridging the generation gap? Surely imparting wisdom to the youth isn’t the motivator; folk get paid for that. And it can’t be a lack of drinking buddies their own age. Please! It must be something else.

I’ll take a stab at it. A Mendel can recognize that times are changing and wants to stay abreast of them. He knows that the majority of his own generation has stopped experimenting, has stalled on – or finished – the journey of self-discovery; they’ve become who they are going to be for the rest of their lives. But the Mendel hasn’t. He still wants to learn and is willing to put up with any amount of bullshit to do so, and one such path is to surround himself with people who are evolving. Younger people, in other words.

There may be many and individual reasons for Mendels to exist. In general I think comingling of the generations is a healthy thing. Maybe I’ll feel differently when my daughter is a teen. Maybe I’ll feel differently by the time I’m old enough to qualify for Mendel status. We’ll see. I certainly don’t intend to be an enabler and have little desire to be an authority figure, but I think I could be an excellent friend and calming influence to experimenting youths.

Yes Mr. Hendrix, I am experienced.

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