Sentimentally, it isn’t a big deal, but legally it is

Happy 21st birthday, @beYOUtifulBrian!


I know you aren’t much for celebrating, but today I am grateful for your presence in my life. I’ll never forget the day we met, when you told me you liked my website and agreed to be my first youth advisor. Your twenty-first birthday really snuck up on me! I thought we had another year to prepare. I hope that despite all the competing demands on your time and headspace, you are excited about what lies ahead. I, for one, am looking forward to you moving into your new digs! We’ll hook you up with an account on the Camellia Network to supplement the ACS grant to cover moving and furnishing costs.

Wishing you only the best this coming year, which I know for you includes many days of dancing and filling the people around you with the spirit.


Every woman should travel/live abroad alone

[For Autumn, on her current adventure] I’m in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s debut novel, The Invisible Circus, which is about an 18 year-old girl who takes off for Europe to search for the place her sister died. The account of her coming of age has gotten me reminiscing about my travels alone. I’ve already written about how finishing my dissertation and changing careers were two of the most significant rites of passage I’ve ever undergone. Prior to graduate school, however, traveling by myself and living abroad (not in the Philippines or the US) ranked highly on my list of transformative experiences. This is a story in four parts.

The US

To my mother’s great credit, she started instilling in me very early on the notion that I should go forth into the world intrepidly. Having seen how a sheltered childhood caused my sister to fear unfamiliar places and abhor being on her own, Mom took care to show me that traveling alone was nothing to be afraid of. Continue reading

It’s kind of like Hair Club for Men

Two friends now have mentioned they thought of me while reading Jill Lepore’s latest New Yorker piece. The news brings a wistful smile to my face because in my past life I wanted to grow up to be Jill Lepore. She is the rare scholar who builds bridges effortlessly between history and literature, between the past and the present, between the scholarly community and the reading public, and as evidenced in her last article, between the professional and the personal. And let’s not leave out how her writing is intoxicating.

It fills me with a certain sadness to talk about Jill Lepore because it reminds me of the choices I’ve made along the way that carried me away from that dream: opting to major in Latin American Studies rather than American Studies; applying to graduate programs in Spanish rather than English or History departments; deciding to do my PhD at NYU instead of Harvard, where I might have actually met Lepore; and, ultimately, resolving to leave academia with only the cloudiest notion of where my future lay.

I shed no tears for this specific series of steps I’ve taken, but I marvel at the amount of time it takes to let go of an identity. I think I’ve written here before about how I had a very specific vision of myself as a professor: I’d be sitting in a bright, book-lined office overlooking a grassy quad in some small liberal arts college in the northeast. The shelves were white (best for showing off all those books!), I had a red Persian rug on the floor, there would be a game of ultimate frisbee going on outside, and students were always glad to come into my office to chat. It was a nice idea for a life, no? And one that looped for years in my head until one day it didn’t. When that light went out inside of me it kind of felt like dying.

All this finally brings me ’round to the title of this post. (Yes, I have a terrible habit of burying the lede when I blog.) How am I like Sy Sperling? Well, I’m not only the founder of Minds On Fire, but I’m also its first client. My work involves taking all the tools, knowledge, and wisdom that I’ve gathered and continue to use to reimagine a new future for myself. I bring it all together into a program for youth in transition. So essentially, I’ve designed my workshops and am building my curriculum around the scariest and most profound experience of my life.

Here is a present for those of you old enough to remember:

Anatomy of a workshop activity

I’d planned on blogging about what I gleaned from yesterday’s annual New Yorkers for Children Vocational Conference for Youth in Foster Care, but today a couple different folks have asked me about my approach to engaging youth in the classroom, so I thought it would be helpful to write instead about how I came up with my rites of passage activity.

Good teachers come in all stripes, and my particular talent is being able to make complex ideas accessible to young people, and to do so with a modest measure of creativity. In my rites of passage workshop I use an anthropological lens to understand coming of age ceremonies and tribal rites of passage. Now I myself did not study anthropology until I got to college, but I’ve seen that is entirely within reach for high-school aged students to make use of its tools. [Warning: Very long post, so I highlight the takeaway at the very end.] Continue reading

Rites of passage in Goats

Goats (2012) is the film adaptation of Mark Jude Poirier’s debut novel. It’s a quirky coming of age tale that involves a 15-year old boy leaving home—although “home” for Ellis isn’t a safe and idyllic Shire, but a chaotic, dysfunctional family comprising his irresponsible and histrionic mother and his pot-loving mentor, Goat Man, who becomes a surrogate father figure to baby Ellis shortly after his biological father abandoned the family.

Within the first three minutes, the film quickly establishes its major themes: coming of age, rites of passage, leaving home, and renegotiating parent-child relationships.

See what you can make of it. (It’s currently streaming on Netflix.)

[Scene: Goat Man and Ellis go for a trek in the mountains of Arizona with two goats.]

Narration: Goat Man took me on my first trek when I was eleven. Not too long after that, he taught me how to do bong hits. It doesn’t matter where we go on these treks. We just wander. Goat Man says it’s the journey that counts…which I know is cliché. In a few days I leave for the prep school my father went to. Goat Man’s calling this my farewell trek. He says I should soak up as much of the Sonoran sun as I can, but he’s the one doing most of the soaking.

Goat Man: Whooo! [Jumps into water.] Whooooo! [Approaches Ellis.] You won’t have all this this at Gates Academy. [Lights up a joint.]

Ellis: Naked men shouldn’t squat. Do you ever worry about your parents? Did you ever?

G: No. Not really. Wendy will be fine. I’ll watch her.

[Goats bleet.]

Goat Man once said that in certain Native American tribes, an elder leads a young man out into the wilderness to fend for himself until he has a vision.

[Ellis milks goat milk into a cup.]

G: She never lets me milk her.

In one tribe if no vision comes they’ll chop off a fingertip and sacrifice it to the Great Spirit. Goat Man said I’m not quite ready for this rite of passage.

[Ellis finishes drinking milk and climbs piggyback onto Goat Man.]

E: Thanks. Sorry about the rest of the trek, Goat Man.

G: It’s not your fault. Should have never let you come out here with brand new boots. Should have oiled them and let you walk around in them for a couple of days before coming out here.

[End scene.]


  1. Why is the film called Goats?
  2. Who are the goats and who is the goat herder?
  3. Describe the relationship Ellis has to the most important adults in his life: his mother, Goat Man, and his father.
  4. In what ways is Ellis already an adult?
  5. List the challenges that Ellis faces and how he overcomes them.
  6. Describe the transformation that Ellis undergoes in the film. What do you think motivated him to clean up his act?

Here is a hint for numbers 1 and 2: the film’s opening graphic.

Goats opening graphic

Write the dissertation

Lacking a passion project was the very worst condition to be in as a graduate student. At first it’s liberating to be able to explore different concepts and areas of study. It’s like a dream for the intellectually curious. But soon the process of trying on and discarding topics gets wearisome. And then it becomes frustrating. And it isn’t too long before it becomes absolutely soul-crushing because all the books you’ve read (and you’ve read plenty), all the little ideas and pieces of knowledge you have rolling around in that expansive mind of yours—they all amount to a hill of beans.

What matters is having an idea that drives you, arriving at a unique vision, and finding your voice. What matters is producing material evidence of that singularity because you believe others would like to experience it. Sure, the world will keep on turning if you dropped out of grad school. But assuming you went into a doctoral program for all the right reasons, if you ask for my advice, chances are I would talk you into staying. Here’s why: Continue reading

How’d you know?

Just a little over halfway through Lars and the Real Girl (2007), the titular character approaches his older brother, Gus, and engages him in a discussion about rites of passages. In the absence of any coming of age ceremonies, how did Gus know that he’d become a man? Gus stumbles over his answer, “Well, it’s kinda sex, but, but it’s not…” before he’s saved by the bell.

In the next scene, Lars presses Gus until he relents and offers

Gus: Well, it’s not like you’re all one thing or the other. There’s still a kid inside, but you you you…you grow up when you decide to do right. And not what’s right for you—what’s right for everybody. Even when it hurts.

Lars: Ok, like what?

G: [Sighs.] Like…you know, like…you don’t jerk people around. You don’t cheat on your woman. And you take care of your family, you know. You admit when you’re wrong. Or you try to anyways. That’s all I can think of, you know? It sounds like it’s easy, and for some reason, it’s not.

Be a mensch, in other words: do the right thing. Gus offers their father as an example of a man who “tried to do right by us, even though he didn’t know how,” by struggling to raise them, as a single dad, through a fog of depression. Then he himself “mans up” to Lars by apologizing for abandoning him the first chance he got to leave home.

I do think that there is at least one other definition of manhood (and more broadly, adulthood), one that underpins the entire film. As Lars works through his delusion, from start to end, there is a definite sense that he must face his monsters—the twin threats of emotional and physical connection (and we’re not even talking about sex here)—before he can call himself a man. (Would that we all could enjoy the unflagging support of an entire small town while we do battle with ours!)

For those who have access to the full film, the scenes above run roughly between 1:13:38 and 1:16:00.

Transitions to Adulthood: 2-day program for Youth Communication

I’m excited to share with you the overview of the program I’m running for Youth Communication. I’ve put together a workbook for the participants, with activity sheets and space for notes and freewriting.




This sequence of discussions is designed for a group of young people (ages 15 to 20) attending Youth Communication’s 2012 Summer Writing Workshop. In line with this year’s theme of identity, this two-day program gives participants a rich and structured context in which to explore their own passages to adulthood.

The underlying premise is that becoming an adult is not something that happens overnight (on your 18th or 21st birthday), but rather something that takes place gradually and not without some amount of heartache and hardship.

Together we will discuss the concept of adulthood, beginning first with major institutional definitions coming from the legal and scientific fields, and moving through developmental psychology toward cultural definitions in the realms of sociology and anthropology.

The goal is for participants to use this knowledge as a framework for formulating personal definitions of adulthood that resonate in their own lives, and also for generating stories for YCTeen or Represent.

Syllabus Continue reading

Youth Communication’s Summer Writing Workshop

I’ve been neglecting this blog, I know, but it’s been for good reason. I’m developing a couple new workshops, one on the teen brain for New Alternatives for Children (more on that later), and two for Youth Communication‘s Summer Writing Workshop (apply here). This year’s theme is identity, so they asked me to do two workshops on coming of age and adulthood. Keith, Virginia, and Luisa (the founder and the co-editors of Represent, their magazine by and for youth in foster care) really liked my program framework because it resonated with their own philosophy if Identity-Based Motivation (IBM). We all believe that it is critical for young people to develop a solid vision of their future selves early on. To me becoming an adult is not merely being able to do whatever you want to do, or having to shoulder an increasing amount of responsibilities. Becoming an adult means becoming the person you want to be.

At their request I’m turning my Tribal Rites of Passage workshop into a “giant writing prompt,” which means that instead of it being tied to a project that lets their imaginations run freely, participants are pushed to reflect on their lives and write more personally about the “tribes” to which they belong or hope to belong. Keith gave the example of a person who might come from a very Catholic Italian family but who identifies as gay. He also raised the challenge of multiracial individuals who either feel the need to privilege one heritage above the others, or refuse to be boxed into one identity or the other.

The YC staff also asked for a “becoming an adult” workshop, and they’re giving me as much time as I’d like, so I think I want to talk about some of the different ways that adulthood is talked about (scientifically, legally, sociologically, etc.). I’m very excited to be working with Youth Communications!

Play exposes the self

One of the joys of working with youth is being there when they suddenly lay themselves bare. Most educators would consider this phenomenon nothing less than a minor miracle. I don’t mean this in a “let’s talk about our feelings” way, which not everyone responds well to. Besides, I am not a therapist, and that is not my approach. The point of the discussions and the activities I develop, rather, is to expose the minds of participants, and to do so in such a way that makes them feel safe. My Tribal Rites of Passage activity is a deeply personal exercise that asks participants to elaborate a very individual definition of adulthood and to think of tests and accomplishments that will bring him or her closer to that definition. By avoiding putting certain questions directly such as, “What do you value in life?”, and by allowing the imaginations and creativity of the youth to run free—their rituals could be as fantastic or pragmatic as they wish—I framed the activity as play, rather than as classroom work or an exercise in self-betterment.

The beauty of an activity like this is that it meets participants exactly where they are. After all of the presentations I felt like I was suddenly given much deeper insight into the minds of each young person. If you’ve read my descriptions of their rituals, I am sure you, too, could infer a lot about the people who designed them—what they value, the shape of their ideal society, and even to what extent they’ve seriously thought about the sort of person they want to become in adulthood.

I got such earnest responses that I felt called to write out a detailed letter of evaluation for every participant. The intention was to continue the dialogues that the rituals initiated. I let each young person know what I understood of him or her just from their rituals. I highlighted their obvious strengths and also pointed out some areas for improvement or further thought. For A., the participant who set his initiates on a quest for diamond-encrusted stilettos, I urged him to specify what the true object of his quest was, because as long as he kept certain goals in mind, his life would never lack direction. For B., by contrast, I sought to re-frame adulthood in a way that avoided two common misconceptions (both of which cropped up in his ritual): as a daunting life stage dominated by unappealing obligations (the three-month period of independent living), or alternatively, as a time when one can do whatever one pleases (the post-celebration part of the ritual, where new initiates return to their parents’ homes but don’t have to follow any of their rules).

All the rituals definitely established a baseline for where each youth was for his or her path toward adulthood, and moreover, they gave the mentors, the group facilitators, and me footholds for engaging them in conversations about their visions for their future selves.