“Who gets this truck when you die?”
I looked in the rearview mirror at my five-year old daughter, Rylee, in the back seat and smiled. “What do you mean?”
“This is a great truck. Can I have it when you die?”
My daughter Rylee and I rolled out of our home in Arizona as the sun was coming up, intent on driving to Salt Lake City, Utah, before the sun went down. The fifteen-year old truck carried a load of used furniture, needed personal items, and hopes for the future. I volunteered to drive the first shift.
The pandemic and the early morning combined to make traffic light as we left the valley of the sun. I looked over at my baby girl curled up in the passenger seat with a pillow and fuzzy, blue blanket sleeping in a position that would certainly make my aging body ache after just a few minutes. She seemed at peace with her sleeping position and glad to be taking the road trip. After two weeks at home sheltering in place, I was certainly ready for some windshield time. I left the radio off so she could sleep.
My mind drifted back to my first solo cross-country drive from Kentucky to Utah in a 70’s vintage Mazda RX2. The silver car hummed along Interstate 80 while the sheepskin seat covers my mother made kept me comfortable on the way to my future. It felt liberating to take to the open road with everything I owned stuffed into the back seat and trunk. My listening menu drifted between radio stations along the way and cassette tapes from my personal collection. I kept a signed, blank check from my parents’ bank account for emergencies, along with enough sandwiches and snacks to last me for the two-day drive. The smell of fresh-turned earth filled the afternoon air as I drove through Nebraska with the windows down.
Just like today, life was full of uncertainties, but of different types. The Cold War raged, coupled with the threat of nuclear winter. I only had enough money for one semester of tuition and room and board for a month. I had no safety net other than the meager help the blue-collar parents of ten children could offer. Like my daughter, I was full of hope in a bright future, in spite of the overwhelming evidence of a menacing world awaiting me. It was an act of both blind stupidity and sheer faith.
Now here I sat, more than thirty years later, in the driver’s seat of an old Nissan truck with my youngest daughter curled up asleep next to me wondering where the years had gone.
After a couple of hours and a fuel stop, Rylee woke up. She volunteered to drive, but I stayed behind the wheel for now. We chatted about mundane things for a bit until she plugged in her phone and turned on a podcast. (That would have been a nice option thirty years ago driving across Nebraska by myself.) We listened together stopping occasionally to opine about the comments presented. Together, we questioned the validity of the information offered or validated it. We were two people listening to information in the same space but with very different points of view and nowhere to go if a difference of opinion arose. It was a refreshing change to the social-media-fire-and-forget method of personal interaction.
You would think that an adult child’s opinion about life would not be that different than the parent’s opinion, but you would be wrong. I have found that in the realm of philosophical opinions about life, the phrase, “The apple doesn’t fall too far from the tree” is absolutely false. If we raise our children correctly, they will be as independent, stubborn, and full of sheer hope for the future as we were. It is every successful parent’s dilemma: If you teach your children properly, they will be able to think for themselves, which means they may not choose to think as you do. As a parent you are stuck somewhere in no-man’s land between pride at their independence and incredulity at their divergence from your way of thinking. I’m learning to default to pride.
At some point, the conversation drifted to time travel and the works of Neil deGrasse Tyson. “He says that even if we could travel back in time, it’s impossible to help yourself. You could help the various other versions of you in the other dimensions but you couldn’t change your own future. It’s impossible,” she said. (This was an unexpected twist in the conversation, but since I couldn’t go back in time and change it…) “I think I would like to go back in time and talk with myself.”
“Do you think you would listen?” I asked.
“Sure. Because your future self has experienced life and knows how some of your choices will turn out.”
“If that’s the case,” I asked. “Why don’t children listen to their parents’ advice?”
She thought for a moment and then chuckled, caught in my parental ruse. “I guess that’s true.”
“You see,” I explained. “Knowledge is different than skill. I know how to shoot a three-point shot in basketball. I stand beyond the designated line. I toss the ball at just the right arch and send it through the hoop. Three points. But just because I know how to shoot a three-pointer, doesn’t mean I have the skill to do it. Skill is born of knowledge, but they aren’t the same thing.”
I went on to explain how that if your knowledge-laden, future self could have a conversation with your inexperienced past self, the passing of knowledge would not be enough. Knowledge would have to be forged into skill. An addict from the future could pass on helpful knowledge to her past self, but could not pass on the hard-earned skills required to break the addiction. Anyone who has overcome a bad habit can go back in time and impart knowledge to his past self, but not the skills required to overcome the bad habit. That takes repeated effort and practice. A master piano virtuoso is unable to impart the skills honed by hours of effort and repeated drills at the keyboard by simply telling someone what to do. Knowledge can be transferred, but skill cannot. Skill must be earned through effort.
We breezed through the uncrowded streets of Las Vegas amazed at the empty parking lots and shuttered businesses. When we stopped for lunch, I turned the driving over to her. I struggled to keep quiet when I felt she was too close to the vehicle in front of us or when she glanced at her phone, but I managed to let her command the vehicle without my interference (most of the time).
When we crossed over the Utah border, it dawned on me that in spite of the fact that I had owned the truck for fifteen years, we had never taken it on a long road trip. I told her this was the first time. She laughed and recounted all the accidents the truck had been part of over the years. She and her brothers had managed to rough it up a bit as teenage drivers. It was simply part of the developing process, I acknowledged. As a parent, I had expected, even anticipated, the accidents.
“What are you going to do about your car?” I asked. (Her vehicle was experiencing mechanical difficulties at the time.)
She sighed. “I don’t know. I have to figure something out.”
“Maybe I’ll sell you this truck,” I offered.
“I’ve wanted it since I was a little kid.” She laughed.
“Yes, you did.” I smiled. “If you had known that was a possibility you might have taken better care of it as a teenager. Besides, you might not want it now because you know it’s history.”
We both laughed.
Life is meant to be lived. We were never intended to sit still and avoid failure. On the contrary, failure is an integral part of acquiring knowledge, skill, and ultimately wisdom. The dilemma of every parent is teaching your children to be independent while knowing full well that no matter how much you teach them, they will not become who they need to be without failure. You only hope you can help them avoid catastrophic failure, but even that is sometimes unavoidable. Your only recourse as a parent is to be prepared for the crashes and hope that both of you are around to discuss the lessons learned.
It is impossible for us to travel back in time. Even if we could, what would I go back and tell myself? If I could go back thirty years and ride in the passenger seat on that drive across Nebraska with the windows down, could the knowledge I impart make a difference in my life? Perhaps, but knowledge is not enough. Wisdom must be earned. Skills must be practiced. Life must be experienced. The time traveler’s dilemma is the parents’ dilemma.
Here I sat with a younger version of myself at the wheel of my well-used truck making a similar fateful trip. She is strong, independent, and full of hope for the future. I have knowledge. She has youth and exuberance. I have wisdom forged in the crucible of my mistakes. She has her sense of wonder for the future. Try as I might, I cannot pass on all of my hard-earned life skills that make me who I am. She will have to develop those skills using the same process I did.
We made it to Salt Lake City before sunset and she dropped me off at the airport to catch my flight back to Arizona. I hugged her at the curb, grateful for the time we had to talk, to laugh, and to learn from one another. As my baby girl drove away in my rickety truck, I didn’t see her as a child, but as a grown, independent, and capable woman. I could give her the truck, but she would be better served by buying a truck of her own with hard work and effort. I only hope she stays for a few days when she brings it back home to me.