A forecast: There’s no better prophecy than the past

— Carol Coogan

Last month, a gray-haired clerk asked for identification when I tried to purchase a celebratory cigar.  Looking at him skeptically, I handed him a driver’s license reflecting 36 years of age. He glanced at it, raised his eyes to study me, peered back down at my ID, then looked back at me just as skeptically.

“Uh-huh,” he said, unconvinced but unwilling to press the point. “You must use sunscreen.”

In fact, I do. But I nonetheless doubt that anyone other than an older gentleman to whom all millennials look the same would have similarly mistaken me for the person I was half-a-life ago.

As I drove home in the very Jeep I’d dreamed of one day owning back in high school, I was struck by just how much he had overlooked. Suddenly cognizant of 2019’s significance, in that moment I realized that I’d been 18 when I graduated Clayton A. Bouton in 2001, and somehow — unnoticed and without much fanfare — another 18 years had deposited me at this current point in time and space.

I’d considered authoring a retrospective about the worlds on either side of those 18 years when, a few days later, Enterprise editor Melissa Hale-Spencer asked me to write a column for the Keepsake Graduation Edition. Like the name of the nursery school that first introduced the world to me, her email was pitch-perfect Serendipity.

So, despite knowing full well that I’m too young to be deemed wise by their parents, yet old enough to warrant disregard by the graduates, here goes.


Dear Graduates of the Class of 2019:

Congratulations! And buckle up: The authors of countless graduation speeches and op-eds across the country are mining their own personal experiences to advise you on how to navigate the next chapter of your lives.

But, even if they arrive at some valuable insight, there’s not much you’ll be able to do with it. It’s hard to implement advice concerning that which you’ve yet to experience, or which may no longer even be applicable. I certainly won’t presume qualification to give you any guidance.

After all, the world I encountered at 18 was far different than the one before you now. Eighteen years ago, we didn’t have cell phones. Instead, the coolest kids had box-shaped devices called “pagers” that beeped when receiving the exclusive transmission for which they were designed — i.e., a phone number — which then compelled finding the nearest payphone to return the call. Payphones? You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to describe them, so I’ll just refer you to Google.

Speaking of, Google wasn’t a thing. Nor was Facebook or Twitter, or — for that matter — the entire institutional construct of social media. In fact, though it was only two presidents ago, at age 18, I had to access the internet via dial-up, which I would otherwise explain if conjuring the memories weren’t so traumatic.

Also traumatic was 9/11, which was still three months away when I graduated. Back in June 2001, America had yet to enter the war that has defined the entirety of your American experience. The country had yet to invade Iraq, withdraw from Iraq, and invade Iraq again.

And there was yet half-a-decade hence before the planet would decide that the Kardashian family was something with which to keep up.

Still, as dramatically different as was the world 18 years ago, it pales in comparison to how different your world will be when you’re my age. Five years from now, Uber claims that customers will be able to hail on-demand single-person aerial drones for flights about town.

In 10 years, esteemed artificial intelligence technologists project that machines will evolve consciousness. In 12 years, politicians warn that the planet’s ecosystem will commence its irreversible collapse.

And in 18 years, you, too, may get carded in some random tobacco store and realize that the future has arrived without your notice or permission.

So what good would be my counsel? Besides, despite advanced education and a career and myriad relationships in my wake, I’m more lost now than I’ve ever been.

I wouldn’t have it any other way. It was only in realizing that I have no idea what I’m talking about that I finally started to make sense.

As such, while I can’t really dispense any advice, I can at least offer a forecast. Because no matter how different our worlds may be, there’s no better prophecy than the past.

Over the next 18 years, your weekends will become more sacred to you than they’ve ever been before, as the fight for survival settles into the workaday dreariness of “making a living.” If you’re lucky, someone will break your heart; if you’re not, you’ll break someone else’s heart and forever shoulder the weight of that crushing guilt.

Some of you will marry, and many of those marriages will end in divorce. There will be unwelcome news from doctors, and family vacations postponed in the face of unexpected bills. Your car will break down at the exact mathematical worst time, your heroes will be exposed on the front page, your rent and taxes and premiums will rise interminably every year.  And when that selfless saint among you steps up to organize your 10-year reunion, some of you may no longer be around to attend it….

But, if all that sounds grim, remember this: At all times, the path to fulfillment already lies within you.

With the right mindset, your job will be a source of pride and satisfaction — the financial means by which you make the most of your weekends. Your broken heart will signify a love for which you bravely took a risk, while your guilt will in time transform into self-awareness.

That terrifying prognosis will help you finally make the overdue lifestyle change, just as those unexpected bills will help clarify your budget so you can make the most of family time when the long-awaited vacation finally becomes tenable.

And, at your 10-year reunion, the people with whom you once roamed the halls between classes will assemble to memorialize the departed, and bask in the blessing of seeing each other’s weathered faces.

To paraphrase Glinda, you’ve always had the power to go back to Kansas — but that’s something you’ll have to learn for yourself.

Unlocking that epiphany entails acknowledging that nothing defines you so much as the outlook you choose to adopt. Doing what’s right will often be agonizingly hard, and will likely require courage that takes years or rock bottom to find.

But my forecast for you, Class of 2019, is that despite the obstacles ahead, you’ll figure it all out. I’m rooting for you with every fiber of my being.

At some point during these past 18 years, I dated a woman whose battle cry turned out to be the only truth I’ve ever encountered: “No one knows what they’re doing. Do whatever.”


Graduates of the Class of 2019, trust me on this: At first, you’ll likely be as horrified as I was when you discover that everyone’s faking it — that your boss, your parents, the politicians and pundits and professionals are all commuting to work every morning wondering if today’s the day they’ll be exposed.

But you’ll soon find in that awareness your path to freedom. As Nanea Hoffman famously noted, “None of us are getting out of here alive” — so don’t surrender to someone else’s expectations your only opportunity to discover what you want to be.

DO WHATEVER. Do it however, whenever, and forever. Do it unabashedly, unashamedly, uncompromisingly.

Rectify the mistakes you make, but don’t avoid the ones from which you need to learn. Apologize for the feelings you hurt, but never for the person you are.

Daydream as often as you can, but not so much that you run out of time to manifest your imagination. Embrace just enough of The System such that you can make room to discern yourself. 

No matter what: Do whatever.

At 36, it’s been twice a lifetime since I walked across that stage to receive my diploma; I feel a little sheepish that “do whatever” is all I’ve got. So, in an effort to give you guys something a bit more concrete, I’ll concede that there’s probably merit to Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich’s admonition — made further famous by Baz Luhrmann’s spoken-word musical adaptation — which was seemingly confirmed to me last month by a grizzled tobacco store clerk:

Wear sunscreen.

You’re going to experience a lot over the next 18 years, and sunscreen will keep much of the wear and tear hidden on the inside. But every now and then, take time to appreciate those invisible scars. Eighteen years from now, they’ll be among your most precious possessions — and proof of a life post-graduation.

Editor’s note: Captain Jesse Sommer is a paratrooper and Judge Advocate in the U.S. Army’s 7th Special Forces Group (Airborne). He is a lifelong resident of Albany County.