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Editor's Note: Letter to Adeline* 

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First, congratulations. You made it—you are incarnated. That may not seem like a big deal to you, but scientists estimate that the odds of you being born are one in 400 trillion. (The eggheads got to this crazy calculation by factoring in the chances of survival of a continuous lineage of more than 100,000 generations of your ancestors, who had to survive natural disasters, poor nutrition, woolly mammoth attacks, innumerable wars, the bubonic plague, the Inquisition, and, in your mother's case, growing up with three older brothers, which I can assure you was no picnic.) Not to get bogged down in numbers, but consider this: Your mom will produce about 100,000 eggs in her lifetime; your dad will make about 4 trillion sperm. (I know it's gross to think about your parents in this way, but bear with me.) The chances of one of those eggs and one of those sperm getting together are basically zero, which makes you kind of a miracle. I know your parents think this without any mention of permutations and combinations, but I'm just providing a dash of scientific rigor, because the rest of the stuff I'm about to tell you is completely my own snapped-off perceptions of the universe. To wit:

You're lucky. So extremely lucky. There are 350,000 kids born each day and you had the good fortune to be born white and upper middle class in the country that is the dominant power on the planet. You're going to live in a nice house, go to good schools, eat well, and be utterly spoiled by your parents and extended family. You're a woman, so you won't make as much money as your male peers and you'll be subject to the underlying layer of sexual harassment that's the misogynist background noise of our society, but still, you've got a pretty sweet set-up. So be aware of your privilege. Don't get bogged down by it—I'm not suggesting you need walk the Earth in rags with a begging bowl to atone for the crimes committed by our ancestors—but understand what it means to be a relatively rich white person living on a planet populated by mostly poor nonwhite people whose abject circumstances you can never truly understand.

The bright and shiny side of your privilege is that you have the opportunity to chase your wildest dreams. Do that. While you're doing that, I suggest always choosing the more difficult path. The hard stuff, whether it's calculus or marathon running, is the most rewarding, and builds something known as character. And don't worry about outcomes so much—the juice is in the doing. This is sometimes boiled down to the aphorism "life is a journey, not a destination." Which is true (as all clichés are true), but doesn't quite capture why you should work so hard: It will help you explain you to yourself and help establish a self you are comfortable with, for we are what we do. In an essay on Kafka (more on him when you're a bit older), David Foster Wallace suggests that the central joke in Kafka's work is that "the horrific struggle to establish a human self results in a self whose humanity is inseparable from that horrific struggle. That our endless and impossible journey toward home is in fact our home." Life is hard anyway you slice it. So do the hard stuff, and do it well, and enjoy the struggle, because you can't avoid it. Pain is inevitable, suffering is optional.

Related to the above: participation trophies are bullshit. Participation means you showed up. If you win, great! If you lose, that's fine as well. In the 30 years I played competitive athletics, I ended up with only a handful of trophies. But the few that I have remind me of how rare and special victory is and how hard it is to achieve. Don't accept meaningless trinkets designed to puff up your ego.

Read books. All kinds of books. Read self-help books and read the novels of Marcel Proust and Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie and Toni Morrison. Read blogs and cereal boxes and bits of old newspaper pulled from inside walls.

Don't ever hurt animals. I kicked my dog once when I was 10—the dog did nothing to deserve it; not that there was anything the dog could have done to deserve it—and that casual cruelty haunts me to this day. Besides, people who hurt animals when they're kids grow up to be serial killers.

Make things with your hands, whether it's a construction paper Mobius strip or plasma-welded sculpture. Your aunt Lee Anne promises to cherish every art project you give her.

Taste everything three times before you decide you don't like it. And don't be one of those kids who doesn't eat vegetables. Vegetables are delicious. And to that point: You should probably be a vegetarian. (I refer you back to my admonition against injuring animals.) We don't need to eat animals to survive, and the conditions most animals live and die in before they become our food are abysmal. I'm a carnivore, that's true, but that's just an old habit I can't seem to break. If you don't start, you don't have to stop.

Listen to the music of the universe. The most important song ever written was John Cage's 4'33", which is not really a song at all. (But it is one of the only songs I know by heart, and I can play it on any instrument.)

Live fearlessly, but also learn how to fend off possible attackers with household items.

And despite whatever your parents might tell you, masturbating is okay. To take the late Whitney Houston completely out of context: Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.

View everyone you meet as a potential ally. If you approach people in that spirit, by the time you're my age you'll have amassed an army of collaborators. And to be clear: The idea that we live in a meritocracy where advancement is based on ability is a great lie told by the capitalist plutocrats who rule the world. You need to work hard, yes, but you also need to know people. A lot of people.

Don't tell your parents I told you this, but try a drug or two, when you're a bit older. (Some of them might be legal in New York by then.) They won't hurt you in calibrated doses, and they'll hopefully shift your perspective. But remember to get high on life, too.

Fall in love as often you can stomach it, love wholeheartedly, and love whomever you want.

And there's no way for you to wrap your mind around this at your age, but trust me: Life is short. I know it seems long, but before you know it you'll be walking away from my funeral pyre thinking, "Jeez, seems like just yesterday Uncle Brian taught me how to make a gin gimlet just the way he likes it." So don't waste your time doing things you don't want to do, or with people you don't want to be with. It's just not worth it.

So, back to those long odds of you being born. The fact of your mere existence is proof that the Age of Miracles has not passed. You're clearly here for a reason. I look forward to watching you figure out what that is. Let me know if you need any help.

*My niece, Adeline, came screaming into the world on September 23, 2016.

Speaking of...

  • Editor Brian Mahoney's letter of life advice to his newborn niece.

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