I went to dinner with my best friend, Zuzanna, the other night. We were celebrating the fact that it has been twenty-five years since we moved to New York. Twenty-five years. That’s a whole new grown-up! In fact, I have proof of this because my niece Tess was born the year I moved here and she is now twenty-five and has her own child. The baby had a baby! But she’s not a baby anymore. She is an adult who has a life of her own, a degree she worked hard for, and a job she loves, and she has created a little human that she loves even more. This makes me a great-uncle now. As far as I know the only people who are great-uncles are people who are full-blown adults. But aside from basic genealogy, am I truly a great uncle? That’s debatable. I’ve forgotten plenty of birthdays over the years. I’ve been absent more than present. I know the birth order of all ten of my nieces and nephews but if you pressed me on their exact ages, I am certain I would falter at some point.
I don’t know what the moment was when I truly became an adult, but I know that I am in the thick of it—and that I strongly dislike when people use the word “adulting.” You see it pop up on social media quite often. A picture of someone putting their taxes together while looking panicked into the camera, “adulting.” Or even more common, a video of a parent unsuccessfully dealing with two unruly children in a Target or screaming in the backseat of a car while Smash Mouth’s “All Star” plays with the caption, “No one told me adulting would be so hard!”
At the time this book you are holding is published, I will be forty-four. That’s the oldest I’ve ever been. And I know if I’m lucky I will only get older, but as I say that, as I say the word “forty-four,” it gives me pause. I like the alliteration of it. It sounds formidable. There is some heft to it. It also sounds . . . old. The only people who would say, “Forty-four? That’s young!” are people in their eighties. The only other time people would say forty-four is young is if you die. Forty-four is indeed too young to die, so I am going to do my best to avoid that.
But it does make me wonder whether I’ve truly become an adult. When exactly did that happen? Was it in my twenties, when I started a career? Was it after my first big breakup? Was it when my dad died? Was it when I started living on my own without roommates? Was it when I purchased a home? I don’t have kids, so I can’t use that as a marker, but surely there is some other instance that tipped me into adulthood.
There are certainly times in my life when I catch myself in a moment that I didn’t ever really picture myself in. Like signing a check for property taxes or driving my mother to chemotherapy. I think, Wow. I am really a grown-up. It’s in those moments that I think about my dad. He died in 2001 when he was sixty-one, which I also think is pretty young to die. I was twenty-two and I can say with certainty, I did not feel like an adult. I still felt like a kid. But suddenly I was a kid who was on the phone with the cable company explaining that Ron Rannells needed his cable canceled because he was dead. He doesn’t need HBO anymore, thank you. I was helping my mom and siblings pick out a casket. I was signing the “do not resuscitate” paperwork when the doctors took him off life support. I felt like a kid but I had to be a grown-up real fast.
Years later I was on Broadway at twenty-six playing a seventeen-year-old. That stunted my emotional development in some ways. Years after that I was back on Broadway at thirty-two singing about being nineteen. That also set me back a bit. I had to remind myself that I was a grown man. I could vote, I could drink, I could rent a car. At thirty-four I bought my first house in Los Angeles. That felt like a solid marker of time. At thirty-nine I bought my first apartment in New York. It has a washer and dryer! (If you live in New York, you understand what a big deal that is.) Surely doing laundry in the comfort of my home makes me an adult, right?!
As I piece together what my true markers of adulthood have been, I keep returning to moments and stories from my life that mark examples of progress. Times when I learned something about myself. Times when something I thought was a triumph turned out to be a failure. Times when something I thought was a failure turned out to be a triumph.
When did I actually become an adult? Maybe you can help me figure that out.
Playing It Straight . . . for Ricki Lake
I really debated whether to share this story. It’s one of those moments that still sends shock waves of regret through my body. I almost included it in my first book (Too Much Is Not Enough—available wherever books are sold!) but it didn’t seem to have a place. In retrospect, it would have fit in nicely as a cautionary tale about ambition.
Ambition needs to be focused—a bullet, not a grenade. You should want to be recognized for doing something well or for being someone worth admiring. No one should just want to be famous. This is something I learned the hard way—and in front of millions of viewers. So, with all that said, I will confide in you—and please try to hold your judgment until the end—the story of when I was a guest on The Ricki Lake Show.
This story starts the same way many of my youthful adventures started. With my friend . . . Well, wait. Maybe I shouldn’t use her name. Maybe it’s not my place to “out” someone else as having participated in this debacle. But then again, she’s the reason it happened in the first place. Okay, her name is Randi Newton. Randi. Newton. Randi was my childhood best friend and my prom date two years in a row, and I love her. She was always causing trouble and I was happy to stand next to her while she did. This particular adventure was probably our greatest. And our least thought out.
It all started that weird week between the seniors’ last day of high school and the actual graduation ceremony. I was mostly home alone. My parents were at work, my sister Natalie was still in school, and the rest of my siblings had moved out. I decided I needed a project and set out to paint our main-floor guest bathroom. My poor parents. I had great intentions but terrible taste. At this point I had destroyed our basement hallway and bathroom with paint jobs that can only be described as “Basquiat without the skill or vision.” I used sponges and spray paint and faux finishes that didn’t even fly in the Midwest in the nineties. And that’s saying something, because there was a sponge-painting explosion in Omaha at the time.
My parents didn’t say anything about it. They were dealing with larger issues, mainly their troubled marriage, so my expressing myself on the walls was the least of their problems. There I was, painting a bathroom some sad nineties fashion color, like “Sage” or “Coriander,” wearing knockoff Adidas soccer shorts and a Creighton Prep Post Prom T-shirt with the sleeves cut off. (The theme was “Arctic Blast.” Whatever that means. Don’t let straight boys pick prom themes. Leave it to the gays and the girls.)
The phone rang. It was Randi. She was living in San Antonio, Texas, working at Six Flags as a performer. I hadn’t seen her in months and was thrilled to get the call. She started in right away with terrifying enthusiasm: “I’m going to be on Ricki Lake! They are reuniting me with my ex, Tony!”
“Reuniting” seemed an odd choice of words. As far as I knew, Tony lived a mile away from Randi and one day he had just stopped calling her back. As for “ex,” I didn’t think that they had been dating that long. But whatever.
“Wow,” I said, only partially listening. “When are you going?”
“The day after tomorrow!” she said. “Do you want to come? I have one free companion ticket. It’s only forty-eight hours but they are paying for everything. Please say yes!”
Now I was really listening.
I was eighteen, newly finished with high school, and preparing to move to New York for college at the end of the summer. I was not starting my summer job at the Gap for another two weeks, and I had just realized how hideous this bathroom paint color truly was.
“Hell yes, I’ll come!”
And that was that. I told my parents that night what I was planning. I did not ask permission, I did not leave any room for negotiation, I just told them I would be gone for forty-eight hours in New York City, alone with a girl who regularly drove the wrong way down one-way streets. Much to my relief (and as I write this, my horror), they didn’t say a word except, “What time is your flight?” I was off!
Copyright © 2023 by Andrew Rannells. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.