Monday, November 29, 2010

Absolutely Fabulous

I have witnessed two babies being born. Some have told me that the two I witnessed do not count because AYD and AOD are both superbeings, and should not be compared to simple humans. The accuracy of those claims notwithstanding, birth is an incredible phenomenon. Coincident with the practice of newfound abilities [breathing, yelling] is the assimilation of new phenomena [air, light] and their associated concepts. I do not remember confronting air and light as new phenomena, but all clues suggest that I did at some point.

The ADs are teenagers now, and they are experiencing new phenomena, and assimilating new subtler concepts. Each day brings new memorable events; true that sometimes the most memorable events are variations on profound boredom, but they are in Utah's public schools. Teenagers transition from daily struggles for identity into a world where the future is more than just a string of days laid out like a beaded necklace. The actions and activities from one day begin to stretch out into the future, and the resulting web of influence weaves a lifetime. The teenager learns that, unless you work very hard at it, each day will be noticeably different from the day before.

I present simplifications of the concepts, and the fact that teenagers are the ones learning (or perhaps -as evidenced by some physical adults- not learning) them is accidental. It is somewhat arbitrary that societal and hormonal pressures synergistically combine to form the philosophical nozzle through which teenagers are squirted into adulthood when teenagers are in fact teenagers. It could happen when they are thirty-somethings. We might disparagingly refer to “thirtagers” if it did.

Comparing the concepts learned at birth with those learned at the transition to adulthood yields interesting clues to the differences in these two events. Light is awesome and allows vitally important physiological elements (like the eyes) to begin working in new and amazing ways, but light is simply there. Most babies would have to work very hard to ignore light, and it would be very strange for one to try. Emotional hurt is something else. It is not there, and then it is. One moment might be filled with the very apex of possible emotional fine-ness, and the next moment could really suck. When it hurts -real bad- for the first time there is no intrinsic clue that it will ever stop hurting; one cannot look at some other emotional scar and say “that one healed up okay... this one probably will also”.

I don’t mean to imply that children are numb to emotional pain till their 13th birthday. The thing that changes is the relationship of the teenager to the pain. The teenager is shaped less by the hurt, and the teenager’s world is colored more by it.

I shouldn’t use absolute term when writing about adolescence. There are many instances of people who are not severely affected by adolescence. There are the aging zelots who condem any imperfection in others as a way of justifying their own cloistered existence. There are the men (mostly men) who beat the people they have relationships with almost as if they are reprising some playground tough-guy role. My discussion admittedly lacks rigor by ignoring these individuals, but they are so ignorable. The ones worth watching are those who are so painfully aware of the changes that they suffer bouts of emotional motion sickness. The ones who are worth watching are those that carefully fuel a –sometimes weekly flickering- inner fire. The ones that are worth watching are fabulous.

Unfortunately fabulous-ness does not often work well for a teenager. The eyes that strain to see great possibilities crouching on the horizon often look like they simply hide mundane disobedience in the teenage face. The eyes that look deep into a person’s intention and tease out the nurturing comfort crouching behind poorly chosen phrases can appear as terminal shyness in a teenage face. The great person is usually not a great teenager. The great orator is usually not silent. The great painter uses a pallet with more than a single shade of gray.

They may be growing into their talent, but the teenager is not as lacking as her/his audience is. When I was an upperclassman in college I shared a group house with some freshman and sophomores. I was a couple of years older than my class status would suggest as I was returning to school after “kinda screwing up”, so the age gap was a couple-three of years. I would hear muffled music some nights imperfectly transmitted by way of forced-air heating ducts. When I finally mustered nerve enough to seek out the device the music emanated from I found that one of my housemates was covertly playing the flute; scales mostly. When I asked to sit and listen where the intervening plasterboard could not confuse the sound she developed a strange grin. It was as if I had stuck a pleasure center in her brain with a vivisectionist’s electrode. The scales gave way to conversation from which we constructed a friendship.

Soon the tunes were an invitation to talk. After hearing a few notes I would slip downstairs to find out what new story she had to tell.  We would detail the minefields of our various emotional adventures. Eventually she began telling me of her brushes with mental illness; the exquisite details with which she related her public transportation panic attacks still linger in my mind. I related the embarrassing details of my “kinda screwing up”. Several times we held hands and talked till the noises of our housemates preparing for their 8AM classes caught our attention. Neither of us was the “just holding hands” type, so in retrospect it is kinda weird to me. There was no lack of attraction; she was fabulous, and I thought so too.

She told me of the teasing, and the names. She told me of the manipulating “friends” whose scheming she endured to avoid being alone. She envied my personal power to actually go and “kinda screw up” instead of meekly excelling at all things academic. She spoke of “power girls” who measured interaction like it was a points-driven game. I said she was jealous because her two most common examples were a woman I was dating and a former girlfriend of mine. She said “Maybe I would like to be jealous”.

You can more easily find fabulousness in teenagers when you use other names for it like: freak, or nerd, or queer, or smart-ass, or looser, or … The terms of alienation used with impunity on the elementary-school playground leak into the Jr High school cafeteria where they take on new levels of meaning.

In a world where what the fabulous teen will become does not yet have a name what can a person make of the names and labels thrust upon them? “I am not that, but I am not sure what I am” is not, as true as it might be, extremely comforting.

The fact that the more awkward a teenager is the more fabulous they probably are does not provide a readily quantifiable measure. “The fact that I do not fit into the world means that the world probably needs me” is not, as true as it might be, extremely comforting.

Some studies have shown that as many as one-in-five high school students “seriously” consider suicide. By my calculations that means that as many as two-thirds of the fabulous students “seriously” consider suicide. Over 1% of these considerations result in an actual suicide, and many suicides are hidden from the statistics by being misclassified as accidents. Suicide is the third leading cause of death in the US for people 15 to 24 years of age. While you read this a hurt, alienated, and fabulous teenager is considering suicide. By the end of today we will have lost a couple fabulous someones.

Over the last summer national attention has been focused on several young people who committed suicide in response to attacks on their “different” character. The president of the United States addressed these incidents specifically in a speech that ended with the words: “everyday it gets better”. I’ve witnessed the fabulous and it does not get better every day, but it does get better. The choice is not between permanent humiliation and a permanent solution. The choice is not even between continual mediocrity and a permanent solution. The choice is to nurture your fabulousness now so you can harvest its amazing fruits later.

What we need, those of us who want to live in a more fabulous world, is people who can reach out to the embattled individuals who are tentatively fueling that fire of change in themselves. What we need are people in authority who can address bullying by mundanes. We need awesome people who can say: “I was once just fabulous, but I did not give up”. Caring people who can say: “I love you; let us talk about your plans for world domination”. What we need are real adults who will not give up on them, or suddenly find them inconvenient.

What the listening person will hear is as clear as a signal flare shot into a cloudless sky; as clear as a gem in an unmudied mountain pool. Most teenagers will discuss their suicides (often at length) before attempting it. Choosing between a lifetime of misery and suicide is a depressing choice, and teens faced with such a choice will act depressed, listless, withdrawn, and irritable. A fabulous person confronted with suicide will often be scared and looking desperately for alternatives.

Some of fabulous and pseudo-fabulous individuals will start using mind-altering drugs in the hopes of getting a partial suicide benefit without the total buy-in that death requires.
When I was a young teenager a good friend of mine carried a vial of sodium cyanide around in his pocket. He explained that it was an existential test; his being able to commit suicide at a moment’s notice. He quoted Amery:

"we only arrive at ourselves in a freely chosen death" -- Jean Améry (from On Suicide: a Discourse on Voluntary Death)
I stole the vial from him at some point. I like to think I quoted Camus when I did:

“The absurd man will not commit suicide; he wants to live, without relinquishing any of his certainty, without a future, without hope, without illusions ... and without resignation either. He stares at death with passionate attention and this fascination liberates him. He experiences the "divine irresponsibility" of the condemned man.” – Albert Camus
I eventually lost the vial. For a while I was gripped by the fear that someone had stolen the vial of white powder while believing its contents to be something else. After time continued to pass with no-one I knew dying of cyanide poisoning I assumed the vial was inadvertently crushed, and the shards lost to entropy.

Flute girl related to me the conversations she had concerning leaping out of the window of one of the campus’s taller dorms. She and her friend took turns peeking out of the window to view the dizzying height and the certitude of death on impact.

“The window does not open enough to get a running start” she told me.

It seems so simple; provide love and reap fabulous-ness. Everyone could afford to anoint the fabulous with an occasional dollop of love, and redress harm where possible.

Some of you are probably thinking “It would also be nice if unicorns could vomit rainbows that turned the clouds to gold”.

Sometimes things get awkward as reality and life intercede on great possibilities.

When I moved out of the group house to live with one of the “power girls” the flute-girl was becoming more involved with the roommates who were experimenting with mind-altering chemicals. Once, while I was wearing some white corduroy pants and a white T-shirt, one of them exclaimed that: “my sanctimonious drug-free self-importance was hurting his eyes”; he was tripping. Nevertheless my “sanctimonious drug-free self-importance” made it difficult for me to talk to flute-girl when she was on acid.

Two weeks after I moved out of the group house the flute-girl jumped out of that tallest dorm window she had spoken of. In the almost quarter-century since she died I have still to find adequate words to express the pain I felt when her fabulous-ness was extinguished.


Anonymous said...

You are an amazing observer and writer. Your words could actually change the face of guidance counseling offices in high schools worldwide. I think you may have just helped me, personally, figure out how I need to pick my stale profession back up of the floor.
~Kellie (a friend of one of your friends in Boston)

adult onset atheist said...

Thank you Kellie! What incredible words of praise and encouragement! I am high in a feeling...

Anonymous said...

You have written something truly profound! It made the oldest one cry!

adult onset atheist said...

When I read this to AOD she was openly sobbing at the end. I felt for a few moments like I might have been doing something abusive by reading it to her. Before I got to the leaky portion she paused me after I read the following two sentences:

"The thing that changes is the relationship of the teenager to the pain. The teenager is shaped less by the hurt, and the teenager’s world is colored more by it."

"that's RIGHT ON Dad" she said. said...

I'm coming to this party a little bit late, so I'm trying to navigate your pet name/abbreviations. You'll have to clue me in when you get a moment.

First, thanks so much for your kind words over at Pecan Pie. Second, thank you for also speaking out as a former addict and atheist (seems we're even more rare than Southern Atheists.)

Third, this ties in so closely to the "it gets better"campaign. The rave/EDM counter culture is full of absolutely fabulous kids. We all felt like neo-hippies because we were all nerds or dorks or just "different." Such a need for acceptance paired with great music and fun drugs...well, the outcome is pretty obvious.

We have to do more to show our kids how fabulous they are, while keeping it real about how the world works. Everyone has value, but not everyone's value is easily palatable by the rest of "normal" society.

I know that I'll be able to spot my own son's experimentation at 300 paces when he gets to that age. I hope I'm able to spot his needs for support just as easily before that experimentation happens.

Thanks for all you do,

adult onset atheist said...

Thanks Pecan;

There are more clean atheists than some who very loudly proclaim the need for a specifically named god would have anyone imagine. We are everywhere, and I'm so glad to have touched base with you.

I think the abbreviations you mention are the anonymous tags for my two kids: AYD = Awesome Youngest Daughter (she is 12 now), and AOD = Awesome Oldest Daughter (She just turned 15).