Thanks to Frank and Moon Unit Zappa and their “Valley Girl” hit of the ‘80s, I was equipped with adequate attitude and language, at age 15, to convey my scorn for the aged yee-haws who surrounded me: “Oh my God, I am, like, so sure I will ever be 40. Having all those wrinkles would be grody to the max. Flock of Sea Gulls, but I am totally so, like, buggin’ at all those old Joan Collinses who think they can still shop at Maurices. Thank WHAM! I’ll never live the barf-o-rama of being a creaky old saggy haggy. I’m stoked to be grooving the rad fad that is Jocelyn at 15.”
Being a teenager was the only way to go, for, like, the rest of of my life. How that plan would play out in the long-term wasn’t completely clear, of course, but I was so busy drinking watery beer and adjusting my Flashdance-inspired sweatshirt rips that it didn’t occur to me I might one day—-if I refrained from driving while I drank watery beer and adjusted Flashdance rips, consequently plunging myself off the side of a darkened road and smack into a light pole—-live to become A Person In Her Twenties, A Person in Her Thirties, and, gag me with a spoon, A Person in Her Forties.
The joke, of course, is on the teens who scorn.
Because they have no idea.
That no forty-something-year-old in her right mind would ever, even if imbued with perimenopausal superpowers that allowed her to create a temporal portal (a sideline activity when she isn’t mainlining chocolate or snorting spilled merlot off an IKEA coffee table) and step back 25 years in time, return to being a teenager.
Let’s all shout now, using the vernacular: “No. fucking. way…would we ever go back to the angst-ridden years when ‘good time’ meant spending three weeks picking out just the right strapless gown for the Winter Formal that we will attend with our really funny and cute dates who are such awesome dancers that they can keep twirling and bopping through even the entire extended dance remix of Soft Cell’s “Tainted Love.” But, as it turns out, they are all these things because they are gay and we are their beards, but we won’t know that for at least another handful of years, so mostly we spend the wee hours of the night after the Winter Formal snuffling on our waterbeds and staring at our crumpled strapless gowns on the floor while we wonder why our dates didn’t want to kiss us goodnight.”
What’s more, outside of how much teenagerdom sucks (except for having knees that don’t make ratcheting noises whenever you bend down to pick up the jawbreaker that accidentally dropped out of your mouth onto the orange shag carpet when you were wailing along with Bonnie Tyler to “Total Eclipse of the Heart”; indeed, the “excellent knees” a part of being a teen was sweeeeeeeeeeeet), there are other bonuses to leaving those years behind, other unimaginable riches yet to come. I would never have known, at age 15, what a rollicking time I’d be having in my 40s. I would never have known that the syncopated rhythms of my ratchety, crochety knees would create a whole new soundtrack, this one entitled “K-Tel Hot Ones: Flashes and Lower Lumbar Pains.” I would never have known that the fields of dark strings (snapped filaments, they tell me) that float across my vision from time to time would actually transport me into my own personal disco, a place where the ball is always a’spinnin’, and the DJ is always playing “Riding on the Metro.”
Thus, I send this message back in time, to my bravada-driven teen self who’d never left North America; never tried edamame; never seen the thick and swirling strokes of a Van Gogh up close; never mustered the guts to stand in front of a classroom of 30 bored students; never waded through sixteen weeks of advanced grammar; never passed a human medicine ball out her girl bits; never fallen asleep at night with her hand nesting in the curve of someone else’s hip:
Dear Smartass 15-year-old Jocelyn:
You have no idea what you’re missing, not being in your 40’s. Being 42 is, like, totally gnarly. Back there in high school, you might be learning twenty-seven things a day about Eugene O’Neill and how you’re attracted to gay men and how spinning donuts in the high school parking lot never stops being fun and how your unformed heart can splinter without making a sound…but you’ll still have twenty-seven things a day to learn, even decades from now, like how to thank the Aztec Gods for polenta and how there’s no such thing as “the smartest in the class” when “smart” is undefinable and how the only church worth attending is made up of towering pines and poplars and birches and aspens, where the trail is your pew, and how the concept of a one true love is a fiction yet, somehow, you tripped across a singular person who is amazingly true and, through that, redefined love.
One other thing I’ve learned, dear Jocelyn Who Starts Each Day Listening to Geddy Lee at High Volume, is that the riches will keep coming, as long as you and I keep the vault open.
In the last year alone, I’ve taken your interest in old white guy writers–first exhibited when you read all of Eugene O’Neill your sophomore year of high school and, at about the same time, realized Mark Twain made you snort Mr. Pibb through your nose, and then by junior year you were sucking up the entire Rabbit series by John Updike (not quite understanding why Rabbit didn’t just go out and have some fun and maybe watch that A-Ha video on MTV)–and I’ve run with it. Sure, I’ve also learned that women and writers of all ethnicities can turn out jaw-dropping prose…but…
and don’t tell Toni Morrison this because I fear the “Sister, you betray me” bitch slap she could deliver…
of late, I’m coming back to what you first taught me (see how you were the teacher?): old white guys kick ass as writers.
Don’t get me wrong, Poodle. You and I will actually read stacks and stacks of romance novels and chick lit before we come back to the white guys. Even more, the truth is that, lots of times, the white guys’ books will just be too white. And too guy. And we’ll return them to the library unread (sorry, Cormac McCarthy; if it’s any solace, you’re in good company with Don DeLillo, there on the “re-shelve” cart). Plus, some white guy novelists will just hurt our pretty little head. Fortunately, Thomas Pynchon is reclusive enough that he’ll never notice us not seeking him out.
But Updike’s still there. He died, you know, but only after a long, prolific career. He’ll keep us busy for awhile.
Here’s the surprise, though, Punky: there’s a guy you’ve never even heard of, back there in 1983. And he’s amazing–kind of like Mike Reno, the lead singer for Loverboy? Remember how you squealed over him when they played in Bozeman and how you aaahhhhed at the way opening act Quarterflash prepped you perfectly for Loverboy’s bitchin’ show?
Yea, this author is like that, like Quarterflash followed by Loverboy. He’s that good.
His name is Philip Roth, and he makes your aging, ratchety-kneed self gasp a little bit with delight when she/you read his novels. Not only is he terribly wry, to the point of being caustic (you have to pay attention to get that; fortunately, your longtime love of Jane Austen will ready you as a reader), but he writes straightforward stories whose effectiveness doesn’t rely on cliffhanger-chapters, vampires, or hidden codes. Quite simply, he strings words together and allows that–words, carefully chosen, one following the other–to create his magic.
By the time you’re in your 40’s, Joceybaby, you’re going to respect nothing more than a quiet book that uses lyrical writing to make your insides swoon. You won’t need bombs or deaths or laconic cowboys to keep your attention. Hell, with what you’ve learned from watching Seinfeld, you’ll realize you don’t even need plot. Just the words.
You probably don’t get what I mean, entirely. It would help if you’d stop doodling “I’m so bummed that M*A*S*H* is over forever“ on your College Algebra’s paper-bag book cover and pay attention.
Try out a snippet of Mr. Roth, just in case you can catch a faint whiff of what you’ll love so much when you’re all old and creaky. In his novel Goodbye, Columbus, which was published waaaaaaay back in 1959, a college-aged young man who lives in Newark, New Jersey, drives on a humid summer night out of the city and into the suburbs for his first date with a girl whose family has made the jump out of urban life. Here:
Once I’d driven out of Newark, past Irvington and the packed-in triangle of railroad crossings, switchmen shacks, lumberyards, Dairy Queens, and used-car lots, the night grew cooler. It was, in fact, as though the hundred and eight feet that the suburbs rose in altitude above Newark brought one closer to heaven, for the sun itself became bigger, lower, and rounder, and soon I was driving past long lawns which seemed to be twirling water on themselves, and past houses where no one sat on stoops, where lights were on but no windows open, for those inside, refusing to share the very texture of life with those outside, regulated with a dial the amounts of moisture that were allowed access to their skin. It was only eight o’clock, and I did not want to be early, so I drove up and down the streets whose names were those of eastern colleges, as though the township, years, ago, when things were named, had planned the destinies of the sons of its citizens. I thought of my Aunt Gladys and Uncle Max sharing a Mounds bar in the cindery darkness of their alley, on beach chairs, each cool breeze sweet to them as the promise of afterlife, and after a while I rolled onto the gravel roads of the small park where Brenda was playing tennis. Inside my glove compartment it was as though the map of The City Streets of Newark had metamorphosed into crickets, for those mile-long tarry streets did not exist for me any longer, and the night noises sounded loud as the blood whacking at my temples.
See how it’s simple but complex, J-Girl? See how Roth takes us into the heat of the night and the nerves of the young man and his desires to reach not only for this Brenda but also beyond his humble home life? Even better, notice how Roth makes it clear that, ultimately, the suburbs are a sad, closed-off place–perhaps not the right answer for this young man after all?
You don’t know it yet, Toots, so sure are you of your health and promise and spark at age 15, but what Philip Roth wrote in 1959 is your story, too. You might be very busy hiding bottles of sloe gin in the yucca plants of Montana, stashing them there for future imbibing,
and you might be calling in repeatedly to the radio station, trying to win tickets to see Billy Joel,
and you might be sniffing your armpits discreetly as you stand by your locker between classes, worried that you’re “pitting out,”
but the truth is,
unique as you want to be, your story has already been written. There is a book–damn, there are 16,456 books–out there about wanting to be something more, about wanting to escape the limitations of your beginnings, about yearning for release from an as-yet circumvented sadness, about turning your face outward and taking uncomfortable steps into a humid world.
So read them.
Even when filaments in your eyes start snapping, and you’re reading through black floaters,
Even when you have to use two bright lights positioned above the book to see the print clearly,
Even when your back aches a little from being propped in one position too long,
And then, when you’re all read-out, turn off the lights, fluff the pillows, and roll onto your side, fitting your body into the spoon of your husband’s. Nestle your hand into the crook of his hip.
So here’s what I can tell you, young ‘un: although you’ll be a saggy haggy at 42, you’ll have consumed books, traveled widely, danced madly at 4 a.m., cried through the night, cried in the classroom, cried when your babies came, cried when your mom left your dad, cried when you held your sobbing dad the last time you ever saw him, cried when he died a few months later, mopped your face repeatedly, laughed at Craig Ferguson, held hands with your best friends, learned to say what you think, learned the therapy of plunging your hands into the earth, and learned that you know nothing, which then frees you to accept everything.
In short, my dear stumbling, bubbling, happy-sad teenaged pip:
you’ll have reaped what you’ve sown.