Goodbye, Fifteen

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,

read them.

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.





20 responses to “Goodbye, Fifteen”

  1. chelle Avatar

    hehe time is an amazing thing eh?

  2. ds Avatar

    "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too. Aaahahahahahahahha!" Keep on enjoying, keep on reading, and please please keep on writing.

  3. Jenn @ Juggling Life Avatar
    Jenn @ Juggling Life

    If Philip Roth was a blogger this is just how he would have said it.

  4. heartinsanfrancisco Avatar

    I could not get through Pynchon's "Gravity's Rainbow," to my shame, and the line in "Goodbye,Columbus" that troubled me was when Brenda, a good tennis player, stopped rushing the net because she was "afraid of her nose," which I always thought should be "afraid FOR." "Portnoy's Complaint" was the most hilarious book I had ever read, and the most outrageous. The guy has chops.

    When I was 15, I devoured everything Thomas Wolfe had ever written, then Eugene O'Neill and Tennessee Williams and James Baldwin. Paul Engel and Muriel Rukeyser's poetry, and Walt Whitman's because he was from my home town and for several years, I won the Whitman Poetry Prize. And let's not forget Mad Magazine, probably the best of all. But I would never, ever willingly be a teen again. I even worry about getting through it again in my next lifetime.

  5. monica Avatar

    but you know, 15 year old Jocelyn won't listen, she has to live it all herself… I agree though – it is way more relaxing and fun being in the fourties than in the teens.. But it is a good thing you don't know that until you get there!

  6. Pearl Avatar

    Gogol Bordello has a song called "I Would Never Want to be Young Again" that pretty much sums it up for me. I mean, sure. I miss my young body (and my young face), but the drama?! Oh, my!


  7. Becky Cazares Avatar
    Becky Cazares

    Yes! Teenaged angst gone forever (just say 'no' to reincarnation) and the 40s are something special, indeed. But I'm particularly fond of 50s (aack, how did I get here so fast?!) when I get to choose my own destiny and am no longer chained to the office feigning enthusiasm for that important memo, and yes, of course, boss, I can get you that report by noon. I think each decade has its own angst and lessons learned and I'm grateful for both.

    Also grateful for a "new" author to add to my read-after-college list! Future technological wonders will never find a substitute so delicious as curling up in a favorite chair with a good book. And THAT'S something I can do every decade until the end.

  8. Shelley Avatar

    Wow. Just wow. I love your writing. I often look at my own 17 and 14 year-old daughters and just think, "you have no idea what's coming." And isn't it surreal to be on the other side? I remember being them. Not wanting to need my parents, but still needing them. I remember thinking how cool I was, and how much my parents didn't know. I know my 14 year-old thinks I'm clueless. And one day, she'll probably be the clueless mother of a 14 year-old, and I'll be able to do to her what my mother now does to me. Laugh. I'd love to write a letter to my teenage self, so I could tell her that things aren't always the way they are right now. In fact, I think I've said those same words to my own kids. Maybe in a way, with your own kids, you are writing to your younger self. Richard Bach toyed with the idea of sending psychic messages to his younger self. I love his books. I'll stop babbling now. 🙂

  9. Green Girl in Wisconsin Avatar
    Green Girl in Wisconsin

    Where were you when I was a teenager?
    Amen–amen amen amen.
    I'd never go back. Never, ever. Angst sucked.

  10. kmkat Avatar

    The forties are better than the teens, the fifties are better yet, and the sixties — which I am just barely beginning — are a whole new world to explore with creaky knees and wobbly ankles and eye floaters that have permanently fused into the center of my vision. Life: it's way cool, especially when we are not angsty young'uns any more.

  11. secret agent woman Avatar
    secret agent woman

    I certainly would not be 15 again under any circumstances. But 25? How about my 25 year old skin and body with my 47 year old brain? Yeah, I'd take it.

  12. Vic Avatar

    I'm printing this one out, Jocelyn.

    I remember, at fifteen or sixteen, thinking that anyone over eighteen was to be pitied. The good stuff was already over. What's sad about that is that my childhood wasn't all that great (especially the pitting out and the Loverboy. Also Journey. Some Journey songs make me sick to my stomach to this day.)

    How wonderful to have been so wrong back thing – life has been so much more than I imagined then.

    And you write beautifully.

  13. Anonymous Avatar

    Truly beautiful, in every sense.


  14. Patois Avatar

    Switch "Dr Pepper" with "Mr Pibb" and we've got the same post. (Oh, except for the part where yours is so fuckin' fabulous.)

  15. AmyTree Avatar

    I wuv you.

    My senior year boyfriend was gay. It explained SO MUCH. Like why he was the gayest Sky Masterson EVER in our production of Guys and Dolls and why he gravitated towards pleather. He's so much happier now.

    And so am I.

    🙂 xxx

  16. lime Avatar

    i hardly know what to say except it seems my 15 year old and my 41 year old inhabit the same body and mind. maybe that's why my jeans don't fit and i can't remember shit. in any event, they both are in agreement about not wanting to lead a life of quiet depseration. the 15 year old tells me to pony up the $7 to jump 2 stories on trampolines while hooked into giant rubber bands so the 41 year old with her bad back and all can age with zest like her grandmother how hot air ballooned at 75 and her aunt who parasailed for her 80th birthday.

  17. diane Avatar

    Whoa! I took in a deep breath after reading that. I would jump and clap if it wasn't so late and quiet in my house. That was amazingly well written, and I.AM.SO.GLAD. that I found you.
    I took the liberty of scrolling down your blog before reading this, to see what kind of place I had wandered into. I laughed at the Hannah Montana wig, loved seeing the sunflower that looks like one in my garden, and really smiled at the photos of your kids at Point Beach. Almost forgot, who DOESN'T like Nutella?
    See you around the block. You've got yourself another follower. 🙂

  18. Jazz Avatar


  19. Jeni Avatar

    I've been trying for the past 3 years -since I started blogging -to get my daughters interested in reading blogs done by people, such as yourself, for what they can read, enjoy, laugh and especially for what they can learn about themselves through the eyes of others.
    Today -I have to send my older daughter the url for this post. I. Absolutely.Have.To.Do.That!!! For one thing -because she is 42 and second, to show her that I am not the only person in the world who preaches for people to read, read, read and then, read some more! (It took what seemed like forever for her to finally fall in love with books but it sure as Hell made my day -actually maybe even my life pretty well complete -when I realized that had finally happened with her. (Younger daughter -didn't take half a life time to pick up on how great books are as she started getting more and more into them by the time she was about 14-15 years old and truly in love with reading books by the time she was 18-19! Still have to do some work on my son in this area though.
    Thanks for such a great reminder about the awesomeness that exists between the cover of the wonderful thing called BOOKS!

  20. Debbie Avatar

    I read "The Ghost Writer" by Phillip Roth when I was around 15. I was absolutely gutted.

    I'm one of those nerds that has to write down quotes from my favorite books and Phillip Roth, along with Thomas Wolfe are two of my biggest contributors.

    I just found you this morning. Love your blog!

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