Teenage Angst, But Not The Way You Think

james dean

Show of hands- how many of you lovely grown-up people out there on the interweb would willingly revisit your teenage years? If someone could wave a magic wand and make you sixteen again, complete with metabolism like a hummingbird and dewey-eyed optimism, would you take them up on it? Me neither. Hard pass. Hard, hard pass. Please don’t misunderstand, my teenage years were far from tragic. Aside from some bad gen-x fashion and a chronic, overly-inflated case of ennui, my adolescence went as expected. I did all the usual stupid teenage stuff, and was then relieved to enter my twenties. Still, you couldn’t pay me enough to go back, and I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. Why? Because we hate teenagers.

There, I’ve said it. We find them seriously icky. They sleep at inopportune times, they smell like gym shoes, and they’re loud. They have no respect for authority, they’re irrational, and they wear their emotions like a day-glo sandwich board. They don’t pay taxes, they think they’re invincible, and they don’t want to help around the house. The crackling voices, the obscenely long limbs, the straggly facial hair, the obsession with their looks…the awkward years are truly horrible, and at times, we can barely stand to look at those who are in the thick of them.

Now that we’re all nodding in agreement, may I point something out? As icky as teenagers are, adults are even ickier. 13-19 are the years during which human beings start acting like adults, and I think that’s what makes us cringe at the thought of them. Our aversion to them isn’t so much a recognition of their awful weirdness, but more like an awareness that they’ve stepped over the line into adulthood, and all the absurdity it brings. We’re in mourning for them, but we’re also a little grossed out at the reflection of ourselves. What’s even worse than a teenager acting like a teenager? It’s one who acts the way adults are supposed to, who makes those of us who are old enough to know better look pretty stupid for not getting our crap together.

Think about it: when you reached adulthood, did you find yourself in a brave new world of mature, genteel, polite and reasonable human beings? Me neither. Adults are basically teenagers with wrinkles and credit scores. For every annoying teenager on earth, there are at least two adults who are even more annoying, often for the very same reasons as the teenager. Field guides could be written on the scads of big-mouths, blow-hards, over-indulgers and rudeniks who are past the age of majority. These are the idiots who, in spite of having time on their side, were still dumb enough to come up with reality television, dating apps, and butter substitutes that cause diarrhea.

Historically, and still in some cultures, there were/are no such thing as teenagers. In a different time and place, one was a child, and then one became an adult, with no adolescent purgatory permitted. Do we designate a separate phase of life to teenagers to protect them from what we see coming? Maybe we want to inspire them to rebel against us just a little longer, to put the brakes on until they absolutely have to motor into their “big person” life. When we roll our eyes at them (as they roll their eyes at us), maybe we’re really saying “Fight the hormones! Go back! Go back! The other side of puberty sucks!”

Remind yourself of this the next time a hundred pounds of rotten attitude walks by in a pair of skinny jeans. Add a few pounds and mortgage, and that’s you. It takes one to know one.

Dodging the Meteorite: Why Writers Aren’t Going Extinct

dinosaurs

Although I’m pretty comfortable with and excited about being a citizen of the digital era, at the end of the day, my skills are, well, kind of analogue. I’m good with words and stories. Grammar and spelling still matter to me…a lot. There are some pretty nifty devices with screens out there (I may even own one), but I still prefer the printed page. For a while, I was pretty nervous that I had been born in the wrong century, and that me and my like were unfortunate throwbacks from a bygone era, essentially doomed to join the T-Rex in the “it was a good idea at the time” bin.

Okay, okay, writers are prone to fits of hyperbole (and to calming these fits with large amounts of caffeine). We’re a sensitive lot, and we sometimes let our thesaurus, rather than cooler heads, lead us in our reactions to the world around us. But still, how does a writer, a person who makes their living (or hopes to, anyway) with such outdated skills, compete with things that light up and make noise? Why on Earth would anyone take time to read what what a wordsmith has to say, when there are emojis to convey one’s thoughts? Does anyone really need people like me anymore?

I’m happy to report that everywhere I look, people are still telling stories. In fact, in some ways, stories are taking a front seat in ways they never have before. Here are some examples:

  • Content marketing. It’s a catch phrase, but as trends go, it’s pretty interesting.  Advertising used to be about logos, jingles, comparisons, and promotions. Increasingly, it seems that consumers want to know what’s behind the product or service, the people who make them, and the people who had the original vision. In essence, they want to know their “story”.
  • Our obsession with celebrities. It’s gross and invasive, but we’re definitely fascinated with how the rich, famous and notorious live. Even those with their own reality shows are still hounded by photographers and reporters, looking for their real, less edited “stories”.
  • Social media. We tweet, we like, we post, and we reblog, all because we want to hear the stories of as many human beings as possible. I’d wager about 99% is pure tripe, but we’re still willing to wade through it in search of something interesting or touching.
  • Binge watching. When you read an incredible story in a book, and you don’t want to put it down until it’s finished, well, you don’t have to. Viewers are starting to do the same thing with television. We get invested in the characters and their stories, and we stay up until the wee hours with our eyelids propped open because we need to know what happens. Fandoms even fight over what should have happened, or what should happen next.

Marshall McLuhan wasn’t kidding when he said “The medium is the message.” Gone are the days of slaving away with quill and ink. You can’t even use a typewriter without being accused of acting like a hipster weirdo. The menu of media has become an all-you-can-eat, 24-hour buffet, and the stories have changed along with it. Nevertheless, even in the digital era, we still crave narrative, compelling characters, a little conflict, and an interesting denoument. It still matters that we use this word instead of that word, and that we include as many stories and as many points of view as possible. Technology screams ahead at a startling pace, but we’re still not satisfied with “just the facts”.

So no, writers aren’t going extinct. We do, however, have to evolve a little. Writing in new media requires that we learn to speak a kind of new language. We have to accept that in some instances, we have as little as 140 characters, that we have to be even more nimble and careful in our choices of words and phrases. We have to be aware that a larger, more diverse group of readers will be coming along for the ride, and that we’re going to get virtual rotten tomatoes hurled at us once in a while, often anonymously. We need to know that our audience will be readers, but also listeners, and watchers. They’re going to want to play in and with our stories, to get virtually immersed in the worlds we create. We have to be better readers ourselves, as the pool of subject matter our readers care about gets wider and deeper.

The more time passes, and the more I think about it, the more I realize that writing and storytelling are most definitely not dying arts. They’re both in the midst of a major metamorphosis, and as is often the case, change is scary, but it’s not automatically bad. There are more ways to write, more channels through which to share, more genres, more sources of inspiration and support, and more people reading than ever before. I’m going to have to ditch a few vestigial organs in order to adapt, maybe grow an extra set of legs or a pair of wings, but I’m excited about this brave new world into which I’m stepping.

 

 

Of Love and Comedy: For Valentine’s Day

Vintage_Valentine_02

In spite of myself, I’m a fan of Valentine’s Day. I really hate anything pink. Sloppy poems that rhyme make me cringe. I wholeheartedly agree that for the most part, this whole thing is a commercially-constructed strategy to get people to shell out for chocolate and flowers. The story about the original St. Valentine secretly officiating for soldiers and their partners is kind of sweet, but it may have been massaged a fair bit too. So if you take the mushy stuff out of Valentine’s Day, what’s left to love?

Here’s what I think is cool about this particular holiday: Humans in love are hilarious. It can be any kind of love- for a partner, for a child, for a parent, for a pet, for a house plant…it doesn’t matter. When hit by cupid’s arrow, we become frickin’ clown shoes. We might as well be wearing pointy hats with bells on them, riding miniature tricycles.

Want some examples? Think of your first awkward kiss as a youngster, and you’ll either cringe or giggle. Funny, right? Go look up the lyrics to “My Funny Valentine” (preferably the Ella Fitzgerald version). It’s right in the title. Want to get a little more intellectual? Read Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130, in which he basically says his true love is a bit on the gross side, but whatever, he still loves her. Better yet, watch A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which bunches of semi-clad weirdos buzzed on magic flower juice run screaming through the forest in search of love (you shouldn’t have skipped that week of English class, really). Take your pick of any romantic comedy. There’s a reason why an entire genre has been built on the idea that people in love are basically cute, bumbling little idiots.

I think that as humans, we’re at our most honest, most authentic when we’re being funny and goofy, when our guard is down and the more absurd side of our nature is on display. There’s an awful lot you can learn about a culture, or about individuals, from the jokes they tell and the things at which they laugh. Huge, difficult issues can be more easily digested when coated with humour. I think our ability to laugh at ourselves and at one another is one of the reasons we’ve survived as a species.

We’re really, really good when we’re funny, and humans are never, ever funnier than when they’re in love. Love is one of the few things that hasn’t yet been fully explained by science. Love requires us to be vulnerable, to put aside pride and decorum and accept the possibility that we might be made to look like an ass. During the most serious, sincere, grand, sweeping gesture of love, we walk a very fine line between the sublime and the ridiculous. The passionate, physical stuff is even goofier (just ask any actor who’s had to fumble their way through a love scene). It’s okay that it’s funny, that we’re funny. I don’t think we’re robbed of anything important by thinking of love this way. Stripped of the syrupy cards, the jumbo stuffed bears, and those nasty little candy hearts with messages, Valentine’s day is, at its heart, a celebration of our willingness to get completely dorky about the people and things we care about. That, all by itself, is worth a holiday. Okay, the chocolate doesn’t hurt either, but I digress.

May we all spend today, and hopefully many others, stupidly, foolishly and laughably in love.

 

Is It Stupid To Look On The Bright Side?

800px-Nothing_stone

Maybe Billy Joel was right when he said “We didn’t start the fire.” As I type this, I’m looking over at a stack of “Horrible Histories” books by Terry Deary, a series that presents thousands of years of human misery and tragedy in a cartoony format suitable for child readers (it’s brilliant, really). The existence (and great success) of these books demonstrates two things to me:

1. Humans have been screwing up for a long, long time. We screw each other up, we screw ourselves up, and we screw up the places we live. There’s enough screwing up to fill volumes of books for all ages, to keep scholars busy, to keep all of us shaking our heads and tsk-tsking until the end of time (or until we screw up so badly that we don’t exist anymore).

2. This screwing up has been bad enough, cruel enough, and ignorant enough that eventually, we had no choice but to make it into cartoons, parody it, and make light of it. How else could we digest this much screwing up?

So, I’ve never considered myself an optimist. I’ve tried to approach things with a sunnier outlook. There’s the line in”Shakespeare In Love” uttered when all seems to have gone to pot. When asked how things could possibly work out, Phillip Henslowe shrugs and says “I don’t know. It’s a mystery.” There’s also the gem from “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel: “It will all be alright in the end. If it isn’t alright, it it’s not the end.” I have a hard time rationalizing the notion that everything will be okay. I don’t think the universe works that way. Sometimes bad guys don’t get punished, sometimes good guys lose out, and sometimes things just flat out suck.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a happy, productive person, and it’s not because deep, deep down, I harbour some secret belief that everything is helium balloons and rainbow sprinkles. I’m not, however, comfortable with the label of pessimist. Maybe it’s just that “optimism” is due for a bit of an overhaul.

There’s the traditional definition of optimism: the belief that everything will turn out right, and that there is positivity to be found in any situation. I’ve got a problem with this. There are situations that are decidedly negative, and I think putting on rose-coloured glasses and turning away from the dark stuff is demeaning. Asking someone who is dealing with death, disease, violence, or general malaise to slap on a smile belittles the struggle. A person can be pissed off and still get on with things. What’s more, it sometimes seems the people who get the lion’s share of crap are the one’s who are expected to grin and bear it, and it’s often the case that anger and sadness serve as motivators for improving a bad situation. Nope, I can’t be this kind of optimist.

There’s also the “well, it could be worse” school of optimism. True, no matter how bad things get, there’s probably someone, somewhere who has it worse. I’m all for being grateful for what we have, but I can’t stomach using the misery of others as a springboard into my own happiness. Schadenfreude will only get you so far. Sooner or later, one realizes that although it could be worse, it still ain’t great. I can’t be this kind of optimist either.

There’s a third option. I don’t always think that things will get better, but I’m pretty sure things can be different. Good things don’t always come to those who wait, but change does. I’m a believer in possibilities, and it seems to me that in the 21st century, there are more possibilities than ever before. Some of these possibilities will blow up in our faces, and some will make life easier. The good news isn’t that things will all work out in the end, but that right here, right now, we have the means to invent, test, and share possibilities. This is my optimism, the notion that when the going gets rough, we can at least get going in a different direction. Do I expect things to go well? Not really. Do I hope they will? Yeah, I do, and I’m willing to take a few risks to see if it happens.

Margaret Laurence, who was not a sunshine and rainbows type of person, once said that writing “is an act of hope and faith; it says life is worth living.” So here I am, with the odd little black cloud floating overhead, half-smiling and tippity-tapping away at my computer, doing optimism the only way I know how. Fingers crossed that it works out.

 

(Purchasing) Power To The People!

cogs

Let’s try something. I’m going to name a bunch of things, and you guess what they all have in common, okay? Here we go:

  1. Uber
  2. iTunes
  3. AirBnB
  4. 3D Printing
  5. Self-Publishing
  6. Craft Breweries
  7. Maker Fairs
  8. Etsy

Anyone else seeing connections? Don’t want the entire album? No problem. Can’t wait for your masterpiece to be read by others? Of course you can’t. Opposed to stuffy, impersonal hotel rooms? Alrighty then. It sounds like there’s a new tune being sung by consumers, and it goes something like “You can’t tell me what to do. You’re not the boss of me.” As tunes go, it’s pretty catchy.

Okay, so the business models on which these trends are based are still a little iffy. There’s the threat of looming monopolies, copyright issues, liabilities, and glitches in the tech that supports them. In the end, we’re still not sure which corporate entities are scooping up the profits from them. There are always growing pains, but I still see some positives in all of this.

For one thing, we’re setting up service industries that cater to our sense of individualism. If we’re going to shell out for stuff, we want it to be just right for us, and we’ll even pay someone to help us design and create it according to our own personal specifications. People want to carve out an identity for themselves in the market, as opposed to being lumped into a demographic. That’s at least a little encouraging, right?

What’s more, we’re realizing that we’re capable of much more than we thought. DYI isn’t, by any means, a new concept. In fact, it used to be the norm (cue romanticized visions of brave pioneers with ploughs, hatchets, looms, etc.). Maybe we’re just revisiting something we pushed aside when we got all urban and wimpy. DYI doesn’t just mean “Do It Yourself” anymore. It’s come to mean “Decide It Yourself” too. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that these new entities and services are actually making life just a little more democratic, even if it is just us voting with our credit cards.

In general, I think all of the things on the list stand as quiet reminders that, even while pelted with messages from mass media, we’re still autonomous beings with minds of our own. When you get to pick, and when you’re held responsible for your choices, you get to peek behind the curtain and see how things work, how things are made, how people live, and you have tangible evidence there’s always another way to do things. This glimpse of the inner workings of stuff helps us to remember that we’re not stuff ourselves. We’re more than wee little cogs in a bigger machine. We get to decide, probably more often than we realize.

So what do we do with this newfound power? How do we make the most of this trend toward having it how we want, when we want? Well, we apply it to other parts of our lives too. If we can think critically enough to decide we don’t want to pay double the amount for a stinky taxi with a rude driver, then surely we can turn a discerning eye to world issues. If we can articulate what makes a truly great bottle of suds, we can definitely discuss what we want in our leaders. If we’ve got the time and inclination to put together perfect playlists, what’s stopping us from reconstructing gender identity or a new relationship with our environment? Okay, it’s a leap from things we pay for to things we think, but not as big as one would imagine. I’m hopeful that the newfound glimmers of free thought in our spending patterns may one day expand into our general world view. Is there an app for that yet?