Sunday, February 26, 2012

On Teenagers and Immortality

Humans are social animals. This means, among other things, that others' view of us seriously affects our views of ourselves. So, when asking something like, "Why do teenagers think they're immortal?" two other questions should leap out. The first is, "Where did I get the idea that they do?" and the second, "Who would have reason to think that they are?"

The former makes some amount of sense: teenagers are just starting into the world. And there's a bit of a cycle here, because people who are worried about teens getting hurt tend to try and stop them from doing dangerous things. But we learn to do things by doing them, so that can just end up meaning that we step into the world and do all the dangerous things a few thousand miles from home, without a safety net to catch us. There's a lot of room for a self-fulfilling prophecy here.

And, of course, those cool things that aren't worth the risk...they are all new to us. Life is awesome. Remember being young and just-free? The risks may not be lower--though we heal pretty quickly, so sometimes they are--but the rewards are higher. Ask any economist, higher benefit is functionally identical to lower cost.

The answer to the second also sheds some light on the first. We're teenagers. To people younger than our peer group, we are the cool older kids. To people older than that, we are immortal.

No, seriously.

Immortal doesn't mean, 'living forever', or even, 'living a really long time'. Break down the word, and you'll get, 'not', 'dead', and 'this word is an adjective'. Immortal means deathless, undying. We will probably outlive our parents--and certainly no one wants to think about us not doing so. Our not being immortal is an awful thought, one people do not want to think.

And, by that marker, it's mostly true. Even in places with high infant and child mortality rates, teenagers don't tend to die. We are hitting our prime. Unless the mortality rate is made artificially higher*, we don't tend to die as much as any other group. We may not be totally deathless, but we do tend to die less.

In summary: teenagers have reason to think they're immortal--and even if they don't know them, other people do, and that affects our self-image.
* e.g. all the teens get sent off to war

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Between this post and the previous, this blog reached 4,000 hits.
"You'd allow one of them in your house?"

Hardly any time passed before I responded. From the other's perspective, I looked at him queerly for a moment, no more. But I remember the ideas I thought, impossibly quick had they been in words, but faster than sound, than light, than anything, because I simply thought them. They went something like this:

What an interesting form of othering. (Othering was thought as a word, for it was new enough, a fresh flavor on my tongue, sweet for the knowledge and bitter in understanding.) 'One of them.' Because, though he has just accused me of going over to the other side, of being a traitor, that very fact means he thinks me part of his 'us'. Hm. I'm thinking of him as other. Is that othering, or merely a trait of thinking of myself as having a self? Are the two separable? I certainly think one is worse.

And of course, the little one is othered. 'One of them.' You can't get much blunter than that, though I suppose one could make a case for, 'One of your/their kind.' I am not. Yet.

And that's the point. That statement is a threat. 'If you allow one of them in your house, you are a them.' Perhaps not at the same level. Perhaps worse. Traitor to your own. Turned your back on your own. Saw the light and turned away. All these little separating things, and if being other is bad, becoming other is worse.

I could claim that. Take the name of traitor for myself, wear it as a badge, my security in the knowledge that I am right. Stand up tall with my back to him, my hand extended to the scared one I protect.

But that wouldn't be honest.

By the line he draws, I was never that 'us'. I can be no traitor to a side not mine. I can betray no special loyalty if I was not specially loyal.

Then the next words rang out through my mind, the whole sentence in place and the sentiment true. Perhaps he would hear something I did not intend, but then, he would, regardless. I am no perfect communicator.

"I will always make a spare place for one of us."

Sunday, February 12, 2012

On Lockhart's Lament

When my choir teacher calls unapplied math boring, this dies in my throat.

When people ask me why I love math ("How can you?"), it stands, but is smothered by lack of self-awareness.

When one assumes that liking math is anomalous ("Oh, it's 'cause you're so good at it," is backwards) this rears up as emotion, but the lightning flash turns to a flicker through the walls of bad memories.

"Mathematics is the music of reason."


The beauty of proofs was that I could make the teacher do math--they couldn't say I was wrong because I was different. If something is true, it is so--I can prove it a half dozen ways, and be judged only on accuracy and clarity.

"A proof should be an epiphany from the Gods, not a coded message from the Pentagon."

Yes! It's a beautiful moment that makes everything stop because this is right, and you understand. That's the point--you proved it. One can discover a flaw, but none can harm a proof that is right. The proof is in the information: the writing may be smudged, torn, burned, ruined, but the idea remains untouched.

"Most mathematics is done with a friend over a cup of coffee, with a diagram scribbled on a napkin."

Yes! I've done math on my own or with friends, family, on whatever scraps I can find--paper, napkin, cloth, even on tabletops. And I've found nothing comparable to the shock of understanding, and of helping others understand.

Lockhart's Lament is worth reading if you have ever enjoyed math or hated math class or been frustrated by a math teacher. Read on!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

The Wretch (Adam)

Quotations are from this article.
Ladies and gentlemen, I am the scariest being alive: a normal teenager.

That is, I must be the scariest creature alive. Were I not, I could imagine no reason for so many people to try and explain why I make bad decisions, to say that an adult who is overly cruel and immature is "acting like a teenager", or to explain repeatedly why my generation--that is, the generation on the cusp of inheriting the Earth--behaves so horribly.

Do you not believe me?
"What was he thinking?" It's the familiar cry of bewildered parents trying to understand why their teenagers act the way they do.
Do you see how absolutely terrifying I am? When one speaks of me (when one dares), one need not even give evidence or examples. One need only say how awful all the world knows teenagers to be, and go on with what someone needs to be convinced of. One need not be told how awful I am--every creature on this Earth knows me well enough to know me horrible.
The old have always complained about the young, of course. But this new explanation based on developmental timing elegantly accounts for the paradoxes of our particular crop of adolescents.

There do seem to be many young adults who are enormously smart and knowledgeable but directionless, who are enthusiastic and exuberant but unable to commit to a particular kind of work or a particular love until well into their 20s or 30s. And there is the graver case of children who are faced with the uncompromising reality of the drive for sex, power and respect, without the expertise and impulse control it takes to ward off unwanted pregnancy or violence.
But it is not even my kind! It is me, only me, that is so horrible, so devastating in my mistakes, so awful in my effects. The only hope I may hold in my heart is that I may become better as I gain wisdom. And perhaps, maybe, that I might spare the next generation the destructive environment that made me as I am.
The good news, in short, is that we don't have to just accept the developmental patterns of adolescent brains. We can actually shape and change them.
*clear throat* Hi. Speaking as myself from here on in. Oh, and Mary Shelley referred to Frankenstein's monster as Adam in her personal notes, for those of you who are curious about the header of this post.

The article's title was the first thing to bother me. "What's Wrong With the Teenage Mind?" First of all, the 'with' in the title should be lowercase, since 'with' is a preposition. Second, imagine that title referring to any other group. "What's Wrong with the Black Mind?" "What's Wrong with the Female Mind?" "What's Wrong with the Homosexual Mind?" Yet people can say "What's Wrong with the Teenage Mind?"--on the internet or in public--without fear of reprimand. With hardly any fear of disagreement.

Thoughts have inertia. People tend to keep thinking what they have been thinking unless something radical hits--for a long time, a person who performed a good deed might be met with, "Oh, that's very white of you." The person wouldn't be a good African, s/he would be an African who was 'acting white.'

Therefore, if everyone agrees with a thought, that is probably a good thought to examine. In Heart of Darkness, the Europeans knew that the Africans were beyond fully civilizing, but could still be helped. Buried deep in this idea is another: "Africans aren't people." Oh, they may stand on two feet; they make speak; we may be able to teach them things, but they are not, at heart, one of us. So it is with teenagers. Oh, there may be good ones, of course, but a good teenager is one who is "mature", who acts like an adult. And an adult who fails this test of maturity is "acting like a teenager."

What is buried in that thought? "Teenagers can't help it." Yet this is not a reason to forgive us. It is an excuse to be suspicious of us, to try to figure out what's wrong with us. I'll be as honest as I can in text:


Okay? I'm forming as a person. I get flak for being weak--I'm a girl. I get flak for being confused--I'm bisexual. I get flak for being fat--and no, I'm not. I don't need flak for figuring myself out because everyone is.

And if you're not, you're not just dying. You're dead. You just haven't started rotting yet.
© 2009-2013 Taylor Hobart