A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Friday, May 24, 2019


As kids get older, it becomes less and less okay to blog about them.  Their lives are interesting, complex, and sometimes hilarious -- but, fundamentally, their own.  
I am, as of yesterday, the parent of two teenagers.  I've been thinking about that a lot -- not just from a parenting perspective, but from the point of view of how we, as a society, treat teenagers. 

I started writing the kids a letter.  It turned into a hefty essay.  I gave it to them anyhow, along with several less pedantic gifts.  The version they received included some personal details that I've omitted from this blog version, in adherence to the above rationale, but the more generalized gist is maintained herein. 

Happy thirteenth birthday to you! 
I’m so glad, as always, to be your mom.  I love the good stuff: biking to Hot Licks, reading aloud James Herriot while cuddled together on the couch, baking skull-shaped cakes, hiking over the crest of the Tors trail, puzzling over GAMES magazine, discussing the periodic table of the elements.   I also, in a way, appreciate the bad stuff, because helping you through it is part of being a parent.
I’m genuinely glad to have two teenagers in my home.  One of the many great things about being thirteen – and there are many -- is that you fully understand irony and sarcasm.  Thus, I can clarify that none is intended herein.  I’m really looking forward to the coming years, and I hope you are, too. 
I know, I know.  Some adults give people your age a lot of shit.  They do the same to their parents, as in, “Oh, geez, you poor thing.  You’re going to have two teenagers…” 
I want to tell those people to stop it.  Just, seriously, stop it.  For one thing, it’s a prime example of the type of dismissive, bullying, insolent behavior of which adults accuse teenagers – and how ironic is that?  For another thing, it’s simply wrong; it’s more a reflection of stereotypes and insecurities than reality.  And perhaps most importantly, like all stereotypes, it attempts to erase your individuality. 
That individuality is crucial, and it’s amazing.  Indeed, I originally set out to write you two different letters, because – well, obviously.  You are two unique humans. But I realized that not knowing what I’d said to your sister would make you crazy, and I really do try not to make you crazy.  Still, rest assured that I know who you are, individually.  I know your uncertainties, your perfectionist streaks, your stubborn spots, your pet peeves, your weird habits, your embarrassments, and your fears.  Being so well known can be maddening, I know.  But it can also be comforting.  You don’t have to pretend.  There are no questions you can’t ask.  And I also know the things that make each of you fascinating, kind, brilliant, and incredible.
In writing to you now, at this particular age, I don’t mean to exaggerate the supposed divide between being “children” and being “teens”.  There are no sharp boundaries. In fact, the “teen years” only exists as a concept because of the way our counting system and our language are set up.  In binary, you’re 1101, and you’ll turn a nice round 10,000 when you’re sixteen.  You aren’t a different person at thirteen than you were at twelve.  You’re still children.  You’re also starting – and have already started -- not to be children. 
Don’t let that scare you, though. I get it.  I felt that way, too.  It’s not wrong to hold onto who you’ve been. The coolest adults are still a little bit child, and not afraid to show it.  Think about the grownups you like best, and the ones you understand best.  You can keep whatever you want to keep – stuffed animals, tree climbing, lollipops, Harry Potter, forts, Swallows and Amazons, Rice Krispy treats, Winnie the Pooh. 
It’s also not wrong to reach forward toward who you are longing to become.  Keep going!  Keep trying! The most intriguing children offer up sparks of adulthood.  Both of you do this.  I don’t mean that you act old.  I mean that you persevere, and that you think.  You can learn about whatever you want to learn about – human evolution, neural networks, apartheid, long-distance running, Buddhism, Einstein’s theory of general relativity.
Being a teenager shouldn’t force you forward, and is shouldn’t hold you back. Nor does it need to be a separate state, rejecting of childhood and aloof from adulthood, focused only on specifically “teen” music, clothes, shows, makeup, books, movies, sports, whatever.  But given that our society has decided that being a teenager is a real thing, this is a good age to talk to write down my thoughts – my thoughts about growing up, and my thoughts about dealing with grownups.
You’ll hear some adults implying that you – the teenagers of this world -- are all a bunch of screen-addicted, lazy, entitled, whining uneducated punks.  This is rude, offensive, and incorrect.  It’s also hilarious, because it’s pretty much what every generation has said about every younger generation forever.  Not the part about screens, but the part about being useless and lazy and prone to being ruined by… whatever.  In the 1700s and 1800s, writers earnestly complained about how young people were being corrupted by useless and indecent activities such as reading novels, playing chess, and dancing the waltz.  In the Book III of Odes, around 20 BC, Horace wrote: “Our sires' age was worse than our grandsires'. We, their sons, are more worthless than they; so in our turn we shall give the world a progeny yet more corrupt.” 
Well, okay, Horace, you dead old fart, but there have been a lot of generations over the past two thousand years, and I don’t think we’ve reached rock bottom.  Yet many adults still shake their heads in horror at the idea of a human being having the temerity to commit the monstrous act of… turning thirteen.   This is silly because it’s erroneous, and it’s silly because all of us adults were thirteen once, albeit at different times.  This means that we all have advice to offer, all of which is slightly wrong, but in different ways.  I turned thirteen in 1985.  Sony Walkmans were cool.  The things that are cool change, but the feeling of trying to figure out who you want to be, and who you don’t want to be pressured into being?  That’s universal. 
Being inundated by outdated wrong-in-different-ways advice is irritating for teenagers.  Nonetheless, I won’t promise not to give you advice.  In fact, I’m totally going to give you tons of advice over the next few years.  Some of it will end up being wrong.  But I promise that I’ll at least try to put it in context for the 2020’s.  I’ll also try not to make a pun here about good eyesight, but I’ll fail.  Sorry.
Conversely, offering up hard-earned advice only to have it be ignored by teenagers is hard for adults. We sometimes get defensive.  We often sound patronizing. Indeed, a lot of adults, were they to read this, might think that I’m not really talking to you, my kids, because I refer to Horace and use words like “shit” and “temerity”.  And that’s part of the problem.  Some adults will underestimate you, and some will intentionally talk down to you, and some will overprotect you.  You know the word “shit”.  You even know that the correct past tense is “shat”.  You know the word “temerity” – or if you didn’t, you do now.  You learn things fast.  Like, really fast.  Much faster than we adults do.  We know more than you do, because we’re older, but you can learn more, on any given day.  That’s how it works. 
Apparently a lot of adults find this threatening – and have been finding this threatening since the time of Horace, or possibly since the time of Homo habilis (“Look, Mom!  If I bang rocks together, they break and get sharp! How come YOU never figured that out?”).  Sure, it’s hard when a mere kid can find the right website faster than you can, or absconds with your Dremel tool and becomes much better than you are at using it, or can thread the damn sewing machine needle that you now have to squint at through reading glasses.  It’s hard when your kid can beat you running in a 5k or playing a game of Set – but it’s also kind of great. 
Your new skills, your new knowledge, and your victories make me happy – but not because I own your victories in any way.  That mentality is weird.  When I say I’m proud of you, I really mean I’m proud FOR you.  I’m happy about your happiness, but I don’t own you.  I don’t want to live my life through you.  I want to have my own victories, and I want you to have yours.  They will sometimes overlap.  Either one of you may decide to run a marathon.  Or not. Either one of you may one day earn a PhD.  Or not.  Your successes will sometimes be utterly different from each other, and from mine.  You may someday succeed at a task I have yet to even imagine, and that the world has yet to imagine.  We adults need to avoid being so threatened by this that we give your tastes and your technologies a bad rap.
Teenagers also get a bad rap for being sexual.  So hypocritical.  Adults have had way more time to get used to it, figure it out, and calm down about it, yet they still get wrapped up in all kind of drama and make all kinds of mistakes.  Biology is a fact, not a moral onus.  Hormones are challenging.  Sexual relationships are super-challenging, because they add another layer to social/friendship relationships, which are already tricky.  I know these things feel awkward.  Our society makes them extra-awkward.  Don’t buy into it.  Your bodies aren’t shameful, and neither are your minds, your brains.
You’ve been studying a lot about the brain, lately. We’ve talked about the development of the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex, and how this is the last part of the brain to fully mature.   I wish I’d known this when I was a kid.  I got scared when I realized that I was able to do adult-level math and read adult-level books, because I thought that meant that I had an adult brain -- and yet the idea of living alone and doing things like holding down a job, writing checks, and paying taxes sounded overwhelming.   The least adults can do, with their fully developed prefrontal cortices, is listen without judging, and provide help and information when needed.  I promise I’ll do that. 
You’ll hear other adults saying that the teen years sucked for them, and therefore must inevitably suck.  I get it.  My own teen years weren’t the best.  Still, this argument seems defeatist.  Even the people who wince when they recall their teens probably enjoyed at least part of that time period, and learned a ton. Besides, I think you will do better in your teens, for several reasons.  First, you already seem to have a pretty good grip on which cool and popular things are a waste of time and money, and which are actually pretty cool.  Second, your generation is less conformist than mine, and less hung up on gender and sexual identity than mine.  I don’t think I’m imagining this.  You’ve told me so yourselves. 
You both do well with friendships, each in your own very different way.  You’re both discerning, faithful, thoughtful, and caring.   You don’t play mind games with other kids, or pass shallow judgements, or change best friends every week.  You can be proud of that.  I think, when the time comes, you’ll both be loving, careful, and successful with romantic and sexual relationships, Still, there will likely be some heartbreak and anguish along the way.  Love is complicated.  Sex is complicated. It’s hard for me to know that.  I don’t want you to ever, ever, get hurt.  Nobody can live life in a protective cocoon – but do know that I am here to protect you, if needed. 
I’ll inevitably make mistakes in listening, advising, and understanding.  But please tell me when I do.  Please tell me when something truly matters to you, even if you think I won’t get why.  Please tell me, too, if something is worrisome, or anxiety-provoking, or downright terrifying.  Tell me even if you’re pretty sure that the thing is silly, or is scary, or is incredibly embarrassing, or is totally your fault.  This is important.  Really.  So important.  Tell me if you end up somewhere you really shouldn’t be, doing something you really shouldn’t be doing.  Tell me if you need rescuing.  Tell me if something bad needs fixing, even if you think it’s unfixable or unforgivable or that you’ve utterly screwed up everything.  I’m your mom.  Even if you grow to be taller than me, I’ll still be your mom.  Even when you get your own drivers’ licenses and your own dates and that kind of stuff?  Yup, still your mom.
This still being your mom thing goes both ways, I know.  The older you get, the harder it will be to accept that you still need parents, and that parents might be right about a lot of things.  Already, for the past few years, you’ve been figuring out that adults don’t know everything, and don’t do everything right, and have done some things hideously wrong.  Adults can’t even find the right app to download.  Adults have, at one time or another, built societies that condoned slavery and gave power to Nazis.  Adults elected Donald Trump – who is, himself, an adult.  Ugh.  You now see exactly how dorky we are, and how downright scary-stupid at times.  So it becomes hard to take us seriously.  And it can be hard to trust us. So, yeah.  Don’t trust every adult out there.  And definitely question authority – even my authority, sublime and uncorrupted as it is.  Call out hypocrisy.  Wait… you’re already really good at this.  Okay, continue to call out hypocrisy.  But pick your battles.  And recognize that even when you are pretty sure you’re smarter than the grownup in charge (and this will happen a lot), there are multiple types of intelligence. 
A lot of aspects of the world probably seem kind of overwhelming to you right now.  I haven’t forgotten what that feels like.  Those people who say, oh, you have it so great, with no responsibilities and no real worries?  Those people have forgotten.  They’re forgotten that life doesn’t look easy at all, from your vantage point – and your future doesn’t look simple.  No way in hell could you go to college yet, even though you could probably pass a college-level physics class if you studied hard.  You also aren’t very good at making Major Life Decisions yet.  That’s normal. That prefrontal cortex is responsible for weighing outcomes, understanding complex social situations, implementing long-term planning, and controlling impulsive behavior – all things that teenagers get a bad rap for not being good at.  How unfair is that? 
But at the same time, there’s so much that you’re good at, and so much that you’re learning.  From rock climbing to beading to snowshoeing, from Rummikub to MathCounts to recessive genes, from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to The Lord of the Rings to The Man who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, I’m learning and revisiting it with you, and I’m having a blast.
You’re getting older, and that’s fantastic.  You’re still kids, and that’s fantastic, too.  Happy thirteenth birthday.  I love you. 


  1. Wow. I love your letter. You have a great way of expressing the complexities of life. I want to read it to my daughter. -Di

  2. The best line. "Being so well known can be maddening, I know. But it can also be comforting. You don’t have to pretend. "

    1. Thanks, Nicky! I hope we all have people in our lives who are maddening in precisely that way.