Thursday, February 24, 2011

Teenage Dream

They cost just two-and-a-half cents apiece (“Give me a nickel and then I’m packing up,” said the weary garage saler), but Clive and Patty were definitely one of the better purchases of my lifetime. Their ratio of joy-delivered-to-amount-invested far exceeds that of more luxurious pleasures. Who needs Big Stuff when you can own a couple bits of small, cheap plastic that make you smile?

The duo (pictured above) are clearly ‘60s era cake decorations. But, beyond that, their life is a mystery.  How old was the person celebrating the big day? Was it for a brand-new teen or a late-blooming eighteen-year-old? Were they used many times, for all the members of a large family, or did they only hear that off-key version of Happy Birthday and feel the thrilling flame of the candles, just once in their little plastic lives? Whatever their backstory, Clive and Patty aren’t talking.

They are emblems of the entry into adolescence, in the way that long-ago admen saw that age to be. Thus, they are depicted lounging in positions of exaggerated repose, as if the sudden surge of hormones has dissolved their spinal columns. They prop themselves on books, but of course the schoolwork is ignored for the greater thrill of the hottest piece of high-tech equipment – telephones with extra-long cords. Looking at them, I can almost hear the opening song from Bye Bye Birdie:
Hi, Nancy!
Hi, Helen!
What's the story, morning glory?
What's tale, nightingale?
Tell me quick about Hugo and Kim!

Nancy and Helen, what a pair of cutups. They’re probably in a nursing home now, drool dribbling onto their hospital gowns, but they sure loved to give each other a jingle and gab on the horn, back in the day. And remember those little glass bottles of Coke, Helen? Yes, Nancy, and also – record players! 

I’ve been thinking about teenagers lately because, as of Monday, I share living space with three of them. After years of obfuscation, upselling and bare-faced lying about her age, Mary Katherine finally turned 13; Emma reached the 16-year-old milestone the next day. Angela, our elder stateswoman, is exactly 16½ today.  

Everyone I know has an opinion about teenagers. I suspect that the very people who were once the absolute worst examples of “these kids today” are the ones who seem most incensed. It’s not a new story (Socrates said in 400 BC that “the children of today are tyrants.”) Still, I wonder if it’s true that the ones who acted up the most are the ones who are freaking out the loudest now.

I’ve watched several acquaintances get utterly gobsmacked when their little darlings hit that certain age. What’s funniest is when the person complaining about the behavior actually exhibits it. A mom will sarcastically decry teen sarcasm and eyerolling by sarcastically declaring, “And I LOVE the eye rolling,” while, at the same time, rolling her eyes. Hmmm.

For the moment, I’m observing this hysteria from a distant shore. Yes, I entered motherhood knowing I’d be adopting an adorable Chinese baby, but, unlike some of my pals, I think I did understand that she wouldn’t be four months old forever. Not to be all Stephen Covey here, but I began with the end in mind. Children grow up. They become teenagers. They leave. You live for a while more. Then you die. That’s pretty much the trajectory, and all the eyerolling in the world won’t stop it.

I’ve been known to publicly state that the absolute ideal age for a human being is four-and-a-half, especially the summer before kindergarten. If I could arrange for an endless stream of kids that age to drop by now and then, to bake cookies with me and mess around with watercolor paints, I’d be very happy. Also, I’d prefer some who still take naps, but that’s quibbling.

Much as I love an unspoiled type, I also enjoy teenagers. Everything is extreme, even dumb stuff like boredom, or sleep. And everything is possible, which is alternately terrifying and thrilling, for all of us. Perhaps it’s true that the worst offenders from the past are the strictest parents of today. I spent my teen years watching television and going to the library (yes, it was just as pathetic as it sounds, now that you mention it), so I can’t really imagine the Bruegelian bacchanals that my parent chums continually conjure up. 

And please, shut up about the texting, I want to tell my friends. You might as well say “davenport” and “icebox” and talk about the great mileage you got on your Model T. You are old. They are young. They have shinier toys than you did at that age, but you don’t have to act like their toys are from Satan. You’re just jealous that YOU couldn’t text in American Civics class, so clam up already.

These days, I’m not rolling my eyes and sarcastically saying, “I LOVE having three teenagers in the house.” I’m just saying it, and I mean it. Of course their adolescence won’t be like Clive and Patty’s, and I wouldn’t expect it to be. (What is the proper decoration for a teen-theme birthday cake these days? A giant thumb?) But they’ve made it this far, and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do. They’d be the first to tell you about my long list of flaws as a mother, but I feel pretty darn proud that I got them to this point without driving away with their carseat on the roof of my Honda, or letting them suffocate on the dry cleaning bag. Hurray for me, and for their keenly honed survival skills.

They’re here. They’re alive. And they’re teenagers. No eyerolling required.

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