Teenagers vs. Ethyl Alcohol

Teenagers, I have discovered, are like alcohol or drugs. Many of them also like alcohol and drugs, but that is another matter. I am herein concerned with the glaring similarities in my own life, between teenagers and that most famous of drugs, alcohol.

Lately there have been more teenagers and fewer alcoholic beverages in my life, and I’m surprised to note that they are nearly interchangeable, in certain ways. I need the teenagers and I need my drinks–to pay for my life, to pay for my sins, and to make it all a little less painful sometimes.

In the case of both teenagers and drinks, the right amount of them can be amusing, but too many are vomitous and may even be deadly. The numbers in both situations are uncannily identical. Two is really the best amount, the most I can have and remain myself. Three or four can still be metabolized, but after the fourth I feel it’s really enough. Five or more invariably produces horrible results, and six is just vile, even spread over many hours.

Teenagers can be savored in smaller amounts, their individual flavors appreciated and their nastier qualities swallowed with nary a grimace. Some teenagers–and some liquors–are positively artisanal, created in small batches under unreplicable conditions by loving hands. But there are just as many made as cheaply as possible and smothered in plastic too soon, or left to sit on shelves too long. After a certain amount, all you can taste are the poisons of their brattiness, wealth, entitlement, laziness, narcissism. Some of my favorite people embody these traits in varying combinations, so I’m not knocking any of them, but as with alcohol, a steady flow of these things into the system eventually induces the gag reflex. In these matters, it’s all about quantity.

Sometimes, however, a particularly painful overindulgence can lead to an unexcpected moment of clarity.

The other night, slogging through the cash-bought final session of the evening with the most daunting of beasts, the only child of divorced parents (their guilt + the kid’s uninterrupted self-centeredness = holy terror), having changed location several times among the various late-model Apple computers installed in every corner of the townhouse, my charge was still refusing to place her hands upon the keyboard and produce the personal essay that had been outlined for her–by hand–by yet another tutor. I was bloated with work and money, my two least favorite vices. And they are vices like any other–the Puritans just had the worst taste in vices, and we who have even marginally inherited the civilization they built pay the unfortunate price.

“My, you have mature-looking handwriting for an eighth-grader,” I said to the girl, who looked as if her “i”‘s should be dotted with hearts, or maybe dollar signs.

“Oh,” she said airily, “I didn’t write that. My other tutor did. He’s the best.”

“You mean you said it out loud and he wrote down what you said?”

“Oh no,” she said, “I mean I tell him what my essay’s about and he writes down what he thinks I should write.”

With this remark I made a stunning discovery.

I’ve always thought I had no ethics and no moral code. I believe completely in reciprocity and kindness and not at all in law or obligation, and I hope that between these threads of intention things will work themselves out, or alternately, remain at least mildly interesting. I try to be a good guest and a good hostess. I try not to take advantage of or openly be an asshole to other people. I try not to hoard my fine cheeses. I don’t steal from individuals, only from corporations. I occasionally steal from rock bands, but only liquor, and I try to compensate for this by sharing my drugs and snacks. I try not to lead people on. (Though to be honest I’ve realized the reason I don’t lead people on is because I don’t enjoy the weight of attentions I can’t return, not because it’s wrong. All’s fair, I believe, in love and war, and by that I mean it’s all carnage.)

The only thing that really pisses me off is when someone does something to me or asks something of me that I absolutely, positively would never do to or ask of them. Then I grow enraged and rant and bang things around. “I can’t believe he said that! I can’t believe it! I would never say something like that to him! This aggression will not be tolerated!” “How could she ask that of me? Would she do that for me? Would she? Would she tolerate that kind of behavior from me? WOULD she? NO!”

I long ago gave up on ethics and moral codes because they are boring, and the people who talk about them are boring and don’t dress as well or have as many mind-altering substances on hand as those who flout them, because I found the philosophy that asked whinily, “What is the best system of laws for people to live under?” far less exciting than the one that said defiantly, “What stops us from being free and how can we destroy it without hurting anyone and run wild through the night?” There is no good system of laws for people to live under, save a strict environmental code. Tell me how not to destroy the planet and don’t bore me with the worst kind of lies, the ones that are neither beautiful nor interesting nor true.

So you can imagine my surprise when this kid presented me with her half-finished essay written by another adult and I thought to myself, “That is so wrong.”

I beg, plead and sometimes bully teenagers into have original thoughts. I engage them in a dialogue and probe and probe at the even mildly interesting issuances from their hormone-addled brains until I draw forth some kind insight, and then I pound at this insight like a piece of veal until it flattens into coherence. When this happens I almost weep with relief. I try very hard not to add my own original thoughts to their original thoughts, though I will admit that sometimes I crack. What’s the harm, I sometimes wonder, in making this essay a little more interesting, especially if I am going to have to read it thirty-seven more times? But I don’t spoon-feed them sentences and I don’t alter their syntax and I sure as shit don’t write their essays for them because that would be wrong. Also, I am rather miserly about my writing and want to keep it all for myself.

I realized, suddenly, that this kid had hired one tutor to handwrite the rough draft of her essay and was probably expecting me to type the final one myself. Well she had that wrong. I wasn’t going to lay a finger on glossy surface of that 24-inch iMac, nor would I touch the keys of her MacBookPro. Here, in this townhouse in this astronomically wealthy zip code, only one of many where I lately seemed to be leaving my dignity and will to live in pursuit of what Virginia Woolf so aptly called, “money and a room of one’s own,” I had unexpectedly found my moral center. While I had been finding it, brushing the dust from its surfaces and turning it over in my hands, trying to discern what exactly it was, the kid, I realized, had been talking. When I tuned back in, the evening offered up in compensation for my efforts and burgeoning headache in its second and final moment of absolute clarity as I came to another realization.

“Abercrombie and Fitch is my favorite store,” she was saying. “They do all the real designing, and places like American Eagle Outfitters are just copying from them.”

I’ve changed my mind, I thought. The revolution will be violent, and you will not be spared.

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