Every so often, I give up on pretending that I have sophisticated taste in music and turn on the kind of thing I used to wallow to in high school. It’s a sure ticket to the past, which has been especially welcome lately—nothing like escaping to the good old days when the president was just a war criminal and Chandler’s mom was still a punch line on Friends, am I right?!—and easier than ever now that everything’s on Spotify. (Just remember to turn off sharing, unless you’re proud that it’s 2017 and you’re still listening to Something Corporate. You shouldn’t be, in case that wasn’t obvious.)
So the other day, in between wondering if I should quit my job and counting the number of dystopian novels that I didn’t think to take as cautionary tales, it occurred to me to turn on Jason Mraz. While he’s arguably a better musician than most of his contemporaries on my high school playlists, it’s still difficult to justify the existence of a lyric like “it takes a crane to build a crane,” and let’s not even broach the subject of his newer albums. Like Alanis in the Jagged Little Pill era versus Alanis now, it would be for everybody’s benefit if he’d just get dumped already. Success in love does not a good singer-songwriter make.
To step back into my teenage shoes, though, is to set aside the issue of quality. More precisely, it’s to set aside nuance. On many counts, I was inarguably a better person when I was a teenager. For example, when I was seventeen, I submitted an essay proposing that Congress vote anonymously to authorize military actions overseas to “allow politicians greater freedom to vote the way they feel is correct rather than be pressured by the party line.” This is probably not even the most preposterous thing that I thought was practical when I was a teenager, but it’s the only one I still have in my Dropbox, so it’ll have to do. Later in this essay, I also suggest that the United States would be able to end the genocide in Darfur—it was 2007—“if only we were willing to commit the troops to do so.” (Those troops, of course, would be committed through anonymous vote. Like YikYak, but for war!)
“Better” probably isn’t the right word: I was, if anything, purer. I thought that Congress was made up of good people who were simply at the mercy of their uneducated constituents. I thought that “it takes a crane to build a crane” was a genius observation that had never been articulated better. (I sort of still do. Congress, on the other hand, is obviously a lost cause.) Today, I can argue myself in circles; where I once nearly stormed out of the classroom in a heated debate with my World Affairs teacher over the best way to end the practice of female genital mutilation, I now hear myself using the dreaded phrase “I see where you’re coming from.” And I don’t even follow it up with “…and it proves my hypothesis that you’re a goddamn sociopath who wouldn’t recognize nuance if it punched you in the face.”
I miss the comfort of certainty. Writing cringingly naive social studies essays, blasting something like “Coin-Operated Boy” on my way through the Del Taco drive-through… nowadays it takes me a solid thirty minutes to decide what to order from Seamless, and even then I only pick because I know that if I don’t have something more than stale pretzels in my apartment within the next 45 minutes, I will chew off my own arm. (This is also in part why I don’t cook. I cannot handle grocery stores. I would say it’s an eating disorder thing, but it’s the same reaction I have to the New York Public Library eBooks catalog.) I’m too aware at any given juncture that whatever route I take will inevitably be the wrong one. What I wouldn’t give to be seventeen again and know that I am, without question, right!
Now I’m all too aware of nuance, and it means that I’m incapable of going in anywhere with guns blazing. That’s not entirely true, as just about all of my coworkers and the senior leadership of my company can attest to, but that blaze flames out so quickly, the second I open my eyes and realize that there’s another perspective to be considered. My intractable stubbornness has given way to… waffling. I’ve been catching myself lately vacillating wildly between different positions depending on how well they’re being argued to me. Protests are useless! “But they’re the only way to get the public read onto a cause! Look at how the attorneys mobilized via social media to help out travelers being detained at JFK!” Okay, protests are great! “They’re political theatre!” Those pink hats are still ugly! Okay, I’m done now. That one is an incontrovertible fact.
I guess the tradeoff is that while I might no longer be bullheaded enough to get myself sent to the dean’s office rather than submit myself to standing during the Pledge of Allegiance, I’m also no longer dumb enough to, say, get myself sent to juvenile court with a summons for drinking underage (in full “seventies roller disco regalia.” With tube socks. After trying to hide under a car). Or leave a Burger King soft drink cup full of Dr. Pepper in my cupholder for hours in the Las Vegas sun and not expect the cup to give way, sending Dr. Pepper leaking… everywhere. Or forget to look behind me before I make a U-turn and send my car straight into the path of an automated gate, practically knocking my bumper off (Dad, if you’re reading this, that’s the genesis of that massive scrape on my back bumper. Not a shopping cart. Just in case you happened to have bought that airtight excuse).
That isn’t to say that I’m not still incompetent—have I mentioned yet on the blog the time last year that I managed to miss a transatlantic flight by a full 24 hours?—but that nothing seems as consequential as it did when I had no concept of nuance. The photos of me wearing tube socks haven’t yet sunk my political campaign. I cleaned up the Dr. Pepper. (And United didn’t charge me for that mishap, which is probably because I have already sold them my soul.) It got better, as they say.
But that, too, is why the music I listened to when I was sixteen doesn’t resonate the way it used to. Everything felt so final, or so urgent: I needed Jason Mraz strumming his stupid guitar and singing to me that “it takes a night to make it dawn,” because just as I was sure in my World Affairs essay that using “media infiltration” to “alert the citizens [of the Middle East… no, literally, the whole thing] that a freer world does, in fact, exist” would bring about peace, so, too, was I sure that getting a B on a trigonometry test was to live the rest of my life behind the cash register at Capezio. I live now in a constant state of awareness that everything evens out to… well, mediocrity, I guess, since that’s what you get when you can’t forget that the highs are as temporary as the lows.
It was nice the other day to walk down Seventh Avenue with my headphones on, listening to music that is only sort of good, remembering what it was like to be confident that everything I said was right and everything I knew was true. It’s not a state that I’d return to—for one thing, I’d take going toe-to-toe with my boss’s boss’s boss’s boss any day over my eminent social studies teachers, and Lord help me if I ever see a look on my mother’s face like the night I got caught drinking Smirnoff Ice in tube socks!—but it’s good to remember that I have, in the past, been capable of taking a position, of making a decision. And, for what it’s worth, of listening to a second-tier singer-songwriter because it makes me feel better about the world, without concerning myself with what the world might feel about me.
NB: My final argument in that World Affairs essay was that the U.S. should remove troops from the Middle East “because at this point, all that that is accomplishing is proving the theory that Americans are evil.” While this is unquestionably true, and I congratulate my younger self for having had the foresight to recognize that this would be an issue in the future, I recognize now that at least epistemologically, I was a little confused.