Turning fifteen years old tends to be a watershed moment in life. The freshman blues abate and the fear of junior year obligations is not yet upon you. Hormones rage but the looks to complement those desires are perhaps not all there.
Thinking back to that point in life, I managed to find success in the things I loved to do. My abilities in art were starting to take shape. An interest in wildlife and birding was deepening. I already loved writing and sucked at proofreading, which proves that some things never change. That is the challenge of some sort of attention deficit disorder. I prefer to call it artistic deficit disorder. In any case, it made some aspects of school at every level a real challenge.
Like most fifteen-year-olds, I could also be rather moody. Yet my brothers and I loved to make each other laugh, and so did my friends. So the pendulum tended to swung, sometimes to extremes, depending on the circumstance.
The summer before my sophomore year in high school I’d grown angry at the world to the point that I drew a picture of myself surrounded by curses and promises to show people that I wasn’t the skinny, worthless kid they thought I was. Yes, the drama was mostly inside my head. But it felt real enough to me that it motivated me beyond what everyday likes and desires might do. So I put that anger to work.
I believe there’s a little inherent anger that exists in all of us. So thank God I found the sport of running when I did. It helped wick away the angst of being a half-formed teenager. My relationship with teammates was crucial to keeping my self-esteem intact.
See, the early 1970s were by definition of culture a highly critical, cynical period in this world. It felt like much of America was immersed in a chiaroscuro painting. The dark and light was visible in the news. New York City was a pit. The Vietnam War raged on. Nixon was a dark soul and Gerald Ford was a dim light.
Burning up inside
I was not immune to all that. Nor was I immune to the teasing of friends and enemies. It made me burn inside, and want to set fire to the world any way I could. My father dearly wanted his boys to avoid the likes of his own academic struggles, but he chose on many occasions to wear us down with exasperation rather than build us up through communication. So I sought consolation with other father figures in life. We all do that to some extent.
Truly, my dad tried in so many ways to help us. But the back and forth aspects of his personality and pressure-filled financial and work circumstances made it tough for him to act confidently. That turned our lives inside out at times.
There is no question he was a good man at heart. He helped me make many good decisions about life that were right in line with who I was. He helped me sell my paintings when I was starting out. He supported my choice to run a paper route, and drove me around on really cold mornings, a rare occasion to talk a little. But when I was fifteen, he also wanted to chop my hair down to the roots and had little patience for other choices I wanted to make on my own.
Advice from the future
As I look back on those days, I realize there were better ways to respond to all those situations. So this is what I’d tell my fifteen-year-old self if I could go back to 1972 and say “Listen, Chris, I have a few things to tell you…”
- Girls can be your friend. That sounds simple enough in concept. But the very real friendships I made with girls were often called into question by my male friends who questioned why I would want friendships from them rather than trying to turn them into girlfriends (and thus get sex.) But I loved my female friends because they talked with me about things in different ways than my guy friends. I had no sisters, so I struggled with the whole ‘girls as people’ perspective one gets by having female siblings. The structure of their bodies and garments and hair and patterns of speech were intimidating to me. So I’d go back to tell my young self to just relax. Girls will like you if you make them laugh. But also listen. Pay attention to what they’re saying. And care. That’s the biggest point of all, to truly care.
- Be patient and live in the moment. Teens (like me at the time) tend to bounce from one source of stimulation to the next. Back in 1972, it was always one sports contest after another. Then a dance would come along. Then a bonfire. We’d arrive at these encounter points looking for who-knows-what to happen. It always felt like there was pressure to prove yourself every second you were alive. I’d tell my fifteen-year-old self to let that stuff roll. Great things happen when you’re not trying to turn every moment in life into a big event. And don’t be so goddamned shy.
- Stop fighting yourself. Let success happen. Gosh, I’d get nervous before big running meets or games. But the truth about nerves is that there are two kinds. There is the nervousness that comes with wanting to achieve based on the hard work you’ve put in. Then there are nerves that come about from having a fear of failure. It seemed I had little control over which of these nerve sets would arrive and when. But I experienced both, and my advice to a fifteen-year-old me would be to learn the reasons why I was a “good nervous” at times and not let the “bad nerves” take over.
- Do the hard stuff first. Procrastination is the royal bain of every teenager. Putting off homework that was hard was a 24/7 habit in my case. The simplest lesson I’d share with my teenage self is to get the hard stuff out of the way. It’s a lesson learned from years of practice now, but I sure could have used it in 1972. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
- Let anger motivate you, but don’t let it rule you. It’s easy to get pissed off in this world. I still do. To my credit back in the day, I used anger at times to run harder and prove to myself that people could not get the best of me. But as life often teaches, the force of anger can come back to bite you. When anger gets mixed with a little anxiety or depression, things can get ugly fast. My own children have at times had to help me with this. But thanks to growth and time, things are better. Going back in time, I’d simply tell my fifteen-year-old self to figure out what the source of anger really is. And is it justified, or is it merely an excuse not to deal with some sort of fear or insecurity? I think my fifteen-year-old self would actually listen to that. After all, I kind of know the guy.
And that’s it. Perhaps life could have been a bit smoother with a little advice from my future self. Which simply means it make sense to listen to the conscience of my present self, and not make life so complex when it doesn’t have to be.