From memory, a quote from Robert Louis Stevenson from the age of steam trains: “A man ought to be able to spend three hours alone in an empty train station with nothing to read, and not be bored.”
A teenage girl in the age of mobile devices: “All they had was black-and-white TV, so they probably sat around and conversed all the time.” (p. 23, below)
Recently I got through an entire novel without realizing it was written in present tense.
And I hate present tense!
I thought I would share this delightful book with you… if you have patience.
I was in my early twenties when I began going to a downtown used bookstore and buying young adult (YA) fiction about high school life. My own high school years were partly spent trying to understand the other kids; I don’t know if I ever got inside their heads. (I left home after 11th grade, so “that was it” for knowing students) Compared to others I was too independent, reading beyond my years, and very poor. By poor I mean: Luckily, other kids would always leave pieces of soap in the locker room showers, as I couldn’t afford any of my own.
Sitting in class, I would hear announcements for the after school meetings of the “tab” and “scholastic book” club. The kids would meet to order YA books not available in stores, not in those days. Today I wonder, for an instant, what it would have been like for me, if I too had an allowance and could meet with fellow book-lovers? Of course the popular kids didn’t read, nor did the regular kids, nor did the unsafe black-clothed kids—the club would have been an oasis of pastel harmless kids. Never mind.
Can you guess what I missed, not being a scholastic club member? Easy: What I discovered, in the old bookstore, was how old YA books constantly had the same theme: It was OK to be an individual, instead of (unconsciously) busting a gut to conform. Yes! I had always thought so myself, but in my teen society, where there were no meetings for “consciousness raising,” I would have been a “minority of one” to say so out loud. How nice to feel validated, even if by writers who were grownups, after I was already a grownup too.
In my day we said, “The older generation just doesn’t understand!” We were unique, or so we thought.
“Adolescence is the same tragedy being performed again and again. The only things that change are the stage props.” (p. 284) The speaker is a grandmother in the YA book Going Vintage. I found it in hardcover at the library. (Copyright 2013) The end flap shows the author as a cheerful, young-looking Lindsey Levitt, who lives “in the quaint little hamlet of Las Vegas.” Her wit springs out on every page. The first person narrator is witty too, yet perfectly normal for her age group—OK, she’s almost smart like a teen that reads. A hilarious teen.
On page one Mallory is “making out”—such a great way to hook a teen audience. Before the end of the chapter Mallory discovers her long-term boyfriend is cheating on her! With a cyber love interest! Whom he loves more than her! So she dumps him and “goes vintage.” This means that for the two weeks that pass in the novel—“only two weeks” is excellent: for a fast pace, for good comedy, and, perhaps, for the attention span of today’s young readers—Mallory cuts herself off from all electronic devices older than the 1960’s. She has enough self-preservation to know that her conformist peers wouldn’t understand, so she keeps her project confidential, getting lines like: Did you lose your phone? Did your dad cut you off, like mine did for over-texting?
Part of Mallory’s motivation for going vintage is rediscovering something that I have felt all my life: Nostalgia for the fifties and early nineteen sixties. I still remember the slogan at the bottom of the movie poster (the close up on two teens hugging) for American Graffiti. “Where were you in ’62?” Well, Mallory discovers a box of high school stuff from her grandmother, who was in school during that very year! Meaning she was “born in 1946,” meaning she was one of the much bigger kids when I was growing up. (As you know, the war ended in 1945—my dad didn’t have to stay to occupy Germany because he was one of the first to enlist, back in 1939) Nope, I don’t “feel old” at all—I just feel weird.
Today, of course, if a schoolteacher asked her class what it would be like for everyone to be without their cell phones, a howl of dismay would rise up: Unthinkable! I don’t suppose I quite understand, but Going Vintage has sure helped. Think of it as a sociology report from the inside. Of course the narrator is unreliable, but that’s half the fun. Here’s a world where the school rumor mill is online—even Mallory’s own mother thinks that he dumped her—and the social media comments can be ill-informed and downright beastly. Here, says Mallory, people “check their phone every three minutes,” can use their phone at lunch to check the on-line (!) Student Handbook, and they find computers to be a faster, easier better way to do reports than using library books.
You can do a lot with a phone:
“… so I lock up and wait the last half hour for Mom. If I had a phone, I could text her and tell her to come early. Or I could call a friend, play a game, look up information on my history paper. I could do something besides sit on a curb with absolutely nothing to do. Freak, I don’t even have music to listen to.”
Somehow, Mallory survives:
“… and the breeze holds the promise of fall. Sunrise this morning, sunset tonight. That’s twice in one day that I’m outside like this, just sitting, breathing, waiting, watching, without my fingers tapping out something on my phone.
Now if only I had some soap or wood to whittle. Super-vintage.”
A boy calls the landline of our unreliable narrator with her blind spots. “Actually, I was just kind of calling…I was just calling to talk,” Oliver says. “If you have time.”
Mallory thinks: “This is weird. No one just calls to talk. My friends and I don’t even talk on the phone much anymore, not unless it’s something that can’t be addressed by text.” (p. 210)
Like I said, unreliable. I can’t believe 21st century teenagers don’t still burn up the virtual telephone line for hours. My friend Jack used to walk down to a payphone to get privacy for long calls to his girl …Come to think of it, my own long conversations were after I was in the real world, when my young peers were hard for me to meet up with in person.
Like all the good YA book of my youth, the topic of conformity is addressed:
“I step back from the cart, both embarrassed and enthralled. I thought Oliver was trying hard before, but now I realize it’s quite the opposite—he doesn’t try, he just is, makes up his mind and doesn’t check if it’s going to work for his image or come off wrong. Since the rest of us are being so self-aware, his presence seems calculated. No one can possibly be that breezy, saying what he thinks, feeling what he feels. I can see why people don’t like him for this very reason—it’s so much easier to call him a poser.
Because if he’s the real deal, then that makes the rest of us fakes.” (p. 180)
I can relate to the boy. For a few years I coped by having a binary view of the world: a) those who were real, and b) the majority where I chose to keep a low profile because I didn’t want to hurt their feelings, or be a spoil-sport for their conformist world-view. It took energy to have to know my own strength, which could be annoying for me; nevertheless I would strive to be kind. During my thirties, I noticed something: all my friends were former geeks. They were the interesting ones. Today, luckily, most people my age have relaxed into being real. Regrettably, some never will.
City of Chestermere
~I’ve noticed the kids in YA books overwhelmingly tend to be middle class (summer camps, Disney land) but I’m not about to be some politically correct crybaby over it.
~I first stumbled onto my favorite web-essayist while I was lurking among a circle of Live Journal bloggers after one of them linked for the others: Paul Graham did an essay on teen conformity while pondering Why nerds are unpopular.
~I hope one-day people will link to an essay of mine, too. Actually, one week thousands linked to my essay on The Death of Buffy. (Archived January 2012) But that hasn’t happened again, not even to my recent, (experimental-with-Youtube-videos) essay on Anya, Friend of Buffy. (April 2017) Well, in the last couple years I haven’t been translated, either: perhaps because social media has long superseded the popularity of blogs.
~In my adult life I have known a few folks who couldn’t do a guided meditation exercise without giggling. Their laughter was a reflex. What I didn’t quite grasp back in high school was how so many of us used laughter as an instant reflex to cope with any sort of tenseness. Now I truly get it. Incidentally, I yawn as I do stretching exercises for modern dance or drama: no doubt my own “reflex” from trying to stay relaxed into my stretches back when I was first truly learning how.
I’m not the only writer to have pondered laughter: Going Vintage has an insightful paragraph on p. 105, but I won’t quote it out of context: Some suspense is good for you!