Sixteen was a good year. Oh, to be sure it was a year of fear and social awkwardness. For a year I spent the majority of the time confused and unaware of my surroundings and my place in them. But it was also a year of discovery. A year of becoming. The year when everything was new.
When I look back and do a sort of personal archeology I can see patterns. I create a narrative of my life. I tell stories, it’s what I do. And all good stories start with that defining moment; the chance meeting with the mentor or a friend, the sage advice that stays with you and defines you and sets you off on your path. A good story has a beginning, middle, and end. There is a progression, an arc. You start with that defining moment and progress in a definitive pattern until there is a satisfying conclusion. That’s how stories work.
Unfortunately, real life is a bit more complex than that. In reality who we are is an amalgamation of small, unrelated moments, random and contradictory. They combine haphazardly into our present selves. And that self is itself just a moment to be added to a future self. Everything open-ended. Past, present, future – a jumble of possibilities. But that’s no fun.
We want to have the story of our life told from start to finish with a pattern recognizable. I see my pattern start when I was sixteen. A year of many firsts. I choose to start my story here.
When I was sixteen I got my first pair of contact lenses. Up until this point I wore giant, tortoiseshell plastic glasses that somewhat resembled safety goggles. They were heavy and tended to slip down my nose to rest precariously at the tip. I did not feel this was attractive. This was the year I freed my face.
Sixteen was the year I cultivated hair. I grew my hair long and parted in the middle so it framed my face to highlight my non-glassed eyes. And I grew a mustache, not some stubbly adolescent mustache mind you, but a full caterpillar that grew down the sides of my mouth to my chin. A 70s porn star mustache. I was very proud.
At sixteen I saw my first Grateful Dead concert. I boarded a charter bus full of hippies and hippie want-to-bes and headed to Merriweather Pavilion in Maryland. Along the way, people played bongos and strummed guitars and we sang folk songs in loud voices. And we drank Budweiser out of cans and smoked Marlboro Lights one after the other. And I took my first hit off a joint. It made me sleepy and slightly sick to my stomach which I did my best to hide. And I was with friends and acquaintances and strangers hearing music and doing things I knew I shouldn’t. And I was miles away from home. And it felt right.
When I was sixteen I fell into a group of friends. We were from various economic backgrounds. Some of us were Italian or Irish or Jewish. We considered ourselves very diverse. We played poker in our parent’s basements for a dollar a hand, we held parties when no one was home. We talked about music and girls and sports and how the world was shit and how we were the ones who would fix it.
At sixteen I fell in love for the first time. She had brown hair and brown eyes and she was the most beautiful girl I had ever seen. And I told her I liked her and she told me she liked me back. I thought it would never be possible to be happier.
Sixteen was the time I first thought, this is my opinion. Not my parents or my brother or my teachers or TV – this is what I think. And I was fiercely proud of my opinions. Not always for the best.
And I read books (as many as possible) and saw movies (the older the better) and had conversations (one-sided preferred) I created a theory of life to understand who I was and why I was here. And I wanted to have sex so bad I truly thought I would cease to be if it did not happen immediately and often. And I was confused. I had no real clue of who I was or what would happen at any given moment. Most of the time I was just scared and tried to hold it together enough to give off an impression that could be misinterpreted as cool.
But amid all that, there was the notion, the understanding, the realization… everything was new. There was never a time when I thought, “oh this reminds me of…” because there was no comparison. Everything, every day was a new and unique experience. And yes, I was confused. Yes, I was afraid, but it was overwhelmingly exciting. The newness of things was exhilarating. I woke every morning with the thought, what will happen next? I hated the word “routine” and the word “plan” and I believed that the only way to live was to be spontaneous and to constantly move.
When I was sixteen I was so fucking alive.
30 years later I have a routine. I make plans. I listen to the Dead on MP3 and the friends I made so long ago are still my friends (perhaps I don’t speak to them as often as I could) and I am no less alive. There is no newness anymore; I have too much experience for that. A tradeoff I suppose. I am far from that little boy discovering the world so long ago. But the thoughts he had back then are still with me, they still are me.
A long time ago I started to tell a story, without knowing it. A long time later I am still telling that story but only now coming to understand how it started.
originally published Jul 8, 2014