Ah, look at all the lonely people
High school and parenting at the end of the world
I haven’t seen my friends in two and a half months.
I haven’t gone on a walk with my walking buddy/design partner or had a coffee or a mimosa or a beer with any of my other friends either. I haven’t had a deep conversation, or even just a low-stakes catch-up chat, with anyone outside of my house and in person since early December. I am back to having 100% lost the thread of everyone else’s life other than my own. Although I know this will start to shake loose with the eventual arrival of spring, it’s an odd way to live. I don’t mind being a hermit, I like it a little too much probably, but even pre-pandemic this time of year, late-February through March, has always been emotional and mental low tide. For years I paced myself just to get to the end of February before finally realizing that March should be called “Just more February, only longer”.
The one thing I’ve been doing that’s been a little bright spot in my week has been attending my kid’s bowling matches. There were no spectators allowed last winter and I missed most of the games earlier this season, but now I go every Saturday. I do love an excuse to drive away from where I live whenever the opportunity presents itself, thrilled to get the hell out of my house and live a different life even for a few hours. And there is nothing like getting a window into the life your kids are building completely apart from you. This is the best part of parenting, I think, at least it is for me. When you get to see the young adult right in front of you, who has made it through so much. There they are.
When I think about how my kids’ entire high school experience has been shaped by a pandemic I try, often unsuccessfully, not to well up. (I am actually failing at this right now, as I type). I wonder what I would’ve thought, when I was pregnant and folding little lap t-shirts, if someone had told me my babies would be teenagers during a pandemic. We are so used to this now, I guess, we just keep plodding forward thinking there might be an end but in reality it’s not a race or even a marathon, it’s just a fucking treadmill. It’s that Nike headline, only not inspiring: There is no finish line.
When I think of the array of experiences that have been off-limits to them over the past 2+ years (some temporarily, others permanently) — going to school five days a week, driving in a car with friends, having an “end of middle school” dance, going to sleepovers, kissing (or just being close to!) someone, going to movies or the mall together, having a middle school graduation in person, going to the DMV to get a driver’s permit — it almost makes me want to laugh then punch something. Because, like, can you even believe this shit? It’s just ridiculous. Ridiculous.
As this school year slowly tiptoes toward spring it means that sooner than we realize it’ll be the end of yet another school year. All I seem to think about lately is how little time my kids have left in high school. When you have a baby you can’t help but think far into the future but it’s also completely unimaginable at the same time. You can’t imagine your baby walking or talking or singing. Then you can’t imagine them going to school, riding a bike, being dropped off at camp coated in sunscreen and bug spray and wearing a hat that they hate. And if your brain really wants to go super galactic, you try to imagine them driving or having deep voices or their first girlfriends or boyfriends. But it’s all so theoretical, your brain cannot grasp any of it. You can’t imagine them moving on, moving away from you. Because when you look at your baby it seems impossible. How can a baby do all that! How can all of those experiences unfold from just a little Butterball who fits right in your lap and smells slightly of milk and too little sleep?
But all those things have happened or are happening now and I’m just like, huh, it really does come up on you just like that, doesn’t it? All those years of imagining and wondering and trying to do my best and sometimes being completely aware I was actively not doing my best at all are almost behind me. All those years of feeling like I had so much time to fix whatever I wasn’t doing right. All those years I had to fix myself, finally. What a good reason to fix yourself, for your kids. All those years of thinking I would figure it all out and by extension figure it all out for them (which I know is wrong, shut up). All the grit-having and independence-learning and sandwich-making and whatever other trendy evidence-based guilt-inducing nonsense goes into shaping kids these days. All those years to be better at this are just almost … gone. And two of those years (and counting) were taken. Not entirely, not completely, but yes quite a bit stolen.
I feel myself running out of runway. I say things inside my own head like, I guess this is just how our family is going to be. I guess this is just who we are. I guess this is just what all of our habits are now and forever. I guess I failed at teaching them to do everything I said I would. I guess we’ll just always be these people in the world. I guess the mold is set. I guess I tried until I didn’t. I guess the world fucked us all over and there’s not much we can do about that either.
I learned a hard lesson about a month ago. I had taken for granted that my kids have coped mostly pretty well with everything that’s been thrown their way these past two years. But what I needed to be shown, very clearly and very directly, is that that doesn’t mean that they don’t know what they’ve been missing. I think that was a fairy tale I had been telling myself. It’s a seductive one to believe, to be sure. To tell myself that only I know what they’ve been missing because I got to go to high school not during a pandemic. But they know, they have always known.
I had been applying a pre-pandemic system of reasoning to the decisions that we were making. I needed to be shown that in a world that has taken so much from them, what they want to do doesn’t need to be part of some bigger plan. It doesn’t need to fit neatly within a framework or be a logical next step that leads to the next related thing. It doesn’t need to have anything to do with the future, actually. Never has the future been more now. What we have all lost is the smug comfort that we can make plans for later and that those plans will happen. That was always the case, of course, if you want to get philosophical about it. Anyway, it’s about not wasting any more time.
So. I am trying to say yes to more things, big things and small. And that’s how, on the small things front, I ended up spending my Saturday night at the state dance finals even though my kids are not on dance teams. You want to support a friend? I will take you to support a friend. This is now.
I had never been to a dance competition before but it struck me as similar to the cheerleading competitions I competed in when I was in high school and the newer, updated versions I sat through a few years ago. If you’ve never been to a cheerleading or dance competition, I recommend it, just go once. You’d be amazed how far you can get up your own ass while watching one or at least how far I got up my own ass while sitting high up in the bleachers, against the wall for support, a strategy that every adult over 40 should be required to employ.
Even if you dropped in on a competition in another state, with no knowledge of the schools, trust me when I say you’ll be able to pick out the well-resourced schools from a mile away. You will be able to tell who has the deepest coaching staff, the most financial resources, the parents who have the time and flexibility to volunteer. You will see the big schools make big impressions with their big teams. You will watch the small teams from more rural schools, some with just four or five members, come out on this big stage and try and you might think they are braver than all the other teams combined. It’s hard to put yourself out there with any sort of creative expression, period, much more so at this age. It’s harder still when the odds that all the eyeballs in a cavernous gym are on you specifically are more like 25% than, say, 2%.
In moments like these it strikes me as extraordinarily odd how adults continue to dismiss the experience and vulnerability of teenagers, even to dismiss our own experiences and vulnerabilities that we had when we were teenagers. To wave it off as embarrassing or silly when, as we all know, that handful of years sets the stage for the rest of our emotional lives. It’s when we’re the most open and vulnerable, while simultaneously caring the most what other people think. A recipe for pain if ever there was one. Or we simply downgrade it as “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet”. Teenagers aren’t adults and god bless them for that. Being an adult sucks. But we seem to forget the almost constant pressure teenagers feel to gather themselves up, even when they’re struggling and hurt, embarrassed or lost, and to brush it off like yeah it’s cool, that definitely didn’t almost kill me.
Then, left turn, I started to view almost every routine as a metaphor for the culture we’re living in (I’m fun at parties). I started to think back to when I was that age and how I believed if I worked hard enough and did everything right, I would succeed. It was just inevitable, really. I thought back to my twenties and how I believed that talent just rose naturally to the top, that the world unfolded in a way that allowed the best of the best (not me, just in general) to always find their way regardless of their circumstances. That anyone who was above me at work was smarter, more talented, just better than me in every way. It is … challenging … to say the absolute very least, to not lose it laughing right now, my god. And I thought about myself back then and my kids now and how all the decisions I used to believe were based on merit and one’s degree of can-do-ness — college admissions, job promotions, creative success — are all rigged to varying degrees. Through money and connections, race and class, invisible systems and impenetrable networks, and who gets to fail and get second and third and fourth chances and who doesn’t.
To be sure, what I used to believe feels squarely like a white middle class belief system. Because you have to be unfamiliar with what the lens of poverty would reveal to you, how it would have you see a very different truth about how things actually work. And if you’re rich you would hold a different truth entirely, you might believe you actually deserve everything you have, that you got it all fair and square. And if you’re white in America you are, as the saying goes, born on third base and always thinking you hit a triple. This country just loves to fetishize the middle class, just like it loves to fetishize (white, not poor) babies and (white, not poor) motherhood. This country loves to think inside the box, within so many other boxes, while never putting its money where its mouth is.
Anyway, I watched routine after routine. I got deeper and deeper into my thoughts, which was not hard because I was sitting alone (no one wants to cheer on their friends with their mom, please be serious) and occasionally I’d remember that I was sitting in a space with a couple hundred people and felt no panic. I texted a friend the next day, “Bitch, I’m ready to take chances” and maybe that’s actually the first sign of spring.
I thought about how complicated it is to own your body when you’re a girl, a young woman, in this country. To have laws and judgments and interpretations you never asked for constantly overlayed on your very being. Then, the deployment of a shoulder shimmy here and a hip shake there, sometimes with a practiced smoothness, other times with an awkward childlike hitch.
I thought about how one has to commit, really commit, to make a move work. To be tentative or to flinch is to sometimes fail. As a born flincher, I know this problem. I thought about how what is rewarded in these competitions is polished sameness, the exaggerated smiles, the synchronized hair and makeup, the precise and perfect movements that have been practiced a thousand times. It works, it’s engaging, because what is different disappears. The individual evaporates.
Then another team, still a big team, walked out to begin their performance. I might’ve sat up a little straighter when they first quietly filed into the gym. Competitions are sequins and sparkles, short skirts and school colors. The girls on this team all wore various shades of nude, classic scoop neck leotards and light, long flowing skirts with some subtle sparkle at the hip, if I’m remembering correctly. I believe they all had their hair pulled back, away from their faces. The boys on the team had their own appropriately balanced outfits, not a version of what the girls wore but something they could own and move in in their own way — loose fit pants and suit jackets (sort of reminding me of that unstructured early ‘90s Armani look, in a way) and neutral tees underneath. Every outfit suited every different body. Everyone stood out while still fitting in equally. Every part integral to the whole. It was mesmerizing.
They performed their routine to a slow cover of “Eleanor Rigby”. I wish I could track it down but do you know how many “Eleanor Rigby” covers there are? Their routine ebbed and flowed. Instead of militaristic, sharp moves, they moved like dancers on a bigger stage, dancers outside of our state and that gym, that competition and moment. They collapsed against each other in a chain reaction and as I tried to absorb what I was seeing, how beautiful and heartbreaking it felt, I finally keyed into the lyrics as the music echoed off of the bleachers and polished wooden floor, the concrete walls and basketball hoops:
All the lonely people
Where do they all come from?
All the lonely people
Where do they all belong?
They wrapped their arms around themselves at “lonely people”, they collapsed in together as a group and expanded back out. I looked around at this enormous echoing gym ringed with the evidence of various championships dating back to the 1950s, a gym that contained maybe a couple hundred people. I looked at all of these teenagers who were finally able to dance with and against one another for the first time in two years. I looked around to each section of parents and their signs and flowers and hope and emotions and sweatshirts that read DANCE DAD. I thought about how I was sitting there alone. I thought about how these last couple of years have been such a pile of dog shit that we just keep trying to plow through like, yup, ok, whatareyougonnado, gottakeepmovin’. Tears sprung up in my eyes, instantly overflowing my ability to blink them back, and dripped down, under, and around my mask.
I thought, How many people here are lonely? Ahhhh, look at all the lonely people. Where do we all belong?
That team did not win (although did come in 2nd), certainly not because they failed but, I believe, because they did something beyond the scope of the world we were in at that moment. I don’t know anything about dance, really, and I know just enough about cheerleading and competition to have incorrect opinions.
I spent almost the entire car ride home delivering an unasked-for monologue about how creativity and the judgment of it is incredibly subjective, that you can design your work to “win” or you can design your work to move people, and of course sometimes you’re lucky and do both but it’s rare. That approaching your work to stand apart from everything else, especially when it’s unexpected, is something to be celebrated. And how I came very close to walking up to a different team afterward, a team I thought were just amazing, but didn’t place as high as they should have, they were a small team, do small teams even have a chance at these things? But they were excellent and half the team was in tears, and I wanted to say something encouraging to them — that yes they had been just as amazing as they believed — but who wants to hear from some rando parent from another team, muffled through a mask no less?
I went on and on about the invisible scaffolding of being well-resourced, well-supported, big and favored, and how it should be recognized, how that should be a transparent category in judging these things (I include our own high school in this!) because it’s never only about innate talent. It is never, ever only about talent. Ever.
I talked for at least 15 minutes straight, almost without taking a breath and while driving through a wild snow squall that had earlier set off every phone in that gym like a swarm of tiny tornado sirens. After a brief pause my kid responded, “So, you’re happy you went?”
And that’s what I said yes to last week.
All of the photographs in this newsletter appear courtesy of the incredibly talented and absolute-delight-to-work-with photographer/DP/director Corey Hendrickson. You can find his work here. We worked together on this pro-bono project, still one of my favorite “work” projects of all time. (I actually haven’t watched these videos in a while and realized almost all of these kids are either juniors, seniors or have graduated from high school by now 😭😭😭)
NEW FROM ME
THINGS FROM ELSEWHERE
• I finished writing this newsletter as the world somehow tipped toward even greater darkness. In summary, “Russian warship, go fuck yourself”. This piece is beautiful and worth your time: “Ghosts of Ukraine” by Dean Bakopoulos in Harper’s Bazaar.
• “‘The World on Pause’ illustrates teen experiences during pandemic” in Peninsula Daily News. I wish I could see this show: “In their series of Zoom workshops, Jane and McIntyre encouraged the teens to consider how their lives have changed amid the pandemic. They taught them how to use photography to communicate — and emphasized that the best camera is the one you have with you.”
• Wow this interview was just excellent (and for everyone, in general) on so many different levels, far beyond what this title suggests: “Yale’s Happiness Professor Says Anxiety Is Destroying Her Students” in The New York Times.
• This is just wild to me. I’ve been using Vaseline since I was a teenager. Does that makes me trendy or a grandma or a trendy grandma ?? “A Staple of Grandma’s Medicine Cabinet Gets Hot on TikTok”
• “When the Parenting Never Stops” in The New York Times. “We have a mainstream directive for raising children in our society: You provide them with support, shelter and care until they’re 18, and then they’re supposed to be, more or less, self-sufficient, launched into the world as adults. This framework leaves out millions of parents whose children struggle with substance abuse or mental illness, who may be providing active care to their adult children for the rest of their lives.”
• If you missed the new season of Queer Eye, I’m telling you the prom episode fully broke me. And although this article sort of skims over it, that episode and a few others really make plain how much has been lost. Almost like we don’t believe it until we see it in someone else. “The New ‘Queer Eye’ Season Is a Healing Work of Pandemic Art” in Texas Monthly.
• Yuuuuuuuup. “Why We Love Lazy, Drunk, Broke Women on TV” in The New York Times. “Because audiences expect cheery competence from women while tolerating laziness, violence and rule-breaking in men, the female antihero represents a far more profound threat to the status quo.”
BUT YOU SEEMED SO HAPPY is out now. You can find my copywriting and creative direction work here. You can find my writing-writing work here. You can find me on Twitter. You can find me on Instagram. Please do not find me in real life, I’m busy being so incredibly far up my own bum.