This is the stuff I wrote last September as a way of trying to figure out my expectations for this piece of writing; I would consider this discovery writing, not the manifesto itself…
I don’t know exactly what I expect to read with this assignment, but if I do a little reflection about my own seventeen year-old self, combine it with reality checks from conversations with all the seventeen year-olds I’ve known before you, and provide some details that may make my thinking seem like it carries insight rather than a creepy glimpse into a man’s mid-life crisis, then I might be able to write something that models the kind of thinking I’m anticipating. That sentence has 84 words in it. Sorry.
Here are some things I know to be true about myself at 17, which was in 1982-83:
- I read a lot of Robert Ludlum and Ken Follett (Cold War spy novels, for the most part), but not John LeCarre (no action) – when you caddy in the summer, you tend to pass a lot of time reading
- I was a very lazy student, and outside of To Kill a Mockingbird in ninth grade and all of the Brit Lit junior year, read almost nothing assigned to me in high school
- I was in the sixth year of carrying around the baggage of my father’s death (and more wakes and funerals than a teenager should have to attend), and it pretty much still affected every aspect of my life, from simple things like not having a driver’s license to having a keen interest in big ideas, especially related to religion and power
So if I’m going to think about these things, let me stick with what I know. About bullet one, there was a character named Nat Dickstein in one of Follett’s novels, Triple, who was a regular guy, actually a small guy, who could kick ass when he had to. I, too, was a regular guy, actually a small guy, who liked the idea of being a character who could kick ass. Ludlum’s characters were always (except for Bourne) regular guys who were thrust into the political machinations of a world beyond their control, and they had to rely on what strength and guile was inside them to defeat the bad guys.
Re: bullet two, I watched the Atticus Finch courtroom scene on a Sunday afternoon; I’m pretty sure that’s an accurate memory. I had read the book, and when it got to the Atticus parts, I was hooked. Even though I didn’t particularly care for Dill and I thought Scout was annoying, I believed in the quiet integrity of Atticus, and as a guy searching for father figures, I knew I’d found the guy, a person I wanted to be. The Brit Lit stuff I read because my teacher, Emil Binotto, was awesome. Tenth grade was a joke because my teacher was clueless, and in twelfth grade I took only writing and history classes because I was focused on being a school newspaper geek.
My school was kind of an interesting place, and the diversity I lived with, combined with the racism of my Brooklyn-based extended family, raised a lot of issues of justice. I had an uncle who dropped the N-bomb like he was carpet-bombing third world villages, but I went a high school where my graduating class was 49 percent white. It seemed like everyone I knew was either Catholic, Jewish or Southern Baptist, as I assumed that all the black people (we didn’t use African-American yet) I was friends with or in class with went to Baptist churches. If any ethnic/religious combination seemed foreign to me, it was the white Anglo-Saxon protestant.
Third bullet is where I get my bigger questions from. On the one hand, I had to believe in the soul because the idea of being reunited with family who had died was essential to get through some of the days. But what if it was all just a trick? What if you couldn’t trust all those people who said that everything happens for a reason? Yes, these were valid questions I distinctly remember. But the thing that angered me was the effect on my mother of the power of the religion I was supposed to believe in. She had followed the rulebook to a T, done everything a good Catholic girl was supposed to do, and found herself a single mother at 39 with five kids and no marketable job skills. What do the rules do to people, and why do people follow them if all the rules do is perpetuate the existing power structure?
Because I have a late birthday, I finished my first semester of college before I turned 18. There, I read Night for the first time, read Nietzsche’s “Thus Spake Zarathrustra,” and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. I’m pretty sure now, when I look at the essays I wrote about those texts, that I had a real reason to use the things I read to find out how to make meaning out of suffering, because truth be told, I never came close to believing the idea that high school was supposed to be the best four years of my life. (Fortunately, thanks to my boys Marty, Hick, Muggs, Dave, PeeWee and other guys, they weren’t the worst four either.)
So maybe that helps you, maybe it doesn’t. On the surface, I was probably a pretty happy guy in high school, and I had a truckload of fun with my friends. But it doesn’t take too much digging for me to know that I really wanted to find answers to the things that pissed me off.