|I did not look like these dudes, |
but was, in spirit.
I grew up in the time period and was a teenager in the same timeline of Teenage Wasteland, the late 1980s. My own experiences were different from the kids in the book—I would say that my hometown of Reading, MA was more affluent than Bergenfield, New Jersey, with more promise in my particular geographic area, more jobs due to the presence of a good economy in nearby Boston and its suburbs. My family was not affluent—my dad held a blue collar job building and developing centrifuges at a production plant in Brighton, while my mom took care of her three kids and did odd jobs (office cleaning, baby sitting) to help make ends meet, before eventually taking a job as a legal secretary as we got older. We were not anything close to wealthy, we didn’t always get what we wanted for birthdays or Christmas, and we wore hand me downs and a mixture of new and used clothing, and lived in a modest cape on a dead-end, blue-collar street. My town had its burnouts like those described in Gaines’ book: Reading High had a back parking lot where (incredibly, looking back from today) you could smoke. We had the metal kids, long-haired and denim jacketed, opposite the jocks. Some went to the nearby vocational school and became mechanics.
I had brushes with the burnout culture, but had a foot in each camp, which in hindsight may have made me somewhat unique. I played football, and track, and kept my hair short, and my grades were unremarkable, C’s and B’s, save for English, where I could pull As with little difficulty. But I also wore metal T shirts and hung out with a semi-fringe, though not burnout crowd. We loved metal, we drank when we could get our hands on beer or cheap vodka. A few of my friends smoked—cigarettes, and again when we could get our hands on it/post high school, weed. But, we didn’t do hard drugs, and we mostly stayed out of trouble with the police, a few scrapes here and there aside.
Like the kids in Teenage Wasteland I didn’t know what the fuck I wanted to do with my life. Not even a clue. I went to state college because I was a decent student, but mainly because it was the thing most kids did—not all kids, not for example my friend Wayne who went from retail to house siding to carpentry, and now today has his own small business. Not a couple other acquaintances and occasional drinking buddies who drifted into substance abuse. But most. Although thankfully I didn’t drift down that latter path, I was nonetheless a drifter, sliding into college, going along for the ride, partying and going to class. At college I had two major, life-altering occurrences—I met my future wife (we started dating as sophomores, and got married a year after graduation, in August of 1996) and I discovered a love of reading and writing after a false start in sociology and criminal justice. Eventually I chose English as a major and worked on my college newspaper. I excelled in all my English and writing classes because I loved the material.
I guess I was lucky, and met the right girl, which led to buying our first town house, setting me on the path of home ownership (two houses later, I’m living in the dream in a large colonial), and starting a family with two girls of my own. My love of reading and writing turned into a job on a small local newspaper, at the tail end of viability of local journalism. That later turned into a job at a medical b-to-b publishing company and my current, well-paying job and stable career.
Given my modest upbringing, the opportunities I had to take my life in a different, darker, direction, how did I end up where I am today and not in some dead-end, like that described in Teenage Wasteland?
The 80s had their issues. It was the decade of excess (again, for some), and probably the beginning of the have/have not wealth divide that is plaguing the country today. Manufacturing, blue-collar jobs like my dad held were being steadily eroded (my dad retired at the right time, in the late 90s, just as his company was bought and moved overseas. His old plant is now a condo). I stayed out front of ruin by cashing out on our first home (though taking a hit on our second), and getting out of print journalism just as the internet killed newspapering. I was competent—I’m being unnecessarily humble, I was an editorial star at my current job—which allowed me to survive the financial crisis of 2007-2008 and a deep round of layoffs. Due to severe mismanagement at the same company we endured an even worse series of layoffs and eventual purchase in 2012/2013, and I again survived those.
Kids were troubled back in the 80s. I saw some of that first-hand, and some of the consequences. But, kids were also troubled in the 60s, and 70s, and the 90s. And now today, with everyone wondering about the effects of staring at cell phones all day. “Kids these days” has probably been muttered by every single adult since ancient Greece, and in fact it has. Socrates himself wrote, “the children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” Sound familiar?
|1994? Sue and I, just getting started.|
I guess you could say (to use modern vernacular) that I was “privileged.” Some of that is true, in that I grew up in a stable if unremarkable U.S. suburbia of the late 20th century, not war-torn Bosnia. But I reject that as the sole story. I worked consistently, my entire life. I have had jobs since I was 11-12, and worked at every school break, doing every odd job you can possibly imagine. Shagging carriages, digging fence post holes, sweeping floors, delivering newspapers. As a professional I didn’t take work home with me, I didn’t kiss ass, but I always (and still) believed in obligation, and keeping promises. Maybe it’s the old Northern European/Danish blood in me, and my reverence for the oath and/or Protestant work ethic, but when I’m being paid to do a job from 8:30-5, I work, and I do it to the best of my ability. I don’t believe in half-assing anything I commit to. I don’t always commit, but when I do I’m in, and my work, if not always brilliant, ranges from well-done competence, to exceeding expectations. When you do this, over and over again, you will eventually be noticed, and promoted. I have seen others in very similar circumstances and with similar abilities fail.
The world is a troubled place, and always has been, and despite our best efforts to socially engineer it, probably always will be. Some people will get shit breaks. But I think hard work and dogged persistence can still lift you up from teenage wasteland.