Junior Seau and Middle-Aged Male Despair

This week’s column at Role/Reboot looks at the tragic suicide of NFL star Junior Seau, and the larger issue of rising suicide rates among the middle-aged. Excerpt:

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, since the mid-1990s, the bullying epidemic notwithstanding, teen suicide rates have been headed in the same happy direction as teen birth rates: down. At the same time, suicide rates for middle-aged men and women have been rising dramatically, with white males ages 45 to 54 at the highest statistical risk. Though the AFSP reports that women of all ages attempt to kill themselves more often than do men, men are far more likely to do so successfully—79% of all suicides in America in 2009 were by men. Much of that discrepancy is explained by favored methods—men, like Seau, tend to choose guns, while women are much more likely to attempt to overdose on prescription pills…

In a sense, middle-aged men are victims of their own privilege. Women are forced, cruelly, to come to terms with the reality of aging much earlier in life. Whether the biological clock is real or not, women are constantly reminded by the media and by their families that they have one ticking inside of them. Men and women are fed opposite messages: Women are told that they have “less time” than they actually have, while men are often misled into believing that they have all the time in the world. As a result, midlife’s physical and emotional changes may come as a ruder shock to men than they do to their wives and sisters.

Middle-aged men are also particularly unlikely, as Fields wrote for GMP, to have strong supportive networks. For many straight, married men, their wives are often their only close friends. The culturally-driven inability to connect emotionally with other men and the false assumption that platonic friendships with women invariably threaten a marriage leave many men isolated. This is a particularly acute problem for professional athletes who have been members of closely-knit teams since boyhood. Much of the coverage of Seau’s death has focused on the violent collisions on the football field he’d endured since his childhood days in Pee Wee football. Whatever role those brutal hits played in his death, it’s worth considering an additional factor: loneliness. Seau retired from the Patriots a few months after turning 40; it marked the first time since he was 10 that he wasn’t on a team. It’s not a stretch to suggest that the sudden loss of camaraderie for the divorced Seau may have played as great a role in his despair as traumatic brain injury….

The whole article here.

Ten Things Every Man Should Know by 30

A Happy May Day to all.

My column this week at Role/Reboot: Ten Things Every Man Should Know or Do by 30. Excerpt:

6. Don’t take women’s mistrust personally. By this age, you should stop saying inane things like “trust me” or “I’m not like the other guys.” Women aren’t mind-readers and in a world with as much sexualized violence as our own, we are guilty until proven innocent. Stop complaining and start taking steps to make yourself a safe ally and friend.

7. Decide how you feel about children. No, that doesn’t mean you have to have kids by the time you’re 30. But you don’t have forever, bub; men have biological clocks too. “I’ll think about that later” is a great thing for an 18-year-old to say. At 30, given what your female peers are experiencing and you yourself will soon go through, it’s time to make a decision about what you really want and start to act accordingly. If you never want kids, that’s great too—the point is, it’s time to start deciding.

8. Be able to prioritize. Put your wife or girlfriend first. Put your kids (if you have them) second. Put your family (yes, that includes your mother) third and your career fourth. Yeats wrote: “the intellect of man is forced to choose
 perfection of the life, or of the work.” His poem leaves no doubt that choosing the latter is a recipe for misery.

The whole thing here.

Romeo and Juliet laws at Role/Reboot

Happy Groundhog Day! 25 years ago this morning, I tumbled down a flight of stairs after leaving a German literature class in Dwinelle Hall on the Berkeley campus and ended up in the hospital with a severe concussion. Any February 2 since that doesn’t involve an ambulance ride is a fine one, regardless of what that groundhog sees.

I have a column up at Role/Reboot today on statutory rape and age-of-consent rules: Is Age Ever Just a Number? Teens, Sex, and Romeo & Juliet Laws. It was inspired by this piece by my Jezebel colleague, Erin Gloria Ryan.


It’s impossible to write age-of-consent laws in such a way that they take into account the maturity and experience of every individual adolescent. As with legislation about drinking and voting, society needs to set a cut-off point—even if that point seems arbitrary and unfair. Where we draw those points shifts as cultural mores shift. (When I was born in 1967, the drinking age was 18 and the voting age was 21. The reverse is true today.)

Though the law cannot be written to meet every individual situation, Romeo and Juliet laws do reflect an evolving and increasingly nuanced approach to teen sexuality. These laws are enforced by police, prosecutors, and judges, all of whom can use their own discretion when it comes to deciding whether real harm has been done. Even when the law says, as it must, that 14 is 14 and 18 is 18, those who apply it should do so with both common sense and an appreciation for the very real complexities of teen sexuality.

Paternal Age Effect at Role/Reboot

A post up at Role/Reboot today looks at the growing phenomenon of aging dads, and worries about the health issues involved: Patience and the Paternal Age Effect.  Excerpt:

… the compensation for reduced mobility is an exponential increase in patience. I know some wonderful young dads, but among my group of graying and thickening preschool papas, we’re universally convinced that what delights us now would have driven us crazy when we were in our 20s or 30s. More certain of who we are, more comfortable in our own skin, we’re better equipped to soothe our own self-doubts for the sake of showing up for our kids.

In his most famous poem, Donald Justice writes: “Men at 40 learn to close softly/the doors to rooms they will not be coming back to.” For first-time fathers in their 40s, the slightly elevated risks of the “paternal age effect” are offset by our greater likelihood of financial stability, our increased reservoirs of equanimity, and, perhaps, a bit more hard-won wisdom. If we’ve done the job of growing up right, we’ve begun to shut some of those doors of workaholism, self-doubt, and indulgent self-absorption to which we were prone in our anxiety-ridden 20s. To put it simply, we’re young enough to kick the ball around and patient enough to do it (almost) as long as our kids want. 

We’ll just need to take two Advil when we’re finally done.

Should the libido mature?

About five years ago, after I’d written a blogpost about my work as a youth group leader, I got an email from someone named Fiona. She asked:

Do you ever worry about being sexually attracted to your students or youth group kids? Don’t you ever think you might be tempted to cross the line? You write as if you are immune to temptation. Just because you don’t act on it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it!!

Do male youth leaders like you “behave” because you don’t have sexual desire for teens, or do you have sexual desire but just control it?

My answer was a simple one: no. No, I was never attracted to the kids in my youth group. No, it’s not about control; it’s about the genuine absence of desire.

One thing I’ve been blessed with: a consistent track record of being attracted to women my own age.  When I was 16, I thought about my fellow teens.  In my college years, I was attracted to other students.   Unlike some of my peers, when I was in college I had little interest in older women (honestly, I found them intimidating beyond words!)  I certainly lost interest in high school-aged girls not long after leaving Carmel High.

I think a case can be made that being peer-attracted throughout one’s life is developmentally healthy for everyone concerned. But it’s possible I’m universalizing (and worse, moralizing) from my own experience.

An anecdote:

When I was in college, I remember having a discussion with a male friend of mine.  "Sean" and I were talking about my friend’s father, who had recently left his mother for a younger woman. Sean was understandably disconsolate.  But one thing he said haunted me for a long time.  I’ll paraphrase:

Dad left mom for someone only a couple of years older than us. (We were 20 or so at this time).  I don’t find women my mom’s age sexy at all.  It seems my dad doesn’t either.  What if I get married, get to be my dad’s age, and find out I’m still attracted to girls in their early twenties?  What if my sex drive doesn’t mature along with the rest of me?

Boy, do I remember when Sean asked that question in bold!  I had no answer for him, beyond a feeble "Man, that would suck."  But it frightened me.  All around me I saw evidence of men in their forties and fifties who were strongly attracted to young women in their teens and early twenties.  It wasn’t just a media phenomenon; in my early years of taking women’s studies classes, I heard countless anecdotes from my female classmates about harassment at the hands of much older men.  It made me angry, it made me cynical, but it also terrified me.  Sean was right about me too: when I was 20, I didn’t find women twice my age to be at all sexually attractive.  What if I felt the same way when I too was 40?   For whatever reason, that fear nagged and nagged at me.

But I was lucky.  I found that my libido evolved along with the rest of me.  As I aged, my interest in my peers remained the same.  Gradually, girls in their teens lost their appeal.  Women in their 30s, and then older, began to become far more interesting.  By the time I was in my early 30s, this maturation in my own psyche was quite clear to me, even as I was going through a series of unsuccessful relationships.  My behavior was neither feminist nor gentlemanly, but even at my worst, it was always age-appropriate. Yes, I slept with some of my students early in my teaching career; almost all of them were within half a decade of my age, older than the traditional students. One was three years older. That doesn’t make my behavior any more defensible, but it does make it, perhaps, less overtly predatory.

Today, I can say that my wife’s beauty awes me.  With a body that bears the unmistakable marks of having given birth, she’s beautiful late in the fourth decade of her life, and I have every expectation that I will find her every bit as lovely in her eighth decade on this planet.

Once I began working with teenagers regularly at All Saints Church (some 12 years ago), I found that my emotional response to "my kids" was, not surprisingly, often intensely paternal.  I’ve wanted to be a father for a few years now, and the teenagers with whom I work today are easily old enough to be my biological children.  And while I adore these teens in the specific, I find that those protective, paternal feelings exist for all boys and girls of similar age.  While I can certainly acknowledge the aesthetic beauty/handsomeness of certain teens, juvenile loveliness strikes no chord in me.  This is not merely due to my very happy marriage, but also due to this strong internal sense that sexual desire is rightly directed towards one’s approximate peers.

When I was in my early teens, one of my first celebrity "crushes" was on Kristy McNichol. (Famous for "Little Darlings", but also for a favorite TV show few of you remember, "Family.") Then in high school and college it was on Jennifer Jason Leigh.  Now, if I were to admit to one at all, it would be (as I’ve posted before) on Mariska Hargitay.  All three are just slightly older than I am.   And while I admire Scarlett Johannsson as an actress, hearing her dubbed "the sexiest woman alive" made me laugh out loud with disbelief — not because she isn’t lovely, but because she seems so damned young to me.

I do not mean to suggest that someone who is 44 (as I am) shouldn’t be attracted to someone who is 34 or 54.  But those ages seem to me — and this may be my own peculiarity — the outer limits of acceptability.   Anything beyond ten years either direction seems, well, odd.  At the same time, I acknowledge that age-disparate relationships can work, as long as the younger partner is genuinely emotionally mature.  A relationship between a 35 year-old and a 15 year-old is immoral, criminal, and indefensible; a relationship between a 55 year-old and a 35 year-old is none of those things. 

Still, I admit that I am perplexed by those who find such disparities to be erotically or emotionally exciting.  For me, the truth is simple: since I hit puberty, I have never experienced sexual attraction to someone old enough to be my mother or young enough to be my daughter.  And I acknowledge that one reason why I am often so hard on men who do experience that attraction to much younger women is because I can’t empathize with it, not even for a moment.   I try and "get it", and I just can’t. 

It is possible that my experience that the objects of my desire age as I age is just a quirk of my personality.  It certainly hasn’t been the result of any conscious effort on my part (and my regular readers know I am quick to sing the praises of conscious effort!).  But I can’t help but think that "my way" is the fundamentally healthier way.  It just seems to me that a great deal of heartache and exploitation could be avoided if we could all just match our libidos to our approximate peer group.  Or am I wrong?

My sober bar-mitzvah: 13 years clean

Thirteen years ago this morning, I was released from the locked psychiatric ward at Northridge Hospital in the San Fernando Valley. Tracy P., (a former girlfriend who had become my one sane companion in the last months of my downward spiral) came to collect me. She brought me a pair of sandals to wear, as I had on nothing but borrowed scrubs and hospital slippers.

It was a hot day, and we stopped to get a Slurpee at a 7-11 before getting on the 101 for the short drive back to Pasadena. “Are you going to be okay”, Tracy asked, her voice cracking with concern. “Yes”, I said. “I think so. I don’t really know.”

And I didn’t really know. It was my seventh psychiatric hospitalization in eleven years. This time, I’d nearly killed myself and someone else. I was 31 years old, and had been battling depression and addiction since my teens. I’d somehow managed to get tenure at Pasadena City College, but I wasn’t sure I was going to live to the start of fall semester.

But I did live. I chose life, I chose sobriety, and one day at a time a miracle unfolded. I stayed sober. I took a temporary vow of celibacy. I went to therapy and Twelve Step meetings round the clock. And in that hot summer of ’98, my life changed for good.

I don’t want to oversell my metamorphosis. I haven’t been perfect since July 1, 1998, not by a very long shot. But since that morning a baker’s dozen years ago, I’ve been given the gift of staying sober one day (and sometimes, five minutes) at a time. I’ve found contentment, I’ve found purpose, and I’ve found tremendous joy. And I’ve lived long enough to be here today, on my “13th birthday”, or as I like to think of it, my “sobriety bar-mitzvah.”

So many people I knew and loved were not as lucky as I. They didn’t live to be parents, or to feel their bodies settle and thicken with the onset of middle age. They died young and rarely beautifully, taken away by a disease that for some reason I may never understand could not, did not, take me.

Young — and not so — feminists speak out in Santa Monica

Last night, I went with some friends to the Young Feminists Speak Out event in Santa Monica, co-sponsored by Ms Magazine and other progressive organizations. I knew several of the organizers through Ms and the Feminist Majority (the offices of which are walking distance from my house).

The gathering was at a fun and funky clothing store. Boys with long hair were jamming on guitars when I walked in and made my way to the “bar” for a diet Coke in a plastic cup. I joked to my friend Monica that it was like going to progressive events in the Eighties: the same music, the same plastic cups, the same sorts of flyers on tables. I had a flashback to Berkeley, circa 1985: back then the flyers at feminist gatherings decried militarism and encouraged organizing to support the Sandinistas and divesting from South Africa; today, they decry militarism and demand withdrawal from Afghanistan and the closing of Guantanamo. It’s a mighty over-used cliché, but plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

But the speakers were terrific, including Melanie Klein (of Feminist Fatale and a fellow community college women’s studies prof); Morgane Richardson, Brie from Revolution of Real Women and Miranda Petersen and Myra Duran, both from Feminist Majority. (I’m sure I’m leaving someone out.) I got to meet some great folks whose work I admire, like Pia Guerrero, the founder of Adios Barbie. We had many of the heavy hitters of SoCal feminist activism all together, and that was wonderful.

Events like these, as several people pointed out, are less common in Los Angeles than they are in San Francisco or New York. Angelenos famously have a reputation for refusing to drive long distances for events on weeknights, though that’s more a stereotype than reality. I had students who came from the northern San Fernando Valley and from east of Pasadena, spending more than an hour on freeways to get to the event on Lincoln Avenue. Whatever the reason, gatherings like this are rarer than they probably ought to be.

The discussion got off to an awkward start, as the older folks in the room picked up on what we know was unintentional ageism. One panelist in her twenties said that an “older generation of feminists had fliers, we have Twitter.” My forty three year-old self looked at my dear friend and collaborator Shira Tarrant, who was standing with me in the back of the room. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of the speakers – and we were the ones with our iPhones and Blackberrries in hand, tweeting live updates. (Check the hashtag #femla.) It was an innocent but annoying mistake that we hear a lot: the speaker had confused the kind of tools we used for organizing when we were their age with the kind of tools we use for organizing now. At least in my circle of activists, some of the most social-media savvy feminists (the ones with heavy Facebook, blogging, and Twitter presences) are old enough to remember Watergate. We don’t stop learning new tricks when we turn 40, people!

Shira and I posed for a photo, playfully flipping off the camera, and giving the bird to ageism. I put it on my Facebook, and a healthy conversation about feminism and ageism promptly ensued. (And I’m happy to accept FB friend requests from readers, btw.)

Intergenerational conflict in feminist activism is famously oversold. The use of the term “waves” to describe different generations of the movement is also clumsy. Sometimes, young feminists cluster “older” Second Wavers together, so that everyone born between 1920 and 1980 gets thrown into the same category. Shira and I are old enough to be the parents of most of last night’s speakers — but young enough to be Gloria Steinem’s children, and Betty Friedan’s grandkids. To the extent that generational conflict exists, it does so in complicated and not easily reducible ways. Young people do tend, at times, to imagine that they are the first to have certain concerns, the first to do battle over what they see as new issues. Some of the time, they’re right: old problems do get solved, new challenges do arise. But when those new challenges arise, they often arise for the “old” as well as the young. We may all be of different ages, as I remind my students, but we often face the same problems. (For example, the idea that eating disorders and body dysmorphia don’t happen in the lives of women over forty is a commonly held misconception by the young. Wishful thinking or myopia, it just ain’t so.)

In the great scheme of things, we are contemporaries. And kids, take note: your teachers sometimes tweet more than you do.

But to reduce the discussion down to that one problem would be unfortunate and unfair. There was much in the presentation that was good and valuable. I was heartened to hear not only the commitment to intersectionality (meaning the insistence on connecting violence against women to a larger culture of racial, economic, and cultural oppression), but also to hear speakers like Brie and Melanie make the case that body image and self-esteem matter politically. Far too often, there’s a tendency on both the left and the right to be dismissive of eating disorders and body dysmorphia as serious, even central issues that deserve to be on the front-burner. The far left, stuck in a Marxist analysis, tends to think of these concerns as “bourgeois navel-gazing”; the right tends to think of them as questions of individual concern that don’t require a collective response. But as was pointed out last night, and as all of us who do this work with young women know well, self-esteem is always political. Young women who aren’t happy with their bodies, who feel overwhelmed by the pressure to pursue an unattainable ideal, are suffering. That suffering is real, and it’s not something that they can be dismissively told to “get over”. And if feminism is concerned with anything, it’s concerned with ameliorating — and ultimately ending — suffering.

I’m deeply appreciative of the young activists who organized this event, and I look forward to many more.

The list isn’t life: some thoughts on the crushing expectations of a written chronology (and on Ed Miliband)

On Saturday, the Labour Party in Britain chose Ed Miliband as its new leader. As a dual citizen with a keen interest in UK politics, I followed the election with some interest, and was not surprised at the result, which had been widely predicted in the days leading up to the party balloting.

But I also greeted the Miliband ascension with a mild degree of chagrin. The new Labour leader was born in 1969, and is more than two years my junior. He becomes the first major UK party leader to be younger than I am (though to be fair, Nick Clegg and David Cameron, the deputy PM and the PM respectively, are both less than a year older than I.) It is only a matter of time, obviously, before both of my countries are led by men and women who came into this world after I arrived.

I confess that throughout my life, I’ve always felt a twinge of jealousy, however minor, when I see someone younger accomplish something extraordinary. As emphatic as I am that men do well to accept and even embrace aging (particularly when it comes to seeing much younger women as daughter figures rather than as potential sexual partners), for years I was haunted by a sense of not quite living up to my potential. Until recently, that sense tended to be exacerbated whenever I saw someone younger than I was achieving fame and recognition.

I first felt this feeling of jealousy when Boris Becker won Wimbledon in 1985. The shock victory of the unseeded 17 year-old, still the youngest All-England men’s champion ever, stunned me; the red-headed German sensation was just a few months my junior, but he represented a generational shift away from the Borgs, the Connors, and the McEnroes who were comfortably older than I was. Becker was younger than me, and on the cover of newspapers across the world. My ego, prone to grandiose fantasies, was strangely bruised. As a result of Becker’s victory, I developed a penchant for rooting for the oldest athletes on the field, regardless of anything else. (Hence I’m a Brett Favre fan these days, though the NFL’s only grandfather is also a couple of years younger than I am.)

Perhaps my sense of “not living up to my potential” began even earlier, when my father told me the story of Mozart, who had composed his first serious works at five. I was perhaps seven when I heard the story, and felt an awful sense of having failed at something. I looked worried enough that my father, an amateur musician and passionate classical enthusiast, had to reassure me that he wasn’t expecting me to match the genius from Salzburg.

I thought about Becker and Mozart again on Saturday when I heard the news of the Miliband victory. And I thought also of the many young women with whom I work who suffer from something similar: the terrible sense that they are running out of time.

I’ve written often about what I call the Martha Complex: perfectionism in adolescent girls. One feature of the Martha Complex is the urge to make lists, particularly those that include the ages by which the young woman expects to accomplish key goals. A high school senior might write in her journal that she wants her B.A. by 22, her M.A. by 24. She’d like to meet “Mr. Right” by 25, marry by 27, and have her first child before she’s 30. Often, the chronology is more compressed than that, but the inclusion of educational, romantic, and reproductive goals is very common. Usually, there’s a lot that’s expected by 30! Continue reading

The first promise I could keep: of school photos and comforting the inner child

Earlier this week, I had an interesting conversation via email with an old friend of mine from middle school. He had added me on Facebook after noting we had many mutual contacts; we went to Carmel Middle School together from 1978-1980. I barely remembered him.

He reminded me, not in a cruel way, of what an unhappy boy I’d been in those years. I don’t know many people who regard the years between 11 and 13 as the most fulfilling of their childhood, but I was an awkward, unpopular, thoroughly alienated kid in the sixth and seventh grades. My old acquaintance still has our seventh grade yearbook (mine is long lost), and mentioned looking at my photo again recently, and seeing how evidently miserable I was. Minutes before the photo was taken one morning in September 1979, I’d had my backpack stolen. (I found it later in a trash can; it had been taken more out of puerile cruelty than greed.) In the picture, it’s clear that there are tears in my eyes. The yearbook photographers could airbrush out the skin blemishes that had already begun to ravage my face, but they couldn’t do anything about the pain in my expression.

The yearbook may be gone, but I have a copy of that photo. Indeed, that picture of me at age twelve was on my bureau for several years after I got clean again in 1998. Days after being discharged from what I pray will be my last hospitalization due to drugs and alcohol, I found a 8×10 color glossy print of that terrible photo tucked into some family papers. On an impulse, I stuck it on my mirror. A few days later, I put it in a frame.

I wanted to remind myself, each day, of the unhappiness that had been so much a part of my youth. I didn’t do it in order to wallow in self-pity. I did it because I decided, at 31, that it was time to heal the wounds of that scared and lonely and angry little boy. Despite his pain, that little boy had persevered in school, finding refuge in books. He had found refuge in animals and in nature. As isolated and alienated as he felt, and would feel for years, he had had hope — hope that someday things would be different, that he would be happy, that he would feel as if he had purpose and that he belonged. That hope had sustained him.

But that little boy was already an addict. When that seventh grade picture was taken, he hadn’t yet found drugs and alcohol. (He would find them soon, within a year.) But he had found compulsive masturbation, he had found sugar, he had found self-mutilation. He knew how to alter his mood to grant him a temporary reprieve from what was in his head. And many of those behaviors would only get worse, far worse, over the ensuing two decades.

When I made the decision in 1998 that I had to get sober, that I had to give it all up (drugs, booze, sexual acting out, self-injuring), I found strange comfort in that picture of my boyhood self. I remembered the old saying that “the boy is father to the man”, and decided (perhaps it was because I’d read too much John Bradshaw) that I was going to be the father to that terribly unhappy boy whose face I looked at every morning. During that long strange summer of detox and celibacy and growth, I looked at that boy every morning. I usually spoke to him, as I dressed for the day: “Don’t worry, Hugo, I’m here. We’re going to make it.”

My peers and I are transitioning into middle age with varying degrees of self-acceptance. I have friends and acquaintances who are still haunted by what they endured three decades ago and more; the scars of childhood and puberty don’t always heal. But for me, one key tool in my own growth, in my journey from being ruled by an unhappy and lonely inner child to being an inner and outer adult, was my commitment to that little boy whom I once was. I could not undo the hurt that had been done. But I could remember his desperate hope that things would get better, and I knew I could make those hopes real. As narcissistic as it may sound, that memory of my childhood self became a key instigator of my adult transformation.

It was unthinkable that that unhappy twelve year-old should have nothing more to look forward to than a lifetime of addiction. It was too much to bear to think that he should spend the rest of his days oscillating between pathetic expectation and crushing disappointment. He needed more and he needed better. And by God’s grace (and the 12 steps, therapy, and a hell of a lot of hard work), that sullen and isolated and hurting little boy saw his deepest wish come true.

I recommend this technique to everyone. Take out that embarrassing picture of your childhood self at your most awkward and most miserable. Put it somewhere prominent. And make that kid a promise that their pain will not endure forever. In ’98, I was a man who had broken all of my vows and promises a thousand times over. And as it happened, the first promise I could keep was to an unhappy little boy who needed so badly to know that everything — everything — would get better.

Holly dyed her hair: more on myths of female frailty, our fear of women’s anger, and what happens when the truth comes out

I posted earlier this year against the “myth of female frailty” and the lie that “one mistake will ruin your life”. The topic of that myth arose again this week when I met with one of my former All Saints youth group kids, “Holly.”

Holly, whom I’ve known since she was in eighth grade, is now headed into her senior year of high school; she’s 17. When I first met Holly, and indeed for the next several years, Holly “presented” outwardly as the pretty, outgoing, poised and popular blonde whose passage through adolescence seems almost unfairly graceful. Holly was much sought after as a friend (and more) by boys and girls alike; at our Wednesday night youth group meetings, I often saw not-very-subtle attempts by kids of both sexes to sit on “Holly’s couch” and be near her.

Of course, Holly was far more than the walking embodiment of a stock American stereotype. Not only was she exceptionally bright and a particularly talented writer, her childhood had been touched by tragedy and loss to a degree that set her well apart from most of her peers. A few — a very few — of her friends got to know the depth of that loss and its impact on Holly’s life; I was one of the small group of adults to whom she also regularly turned. I watched her struggle with the disconnect between how the rest of the world perceived her and how she felt on the inside, and we talked often about her frustration with the realization that she was the object of desire, admiration, jealousy, and envy when for the most part, she felt out of place and frequently lonely. Holly’s is not an unfamiliar story — at its most extreme, call it the “Richard Cory” phenomenon after that famous Edward Arlington Robinson poem so loved by generations of misperceived adolescents.

This summer, Holly broke up with her first serious boyfriend, got her first lead in a play, and let go of a great many of her old friends. When I met with her earlier this week, her long blonde hair was mahogany brown. Despite the heat, she wasn’t wearing the short skirts that had been her trademark since junior high school. She wore corduroy pants, a t-shirt, and a vest. Not a trace of make-up on her face, but when we met at a local coffee shop, there was a sense of real happiness behind her eyes. Holly’s making changes; the outside shift reflects an inner transformation — and the brunette tresses a greater willingness to expose to the world the darker, more complex aspects of her personality. Continue reading