Baba O’Reilly, Splendor in the Grass, 16 Candles, or Something…

Every year, among the last two Thursdays in June, I turn over the tube to good ol’ ESPN (wish it was better ol’ TNT) to spend the next three to four hours watching the NBA Draft.  It’s a holiday for me, of sorts; call it a day of remembrance for the naivete of youth and the trauma of early teenage years.  Since 2003, I’ve seen individuals enter the NBA who were younger than me (by the way, the first NBA player drafted who was younger than me? LeBron James, followed by the next three picks in that draft).  This marks the eleventh draft since players started being younger than me; by now, these players were born when I was in the fifth grade.

Every year, and I do mean every year, I hear the talking heads talk about players who are mature beyond their years or have maturity issues.  Perhaps because it’s bad marketing, the questions about maturity have become more subtle every year.  In 2003, they were statements; in 2005, they were questions; in 2010, they were subtle intimations; in 2013, they will be whispers that only get aired if they suddenly cut back from commercials. Every year, some players have unfortunate, well-publicized breakdowns; usually, these players are the same players that had the subtle intimation of maturity issues, but that’s not always the case.  This year, there will be a player – and I’m not sure who – who will inevitably become a headache for his teammates, coaches, general managers, ownerships, and probably even the people at the ticket booth.  They’ll chalk it up to the questionable maturity that was always there (but they only whispered about in between commercials).

These guys are 19.  Jenn, Steve, you could probably come up with a laundry list of immature things that I did when I was 19  — and I wasn’t even supposed to be one of those guys.  Sure, I didn’t stab anyone, deface anything, mysteriously cause a sliding glass door to shatter, or tell the greatest professor on campus that I was too hung-over to focus (and I wasn’t, thank you very much).  However, I was 19, and I did somewhat typical 19 year old things: midnight runs to whatever was open, making fun of my roommate and his booty calls, feeding the trolls, etc.  Now, you give a nineteen year old several million dollars and a bunch of unscrupulous businessmen who are trying to take their cut; not only are you creating a millionaire without the life experience to know how to handle wealth, you’re also creating a disdain for authority figures (they’re only in it for the money, anyhow.) 

After that, maturity doesn’t seem all that important when the bankroll is guaranteed.  However, don’t hate them because they net more in a week than you do in a year; at 19, these guys (kids really) become more than just working professionals, but also expensive commodities.  Yes, they may make $10 million dollars by the time their college graduating class walks (admittedly, not all of that is from their base salary), but they’re also raking in more than that for their ownership, particularly if the player is a huge draw from day one (such as LeBron).   Between guaranteed money coming their way and the pressure that comes with being in the limelight, these guys are more likely to blow their money on diamonds than they are to shine like diamonds.  Darko Milicic, who just turned 28 on the 20th, left the NBA after a ten year career; according to basketball-reference.com, Milicic purportedly made at least $52 million, despite being widely classified as a bust (or “draft mistake).  In that time, Milicic burned a lot of bridges, and many questioned his work ethic and ridiculed his inability to make good on what at first seemed like a heaping helping of potential greatness.  However, if you believe basketball-reference.com, he made at least $3.6 million by the time he turned 19.  What would you do if you were a millionaire at 19?

                What does this have to do with writing?  Well, a lot and a little.  We all have shortcomings that we acknowledge, and those that we don’t.  For me, the issue always has been writing children, but particularly teens.  Sure, there’s a lot of writers that aren’t particularly good at doing this; Nathaniel Hawthorne is among the most literary of examples. I’d like to think that it’s because I (or we, as writers) had a different way of looking at things when we were ten than the other 89.4% (or whatever) of the world.  By sayin g that, I start thinking of the NBA general manager who thought “oh, he was such a pain in the butt that Denny Krum couldn’t reel him in; oh, well, we’re special – we’ve got this!”  I do think I was different; I was driven, obsessed in some things, but not in others.  How many fifteen year olds are there out there that take pride in the fact that they walk funny (because their feet are sore from the previous day’s workout)?  How many sixteen year olds are given a four page creative writing project, and stay up late into the night to churn out a fifteen page short story?  Probably about the same amount of teenagers that stay up late into the night, throwing a tattered leather ball through a hoop, hoping that they will someday make the NBA.

                Even when I was nineteen, I had trouble creating an average nineteen year old in my stories.  Instead, my nineteen year olds became a pastiche of James Dean, Corey Feldman, and John Carter of Mars.  Okay, perhaps not that odd, but these were nineteen year olds who were already driving cherry collector cars and were already well versed in hand to hand combat, metallurgy, and whatever it took to catch killer aliens, burglars, and other miscreants.  I seem to recall one character who could step onto a track, three years removed from any training, and churn out sub-five minute miles, all the while so stoned that he could barely drive from the Capitola Mall to the Soquel High track.  By the way, being a druggie was this guy’s big flaw.  Yes, because even 19-year-old, ne’er-do-well druggies try to go out there and totally kill it at an All-Comer’s Meet.  Aside from it all, the guy was a rabid skirt-chaser.  Hmm, I wonder why I never really pushed forward with that story.

                I’m getting close to 30.  Not quite there yet, but it’s coming up. Fortunately, not all of my characters are 19-year-old druggies with wings on their shoes.  However, it becomes harder and harder to write about individuals in their teens.  When I do, it comes from a space in time when I was a teenager.  Cell phones? MySpace? Facebook?  Well, those hadn’t quite hit yet.  Texting?  I had no idea what that was until I was already in my early twenties.  When I was your age…  Oh wait, I’m likely not ranting at teens.  Seriously, though, I managed to avoid American Idol, sbarro, The Gap, American Eagle, and the red “no, I swear, it’s root beer” cups throughout my teen years, and I (thankfully) have no idea how I’d update that list today.

                When writing this, I can’t help but think of the fictional writer Melvin Udall, when asked how he wrote women so well, and his answer “I take a man, and I take away reason and accountability.”  Replace women with teens, and I wonder if that works.  I know it doesn’t, but I also think that the kind of teens that populate books are quite a bit different than the kind of teens that populate real life.  They’re always an exaggeration. 

When they’re angsty, they’re especially angsty:

“Do I want a chocolate cookie?  Go f### yourself, of course I want a goddamned chocolate cookie, but I’m not going to take one because I’m so f###ing pissed off!”

When they’re opinionated, they’re especially opinionated:
“Like, there should be some sort of law where old women have to wear their hair short or something.”

And when they’re intelligent, well, they’re off the charts:
“There’s ten places where the Linux kernel could improve itself, and let me illustrate why, in Latin.”

Two comics that I never hesitate to read are Zits and Luann.  They draw me in.  Ironically enough, I think that they get teenagers better than I ever could.  Then again, Jeremy Duncan, the protagonist of Zits, does things and gets away with things that would’ve put me on restriction for months.  He gets rewarded in ways that I’d never imagined for miniscule stuff.  Luann Degroot, the protagonist of Luann, is kind of the opposite.  Not only does it not seem like she’s doing anything, nobody seems to mind that she’s not doing anything.  Her friends are all interesting, but she just seems to complain about how boring her life is.  In recent arcs, I’ve wondered if they’re going to stop calling it Luann and instead start calling it Life with the Degroots.  Again, not that I’m complaining about either strip; I’ll continue reading them until I burn them so that my future children don’t get any distorted ideas of reality.

That still doesn’t solve my problem, in my inability to understand teenagers to the point that I can actually write about them convincingly.  It also doesn’t solve the NBA’s problem, to the point that one of those young men will end up completely imploding and be out of the league and out of their fortune by the time they’re my age.  At the same time, guess who’s watching a tape of the NBA Draft on Saturday night.

How would you write about teens?

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