Last year Caro and I went to a Halloween party. It was our first Halloween since having Sam, and since he was ten months old already, he was sleeping on his own through the night. We left him with his sister, Gabri, who obligingly babysat for the night, as she had done earlier that month when we were in Chicago. I guess this is one of the perks of your kid’s having much older siblings.
Anyway, we went to this party at our friends’ house a few blocks away. I came up with the idea of dressing as some sort of a missionary and his exotic local wife. The main criteria that entered into this were the last-minute ready availability of clothes to dress the part. I just wore khakis and a formal collared shirt, put on a nametag, and carried around an old-looking book (which, incidentally, was not actually the Bible). I guess my main esthetic inspiration was the Mormon missionaries from the US that you sometimes see around Colombia or any other developing country, but I could have been from any denomination. The idea was just to look clean-shaven, very much from the US, and rigidly out of place. My wife Caro dressed up in a color-print two-piece dress I got her in Benin when I was doing thesis research, and a more or less matching head scarf she’d gotten in Laos (where she was doing her research while I was in Benin).
I thought we looked good, with a visual authenticity and a tongue-in-cheek flair. I did wonder if our outfits were somehow offensive, though in the end I didn’t worry about it. I mean, we basically went as a silly exaggeration of what we are—a binational couple, one from the US and the other from a developing country. On top of that, I am a development worker, which is pretty much like a missionary (though my wife is a development worker too, and frankly the nature of our work and our interests has me more in the role of backwards, exotic peasant in the backcountry, and my wife in a more formal professional role). So I don’t think we offended anyone, though it was a bit odd to ask ourselves to what extent our costumes were costumes and to what extent they represented who we really are!
No one at the party exactly got what we were trying to convey with the costumes, especially in my case, since I was dressed essentially as I always dress, just with a nametag. One person came up to my wife and said something like, “I don’t mean to be offensive, but is that a costume, or how you always dress? I mean, are you Afro-Colombian?” My wife didn’t quite know what to say, and stuttered out something like, “Well, yeah, part of my family is black, but I don’t really dress like this. I’m supposed to be dressed as an exotic native.”
Some months later we went to a distant niece’s quinceañera party. I know that in the US lots of Latinos make a big, official deal out of a girl’s quinceañera, but it’s not really a common custom here in Colombia. I mean, people have a larger-than-normal party for a girl’s 15th birthday, but there’s no formal Mass or official ritual for such a celebration. That said, I get the impression that some wealthy people in Colombia are starting to institute the quinceañera as a way to showcase their wealth and their love for their daughters. This party we went to was more or less such an affair. At an exclusive social club in Bogota, with a huge guest list, a delicious multi-course meal, and even a live reggaeton singer that I was informed was actually a known name. Caro’s niece did a choreographed dance with hired dancers to a Beyonce Knowles song, and went through various dress changes in the course of the night, according to the different moments in the night’s program.
I reflected on a number of things during this party, beyond the delicious food and the fun my wife and I had dancing together. First, that it takes a certain type of family to put one of these things together. A comfort with attention and ostentation, a certain lack of shame, certainly. But on the positive side, such an event implies a sincerity, a lack of acidic irony, and is an important ritual marking of the girl’s entry into adulthood. In particular I was impressed with the niece’s performance throughout. She exuded a confidence and a comfort with being in the spotlight at key moments, but didn’t seem ugly or like a ham or anything. If our teenage charges had been there, they probably would have laughed at the tacky presumption of it all, and they’d be right to. But on the other hand, I don’t know that either would have had the presence of character to do all that dancing and singing in front of everyone.
Beyond this, I reflected that this was another event in which we were donning costumes. In this case it was a suit for me and a lovely dress for my wife. Both outfits were very far from our habitual dress, and the attitude of ease and wealthy joviality we and everyone else assumed for the party were also different from our everyday, “real” selves. I didn’t feel artificial. Just conscious of our costumes, of the special nature of the event. In fact, I think it’s good to wear costumes at times. For much of our history as a species I imagine people have used different clothing for different occasions and activities. In the early 21st-century, I sometimes feel that we are standardizing our dress into sloppy T-shirts and jeans, which is no less a costume than any other, but would certainly represent a cultural loss if it or any other outfit were to become the only one we ever wear.
As I mentioned, my teenage charges were not in attendance. They didn’t know their cousin that well, and at any rate the party wasn’t their type of scene. I understood this, but frankly I knew the girl even less than they did, and I’m certainly not given to big, fancy private club parties. As I’ve mentioned in a recent blog post, I am concerned when these kids of ours don’t participate in family events. I wonder if it will lead to the disintegration of the extended family. If their lack of interest is just a temporary, teenage thing, then I don’t mind that much. But sometimes I worry that they’ll stay that way, like certain friends and family members we know who are in their 30s and still act like goofy, unthinking teens. In the year since this particular party, both Gabri and Manu have been generally a lot better about participating in family events. But I still worry.
Last year National Geographic put out a cover story on the teenage mind. It was very interesting, with insights fromchemists, behavioral psychologists, and the like. The central argument was that adolescents arein a very dynamic, adaptive phase; it was a vindication that teenagers aren’tas crazy as they seem, but are in fact learning and growing and advancing.
Despite the positive spin the magazine was trying to put on its analysis, it still would have pissed me off when I was a teenager. Back then (as now), I just wanted people to treat me like a human being, like a normal person, without classifying me or second-guessing what I was doing. Imagine if, in response to everything you did, people said or implied that you acted that way because of your age, or your race, or your economic status. We do this to teenagers all the time when we fixate on their being teens as a means of explaining (or even pathologizing) their thoughts or actions. I realize that there are indeed physical and chemical changes occurring in adolescents, and the National Geographic article helped me to understand some of them. But as a teen, I was just trying to act coherently and decently, as I do now, and I wanted the respect that such behavior merits at any age. I didn’t want to be analyzed or pigeonholed.
For me family and work have always been important. I like being around family, and I like working, especially doing skilled manual labor like fixing things around the house or building things. As a teenager, and especially as one that felt sort of insulted and demeaned by the very idea of being a teenager, I think I further latched onto these two things so as to feel more adult. I felt it was very important to go to family gatherings, even if I wasn’t always in the mood to talk much with my parents from day to day. And doing useful, adult work validated me, made me feel grown-up. I don’t think I was ever very lazy, or had many “typical” teenage days of just sleeping in all day. When I was about 12, my friends and I would lie around after intense basketball sessions, and joke about how lazy we were, not even wanting to get up to serve ourselves more food or drink. But that was about as close to lazy as I ever got. Today I don’t brook laziness in anyone, and I don’t consider adolescence as a valid excuse for being lazy. Even as a teenager I despised laziness in other kids, and this was compounded because I felt that it gave all us teens a bad name. I remember one summer day when I was 18 or 19 already, and I was sort of mentoring a friend’s boyfriend’s 14-year-old brother. We were with a bunch of my friends, and all they wanted to do was sit around under a fan. The younger kid and I spent all day in and out of the house, fixing things, hiking around, swimming, and every time we passed through I was amazed to see my own friends just sitting there like slugs!
In short, I was perhaps not a typical teenager, at least if the stereotypes and National Geographic truly depict typical adolescence. I wanted the genuine respect of other people, and I tried to earn it by being coherent and correct and responsible. Surely I didn’t always live up to these standards, but I tried. Later on in life, I have at times regretted being so serious and trying to be so grown-up as a teenager; maybe I would have had a better time and learned more if I just enjoyed the moment and didn’t worry about appearing immature to others. In this respect, I often feel that I still exhibit certain adolescent tendencies, perhaps because I never officially closed a clear, obvious phase of adolescence in my life. I still like to try new things, sometimes even to the point of taking irresponsible risks. I am still curious and rebellious and I think I still feel quite a bit of wonder at the world around me, as a teenager does when he drives for the first time, or sees a grown-up movie, or kisses a girl. Is this seemingly prolonged adolescence a good thing, or a sign of a stunted development because I didn’t let myself act like a teenager when I actually was?
Maybe I’m not so atypical. Maybe lots of people have continued their adolescence into middle age, or maybe this isn’t at all a continuation of adolescence, but simply one part of being an adult. I’ve met adults in many different places who, for better or worse, still act like kids in many ways. Furthermore, even though my friends and I were relatively calm and well-behaved teenagers, we did have some “typical” adolescent growing pains, and most of us seem to be fully-developed, normal adults. We tried light drugs and liquor, we argued with our parents, we fell in and out of love and lust. Maybe this adolescence, relatively drama-free and tranquil, is in fact the norm.
At any rate, I hope my son Sam has a normal adolescence, which is to say a time of testing and discovery, surely with some idiocy and incoherence along the way. I don’t want him to be as serious and self-righteous and self-conscious as I was, though from the contemplative attitude he’s borne since birth, I have a feeling he will fall into some of my same habits. But part of what passes as “normal” adolescence for many people that I don’t want to deal with in Sam is laziness. I want him to be at least somewhat responsible, active, motivated. I wonder if I can help him along in this by assigning him certain responsibilities in the household, like washing the dishes or milking the cow. In my own experience, both as a teenager with a fair amount of household responsibilities, and as an adult observer of teens with and without responsibilities, it seems that having these duties makes kids feel grown-up (indeed, if responsibility for others is the hallmark of adulthood, it doesn’t just make them feel grown-up but in fact makes them grown-up). I often think that much of the dangerous and self-destructive behavior teens are wont to engage in, like joining gangs or doing drugs or fucking promiscuously, are things that make them feel grown-up. These things are a warped vision of adulthood held by kids who’ve rarely been called upon to act as responsible, healthy adults. My theory is that feeling useful, alongside feeling loved, is a big part of what can steer a teenager toward relatively wise life choices. This idea of feeling useful is something we’ve perhaps forgotten in a post-agrarian society, where even as adults we often feel more like a burden on the world than like a productive force. If we remember that work is not degrading or undignified but in fact exalts a person, we will see that keeping our children from working and contributing to the household economy is not a privilege or a benefit to them, but rather a way to make them feel useless and immature.
I could be wrong, and Sam will still be a lazy goof-off even if he has to milk cows and clean sheds and fix dinner. But even in that case, at least we’ll have milk and a hot meal and an orderly house. It reminds me of a carpenter who fixed something here at our house in Bogota, and he was ragging on his kid for being lazy and not getting up until 7am to come to work with him during school break. Maybe his kid was lazy in that household’s standards. But I looked at my teenage charges that day, and they were still asleep in bed at 10am, and certainly weren’t planning on helping with carpentry around the house. If you set the bar high enough, even underachievement can be pretty productive!