and I quote

september 2013

click for permalink September 21, 2013

From a fun site called People born on August 28 are blessed with superb communication skills. They are extremely convincing speakers and know how to get others to listen to them.... they are also skilled crafts workers with excellent organizational [and] debating skill. Their informed comments on a huge range of subjects are likely to have the backing and validation of detailed research or personal experience... They are highly principled, and the word dishonesty simply isn't in their impressive vocabulary.


Most people won't readily admit to lying, but there are certain situations — whole life stages, as it turns out — when it's universally accepted that everybody lies. Everyone has called in sick for work when they weren't. Everyone has claimed they had other plans when they really just didn't feel like going out. Everyone lies to collectors and telemarketers on the phone — not to mention the whole parallel universe of polite lies, but those are frankly beyond the scope of this post.

I was reading this article the other day called The Satanic How-To Guide to Exalted Girldom about, among other things, how the author lied her way through middle school in pursuit of the kind of quasi-mythic popularity inspired by the Sweet Valley High series of books for "young adults" (because it was the eighties and the word "Tween" hadn't been invented yet). Here's an excerpt:

Because pretty, popular girls were almost always depicted as being wealthy or upper-middle-class, I also began to lie about my family's finances. Undermining my fib was our modest, slightly run-down home next to a gas station on a major thoroughfare in town, where my sister and I could often be seen doing gymnastics in the front yard. I incorporated the gas station into my lie. My family owned it, I said." (by Fiona Helmsley)

If you're female, the preceding paragraph quite possibly brought back a flood of memories, some autobiographical, others observational (that's "hearsay" in legal-speak) and some probably, if we're being honest, apocryphal. In fact, this article reminded me of a list I compiled a while back as an exercise from one of those creative-juices/ self-help books, under the (somewhat appropriately) deceptive heading, "childhood impressions." While it may have started out as a list of impressions that children have of the world, it quickly evolved into a list of weird, fucked up things my friends and I did or believed or obsessed over or lied about between the ages of five and thirteen.

Some of these memories are as clear as if they happened last year; like me and my friends spending the entire bus ride through downtown Seattle in rush-hour traffic every day hunkered down in the back seat staring out the rear window and judging people in their cars. We took turns writing down license plate numbers of potential kidnappers and spazzing out hysterically whenever the targets of our surveillance exhibited any reaction at all to the sight of our faces pressed up against the glass like a bunch of sketched-out little lab monkeys.

I wouldn't want anyone to think I did all (or even any) of these things, but of course I'll admit to some of them, e.g. the above. The rest were either directly observed or heard about from friends. Ironically, in that sense (and only in that sense), they're all true.

Childhood impressions

  • Trusting that adults will drop everything to watch you and your friends perform elaborate dance routines
    • ...with several costume changes
    • ...that last through one entire side of a mix tape (that's 45 minutes for those of you born after 1990)
  • Feeling you are "half" animal; horse, dog, cat, rabbit (werewolf?)
  • Suspecting you were adopted (if you weren't)
    • ... and creating an origin story where one or both parents were: aliens, royalty in exile, witches, vampires, a race of magicians/shapeshifters, subjects of a secret government program of genetic experimentation
  • Naturally, this means you have a secret identity* that you must never reveal (except when you do)
  • The certainty that you will have mutant/magical/super powers (they usually manifest around puberty, you know)
  • Knowing you can communicate psychically with animals, friends, your sibling, the dead, your home planet
  • Being convinced you have a long-lost twin
    • ...with whom you may or may not share a psychic connection
  • Wanting to be invisible, or to have the ability to fly
    • ...and practicing for it
  • Trying out blindness around the house (maybe with a bandana and a stick)
  • Test driving L'Eggs egg breast implants
  • Pretending to be deaf, affecting a foreign accent, a lisp or a limp (in public)
  • Faking amnesia
  • Pretending to faint
  • Impersonating your own secret twin
  • Inventing an imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend
    • ...who you met over the summer
    • ...who goes to another school
    • ...who is fabulously wealthy
    • ...or a child star (which explains why it's a secret)
    • ...or a vampire/werewolf/alien/yes, this predated Twilight by decades
  • Telling everyone your house is haunted
    • ...Producing bent spoons and mangled forks to back up your claims
  • Inviting your friends over for a seance/exorcism/conjuring
    • Pretending you're possessed, have multiple personalities or repressed memories from a kidnapping/alien abduction/previous life/secret government experiment
    • Combing the library for ghost stories and true crime murder stories to flesh out your past-life/poltergeist/demonic possession persona

Pop culture both fuels and feeds off the predisposition of children to feel they are magically special and privileged; that if you can just keep a low profile through high school, you can then claim your birthright as Superman, Sleeping Beauty, Harry Potter or Sidney from Alias. As the first of those examples indicates, this is an origin story as old as time, but the 1975 film Escape to Witch Mountain is the earliest example I remember from my formative years. (So was The Shining but I didn't even know that until I finally watched it this summer.) Then there were TV shows like Matthew Star, which must have been seen by more people than I thought because it actually ranked 22nd on the 50 Worst Shows of All Time list, but the 80s took the trope to a whole new level.

If you leave aside Jesus and Superman, the psychic/ super-powered child meme seems to have really exploded into public consciousness in the era of my childhood. I recently re-read Firestarter (yes, that Firestarter), which was written by Stephen King in 1980. I was barely ten years old the first time I read it, so it was essentially new to me and I was struck by the descriptions of what having "psychic powers" felt like. It was so easy as a kid to imagine that you too could set things on fire and smite people with your mind if you got angry enough. Even the less flashy but still lethal powers of mental persuasion that her dad wielded, although he was quickly incapacitated by their repeated use, seemed like perfectly believable character attributes.

Books, TV shows and movies throughout the decade made such things as telepathy, telekineses and the ability to lash out at people with the deadly force of your manifest rage seem commonplace. Of course twins could talk to each other telepathically (apparently even the Sweet Valley High twins shared brief episodes of psychic connection), little kids could see ghosts and E.T.s, and everyone had the occasional prophetic dream, visitation from a dead relative or guardian angel (often in the guise of an old homeless person who imparted a critical piece of advice or encouragement before mysteriously vanishing). TV Tropes points out that "a similar type of character exists in most of the output of Stephen King," and he at least went to great lengths to make it clear that the downside of supernatural "gifts" usually outweighed the benefits. Some people had them, some people didn't, but make no mistake, these powers were a burden and maybe you should consider yourself lucky you weren't so "special."

(But yeah, right.)

A generation of "latchkey kids" internalized these ideas and thirty years later, an idealized self-image occupies the part of the brain that was once reserved for thoughts of "god." The Last Psychiatrist describes this phenomenon, too pervasive to be a disorder, in a series of essays we'll call The Matrix Effect. Here's an excerpt:

You walk through life diligently performing the tasks assigned to you, automatically. But always the thousand yard stare, the tiniest expectation that it is all about to change... you hold active the remote probability that you are more than your current appearance. You're not unfinished, you're undiscovered. If, in the preposterous situation of alien invasion or talent scout or ninja attack, you'd know exactly what to do... You know ninjas aren't going to attack. But... In a reality which would permit the existence of a ninja attack, it is inevitable that it would allow you to know kung fu.

Office Space, American Beauty and Fight Club all came out in 1999, the same year as The Matrix, and these movies all feature one pivotal scene — essentially the same scene — in which the main character or characters have had their fill of the maddening tedium of office life and, acting as audience proxies, they express their pent-up frustrations in the only meaningful way possible; creative destruction. Catharsis through chaos. The Id of an entire generation is unleashed upon the sterilized, fluorescent-lit prison cells of modern middle-class life.

Maybe you couldn't awaken to a reality where the life you knew is merely an illusion and your destiny is to save humanity from imprisonment, but perhaps you could throw off the shackles of corporate conformity ("You are not your fucking khakis"), smash up some office supplies, laugh in (or punch) the face of smug middle-management, commit an audacious act of compensatory extortion and lay claim to a more authentic existence in... Construction work? The afterlife? The ruins of a post-capitalist survivalist utopia?

(As an aside, if you want to see something truly depressing, compare this list of American films released in 1999 to the list of American films from 2009. Sure, you could argue there are more documentaries on the latter list but if that's the difference that jumps out at you, you were probably one of those people who thought it was just about time for a "Total Recall" remake.)

Director David Fincher said of Fight Club: "We're designed to be hunters and we're in a society of shopping. There's nothing to kill anymore, there's nothing to fight, nothing to overcome, nothing to explore. In that societal emasculation this everyman is created."

The life of an über-mensch is a lonely one, though, and if you want to bring your friends along for the ride into self-actualization and a more meaningful life, you're going to need a zombie apocalypse. But we're skipping ahead.

The Last Psychiatrist describes three distinct phases of The Matrix Effect on my generation. Phase two is described in his article on Wanted, an über-ridiculous movie starring James McAvoy as an everyman whose true identity and violent, awesome destiny (as a mystical assassin) are revealed to him by Angelina Jolie, in a role that, as TLP puts it, embodies: "Madonna, whore and death instinct, all in high def." Here's an excerpt:

The 80s adolescent hits the 90s full force, then 2000, and with every passing year it becomes more certain he will not learn kung fu or join the special forces. Now what? How is he supposed to find true love if he was never in the special forces?
Answer: go find a girl who was in the special forces.
Just in time for the first midlife crisis, Hollywood has our back: Alias, Underworld, Lara Croft, etc. You think we like those women because they are sexy? ...It has nothing to do with sex, it is all about love... It's probably impossible that I can take out thirty terrorists and save the girl. But it's slightly less impossible that I could meet a woman who could do it. Phew.

More examples, if you need them, are Kill Bill 1&2, La Femme Nikita, Run Lola Run, The Fifth Element and the Resident Evil franchise (okay, pretty much anything with Milla Jovavich).

The Matrix trilogy (we're still talking about the TLP articles here, there was only one Matrix movie) concludes with a brief article on the movie Hanna, a strange little one-off feature from 2011 about the daughter of a rogue agent from a secret government program who escapes to the frozen wilds of distant wherever to raise his genetically-enhanced progeny in safety and seclusion and train her to be a lean, mean, sociopathic killing machine until the day when she decides she's ready to return to the world and fulfill her destiny; to seek her (his) ultimate revenge on the agents who killed her mother and tried to kill them in an effort to destroy all evidence of the cancelled secret government program of which she was a product. TLP sums up the psychology behind "Hanna" thusly:

The next step in the life cycle was to have kids, and a really optimistic narcissist, still clinging to the fantasies, might say to himself: I am old and fat, and I've forgotten all my Russian... What hope is there? Your wife is older and heavier... But the kids... they are limitless reservoirs of possibility. Sure, they don't know kung fu now, but they could learn.... Why is it always a daughter? ...First, take a look at your son: he's an idiot. Maybe he's really smart but he's as physical as a bag of water; or a super-spaz who can barely articulate a sentence. The only thing he's really, really good at is the left and right fire buttons. But your daughter, at two, at four, at six, seems very sophisticated... And she's so pretty."

(Another aside which I just learned today while surfing for "validation and detailed research" to back up this post: apparently, Stephen King's inspiration for Firestarter was his own ten-year old daughter. She's so pretty... and wise beyond her years.... but if she gets out of control, she could destroy the fucking world. Wow. We love you too, Dads.)

So, you know — who knows? Maybe despite being raised by a generation that studies for parenthood the way others study for the bar exam, despite the burden of knowing they're the magic beans their parents bought in trade for the only identities they'd ever known — for a long-term investment in the roles of Supermom and Dad — despite the narcissism, helicopter parenting and neurotic need to have their kids think they're cool; despite the medicalization of personality formation into syndromes and disorders like ADHD, Aspergers and adolescent bipolar, and the fact that they'll all own iPads before they've had their first job, the kids might turn out alright after all.