A Note to My Seventeen Year Old Self

I am cruising down I90 east of Cleveland in a 1984 Mercedes with Martyrdöd’s Paranoia cranked up so loud the windows are vibrating. And I’m thinking of you, the earlier version of myself. In truth, you’re always with me. I wear (mostly) the same clothes, listen to (mostly) the same music, have (mostly) the same politics. But things have changed too. I’ve learned one or two things and I dearly wish that I could go back in time and tell you.

Of course I can’t. And even if I could, I don’t know that you would have the wisdom to listen, even if you knew the message was coming from your own self (better or perhaps merely older)? I like to think that I don’t have many illusions about the capacities of boys of 17 to learn things in the abstract. But since you are still with me perhaps there is some use to the exercise, a sort of settling of accounts.

You’re never going to straighten out. The you that is here now is the you that you are. Revel in it.

Punk rock is the right choice. You’ve already met lots of interesting people and seen things your peers could hardly imagine. You’ve met anarchists and squatters and hunt saboteurs, and all kinds of other crazy people. You’ll see so many more bizarre and worthwhile things, I hardly know where to start (so I won’t bother). Some will be exhilarating, others really frightening, but all of them will be interesting and worth seeing. You’ll meet a lot of jerks, but you’ll meet so many more of the right sort of people, the kind who have the courage to look at the dark side of the world and to work to make it a better place. You’re not alone.

Shut your mouth. It’s really difficult to learn with your mouth open. But do ask lots of questions. Learning about other people is probably the most important thing you can do as a human being. You don’t understand what’s behind other people’s eyes. Let them tell you. Maybe then they’ll be interested in what’s behind yours.

Don’t assume that just because people are wrong they’re stupid. Also, don’t assume that just because people are right that it’s for the right reasons. Stay calm. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Don’t worry about convincing people. Try to learn from them.

Listen to the women in your life. There are a lot of powerful souls among them. They’re different than you, not in that idiotically essentialist way that popular culture tries to present them, but because they have different life experiences than you’ve had. They have important things to tell you. You need to hear them. Some of it will not be pleasant. Suck it up. Remember that you can share their struggle in the sense of being an ally, but they don’t need you to it for them. You’ll need to step out of the way and let them do their thing. Do it, and share their joy in the things that they create.

Drink less. Not that you’re an out of control drinker or have the fundamentally pernicious relationship to alcohol of so many of your friends, but it does take a toll. Also, you’re angry. Maybe you’ve got a right to be, all things considered. Alcohol creates a pathway for that anger to manifest. The less that happens the better.

Don’t waste your time with drugs. A little weed is alright now and then, but anything else is just a waste of time and money. You have less time than you think, and money is hard to come by.

You’re a melancholy person, and that will always be a part of you, hardwired into you, alcohol or no. Melancholia will be as much a friend as an enemy. It will feed on your darkest moods if you let it, blotting out the sun and pushing away from you exactly the sort of people you need. But it will also impel you to be creative. It will gnaw at your self-satisfaction, prompting you to do things and make things, if only to chase away the darkness.

Be mindful of the world around you. Often it’s grim, but in places it’s beautiful too. Later on you’ll read these words by Herman Melville and understand: “Look not too long in the face of the fire, O man!  Never dream with thy hand on the helm!  Turn not thy back to the compass; accept the first hint of the hitching tiller; believe not the artificial fire, when its redness makes all things look ghastly.  Tomorrow, in the natural sun, the skies will be bright; those who glared like devils in the forking flames, the morn will show in far other, at least gentler, relief; the glorious, golden, glad sun, the only true lamp – all others but liars!”

There are probably a lot of other things I could tell you. But it’s for the best that you figure most of it out on your own. I made it to where I am without knowing most of this stuff, or at least not having thought it through very clearly at the times that it mattered. But if you just try to be civilized to other people you won’t go too far wrong

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