On Hazardous Material.
Recently I taught the documentary F for Fake and asked students to reflect on the nature of fakery and its function in our society. At first the majority of students decried the idea of inauthenticity—alas, “being fake” or the accusation “you’re fake” are atop the hierarchy of teenage pitfalls. But once they were required to pair their definition of fake with a series of short texts (scientific, cultural, historical, and fictional) and asked to create brief arguments on the matter, their perspectives broadened. They were able to meaningfully defend the idea of fiction as fake but harmlessly entertaining, or the value of something changing once we discover its false provenance—and thus the subjectivity of value. Most interestingly, though, was the notion that a handful of them explored: The “comforting” lie.
This was cited particularly in the context of politics, specifically war or foreign intervention. Of course, as an adult, I expected more discussion of the falsifying effects of the media they both produce and consume, but that’s projecting the desires of the old onto the young, a fallacy that all but perpetuates intergenerational discord. We always go wrong when we try to force-feed wisdom to young people; they simply have to fail as much as we have before our platitudes ring with any truth at all. And, if I’m being honest, their insights into the function of fakery were actually far more thoughtful when turned outward. Another thing I’ve learned about teenagers—er, people, in general—is that their blazing self-awareness is easily compartmentalized when it deals with a special ugly deep within, unready for examination.
I say this in part because I am currently in a lot of therapy, and there are days where merely walking across the room feels like wading through knee-deep emotional sewage. Common household exchanges are sticky to the touch. My brain is as big as the bedroom and I’m clawing around in the throat of its cave towards a small but rapidly shifting shaft of light. It’s not like being depressed or anxious, even though there are so many forms those afflictions take. It’s more like being pierced through the precarious shield of anxiety and all of your insides come seeping out; there’s a release of pressure but now, a considerable mess. I don’t feel the pressure as chokingly but I definitely have to contend with the mess.
This is an effort at authenticity. It’s always grossed me out to discuss feelings in processed writing if they haven’t had time to cool. Looking back through my high school journals a couple of years ago showed me that there was clearly a place I needed to formatively dump and yet I was still paralyzed by the desire to have some kind of immediate remove from the nuclear fire that was pulsing within me. My strategy was to write about basically normal teenage occurrences: being angry at a classmate, feeling friend-lonely, or cheating on my boyfriend, with a Plath-esque inscrutability that was like writing in some kind of highly allusive and consumer-informed nadsat. It’s painful in its own special way, because it’s almost like I wanted a straightforward diary but I was also so programmed to be a writer that my most humbling confessions were penned with the lens of an undetermined future audience in mind. When I think about it, this performance of faux-authenticity is perhaps a metaphor for the entire teenage experience, and probably quite exactly the same mental process of self-conscious curation that is involved in that stuff we adults detest and don’t understand and wished they thought more critically about—social media.
Here is something else real: I am aging, and I can detect it in a way I haven’t before. I’m thirty-five. I didn’t know it was going to happen, at any point really, because I’m young enough to have just recently been in the years of life where I convinced myself I would surely remain young forever since I was only looking better with each year and not yet worse. There is new weight on my body the provenance of which I am totally unaware; I haven’t changed my lifestyle much. I have a toenail that is like a horn, half of it grows so thick and yellow I think it might take a chunk out of the drywall one day if I don’t keep it properly trimmed. Certain tattoos are starting to look bad; they’re damaged by sun and the ink is spreading out like wisps of green smoke over the humps of my skin. I can never seem to moisturize enough to not see the cracks forming between the plates of skin on my softening arms and cheeks. I don’t “feel” old, but every time I attempt a new exercise or do something with any kind of unplanned physical exertion (sometimes even just dancing) I strain some muscle somewhere (usually my neck) and succumb to a limited range of motion for several days afterwards. It’s not that I am old; I am just becoming old. I’m advancing into a different bracket—one that signals I have perhaps seen the zenith and it’s going to feel a lot different from here forward.
The other day I saw a student with Civilization and Its Discontents and I thought it was my copy; I grumbled aloud and said I hadn’t seen mine in a while, all while she insisted it was another teacher’s. When I went to the shelf in my room and found my book, I opened it up and discovered a postcard-sized flier for a house show somewhere in Tuscaloosa—I remember the house; I think it was pale yellow, the one where I stashed my Solo cup behind the cereal boxes on top of the fridge when the cops came. The flier was hand-collaged and photocopied in black and white and obviously used as a bookmark. It advertised a beer keg as part of the offerings, and I expressed relief I had never actually lent the book to a student with this incriminating piece of memorabilia enclosed within. When the other, younger teacher who also read Freud heard about the flier story, he joked that I was “Gen X.” Or at least what the students told me. Apparently he said I had a “Gen X aesthetic,” which signals something very different in post-millennial argot, it’s nearly a compliment. But just being called “Gen X” by a young millennial is acid; it is, to some extent, code for “old.” This was the first time I can recall being offended at the notion that the age I am is, to someone, senior in a way that registers irrelevance.
It’s not like I am suddenly Aschenbach or something, but I, like any insecure aging person, make efforts to maintain my looks. (I do perhaps wear more rouge than I used to.) I also participate in cultural discourse in order to not be totally out of the loop. In fact, sometimes I pointedly sit students down and interview them about how they conduct conversations through slanguage and cursed images, playing some kind of imaginary role of socio-linguist that keeps me tuned into the ever-evolving communication styles of the young. Sure, it serves an immediate occupational benefit, but I think I would want to know all of this stuff even if I didn’t spend most of my days sweating and flailing and trying to make seventeen-year-olds care about things.
I am certain some part of me comes across as that cringey mimicry that adults attempt to remain “cool.” Like, maybe many parts of me: my platform sneakers, my high-waisted jeans, my ill-apportioned use of highlighter, the way I can’t stop talking about Frank Ocean. Maybe it seems fake. So much of the desire to fit in, not as a peer acquiescing to pressure, but simply as a person who wants to be heard and continually regarded by strangers who have no personal stake in me, as a person who doesn’t want to be so old that I’m just mocked and ignored, is about being seen—at all—as someone of value. Someone worth your time. Someone with a thing to say. I don’t know that this desire is such a huge departure from the comfortable lies we first tell ourselves as young people, or any people, who are suffering so much they can hardly raise their head to tell you, with no small affectation, that they don’t care.
So often we self-deceive as some kind of mechanism for survival, as adults we just perform in some venue that doesn’t seem as detrimentally superficial as the venues of youth. My mask of serums and makeup that keeps me femme and attractive enough to not be totally ignored is my lie. My anxiety, which has erroneously taught me that catastrophizing and escapism are productive is my lie. In some ways, even my job is my lie, because it gives me some false sense of purpose, as I often tell myself that if I didn’t have it I would collapse under the dead weight of my intrinsic worthlessness. I don’t deny the utility of operational lies that get you through a tense workday or a bad date. I’m just overwhelmed with an awareness that the layers growing up has draped upon me are calcifying over a dubious collection of small deceits assembled in some treacherous scaffolding, never fixed and never fortified, and absolutely imperiled by their imminent discovery.