Life at 17 in 1986

Jake Adelstein
Aug 29, 2018 · 7 min read

Recently, while searching for a book in my old room, in the house where I grew up, I found a page of my diary — written in the year I turned 17. It was like discovering another version of myself in an alternate universe.

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The bedroom I had as a kid. That weird light fixture did make it feel like another world.

I have very fragmentary memories of my early years due to falling down an elevator shaft when I was 18. Sort of my first attempt at physical comedy, extreme slapstick.

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At 17 (1986), I had no fucking idea what I wanted to be but did consider writing, acting, production, public radio, photographry. At 24 (1993), I started working as a reporter in Japan — and I learned to photograph as well, with actual film. I didn’t imagine at 17 that I’d be writing my first articles in Japanese, but life is full of surprises.

I consider that graceless fall (not a fall from grace) one of the luckiest/unluckiest things to happen to me in life. A mere 31 summers ago. I was closing inventory from The Bookseller, a local used bookstore, aptly named, that had gone out of business and where I had been working. Somehow, I fell from the 2nd floor and landed in the basement. There was a cargo elevator with no door on it and that I didn’t even know existed.
Not my best moment.

Tim Overshiner, my high school friend who was hanging out with me, heard the fall, ran to “The Potion Parlor” next door and called an ambulance — and saved my life. I was in a coma for a day and had significant memory loss but I lived. Apparently, when I landed in the basement I made sounds like a wookie, indicating that all was not well. Eventually I recovered.

I formally introduced Tim to Gina Stremel a summer or two later, they dated, got married and the two bright teenagers Max and Anna Rose are their kids. Of course, I remember Tim but there are a lot of memories that I don’t think I can catch up with. Head injuries do that. So does time. But then again, judging by my diary, maybe I’m better off not remembering high school or junior high.

I have edited the diary entry, just a little bit, mostly to spare the people who were foolish enough to have dated me in high school. Why share it? Because when I shared it with my teenage daughter, who is still 17, she laughed fiendishly and hysterically and said something along the lines of: “So much teenage angst! It’s hilarious.”

I hope that someday, some 17-year-old kid who feels like a loser and is lost in life will read this short diary entry and realize that he is not alone. And that eventually, things get bettter. Not that much better, but better! My annotated notes are below each paragraph, as if this diary entry was like Coptic Apocrypha (The Gospel of Atlastein?). So without further ado —

Being 17 (in 1986)

I think the best thing about living on a farm is that you can go for long walks, and disappear for a while.Whenever things get too much I head into the woods and wander around the dead leaves and hope I don’t get
bit by a snake.I’m seventeen years old, I’m about 5 feet nine inches, dark skinned, dark haired, dark eyes, I weigh about 121 pounds. I’m lonely, a social misfit, and depressed most of the time. I’m seventeen*.

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At 17, you do feel like it’s you versus everybody. Or I did. I liked the Hulk. I also had huge anger issues but lacked green skin. “The World, My Jury” — that’s a great title.

*Note: I was at the time quite fixated on being seventeen, I guess. I also spelled out “17” as “seventeen” apparently at least familiar with the old AP stylebook.

I keep waiting for some magic maturity to descend on me* where suddenly I’ll get the feeling that I know what I’m doing. I feel like this twelve year old who has been imprisoned in the body of a senior in High School. I can’t believe that I’m a Senior! Jesus H. Christ! Do you realize that I have to apply to colleges soon and I DON’T KNOW WHAT I WANT TO DO!**

  • *I’ll be 50 next year. I’m still waiting for that maturity to descend.
  • **I still don’t know what to do.

I could be a writer. But for that I need talent, or at least the rudiments of grammatical skills*. I am so alienated from the world that I’m beginning
to feel like a character in a bad French play**.

  • *My grammatical skills are still rudimentary, at best.
  • **I love France and French literature. However, sitting through Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit made me want to find an exit and leave as soon as possible. ‘Hell is other people’ —actually, this is true only if you limit it to French existentialists. BTW, his lover, Simone Beavoir, wrote most of his stuff anyway. Just sayin’.

I can write. I can act. I can take photos. I can work a production board*. I can’t do any of those things well but I can do them. My summer is almost over, one more down the tubes and I’m wondering: what is the state of my life, where am I going, where have I been, will I get laid before I enter college**? And I’m also trying to figure out how to write this goddamn book*** — I have something important to communicate (relatively) and I don’t know how to do it. I’ve never been good with structure.

  • *I was a radio programmer and music director at KOPN 89.5 FM in my teenage years. I’m a whiz at editing on reel-to-reel as well. Just give me a razor blade, a grease pencil, and some tape.
  • **The classic questions of method acting, including the last question, but not limited to college. Not that you’re asking but I first had sex at 15. She was older and more experienced. I didn’t know what I was doing so it was pretty terrible sex. I felt bad. In the days before the internet, it wasn’t easy to figure out how to have good sex — especially at 15. I found a copy of “The Sensuous Man” at a used bookstore and after reading that and watching some porn, I got a better idea of how to have good sex. According to a fraction of a later Diary entry, I got ahold of a porn classic called “A Scent Of Heather”. There was certainly some instructional information within that film, so I was lucky.
  • ***

Maybe if I would finally pass my driver’s test I would feel more like an adult*. Mobility may be my salvation. As a human being I’m pretty pathetic at the moment, it’s been one shitty summer, but as always it’s been a learning experience. I mean, after all, I got dumped by my girlfriend, crashed a car into a ravine**, wrote about one hundred pages of a book that no one would read, read a lot of books on the evolution of Christianity, and generally sunk into long periods of catatonic self-pity and and deep periods of depression, and now I’m ready for school.

You know, I can’t decide whether I’m a saint or an asshole***.

  • *I did pass it! When I was 34.
  • **At that point, my father suggested that perhaps I shouldn’t drive.
  • ***I became a Soto Zen Buddhist priest on March 28th 2017. I’m not doing so bad at keeping the vows. Definitely not a saint. Can still be an asshole. I’m atoning and working on being a better human being (boddhisattva). 一日一善 (Ichi nichi Ichi Zen-One good deed a day)

I have an acute perception of my own idiosyncrasies and life in general but I never seem to utilize that knowledge*. I’m decent to my family, loyal to my friends, non-judgemental of people**, a good listener, and still I feel like an asshole most of the time. The worst thing about myself is that I’m still in love with XXXXX and this is a girl who makes me physically ill every time I see her***.

  • *Perhaps this was phrased more eloquently by Sophocles as “What price wisdom when it brings not profit to the wise?” Knowing your issues isn’t the same as overcoming them but it helps. A little.
  • **I’m more judgemental. I’ve discovered that there are people who enjoy the suffering of others and especially causing that suffering and they are fucking evil. Most of the time, iredeemable.
  • ***I’m sooo over her. It only took 15 years.

I’m also really recovering from reading too much about fundamentalist Christianity, that stuff boggles my mind. My ex-girlfriend was a Jehovah’s Witness and that really screwed up my life for a while. Imagine a die-hard liberal agnostic in love with a woman who belonged to to a type of thinking that he despised* most in the world and you have my position (END OF TEXT)

  • I don’t despise that thinking or fundamentalists anymore. I feel some sympathy for them and I also recognize that there is a danger to irrational belief. Actually, it was good dating a fundamentalist. It taught me a lot about the history of the bible, the use of religion to justify anything you want it to do, the danger of literalism and an appreciation of Ecclessiastes — the book all fundamentalists hate — and an appreciation for the Epistle of James, which argues that we are justified by the good we do, not our faith. Very Buddhistic.
  • A person can do nothing better than to eat and drink and be merry and enjoy the fruits of his labor. (Ecclessiates 2:24)

— -If I ever find the rest of that diary, I’m going to probably burn it. But at least at 49, I still kind of like myself at 17. And to my 17 year-old-self in a parallel universe, forgive me for publishing your teenage angst filled diary but since you appeared to be trying to write a book anyway, you should actually thank the older version of you, which is me, because you’ve been published.

You’re welcome.

Jake Adelstein

Written by

An investigative journalist, neo-paladin, semi Zen Buddhist (I want to believe) living in Japan for 27 years. Writes for The Daily Beast, The Japan Times等. 宜しく

Jake Adelstein

Written by

An investigative journalist, neo-paladin, semi Zen Buddhist (I want to believe) living in Japan for 27 years. Writes for The Daily Beast, The Japan Times等. 宜しく

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