Hi. My name is Lawrence. I’m just some guy who cobbles together a living writing drips and drabs for a variety of new media outlets. I am terrified, just like everyone else, about Donald J. Trump and what he means for the future of our country and for the world.
The whole thing has brought my mind to the subject of innocence, and when it is lost and what that means for a young person, for you guys, the teenagers of the country.
You see, as I view it, the loss of innocence can be described as “when a young adult truly realizes, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that nobody in the world has a good goddamned idea what they are doing.”
This includes their parents, their leaders, their teachers, their favorite celebrities. The realization that the narrative they have been fed their whole lives, about justice, about wisdom, about fairness, about the value of hard work and humanity’s essential nature, has been a load of horse shit, in the traditional sense.
In the normal course of things, people come to this realization in their own way, at their own time, when they are ready. It could be triggered by the consistent smell of alcohol on their father’s lips, or seeing their mother weeping at the kitchen table, bills laid out in front of her like a map to somewhere cruel and unimaginable.
However, we are not in normal times. My hunch is that millions of teenagers around the country had this realization thrust upon them, in a fevered rush, on Tuesday night. Billions upon billions of still-growing synapses fired and made new connections. You guys saw our country elect a hateful, sputtering madman to the highest office in the land. The stupidest guy in the room became the most powerful guy in the room. Nothing is actually as has been preached to you, and for that I am truly, deeply sorry.
Coming to understand that the human experience is often miserable and unfair, and that cruelty and stupidity aren’t always squashed, instead allowed to flourish like bed bugs in a Brooklyn hostel, can be a difficult pill to swallow. You are only teenagers, too young to actively participate in the machinations of the world, but too old to have the truth shielded from you by your parents and guardians. In other words, you smell the bullshit but don’t have access to the bathroom so you can flush the damned toilet.
My own loss of innocence came twofold, once in the most personal of ways and the other in my generation’s own version of Trumpian madness.
My mother died when I was young, just a teenager, like you. She had, I was told, a sudden heart attack. It happened quickly. She was dead before the ambulance reached the hospital. She was in her mid 40s.
I was at a friend’s house. I didn’t have many but clung to the ones I had like the ragged edge of a band-aid. I remember a sense of unease before my father’s phone call. I remember being viscerally disturbed by ambulance noises in the distance. I knew something bad was coming.
“It’s just you and me now buddy,” my father wept into the phone. I don’t remember what I said in response. I was much closer with my mother.
It wasn’t her death that woke me up. I grieved, a process I am still dealing with to this day, but I kept on being a kid, more or less. I remember watching “Star Trek: Voyager” on my dad’s reclining chair, just a day after her death, rapt with attention.
Then two things happened.
First of all, there was the funeral. It was filled to the brim with well-wishers. My mother was a funny woman, from what I can remember, and she was well liked and had many friends. They all approached me and said nearly the same thing, word for word, “I will be here for you. If you need anything I will be there.”
I never heard from any of these well wishers ever again, my mother’s closest and most beloved friends. What I didn’t know at the time was that they were just going through the motions, just doing the thing adults are supposed to do at funerals. You hand off the flowers, say the words and then you go on living your own life with the speed of Usain Bolt.
I don’t fault them. As an adult, I now realize that grasping with mortality is a large and terrifying thing. They were only scared and sad, just children really, in the way we all are. Interacting with me would remind them of my once vibrant mother and that was simply too much to bear.
It did sting, however, and it made me realize that words and actions are not necessarily bedfellows. It made me suspect that everyone is truly on their own and everyone is in it for themselves, a feeling you are no doubt feeling now that you’ve seen your country show such contempt for its citizens, for its LGBTQ community, for its people of color, for its women and girls.
The next thing that happened is I began digging. I was a pretty curious kid, and had fully embraced that part of grief that allows for fantastical flights of fancy. My mother was in her mid 40s. Why did she die from a sudden heart attack? I had heard nothing about her health problems, therefore they didn’t exist, right?
The truth was darker than I had anticipated and it shook me to my core, and will continue to shake me for the rest of my life.
My mother did have a minor heart condition, a “heart murmur” it was called. Not the kind of thing that kills you but the kind of thing that should keep you on your toes, lifestyle wise.
But my mother, my funny, intelligent mother, who was so full of conversation and light, was a woman living in America. She had been told to be concerned about her appearance, above all else, for her entire life, and she dutifully listened. She had no other choice, really.
She had always struggled with her weight, yo-yoing between overweight and slim so many times throughout my childhood that I can’t even keep a static picture of her in my head.
This was also the 1990s. A curious pharmaceutical phenomena had overtaken the country in those years. An innocent little drug called ephedrine could be bought over the counter. Women were told, on the covers of magazines across the country, that it was a wonder drug. It would make them skinny. It would make them perfect.
My mother began taking this drug, first the over-the-counter version and then an even stronger variety that was prescribed to her by her doctor, despite his knowledge of her medical condition.
It worked. She was as skinny as she had ever been. She was happy. She glowed. Then she died, on a Saturday morning while getting dressed for a friend’s wedding.
Hers was not an isolated case. This was a thing in the 1990s. There were lawsuits. There were news reports. Ephedra, as it was otherwise known, was taken off of the shelves of pharmacies, only to reappear once the dust settled. You know the drill, or you are at least beginning to.
The companies that produced this drug were never successfully prosecuted. The magazines that so gleefully sold them to women across the country never apologized. These publications continue to carry on their proud tradition of selling self loathing to women and girls. My mother’s doctor was never held accountable in any way, shape or form. He was probably given one hell of a retirement party, in the recent past, with a multi-tiered cake and tearful speeches describing his tireless service. I bet it was quite nice.
That’s when I knew, officially, the dark truth of the world, the suffering that waits for everyone and the indifference that surrounds it. That doctor is my very own Donald Trump. Those pills and magazines were a version of Trump, too. My mother’s conditioning that she was less than, unless she was conventionally beautiful, was her Trump. It killed her.
Now, several years later, I had another awakening. This one I share with an entire generation, though how I came to realize it is also extremely personal.
I was in New York City on 9/11. I had dropped out of college for a while. I was wandering. I didn’t know what I wanted or what I wanted. I worked at restaurants and stayed in a tiny bedroom in Brooklyn for $300 a month.
This story, however, is not about 9/11. Sure, it was terrifying. Sure, you could smell and see the ash for weeks on end. Sure, I had my fair share of paranoid fever dreams of poison being hidden in my mail, or the sky raining down with anthrax.
There was something else in the air too, though. There was hope. There was even joy. Strangers hugged one another on the streets. People helped one another. There was a sense that this would be ok, that this would be the end of it, that we had received our lion’s share of misery and that we had moved on to the other side.
As you well know, that’s not what happened.
Instead, political opportunists used the incident to incite fear, and scammed us into a lengthy war in a country that didn’t even participate in the events of 9/11. This is fact.
The adults, the supposed grown-ups, went along with all of it, accepting the evidence of weapons of mass destruction without a second thought. This evidence was so flimsy, so obviously false, that even a toddler could have seen through it. It was a clarion call for an entire generation, just like Trump will be. It provided concrete proof of the mold and bile that lay at the foundation of our most revered institutions. It gave us the curious, and unbearably sad, notion that people take the path of least resistance nearly every time.
I remember sitting in my father’s car, on a windy New Jersey day. The fall foliage was in full bloom. New Jersey can be pretty, you know, despite its reputation.
I argued passionately with my father, the man who once told me it was “ just you and me now buddy.” This was a war built on a false pretense, I said. We would all be sorry. We will be paying for this for decades to come, I said. It fell on deaf ears, like most things do when you are trying to tell someone they are wrong about something. The war was necessary and just, he said. Even the venerable New York Times said so.
You see, back then, to even question the government’s bloodlust was tantamount to treason. Every adult in the country was in a race to prove how patriotic they were, how many stupid flag pins they could affix to their lapels. It was all very scary, very stupid and went on for far too long.
An entire generation saw this and we were aghast, much like you are aghast right now, having borne witness to another great scam of the American public.
Years later, during another political argument, I brought up that conversation with my father as an attempt to steer him toward a progressive position on something or another. He said he didn’t remember it.
This year, he voted for Donald Trump, citing his business acumen and the fact that we need “change.”
My father is not a bad man, quite the contrary. He just gave up long ago on trying to see the world as it is instead of how he wants it to be. His parents gravitated between chilly and cruel. Who knows how early in life he had to realize the true nature of the world.
The thing is though? Every generation, every segment of the population, hell, every person, deals with the great confusion of life in different ways.
What I’ve come to realize is that we aren’t entitled to wisdom. It doesn’t just come with age, as the adage goes. It must be nurtured. It must be worked on, like a muscle.
Those of us who came of age in the wake of 9/11 got smart and we got wise. We defied the old institutions and supported new, often digital, publications that were more in line with our world view. Just look at the voting numbers by age group. Look at all of that blue when you pare the voting map down to just millennials.
I truly believe that Generation X and the millennials are smarter than their forebears by every conceivable metric. We work harder. We are more imaginative. You’ll be much better than us, much wiser. That’s a given.
I know firsthand how difficult it is to come to such a sad realization at such a young age, that nobody knows what the hell is going on and that, more often than not, people are ruled by their baser emotions. It can fuck you up, but good. It can also give you a unique insight into the world, make you more emphatic, more tolerable of others, more invested in the notions of community and hope.
So my message is, don’t let this ruin you. Don’t completely give up on the human race. We need one another. We need you.
Grow up and be better than me, just as I am, in so many ways, better than my father. Read books. Fight the little injustices when you see them, at school or on the sidewalks of your neighborhoods. Try your best to align your words with your actions.
Also, enjoy life. There is a darkness to it. There is a loneliness to it, sure. There is also grace, light and the comfort of friends and community. If that fails, there will be new Star Wars movies every year until you are well into your 30s.
Of course, we are also counting on you, placing a heavy load on your shoulders. Most of you will be voting for the first time in the 2020 election. We need you to get involved, as early as possible and with as much energy as you can muster. We need you to not give in to that tiny voice in your head, which no doubt grew larger on Tuesday night, that says “who cares. Fuck it. Nothing matters.” Everything matters.
And most of all, don’t ever believe anyone who calls you “naive” for sticking up for your ideals. Fuck that noise. They don’t know any better than you, trust me. Wear that naiveté like a badge of honor. Own it. Then stomp their asses to the curb.