July 16, 2012

Misspent Youth: What the Teen Taught Me.

Photo: Sara Lovelace

My best friend’s 14-year-old daughter, Madeline, spent the weekend with me.

It was the first time we had spent any quality time together since I babysat her years ago. Back then she was a drooling, intimidating infant with big, beautiful eyes. She had a laugh that was as infectious as the flu. I remember putting her diaper on once, and she fussed (she couldn’t talk yet) and showed me how to put it on properly. She then broke out into a long, delirious round of laughter at my incompetence. She has always been a little bit smarter than I am.

You’d think adolescence would have changed that, but she has remained a playful and insightful girl who’s still teaching me things. Teens aren’t a demographic I spend any amount of time with. I’ve been told they are really into Instagram, mustaches and skinny jeans. But then again, so are most of my thirtysomething friends.

The parallels between Madeline’s taste and that of my friends made her visit easier. We could talk about music (Pink Floyd is still a right of passage, apparently) and movies and how much pain and suffering boys cause. There wasn’t the vast gap between her generation and mine that I had imagined.

Until she asked me how old I am. I’m 34. To a teenager, this is the age of denim jumpers and Michael Buble albums. Thirty-four-year-olds don’t go to concerts or have sex or know what a blow job is. She had imagined, even though she’s known me all these years, that I was a recent college grad with a snazzy rental pad and a hot boyfriend.

“I never would have known you were that old. Seriously,” she said.

She probably thinks this because I’m a single, 34-year-old who still goes to shows and takes regular vacations. Unlike her parents and teachers I’m only responsible for myself. So there’s more money for things like monthly yoga passes and tattoos. I spend frivolously but the consequences aren’t as high because I’m not supporting a family.

“How could you afford all this music?” she asked while burning CDs from my collection. She actually brought up money quite a few times during her visit. At dinner she wanted to make sure that I had enough money. She was very conscious of every cent I spent on her. She needed me to know that she wasn’t taking advantage of me.

Clearly she is aware of the current economic climate—a fact that surprised me. I remember myself at that age. I was a hopeless beggar who’d risk my dignity and my mother’s sanity for a pair of Guess jeans. Standing in the checkout line at Belk’s, my mother told me how many hours of work it took to afford those jeans. She was buying them, she said, so that I’d “shut the fuck up.”

I promised I’d never ask for anything ever again—a promise that probably lasted all of an hour.

At Madison’s age I was certainly aware of my parent’s limited financial situation, but it seemed to have no bearing on my “right” to impress my classmates.

Photo: Sara Lovelace

I had no idea how much it really cost to heat a house or buy a week’s worth of groceries. I was blissfully unaware of the health care costs of an entire family. I was constantly telling my parents to buy a new car because I thought the 1981 green, Pontiac station wagon was sooooo humiliating. I didn’t realize that the stylish, new-car money was giving my busted grill a much-needed pair of braces—saving me a lifetime of humiliation.

And I’m still making that never ask for anything again promise, this time to myself. Even with my swinging bachelorette status, the bills add up. There are no Prada purses or European vacations, but I do have insurance. I recently bought a new, front-loading washing machine—a real coup for anyone who has spent much time in a laundromat. Then there’s my sciatica, which is costing me a small fortune in physical therapy and acupuncture. When these big expenses come up, I always promise myself that I will go on money lockdown. That I’ll force myself to stop wanting—to stop asking. To just stop.

So my best friend’s daughter was right to be a bit concerned about all these meals out. The fact that I have these adult financial demands doesn’t stop me from buying too many CDs and cocktails. At 34, I find myself still working on my money issues—still playing it too close to the bone. I still lose my dignity over a new pair of jeans like a teenager.

Some part of me remains hesitant to truly face the financial realities of adult life.

How lucky am I to live in a country filled with people who have the shopping intelligence of an infant and the credit limit of Jay Z. So I could easily spend the rest of my life like this—bouncing back and forth between my  joyous  purchases and my guilty panic attacks.

But Madeline’s visit made me examine this mess I’m in. She, even at her young age, is aware of what a luxury it is to eat out and catch a movie. That’s a big money night, one that I couldn’t afford. I was afraid to admit this to her because I wanted her to think I was cool. She must believe that I’m so young because I spend my money on all of the trappings of youth in a way that her mother can’t. It was that teenage me popping up again—buying anything to impress the other kids.

It was this frugal teenager who had the maturity to stop me from spending myself into an overdraft fee. I didn’t have to take her to a show or get her a makeover and a 40 dollar mascara at Mac. She kept gently reminding me that she didn’t care what we did. She was just glad to spend some time with me.

Oh, universe! Please let Madeline remain a wise and intelligent young woman who recognizes the value of love. Keep her spirit and her wallet her safe from harm. Don’t let the media make her believe she needs a smaller ass and a bigger purse. And don’t let her make the same mistakes that I made. That I’m still making.

I promise I’ll never ask for anything ever again. Namaste.

Editor: Lynn Hasselberger

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