Too Old for Young Adult

I felt a little out of place as I sat down in the theater to watch “Paper Towns.” I was by myself, as per usual, and looking around the theater I realized that I was the only one there that was not a 15 year old girl or a parent who was dragged there against their will. No, I was a man on the verge of 23 years old sitting alone in a movie designed for teenagers.

Maybe its my crippling self-criticism, but I feel like this is a bad move. Not that anyone really cared at all. I just always have this nagging feeling that someone is lurking in the shadows judging me. Saying things like “Eww, what’s that creepy dude doing here? Why is he crying? Did his dog die or something? There is no way he’s this worked up over the lives of fictional teens.” But I am that worked up because as much as I judge myself for it, I really do like coming of age stories and YA lit.

Teenagers are always less scary when they are fictional.

Teenagers are always less scary when they are fictional.

I wasn’t always so open to the idea of young adult novels. I didn’t really read any of the Harry Potter books ’til my junior year of high school. I looked down on anything written from the perspective of a high school student with miserable disdain. After all, I was a serious writer. I tackled the hard subjects like death and loss and the inability to find a girlfriend. Anytime I asked a friend what book I should read, they’d say The “Perks of Being a Wallflower” and I would scoff like a pretentious little jerk.

Then I read “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” It felt like life punched me in the stomach really hard but I was sort of happy about it. Never had I read a book that dealt with the issues that were currently floating around in my head. I’d never read anything that tackled anxiety and depression in such a visceral, real way. No monsters and magic. No ghosts. Just pain and emotion and hope and it flipped the script on my life.

I watched this movie in theaters three times in one week.  Ph: John Bramley © 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC.  All rights reserved.

I watched this movie in theaters three times in one week.
Ph: John Bramley
© 2011 Summit Entertainment, LLC. All rights reserved.

Here was a book that tackled all the subjects I liked to thing I understood and it spoke directly to those who live it daily. At the end of the day all of my work was about the same things: that growing up sucks. Whether you’re 12 or 25, growing up is painful and awkward and it sucks. But here I held a book that spoke to me about those things, let me live in a world where these problems were addressed and sort of made things ok.

To this day I hold onto that book tightly. It’s the only book I’ve ever read three times and if I leave home for more than two days, you can guarantee that that book is on my person. Whenever I’m stressed out or depressed, I pick it up or watch the movie. It doesn’t quite make it better, but it makes it manageable. And that’s a powerful thing.

After that I started doing my best to find more and more books like it. That tackled the same issues, that had that same protective impact for its fans. I discovered Ned Vizzini’s “It’s Kind of a Funny Story” and Simon Rich’s “Elliot Allagash.” Rainbow Rowell and most importantly John Green. These books and writers became my guides and my teachers. Before long it dawned on me that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to write novels about the struggles of growing up that could help teens and young adults the same ways these books helped me. To tackle life’s problems and pains with a glimmer of humor and hope.

Hope and fun are important. Otherwise you become

Hope and fun are important. Otherwise you become “Man of Steel” and nobody wants that.

So I try my best to read as much of these novels as possible. Which is weird because I’m pretty sure if you saw me just hanging around the Young Adult section at Barnes and Noble for extended periods of time, you would call the cops on me.

But I don’t know enough about the genre to just shop on Amazon and have them shipped discreetly to my house. I have to get in their, pick up the books, flip around and see what grabs me. Because lets be honest, for as much good stuff one can find in that section, there is just as much, if not more, god awful garbage. So I have to take my time and sift. Which I can never comfortably do.

My trips through the Young Adult section are all designed to loo like accidents. I casually stroll up and down the fiction aisles, looking at the names I should have read in college. Giving a long linger over a handful of Nabokov’s so that any passers-by think that I am sophisticated and am a true student of my craft. “Oh, of course I’ve read “Pnin.” Like in third grade.”

I'm sorry Mr. Nabokov, one day I'll read your work. I promise.

I’m sorry Mr. Nabokov, one day I’ll read your work. I promise.

Before long the fiction section turns into the young adult fiction section. I pick up a book with a colorful cover and make a show of being interested by its novelty. I pick it up, flip it over, and then set it down. Then I’m in.

I give myself about five minutes max. It’s like moving through the porn section at old video stores. You rush through, grab something that looks vaguely like it suites your interests, and you bolt without making eye contact. If there are already people in the section, I walk away.

Occasionally I’ll be shopping and a parent will be looking for the “Hunger Games” books or “Divergent” or whatever new dystopia allegory is in theaters this weekend and I’ll debate pointing them in the right direction. The conversation in my head goes “Oh thanks, do you work here?” And I’m all like “Nah, I just reading about 16 year old’s love-lifes.” And then they scurry their pre-teen away and give them a lecture in talking to strangers with beards.

So I don’t talk to anyone. I never ask someone for suggestions or where to find something. If I can’t do it on my own, I guess I’ll just suffer.

I don’t know why I’m so weird about things like this. Between fear of judgement from parents and aggressively rude teenagers, I also have this fear that my peers and educators are looking down on me. I went to school to be a writer. I was supposed to read Mark Twain and Graham Greene and Dostoyevsky and be inspired to create great works of literature. To handle my craft to tell stories of importance.

I also write my novels here, to make sure that I am the optimum level of cliche.

I also write my novels here, to make sure that I am the optimum level of cliche.

But I have no desire to write moody dude poetry. I want to write stuff that’s goofy and fun. I want to write about stuff that freaked me out when I was younger and only continues to freak me out more as I grow up. I don’t want to take down the government with a think piece. I want to let some chubby kid know that it’s ok to be sad sometimes.

That’s the battle I have everyday. Do I write something I want to write and have fun or do I want to write something important? As if those two things don’t occupy the same space. Sometimes this battle between what I want to do and what I feel I need to do to live up to my potential is crippling. More like all the time. I oscillate between this projects and that story and what I want to do, “but no the people on tumblr will not like me” and “I’ll be letting Professor Rabb down…” so much that it paralyzes me.

Part of me wants to write the Great American novel. Part of me wants to write about vampires.

Part of me wants to write the Great American novel. Part of me wants to write about vampires.

This blog is the most that I’ve really done to write for myself lately and I can’t even keep that rolling out consistently. I’m just kind of stuck soemtimes and I want to break that. I want to tell stories that I’m passionate about. I want to write with the type of passion I did in high school when I should have been listening to an Algebra II lecture. But I’ve become so hyper-aware of expectation and what it’s like to have to live up to something, that I forget that there really is no pressure on me to do any one thing. No one really gives a shit and as horrible as that sounds, that’s really freeing sometimes.

After seeing “Paper Towns,” I kind of got reenergized to tell a story that I want to tell. To write something that may have helped me or someone like me navigate his way through college or something like that. I try to stop focusing on doing something important and focus on doing something that feels right to me. Something that makes me love writing.

I mean, I still only allow myself five minutes in the Young Adult section, but maybe one day I’ll allow myself a little longer when I’m admiring my work on the shelf.

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My Rivalry with Poseidon

I am habitually non-adventurous. I go camping and spend most of my time running from bugs. I go to the beach and sit on the sand, scowling at the hidden dangers of the sea. When I was little my dad was getting tickets to see the Cubs play the Cardinals in Chicago, Sosa vs. McGuire, the biggest showdown in baseball but I didn’t go because I was scared to leave my mommy. But for one blessed week when I was eight, I stared adventure in the face and dove right in. And then I was promptly dragged out to sea.

My parents and I took a trip to Costa Rica with a couple of their friends back in 2001. While I had spent most of my life up to that point bouncing from state to state, it was the first time that I had actually left the country. The plan was to rent some rugged SUV and just drive across the country. Why they thought this would be a fool-proof adventure is a mystery to me. We got lost in the parking lot of a supermarket within an hour of landing.

Move over, Magellan. Got some new explorers in town.

Move over, Magellan. Got some new explorers in town.

I don’t have a linear memory of that vacation. I can’t prod along and tell you what happened when and in which order. There are a great deal of highlights. I know that our hotel flooded on our first night. I know that we traversed a river in our rental car, Helga, and that river was way deeper than we thought. I got into a yelling match with a tree full of howler monkeys and developed a pineapple soda addiction that continues to this day. We passed through towns where iguanas ran the streets like stray cats and visited friends in a house on a mountain top. We pulled off a forest road to watch a sloth cross the street. I stared at a bolt on a stair for an hour because in the dark of night I thought it was a poison dart frog. I also geeked out like a maniac when I finally saw a real poison dart frog on a rainforest hike.

There was a lot of stuff going on in that trip. But there’s one night that sticks out in my mind clearer than the others. We were staying at some little hotel on the beach called like Iguana Cove or something. We had returned to the room for the night and the adults got their drink on pretty hardcore. I don’t really remember what I was doing. Probably looking at some book about native animals and seeing what I could cross off my list next. (Capuchin Monkey? Check. Macaw? Check. Coati? Check.) Next thing I know, my dad and his friend Matt are taking me out to fetch some body boards they saw by the beach and we’re gonna go surf around in the ocean.

Note it was pitch black outside accept for the light coming from the moon and the flashes of lightning striking a little ways off shore. If I had seen Jaws at this point or even been allowed to watch Shark Week, there was no way this was going down. That’s prime conditions to be shark murdered. But I was dumb and they seemed super confident that this was gonna go swell and so I blindly followed them into the ocean.

I couldn't even take a bath without thinking a shark was gonna eat me once I saw this flick.

I couldn’t even take a bath without thinking a shark was gonna eat me once I saw this flick.

We’re the only ones out there because I guess you would have had to be drunk or something to think it was a good idea to go out into the water that night. Luckily 2/3 of us were.

The wind blew heavily and waves crashed around us as we ran out into the black water. I’d never seen a body-board lot less ridden one, but I jumped into the surf with reckless abandon. There was nothing graceful about that evening. Their legs were wobbly enough without walls of water smashing into their drunk asses every other second. But still we soldiered on, occasionally riding a wave with some level of balance but mostly falling around and kind of sort of drowning in a fun way. We stared at the storm in the distance and laughed in its face as we rode the water back towards the shore each time.

I don’t know how long we were out there, but I know I didn’t want it to end. We pulled ourselves out of the water, somehow with all of our limbs intact, and I made my dad promise that we could do it again the next day.

And that was the rest of my trip, me searching for a body-board anytime I saw the coastline. It’s a weird thing I do on vacations. I find one thing that I really like and that’s the only thing I focus on for the rest of the trip. I discovered churros in San Diego and then proceeded to eat close to 3,000 over the next two days. I drank more Fanta Pina in that one week in Costa Rica than anyone should ever drink. And I learned how to flail around in the water and call it surfing.

If you haven't had one of these, fix your life.

If you haven’t had one of these, fix your life.

This new obsession was going smoothly for the next few days until we went to Lookout Point. It was this gorgeous hilltop hotel sticking out of the rainforest. There were monkeys and natural springs and that bolt that looked like a frog. Most importantly it looked out over the ocean and I had a hankering for some inept bodyboarding.

The five of us talked one of the hotel guides whom we bonded with into walking us down to the beach, our boards in tow. Once again we stared out over a largely empty beach, the perks of our secluded little hideaway. I grabbed more board and took off for the water when we realized that our guide was walking back toward the hotel. They called out to him and asked him to stay but he politely shook his head with a look in his eyes that clearly said, “You white people are fucking crazy.”

We turned back to the water and saw that it looked particularly rough that day. The waves crashed in hard and pulled back out strong. But we’d surfed in a storm. We were seasoned veterans by now. Blue Crush-style.

I am clearly the Kate Bosworth of the group.

I am clearly the Kate Bosworth of the group.

I readied myself to get to boarding when my mom stopped me and told me to let my dad and Matt test the waters first. So I stood impatiently as they walked down the shore and were immediately met with an angry sea. The undercurrent was apparently ridiculously strong. They’d wade out and then they’d struggle mightily as they pulled themselves back to shore. The process was repeated a handful of times before it became pretty certain that our guide had left us for good reason and that the waters were not fit for humans today.

But I kept inching toward the water all the same. Fascinated by its push and pull, anxious to ride my board, Poseidon be damned. We were laughing at Matt and then the surf spat him back onto shore and he collided dangerously with a huge piece of driftwood. Everyone rushed over to make sure he was okay. Everyone but me who had no made it to the water.

I was maybe shin deep when a wave came in and knocked me on my face in the sand. I laughed for a moment, “Haha, okay, you win Poseidon. I will not tempt you today.” But the laughter quickly turned to panicked screams as the undercurrent latched onto me and began to tug my body back toward the ocean like jungle cat pulling its kill away to eat later.

"Ocean Tiger!" Back off me, Spielberg!

“Ocean Tiger!” Back off me, Spielberg!

Salt water smashed into me again and again as I felt myself get dragged away. Everyone stampeded toward me, yelling for me to get to my feet, to get out of there. I tried to get up but I couldn’t find the strength to battle the water. I’d get to my feet and immediately be pulled back down to my back or my stomach. My mom and her friend Terri pulled at my arms and I felt like I was going to be ripped in two like some sort of medieval torture device.

No matter how much the two women tried, my tubby little ass was too much for them. I could hear the God of the Ocean laughing at me in the distance as I cried, desperately not wanting to die over a stupid activity I wasn’t even good at. I clawed at the sand. I cried. I promised my mom that I would do the dishes for like a month if she saved my life.

It could have been two minutes but it felt like five hours. Eventually, I think through the combined might of four grown adults, I was pulled from the clutches of the ocean and onto the relative safety of the beach. We limped our way back to the hotel and cursed our guide for not talking us out of our own hubris.

And thus ended my adventurous streak. It was a glorious week long capping itself off in the brutal murder of a young man’s sense of whimsy. Now when I visit the beach, I sit in sand and offer my pasty skin to be painfully burned by the sun. An offering for the time that vengeful sea god let me live.

Trouble with the Gender Roles

I walked past an older lady while I was wearing my Wonder Woman t-shirt. She laughed and called after me saying, “Oh Wonder Woman, you look so different.” Pick another evening and I’m walking into a restaurant wearing the same shirt and an old woman looks at me in dismay and says, “That’s weird.” I’m not sure what that means. I do know what I look like and a large bearded man is typically not the prime candidate to be sporting any Wonder Woman memorabilia.

But seriously, Azzarello/Chiang's run of Wonder Woman is really good.

But seriously, Azzarello/Chiang’s run of Wonder Woman is really good.

A large part of my sense of humor for years has been my embrace of what would typically seen as feminine interests. It’s funny to say that I cry or that I’m rocking out to Beyonce or watching A Walk to Remember because I love Mandy Moore. It’s a bit of a schtick that I have become more and more aware of, purposefully creating these juxtapositions. Sure I like watching boxing, but I also have been dabbling with watching Gilmore Girls on Netflix.

The jokes are never meant to be rude or even that self-deprecating. I don’t look down on any of these things that are so commonly associate with women and I am very secure in the fact that I genuinely appreciate these things of their own merits. But it is beginning to dawn on me that the humor in these situations stems from a larger systematic problem. I shouldn’t have to be “secure in my masculinity” to like a story or show with a female lead. I shouldn’t have to be “secure in my masculinity” to enjoy pop music. Just because a woman creates an art, does not make it somehow lesser and novel for a man to enjoy these things.

But that’s where the humor is most of the time. Men who embrace female roles or feminine interests are sitcom fodder. I know this card and play it all the time. I joke about how I openly wept during “The Fault in Our Stars” along with the theater full of 15 year old girls. I laugh about knowing all the words to “Hips Don’t Lie.” But if I were to try to explain why that should be funny to anyone, the only answer is “because that sort of thing is for girls and I’m a man.” And quite frankly there’s nothing funny about that line of thinking.

There love was so pure. #uglycryface

There love was so pure. #uglycryface

When I was listening to N’SYNC and Backstreet Boys when I was younger, I was not thinking “this is for girls.” When I became obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer when I was eight, I never thought “this is for girls.” But when I retell these sorts of things, there is always a hint of that. A little bit of “haha Chase likes a girl thing.” Even though I continue to embrace female artists and athletes and characters, I feel like there’s this weird undertone to it.

Whenever I talk about the WNBA it almost sounds like a brag. Like I’m trying to buy some sort of feminist bonus points. Like “Look at me, I respect female athletes, aren’t I progressive?” But that’s a large problem that I see with male feminists. We have no sense of subtlety. Its like we’re waving this big banner that says “I respect women, aren’t I cool?!” One of the biggest things that bothers me is the guy that’s like “I’m a feminist and I’ll beat you up, ’cause I’m still a man.” But I tend to do a very similar thing, but with humor: “I love Taylor Swift, but it’s funny because I’m a guy.”

There’s little contradictions all the time in my line of thinking. I talk about wanting to be a stay-at-home dad, marrying a powerful lawyer or athlete and doing the dishes at home while I work on my novel, and yet I still refuse to let a woman pick up the tab. That somehow that makes me a freeloader. It’s a weird way of thinking. To actively try to subvert the gender role in thought, but still my actions are engrained in the traditional.

Maybe Elena Delle Donne's type is fat 22 year old's with a receding hairline.

Maybe Elena Delle Donne’s type is fat 22 year old’s with a receding hairline.

It’s hard to undo this systematic wedge driven into our society. Even the best of intentions ultimately fail in the execution. I’m not saying that it’s bad to laugh, but when I examined why I thought some of the things I say or do are funny, it felt a little problematic. I’m going to continue to read Wonder Woman and watch the Minnesota Lynx. Buffy Summers will always be my hero and Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” will continue to get me through rough days. But there is a necessity to remain vigilant. To make sure that what I’m doing is really going towards helping the women I admire and giving girls a platform to stand on in the future.

I scolded a friend of mine because he was joking with his son that women are bad drivers. I said, “You can’t teach him that kind of shit.” There was no harm meant on any side, but jokes are a powerful tool even when we aren’t conscious of what we’re saying. It’s a process and I intend on revisiting mine as often as I can.