The Brilliance of the Teen Brain (#216)

I feel old. Yes, I did just have a birthday. No, I’m not going to tell you which one.

My knees started making noises. The orthopedist assured me that I’m young for creaky knees; it’s probably an unfortunate combination of too much dancing and volleyball. I feel decrepit anyway.

Even so, it’s not my knees that made me realize I’m old.

It’s my brain. My brain feels ancient. It’s also wiser, sure, which is helpful when it comes to spotting the free riders and over promisers of the world. It’s able to envision worst case scenarios and avoid potential pitfalls, thanks to years of experience.

My old brain has perspective now, too. The old brain recognizes that even the worst misery is temporary, and tomorrow the pain won’t be so bad (or maybe if I just eat something, a situation won’t feel as hopeless).

But you know what my old brain has recently been pining for?

Adolescence.

I know, I know. Totally fucked up. I mean, think back on the hideous days of acne, friend dramas, and romance rollercoasters. Whom among us would want to return to the tyranny of SAT scores, strict parents, sarcastic teachers, or the snide commentary of mean peers?

No one, of course.

Yet I yearn for my adolescent brain.

****

Daniel J. Siegel is a child psychiatrist who wrote a book about the adolescent brain half a decade ago, as his own children went through their teen years. It’s called Brainstorm, and it explains the scientific reasons for certain behaviors. Remember how you felt immortal as a teen and maybe did something risky like not wear a seatbelt or jump off cliff?

According to Siegel, “There is an increase in the activity of the neural circuits utilizing dopamine, a neurotransmitter central in creating our drive for reward… It can also lead them to focus solely on the positive rewards they are sure are in store for them, while failing to notice or give value to the potential risks and downsides.” In short, teens are optimistic about success.

The teen brain also rebels. It rejects parents and the status quo, hunting for new, novel ways of doing everything and anything.

One of the biggest drivers of an adolescent brain is a need for peer connection. When surrounded by friends, adolescents will engage in more novelty-seeking behavior and be more likely to discount the risks.

Living by a middle school, I watch this progression daily. The sixth graders are easily spotted, timidly scurrying by my house to get to school on time, often alone. The seventh graders will dawdle a little longer, laugh louder, and travel in packs. By the end of eighth grade, full-on adolescents skateboard down my steps and post their spectacular crashes on Snapchat. Or YouTube. Or Twitch. Or whatever new social media platform arrives tomorrow.

And the high schoolers in my neighborhood? They’ve used my house as target practice for their air rifles. They’ve tried to use my front yard as their personal port-a-potty at midnight. They even built a “campfire” on the roof of the school. A year or two ago, I decided that the collective noun for a large group of adolescents should be “a stupid.”

But now? I think maybe I’m the stupid one.

Because a group of teens from a bullet-riddled high school in Parkland, Florida now leads a massive movement that might change the American political landscape forever.

*****

After the Sandy Hook school shooting 6 years ago, adults, legislators, and even the President tried to shake the NRA’s hold on the Republicans and pass national gun reform legislation. They failed.

There were more shootings. Mass shootings, school shootings, police shootings, domestic violence shootings. Over 7,000 children have died from gun violence since Newtown.

Women marched and the shootings continued.

The Republicans took control of all three branches of government. The shootings continued.

We despaired, even as we supported women candidates and cheered whenever a GOP candidate was defeated. Because even progressive adults, with our old brains, steeped in perspective and realism, didn’t really believe we could change anything. As Dan Hodges said on Twitter:

Then, out of yet another horrific massacre, hope arrived. Born in the battered, yet somehow still optimistic teen brains of students like Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg, and Cameron Kasky. They challenged the status quo, telling GOP legislators to shove their thoughts and prayers up their collective assholes. They called bullshit on all the so-called reasons for not enacting gun reform. They supported each other, drew strength from each other, and took on both American disillusionment and the NRA.

They created a movement. They implored adults to run against the pro-gun lobby and spearheaded voter registration. And when they marched on D.C., they brought along their peers of color who’d been fighting against gun violence already. They gave their friends microphones, but refused to let the elected officials speak.

And rightly so. I read editorials and blog posts daily that eagerly point out the failings of the Women’s March, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo. The culture can’t be changed, authors insist. The activists are flawed, or their messaging is flawed, or they’re being used by career politicians.

As if it’s better to sit smugly on your ass and be critical than to go to a meeting. Or a march. Or canvas voters. Or make a donation. Or just TRY.

Screw that, my fellow old brains. It’s time to jettison our realistic (or maybe our real jaded) neural pathways and resurrect the rebellious ones of our youth.

If my brain can’t manage that, well, I’m gonna limp along behind those teenagers as best I can on my creaky knees, supporting and admiring them.

You know what my newest collective noun is?

A brilliance of teenaged brains.

Illustration from Brainstorm, by Daniel J. Siegel

Sprinkling Stupidity (#215)

Look at how my neighbors water their green lawn…and the cement sidewalk.

I grew up in a swamp. D.C. is ridiculously hot and humid in the summer. A blanket of oppressive, immobile air suffocates the city for weeks at a time, only stirring for the occasional afternoon thunderstorm. But the thunderstorm doesn’t wash away the misery, oh, no. It just makes the ground steam.

All the water makes for lush, green lawns with minimal watering. I never saw a sprinkler system until I moved to Los Angeles. At first I had no idea why various lawns had black knobs on them – until I happened to be walking a roommate’s dog in Burbank one morning. After the knobs popped up and spewed water all over us, I figured out that, duh, of course you can’t have a green lawn in a desert without automated sprinklers.

Surprisingly, Californians, pioneers of catalytic converters and clean air, cling to their green lawns despite our near permanent drought status. On my street, there is exactly one house landscaped with California native plants instead of a green grass lawn. (It’s gorgeous and it smells awesome and it cost thousands of dollars.)

The rest of the neighborhood has perhaps 10 houses with Astroturf, or cacti, or gravel, or all three.

Everyone else has green lawns. Some are super green. I’ve been hit by sprinklers at 5 AM and again at 7 PM — AT THE SAME HOUSE. Even when drought ordinances mandated that sprinklers could only be used every three days, people continued watering twice a day.

Is it ignorance? If so, it must be willful ignorance. Because a lot of those same houses had newspapers on their front steps – newspapers with front pages screaming about the drought.

Maybe it’s a different kind of ignorance. Maybe they don’t understand their sprinkler systems. (You laugh, but I didn’t know how ours worked until Andy was injured last year.) If theses aren’t DIY folks, though, they could certainly tell their gardeners to adjust the sprinklers, couldn’t they?

Andy installed a drip system for my flowerbeds and his garden after we moved in, which cut down on our water usage. We supplemented our plants’ intake with buckets of “warm up” water from the shower. Any water we boiled for cooking we used for my hanging baskets, our fountain, or window boxes when it cooled.

Two years ago, amidst the worst drought in California history, Lieutenant LAPD next door installed a new fountain. Does it use re-circulated water, as it was legally required to do?

Of course not.

Another house installed a picturesque little pond with a bridge in their front yard at the same time. It was pretty as fuck and as illegal as hell. Sometimes it overflows. My dogs and I once had to wade through a creek of RUNNING WATER, pouring over the sidewalk and into the street in the middle of a nine-year drought.

Rage-inducing.

During the drought, California tried to crack down on water-wasters. Utilities raised the cost of water. Our water bill jumped a hundred dollars. I am sure our water-loving neighbors’ bills jumped several hundred.

Their sprinklers kept running.

When increasing the cost of water had no effect, cities set up hotlines to report water-wasters. All over Los Angeles, water vigilantes cruised their neighborhoods and reported those who refused to comply with the drought-stricken state’s laws. (I may have been one of them.) Some folks attempted to shame water wasters in public and online.

I don’t know if the offenders were ever fined. I do know that my neighbors continued running their sprinklers. I continued fuming.

After record-breaking rain last year ended the drought in most of California, we had an abnormally dry winter. Our snowpack is a fraction of what it should be.

It’s not just California, either. All over the world, climate change, overpopulation, and lack of conservation drain the water supply. Cape Town, in South Africa – with a climate similar to SoCal – is expected to run out of water in just a few months. The plethora of piped, purified water that industrialized nations are used to is drying up.

What are people doing about our disappearing water supply? Very little, if we go by my neighborhood.

Last week, Los Angeles finally got several much-needed rainstorms. The dogs and I had to jump all kinds of puddles on our morning walks. And even as I rejoiced in the raindrops on my face, I cursed my short-sighted and stupid neighbors.

Because their goddamned sprinklers were still on
in the rain
soaking my ankles.

Braced for Catastrophe (#214)

The cat asks, “Is the glass half-empty or half-full?”

Growing up amidst divorce, minimal resources, and tragedy, I learned not to be optimistic. I was always awaiting the next crisis. If my husband didn’t answer his phone, I was certain he’d been in a fatal car wreck. I sniffled as I planned that man’s funeral at least weekly.

When my husband and I agreed to try to get pregnant, I worried constantly about both having a child and raising one.

My husband had none of these fears. I wouldn’t say his life as a first generation Chinese-American was an easy one, but it wasn’t as chronically traumatic as mine.

If I mentioned that certain medications might decrease male fertility, he pooh-poohed my fears. “My guys are fine,” he insisted.

“You don’t know that,” I argued. “Look at Stevie Hollywood and JM – her whole life, she knew bearing children would be iffy. And then it was Stevie Hollywood turned out to have sperm that were dead in the water!”

“My guys are up to the job,” Andy told me.

“Okay, but are you? Judgmental Genius Doctor Sister said that even though Georgia Boy was the one hankering for a baby, he folded under the pressure of constant sex.”

“Wait. I thought we were only supposed to have sex every other day. We’re supposed to have it constantly?!” Andy scooped me up and shouted, “To the bedroom!”

I pounded on him until he put me down. “Every other day IS constantly!”

“I know you’re a writer,” Andy said, before adopting Inigo Montoya’s accent and telling me, “But I do not think that word means what you think it means.”

“Dude. I know what the connotations of ‘constant sex’ are to most women and I’m pretty sure every other day qualifies.”

“Huh. Well, I do not fold under the pressure of this so-called constant sex. I relish it. Want another demonstration?”

Clearly my husband did not lack confidence in his sexual prowess or his sperm.

After a month of trying, I didn’t get pregnant. “See?” I told Andy. “There’s something wrong. We’ll probably never get pregnant.”

“We’re gonna get pregnant. Stop worrying.”

“You know, I bet it’s your sperm. Because my mom got pregnant while on every form of birth control and we haven’t even had a single pregnancy scare and we’ve had sex for years.”

Andy rolled his eyes. “You told me your mom wanted to get pregnant and sabotaged her birth control methods. You’re gonna get pregnant. Stop worrying.”

“But what if it is your sperm? I guess we could use your brother’s sperm instead?”

“NO!” roared Andy. “It’s only been a month, it’s going to be fine. My guys are good.” Andy stomped to the refrigerator and pulled out a beer.

I cleared my throat and said, “You know, alcohol can have a detrimental impact on sperm count and sexual performance.”

Andy opened his beer bottle and took a deep, pointed swig.

*****

I envied my husband his optimism (and his alcohol). For all that I came from the most fertile of mothers, I became certain I’d never get pregnant. I knew the universe had a sense of irony and it liked to fuck with me. Now that I was finally okay with having a kid, of course I wouldn’t be able to conceive. I tossed and turned every night for the next month.

“Trick question,” laughs the cat. “The glass is about to SHATTER ON THE FLOOR!” Because catastrophe is inevitable. Right?

Meanwhile, Andy snored blissfully away next to me. He was secure in his knowledge that things would turn out fine.

I wanted to beat his obviously misguided optimism out of him with a pillow. I settled for punching his arm and telling him to roll over when his snores got too loud.

At the end of the next month, right about the time my period was supposed to arrive, I started cramping while Andy was at work.

“Ha,” I grumbled. “I knew it. Not pregnant again.” Before I started popping Advil, though, I figured I’d better be sure there was no chance there was an embryo that could be damaged by medications.

I took a pregnancy test. Then I took another one, because I am the queen of overkill.

I left the pregnancy tests in the bathroom.

When Andy used the bathroom that evening, he came out holding the pregnancy tests in his hand and said, “Really?”

I said, “Yeah.”

And that’s when I realized that maybe, just maybe, my husband hadn’t been so optimistic about conception after all. Because as he gave me a hug, Andy also said:

“My guys made it!”