Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Ergo Ego

Original Illustration by Stephanie Smelyansky

I read the book Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger a while back. You may have heard of it. If not, the book is a short story (Franny) and a novella (Zooey) published together as one volume. The book’s about Franny and Zooey, the two youngest siblings in the Glass family, which is comprised entirely of genius children. Franny and Zooey had an untraditional upbringing, mixing an education in religious philosophies with regular stints on the radio game show “It’s A Wise Child,” and they believe that’s why they have a hard time relating to other people. The plot of the novel centers on Franny’s emotional breakdown and how her brother, Zooey, tries to help her.

I’m not writing about this book to sake say that I liked it. I’m writing about this book because of the tumultuous journey the book makes you take with its characters that I think this is a journey every budding adult needs to take.

The thematic center of the book pivots around the main characters’ egos. As a result of their upbringing, both Franny and Zooey have unrealistic expectations for the world around them, but especially the naive and young Franny. When college, her passion for theater, and her love life all don’t live up to her expectations, Franny collapses. She realizes how conformist life is, proclaiming it all unoriginal, including the more esoteric bourgeois culture of which she is a member. That realization makes her lose faith in herself.

Franny may be a genius, but she’s just a twenty year old girl with the same insecurities and fears as the rest of us. All of us novice adults have hopeful misconceptions and idealistic notions of our futures. However, in the back of our heads there’s this nagging little fear reminding us that we’re bound to be disappointed, despite our attempts to ignore it. Salinger expertly forces us to confront the fear of disappointment by making the reader feel Franny’s turmoil and making the reader doubt their own character, lending to a tension that is insurmountable until the final pages of the novel. Franny’s attack at the disingenuous makes the reader fear that they themselves are an impostor, and as a budding adult, makes me feel like an actor in a world I’m not ready to handle.

As depressing as that sounds, the book’s resolution teaches both Franny and the reader a crucial lesson. Ego is defined as one’s sense of self and self-importance. If that’s so, Franny topples between two extremes: she topples faithful self-confidence and fearful uncertainty. For all of you fellow young’uns out there, there’ll be a day in your lives just like Franny’s when your entire ego is deflated by a pinprick. But as Franny learns, it’s her ego that is her savior. Franny realizes that the problem isn’t in having an ego as much as it is in projecting her ego onto other people. The message of the book essentially is know thyself, and hold thyself up to the standards thou believeth are supreme, but don’t force the same standards upon the world. At the end of the day, satisfaction results from the egotistical practice of individually living up to a personal standard, and no outside positive reaffirmation can replace that.

Ergo, love and hone your ego, as it’s all you really have. And read Franny and Zooey. You’ll learn so much more and gain so much confidence having read the book. Pinky promise.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


So I turned eighteen last week.

Yeah, I’m kinda an adult. Which is kinda weird, because I’m actually allowed to make pretty important decisions for myself that I’m not sure I should be making. You can actually pretty much do anything in the US when you’re eighteen except drink.

Here are a few of the ways I’ve taken advantage of my oldness:

  • I voted. I got lucky and election day was the day after my birthday, so I decided to be a good citizen and partake in our political system.

  • I got three (!) new piercings: a helix (upper cartilage), and my doubles (a new lobe piercing in each ear). My family was not too pleased even though they were given ample foresight beforehand.

  • I signed a contract to pick up some medical records. That didn’t make me feel mature, it just made me feel ancient.
  • I signed a pro-gay rights petition.
  • I drove home at midnight from a friend’s house and stopped at a 24-hour Taco Bell without breaking curfew (though I’ll admit I still felt rebellious eating  grade D meat in the middle of the night).
  • I bought tickets to an 18 and over concert. Nothing screams maturity more than a sweaty mosh pit and angsty rock music.

Here are a few things that I did not do:
  • I didn’t buy a lottery ticket.
  • I didn't get a tattoo. It's something I'm considering, but I'm not ready for the commitment yet.
  • I didn’t go to a strip club. Not really my ambiance, if you know what I mean.
  • I didn’t buy cigarettes because I’m not as poetic as Augustus Waters. 

What I did learn when I turned eighteen was that the age on my driver’s license doesn’t determine if I’m an adult or not, I do. And I’m not ready to be an adult. I struggle enough trying to get my homework done, so I’d probably be a hot mess if I had to always do the laundry and cook for myself and....PAY TAXES! There’s a part of me that enjoys the perks of being legal, but for right now, I want to relish in being a teen for a little while longer. I still feel kind of nervous about life in general, as if I still need quite a bit of guidance and support. My mistakes are to a certain degree still forgivable because they’re shrouded by a bit of naïveté, and wowza do I make a lot of mistakes.

Around this time last year, before I turned seventeen, I was venting to my older cousin via text about how I both enjoyed and feared getting older. I was scared that as soon as you turn some magic number, all innocence was lost. She assuaged my fears by texting back, “Naïveté has no age limit.” I visited her in New York for my birthday and she repeated those words in person as I blew out the candles on my cake. In a way, New York City helped me understand what she meant. NYC wasn’t new to me; on the contrary, it was probably the fifth time I’d been there. But even though I’d previously traversed the streets of Manhattan, everything felt new and beautiful to me. I still had an innate curiosity in the city and the people that lived there that no matter how many times I visit never disappears but rather manifests itself in new and different ways, and that’s the same naïveté that I was afraid I’d lose.

There’s probably some document sitting in some big marble building in DC stating that on the day of my eighteenth birthday I’m suddenly an adult and I must think like one. Personally, I’m not quite sure a wrapped up piece of parchment rings true in my life. I’m eighteen and yes that means I’ll be confronted by several important decisions and responsibilities pretty soon in my life. But that doesn’t mean I can’t approach the world with the same curiosity and wonder that I did when I was seventeen or even seven.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Serhiy, 19. Protestor from Obuhiv. February 26, 2014. Photo: Anastasia Taylor-Lind, taken from blog.ted.com

Sometimes, I feel like a small helpless part of the world that has no responsibility or capability to affect others. It’s both a scary and lovely feeling because I’m free of the burdens of adulthood. In places around the world, however, not all people my age are as lucky.

I was browsing through some blogs when this interesting TED article came up. The article focuses on photographer Anastasia Taylor-Lind who created a series of provocative portraits of the Maidan fighters and mourners during Ukraine’s recent revolution. I have a strong personal connection to the fighting as I have family members and friends who were caught up in the middle of it. However, what arrested me most about the portraits weren’t the clothes or the faces of the subjects, but how young they were. The youngest one, Serhiy, was 19, just one year older than I am, and the oldest, Olena, is a mere 26. And there they stood in the middle of a combat zone.

I forget the capacity that young people have to affect world events and change their circumstances. In Ukraine, the revolution was fought carried out by lots of young kids from all over the country. Students who were studying English in school translated BBC and American news into Ukrainian and Russian so as to provide unbiased news for the masses; my cousin was one of those translators. Boys my age and older were taking up arms against an unjust government. While a horde of young adults overthrew an entire government, I was concerned about passing a biology exam. It was the youth who carried the burden of an entire nation.

In America, there is no compulsory military service. For the most part, a middle class life here is simple. Around the world however, kids have to grow up fast. In Israel, everyone is conscripted into the army once they’re 18. My cousins in Israel, instead of prepping for college, are currently learning how to hold a gun. There’s a wickedness in stealing a kid’s innocence the second they become a legal adult, but many kids grow up with that as a cultural norm. Are they ever really innocent if they all grow up knowing that one day they’ll learn how to kill someone? In other countries, there is no such notion of growing up at all. Go to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for instance. Books such as The Poisonwood Bible illustrate the lack of a childhood kids experience. Girls are married off at age 12, if they even survive that long. Children’s lives in places such as the DRC a struggle for survival that they have to fight for themselves.

I grew up with an unparalleled luxury: the luxury of innocence. I never had to worry about where to find food, or if a bomb would fall on my house. Yet I never stopped to think how lucky I am. I’m lucky simply because of where I was born; I have no other privilege than the privilege of location. Staring at the portraits of people who’d be my peers carrying guns haunted me. Those portraits reminded me that while I may feel helpless and free from responsibility, in another place, my actions would carry consequences heavier than a ton of bricks.