Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Do Not Follow This Advice

     Somewhere out there my 20th high school reunion is being planned, and I feel all kinds of conflicted about it. Not about going, mind you. I'm excited to see everyone. I will totally go. The thing I'm stuck on is that high school was 20 years ago.  I'm not embarrassed about my life, or my accomplishments. I accept my age. I'm okay with the march of time. I don't feel like I have anything to prove to anybody. But all that said,  I can't help but think about how certain tiny, thoughtlessly made decisions, in the Chaos Theory of my life, proved to be the butterfly wing flap propelling me directly into my future. If I had had the benefit of hindsight, I would've done a lot of things differently.
     In my defense, I received some very bad advice back in the day, and therefore, made some very bad decisions. My 38 year old self would like to go back in time and tell teenaged Brittany to get a clue. But until time travel becomes a possibility, I'll just write my thoughts here as a public service message to you all.

10 Pieces of Advice I Would Tell My Younger Self NOT to Follow

1. Don't act too interested. 
     It was drummed into my head from childhood that my ultimate goal in life was to find a guy to marry me someday (I'm hoping this nonsense died with us Gen Xers.). Apparently, the way to do this was some wacky reversed psychology craziness, because guys liked the thrill of the chase. If I reciprocated, or appeared interested in any way, I'd end any hope I might've had with a guy, who'd run screaming for the hills, his illusion that I was a living, breathing Mona Lisa shattered.  My 38 year old self calls bullshit.  No guy is ever going to approach a girl that doesn't look receptive to it, unless he is delusional or sado-masochistic (and then you don't want him). If you like him, you'll save yourself a lot of angst if you act like you enjoy having him around. Since I wasn't acting interested, I expended millions (possibly trillions) of brain cells trying to figure out if he liked me. Seriously, if I had just been friendlier, I could have saved myself a lot of brain power, and possibly passed Pre-Cal senior year.

2. Never, ever, ever EVER call him. Not for homework help, not to chat, not even to inquire about his health during the Zombie Apocalypse.
     This goes right along with #1, because calling the guy who lives next door to ask him when the math homework is due totally screams I'M DESPERATELY IN LOVE WITH YOU AND NOW I'M GOING TO STALK YOU, right? I was given the impression that guys didn't ever want their important guy-lives interrupted by idle girlie chit chat.  I had a ton of guy friends that I loved to talk to, who made me laugh, and more to the point, understood the math assignments. But if they had a y chromosome, phone chats initiated by me were verboten. In my house, this was such an iron clad rule, I broke out in cold sweats whenever I needed to call Tom at work--even after we were engaged! Even after he told me to call him! 38 year old Brittany says this is the dumbest relationship advice EVER. Ignore. Ignore. Ignore. If you'd welcome a phone call from him, call him (or text him if you live in the 21st century) for heaven's sake. It's a phone. He can hang it up if he doesn't want to talk.

3. Let him make the first move.
     The messages I received made teenaged Brittany a very quiet, conflicted girl. In the vein of sappy Disney movies everywhere, it sounded like I was supposed to happily sing with my little bird friends and cavort around wishing wells until my Handsome Prince road into my life, took one look at my disinterested poker face, and professed his immediate and undying love for me. After his profession of love, I'm guessing I was supposed to drop all pretenses and happily ride off into the sunset with him. But there wasn't a whole lot of advice on that point, because...

4. Nice girls don't __________.
     Fill in the blank. If it sounded fun, I wasn't supposed to do it. And where's the fun in that? 38 year old me would tell teenage Brittany that nice girls do a lot of things that might blow her mind.

5. Guys like girls who ________.
     It took me a long, long time to figure this out, but there's no one size fits all list for why someone might like you or not. Doing something because guys in general like it (wearing certain clothes, make-up, having a certain type of hair, or having certain interests or ways of expressing yourself) is a pointless exercise, because men don't think as a group. What a revelation! Your ultimate goal in life should be to live the life YOU imagine. If you meet someone that likes you and the choices you've made to please yourself, that is the prize in the Cracker Jack box of your life.

6. You should be an exchange student! Twice!
      I know, you're shocked, but not all my bad advice pertained to relationships and men. And even though I got a lot out of both my foreign exchanges and they completely changed my view of the world, and made me a better, stronger person, it was not an easy time for me. Living anywhere without a true support network, while you try to navigate a new culture and language is difficult. It's lonely, and painful, frustrating, confusing,challenging, and embarrassing. It's endlessly living with strangers, living among strangers, no port in the storm, no mental breaks, no off button. And meanwhile, back at home, your friends think you're having this amazing time and barely spare you a thought. When you return, you feel like a foreigner *again*, unused to speaking your own language, having to learn how to put the right inflections back in your voice, know the right facial expressions and gestures to use, you have to learn one lost year of slang, never saw that culturally significant tv show, commercial, or magazine article, you weren't there with your friends that night at the football game when _______ happened... You spent a year away under mental duress, and then you go through it again when you return home. And no one gets it. I spent 2 years of my life abroad, and 2 years readjusting to home. One of those years at a Lutheran college in Minnesota (where I felt like an exchange student *again*). I look back at that time in my life, and remember a lot of pain and disconnect and emotional drifting, at a time in my life when my peers were making connections and discovering who they were. I had a glimpse, but it kept changing. 38 year old me would discourage the second trip and Minnesota. (See #7)

7. Pick the college that "feels" right.
     I went to college in Minnesota because they called me on Christmas Eve to wish me a happy birthday. I got all kinds of warm fuzzies. But this is NOT how you pick a college. Current Brittany would force me to apply to Carolina and then would punt me there.

8. Go ahead, take the Honors math class. 
     As it turned out, I made a 52 for the year and had the entire (unnecessary) class stricken from my school record, like it never happened. But it did. I still break into cold sweats at the sight of a graphing calculator. I have PTSD at the mere words Pre-Calculus. I was a good student in everything else. But math was my downfall, and Pre-Cal was my personal Waterloo. I've never crashed and burned so spectacularly. There were no far-reaching implications from this bad advice--unless it killed the dream I never had of becoming a math major--it was just horrible, horrible advice.
9. Don't be "difficult"
I was not supposed to argue. I was not supposed to have an opinion if it differed from my family's. When I did, I was being difficult, and it was like a death sentence. "You're being difficult. How do you expect anyone to like you when you act like this?" 

They sent me to Europe twice, and were surprised when I came home altered. I wasn't supposed to have that openly gay math teacher, who had parties at his house where we sat around looking at gay erotica, and then, as a class, enjoy his tour-guided commentary through the Red Light District of Amsterdam. I wasn't supposed to live in a socialist country and benefit from free healthcare. I wasn't supposed to have comprehensive sex ed that included how-to videos and birth control lessons. I wasn't supposed to live in the post-communist eastern block country where my neighbors kept their farm animals in their living room and insulated their house in hay. Or have a war going on, just across the border, 20 minutes away. Or hang out with a dozen young, sexy Danish UN peace keeping soldiers. Or act as their unofficial translator and hang out in their barracks with them. I wasn't supposed to witness the ugliness of anti-semitism firsthand. Or see what happens to a struggling economy when a larger, more powerful country literally buys it out. I wasn't supposed to come home independent, and angry, and frustrated with the life choices they had up til now presented me with. Older me would remind younger me that I wasn't being difficult. I was just being myself now, and that they were being difficult in their own way.

10. Don't become a teacher. Go into Waste Management.
 I would've been perfectly content to have become an English teacher, and hang out in a middle or high school for the rest of my life, but my mother REFUSED. She told me that the day I signed up for my first education class was the day she'd quit supporting me financially. So that was out. I didn't really know what I wanted to do (because anything that involved math was clearly out of the question). Mom didn't want me to go into English either, and made many other harebrained suggestions: CEO of a fortune 500 company (sure mom, I'll just go get a degree in *that*), or Police Dog Handler (um, mom... that sort of requires you to be a POLICE OFFICER! Next!) but my favorite was when she came home announcing that Waste Management was the field of the future and *that* was the field I should focus on. I went screaming straight to the nearest English department after that. It wasn't a great decision, only because I would've liked to have had the stability of a career. 38 year old me would either tell mom to stuff it and get the Education Degree, or steer me in the direction of Journalism, Speech Pathology, or Animal Behavioralism--interests I have acquired over time. 

The 1 Piece of Advice I Hope She'd Take

     If I could sit down with my younger self, this is what I'd really want her to hear from me. No one knows you like you know yourself, so if the story people are telling you about yourself doesn't ring true to you, don't waste your time listening to people who mean well, but distract you from your goals. Seek out the people who do know you. Who can see the life you've imagined for yourself and say "I want to see you there too." Surround yourself with people that understand who you are, what you want from your life, and who'll give you the support you need to get to the place you long to be.  And then when you get there, do everything necessary to stay there.



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