Serendipity: The Winds of Change

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The Book Is the Same, Only the Reader Has Changed

The thing about re-reading books you first encountered decades ago is to feel the winds of change in your life. When I first read J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, I was a high school student looking forward to leaving Cleveland to go to college. The book was a revelation to me, and re-reading it at this late stage in my life shows me sitting on the porch of our house at 3989 East 176th Street, turning the pages and marveling at a book written for kids like me. It’s a good feeling: I accept that 16-year-old kid. He was all right.

Following is a quote that pretty much describes my feeling at re-reading The Catcher in the Rye:

The best thing, though, in that museum was that everything always stayed right where it was. Nobody’d move. You could go there a hundred thousand times, and that Eskimo would still be just finished catching those two fish, the birds would still be on their way south, the deers would still be drinking out of that water hole, with their pretty antlers and their pretty, skinny legs, and that squaw with the naked bosom would still be weaving that same blanket. Nobody’d be different. The only thing that would be different would be you. Not that you’d be so much older or anything. It wouldn’t be that exactly. You’d just be different, that’s all. You’d have an overcoat on this time. Or that kid that was your partner in line last time had got scarlet fever and you’d have a new partner. Or you’d have a substitute taking the class, instead of Miss Aigletinger. Or you’d heard your mother and father having a terrific fight in the bathroom. Or you’d just passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different in some way – I can’t explain what I mean. And even if I could, I’m not sure I’d feel like it.

Well, unlike Holden, I am in fact much older; but that’s okay. Better, in fact, than the alternative.


The Doofus Factor

Three Male Teenagers Looking at Mobile Phone --- Image by © Ole Graf/Corbis

Three Male Teenagers Looking at Mobile Phone — Image by © Ole Graf/Corbis

For over twenty years, I worked as a specialist in census demographics. One of the most surprising things I learned during that time is that, whereas there are 26 boys born for every 25 girls, by the age of twenty-one, girls outnumber the boys. Why is that? The answer is very simple: There are a number of factors that disproportionately increase the mortality of teenage boys.

An article in the August 31, 2015 issue of The New Yorker entitled “The Terrible Teens” by Elizabeth Kolbert treats young men and women the same, but she does not account for the gender factor. Still, what she says is interesting:

Teen-agers are, as a rule, extremely healthy—healthier than younger children. But their death rate is much higher. The mortality rate for Americans between fifteen and nineteen years old is nearly twice what it is for those between the ages of one and four, and more than three times as high as for those ages five to fourteen. The leading cause of death among adolescents today is accidents; this is known as “the accident hump.”

Fortunately for them, girls are less likely to make stupid mistakes that end of killing them than boys are.

We tend to remember most vividly the experiences we had during those teen years, even if they were dumb. It has something to do with our pleasure centers being more intense at that point than later in life. In today’s news, for example, we hear of one of UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s youthful stunts, namely putting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig while a student at Oxford. At least, he survived. But what about those teens who, upon getting extremely drunk, drive around town with a bunch of similarly affected teens and wind up in a gruesome wreck?

Kolbert continues:

Many recent innovations—cars, Ecstasy, iPhones, S.U.V.s, thirty racks [cases of beer], semi-automatic weapons—exacerbate the mismatch between teen-agers’ brains and their environment. Adolescents today face temptations that teens of earlier eras, not to mention primates or rodents, couldn’t have dreamed of. In a sense, they live in a world in which all the water bottles are spiked.

Sometimes I think the reason I survived is that I spent my entire adolescence suffering from a pituitary tumor that isolated me from more normal teens. By the time I was operated on at the age of twenty-one, I was mostly out of danger from the doofus factor.