False Gods

Justin Bieber Arrested2You hear a lot these days about our young people: How they don’t know much. How they can’t name the last three Presidents, say, never mind the first three. 

I read a survey of youth designed to reveal what they wanted in life – lots of money, they said, fast cars, fame – and It has me remembering the time a 13-year-old I’ll call Jenny came to my house and said it outright: 

“I don’t want to be known for any one thing,” she said cheerfully. “I just want to be famous.”

“You know Jenny,” I  remember saying back.  “You could say that I’m so-called ‘famous’ in every town that runs a picture of me alongside my column in the paper but.. it’s nothing. I mean it doesn’t help. Mostly it just means strangers stare at you and think you don’t have feelings.”

“Listen to this,” I went on: ‘One day an older woman beckoned to me from a group of women she was standing with. ’My friends wanted to know who Terry Marotta was,’ she said. They looked at me. Nobody spoke. ’That’s all,’ she finally added. ‘They just wanted to see what you looked like.’

 “So see what I mean? It’s not helpful. And sometimes, it hurts. And seeking it can be a kind of addiction.

Years ago, I went to a wedding where the father of the bride was so famous he had to sit in a chair the whole night wearing an expression that said,  “Please. It’s my daughter’s day.” People respected that – until the second or third drink. Then they surrounded him, and his smiled was forced and tired.

“No, don’t wish for fame, Jenny, I ended by saying. “The Queen of England has fame and who are her close friends do you think? The serving woman who helps dress her? The serving man who brings her her breakfast tray?”

The survey also cited the famous people the kids said they wanted to be like: Entertainment figures and athletes to a one. There were no political or spiritual leaders on the list. No humanitarians. No inventors.

But the kids aren’t to blame here. If they worship money it’s because we worship it. If they crave gadgets and fast cars it’s because we do too. If they covet fame and the big life is may be because they think it can protect them from a rising sense that the small life is not enough.

One day, I was driving  with a 15-year-old I I’ll call James, who needed a ride to a place where he could take some standardized tests, because he wondered if he should go to a new school.

He had had a bad year, and was at a loss. Three months before, a fire destroyed his home. His mother was severely burned. His little stepsister perished, as did the younger brother, who he had always said was his best friend in this world.

But on this day we didn’t speak of that. We spoke instead of the survey, for he had seen it too, and it bothered him.

“Entertainers,” he said.

“Fame,” I said.

“Money,” he said. “Cars.”

“Is that what we’re here for?” I asked rhetorically.

He paused. He looked out the car window.

“I always thought we were here to serve God.”

No, fame and money don’t help – and they appear to have done very little to ease the troubled young heart of a Lindsay Lohan, say, or a Justin Bieber, who is  running widely afoul of the law right now.

Let’s hope more of us can learn to be like James, who gave me permission to tell his story here; and who, in trying hard to do well and find his path is surely  serving God.

Marilyn and Caroline

For weeks now I’ve been thinking about our Marilyn, practically the founder of that group of people for whom no last name is necessary.  Today she will have been dead for 50 years. As everyone seems to know by now, she was just 36 when they found her sprawled across her bed, the phone under her hand..

For weeks I have also been thinking about writer Caroline Knapp, who as of this summer has been dead for ten years. She was just 42 when she succumbed to a very aggressive form of lung cancer: diagnosed in April, gone in June.

But I remember so vividly the day they found Marilyn’s body. I remember so clearly looking down at my own changing body and thinking, “How did all THIS get here?” It was a bewildering new world all right; having guys fake-sighing and then laughing when I passed in the corridors. I suddenly had a boyfriend too, young as I was. He was blond with perfect ears and just 5 foot 2, my same height at the time. I liked that we were small like that. It made the whole boyfriend girlfriend thing so much less scary. It made us seem to me like children still, which of course we were.



This boy and I were together the day the news broke about Marilyn’s death and it chilled me to my core, I think because even at that young age I saw in her something familiar, naïve way of pleasing others that I sensed was becoming my way. It’s how young women were taught to be back then, ever pliant and agreeable.

I was heading down that path, all right; and were it not for an ability to shine in school I can’t think how I might have ended. Giving people my shirt as well as my cloak, to use the metaphor. Memorizing the birthdays of people I had only just met so I could send them a card in four or six or eleven months and to prove what? To purchase what?

I gave away far too much time and attention to others, and kept far too little for myself.

Marilyn did that too, and used alcohol to keep herself blind to the fact.

In her brave book, Caroline Knapp writes with great insight about addiction’s riptide pull. In it we learn what she finally learned about self-worth, and about alcohol’s insidious way of acting like your closest friend – right up until it reveals itself as your deadliest foe. She talks about her father, high-achieving and remote, every night drinking his martinis-with-an-olive.

And because, as she puts it, “alcohol travels through families like water over a landscape,” she drank as well, starting at age 14.

Just by her description of a glass of chilled white wine filled to the brim and beading with moisture you can see how she loved it, in much the same way Marilyn loved her champagne, alternating its use with the pills she took at night to help her sleep and the ones she took in the morning to help her function again.

Well I don’t know just where I’m going here except to note that while Marilyn lost her battle, Caroline won hers, thanks to the 12 Steps. She got sober and she wrote a wonderful book which I would recommend to anyone. It certainly helped me with my decades old habit of over functioning.

Drinking: A Love Story, it is called.

Now let’s watch this video of Marilyn and salute the oh-so-natural and the oh-so-perishable beauty that was hers.