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ONCE UPON A SUPERSTAR


When we're young each of us is the hero or heroine of our particular life story. Cool or class clown, or a bit of both, adolescents are egocentric by nature and often unable to see things from anyone else's point of view. Which is part of the reason we have such a hard time getting along with siblings. We mistake the opinion that we're at the center of the spotlight and all eyes are on us for fact, when really everybody is just thinking the same thing (about themselves) and paying a lot less attention to you. That is, unless you're super cool.

Cool kids. We all knew them. We often loved them. Maybe you were among them. These guys and gals acted old for their age. They snuck into movies, had sex in their early teens, smoked and drank before classmates and engaged in other risk-taking behaviors like dining and ditching and pilfering Twix candy bars from the local 7-Eleven. (Busted.) Cool kids tend to hang out together, because they base friendships on appearance and social connection. Proving that cool seeks cool. 

But as a new book by Ron Fournier points out, popularity can be a trap that ensnares you when you're at your most vulnerable (though as a teen you tend to feel your most invincible) and can set you up to fail in your adult life. In one recent study, "cool kids" had a much greater rate of substance abuse by the time they hit adulthood, and a greater risk of breaking the law, compared with average teens. Childish behavior like giving noogies and wedgies may be the shit when you're a kid (provided you're not on the receiving end); but when you're old enough to vote, these and other antics are childish and can lead to criminal behavior. Whether you're labeled cool or not seems rather arbitrary. Coolness is less a function of GPA or performance on the playing field - though high marks in each can't hurt - and more on how a kid carries himself, which is often a function of physical maturity. The early bloomers look older and so are treated as superiors, that is with more respect. But looks can be deceiving. And the temporary social status that being cool affords is no substitute for the skills required for deep, durable friendships. Gliding by on good hair and designer jeans can lead to complacency and render a person less likely to cultivate traits - such as empathy and the ability to listen - which are so crucial to bond formation and success later in life. The bigger you are, the harder you fall indeed.

And so these "pseudomature" kids have a much tougher time than their nondescript peers when their narrative starts to break down. And unless you're Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts, it usually does. The myth of invincibility is common to all adolescents, more so if you're the coolest kid in school who can seemingly do no wrong. And having adult-like qualities early in life leads to adult behaviors that perpetuate the myth. You can drink like a fish in your teens and wake up and play back-to-back full length soccer games, as I once did after a night drinking double greyhounds with my steady. Hangover who? If at 13 you're the most popular kid in your class, and by 17 you're the king of the school, who can blame you for assuming that this celebrity status will continue throughout life. If you were one of the elite, maybe you have gained enough empathy in suffering hard knocks of your own to relate to me when I say ouch. Or maybe not.

Because kids in general can be unwilling or unable to surrender their fable, and this gets harder the more popularity you enjoyed. When failures begin counterbalancing successes, our vision of our lives has no choice but to become more realistic lest we sink into delusion. Of course facing the music that the sun does not rising and set on you and you alone can be delayed if as a young person you could do no wrong. If you had astronomical success without any real effort it may take quite a while for the failures to catch up. But by the early 20s when the former prom king's promise fails to materialize - he's not the next Brad Pitt or for that matter even Kevin Bacon - it can be easy to fall into bad habits like alcohol and drugs to mask the pain of mediocrity, and as everyone knows these substances only put additional strain on relationships. Making the brightest and most talented in your graduation class possibly less fulfilled and more embittered as middle age comes around. Ah, the problem of peaking early. Which may be why I avoid those high school reunions.

If you lock yourself into an unrealistic story of endless success, which in adulthood is generally unsustainable even with tremendous effort, you are in for a rude awakening. And sometimes tremendous effort does not come easy to one who has rested on his laurels for nearly a decade. After early stardom, everything that comes afterwards seems like a letdown by comparison. Of course, some just pile success upon success en route to a lofty peak they have yet to reach. Like Brad Pitt or for that matter Kevin Bacon. But the rest of us former cool kids must be willing to accept the realities that adult accomplishments pale by comparison to the former glory in which we basked not so long ago. 

Of course, editing your personal fable to reflect the downs as well as the ups can make life flow more smoothly. It is a sign of maturity and can also make you more mature, so get on it. I for instance know that meeting a girl at the level of the girls I dated in high school may be difficult if not impossible for me in my current station. Females often judge prospective mates by their ability to provide financially. I have no such ability. Senior year I dated the choicest chicks, to use a corny choice of words because of its consonance, not merely because I was athletic and good-looking, but because I was a good student and a gentleman, sure. Arguably mostly because I was a gentleman. That was before the age when your job says everything about you. Now a pocketbook is ranked higher on the list of assets than your Ps and Qs. 

Frankly I haven't been with a girl I considered a suitable match since my first real girlfriend, when I was 17. Nina and I lived in similar neighborhoods, with fathers who were professionals and mothers who were housewives. We were both intelligent and inquisitive, good looking, with similar styles (we both liked piercings and used Levis) and needless to say popular. If we were living in India, land of arranged unions, the local astrologer would have set us up. And so we'd often stay up long nights talking about life. We had a marriage of the minds, and I fit inside her quite nicely. I thought for sure we'd get married. How ingenuous. It lasted 3 weeks. The one glaring difference being that Nina liked to drink and at the time I did not - greyhounds excluded, but only once. Had we dated a few years later, it would have been a race to the bottom of that vodka bottle. I don't know that a shared propensity to get sauced bodes well as far as connubial bliss is concerned.

Ever since Nina, my journey on the ladder of love has been a downward spiral, as far as compatibility goes. As a medical doctor I had finally regained my former glory, meaning social standing. It took an additional lifetime to the year. King of the school at 17 and a half. Medical doctor at 35. But being cool had become such hard work! As a teenager I could balance school and sports and a social life quite effortlessly. But in residency I could barely fit in a work-out before my shift in clinic. I knew that if I kept it up for long enough, yes I'd accumulate the accouterments to make me once again super appealing in the eyes of females - perhaps even a female as compatible with me as Nina. But so many 60-hour weeks was simply too big a sacrifice for a steady lay. How could I be of any use to another, if I was so tired on my own. Getting out of bed was tough; forget getting it up! 

Fortunately in the lifetime since my days as Mr. Cool, I have been exposed to alternative lifestyles, which is to say to the lives and works of the many masters who have renounced romantic partnerships for a simple life of contemplation. And I related to these celibates enough to consider becoming one myself. Though I haven't ruled out concupiscence. Except for the occasional writing on the subject, I don't bask in former glory, nor do I rest on my laurels. Revising my personal narrative means being more realistic. I know that even if I were so inclined, being with a girl who I'd consider a proper match becomes less likely the older I get, given that I spend my time making like a maharshi. That is, not trying to make millions but meditating for just as many minutes. And I'm okay with that. What my wallet lacks my spirit supplies in spades. 

You may call me a legend in my own mind, but I say once a star always a star. Just as it would be unrealistic of me to go for a girl out of my league (whose beauty outmatches my net worth) it would be foolish of me to think I could ever be content with a girl who is on my level. That is, jobless and living at home with a parent. Unless I'm so inclined. And she's super hot.

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