33 going on 13

I wonder what the summer of 2019 will symbolize for me when I look back on it in 20 years. Maybe the only thing that distinguishes it will be the launch of Sarah 2.0 - the definitive farewell to Harvard and academia and the start of a new career as running coach and assistant brand manager at Fitness Protection (note: if you’re reading this and missing the regular updates that used to come to you on this blog, you can sign up for my Coached and Loved newsletter here!).

I’ve written and spoken a whole lot about that transition on the Morning Mantra podcast and the Running Life podcast, and sure, it’s very important. But when I look back on previous summers and try to remember what they are about, what comes to mind in vivid color is not so much what life changes were occurring, but the things I happened to be into while going through them. The summer of 1997, to me, isn’t so much the summer we moved to Arizona as it is the summer that we watched Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa on TVs across America as they chased Mickey Mantle’s home run record (a series of events which is now difficult to remember with quite the same fondness).

The summer of 2019 was many things to me - a summer of Edith Wharton and Toni Morrison, of Deadwood and Succession season 2. It was also the summer in which my brother Jack turned 13, and for the first time in his life I look at him and feel…not old, exactly, but rather like a relic, a product of an altogether different time. When I was 13, we had one computer for the family to share, out in the hallway so that my AIM usage could be monitored as needed, although the real limitation on my messaging (and my screenname was so silly that I’m not telling you) was the fact that our dial-up internet tied up the phone line and you could only do that for so long before getting yelled at to get off the computer. Still the internet, but a different time.

And yet, I suspect that many things about being 13 were for me what they were for many kids and still are. 13 - which I turned in the summer of 1999 - was the year in which I actually started to care about how much time I was allowed to spend on AOL Instant Messenger - it was the year when my friends and I had enough Things to Discuss that we felt the need to be in communication with one another for hours and hours past the end of the school day (this was how I gathered information about how to live my life!). 13 was the first year I went to a boy’s house after school for an hour - on Valentine’s Day - and then lied about it to my mom (I thought my story was airtight, but in retrospect, she absolutely knew I was full of shit). Subterfuge - still, from what I hear, a central tenet of teenagerdom. And also, conformity. 13 was the age where not only did I care what other kids thought of me, but I fully inhabited that mode, seeking the kinds of things and, more importantly, tastes in things, that would pass muster with my peers. As John Cusack famously said in my old favorite, High Fidelity, “it’s what you like, not what you are like.”

Trying to pinpoint when exactly this caring-about-other-people’s-opinions thing really began in earnest is an inexact science, but something about Jack turning 13 right around the 20-year anniversary of my turning 13 has stirred up a lot of memories that make me think that actually, this was kind of it, and it becomes quantifiable in part thanks to the pop-culture-nostalgia machine, which has turned out some fascinating and engrossing retrospectives on America in 1999. People my age, I suppose, are the ones cranking this stuff out, and something is drawing us all to reflect on this twenty-years-ago time in our lives. Specifically, the pop music hits of the summer of ‘99, all of which - and this is the fascinating part - I not only remember but could probably sing by heart. When I rattle off the names of the biggest Top-40 hits of that year (the duel between Britney Spears’s “Baby One More Time” and Christina Aguilera’s “Genie In A Bottle” - debut singles, the both of them - was JUST THE BEGINNING, people!), I am impressed by how many of them were near-constant earworms that I listened to as often as I could and thought about even more (the video embedded below, by the way, is a delightful tour of that summer’s hits, assuming you can stand to listen to them). The summer of 1999 was the first time in which I think I had anything approaching a social consciousness, by which I mean the beginning of the era in which I felt compelled to give a damn what was “cool” and find a way to partake.

Part of this was the brutality of middle school pulling me into line - particularly as a new kid entering 6th grade with little fashion sense and even less pop-culture awareness - and part of this was, too, the inevitable process of discovering that your parents are not the sole arbiters of the best music/movies/TV to consume. Imagine that.

As a younger kid, I’d loved my dad’s music history lessons, as he called them - he’d pull out a whole bunch of CDs at once and take me through the very best of Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles, and he would make mix-tapes of these and other songs he knew I loved for car trips and the like. I grew to love the seemingly disparate songs he grouped together; we’d go from Linda Ronstadt to Bonnie Raitt to Patsy Cline to Mary Chapin Carpenter to his favorite, Alison Krauss, who soon became mine as well.  My tenth birthday present from my parents was an Alison Krauss and Union Station concert, where I proudly acquired an oversized T-shirt displaying the cover of their latest album, “So Long, So Wrong.” I wore that shit to school, proudly, throughout fifth grade.

My pride in my Alison Krauss fandom went unquestioned until seventh-grade band class, when our teacher Mr. Rowe asked us each to prepare a presentation about a favorite band, I started composing my Alison Krauss mixtape before the announcement had even finished exiting his mouth. A sampling of the band’s best songs - fiddle solos as well as vocal medleys would be crucial, of course - and I couldn’t omit the title track from the album to go with my T-shirt - yes, I decided, I’d play that one first. Vibrating with anticipation and overpreparedness, I strode to the front of the room in my oversized taupe-colored T-shirt, clutching my cassette tape, and promptly lost my nerve entirely when I heard first kid start to laugh at the beautifully twangy “So Long, So Wrong.” No one would make eye contact with me, but incredulous looks boomeranged across the room. Mr. Rowe hastily swooped in: “Guys, guys, let’s keep an open mind!” and he was kind, but that sentence only confirmed how definitively I’d set myself on fire. I mumbled a few more words, then stopped the cassette tape well short of the five clips I’d intended to play and slunk back to my seat to listen to the other kids’ presentations, a veritable who’s-who of the late ‘90s. Smashmouth, Chumbawamba, Third Eye Blind, No Doubt, Savage Garden (Savage Garden!!). 

I never wore the Alison Krauss shirt in public again, nor did I beg my dad for more music history lessons. I started listening to the Top 40 radio station of Phoenix Arizona (KZZP 104.9). I started saving my money for my own CDs, and when I bought that Savage Garden album with the black-and-white-cover, I holed myself up in my room with the door closed, listening to it on endless repeat. Was there hope? Maybe there was hope.

There had been social drama to navigate before 6th grade, kids variously including and excluding each other in endlessly complex social situations, but middle school was the first time that it seemed like there was some sort of agreed-upon metric of coolness, a bar that either you cleared or you didn’t. At the beginning of 6th grade, I could not even begin to contort myself into a form that would clear that bar, but I started to pay attention to those who did, and by the end of 7th grade, by the summer I turned 13, I was actually starting to feel like I could at least sense the presence of the latest cool thing and pursue it - I even persuaded my mom to take me to Tower Records (!!) in Harvard Square for my birthday so I could buy “Millennium,” the new Backstreet Boys CD, an album which I can sing almost entirely by heart, still. Along with it, I acquired one of those CD wallets so that I might carry around my growing pop music collection as a symbol of my taste. It was the Facebook profile avant-la-lettre that showed everyone that you knew what was expected of you as a participant in middle-school society. I kept Alison Krauss in one of the last sleeves in the back, a funny afterthought that proved that I wasn’t just a trend-hopping normie.

If 1999 was the summer I started giving a shit about the world’s opinions, maybe 2019 will stand out as the summer that I...not stopped, but cut way back.