Dear Young Dumb Self,

Remember ASSHOLE? Not the pejorative term. Not the anatomical fact asserted by cats and stump-tailed dogs. No, I mean the card game: lazy, crude, anarchic, obsessively played by certain students at Grey Highlands Secondary School during the winter of 1999.

You sat next to your boyfriend while you played ASSHOLE. His heavy, moistened boy-palm was usually clamped on your knee under the table. He did not play. He possessed some implausible combination of poise, indifference and straight-from-the-bottle bleached-blonde hair which meant that he could be part of the group without being part of whatever the group was doing. This feat was out of your reach. If you had abstained from playing, you would have become a barnacle, a prosthetic limb attached at an awkward angle—an abject hanger-on. Even though the game was stupid (you knew it then as you know it now), it offered exactly what you were looking for: a shortcut to self-acceptance. You did not need to be someone you liked. You only needed to appear as someone you liked. That was enough.

And so it was: the boyfriend kept his sweaty grip on you while you kept your sweaty grip on a handful of tattered, greasy playing cards. You paid the price of admission to join a club that you admired. That's how you survived several months of the eleventh grade.

Sixteen years later, when you’re holding a bag of chia seeds in the health food aisle of the local Loblaws, think about that girl in the cafeteria. She seems like a distant stranger to you now, doesn’t she? A tiny speck on the receding horizon, a squashed gnat on the windshield, an irregular tingling in your baby toe. She might as well no longer exist, for all you can see of her these days.

For one thing, you’re much better acquainted with yourself now. You can stand being alone (sometimes you even seek it out—a concept which would have been as ludicrous to that faraway girl as agreeing to undergo a one-handed root canal performed by a bonobo). You don’t even play cards anymore. If you’re at a poker party, it’s because you like the snacks and the affable vibe that hangs around a group of tipsy, low-stakes gamblers. If one of those gamblers is your man, you can bet that he’s providing more than an under-the-table grope inches from petrified wads of chewing gum. This is because, these days, you have much better taste in men, and you’ve learned to use your words and ask for what you want. All of these things—the pleasure in solitude, the aversion to games of the card and the emotional variety—have driven that cafeteria girl underground.

Underground, but still alive. Still crying out for admission to the most enviable clubs. Today, those are the clubs reserved for parents. Or for successful (read: disciplined, prolific, commercially significant) writers. Or for people with retirement portfolios, whatever those are. Or for women who know what foundation is and how to use it. Or, in a more day-to-day sense, for adults who shop at farmers’ markets and in health food aisles, and who know what to do with all those fennel bulbs and bricks of tofu and wheels of artisanal cheese once they get home (because, presumably, they do more than let these things languish in cupboards and refrigerators until the next vigorous kitchen tidy-up).

In other words, you’ve come such a long way from the girl in the cafeteria that she manifests herself only as a rough formula still etched in your psyche:

Play cards >>> earn membership to a peer group >>> experience affection from boy-hands >>> feel less like a three-headed weirdo.

Appealing, right? The best part was that it worked. In that squirming petri dish of high school, it really wasn’t all that hard to erect a structure that could insulate you from alienation. Which is why it’s so tempting to apply the same sort of formula to your life today. Except that your life today has more complexity. More nuance. You’re under less observation from others, but more observation from yourself—and when it’s your own internal voice that’s scrutinizing the cause-and-effect relationship of your actions to your state of mind, the formula has to shift a bit.

Old model:

Purchase expensive food that you don’t really want or even know how to prepare >>> earn a big Visa bill >>> expel a lot of sloppy waste on compost day >>> feel like a fraud.

Updated model:

Buy the food you like and that makes you feel happy and satisfied, even if it comes with microwave instructions >>> earn your own self-respect >>> mitigate occasional pangs of guilt by eating safe, familiar vegetables >>> feel like an authentic version of yourself (and then go to the gym to burn off that last tin of Zoodles).

The point is, what worked way back then does not work today. Your baseline for success used to be a slight, almost untraceable reduction in that sense of alienation and strangeness. When you accomplished that, you could get up from the cafeteria table and head to your next class feeling like you’d done something worthwhile. You’d accomplished what you set out to do. You'd preserved your membership in the club. 

These days, though, your measure of success has shifted. A good decision is no longer one that makes you feel merely tolerated by others—it’s one that leads to wholeness and authenticity, which are highfalutin therapist-couch words for feeling like one cool, badass lady with a shit-ton of real greatness to offer the world. And greatness, you must realize, does not mean chia seeds. It means you. Zoodle-eating, snack-aisle-shopping, non-retirement-portfolio-owning you.

Go towards that. Join the best club of all. 

Leave the ASSHOLE behind.

Old Wise Self