Jennifer O’Connell: Advice to my teenage self about boys, my thighs and Phil Collins

If I could have a word with her now, that angsty girl with the bad haircut and the good intentions, what would I tell her?

Note to self: your brothers are right about Phil Collins. Photograph: Luciano Viti/Getty Images

Note to self: your brothers are right about Phil Collins. Photograph: Luciano Viti/Getty Images

 

A very large truck pulled up outside my front door recently and vomited out the contents of our lives in Ireland. There were lots of things I barely remembered owning and could have quite happily have lived out my days without ever seeing again: the melon-shaped salad bowl that was a wedding present; the black leather trenchcoat that might, pre-Columbine, have suggested a kind of Victoria Beckham chic but now just suggests Columbine; a silk scarf presented to me by Mohamed Al-Fayed when I interviewed him about Dodi and Diana.

But lurking somewhere in the back was what Robin Williams would have called “the good stuff”: a battered box that holds the entire contents of my teenage years. In it, among the mix tapes and the photos and the involved, occasionally hilarious, letters written under cover of a maths text book, are the diaries I kept from the ages of eight to 19, always in blue pen, without ever missing a day. Reading them is excruciating. It is like watching a bad romantic comedy in which everyone except the utterly self-involved and woefully unself-aware heroine can see how the next scene will play out.

If I could have a word with her now, that angst-ridden girl with the bad haircut and the good intentions, what would I tell her?

  • Try black pen for once.
  • You’re a perfectionist, but you’ll be so much happier when – in about 17 years’ time – you learn to start letting go.
  • You’ll get over him. And him. You don’t believe me now, but you’ll get over all of them. Yes, even the boy who asked you out and dumped you and then asked you back out and then told you he was only kidding seven times in the space of three weeks in 1988. Your poor, bruised heart will recover from them all – some of them more quickly than you think and some of them not so quickly, but 20 years from now, you’ll be friends with even the real heartbreakers on Facebook.
  • No, your skin won’t clear up. Sorry. Your 39-year-old self will still start every day with a dash to the mirror to see what fresh horrors the night has brought. But benzoyl peroxide and antibiotic creams will become your friends. And everything will seem better once those layers grow out.
  • Your brothers are right, as they are in most matters of popular culture: you will, quite soon, be very embarrassed about those Phil Collins albums.

Now that we’ve got all that important stuff out of the way, there are a few other things I’d like to tell you.

  • Worry less, and have more fun. Don’t be in such a rush to grow up. You will get to be a journalist, you will get to live in Paris and places you haven’t even dreamed of wanting to live yet.
  • It’s okay to make a few mistakes – in my experience, making them is pretty much a precursor to learning from them.
  • You’re right about the cigarettes: stay away from them. And avoid any alcoholic drink served with a soup ladle at parties.
  • Listen to your mother when she tries to teach you to cook. In fact, listen to your mother on most things.
  • Your thighs are better than you think, but your poems are not.
  • Learn to like fish and running now, while you’re still young enough to change.
  • Ask your grandparents more questions, and spend more time with your dad.
  • There’s just one more. It pertains to the final few weeks of my diary, written on my Tandy laptop in the late months of 1995. That guy – the moody manager in the pub in Paris (I told you) where you just got a job? The one who thinks you’re a terrible waitress? Your suspicions about him are right. He is a keeper.

 

Are smartphones ruining our creative idleness?

According to my childhood diaries, a great deal of my time between the years 1983 and 1994 was dedicated to the lost art of being bored. These days, of course, there is no such thing. Stray idle moments have been vanquished by the smartphones that are our stalwart companions: the Heathcliff to our Cathy, the Claire Underwood to our Frank. It’s always there, promising to fill the emptiness while we’re standing at the kettle or waiting for Netflix to stop buffering. According to a recent study, the average person spends almost three hours a day on their phone. That’s longer than many of us spend with our partners or children.

There’s a growing body of evidence that suggests this might not be progress. A 2011 study at the University of Limerick found that boredom promoted “pro-social” behaviour and was essential to creativity. Dr Michael Rich, a professor at Harvard medical school, says moments of doing nothing are essential to connecting and processing new information. “Downtime,” he wrote in the New York Times, “is to the brain what sleep is to the body.”

As part of an effort to prise my smartphone from my sweaty fist and win back some of that synapse-rich downtime, I’ve downloaded an app called Checky, which will count how many times every day I reach for the phone cure. I’ll keep you posted with the results.

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