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In the video game of Life, Everything2 is the strategy guide full of cheats. This couldn’t be more true for a teenager like me, who’s only had a few short years to… you know… contemplate stuff. See? I haven’t gotten very far. I look back into the sands of time (you know, like, 3 years ago) and think, “Gosh, I was SO dumb when I was 13.” At the same time, I am disturbed by a message I remember sending myself.

When I was 12 or 13, I vividly remember thinking, “Alden, if teenager stereotypes count for anything, in a few short years you’re going to look back and remember me as a dumb, immature – if not brutally attractive – version of your present self.” By present self, I meant me as I am right now. I continued telling my future self, “I cannot emphasize this enough: It is vital to your progress as a human being to not forget that back when you were me, you were already a very complex person. I implore you, do not look back upon me as a dumb little kid.” God, I was so naïve.

The worst part is, not only do I still wince at my 7th grade identity, but I also remember sending myself the same message when I turned 8. It wasn’t quite the same, but I remember writing myself a letter that screamed, in 8-year-old language, “I am a complex person! Don’t forget me!” I can only look back and hope that whoever found that letter where I dropped it behind the china cabinet, I hope it wasn’t Uncle John.

Now, with my 16th birthday slamming me at the end of this week, I know that, as complex as I think I am now, I’m going to look back at 20 or 21 and wince when my friends remind me about that time I stabbed Danny with the pencil, or what an awkward boyfriend I was (see: How to kiss like a ninja). And 16-year-old me will have nothing to back himself up with. I’ll bet money that in 5 years I won’t pay much attention to a stack of Aerosmith CDs and a shitty essay. It would appear that my quest for future-self-respect is hopeless. It’s somewhat fitting; I don’t even have that much self-respect right now. I don’t even trust myself to write a halfway decent write up.

Oh yeah, I forgot. I promised to talk about ninjas, didn’t I? Well, alright. For starters, I’m a ninja. All of my friends know me as Alden the Ninja. Acquaintances often know me only as a ninja (“Oh, hey, it’s the ninja, right?”). First it was cool, then it got old - now people have finally bonded the word to my name. It all started back in 7th grade – imagine some swirling flashback effects here. My friends and I stumbled upon Robert Hamburger’s website about Real Ultimate Power. This created a ninja fad with a certain crowd of boys that I was (and I still am) associated with. I say associated because except for brief periods in my life, all of my friends have been girls. This has its ups and its downs. Although I’d never trade in my beloved penis, I’ve always preferred the company of girls. It’s a tradeoff between always being the toughest and manliest and never being allowed at sleepovers (still a cause of great depression). Anyway, I still have a few circles of guy friends for those times when I have to have a conversation about teenage guy things while beating the crap out of whoever I’m speaking to. It was this circle of guys that had the ninja thing going on. Girls could never get into ninjas, for some reason. Regardless, we’re all ninjas. Let the good times roll.

For those of you unfamiliar with Robert Hamburger’s brand of ninja, let me fill you in. Real Ultimate Power was (and to some degree still is, I’m sure) a website fad that has achieved a level of immortality akin to “All your base are belong to us.” One might call it a meme – that’s a word I learned from Everything. It’s a satire on the ninja craze of the 80s-90s that exaggerates the American Ninja into a supreme being that adheres to three fundamental laws:

1. Ninjas are mammals.

2. Ninjas fight all the time.

3. The purpose of a ninja is to flip out and kill people.

The rest of the website is elaboration on ninja facts, lore, and Frisbee-swallowing seppuku. I was fascinated by ninjas. Their life is perfect. For me, a ninja had (and still has) all the appeal of a rock star - the only fully satisfying career. They do what they want. They live life on the edge, and get what the want out of every moment. Robert Hamburger put it best when he said, “Ninjas are the ultimate paradox. On the one hand, they don’t give a crap, but on the other hand, ninjas are very careful and precise.” Spontaneous, suave, always on the ball – a ninja isn’t just an assassin from feudal Japan. A ninja is that guy who everyone wants to be. A ninja is perfection. A ninja is a master of his own fate. Maybe I took it further than intended, but the ninja was exactly the sort of aspiration I had been searching for – whether or not I knew it at the time, I can’t be sure. But becoming a ninja was the best thing I could have done for myself.

Over the next few years, I stuck steadfastly to the claim that I was a ninja. There were times when I was preachy about how cool ninjas were, and other times when I would just mention, “Oh, yeah! I’m a ninja!” It became a widely accepted fact. After I was well into high school, Robert Hamburger put out his book, Real Ultimate Power: The Official Ninja Book. As a few copies circulated around my school, there was a huge surge in ninja popularity. This was much to my advantage, because as those around me picked up the ninja banner they had left behind in middle school, I was already a step ahead of them. My concrete status as a ninja granted me the lofty title of Boss Ninja. I don’t see how the social structure could have rearranged itself more in my favor. I was already on good terms with the ladies, and suddenly everyone else was a ninja! It is said that all good things must come to an end. While the ninja craze has since died down substantially, my role as a ninja was not cheapened – probably just because my passion for ninjas didn’t fluctuate with everyone else’s.

Devotion, it seems, comes at a price. I get flak all the time for being a ninja. I’m serious. It comes in two flavors: The Uptight Friend and the Obnoxious Freshman. The Uptight Friend often has a problem with ninjas – more specifically, me being a ninja. It’s okay to say I’m a ninja and make people laugh. Hell, I do it all the time. But when that friend I’m not so close to gets me alone and tries to have a serious conversation with me, they expect me to suddenly stop being a ninja. I mean, what the hell is up with that? Ninjas come up and Uptight Friend says, “Cut that out, can’t you be serious for one second?” I’m thinking, “First of all, buddy, I am a ninja. Get that through your head. Second of all, why would I want to open myself up to you?” However, when I open my mouth, only the first part comes out. Uptight Friend makes some exasperated noise and trudges off. Obnoxious Freshman ninja-hate isn’t half as bad. It’s when we start talking about ninjas, and some prick (usually a freshman, but not always - there are some people who will be freshmen forever) exclaims, “Dude, shut up. You’re not a ninja.” These arguments are never worth having, but I am honor bound to follow through with, “Yes, I am.” Luckily, the Obnoxious Freshman character isn’t worth listening to.

Robert Hamburger has shaped my high school in other ways. Anyone who knows anything about ninjas is well aware that they hate pirates. And I assume that anyone who knows anything about pirates would be acutely aware of how much pirates hate ninjas. In drama class, we are taught to use abstract association to explain things that are difficult to put into words. Everyone I know is familiar with the Ninja / Pirate scale. Almost everyone fits on one side of the scale or the other. Edwin is a ninja. Geri is a pirate. Mary is a ninja. Rodin is a pirate. Adrian’s been acting so ninja lately. Molly can be such a pirate sometimes. If you don’t understand how the scale works, you never will. I can’t explain it to you.

Thanks to my teachers, the only way to kill an essay is with a conclusion. It’s okay if I break format and let my thoughts cascade down the page like a waterfall of shuriken, but my brain will explode if I don’t end the chain with a neat little conclusion. Everyone has their own personal journey towards understanding shit and becoming who they want to be. When I’m 21 I will not look back at myself now and think, “I was so dumb and immature then.” I have established myself as something I can relate to, something other people can respect. I may be a slacker, I may be useless, but I am not mediocre. I live by a set of values just like all the other worthwhile people you read about. The ninja identity is more than just other people putting Alden and Ninja together. It’s who I am. Much to the dismay of Uptight Friend, I can look in the mirror and say with a straight face and total confidence, “I am a ninja.” Somewhere along the road there was a compromise. I conformed to Ninja and Ninja conformed to me. As I graduated from middle school and became a typical teenager, Alden was reborn as Alden the Ninja, and my life was changed forever. Amen to that.