dare to be different
Recently in another corner of blogland, I nearly came to virtual blows with someone I only know by their posting name and thumbnail photo. She was making a very valid point about how consciously avoiding stereotypes can be just as bad as blindly embracing them, as both were sides of the same ill-fated coin of doing something not because you want to, but because you feel you should or shouldn’t according to someone else’s standards. The example she used was a desire to take up knitting and drinking tea, which she refused to do simply because she didn’t want to fall into a stereotype. I fired back that busting stereotypes was fun, and that I am probably one of very few women who enjoy tea and fiber arts, and are also tattooed head to toe. Her reply was that, alas, that was just the sort of stereotype she was trying to avoid!
Later, when the steam (not from tea either) faded from the inside of all the windows in my apartment, and the vein in my forehead stopped throbbing, and I had crafted a very restrained and philosophical response about none of us being as original or weird as we believe, therefore the whole notion of stereotypes and their avoidance or embrace being a waste of time contemplating much less living your life by…I got to thinking about originality, and edginess, and coolness and where exactly I fell on the spectrum that runs from dull and ordinary to awesome and unique.
portrait of the artist as a young invisibility, ca 1975
Back in school, I was about as uncool as it gets. I wasn’t even uncool in an interesting or unique way, the monstrous klutz, the misfit they make movies about, the nerd that goes on to run a company and make millions. I was smart, shy and invisible with all except my closest friends, of whom there were few. But inside me, I was a rock star, I was a tragic figure worthy of novels, I was an artist, a poet, a dreamer, a being larger than life and destined to become so universally adored one day, all the people who ignored me would regret not noticing my greatness when they had the chance. A failure to match all the coolness I had within to what the world outside could recognize and appreciate was a source of misery for more years than I care to admit.
portrait of the older artist wishing she were more invisible
Well, the happy ending of this story is there is none. I’m still not cool. I have no personal style that others might want to imitate. My popularity rating has not changed in all these decades. A few years ago I attended an office Halloween party wearing nothing different from my usual unremarkable all-black attire except for the addition of a feathered carnival mask. I was unanimously voted The Most Unrecognizable. Later, when my mask was off, several people told me they really didn’t know who I was anyway and had to ask other people my name in order to vote for me. Let the irony of that one sink in a moment, and then get this: it was one of the proudest moments of my life. Because it turns out now that the pursuit of popularity is no longer on my list of things to do, I would like nothing better than to be completely unrecognizable!
Do I contradict myself?
Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes -
Yes, I hear you, why am I inked from head to toe if I am trying not to be noticed? My reply is the quote above. My tattoos, whose various histories and meanings will likely be subject of another post here are intensely personal. The image above is one of the few G-rated photos in which most of my pieces are visible. They remain something I do for me, first and foremost. So, it still surprises me when people point and ask about them, as if they were inquiring about my choice of underwear. You’d think they would drive people away, make me an unapproachable badass. No such luck. I am apparently so approachable and accessible, old ladies walk up to me to ask what they mean and how much time money and pain went into their acquisition. Tough construction workers stop in the middle of their dirty catcalls to say “wow, that’s beautiful work, who’s your artist?” Every time the weather gets warm and my clothing less concealing I face interrogations from strangers and acquaintances alike, the latter of whom are ever astonished that on the surface of my very bland and uncool self there could be such a display of counterculture color. These reactions used to horrify me, and now they make me laugh. Just as I no longer need to be universally sought after for inclusion in the in-crowd, I don’t need to be considered a badass outcast in the outside world because of who I seem to be on the outside.
I have no idea what the audience makes of me - Keef
I’ve come to love the world within, where I always was and always will be a decadent yet charming rockstar. I don’t need to be edgy. I can dress more like Richard Simmons than Keith Richards and I won’t be any more or less cool than I ever was or will be. And here’s the best part of all – turns out, there is no such thing as this ideal I was always striving for. The popular kids all ended badly shortly after moving from school to stressful jobs, suburbia, divorce, midlife crisis and overpriced therapy sessions in which they talk about how insecure they always were in school, and disbelieving of all the attention and praise they received while inside they were a frightened mess. The edgy kids all ended up in rehab or on the streets because they were also insecure and disbelieving and just because they could look awesome in ripped jeans and a black t-shirt and drink Jack Daniels until dawn apparently didn’t mean they were headed for greatness any more than I was. They never even found a world within to love; they were too busy getting confusing and scary feedback for and from the world outside.
My Cool Mom, ca 1968
So what is cool? Where is cool? Who is cool? It certainly isn’t this latest version of me, sitting here in an oversized Portland Maine sweatshirt, track pants and flipflops, sipping scotch and soda while I type on a laptop, with balls of yarn and bags full of buttons nearby, more concerned with launching a business that will keep me from a desk job than whether I can pull off a form-fitting outfit made entirely of safety pins and vinyl. I still want to have a unique and memorable style. I want people to see me and immediately understand the depth of my soul, the darkness of my fire, instead of mistaking me for my mother. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. My Mom used to wear patterned stockings and thigh high boots, sheath dresses patterned after Mondrian and drink martinis at house parties full of intellectuals who smoked pipes and wore tweed jackets! Pretty cool in her day. Of course, she never believed it.
I think what I’ve finally figured out is that cool is in the eye of the beholder. We are none of us as unique as we believe, but we are also none of us as pathetic as we believe. I am always surprised to hear people respond to my bellyaching about not being cool with “oh, but you ARE!! I wish I were more like you!” to which I respond by looking behind me to see who they are really talking to. Maybe the grass is always greener, and the cool is always cooler, on the other side.