Note: I once had a blog, now offline, called Anita’s Weekly Column, in which I practiced writing one essay per week. I’m trying for more of a standard blog format now (though I don’t know if I’m any closer to it), but I’d like to occasionally repost some of my favorite essays from the old blog. This is one such essay:
In his blog, Traveling Hypothesis, my friend R.J. Zimmerman has posted an intriguing review of Lewis MacAdams’ book Birth of the Cool. It sounds like a great book, full of fascinating tidbits about the musicians, poets, and visual artists who shaped our world through the avant-garde movement, but I won’t be reading this book anytime soon. One of R.J.’s comments scared me away: “The story moves along one name drop at a time, leaving a story unexpectedly at the mere mention of a new player. It’s the kind of book you memorize so you can be cooler than your cool name-dropping friends at parties.” If this is a book by a name-dropper, for name-droppers, I refuse to read it. I have a great fear of any path by which people try to become cool by studying those who were cool in the past, trying to ride on their cool coattails by claiming an association with them. I’m afraid that to read such a book would remove any chance I have of ever being cool.
Yes, I do believe that I have the potential to be really, truly cool. I know that those of you who’ve met me are laughing right now. You’ve seen the wire-rimmed glasses I insist on wearing almost everywhere, even though I own contact lenses. You know that I wear no makeup at all, except on very special occasions—the occasions when I break out the contacts. You’ve noticed that my fashion choices have gotten a bit sexier since I realized that spandex-infused tight jeans and polo shirts are even comfier than the huge, baggy ones I used to wear, but that’s about as dressy as I usually get. The Converse sneakers I wear everywhere are falling apart again, but I can’t replace them because I don’t know where to find more in bright purple. I have a new haircut because I’ve realized that the all-one-length, long locks I’d had most of my life can’t get nearly as messy as my new, piecey short cut can. I can speak knowingly in the terms of Dungeons and Dragons, and I remember reading The Lord of the Rings more reverently than I remember the Bible. My stuffed animals have stuffed animals, and lately I’ve been knitting totem animals that represent myself and my friends. For fun, I read about mummies, autopsies, and neurological disorders.
It gets worse if you look at my childhood. I wear glasses now because I’m quite used to them; I was four and a half when I got my first pair. (Jerry Maguire would not convince the world that very small children with glasses were cute for another 18 years. In 1978, a four-year-old with glasses was simply a freak.) I didn’t learn to speak at the rate generally considered normal. In kindergarten, I was sent to a speech pathologist who systematically taught me to pronounce “sh” “t” “th” and “s” sounds correctly and at the right places in the language. I continued to see a string of speech therapists through the fourth grade because it took them that long to figure out how to get me to pronounce the “r” sound. In the meantime, I shuddered when people asked me my last name, knowing that they would never understand “Harkess” coming out of my mouth. I learned to avoid speaking at all. By the time I mastered “r”s at the age of nine, I was used to being practically mute, and stayed so well into high school. When I was six, my orthodontist started experimenting with pulling lots of baby teeth to see if this would make my adult teeth grow in straighter than otherwise expected. They didn’t. After my few remaining teeth leaned in, my canines grew in high up on my gums. From age 10 until I got my extremely painful braces at age 12, I avoided smiling so that other kids wouldn’t be scared by my fangs. On top of all of that, I was definitely what psychologist Elaine Aron now calls “a highly sensitive person,” meaning that I was one of those kids who involuntarily burst into tears with the slightest stress. In short, a string of issues beyond my control doomed me to a childhood as an incorrigible dork.
All of this, of course, is the blessing that gives me the potential to be truly cool. In his review, R.J. explains that MacAdams’ book has taught him what cool really is: “the detachment from what seems important to everyone else, mostly because nobody’s listening to you anyway.” Learning early on that I could not possibly attain the small details that seem important to everyone else, I learned not to care as much as most people do. I never struggled to fit in, simply because I never had much hope that I could.
I didn’t realize what a marvelous, protective gift my dorkiness was until 2002, when my very cool friend Rachel sent me a copy of the New York Times Magazine article profiling Rosalind Wiseman and her upcoming book for parents, Queen Bees and Wannabes. Wiseman had done a great deal of work with young teenaged girls. Her book, and the article, revealed how truly horrible these outwardly sweet little girls could be to one another. She shocked and worried a nation of parents by showing how the “queen bees” at the top of the most powerful cliques in most American schools can order communal actions that amount to psychological torture. Those at the top can make those on the edge do just about anything, all the way from buying clothes their families can’t afford, to standing for public humiliation, to going way too far with alcohol, drugs, and too-early, promiscuous sex. Yes, the clique system is dangerous and cruel. And what gives the queen bees such incredible power? It’s the desire of the wannabe, that urge everyone has to belong, to be accepted, to be part of a community. The wannabe wants so desperately to fit in that she will do anything to please those in power.
Wiseman’s book goes on to instruct parents on how to communicate with their daughters to help them navigate the clique system and rise ethically to a position of power. Me, I suggest a different solution. You see, I remember the cliques from my junior-high days. I remember the queen bee, her wannabe disciples in tow, following me as I walked home from school each day of seventh grade, yelling something about my hair. (I think it had to do with the color. My hair had recently turned from light blonde, like hers, to the murky midpoint between blonde and brown where it still is today. For some reason, this color, and my refusal to bleach it out or dye over it, is particularly offensive to 12-year-old blondes.) I remember ignoring her, and I remember letting out a friendly laugh as the wannabes quietly came to me at my locker the next day, apologizing for their queen’s behavior. I remember being touched by their respect for me, but I don’t otherwise remember caring much. I definitely don’t remember changing my appearance or my actions to make this stupid girl like me. It’s not that I didn’t want to belong to the group. I just realized that nothing I could do would ever make that possible, so I went on with my dorky little life, saving a lot of time, energy, and money for my own interests. I’m grateful now that I was such a complete outsider. If I ever have a daughter, I’d like to give her such a gift. I’ll spare her the tooth-pulling, and I’ll let her speak correctly if she can, but I am definitely going to buy her the ugliest pair of glasses I can find, then make her wear them, whether she needs them or not.
I do believe in the problem Wiseman describes. Even as a girl, I had an inkling of what it was like to be a wannabe. I felt sorry for the sweet girls who met me at my locker. As early as eighth grade, I heard about drunken parties I could never be invited to, about the boys who prowled them looking for passed-out girls to have sex with, and the class president, who peed in another eighth-grader’s mouth because he was too drunk to enjoy oral sex. In high school, I heard about kids being rushed to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. I heard about the girl in my senior class who got so drunk that she spent the night spread-eagled on a pool table, having sex with any besotted boy who wandered by. I heard how horrible she felt afterward, and that her parents threatened to sue the school paper for running a classified ad that cryptically mentioned the incident, but that most of the damage was already done. I felt sorry for her, too. I was grateful that I wasn’t invited to that party. My freakishness was my armor. I was saved from the torture of belonging.
This is why I believe that I may someday be cool. I think that we too often mistake being “in” for being cool, when in fact the two states are opposites. The “in” crowd, the fashionable people, those who belong, simply do as they’re told. They work very hard at being just like as many other people as possible. The truly cool do whatever works for them, whether or not anyone else understands it. They focus on their own lives, on causes that matter to them, on art that comes from their souls, and in so doing, they accidentally become unmistakably unique. The “in” are sometimes respectable. The cool are geniuses.
For example, the more I learn about Neil Young, the cooler I think he is. He is, and always has been, a strange-looking guy. His voice is even stranger. He is best known as a guitarist, but his songs are so easy to play that they are often taught to beginning guitar students. In his solos, he doesn’t show off technical prowess or speed; there are plenty of guitarists who play faster and more complicated licks. He just plays what sounds good to him. He even wanders from genre to genre, from the hippie protest songs of Buffalo Springfield, to the pretty folk of Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, to Crazy Horse’s hard rock—the precursor to grunge—to some beautiful country songs and some so twangy that I wonder if he’s making fun of the genre. When he dabbled in electronica in the early 80s, he was so far outside of expectations that his record label sued him for making “unrepresentative music.” Even now, at 60, (note: This essay was written years ago. Young is now 63.) he has not sunk into the mire of doing only greatest hits albums and “I-need-the-cash” reunion tours, as many older stars do. He’s still writing new songs, still performing, still using his power as a celebrity to propel his favorite social causes, like Farm Aid, Live 8, and his wife’s creation, the Bridge School. In an age when appearing in an iPod or car commercial is considered to be the best way to promote an album, Young is one of the few classic rockers who hasn’t sold any song for any ad. He’s surely a celebrity worth admiring. His real appeal for me, though, is best summed up by Kevin Chong, the self-described geek who wrote the homage book Neil Young Nation: “Young was the embodiment, in his appearance, his singing, his music, of a type of anti-beauty. To an awkward kid, this was appealing. Young sought beauty in frayed edges and worn-out patches. He reveled in bum notes, in buzzing guitar strings.”
Of course, I haven’t read Chong’s book, either. I’ll allow myself to read it in a couple of months. I’m rationing my Neil Young intake now, an album here, a book there. Loyal fan that I am, I am afraid of steeping myself too thoroughly in anyone else’s story. I don’t want to become an imitator, or the sort of rabid fan who is so excited about someone else’s life that she forgets to live her own. That would definitely not be cool.
Anyway, I don’t ever need to know all about Neil Young, as I don’t want to be exactly like him. I just want to be cool like Neil Young—to be an outsider, irreverent, obviously imperfect, a little bit ugly, a little bit odd, and proud of it. Thanks to the gifts I’ve been given, I think I just might have what it takes.