day 51. in progress… the “cool”

Today I ran into the band director at my old high school.  He’s a New Yorker, therefore he’s more interesting than 90 percent of the people I know.  His daughter is a junior at one of the high schools in my town and right now we work at the same place.  He suggested that I talk to her about college because she doesn’t know what she’s planning on doing in the future but “she’s thinking about NYU.”

“Doesn’t everybody want to go to NYU when they’re thinking about college?”  I said.  “I distinctly remember my junior year of high school and responding to every question about college with an ‘Oh, I’m thinking about NYU.”

He laughed and agreed with me.  “It’s because it’s right there in The Village. It’s very cool.”

And that word, cool, just does something to me.

The word cool had a different kind of meaning to me two years ago than it does now but it still carries some weight.  Whenever I think of my first years in high school, I think of this quote from My So-Called Life:

“People are always saying you should be yourself, like yourself is this definite thing, like a toaster. Like you know what it is even…”

I’ve always been an over-confident person–not because of a large ego but simply because I don’t get embarrassed easily.  Plus, I went to school with the same 30 or 40 other kids for basically my entire elementary and high school career, so I’ve always just felt very comfortable with everything that I did, both at home and at school, which is really where your life is when you’re young.  There were less than 20 girls in my class, so there weren’t cliques really, but I had a few girls that I hung out with exclusively.  I was constantly reinventing myself though, kind of like a 14-year-old Madonna–but less crass and without the pointy bra.  A year before entering high school, I read this book called Excuse Me, Your Life Is Waiting, a book about realizing the “astonishing power of feelings.”  Not exactly light reading for an eighth grader, but I was curious and I thought it sounded interesting.

The whole premise of the book is to introduce people to a new way of thinking where positive thoughts produce positive actions and whatnot.  The whole idea has kind of been mimicked by Rhonda Byrne’s The Secret but it all started with the Abraham-Hicks Laws of Attraction.  When I first read this book it seemed totally plausible, and I bought into it easily. The book basically proclaims that anything negative that happens is caused by negative thoughts. Now, I don’t mean to offend anyone who believes this stuff, but looking at it now, it’s lunacy. And it’s complete “New Age” bullshit. Your mom has cancer? She must have been thinking negatively. You can’t get pregnant? Just imagine yourself preggers! Brother in a terrible car accident? He probably saw it happening to himself thus willed it into existence. This theory focuses not on acting but on thinking, which is annoying because I hate passivity.

But at the time it seemed genius and I figured anything that helped you figure out what exactly made you you was a cool thing.  I don’t know when exactly, but at some point during my freshman year of high school I just went a little crazy.  Actually, let me be completely honest here: I completely lost my shit.

For the first time, besides math classes in junior high, I was in classes with people that were older than me and who already had opinions on who I was.  Teachers who knew my older sister and brothers already assumed I’d be like them because they had all had pretty similar personalities.  Kids who were in my older sibling’s grade thought I was cool by default and it freaked me out a little.  I had no idea how to reconcile the idea that they had of me with who I thought I was.  And that was the thing: I felt like an idea and not a person.

For the first time in my entire life I started being normal.  I started acting like everyone else and I started buying into that whole idea of “the cool.”  In my mind, I rationalized it by just claiming it as another way to reinvent myself.  My freshman year was probably the most unhappy period of my life because I spent so much time trying to make sure that I was being exactly what everyone else thought I needed to be and I completely lost any sense I had of my self in the process.  I seemed completely fine to everyone else though because to everyone around me I was normal.  And the thing is, I despise normal.  To be normal is to be average, and to be average is to be sub-par.  Who aims to be just “okay”?  I certainly don’t, and while I find it sad that I had that crazy year of self-doubt I’m glad I had it then as opposed to now because now at least I can look back at it as a lesson learned.

And the lesson that I learned was this: “Reputation, Posterity and Cool are traps.   They’ll drain the life from your life.  Reputation, Posterity and Cool = Fear.”  Those words were spoken by Patton Oswalt last year as he gave the commencement address at his old high school.  In the end, he reminds his listeners that there is no “them,” using one of my favorite quotes from Bob Hope: “When I was 20 I worried what everyone thought of me.  When I turned 40 I didn’t care what anyone thought of me.  And then I made it to 60 and realized no one was ever thinking of me…”

It’s a simple statement really, but it’s one that you can’t really internalize unless you’ve gone through something that makes you understand the impact of those words.  When I was 14 and 15 I had no idea who I really was.  Hell, even now I’m pretty sure I don’t know who I am completely and why should I?  I’ve got a lot of living left to do, there’s no point making up my mind about who I am, because I’m still in the process of becoming myself.  Sometimes it’s easy for me to forget how young I am.

Patton talks about the difference between advice and a lesson.  Advice is simply a suggestion, which is how I choose to take the theory of attraction (the whole positive and negative attitude thing).  I think it makes sense to choose to be positive instead of dwelling on the negative, but that’s all I can really take from that.

The way a lesson differs is this: a lesson is “yours and yours alone.”  Lessons can sometimes take years to learn from and to utilize.  As a freshman in high school, the main reason I fell into the trap of the cool was definitely fear, but the cause of this fear was insecurity. I’m a confident person and I was back then too but I do feel insecure about decisions that I make because I like to be right (but who likes to be wrong?).

Right now I feel as though I’m being asked to make a lot of important decisions and everyone feels the need to give me their opinion, telling me how they feel about what I’ve decided, and usually how my feelings do not coincide with theirs in the slightest.  It makes me a little scared that I’ll fall into that trap again and choose to do something that I don’t necessarily agree with simply in order to fit into some idea that people have of me.

And why is it that so many people feel that fear so often?  I cannot understand what makes people afraid to be themselves at times.  The easy answer is doubt, I suppose, but the more I think about  it the more lame that excuse becomes.

“You want to be really great?  Then have the courage to fail big and stick around.”

It’s absurd to expect success all of the time.  What’s the fun in life if you know you’re never going to fail?  It’s actually kind of exciting not knowing how things are going to end up.

The quote from My So-Called Life ends like this: “But every so often I’ll have a moment where just being myself in my life right where I am is enough.”

And I wish that contentment for you all, and for myself.  Because being 100% okay with yourself is probably the coolest thing in the world.