1987. A new city. A new school. Two moves in two years. I was ten and though I don’t often delve into the past, this year would arc the trajectory of my life. It was, in its tragic way, much like falling down a hill which was higher than expected. It seems strange to imagine that the events of childhood can extend invisibly over twenty years into the future. And thought the events seem common place and perhaps even cliched, it’s impossible to omit them without negating the lessons that I am, just now, learning.
To keep it brief, I was ridiculed by my new classmates with a viciousness that is only possible from children, with their lack of empathy and experience. For the first time in my short ten years of living, I was confronted with the idea that I was doing it wrong. For the first time I was assaulted with the judgement of being different.
To start, something about my clothes were apparently ridiculous. It was something that I couldn’t see. I don’t remember at any point prior to this even ever having considered my clothing other than whether I had them or not. Clothing, up until then, had simply been a yes or no question. Now, I was being told that the things I had were the wrong color, the wrong length and the wrong brand. I didn’t even know what the hell a brand was. I knew what stores my clothes came from but apparently mine came from the wrong ones. (Of course, what none of them knew was that I came from a single parent household and that without places like K-mart & Mervyns, I might have gone naked).
But, it wasn’t just my clothes that were the problem. The clothes were, to some degree, out of my control and the least of my worries. My main problem was my naivety. I had no older siblings at home and my weekends were spent visiting my father or my grandparents. I lived in an a world of adults, almost completely isolated from other children. It was simply a circumstance of my life. So, dirty jokes and the humor of ten year olds in general were simply out of my range of knowledge. The concept of sex, itself, had yet to penetrate my consciousness and somehow this ignorance was my fault.
I don’t particularly remember any negative experiences in my life prior to 1987. I had friends at previous schools. I played tether ball and traded sandwiches with other children. We buried our G.I. Joe’s in the sandbox together (though I never did find my Zartan). I was the daredevil at birthday parties who jumped off of things and I got piggyback rides from girls because I was small. In the first grade one girl would even let me put my hand up her shirt everyday during story time. But now, for the first time in my life, I was an outsider.
This school we’re talking about, was a private school. There were only about twenty of us in the class. (I spent hours after school in daycare, so that my mother could work extra hours to afford it.) The problem with a small class, though, as I soon learned, was that a child ostracized from the others had nowhere to run. There was no sheltering group. In larger schools there are pockets of unpopular kids that exist as safe havens from the denizens of Cool. But, in that small class, there were no nerds, no dweebs, dorks or weirdos. There was only me. I was all of them. I was the other and it destroyed me. I couldn’t do a damn thing about it. The harder I tried, the harder I failed. The frustration of the situation overwhelmed me. I often lost my temper during recess and started fights (sometimes simply in order to spend time in the principle’s office away from the other children). Most days, I went home crying, wishing for another life.
As with all things, though, we adjust. Even abuse is something which we can adapt to. Over time, I took to eating lunch alone and wandering the yard aimlessly. Sometimes I would stop and talk to the younger kids but mostly I spent my time dipping into a fantasy world fueled by books, comics and cartoons. It was the loneliest year of my life and that feeling never left me.
Cool. What was Cool? Obviously, I wasn’t. I began to wonder if maybe there was a manual to Cool; a checklist that I could acquire. I was obviously ignorant of Cool, so, in my ten year old logic, I decided that if I could learn it then I could be it. If I learned the customs, then I could join the tribe.
I began tracking the others. I began eavesdropping on their conversations. I began making lists. I learned that Nikes and Reeboks were cool shoes and that pants were best pegged. I bought singles by Richard Marx, Escape Club and Taylor Dayne (I couldn’t afford the full albums). I read magazines in bookstores to find out who Patrick Ewing, Charles Barkley and Isaiah Thomas were. I collected knowledge and adopted everything that I could. I sacrificed toys from Santa in order to get a Starter jacket and a pair of Air Jordans. I studied hard to fit in. I drew pictures of the parties in my head and the clothes that I would wear. I did my best to become a carbon copy, but I never did become cool. Something always seemed to be in the way.
After my assimilation, I could mix in with the crowd. I looked like them. I dressed like them. I had their haircut. I could quote their TV shows. I was even ridiculed less and actually got invited to sleepovers. Yet, as physically indistinguishable as I had become from the others, I could never fit in. Something in me had changed. I’d missed the glove and gone over the cliff in Holden’s field of rye. I could never revert to the state of ignorance that I had flourished in before. The trust and innocence of 1986 were gone; swallowed by 1987.
As I aged, I would become a moody child, a angsty teen and then an angry man. I carried resentment inside of me for so long that it actually shaped the character of who I was; the man behind the curtain. The down off of which I had fallen was high and I was still tumbling, completely ignorant to the fact that every other child in that class was likely just as lost and confused and miserable as I was. I suppose that’s one gift that time gives us: perspective.
In looking back, I realize now that 1987 was the year that I became a writer. It was on that playground that a child learned the value of his imagination. It was there that I learned to create other worlds and other people; to slay dragons when bullies seemed invincible; to bound over buildings when I needed to escape. In 1987, I learned to stand outside. I learned to watch, to research and how to step into the fake skin of characters. I learned to be alone and that there was magic in my mind.
Recently, as with most of us, I’ve been emerged in social media; swimming in the flood of other people’s lives. There’s an addiction level to it, our brains releasing dopamine every time we receive a like or a follow. I know that the criticism already exists out there on the internet, but for me, the whole thing was just an extension of that 4th grade arc. Instagram and Facebook were these invisible slides pushing me further down that hill. Like a digital popularity contest, those apps pulled at my sternum and dug out that lonely child who was buried inside the cavities of my chest, starving for acceptance and approval. Nothing had changed. Twenty six year and nothing had changed. I was still falling. I was still trying to define Cool. I was still afraid to lose whatever credibility that I had accumulated.
I couldn’t miss a moment. I had to see every picture of every lunch, and every haircut and every cloud formation in every vanilla sky. I had to like every selfie and every picture of every activity, as an expression of my approval and as a membership fee in my tribe. But, in that onslaught of little moments and vibrating alerts, I lost myspace. I lost my individuality. I lost the ability to tap into my imagination. I lost myself. I was living without contemplation because there just wasn’t time. I had to check my phone. I had to accept that invite. I had to watch that video. I had get over to the bar for the fourth time that week.
In a room that’s never silent, where do we think?
Disruption is a torture technique. They used it in Guantanamo. Without sleep or quiet time, we all lose our minds. I lost mine. My life was filtered photos of beer and blurred images of drunken moments before another argument that I had to win. I was just another square in the stream on a screen. It all had to stop. I wasn’t going to fall any longer, so I did something blasphemous: I unfollowed all my friends. I committed social suicide. I’m sure some people will read motives into that action. I know that many people think of social media as some outward sign of friendship. I’m sure that I’ll lose friends. I’m sure my new habit of rarely going out will make it worse, but I can’t worry about that. I can’t worry about anything. My blood pressure is high and I’m out of shape. I need change. I need time alone. I need to reclaim my mind. I need to make things and find joy in being whoever I am, cool or uncool. You see, being bombarded with the lives of others encroached and overtook my own life. I let it happen, and yet, somehow, I had resentment. It wasn’t a purposeful thing. It was just a spasm of suffocation. It was just an echo of the past.
Now I haven’t given up my social media accounts completely. I still follow artists, and friends who make art and people I don’t get to see often in person. But I’m not looking every day. I’m only dipping in at random, and when I do, I’m there for inspiration, not for social acknowledgment. I want to wonder what my friends are up to. I want to miss them. I want to be ignorant about their lives until I see them; anxious to hear every word; entertained by every detail. I don’t want to be the guy who always has something to say; the guy who tries to be cleaver and always needs to be right. I don’t want to carry that approval seeking child an further. I want to be the guy who listens to their stories; the guy who sees magic pooling around him. I want to be amazed.
I still don’t know exactly what cool is. Maybe I never will. What we, as children, called Cool was just popularity registered under another name and I hear that popularity is fragile thing. Cool, the real cool, is something else. It’s something that stands, not at the center of the crowd, but outside of it. It’s something that changes the instant that it’s described. It’s something intangible. I may never be cool & I may never be popular but I’m ready to stop seeing people as something to belong to. I’m ready stop feeling like interloper; like an infiltrator. I’m ready to be surprised. In his book, Hip: The History, John Leland states that the desires of hip “…are America’s other appetite, not for wealth but for autonomy.” Perhaps that’s what I’ve wanted all along: to be ok with being alone; to be sufficient on my own. I’m cool with that.