Personal growth

Proudly Look Stupid

Let’s get one thing straight: when Jefferson Starship’s “Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now” comes on the radio, I will be turning the volume up. I will start singing along, at the top of my lungs, and I don’t care who sees me. Sure, it’s the epitome of 80’s cheesiness. And yes, I always think of Andrew McCarthy as I’m singing. It’s a pretty ridiculous song, and any music snob would likely snort their macchiato through their nose if it came on and I refused to change the station. Why is it that I insist on letting this song run the course of its entire 4 minutes and 26 seconds, singing along until the last chorus fades? Why do I get annoyed if a radio announcer starts talking before I’ve had a chance to shout out, “Hey baby!” as the song ends? I’ll tell you why. Because as I’ve grown older, I’ve discovered a very important ability in life: learning how to proudly look stupid.

I actually Googled the phrase “proudly look stupid” and got a whole slew of images fit for purpose: George W. Bush with dreadlocks; Vladimir Putin with a man bun; a mug shot of the Queen; and a whole lot of images which caused me to honestly experience, for the first time, being “nonplussed.” Oh, and then there was this guy: Weird-crazy-funny-people-6

I don’t know about the rest of humanity, but when I was growing up, my thoughts focused very much on the concept of not looking stupid. Fitting in, as it’s known. This was so important to me that I actually remember sporting a six-inch-high 80’s bang that took a half can of hairspray to stay in place. Why??? (No, seriously, why — not why did I do it, but why did anybody do it — this was not a hairstyle that occurred naturally anywhere in nature nor did it have the finesse to necessarily be called “art”. It was just goofy.)

Sometimes, not wanting to look stupid actually leads you to look stupid, doesn’t it? It’s the reason my bedroom was decorated with photographs of members of New Kids on the Block. I know many people might say that about NKOTB – “it was the 80’s/90’s; everyone was doing it!” but this is exactly the point of my post. I’m more ashamed of having photos on the wall of a band I didn’t especially like, than the fact that I listened to their music. I remember feeling a little bit weird at the time, like being afraid to say anything about how the whole idea of New Kids might be a little… well, dumb. But no… my friends were into it, so I made myself learn their names and life stories, what brought them together as a band and what inspired their music. I spent a lot of time investigating this topic, and I didn’t even like them very much. In the end I probably managed to convince myself that I actually cared about them.

It’s a form of inauthenticity. I’d be more impressed if I met someone who said “you know what? Yes I listened to NKOTB back in the day, and I actually still put the album on sometimes, because I love it.” That’s how I feel about the Jefferson Starship song. I think for awhile, secretly in my head, when it came on the radio I’d be like, “YES!” while I tried to stop my head from moving along to the beat. Sometimes I would even change the radio station, telling myself this was poor excuse for music. Then I got a little older, and dared to allow myself to leave the station on. Add a few years to that, and I was sheepishly admitting to myself that I did indeed like this song, while somehow wondering if there was a support group for bad music lovers that I might need to start anonymously attending. Eventually I got to the point where I’m at now, which is “screw everything else; I’m turning this up and people can think what they like.”

Sorry, we just ran out of lovers. But, we still have each other.

No, it’s not the musical equivalent of King Lear, but you know what? I’m gonna sing my heart out to it, because if I ever did find that special person who filled those lonely crevices deep in my soul, (even if they did happen to be a mannequin) I imagine that I, too, would feel unstoppable. The fact that it was the theme song for “Mannequin” makes it even more useful for my thesis, because here is a movie all about a man looking like an idiot and learning not to care. I remember a point in the movie when Andrew McCarthy’s character goes from being this lowly back-room guy sweeping the floors, to the guy who becomes responsible for the store’s most successful window displays. It’s a transformation, certainly — at the start of the movie he is failing at every area of his life; but then this crazy thing happens to him and he learns not to go against it but to move with it. He starts experiencing a sort of clarity in his life, even while knowing that everyone around him thinks he’s crazy. In the scene where he exits the bathroom holding the mannequin under his arm, passes the crowd of eavesdroppers with that knowing twinkle in his eye, I learned then a very powerful secret: we’re all a little bit crazy. Being crazy is being human. Those who learn to shrug off their so-called faults are the only ones being honest with themselves. And with honesty, comes freedom.

It reminded me of another movie, “Serendipity,” which is also set in Manhattan. There’s a scene where Jeremy Piven’s character, Dean, tells his friend Jonathan Trager (played by John Cusack) “You are a jackass. You’re like my oracle. You’re out there and you’re making it happen.” He’s referring to Jonathan’s frenzied pursuit of a girl he met years ago, whose full name he never knew and consequently had no information to find her. Yet, he kept looking, despite the fact that he had a perfectly good relationship with another woman, who he was supposed to marry the next day. Dean quotes the Greek philosopher Epictetus, who said “If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” Throughout the movie, Dean is constantly talking about the subject of living with passion, while Jonathan is actually practicing it. And both of them know that looking in every used copy of Love in the Time of Cholera in New York is crazy, but if they ever had any hope of finding Jonathan’s lost love, that’s what they had to do.

Dean insists that looking foolish is admirable, because Jonathan’s “out there,” as Dean says, “making it happen.” In this film, it’s Dean’s character that actually transitions, not Jonathan, even though he is the main protagonist. Being an obituary writer at the New York Times, Dean felt all of his passion leave him, until finally his marriage breaks down. Helping Jonathan find his true love, and not settle for a “good enough” life with an equally beautiful, caring woman who just happens to not be “The One,” is what inspires Dean to begin fighting for his own marriage again. At one point he ends up convincing Jonathan to keep going, despite Jonathan’s doubts that he is on the right path and should just give up. It’s Dean who pushes Jonathan to keep going, because he realizes that there’s something inspirational in his friend’s craziness, and that looking stupid was okay. He understands that risking everything, like Jonathan does, is worth it in the pursuit of authenticity.  “The Greeks didn’t write obituaries,” Dean says, as he buys some flowers from a vendor in the park. “They asked one question when a man died: did he have passion.” He looks up at Jonathan, holding the flowers. “How do I look?” he asks. After a moment, Jonathan smiles and says “like a jackass.”

I enjoy Dean’s references to the Greeks. In fact, aside from the absurdity of the plot (like any woman is really going to allow a gust of wind to prevent John Cusack from contacting her) there’s a lot of philosophy underpinning “Serendipity” which makes it perfect for reflecting on the nature of our existence. Is having faith stupid, or is it important? What if Jonathan never did find the love of his life; could he be okay with marrying Brigit Moynahan? At what point would he have walked out on the marriage, shrugging himself free of the cloak of fakeness? The idea of genuine vs. fake runs throughout the movie, and is visible especially in the scene where Molly Shannon finds a table of fake designer goods on the street. “OOoooh, Prada! I love Prada!” she beams; when her friend points out that it actually says “Prado,” indicating that it’s a fake, Molly Shannon’s character just waves her hand in the air, dismissing that fact. She doesn’t care if it’s fake; it’s the concept that she has something she thinks she likes. It might not be the real thing, but, as she explains, she can use a magic marker and turn the ‘o’ into an ‘a’ and no one would be any wiser (including, it seems, herself). Could the main characters do the same thing with their pending marriages?

A lot of us walk around in a cloud of inauthenticity. There’s a lot of stuff that pads out the lining of my ego… for instance, if I tell a joke and no one laughs, I actually point this out. I need that laughter like a dog salivates over a piece of bacon. A dog will do all kinds of stupid things for that piece of bacon, and I’m the same way. If after such a stupendous display of wit, the person to whom I’m speaking fails to reward me appropriately, I will re-tell the joke, despite the unfailing tendency of it becoming less and less funny the more explanation I give. Obviously, my need to impress overrides my need for enjoyment; if this weren’t true, I would just learn to wave it off. If I was authentic about it, I’d laugh it off in my head, and say to myself, “it’s okay. you are funny.” But I don’t; and there is a sense of desperation, as if the only way I can really tell if I’m funny is if someone else tells me so. Like the dog’s owner, throwing the poor thing the strip of bacon because they feel sorry for it, I often wonder how much people give me pity laughs. Can other people sense how desperate I am for their approval?

That desperation is a source of non-control. Because, like I said above, when you’re honest, then you set yourself free. I believe that, once a person accepts their shortcomings, throwing an uncaring shrug and their caution to the wind, that’s when they become truly powerful. Andrew McCarthy had the power to bring Kim Catrall 2,000 years into the future, and be the greatest window dresser in Manhattan. But actually he wasn’t — he just let everyone think it was him, because by then it didn’t matter to him what anybody thought.

I have a love affair with Taco Bell that defies the capacity of human understanding. A tub of pintos and cheese is, to me, what the madeleine was to Proust. But it took me quite some time to be able to admit that. Once I did, it felt great! I no longer had to be a closet Taco Bell junkie. Now I make jokes about it (and you’d better laugh at them) randomly declaring that I’d like to be buried next to a Taco Bell, or get married in one. I think for awhile I was ashamed of it, because for one thing, Taco Bell itself is not authentic. I guess real Mexicans barf just seeing their ads on TV.  I’m aware that this does nothing to promote the breakdown of American cultural stereotypes.

Furthermore, I grew up in a place called Redford, which was only separated from Detroit by the boundary line of Telegraph Road (so again, not authentic). Even though I grew up saying I was from Detroit (except to people who were actually from Detroit) I knew I wasn’t. I wanted to be. Being from Redford was like being Jan Brady — the younger, less attractive sister. Not quite rednecks, definitely sans culture of any sort, we Redfordians pined for the danger of the big city, while still being too chicken shit to cross Telegraph Road without locking our car doors. Detroit was the Marcia Brady to those of us from Redford. In Detroit was world-class art and architecture, fantastic food, and an actual gateway to another country — Canada! For us culture-less worms from the suburbs, it was exotic, dangerous and exciting.

But, try as I might, I’m not exotic, dangerous or exciting. I eventually made it out of the suburbs, travelling as far as London, where I found myself wandering through Borough Market with a person who clearly regarded himself as a foodie. He lifted a glass cloche from a small nest of wildly expensive black truffles, gesturing me forward with a smile. I was excited just to be within fifteen feet of such decadence; I’d seen the Barefoot Contessa practically peeing herself with joy over just a bottle of oil infused with them. But when I leaned in to sample the heady aroma, I could not help but grimace in disgust. I imagine this experience to be akin to when someone first tries an opiate. “Keep coming,” as they say in all those anonymous support groups. “It gets better.” I’ve tried caviar — or gritty, bumpy fish lumps, as I call them. I tried to swish mouthfuls of red wine around my “palate,” feeling ridiculous the whole time. (Did you know there are actual kits that you can buy to train your nose for drinking wine? You can buy a case filled with tiny glass vials; the vials contain only scents — tobacco; blackberry; old wood. They cost about $100.)

Much of settling happily into authenticity is a simple matter of separating truth from fiction.  And what’s true for me might be fiction for someone else. Philosophy has a lot to tell us on this subject. Kirkegaard suggests that “One must make an active choice to surrender to something that goes beyond comprehension.” Of course, he was talking about religion. But I imagine it applies to any situation where everyone else around you is extolling the virtues of something or other, which you just feel is damned ridiculous. Sorry, but I don’t want to feel tiny fish eggs popping against my “palate” because they taste horrible. I don’t want to pay an arm and leg just for a fungus that grows underground, that stinks worse than any other mushroom I’ve ever had. Where can I get a burrito (and not a real one)? The truth is, I may have traveled around a bit, but I’m still a girl from Redford; Jan Brady, self-realized.

So I’m going to keep proudly looking stupid, because what is the point of living under a veil of inauthenticity? We will be dead soon. I will die, you will die. The people sitting in their cars at the stoplight who can obviously see me rocking out with Jefferson Starship will also die one day. So what do I care if they witness it? Let them think I’m crazy.

Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure… than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat.
-Theodore Roosevelt




How is writing like sawing a plank of wood?

This topic was inspired by my recent decision to remove a plank of wood from where my computer sits, in this makeshift cupboard thing that was built in my bedroom (before I moved in). I was always hitting my head on it and it would also make it really difficult to talk to my family and friends on video chat, because my monitor would show the top of the plank which was covered in a drippy white paint job. I’d always considered removing it, but yesterday I decided, “today’s the day.” I surmised that the plank could be removed without compromising the rest of the support structure, so I got out my little handsaw and got to work. I recorded myself doing it, in different stages, because I wanted to prove to my Dad that I’d been able to remove the plank without the whole thing crashing down. (Also, I did it to amuse myself later.)

The first thing that I should explain is that this handsaw was a piece of garbage to begin with, when I bought it two summers ago for £3 at Wilko. I was looking for just a little garden saw at the time to take down a couple of small bushes in my front yard. It did the trick at the time, but since then it’s generally fallen into a state of disuse. The teeth on it were jagged and pointing in different directions. Because of this, it took me a long time to complete the job. While I was sawing away I had lots of time to contemplate my reasons for doing this, and I gave myself the task of trying to find out how it could be a metaphor for writing. “How is sawing a plank of wood like writing?” I asked myself. And here are the answers I came up with:

  1. Sawing a plank of wood is like writing because if you start off with the wrong framework that someone else gave to you and you think it’s going to fit into your formula for success and the plans you have in mind, it’s not going to work. You’re going to have to remove pieces of the framework to adjust for you. Writing is an individual process, which is why there can be so many people who do it so beautifully. A creative writing teacher can offer the same one-line writing prompt to her students, and get thirty different and equally amazing results, because writing reflects the individual. When I write something, I bring all of my experiences to the table, the good and the bad. None of my “mistakes” that I’ve made in life are unworthy for reflection. Every single thing I’ve learned in my life, including about relationships and what I’ve learned about love and growth, are all going to come out in my writing. If I’m trying to fit all the “me” inside someone else’s writing framework, it’s quite possible it won’t feel right. Adjustments must be made. You can always admire other writers, but you have to seek out your own voice. There might be a particular style that you wish you could emulate, and that’s good. Having ideals is important, and only in reading other works will you be able to get better at honing your own voice. But it is YOUR voice that you need to let come out. (More about writing voice in future blogs.)
  2. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood because if you don’t have the proper tools, it’s going to take you a very long time to get where you want to go. What are the proper tools in a writer’s toolbox? First of all it’s your own state of mind; your relationship with yourself. How will you ever be able to develop your own voice, if your mindset denies your desires? You need to develop a good relationship with yourself. I don’t know about you, but I experienced a lifelong problem with depression until I was about thirty-five years old. I know it’s kind of cliche for a writer to be depressed, and we’re supposed to take our pain and write through it, producing something brilliant, etc. But in my experience it was a cumbersome thing that followed my every decision. I doubted myself constantly, including my ability to generate ideas to even being “worthy” of writing. I’ve made mistakes in the past and relationships and with my life path, and these always seemed like problems that all added up to my unworthiness to become anything, least of all a great writer. Or even just a writer. So my suggestion, if you have this problem with mindset, is to fix it by whatever means possible. We are human beings, and we have to be kind to ourselves. If you need therapy, or medication, or just a change in routine that means you get out more and pursue positive relationships, just do it. Try everything. You are worth the effort, and turning off that voice of doubt will do such amazing things for your writing. Other important tools are understanding the type of writing that you want to produce, which means reading up on the structure and techniques of the genre you’re writing in (i.e., if you’re writing crime fiction you’re going to want to learn police procedures, crime scene science, etc, whereas historical writing will obviously require a great understanding of the era about which you’re writing). You’ll also want to read up on topics like plot, character development, “showing” and not “telling”, and other various important techniques.
  3. Writing is like sawing a plank of wood, because you can start off with the general idea of where you want to go, and you can dive in with a full view of your plans laid in front of you. But then halfway in you realize it’s all wrong, you could have done it a different way, you see gaps in logic within your plot line, or your characters are more 2D than 3D, etc. You take a break, step back and realize the awful mess that lies in front of you: a half-sawn off plank of wood hanging from its frame; sawdust covering everything; your muscles are cramping and you feel tired. At this point you could abandon the project altogether, right? But you still have to clean up that mess. Or, you could go back and start over in a different way (but that might take longer). OR — you could keep going. Saw through that plank! Listen to your writing voice, and back up your own original ideas. Yes you can make adjustments when necessary, but stick to your original plan. Every writer has to produce their rough draft before anything else happens. Even Thomas Hardy, at one point in time, was sitting in front of his manuscript for Tess of the d’Urbervilles and probably wondering why Tess had wandered out into the middle of Stonehenge, and how to get her to the scaffolds that awaited her. And if you think William Faulkner didn’t have his doubts about crafting a story around a family carrying a coffin containing their mother’s dead body forty miles away to Jefferson, well you’d be wrong. If you think he didn’t wonder if this was too crazy, too weird, too unrealistic, too morbid to be written about, his characters too depressing — it’s not true. I assure you he had his doubts, but he managed to see it through, creating the amazing piece of literature of As I Lay Dying, containing that amazing shifting point of view which you know he had to struggle crafting and even accepting that it would work. He started with an idea, and he began on the journey just as his characters began theirs, and just like them, I promise you, he got stuck, he waded into the river chasing Addie’s coffin, and he pulled it back out again. True brilliance on the page is not the product of a natural talent that has the ability to generate genius in one fell swoop. Every great writer will have wondered, at some point, what the hell they were thinking and how do they fix their mess. But you can rest assured that they continued sawing that plank. And once they finished the rough draft, that’s their first real breakthrough. Then the massive work of revision begins, and the writer again must continue sawing the plank. When all the sawing is done, and the sawdust is swept away, you can step back and look at what’s there — and I guarantee you, it will be a thing of beauty.

Writing is like sawing through a piece of wood, because you, the carpenter, must keep your tools in top shape, and you must be working in the best framework for your needs, not trying to be fit inside someone else’s ideas of great writing. But equally as important is simply finishing the job. Saw through that plank!!!!!