Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Illusion of Cool

Of course, no one is as cool as Snoopy.
First and foremost, apologies for the long wait before this post.  When I began this arc last week, I had a very specific idea in mind with what I wanted to do with it.  It has turned into something very different.  I think I would do best to introduce this post by talking a little bit about why I have this blog.  I was at a meeting of other local writers, and the subject of memoirs came up between me, a friend, and a new woman who had only been to one or two of these gatherings.  The woman wanted to write a memoir about surviving emotional abuse.  She was very focused on the marketability of the book, as if her suffering was a product to be packaged and sold--a commodity like any other.  It made me realize, in the heat of the conversation, that that isn't what this blog means to me at all.  I may appreciate feedback and take comfort in the knowledge that people care what I have to say, but ultimately that isn't why I started blogging about my life.  I blog about my life for myself, to try and put my demons to rest.  What others may think about it is at best secondary, and worst irrelevant.  This is to be key as I go about what was supposed to be a follow-up post.

Talking about Suzie as I did last week was actually very difficult, and it made me realize that talking about Emily the Rock Star was going to be even more difficult.  Both young women were something of a riddle to me-- a Zen koan that seemed to hold the key towards overcoming the latest obstacle in my path.  I'm more convinced than ever this is true, and after several days of intensive meditation on the beach, I feel both like I've put Suzie to rest, and I feel ready to talk a little bit about Emily.

Emily was cool.   Emily was the coolest teenager who ever lived.  Emily is the embodiment of hip: a rock star, someone with their finger on the pulse of the here and now, who knows how to find whatever's happening and be a part of it.  I knew her in high school, and like Suzie, I found myself irresistibly attracted to her.  Like Suzie, that attraction was rejected, and the escalating fallout actually led to me being kicked out of the private school Emily and I both attended.  Emily was everything I was not: confident, self-assured, secure, and most importantly of all, she wore vinyl pants.  I very badly wanted to wear vinyl pants in high school (even today I own two pairs): they were one of the most distilled expressions of who I was in clothing form.  That time period was a time of immense struggling with my identity for me, particularly with my parents over how I wanted to look.  I wanted to dye my hair, I wanted to grow my hair long, I wanted to wear shock rock clothes, makeup, be someone totally unrecognizable.  But my parents wouldn't allow it, I was heavy from the medication I was on, and my image of myself was completely distorted from how it actually was.  (I do regret never wearing black metal corpse paint in public before I grew my beard, but I suppose as far as regrets go, that is a relatively minor one).  Emily was, in that respect, a representation of all I wanted to be but couldn't.  She also professed to be a lesbian, which of course only compounded my fascination and attraction.  It was all I could do just to keep it together day to day back then.  Of course things went south quickly.

Interestingly, however, and unlike Suzie, Emily and I reconnected a year or two ago via Facebook.  Imagine my surprise when we friended each other that not only were there no hard feelings for what happened between us, there was total forgiveness (and in fact, she claims, she had completely forgotten about it).  Talk about history being a matter of perspective.  Except now the relationship was different.  I was in my 20s, independent, and had begun to piece together my own identity.  I was, in some strange way, as cool as her, and she regarded me as such.  I cannot tell you how surreal an experience it was to suddenly have validation from the very object of cool that had previously rejected me.  But something was still wrong.  It was more than that.  Something about me needed her validation.  Now I'd had it once.  I needed it more.  It was as if nothing had changed.

This leads me to another one of the paradoxes of writing this blog.  Emily and I are still friends.  I have a great deal of respect for her, but in order for me to continue and explain the solution to her koan, I have to in some way talk about her flaws.  I thought long and hard about how I wanted to do this, because she is both a very kind, loving, intelligent person, and someone whose opinions I still value.  So perhaps rather than necessarily talk about her, it would be best for me to talk about my reactions to her.  After all, this is a post about how I overcame my need for external validation (if you hadn't guessed it already).  I can't very well put her down to bring myself up.  So let me instead talk a little bit about myself, and let me show you how she reacted.

One of the ways in which I seek validation the most is through sharing my music.  I have seldom had someone in my life who shared my musical tastes, and that made me feel very insecure about it.  I did this with a lot of people, but given that Emily herself is a bass player in a rock band, she especially felt like an authority on it.  But one of the things that frustrated me about that whole process with her is that she oddly bluntly rejected my musical inclinations.  I eventually came to understand that that really boiled down to a difference of opinion in vocal styles.  But for someone who takes things to heart, opinions like that are often misunderstood for objective truth.  I was looking for her to praise my prog rock along some sort of objective scale of "goodness," whatever that means.  What I got instead was pretty much all you'll ever get when you compare subjective art forms, which was her opinion.  The two are very different things.  She was always judgmental in an odd way, and it wasn't until I captured the dynamic in action that I began to get a hint of how it worked, and how my perspective was wrong.

I tend to make a natural assumption that there's always two levels to conversation.  The first is the surface, which is the literal content of the topic and discussion.  Bobby Eckstein, my brilliant counseling professor at UNH likes to call the other, deeper part "process."  Process is a lot like the part of the iceberg that's underneath the water: the meaning, the underlying explanation; substance.  By assuming that there is Process to everything I talk about to everyone, I had unwittingly been seeing and reacting to something that wasn't there.  Two clues from Emily led me to figure it out.

Emily occasionally blogs through Facebook's notes system, and one particular one caught my eye. She was complaining about the neighborhood in Philadelphia in which lives, how it hadn't gentrified yet, how she had to travel a long distance to be at anything "happening."  I don't know what in particular about it seemed so off to me.  It only made sense if you assumed she was thinking literally--like her words themselves were the actual meaning, and nothing more.  This is, I believe, the essence of her "coolness."  I'll explain.  A few days later, I had another conversation with her, in which I said something (what exactly I forget), that essentially had two different meanings depending on whether you were listening for surface or process.  I had meant it as the latter, but she misinterpreted it as the former.  A few more minutes of conversation and it became abundantly clear that there was not even an awareness of the process content of that line.  Though it took me a little while, herein lay the answer to the riddle.

There's one of two ways to look at this.  Which of those Emily actually is I don't really know, and it's kind of irrelevant to my point.  "Cool" in the sense that I'm referring to, is a surface feature.  One can obsessively try to find "cool" and seek endless validation for it, and one can even be quite successful at obtaining it (*cough*hipsters*cough*).  But there is another option, and in my opinion it's the better one.  One can simply disregard the need for surface-level validation.  Both techniques produce a superficially similar result, but in reality the two are worlds apart.  One makes you look confident.  The other makes you actually confident.  Once I'd brought myself to that point, it was a relatively straightforward decision: instead of doing what I think people want me to do in order to feel validated, why don't I do things that I like and validate myself instead?

My my, what a deceptively simple proposition.

When I realized that, late one night on the beach, deep in meditation, something incredible happened.  The craving ceased.  I had spent two years trying to resolve a conflict about myself.  The truth is, there was no conflict.  Believing there was a conflict was what created the conflict, and it necessitated taking it this far in order to see it.  That to me, ultimately, is Emily's greatest gift to me.  Then things started to come together.  Big things.  We're all trapped in a prison of our own design.  All we have to do to escape is walk right out the door.

Just like that, release.

Now I understand.  The rest is relatively straightforward.  I really hope others can read this and understand what I mean, because I think the meaning I've found here from this is more essential than all the others.  We all seek emotional satisfaction, but it's the craving itself that's the problem, not what we imagine satisfying our emotions will solve.  So there you have it.  Hopefully you can take away something from this.  I will remember this as one of the greatest things I've ever done.

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