Friday, March 9, 2012

A Pretty Wonderful Life

     Yesterday was one of "those days." My last two blogs received mixed reviews, either touching and inspiring people who read and critiqued them, or severely pissing them off, even spurring one piece of very-close-to-hate mail. The last time I received anything close to hate mail was during my senior year in high school. Somehow I'd ended up on the prom planning committee, and the theme that year was going to be the Old South. This meant hoop skirts and top hats, something I didn't find too exciting or current. This was back in 1980. Punk was sort of fading into New Wave, featuring a diverse array of dance-oriented groups like M, The B-52s, The Clash, Devo, The Talking Heads, Gary Numan, Lene Lovitch, The Pretenders, The Cars, The Knack, The Boomtown Rats, The Violent Femmes...the list goes on and on. While most of my classmates were still doing the "white man's dance" to Top 40 hits, a few of us were snapping up thrift store leggings and wraparound sunglasses, gyrating on the floor to songs like Rock Lobster.
     My job on the prom committee was to help plan the food. During one of our meetings, which I'm pretty sure took place in Mrs. Barrow's classroom on the front hall, I acquired the unfortunate nickname "Crackers." We were all giving our suggestions for party fare, and I'd said something like, "How about some crackers?" Al Abbott, one of the boys in my Latin class, found this outrageously funny, and for the rest of the year, I'd hear him in the hallway, yelling "Crackers!" good-naturedly anytime we went past each other. I don't remember what types of snacks we ended up offering. I think everyone was a little more concerned about whether or not there'd be punch, which would inevitably be spiked with EverClear or some other type of high test grain alcohol.
     Since my boyfriend and I had broken up, I didn't have a date to the prom. He and I had broken up sometime around Christmas of 1979, after a ridiculous argument over his assertion that Catholics worship "false idols", like the Virgin Mary. I was Catholic and he was something else, maybe Southern Baptist. Although I was by no means a committed Catholic, I felt I had to correct him in his ignorance, but there was just no reasoning with him. We sat in his car in front of my house, engaged in this dispute. He handed me my Christmas present, a bottle of Avon Sweet Honesty cologne, a scent I detested, and drove away. That was the last time he and I hung out together. Over the Christmas holidays, I found out that he and another girl in our class had been seeing each other, even though he and I were going steady. I guess I should have been angry about this, but I was actually relieved. I didn't know this girl too well, and I'm operating under the assumption that she probably wasn't Catholic. Having a boyfriend sort of got in the way of spending time with my friends, Eileen, Leslie, and Elaine, and now, my Friday and Saturday nights were free again.
     I never had any intention of wearing a hoop skirt to my prom. I definitely couldn't envision myself as a southern belle, and surmised that a hoop skirt and crinoline would not only be uncomfortable and itchy, but unjustifiably expensive. There were a lot of kids in our family, all of whom needed clothes, and Mom wasn't keen on the idea of spending big bucks on a dress I'd never wear again. I happened to agree with her. I didn't like most of the current styles anyway; they were way too disco for my liking. For my junior prom, the year before, I'd made my own dress out of white eyelet. I made a lot of my own clothes in high school so that I could dress exactly the way I liked, without it costing too much money.  My dress consisted of two pieces: a sleeveless bodice and a long, tiered skirt. Inspired by a white, hippie-chic dress I'd seen in Seventeen magazine, modeled by Phoebe Cates, I set out to create my own version. Since I was already a pretty accomplished seamstress, I knew exactly what to do. I went to Hancock Fabrics, found a pattern I liked, and splurged on some nice material. I took my time, cutting the fabric, sewing the 5/8 inch seams, and placing the darts, enjoying the process, instead of hurrying through it. The finished product was beautiful and unique, and I was proud to wear something I'd made myself.
     My deepening interest in the punk and New Wave cultures seemed to validate my long-standing inner rebellion against authority, and helped me find my "voice." The whole idea of mindlessly going along with the majority, just because everyone else was doing it, never really appealed to me. As a seventeen year old girl, I vowed that I would never allow myself to become a lemming. In using the term, "lemming", I am speaking metaphorically, referring to people who blindly go along with popular opinion, not commenting on the sometimes bizarre and often misconceived migratory behavior of these rodents. What bothered me most about the Old South theme was that it seemed to be condoning the systematic oppression of a group of people. In my mind, hoop skirts represented ignorance, racism, and hatred, just like the Confederate flag. Our country had just gotten over the Iranian hostage crisis, something I was very sensitive to because my brother-in-law is Iranian. I saw how Iranian-Americans were being mistreated, similar to the misinformed contempt which many Americans harbor for Muslims and Middle Easterners today, and I didn't want any part of it.
     I considered not going to the prom at all. For the most part, I couldn't wait to get out of high school and on with real life. I'd grown so tired of the superficiality which characterized the boring, yet ever-so-popular "prep" mentality, where everyone dressed alike and drove a certain kind of car. It was all about appearances, about how you looked instead of what you thought. I was keenly interested in smartening up, not being dumbed down, and I spent much of my time in high school, feeling like I really didn't fit in with any particular group. My circle of close friends was wonderful. Fortunately, they knew and accepted me, exactly as I was, for all my weirdness, my adolescent rebellion, and my stubborn resolve to think outside the box. Given the fact that I'd helped in planning the food for the prom, it seemed a shame to miss out on it completely. Although I was generally disenchanted with the whole high school scene, I still felt a little nostalgic, realizing that I'd never be able to go back and relive that period of my life. It was a strange, mixed bag of emotions. Accompanying the anticipation of college and being treated as an adult was a deep sadness over the loss of childhood innocence, something I knew I'd eventually leave behind.
     I worked out a compromise with myself. I'd attend my senior southern belle prom, but I would arrive dressed as myself, which at the time consisted of an old thrift store men's suit, a skinny tie, pointy toed Keds sneakers, and wraparound sunglasses. My good friend, Jay, with whom I'd attended the junior prom the year before, would be home from college that weekend, so I invited him to come with me. He was a big fan of The Who and the "mod" scene. Jay was also going to come, dressed as himself, wearing a pork pie hat, Ray Bans, a scraggly beard, and his old wool houndstooth blazer. We weren't really prom-crashers; we were pioneers of modern style. It was no secret that we weren't planning to adhere to the dress code, which strictly forbade the wearing of tennis shoes. Word began to spread among my classmates that Jay and I were coming to the prom, dressed like punk rockers. My chemistry teacher, Miss Cox, who was considered one of the "cool" teachers, alerted me to a few notes she'd received from other students, ranging from mild complaints to spiteful character assassinations, directed at me. The general consensus was that, in not adhering to the dress code, I was going to somehow ruin the entire prom. These letters didn't deter me at all; they only deepened my resolve.
     Amidst threats that Jay and I wouldn't be admitted into the prom, especially if we were wearing sneakers, we arrived in the aforementioned garb, both of us having decided to speak in Cockney accents all night long. This was going to be fun! Despite a little bit of hassling at the door, we were permitted to enter, and we spent most of the evening, dancing and laughing, enjoying an occasional swig of booze from the flask he'd stashed in his jacket's breast pocket. We even got our picture made. We'd refused to pose the way the photographer had insisted, with arms encircling each another, opting instead to stand side by side, with cocked heads and subtle sneers. I think we ended up staying for about an hour or so. After leaving the prom, we pulled over on the shoulder of a deserted road, not far from where I lived, to listen to music and play strip poker. I ended up having a lot of fun that night, and as far as I could tell, the prom had been a success. I like to think that Jay and I provided a bit of comic relief or a memorable distraction. I never learned who the authors of the nasty letters were, nor did I really care. People who are inclined to react with such vitriole are always much braver on paper than they are in person, especially where personal threats or assaults on one's character are involved: these are people who can't see the forest for the trees. I often wonder what those people are like now. Have they changed at all? Did they ever learn to think for themselves and critically assess life's complexities, instead of reacting myopically to every viewpoint they find objectionable? One can only hope so.
     For a brief period of time last night, I felt dejected. I started thinking about what it would have been like if I'd never been born, sort of like Jimmy Stewart in Frank Capra's classic, "It's A Wonderful Life." The conclusion I came to was this: for every person I've somehow managed to piss off, there are at lease a dozen whom I've inspired or helped in some way. That's really not a bad ratio. Long ago, Rudyard Kipling described words as "the most powerful drug used by mankind." Words have the power to inspire or frighten, to heal or hurt, to liberate or oppress, and the problem with words lies in their interpretation. Take a simple email or text message, the underlying tone of which complicates how you interpret the message's meaning. Is this person mad at me? Or am I taking it the wrong way? I've had this conversation before with my friend, Allen, who sends very terse text messages and emails. Both his partner, Bryan, and I have commented to him that he sounds mad or annoyed. In bringing this to his attention, we learned that the messages Allen sends from his phone are brief because he has a problem with fat-fingering, which eats up a lot of time and frustrates him to no end. Had we not addressed this, we would have continued to personalize his one word responses in a negative way. In writing, I try to choose my words carefully, giving deep consideration to the subject matter at hand, contemplating all aspects of a situation. Sometimes, I may get things wrong. That's why feedback is important; it helps broaden my perspective, and permits me think about things in a different light. You can tell a lot about where people are "at" mentally and emotionally by the words they choose, and the way they craft them into sentences. The hateful comment I received yesterday was filled with rage and displaced emotion, and it was clear that the author is disturbed, not so much with me, but with life in general. The words were clearly intended to hurt, not to provide any useful feedback, and after reading what was written, I decided not to publish it.
     Not all words are important or worth agonizing over; one has to consider the source. In Bryce Courtenay's "The Power of One", there is a beautiful passage: "“Always in life an idea starts small, it is only a sapling idea, but the vines will come and they will try to choke your idea so it cannot grow and it will die and you will never know you had a big idea, an idea so big it could have grown thirty meters through the dark canopy of leaves and touched the face of the sky...The vines are people who are afraid of originality, of new thinking. Most people you encounter will be vines; when you are a young plant they are very dangerous...Always listen to yourself...It is better to be wrong than simply to follow convention. If you are wrong, no matter, you have learned something and you grow stronger. If you are right, you have taken another step toward a fulfilling life.” I think these are good words to live by. In much the same way as my senior prom ended up accommodating an unconventional teenager who "only wanted to live in accord with the promptings which came from my true self"*, remaining true to myself, no matter how hard it's been over the years, has eventually absorbed most of life's slings and arrows. When I consider all the experiences I've had, the joys and sorrows, the challenges, triumphs and disappointments, as well as the people I've met, ranging from saints to every day Joes to real assholes, I realize I've been blessed with a pretty wonderful life, one with very few regrets. Unlike my hairstyle, which seems to undergo a metamorphosis every few months, with regard to my life, I wouldn't change a thing.
*from Hermann Hesse, "Demian
Amidst all of our still unpacked boxes, I cannot find my 12th grade prom picture. When I do find it, I will post it here. 
A page from my high school annual


  1. So happy Adam received such clemency. I hope the time ahead proves fruitful for him.

  2. What a beautiful piece of writing, and I loved hearing about your prom. I was already gone by then I guess. Do you remember you visited me at Spring Hill (the place I fled?). That meant so much to me!

  3. yes, elaine! i remember that trip to fairhope to rescue you from spring hill college like it was yesterday! jay and i had a blast at the prom; you would have enjoyed it!