I went to five different high schools. With so much of my energy being shuttled to alleviation of social discomfort and trying to assimilate to puberty, cliques, smoking weed and soccer, I did my best to limit the time I spent studying so I could get away with the best possible grades for the least amount of work. That often meant straining my little eyeballs trying to see what Kevin Phillips came up with on his chemistry paper.
Which is to say, I cheated.
I’m not proud of it, but frankly, I don’t feel too bad about it either. I wish people would have told us all what I suspected, and WE ALL SUSPECTED, to be true: most of what we learn in high school, we will never use again. School is for training our brains, teaching them to stretch and think and bend and open. Unfortunately, some of the schooling I had also trained my mind to close but I suppose that’s a whole other post entirely. Have I ever, really, needed anything I learned in high school chemistry? Not really. And even though I was good at it, did memorizing all those state capitols help my life? No. No it did not. But the ACT of memorizing has helped me. The ideas behind chemistry, the cause and effect of things has really shaped me. The ways in which seeing that putting two things together in one way can be an act of genius and one small difference can blow shit up. Chemistry is ripe with metaphor and THAT has been a deep benefit for me. Chemistry has been the undercurrent of the alchemy that happens in the kitchen. What has happened over time with love, with age, with atrophy and stretching.
What about the cheating, though?
Well. I liked getting away with things. I liked the velocity of getting over, the feeling of rebelling and subverting authority. I liked the thrill of wondering what the outcome might be with what I could manage to get by on with my wits and what I’d have to explain away to my parents who were Very Busy doing everything they could to make my future solid while I listened to The Cure and tried to figure out how to keep my head above water in the many predominantly white suburban John Hughes high schools of my life. I picked up some cigarettes, Marlboro reds, and learned to pack them into 4 inch bullets. I picked up little metal pipes full of shitty weed and snuck out of school dances. I picked up the tool of a Malleable Truth and carried it in my backpack from school to school, sanding down my edges to fit in anyplace I could. And while all this happened, I missed out on the offer of learning in school. My brain could have been doing all kinds of gymnastics and honing itself to be a ninja in the universe of interesting information but instead, I treated it like a stoner on a stinky couch outside a frat party in Santa Barbara.
The kicker is, I find myself doing it today in still more insidious ways that are much more costly. An old friend was talking about how she was going to stop looking at fashion magazines because it was making her feel so bad. The way advertising somehow manipulates us in comparing ourselves with images on a page. There’s a few ways to wrap our minds around how this NEVER serves anyone too well.
This photo was taken in 2011. I don’t really look like this. I didn’t look like this then, really, and I sure as hell don’t look like this now. Since this was taken life took a lot of difficult turns and I added some pounds, hacked off a foot of my hair and grew all the gray out, plus I shot it of myself from the most “flattering” angle above. And it has at least two different romantic filters on it. But I like this photograph so I use it in press and print. I’ll use a new one with the gray hair soon or I’ll mix it up.
1. The “I’ll Never Look Like That” Edition: Thankfully, this one can be pulled apart in all manner of directions. First of all, she/they/he doesn’t look like that either. We all look so many different ways at different times of day, in light, with digital manipulation, angles of a shot. We are people of full dimension, not just two, so the reality is, we don’t even look the way the image says. I know this because I am a photographer. So there’s that fiction. The second thing is, let’s say for argument’s sake that the model really DOES look like that all the time from every angle, no matter how much sleep they got or who recently broke their heart or whether or not they actually have the flu. If that person ALREADY looks like that, then you’re off the hook. Somebody already has the job of looking like that and you can get busy doing the job of looking how you already look. No one else is doing that important job. So we need you. Not even your identical twin looks like you exactly so get to the business of living in your face and your thighs and your ass just the way they are. This is the body you have. It’s fucking great no matter how it looks because it is the vessel of your life. Without it, you join the ether. Without it you do not get to write, to do a tarot reading for your best friend. You don’t get to roller skate or swim or watch your kids learn to read. No singing. No listening. No plump cherries to bite into and no getting laid. So this Edition of Compare and Despair isn’t going to work in your favor.
This is what I looked like yesterday. Size 8 billion overalls, hat on bad hair, no make-up, and I still kinda like it.
2. The “They Think I’m Fat/Crazy/Nerdy/A Loser/Fill in Your Nightmare” Edition: One time I went to a beginner’s hip-hop class in Brooklyn. I had just been through back to back breakups with not one, but TWO women who felt ambivalent about their feelings for me. What the fuck, right? (Side note, Don’t date people who don’t think you’re fantastic. Getting your self-worth from trying to convince an ambivalent lover that you’re the one is a sure way to misery. You are already the one for someone or several people who are wholeheartedly stoked to hang out with you.) So I’m already feeling less-than and I head to this class to have fun! To exercise! (Which at the time I did not do so trying something fun was key). To be with great women! I get there and it’s in this gorgeous old studio, vaulted ceilings and original red looking wood with swirly accents way up high and the front of the room entirely covered in mirrors. Before the music even started I could feel my throat tighten down looking at the room reflected back to me. Scads of easily stylish beauties greeting each other and limbering up like a Fame outtake. Me? Jesus. I’m the pudgy girl at the back, sweats and an ill-fitting t-shirt to go with my bruised ego. The music starts and I can’t get my body to do anything the other bodies in the mirror are doing. This is the warm up. I start to feel humiliated by what people must think of me, oozing my incompetence into their fun place. It barely takes any time at all. So little, in fact, it’s like a sad miracle of a thing how quickly the imagined judgment moves me to sobbing. I bolt from the class, a bad after school special moment in real life. God, it’s so horrible just to type this out. More judgement so many years later like, “Poor you and your luxury dance class problem. Inept Pudgy Lesbian is so sad and alone.”
BUT THAT’S HOW COMPARE AND DESPAIR WORKS! It’s actually none of my business what anyone thinks of me. Whether they think I’m pretty or ugly or loud or selfish or fake or funny or devious or dim. My business is to keep my eyes on my own paper and either learn the dance or don’t. This was about giving my body movement and treating my battered little heart to some levity. I cheated myself out of that and left with quite a little internal gash.
I am not a minimalist.
3. The “Why Don’t I have That Couch” Edition: There is nothing like an issue of Dwell Magazine to help this one hit home. In some ways this one is harder for me than the fashion magazine one. This one is all about What I Don’t Have. And there are a million versions of the ways I don’t have the things I don’t have. There are the modern boho versions of it featuring interesting globetrotters who select the perfect items to bring home and place Just So in their incredibly homey and chic living rooms with giant dangly light fixtures and bold patterns and colors you can sink into on oversized cushions and guzzle micro aged bourbon and talk about film together after the retractable screen disappears. There’s the sleek, minimal modern version of Things I Don’t Have because I have no fucking restraint and don’t know how to make minimal work no matter how many times I study it. I don’t understand negative space in writing, in paintings, in design or in conversation, really. But I love it and it defines what I am not. And in this case, what I cannot afford.
And isn’t it always the couch?
I have always wanted to buy a new couch for myself, somehow exclaiming my independence as a woman. A real, live, adult woman. All these people in the magazines with all their beautiful houses and their stuff and their COUCHES, they count, and so therefor I do not. Because I have never gotten myself a new couch. And that is how Compare and Despair works. I look at a photograph of a couch in an image and I let it define my life, if only for a moment, into nothing at all. Which really pisses the old dog off, who would like me to give him dinner now, thank you very much.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I can’t go back. I don’t believe in regret. I made the choices I made and so did you and here we are. But I think when I go to my new ceramics class next Monday, which I have always wanted to do, I will bring curiosity with me, wondering what it is I’ll learn to do. I’ll keep my eyes on my own paper and only look to the other clay in the room to admire it, wonder at all the possibilities, and watch myself be a beginner in a world that would only value a master. Maybe I should write Kevin Phillips and say something. But I don’t know what.
Anyhow, I hope I get super dirty in messy clay.