Our Town

I don’t exactly live in a small town. It’s a big county where seas of trees occasionally give way to small towns. And when I say small town, I mean ‘there’s a post office, a convenience store, and some county garbage cans’ small. Long rural roads traverse these towns, like Amazonian snakes uncoiled and laid across creeks, rivers, and railroad tracks, until finally a grocery store or an exit ramp appears like an oasis signalling hope for the thirsty in the desert. There are no main streets. If we run into each other, it is out of town. However, reputations do stick. They not only stick, they carry over into these out of town places where we all work, buy our groceries, and idle the weekends away in the humble, tacky shopping mall or the sports park, if someone has something to celebrate. It is the anxiety of diaspora, running into someone from your tribe and being both thrilled that they speak your language and unnerved to hear them speak to you in it, without saying a word at all.

I won’t go into why I was widely disliked in high school, because so many of the modes of behavior and dress that were in style at that time could only happen in a rural community where pop culture is a rumor handed down late, and badly translated. There were a few months in my Theater class where a corps of the coolest girls wore crochet skull caps, claimed to be Buddhists, and listened to Sublime and 311, thinking that this was a ska-punk thing to do. Then it was very punk rock for girls to wear suspenders, or clothes with CareBears on them. The latter might have been a psychedelic thing, but I’ll really never know. I could just never keep up, and deliberately swam against the grain, really, because I was just worldly enough to suspect that there was more to being a Buddhist than refusing to kill bugs and eating only the salad off of the hamburgers in the cafeteria, and that ska-punk did not begin and end with “Santeria”,the only Sublime song everyone knew because that is the one the modern rock station broadcast in the state capitol had on rotation. And Carebears were cute, but  I had a Spin magazine subscription and a more chic idea of rebellion.

When every one else was a Hot Topic punk I was a goth, or some kind of neo-grunge Beatnik, wearing as much black as I could scrounge from my wardrobe, dresses I had added black lace touches to, fuzzy sweaters and ripped jeans, carrying Sylvia Plath poetry and Anne Rice novels around, writing constantly. I wasn’t a total navel gazer-I wrote soapy “Harry Potter” fanfictions with lurid twists to make my friends laugh, or catty poems about teachers we didn’t like. I traded the first Twilight novel and paperback romance novels about yet more vampires with my little posse. I had friends, I had fun, but there was something undesirable about me and everyone knew it. No one could quite put a finger on it, not even the people who ridiculed, excluded, rejected, and slandered me. Even teachers treated me as if I were a lump of coal in their stocking. I was given the same treatment as people who were considered fat, poor ugly, homosexual, promiscuous or had some kind of family scandal, but none of those applied in my case, really. All of those labels got flung at me at one time or another between 8th grade and 12th grade, but nothing stuck except the universally acknowledged fact that unless you already had nothing to lose socially, I was to be avoided and openly despised for one’s own reputation’s sake.

I am 25 now, and for some of my former classmates, not much has changed. I still encounter people who seem to be looking over their shoulder at an invisible group of friends that has long  dispersed, confirming, “Oh, we hate her, right?” and pointedly ignoring me or glaring at me because once, ten years ago when we were all children, I had the audacity to not  wear a skull cap and call myself a Rastafari-Buddhist, while listening to a reggae band from Long Beach, California. In the kingdom of the blind, one might say…..

I ignore it, I let it go, I spin wryly humorous comments out of it to my sister, but today I just couldn’t ignore being ignored any longer. The girl in question, let’s call her Sidney, is a fairly frequent customer at my new job. She graduated a few classes below me, but was tangentially apart of this group of misguided music fans/eastern mystics without a compass. The first time she saw me she looked over at me with an, “Oh, shit, it’s her”expression, then looked away, and has since made her invisible friends proud by ignoring me on two other occasions. Today I waited on her and her mother. I just couldn’t take the bullshit anymore. What am I being ostracized for, exactly? Taking out more books than anyone else at the library? Raising my hand in class and having the right answers? Listening to 80’s New Wave and 90’s alternative instead of bad frat boy reggae? Is this really worth being pointedly cruel to someone? It wasn’t when we were kids, but kids are kids. Why, ten years on, am I still the pariah?

“Hi Sidney,,” I said out loud. Inside, I said, “To Hell with it.”

“Hi,how are you?” she said.

“I’m fine, and I’ve been fine the last couple of times you came in here, ” I said. She could tell my manager if she wanted. I really didn’t care. I had to stand up for myself.

After grimacing in shock, she recovered and said, “I apologize for not speaking to you.” She turned to her mom-who seemed to be in her cups, or at least acting spacy to seem young and carefree-and said, “I’m just rude. Doesn’t everyone say I’m rude like that, Mom?”

It was supposed to be adorable. They laughed, and I was meant to join in as a form of clemency. They attempted a few more jokes to lighten the mood, and soften me up. I might work part time for $9 an hour but I have enough pride not to laugh with people who would have continued treating me like the scum of the earth if I hadn’t demanded better treatment.

However, today was a lesson to me. No matter how fixed in stone a small town reputation may seem, even if there is no living memory of why people feel a certain way about  you, just a tired script that seems to have no end and the same lines in different scenarios, it is not too late to demand better treatment. And all the progress I have made in loving myself and knowing myself does not desert me the minute one of my old tormentors screws their face up me in a crowd, wondering with contempt, “Where’s her skull cap?”Standing up to Sidney meant little to me. She was just a girl I had known for a brief and inconsequential moment in my life and her’s. I had stood up to her, felt proud of myself and then moved on with my day and my life-that was the prize.




That’s Entertainment

I just started my literary theory class this week, and it’s not going well. I was savaged by both my professor and another student for my definition of just what, in my opinion, literature is. I am kind of a no-bullshit kind of person. My definition was, “Fiction that is written to entertain, and by entertain I mean divert from reality.” More or less. I said other things, but my professor seized on this the way mean Miss Minchin in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess misunderstood Sarah Crewe when she said she did not need French lessons. She meant that she already knew how to speak it, but the villainous headmistress thought she was seeing a child’s resistance to a distasteful, potentially boring class. My professor made a similar assumption, that I was saying literature is meant to be fun.

I have no resistance to reading classic works of literature, and I understand that writers of different eras have written with social, moral, and personal agendas to be heard for a variety of reasons. However, this is all entertainment. Why is entertainment both a dirty word and a vital necessity in our culture? Entertainment, as I posted in my class’s online forum, simply means that fiction is rubbing your feet, tickling your scalp, giving you so much pleasure you don’t feel the need to ask your spouse how their day at work was, or call your grandmother on the phone, or go to yoga class that evening. Or it can mean that you are so hard at work that you feel no compulsion to change streams until the task of understanding the author’s words is complete. Whether you are trying to demystify Hardy’s themes in Tess of the Durbervilles or biting your nails along to a tense scene in a Stephen King horror novel, whether you are cheering Bella on to choose Jacob or Edward (your choice!), or  reading Dostoyevsky, what does it all have in common? Well, in my opinion it is all the same because it’s not real. We can argue about different literary movements, the influence that the author hoped to have on society at that time, but at the end of the day it’s just not real. And things that are not real distract us from what is.

That’s okay! It’s healthy. We need to escape from who we are sometimes. Sometimes the very ideas we do not hold in real life can be the most fascinating to explore. Or, conversely, they can help us cope with reality in a safe space. My brother, a high school senior ,had to watch “Apocalypse Now” for an English assignment. I was excited to watch it with him and my sister, it was one of my favorite movies in high school. I hadn’t seen it in about ten years or so. As I watched it, I got reacquainted with my teenage self, who was struggling with big questions of faith, identity, and ethics in the post 9/11 Bush era of public lies and constant paranoia. What was true, what was the very limit of evil,and how can good ever sustain itself as a dynamic force in the world? I couldn’t find those answers in my rural Baptist church, from my workaholic mom or abusive stepdad, and not in the body count and terror threat alerts on the nightly news. But I found them in the  music and films, books and art I engaged with. It might seem that I proved myself wrong here. Wasn’t I tuning into life rather than tuning out? Well, I would say no, because  I was turning from a world of lies and chaos to one that was orderly, and said what I wished to hear. That was not life in the early aughts.

Anyway, I broke down, cried, and ran out of the room at the scene in which Laurence Fishburne is shot down as his mother’s recorded message is playing. I saw the bane of my youth, the war that wheeled over our heads like a carrion eater, the stories of boys who’d graduated a couple of years earlier lying in hospitals in Germany with mangled legs, the uncertainty for a while over whether conscription would be an active practice again and the war would last so long my little brother was drafted, being out of work myself after graduation and considering joining the military even though Iraq and Afghanistan were the likely destinations. I sobbed not for Fishburne’s character-who was a cocky shit-but for wasted youth and the shadow of war. Real life had not given me the opportunity to unburden myself-fiction stepped up where reality had not.

How many fictional frights, griefs, orgasms, and friendships do we experience in our lives? And aren’t we happier people for it? I once dated a guy who had grown up in a home so conservative the only television show the family watched was “Star Trek”, occasionally, and he also didn’t read or listen to popular music. For lack of conversational topics, he once described to me the various laws regarding taxes on gasoline in the state of Wisconsin. This is conversation absolutely devoid of the shared anachronisms of fiction ,without the release of fiction.

I suspect I have landed in a class with people who have a hard time admitting that. Oh, yes, they would say, I enjoyed “Star Wars”, but only the first one because, Han Solo and that Wookie aside, Luke Skywalker’s arc is a perfect example of Campbellian tropes. Oh, I don’t read anything, they would poo-poo, with a love story, vampires, aliens, superheroes, cops, lawyers, kids, pets, or anything that might cause me to smile visibly or laugh out loud on the metro, recommend it to a friend, or reread it. Reading must be an intellectual challenge and chore to them. To be entertained would be common, soft, unprofessional, and immature, so they pick books that will give them no pleasure so as to seem some kind of martyr for the cause of literature.

Literature is fiction. Fiction is not real life. If these people never escape their real lives and do not trust the allure of fiction even when they read, I do wonder if even their dreams bring them any respite.