I Am Not Cool

80s punk.jpg

I attended a conference last week, the first stop on my tour for Edge Of Black. There were two things I took away.

One—being a writer is a kick-ass job, because in addition to telling lies for a living, we get to meet cool people on the road: other writers who embody awesomeness, readers who appreciate you, people who feed you. (So true…)

Two—I am not cool.

I never have been. I’ve never fit in with the “in” crowd or had people kneeling at my feet. I wasn’t a cheerleader, but I wasn’t a geek. I was just this tall kid who got decent grades and floated through my younger life, wishing I had the guts to do…something. Anything.

My family moved to Washington, D.C., from the backwoods of Colorado halfway through my fourteenth year, and I suffered the most massive case of culture shock imaginable. My parents wanted me to go to private school, but I didn’t want to. The idea of not fitting in, you see. I met a neighborhood girl who seemed to have coolness in spades. I immediately set about trying to copy her.

Clothes were first, then hair, then makeup, then boys.

In Colorado, it was still cool to wear Levi’s. In McLean, Virginia, Guess jeans were all the rage. I wore Nikes, but Reebok high-tops were de rigueur. Everyone in Virginia had these sleek, preppy, effortless bobs, but I permed my hair. The cool guys drove Camaros, and you were supposed to let them feel you up if they gave you a ride to school. Taking the bus was forbidden. Moosehead was the only acceptable beer, Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light Menthol 100s were the cigarette of choice. Jeans were to be winnowed, folded and tucked inside large, slouchy socks.

It was midway through my junior year when I began yearning for something. I didn’t know what, just that I wasn’t at all happy with the way things were going. I had some friends who were cool, and others who were laughed at. I was pressured to pick one group or the other. I’ve never been a fan of that whole setup… “It’s fine to be friends with Mary, because she dates Greg and he drives a BMW, but not Susan because her parents still drive her to school.”

Drifting, I joined the track team, which wasn’t considered cool at all—and started hanging with a new crowd. That was good, but not enough. I missed the Goth movement by a couple of years; my school had modified Punks. (They would be called Hipsters now. The Cult, Cure, Depeche Mode, all that. Though I thought Morrissey was a whiny idiot and pledged allegiance to Pink Floyd instead.) I hung out with them for a bit, but they were too much like me, too concerned about grades and extra curriculars to really feel what the movement was all about.

Not finding what I was seeking in my own school, I branched out to the other local high school, McLean, where there were real Punks. They dyed their hair. They wore mohawks and ripped jeans. They skipped class, and laughed at me when I freaked out about missing seventh period. They read my poetry and shared theirs in return. They treated me as an equal. As if cocker spaniels were allowed to be equal to Dobermans.

They were the ultimate in cool to me.

I went from the “Goody Two-shoes” Sandra Dee to the “I got chills” Sandy in the space of a week. I replaced my pearl earrings with safety pins and begged my mom to let me streak a chunk of my hair pink (she flatly refused). I switched to Camel Lights. I tossed out the Guess jeans that I hated and found some tight black ones, and a kick-ass pair of brown suede ankle boots to tuck them into instead of the Reeboks. I bailed on Yearbook. Skipped track practice. Drank whiskey in the McDonald’s parking lot instead. Regularly made out with a guy named Jim, who had a blue mohawk and a string of safety pins running from his nose ring to his pierced ear. He would have been so freaking perfect if he’d just been five inches taller.

I think I even stashed my Official Preppy Handbook in the garage.

But there was only so much rebellion my parents would accept. My dad took one look at my new boyfriend’s hair and chains and forbade me to ever see him again. And after about a week of being grounded until I got some new friends, I caved.

I caved.

My brush with rebellion quashed, I got back in line and kept my head down.

Back came the sleek bob, albeit slightly asymmetrical, just a little hint of daring. Back went on the Guess jeans. Back I went to track and classes. I took a holiday job at Britches Great Outdoors so I could get the employee discount, because that was the cool thing to do.

I always wonder what would have happened if I’d stuck to my guns back then. If I’d dyed that hank of hair pink. If I’d followed my gut instead of the path people expected of me.

I struggle with the two sides of my personality even now. The good girl versus the rebel. The rebel has won out several times—some piercings, well before it was cool, and a few tattoos. My husband drew the line at my nose—I’ve always wanted to pierce my nose. I blame Jim. But the good girl—she was a debutante (I know, I know)—got her degree, got another degree, married an awesome guy, went to work in a proper job, and tried to ignore the screams that came from the back of her skull daily.

I wanted to be a writer, not realizing I already was. I kept waiting for permission. To be told that was the path I should take. For my professors to give me gold stars. For my parents to say it was okay. For my friends to say, hey, if you love this so much, why don’t you do it instead?

My husband was the one. Of course he was. He watched all this experimentation and knew what was going on. When the rebel kept trying to force her way out, he encouraged her. With his blessing, in 2003 I chucked my nice safe life and started a novel. God bless him, he worked twice as hard so I could stay home and write.

From the moment I wrote that first word, I never looked back. It wasn’t the rebel, like I always assumed—it was the muse, desperately trying to get out.

This past weekend, as hubby and I were hanging out with some utterly cool steampunk writer chicks, I felt those old urges—a need for hair dye (Manic Panic Hot Hot Pink is on order) a nose ring, clunky boots, ripped tights, a perfect sense of irony and a touch of ennui. I’m probably too old to indulge in this latent fantasy.

But one thing is certain. I may not be cool, but I am a writer.

And that’s cool to me.