At the very beginning of my freshman year of high school, Joanna Christianson invited me to a weeknight pool party at her house. Everybody who was starting high school with any social credibility was going to be there. I played it cool, but I was gaga to have made the list. I'd been popular for exactly one semester and one summer so far, and the thrill hadn't even come close to wearing off. Phil Haven was going to be there, John Barcher, Linnae Dengah*, everybody. Well, not everybody—that was the point. Just the right people, of which I was now, for reasons I couldn't 100% figure out, one.
*I've changed everyone's names up there except Linnae Dengah because I can't make up a name as good as that. I tried. So, if you're googling yourself, Linnae: surprise.
Popularity was gold, it was security, it was everything good. Why had it decided to visit itself upon me? And how could I make it stay? Because I wanted to make it stay at all costs, and I do mean virtually all costs, barring obviously insane things like murder. But whoever I really was inside, if she/that was any impediment to my staying popular, fuck it. Fuck her. Who needs her? Never heard of her. And so, consciously or unconsciously, I set about a lifelong self-curating process that I've only in the last few years begun to try and put the brakes on. But that pool party invite shone in my pocket, and with it all the promise of...something.
What is it? What's the heroin, the MSG, the irresistible thing at the heart of popularity? If I've thrown my purest self away all these years chasing after it, what's its glamour? All these unconscious things work better when they're allowed to keep sneaking around in the dark, and if I do have some kind of essential self I've smothered in its name, I want to meet as much of her as I can before I die. So I want to know what I was getting out of this pursuit. I want shine a flashlight on this god I was—had been—am still?—oh, shit—worshipping. Because let's face it, I'm probably not done unwinding this. It's too potent.
What's the payoff? What's the high? What was worth selling myself out for?
Looking back at the places and times where I knew I was in possession—at the parties and in the living rooms, at the kegs at the beach, getting the nod at the music shows and in the hallways, huddled by the lockers and gossiping at the sleepovers—I remember a feeling of plushness, of luxury. I felt like I was consuming luxury goods, or that I myself had become luxury goods. Pre-drinking (so before the age of thirteen) the feeling of popularity was bright and vibrating, flashing back and forth between security and fear, since this was all new and I couldn't trust it. But drinking soon became part of it, and then other substances, so it gets harder to separate what it felt like to be popular from what it felt like to be drunk or high, that lush, muffled hedonism.
I think the fundamental pleasure was a pleasure of covering up. There's a certain pleasure in being exposed, of becoming more naked, but then there's the pleasure of blankets, of armor. It's a relief and relaxation that comes from knowing you're protected. And then there's a sort of group white noise that protects you from your own quiet, your own depths. It's comforting, like going to sleep with the television on.
For my thirteenth birthday, my Great-Uncle Harry gave me a handwritten note on yellow legal paper. (I found it a few months ago, after all these years, but it's gone missing again. I'm frustrated because I wanted to quote it here. House! Stop eating my things!)
I have to tell you a little bit about Harry. He was my grandmother Dora's younger brother, and though Granny scared me plenty, Harry scared me more. He had tan, leathery skin, a hawk nose, a wild white shock of hair that came nearly to his shoulders, the thickest and ugliest Dutch accent you could ever unscramble, and he smelled constantly of tea tree oil. I could not deal. Well, I could have dealt if he'd been a sweet old uncle, but Harry, like Dora, was gruff stuff. He was a chiropractor (name drop coming, sorry, but it's too weird and good—he was Martin Sheen's chiropractor!) and he practiced homeopathy, and most unnervingly of all, he was clairvoyant, like Granny. And he had no time for whatever he deemed bullshit. Like, for example, all of music except for Beethoven. And thirteen-year-old girls who didn't care about their inner lives at all, but only cared about being popular. Also on his bullshit list.
Harry and his wife Mari were staying with us right around my birthday. One afternoon, my brother and Uncle Harry and I were sitting around the dining room table, and the conversation turned to chakras. Harry was talking to us about the crown chakra, the one that hovers a few inches over the top of the head. He was saying that this is the chakra that connects us to the greater whole, to the universe/Divine and to the rest of humanity. If this one is open, your spiritual development is pretty well under way, and if it's not...well, it's not. And then he walked behind my chair and held his hand a few inches over my head, testing, and then grunted and walked back to his chair and sat down. He didn't look too impressed.
I burned with the dismissal. I felt self-conscious about the sparkly pink lipstick I was wearing, and how shallow he must have thought I was to be wearing it. I was only partially human, it felt like, something for the reject pile. "This one's no good. Toss it."
When my birthday came, he gave me that note. Now we're fucked because I can't find it, but it was written out like a small poem, and the gist was that if you only pay attention to externals, and miss listening to your internal voice, your internal music, you're lost.
I didn't like my present at all.
What makes a person become popular? Good looks will take you pretty far, but they won't take you all the way if some other things aren't in place. But there's a baseline of reasonable physical attractiveness, some minimum that has to be met to get in the door. And then there seems to be something like a personal Teflon coating that's another prerequisite, a kind of shell off of which things can roll. You can't be too obviously vulnerable. And if you're the reactive type, you better default to something like belligerence. If your Teflon coating cracks, you need to be able to repel attacks/insults/tests. If you're not sufficiently invulnerable, you have to be able to intimidate.
You also have to be able to monitor and minimize your faux-pas, which means you need to be attuned to social rules. And you may need to roll with some kind of necessary blandness, keep something like negative space available so people can project cool stories/acceptable roles on to you without the interruption of too much contradictory quirk. The presence of a few markers—good looks, a kind of toughness, maybe some humor, the right clothes—and the absence of particular problems (too much vulnerability or the wrong idiosyncrasies/physical flaws/pants) and then a shape starts to show.
When you've presented the right dots to be connected—without showing your wrong dots—then people can take over and finish out the sketch of you so that it's a success. You're not complete, see, until you've been rubber-stamped. (God forbid you imagine you were born complete, or that you've remained somehow independently complete. Bzzt!) Some kind folks who have their self-presentation all worked out might throw you some advice so you can get ship-shape quicker. And once you've got the hang of it and the invitations start rolling in, keeping up your presentation is addictive, like messing around with Instagram filters. You don't have to accept yourself exactly as you are, or present yourself exactly as you are. Work those dials.
My friend Kris, who'd been my closest pre-popularity friend in junior high, whom I dumped for the popular kids after an arm-punching incident (I got mad about something and punched her as hard as I could in the arm, she laughed and said I punched like a kitten, and boom. Didn't talk to her for three years), was into something called Rugged Individualism. I was like, what even is that? That's not a thing you can be! That's not on the menu! But she didn't see it like that, and a Rugged Individualist she was. I remember one day during freshman year when she wore jeans and a denim shirt, both of which were embroidered all up and down with bees and ladybugs and sunflowers and god knows what, all of which was so far outside the current pale that I could barely believe my eyes. On the outside I scoffed, but I secretly admired her balls. You had to be rugged as fuck to rock ladybugs on your clothes in high school. I totally punched like a kitten in that regard.
Once, in college, a friend from high school visited me for a weekend. This was during my junior year, when I'd dropped out of my sorority because I'd decided it was cooler not to be in one. I wore black all the time and had taken up smoking, and I fancied myself a cool, alternative type. I had a cool, alternative boyfriend who was in a band and everything. I had it going on, I thought. And my friend, who was going to a state school and getting a communications degree, was still wearing all pink like she did in high school, and she was bright and sunny and ditzy like she was (and was popular for) in high school, and I thought that was all wrong. I was embarrassed by her. This wasn't what to do now. You had to be darker now, and different, to be cool. I couldn't wait for her to leave. Oh, I was growing up so well. Boy, did I adapt.
Curate yourself long enough and intensely enough and you not only won't know how to stop, but you eventually won't even know you're doing it any more. When I was 31, back when I was an actor, I signed up for a nine-month-long acting intensive at a studio here in Seattle. This was a Meisner class, and any theatre folks reading this will know right away what that signifies. Sanford Meisner was a legendary acting teacher whose technique was based on wringing emotional truth out of you come hell or high water, and my teacher, Robin Lynn Smith, was Seattle's finest conduit for the technique.
The class was grueling and golden and revelatory. I only lasted three months.
During the first stretch of this Meisner training, we did a lot of what they call repetition exercises, where you sit across from a partner and, using only the simplest observations of each other (and the repetitions of those observations) as dialogue, you take in what you see across from you, call it out as truthfully as you can, and then react to each other from the gut. It sounds simple, and it should be, but it isn't. It's as loaded and complicated as the conditioning you walk in the door with, which in my case was way more loaded and complicated than I had any idea.
I'd be in a repetition with my partner in front of the class, and I'd think I was just being straightforward, and Robin would yell, "Stop it! Tina, stop that!" I'd get confused and flustered, and keep going, not knowing what to stop, and Robin would yell, "Tina! Stop being nice!" And I was like STOP YELLING AT ME I'M NOT BEING NICE I CAN'T FEEL THAT I DON'T KNOW WHAT YOU'RE TALKING ABOUT I'M JUST BEING ME.
I was trapped inside something and I couldn't even see it. I'd built an expedient container for myself, one that brought me friends and didn't make trouble, and I couldn't figure out where it was, much less how to get out. The repetition exercises were fraught and usually ended up getting heated, too, like you were constantly having fights with your closest friends. The more honest I was, the scarier and more exhausting it got.
One rainy afternoon at my house, I was doing repetition with my partner, a handsome, gentle, slightly awkward athlete named Tim, and the exercise took an unexpected turn. I can't for the life of me tell you exactly what we were observing in each other, but the risks we took in expressing what we saw landed us—just for that afternoon, and totally innocently—in love. Not lust, but love, a romantic love, something pure and courtly. Tons of clothing came off, it felt like, but no fabric. It was shocking and a little nerve-wracking to get my guarded social being out of the way and allow it to happen, but damned if it didn't show the payoff for revealing myself. I'd never passed an hour like it.
After I dropped out of the class, I got a little homemade card in the mail from Tim, an index card that he'd collaged on one side with triangles of silver foil art paper. He said he understood why I was dropping out, even if he was disappointed, and that he wouldn't forget the hour we'd spent in my house, that he felt that what we'd shared there had been real. I loved the card, and I agreed. In a lifetime of posturing and hiding and positioning, that clear, pure hour rang out, something to keep as a talisman and a possibility.
On the way to Joanna's pool party, riding in the back of my mom's car, my friend Tanya and I gasped and giggled and talked in code about who was going to be there, and what music we were going to hear, which cool songs, and we loved that my mom wouldn't be able to figure out what we were talking about. Why should she? She was a mom, not a person. Only our people needed to know.
When we got to Joanna's, everyone was there, as promised. The boys threw themselves sideways into the pool over and over, the girls stood around the pool and watched the boys, Joanna's parents wandered around making distracted chit-chat and keeping an eye out, and nothing interesting happened. Not one thing. No good conversation, nothing. The most super-popular people were all smiling and laughing and seemed to be having fun, but all my excitement evaporated, replaced by surprising dispassion. I was bored, which amazed me. I didn't actually like a lot of these people. I didn't resonate with them. We weren't really anything to each other. I'd had more fun at Kris's house the year before, listening to Black Sabbath and making prank phone calls. The only thing this party had going for it was brand-name personnel, the A-list, which was what I wanted, which was nothing. But the herd was here, the comfort of the herd. I didn't need to like each of them, did I? I didn't want to stop wanting what I wanted, this popularity, but it didn't have anything in it, not in and of itself.
I enjoyed this observation about as much as I enjoyed Uncle Harry's birthday note, and ignored it just as hard.
When I did find Harry's note a few months ago, I felt a pang—not of insult this time, but something else.
I read it over, and I got it. It wasn't that he didn't like me, or that he thought I was bullshit. He was worried about me. He wanted me to participate in actual life, the real thing, as myself, and not a facsimile. I got it in an instant. I misjudged him (even that fucking tea tree oil, which stinks, but is terrifically antiseptic). He didn't want me going through life juggling two versions of myself, the ideal one for public consumption and the worst one, to be frantically hidden away. He just wanted me to know myself, and steer by something real.