The Evany Thomas Column

Installment 6: All Life’s A Stage, or: Rock of Stages? Staging Gracefully? (h2so4 17)

I was riding BART recently when the entire train suddenly flooded with junior high schoolers, let loose on the city, I guess, for some sort of field trip. After just a few seconds of watching them jump and scream and shove, I spotted the alphas of the group. The green-eyed, curly blonde girl in the tight-tight jeans with the sidewalk-sanded hem clearly was born at the top, and the beautiful boy swinging, lazy and bored, from the hand rail was without a doubt a major deity. Even if the leaders weren’t already obvious on looks alone, they would have been easily identified by their entourages. The way everyone around them jockeyed for closer position, always with their eyes on the prize.... it was like one of those master paintings where all sight lines point to the glowing baby Jesus. My gaze just naturally slid to the lucky few.

Of course the lepers were just as easy to find. The bed-head girl with the violin case and lips dyed blue from a pen explosion was a complete untouchable, as was the extremely short, hyperactive boy with the bowl cut. Then there were the usual satellites, the horse girl, the sexually ambivalent turtleneck drama guy—each too focused on his or her respective obsession, with its own unique social hierarchy, to care much about what was going on with the mainstreams.

And what was going on? The general populace, sandwiched between the extremes of losers and leaders, was far more difficult to sort, mostly because everyone looked pretty much identical. The girls were all tight pants and cellphones and sparkly makeup, the boys were just a sea of knee-hugging circus pants and untied sneakers (this look, which just refuses to die, always reminds me of the way prisoners are dressed, so they’re too busy holding up their pants and slipping out of their shoes to escape). Fawning entourages aside, everyone pretty much ignored the alphas, focused as they were on their fellow inmates in the middle stratum.

They didn’t look directly at each other, rather they sneaked peeks out of the corners of their eyes like people checking their reflections in shop windows. And as they watched each other, they made subtle adjustments to their mannerisms and clothing, eliminating all possible evidence of difference and straining with every particle to blend in with the herd.

This painful, cusp-y pubescent age tends to be described as “self-conscious,” but it’s really a kind of “collective consciousness”: pure outward focus coupled with absolute suppression of self—a freakish sort of group fascism. And the borders of this era seem fairly distinct, not really bleeding into the preceding grade school years or the following epoch of high school, each of which have their own distinct sense of self.

The period leading up to junior high was really “unconscious,” a happy blackout sprinkled with a few shining fragments of memory. ...I suspended an avocado pit in a glass of water with toothpicks and it started to grow!… At that age I remember doing mostly what I pleased with little worry about what other people thought. I wore my same Holly Hobby dress-up dress two photo days running. I got really into crocheting, tried to learn how to read lips, played “bank” in my closet. And in those days, my friendships were based on little more than an agreement: Let’s be friends! OK!

Then all that innocence was dropped right into the grinding jaws of junior high school. What followed was a understandable period of indignant confusion—What do you mean we’re not friends anymore? What do you mean you voted me out?—which met with repeated punishment and ostracism. And before long, that beaten-dog wariness I saw on BART set in.

High school was better. I mean, it was bad. Really bad. But it wasn’t the shitstorm of junior high. The football-crazed underworld of the movies was nowhere to be found at my high school. We only had four cheerleaders, not even enough for a pyramid. And I don’t think I recall ever seeing a football player. Yes, we worried about how we fit in—who was going, or actively not going, with whom to the prom was actually important (incredibly so, in hindsight). Yet there was a faint optimism there, a light at the end of the tunnel that eased things, if only a little.... That light was graduation. Its promised freedom, which I just couldn’t fathom back in the depths of junior high, made all the difference. But this waiting for it all to be over gave those years a kind of “semiconscious” holding-pattern feel, what with all the endless hours spent watching the loud clock tick its way to three, hanging around liquor stores looking for someone to buy beer, and driving-driving- driving around.

It turns out that college did offer a kind of respite from the boredom of high school and the strict social structure of junior high, but it came with a strange sort of “hyperconsciousness.” I looked at the world from my new, miles-from-home vantage point and discovered that it is riddled with injustice! Convinced that no one else had noticed this, I made the bold decision to get the word out, especially because the solutions to these problems were just so obvious! I went to marches, attended vigils, spent Thanksgiving dinners informing my various parents about the evils of stereotyping and racism. In those days, everyone’s day-to-day life was politicized with a series of small stands: Boyfriends and girlfriends were introduced defiantly as “lovers,” bumper stickers stuck all over cars, coffee chains boycotted.

It took years to recuperate from the extreme vigilance of college. After that graduation, the many overwhelming horrors of the world seemed to recede as a series of jobs, cities, and mating attempts moved to the foreground. That truly was a period of “self- consciousness,” where with extreme vigilance I watched and analyzed everything I did. I would notice trends (Every boy I date has a monosyllabic name!) and try to find meaning in those trends (because I like to keep things simple? because I date men with parents who like to keep things simple? because pattern breeds pattern and I’m comfortable with monosyllabs after so much experience dating them?). Such close self-scrutiny often leads to the discovery of flaws, which prompts flurries of self-improvement: therapy, the gym, grad school, elimination of coffee.

At times my life has seemed like one continuous flounder. But, like the first row of cherries dropping into place on a slot machine, I’ve noticed that at least a few things are settling into a groove. I used to spend hours sniffing bottles in the shampoo aisle, looking for the perfect new panacea for dry, thick, color-treated hair, but I’ve finally settled on one that I buy again and again, without debate. It is My Shampoo. I have A Drink, too. And My Aesthetic has cemented to the point where people can say, That is so Evany! and other people know what they mean.

With patterns established, some patterns at least, I’ve noticed I’ve started to look outside myself again. It’s something, I’m convinced, about when I turned twenty-nine. That was my Magic Birthday, the year I was finally the age of my mother when she had me. And for possibly the first time, I thought of what that would have felt like, me, doing the things that my mother did. And it seemed so impossible, so Herculean, the things she did. Stepping into my mother’s (comfortable, low-heeled) shoes made me feel all kinds of empathy for my parents—both for who they must have been and who they are now. This empathy has spread beyond my parents. I’ve noticed that I’m generally a lot more tolerant these days. But perhaps aging innately brings sympathy. I’ve made so many mistakes on my own, it’s difficult to continue faulting other people for making similar ones.

This sort of “world consciousness” has the exact opposite effect of junior high’s collective consciousness: Rather than try to blend in with the fauna around me, I stick out. The ability to imagine the world viewed through others’ eyes has let me realize that other people are usually far too busy worrying about their own problems to pay much attention to my shortcomings. And in a weird way, this has freed me to stop worrying so much about what people think. I still cringe when I say something idiotic (Volcanoes? In Goma?) or fall in public (which I do all the time, despite my thick, sturdy ankles—irony loves opportunity!), but just not to the same extent. And mostly I do what I want and say what I want. It’s very nice feeling, a real shake-out-your-hair-and-smile-at-the-camera time. It’s also confusing: being able to do what I want means deciding what that want is. Stay in school? Settle down with marriage and babies? Find satisfaction in a career? Join the knitting movement?

Now I’m in the middle of this “stage,” so my ideas about what happens next are a little cloudy. But from what I’ve seen, it looks like what’s on deck is another slightly dormant period—which, after the turmoil of this phase, I’m going to need. One way or another, I’ll figure out what I want (or at the very least, I’ll remain undecided, which is its own kind of decision, really) and for a time I’ll just follow the path that decision sends me down. And if the path dead ends in a cul-de-sac, then I’ll just chute back to the self-conscious phase for a spell until I therapize or extension class my way into a new direction, over and over until I get it right. I guess!

And when eventually, hopefully, I luck onto a path that leads to some activity that I find passionately interesting, I’ll enter a new era. From what I’ve observed, in this next era, my world-empathy will recede a bit. I simply will not be able to imagine a person who wouldn’t be equally as interested in this, my passionate interest (crocheting, lip reading, playing bank?). And I’ll have gotten so good at not caring what people think, I’ll wear my same favorite dress for all the big photo ops.

But in the meantime, I’ll continue fumbling around for my calling, looking to cringing, BART-riding twelve-year-olds for insight. END

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