Tuesday, October 24, 2017

High School circa 1995

Snow White and the Bad Yearbook Photo

I stood in front of mirrors, like my home bathroom mirror with a chip in one corner. In between classes I would duck in and examine my appearance in the mirrors in my high school bathroom. There was no “mirror, mirror” business though. If I wanted to sound poetic and slightly emo, I might call those mirrors a coffin of glass. I saw a boy trapped in by the expectation that he be perfect in every way; perfect for mom and dad who had done so much for him; perfect for God who had sacrificed his only Son for him; perfect for his teachers; perfect for the girls at his lunch table. Perfect for the bite of the poison apple; the perfect poisonous comb, the perfectly strangulating lace and bobbin, the perfect... perfect... perfect.

At sixteen it was a lot of pressure, but I liked what mirrors had to say to me, by and large. If I saw something I didn’t like, I did something about it: a little dab of cover-up to mask a zit, maybe the swipe of eyeliner pencil to even out a sideburn. Designer shirt tucked in just so. I was probably a textbook metro-sexual, though in 1995 that word did not exist. I could have easily blended in with the cast of Friends. I aspired towards Happy Chandler’s hair, Dopey Joey’s physique, and I’d pit my GPA against Doc Ross Geller’s any day. We would all peg our pant legs sipping cappuccinos, quipping back and forth while Hootie and the Blowfish whistled softly in the background. I was working hard to look good, but no one seemed to appreciate my Z Cavariccis or Skids. I was a fashion zombie, at once both hyperly aware, yet all too unaware of myself.  

Then my sophomore high school yearbook picture came out. In it, my eyes were closed, my mouth was wide open as if in a yawn, and gasp! my hair was utterly disheveled. It was, in my opinion, the worst possible yearbook photo of all time, and the beacon of absolute social ruin. I had taken so much care in my day-to-day grooming habits but the photo that would commemorate my efforts looked like I had just rolled out of bed. How, I wondered, could life be so cruel?

Then a strange thing happened. The terrible photo seemed to win the attention of a girl I had been crushing on. She literally told me “Nice yearbook picture,” as we passed in the hallway. Was she flirting with me over the worst event of my social life? This girl wore ripped jeans, concert t-shirts, and sparkly everything. She was dark-haired and strikingly beautiful. She seemed to like my awful picture. I thought, “Maybe I should stop trying so hard to look perfect, especially if it causes girls like this to pay attention to me?” I knew I needed to do something else to get this girl’s attention. I noted the concert t-shirts. This girl liked music. My father’s opinion of modern music was that it caused people to do many, many goofy things.

Oh, dad. Just you wait.   

Bands, Bleach, and Bacne

The previous summer I had saved up lawn mowing money for a five disc CD player. I went with a Sony. I still have it. Anyway, the device held five discs. I had none. So, along with the CD player I bought Pearl Jam’s Ten, mostly just to see what all the fuss was about. The sound didn’t blow my mind. Some of the songs did. Especially the narrative “Jeremy” - a song about Jeremy Wade Delle, a 16 year old boy who shot himself in front of his schoolmates. On some level I knew the band was trying to reach out to kids who felt like nothing, and the song was a condemnation of violence and self-harm. As a kid with some self-loathing issues I could appreciate that message. It was music the likes of which I had never experienced. I was used to Weird Al singing about mashed potatoes. Or Hootie trying to convince a girl that he only wanted to be with her. Pearl Jam was, to borrow a word from the modern parlance of hip, edgy. 

Edgy, I decided, was good.

All of the guys from Pearl Jam dressed like slobs. Or, as my father would have pointed out, “goddamned hillbillies.” They had long hair and wore flannel shirts and ripped jeans.There was already a contingency of extreme grunge kids in our school who wore long, thermal underwear to cover their bacne and, as a rule, didn’t shower. This last fact earned them the nickname The Grubbies. I didn’t want to be a Grubby; I was pretty sure the smell Kurt Cobain was talking about in “Smells Like Teen Spirit” wasn’t B.O. However, here’s what I did know about Nirvana’s monster hit: I knew I would wait until top 10 at 10 to record it onto neon pink Maxell cassette so I could listen to it again and again on my tape Walkman. The CD could wait. I needed this music now. I knew it was a song about being a teenager. I knew it was directed at me. I knew the lyrics made very little sense. The sound, though, was something I’d never really heard before. The whole song vibed a “don’t care” attitude. It sounded like it was just thrown together. Lines literally expressed an “oh well, whatever, nevermind” philosophy. It said, forget perfect, forget manicured, forget the comb, man. At the time, it was the message I really needed.

The song “Come as you Are” started getting radio play and it spoke directly to me. The only problem was I didn’t know who I was. I was living to satisfy everyone’s expectations, so the perfectly manicured boy in the mirror started to fade. There was nothing casual or cool about him so he had to go. I started growing out my hair and I bought a Pearl Jam shirt that said “9 out of 10 kids prefer crayons to guns.” I decided to start dressing like I just finished cleaning out the garage: nothing tucked in, no pegged pant-legs, no perfect hair. It was around this time that I decided I needed a pair of black Converse All-Stars; I decided I’d come like Kurt Cobain, bleach and all.

Undiluted Clorox Bleach will blister the human scalp when applied directly to the roots. Furthermore, the stuff really irritates the skin if you were to, say, dip your patchy, pubescent, miserable excuse for a goatee into a Dixie cup of the stuff. Bleach causes large, red boils to erupt on the skin. How do I know this? Guess.

While experimenting with the stuff in my parent’s basement I accidentally got some on my black Cons. To my horror the bleach ate away the color completely. Soon I realized I had made a miraculous discovery. Bleach, when applied directly to the scalp does not make one’s hair as cool as Kurt Cobain’s. Bleach, when applied in random patterns, achieved by running one’s thumb over the bristles of a toothbrush soaked with the stuff, creates Converse that are BETTER than Kurt Cobain’s. I was still acting like a consumer, expressing myself with products, but I had added a creative element that was intoxicating, and I don’t just mean Clorox fumes. I was learning how to express myself. This revelation would come to evolve into what was at first a foray, but what would soon become a life-long incursion into the arts. It seems that what at first was simply goofy became a way of living a fuller life. 

It's a shame that so many of the grunge artists I admired chose death. I don't need to list them. Their names are engraved in the hearts of those that lived in that era, and their music helped me, and countless other children of the 90s dislodge the stick that had been planted firmly up our collective behinds by the expectations of Reagan’s America. It felt good to look like a loser but act like a winner. I was somehow proving society wrong, and it gave me the first real shred of power I had ever wielded, and I used that power to cut out a swath where I could make a stand as an individual. To this day I am grateful to the grunge bands that defined the 90s, bleach, and, I suppose, that bad yearbook photo. 

I did, after all, marry that dark-haired girl in the concert t-shirt. And we lived, happily ever after.

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