Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Growing Up and Coming Out

In high school, social outcasts and anyone outside the popular crowd was comforted by the promise that 'college would be different.' "You will meet life-long friends and people who are passionate about the same things you are," we were told by parents and school counselors. Overall, my college experience was good and I met some extraordinary people, but my social anxiety didn't exactly disappear.

The popular kids who got into Cal rarely strayed from frat row and weren't considered cool by many on campus so I wasn't bothered by them. But between high school and college, cool had been replaced by a new ideal, 'chill.' Whereas a cool person followed the trends, a chill person devised his/her own style. Chill people were passionate about social issues and attended a demonstration now and then, but never let their ideals get in the way of binge drinking at parties. The most important part of being chill is being easy going, able to take a joke without getting offended and tolerant of a messy room. Yes, I had missed the boat again. When/where would obsessive and Type A become the desired traits?

In Teach for America (TFA) as it turns out, but during those two years I was too tired to worry about cool. For the first time in my life I was terrible at my job and TFA constantly asked me to reflect on this fact to improve my practice. Eventually, I became a slightly better teacher and a much better self critic. Like everyone else, I have strengths and weaknesses and I could finally identify what these were. Pinpointing my uncool and inconvenient quirks was incredibly liberating because I realized I could either try to improve or accept myself as I am.

Some argue that changing oneself is impossible and that even trying is foolish. In some cases, this is true, but I believe that having an open mind can go a long way. For instance, my friend Natalie always felt limited by her shyness and decided to do something about it. She did some research and attended a class to help her approach social situations differently. Now, Natalie will never be the life of the party, but she has a few strategies that help her feel more comfortable in a group. I admire Nat tremendously not because she conquered shyness, but because she had the courage to try.

On the other hand, there are things about ourselves that neither therapy nor plastic surgery can fix that we simply must accept. And just as improving oneself requires a lot of courage, accepting oneself demands complete honesty and the confidence that true friends will appreciate 'the real you.' For example, my friend Alyssa is a master of what Dave Chapelle would call 'keepin' it real.' She is true to herself even when it's inconvenient and this is one of the things her friends like best about her. Alyssa likes getting enough rest and makes no secret of her preference for sleep over other less worthy night-time activities. 'Hey, Alyssa, want to go to a party on Friday night?' 'Maybe I'll stay up for that,' I imagine her saying.

I also think Alyssa's dislike for outdoorsy activities like hiking is totally hilarious. Nerds like me imagine that being athletic and outdoorsy is an integral part of being cool and likable. Doesn't every internet dating profile in the world make reference to a love for the beach or rock climbing? I feel like admitting you don't care for the outdoors is akin to confessing that you've not only watched a whole episode of MTV's My Super Sweet Sixteen, but you actually Tivo it. But Alyssa is not ashamed of her preference for reading the Times over windsurfing and I think that's... well, cool.

Alyssa has inspired me to keep it real too and I've decided to come out of the closet. I'm... a dog hater and I always have been. I've been in hiding for so long because hating dogs is more uncool than being a member of the SCA and more inconvenient than having a wheat allergy. I would even go as far as saying that being a dog hater is likened with being evil in popular culture. Imagine Adam Sandler and a canine sidekick as the heroes; of course, a dog hating ex-girlfriend or wicked mother-in-law are bound to be the villains. Dog haters are people too!

It amuses me that people ask if I'm afraid of or allergic to dogs upon first learning that I loathe them. Truthfully, I do have terrible allergies to pet dander and a mild fear of dogs, but there are so many other reasons to dislike dogs:
1. They sniff crotches.
2. Dogs are dirty.
3. They bark.
4. If you own one, you must clean up its crap and no one should even consider doing this for a creature that isn't your own flesh and blood.
5. Sometimes dogs need medical treatments that cost more than a new outfit. Wouldn't it be more fun to go shopping and just let Old Yeller be on his way? All Dogs Go to Heaven, right?

Before I completely alienate my dog-loving readers I must get to the point. Again, disliking dogs is inconvenient especially when you're a kid. I remember trying to act excited when childhood friends oohed and awed about some new puppy to avoid feeling left out. I sniffled and sneezed all night at slumber parties in homes that had pets and just prayed that the animals wouldn't lick my face.

My mom, dad and I formed a secretive, three-person club called Eliminate Dogs Everywhere Now or EDEN for short. (This club does not meet nor do we actively eliminate dogs. It is more of a support group for people who feel like outcasts because they don't enjoy playing fetch with a slobbery stick.) My brother refused to join insisting that when he grew up his family would have a dog and we would have to deal with it. He's now 23 and still doesn't have a dog. Maybe he's come to his senses and realized that dogs are a pain in the neck or maybe he feels like he hasn't grown up yet. Fortunately, I have and I don't need to speak about EDEN in whispers anymore. In fact, I've recruited some new members: Andrew, Jess and most importantly, my future husband. I just hope our children won't resent us all their lives for never allowing them to care for a pet more interesting than a goldfish.

About a month ago, I met up with some bright and interesting fellow expat bloggers at a hip Zurich bar/lounge. I was having a nice conversation with a Cal grad coincidentally when the subject turned to, you guessed it, dogs. I'm new in this town and I was tempted to just smile and nod. Instead, "I can't stand dogs," is what came out of my mouth. I kept it real and announced my uncoolness upfront.

And this is truly what I love best about growing up. Cool matters less and telling the world that you actually sympathize with Cruella DeVille is more fun. If this trend continues for the next several decades, I might just be the happiest curmudgeon in the old folks' home. Let's just hope the gods don't strike me down with blindness and a seeing eye dog first.


Nic said...

FYI, one of the ecological principles that has been hard-wired into my brain in my recent studies is "the introduction of alien species or substances is to be avoided, and if it must be done, it should be with extreme caution and when there are no alternatives." So there you have it, for fear of further damaging the delicate balances of local ecosystems, I will welcome no dogs other than the local coyotes and foxes, who will probably never lick you. AS a matter of fact I was at a friends house the other night and her dog got out of line and I had to give it a smack.

Ms. Beav said...

You nailed it with your definition of "chill." My high school students have assigned tremendous value to this replacement for cool. I can tell that they are very put off by my quirkiness, passionate rants, and random stories because I'm not being "chill." Fortunately, much like you, I'm starting to realize that we give way to much power to people who have a created a word that lets them create walls and thus allow them to hide their true selves in their world of "chill." So I say, rock on my Type A friend, and eliminate those damn dogs!