Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Reasonable Cost of Being Authentic

Big surprise - I don't care for bridal or baby showers. In addition to the dopey games and the general awkwardness of daylight gatherings with strangers, I find the public unwrapping of presents very strange. I remember kvetching about this to my friend R. "Wouldn't it be better if we all just gave each other cash and skipped that part? The last way I wanna spend a weekend afternoon is watching someone else tear into a bunch of kitchenware they'll never use or clothes their kid will outgrow in a week. That isn't my idea of fun."

"Yeah," she agreed. "But you gotta play the part, right? I mean, you just have to sit there, ooh-ing and aah-ing over the gifts."

My sense of indignation flared and I replied, "No, I don't. I'll just stare off into space and think about something else."

R gave me a funny look. And since she's older and teaches psychology, I take her funny looks to heart. She never revealed what that facial expression meant, but I arrived at this conclusion a couple days later - when it comes to showers, I can either play the part of an excited, envious girlfriend and bitch about it after the fact, or I can zone out in the back of the room and not whine about having to be there. But I can't have it both ways. That's double-dipping.

I've come to a similar conclusion about being a social creature in Chattanooga. My kind is quite weird in this town, where sarcastic, introverted, over-thinking, lefty, atheist, hippie chicks with midwestern accents are rare. I certainly don't wish to live in a place where everyone is just like me because that would be creepy and boring. And it isn't as if all the other people in Chattanooga are exactly like each other. I'm grateful for that human variety because people-watching will never be dull. But it is hard to find others with whom I can relate and sometimes my loneliness sours.

That's when I begin resenting all the places where I don't fit in, which is just about everywhere. I notice it most when I'm out to eat - ugh, like that meal at the new farm-to-table cafe, where the hipster servers try too hard at looking cool and not enough at doing their jobs well. "Yes, my lunch was scrumptious, but that guy with the handlebar mustache who took twenty minutes to brew my coffee? And the smug, yuppie clientele? Ick, I may never go back." Then I remember my last birthday brunch, at the all-you-can-eat fried chicken place on the edge of town. I'd waited months for that down home feast. At the end of my meal, the polite, standoffish, middle aged waitress asked me where I'm from. "Just a couple miles down the road," I said, but her quizzical face told me exactly what she was thinking - "No, where are you really from?" 

Okay, the scene isn't usually that alienating, but I do so often feel self conscious about my clothing and manner when I'm out in society. I figure that's apt to remain the case so long as I choose to be myself. And since I'm stubborn and lazy and don't want to style my hair or go to church, I've learned to accept that and expect nothing more. That's the cost of being myself in this mostly conservative Bible Belt city. When I start to feel lonely or uncomfortable, I stave off grumpiness by appreciating my loner superpowers - the ability to roam solo in a social setting, the capacity to amuse myself without attention from others. And though I'm shy, I can engage in surface-level, polite banter. The locals may not be friendly enough to overcome my deep reserve (and I know that's all on me), but they are almost unfailingly civil. I could certainly do far worse in the many other parts of this country where I don't click.

In the early 1990s, I was part of a rapidly shrinking white student population at a largely Arab/Muslim high school. I was also a morbid, pale, extremely serious alternachick, so there was no chance of my being normal there. Getting used to being a freak took a couple years, but overall it was an invaluable experience. Being forced to spend long hours with very different people made me more tolerant, compassionate and open-minded. Those lessons probably outstripped the whole of my sub-par public education. In fact, racial and class integration is one of my top concerns as I explore my daughter's education options; I've felt very strongly about this since long before I became a mom. So it's funny that I wound up in this place where I find myself so weird again. Again, learning to feel secure in my freakiness is an everyday challenge, but I feel like this experience may be just as good for me in the long run. 

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