“They can kick dirt in your face
Dress you down and tell you that your place is in the middle
When they hate the way you shine …”
Omg, Brandi Carlile. You cracked my heart wide open listening to those lines in your song, The Joke, which I played repeatedly my entire hourlong morning commute the other day. And many more times before and since.
I’d venture to say many of us have been bullied one time or another, in direct and/or subtle ways. And I realize I totally gravitate to artists, songs, albums and movies that celebrate the inspirational stories of people staying true to themselves. Even – or maybe especially – when the world or people in their lives are trying to keep them down.
Brandi goes on to sing …
“Let them laugh while they can
Let them spin
Let them scatter in the wind
I have been to the movies
I’ve seen how it ends
And the joke’s on them …”
From Freddy Mercury and Queen, to Michael Stipe and REM, other artists I love sing about similar themes. “I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face but I’ve come through,” sings Freddy, whose character in the movie Bohemian Rhapsody explains that Queen was a band of outcasts playing for other outcasts. The lyric is, of course, from the band’s famous anthem, We Are the Champions. And the band also famously went against the ‘studio suit’s’ advice not to release the song “Bohemian Rhapsody,” which, of course, propelled them to world-wide fame and decades of fan adoration.
Michael Stipe tells listeners on REM’s final album, Accelerate (song “Supernatural Superserious”), that “Everybody here comes from somewhere that they would just as soon forget or disguise.” He goes on to assure us “Nobody remembers and nobody cares” about our “humiliation of the teenage station” and advises the listener to “enjoy your life with no regrets.”
And Sheryl Crow – my favorite female singer songwriter – devotes most of her new album, Be Myself, to the theme of, well, being herself. Being of similar age and generation, I relate to most things she says as a 50-something year-old baby boomer. And I’ve heard her say and sing how she’s never felt more comfortable in her own skin, her own style. Implying, of course, that this wasn’t always the case. In the title track of the album, she sings the chorus: “If I can’t be someone else, I might as well be myself.” The only part I can’t quite relate to is how Sheryl Crow – in my mind, one of the coolest, most gorgeous, talented rock ‘n rollers – would want to be someone else! But I guess it shows how universal that theme can be.
I never considered myself anything close to cool. And I’ve never really aspired to be ‘cool’ as it’s always implied to me things like being snobby, feeling superior, non-inclusive and, by definition, the opposite of ‘warm’.
But I did try really hard to be accepted throughout my childhood and young adulthood. Even if it meant submerging my true self.
A ridiculous memory I have from maybe third or fourth grade is when one of the cool, bullying type kids in the neighborhood asked me what size grape juice can I preferred to bring to school. When I said small, she said medium and I tried to backtrack to match her answer.
The irony is that even as I wanted so desperately to fit in, I also wanted to stand out in some way. But as a kid and teenager, I definitely felt stuck in Brandi Carlile’s ‘middle’. I used to lament that I was medium height, medium weight, brown hair, brown eyes, middle of the ‘size-order’ class line, with good but not incredible grades. In a few extracurricular activities but never the shining star. Not very popular or quite fitting into any of the school’s ‘cliques.’ Picked on in junior high and pretty insecure a lot of the time.
Mostly, I didn’t feel particularly special.
Many years later, I could relate to the ‘middle’ feeling in the corporate world. Even as my own confidence and skill set has grown, it hurt that others at higher rungs on the ladder didn’t always value what I had to give or who I was. Tried to change me even. That was probably the heart of the pain and connection I felt listening to Brandi’s song.
The main difference between my childhood, young adulthood and now, though, is I totally embrace my geeky self. And I’ve basically changed my definition of ‘cool’: I think the coolest thing anyone can be is themselves. I wish I had realized that as a kid! Because looking back, the ‘coolest’ kids were the ones who were just who they were – nerdy, brainy, creative, different or otherwise.
As I stated at the start of this blog, I think the most inspirational movie themes are also built around people struggling, against all odds and opposition, to do and be what they’re meant to do and be. Like when the Vince Papale character in the movie Invincible makes it to the NFL and finally rips up the goodbye note his ex-wife wrote saying he’d never amount to anything. Or the two movies I just saw: Blinded by the Light and The Art of Racing in the Rain. Two very different movies but I saw the similar theme of protagonists risking family, financial stability, really everything, to follow their dreams.
Today, I’m just truly grateful I’ve come to accept and respect my older adult self – an enthusiastic, otter-loving, easily amused/easily confused, goofy kid at heart who still gets excited buying a new pair of sneakers, riding my bicycle around town, cuddling with my cats or singing around the house. Still maybe ‘nice’ to a fault, but asserting myself a little more now and then, as warranted. And comfortable enough to be who I am and do what I love, no apologies, no regrets. I’m even more grateful to have friends, family and coworkers who seem to respect and love me for exactly who I am. It doesn’t get any better than that for me!
(By the way, if you think I was exaggerating about my ‘uncool’ self-assessment, I’ll share Jamie’s favorite story of mine. I was about 19 or 20 years old, going to college, and working at a summer job my dad got me as a receptionist at – wait for it – a company called “All Metal Screw Products.” I was, for some reason, commuting with a salesman in his mid-20s who thought he was pretty cool. Trying to make conversation in the car to break the awkward silence, he asked, “So what’s your favorite watering hole?” And I answered, after a slight, perplexed pause, “TOBAY, I guess?” TOBAY stands for Town of Oyster Bay and is shorthand for a local Long Island beach. He, however, was talking about a bar. Embarrassing moment, for sure, but kind of typical for me! And a great laugh years later.