The Cool List: What You Love at 14 and What You Love at 34
Beginning at age 11, I wrote to my older self and this continued all through high school, letters from me age 14 to me age 30 and so on. It’s always sweet and strange to open these mysterious missives to see who I was. Dreams, psychic attempts, gossip and lists of what was currently cool fill the pages. Though she was a tad melodramatic, I’ve always felt a kinship with my teenage self. In fact I’m convinced a significant part of me still is 14 (maybe 17 when I’m feeling sophisticated). I’m curious about how our tastes develop over time, how they’re born and how they form us. It turns out that many of the interests and discoveries that illuminated my 14-year-old life still illuminate my 34-year-old life.
Growing up out in the woods pre-Internet there was nothing quite like the discovery of music, books, art, or fashion that I loved, hence my proclivity toward the cool lists. With non-traditional, artistic parents there wasn’t much to rebel against. I was encouraged to express myself however I wanted and sometimes made to watch Joseph Campbell videos. I vividly remember ripping holes in my stockings the summer between 8th and 9th grade but I’m not entirely sure where the inspiration came from. I was happily sent home from school once for an outfit deemed too “distracting” (violet slip, green vintage t-shirt, platform sandals) and it was early on that my love for scouring thrift stores, wearing giant jewelry and creating outfits with flourishes such as my dad’s blue coveralls was born. Each new find I made was a message in a bottle from the outside world. They were hints at the place I was one day going to get to and proof that I was compatible with it. Riot Grrrls, Heathers, Dadaism! The clues were everywhere, in episodes of My So-Called Life, in the pages of Sassy, in drives to D.C. for band t-shirts, baby doll dresses, artsy movies, museums and the Indie Rock Flea Market. Something thrilling was occurring in my gathering of these interests, no less than the formation of an identity being built consciously and unconsciously. My current self is beholden to these influences in inextricable, enigmatic ways.
“A while back, if I remember right, my life was one long party where all hearts were open wide, where all wines kept flowing,” Arthur Rimbaud writes in A Season In Hell. In high school this slim golden volume that I only half understood was suggested to me by a cute older boy who not only was in college but went to art school. Rimbaud was a 19-year-old French free-verse poet whose bio includes adjectives like volatile and peripatetic. The whole experience blew my mind on several levels. A boy suggesting a book meant the thoughts therein were ones we’d both looked at and read and therefore shared somehow and I realized for the first time how intimacy could be created through ideas. It was a revelation in the sexiness of words that I’ve never forgotten and it influences everything from my text messages to my short stories to how my thoughts even work. The idea that this type of poetic expression was a life or death thing, a way to live and consider life all at once, meant everything to me.
Then there was The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, discovered by way of my 9th grade fascination with women writers who’d killed themselves. The Bell Jar contains sentiments that both my 14 and 34-year-old self deeply appreciate, such as, “If neurotic is wanting two mutually exclusive things at one and the same time, then I’m neurotic as hell. I’ll be flying back and forth between one mutually exclusive thing and another for the rest of my days.” Though the book is clearly full of despair, lines like that feel freeing too because of the power in Plath’s language that wrestles with despair. The Bell Jar was a reading experience beyond simply relating to the voice and more like having something directly injected into my psyche. In Maggie Nelson’s incredible, paradigm-shifting collection of essays The Art of Cruelty, Plath is addressed in-depth. Nelson says she can’t help but wish we could all read the writing of an older Plath and I agree. It’s profound to consider how our concerns, understandings and preoccupations shift as we age, and it would have been fascinating to see them shift in her. Among many reasons why, she might have given our own shifts more clarity and because the only thing as fascinating as what remains the same in us is what changes.
One significant activity that filled my days as a teenager was zine making. For years I dutifully created Confessions of a Doorknob Queen (I forget the title’s origin, I think I was fascinated by locks) and sold it at local music stores. It contained lyrics from The Cure, poetry obviously, Anne Sexton lines, concert tickets and sketches of boys I had crushes on. Zine-making is still going strong, somewhat undeterred by the ubiquitous power of the screen (or perhaps invigorated by it). There’s also, of course, the overall trend toward the handmade, including book art and bookmaking. My sometimes panicked deleting of Instagram off my phone must be the result of my old school affinity for scotch tape, staples, my manual camera and ripping up all my books and magazines. Nothing makes me feel better than ripping images out of a magazine and taping them on a piece of paper. The tangible and analogue are therapeutic because they remind me of my days spent collaging my bedroom walls and making music videos in the fields. I do appreciate things like Rookie and Sadie, zine-like in spirit even though they’re online, and which my teenage self would’ve totally devoured had the Internet been around. Locally there’s Needles & Pens (my high school and current self’s dream store) who carry zines and other ephemera, and the SF Zine Festival, where if I ever get my act together, I plan to one day unveil my collaborative zine project Future Circa (you know who you are, collaborator) which will make my 14-year-old-self proud.
More than any one band (well, maybe The Pixies) it’s the love of finding music that I share with my young self (though she had a higher tendency to write lyrics on her t-shirts in marker); the act of reading, going to shows, sharing new discoveries and of course, listening. Listening when I’m working, when I’m writing, when I’m walking; music informs and punctuates every activity and always has. I remember sitting in the film center my freshman year of college when Fugazi’s Waiting Room started playing. In my unsettled, homesick state it felt like my familiarity and attachment to that song was a mirror, a vital part of me, a wild perfect remedy of some sort. Science confirms how literally music is tied into our memories and life stories and I’m not surprised. More than one of my early romances hinged on a shared love of certain bands (my knowledge of Jawbox is totally responsible for my first college kiss). With the advent of music blogs and Spotify this musical search has become easier and different of course, but it still contains the spirit of the scavenger hunt and I still love it. I have Spotify to thank for Lust For Youth, Gazelle Twin, and Rhye among a zillion others. My 14-year-old self would have lost her mind over Spotify (for inspiration I’ve been listening to Bratmobile while writing this article). When I was in high school I made mixed tapes and titled the two sides things like Slut Side and Virgin Side. In the spirit of those days, I now title my Spotify playlists as if they have two sides (Doomed and Saved!).
The searching, openness, magic and attention it takes to find what you love is so fun, serendipitous and rewarding. The word of mouth, the overheard song, the opening band, how one thing you love is connected to another, how one author you like talks about an author he likes, how through these things we continually decide, I am this and this and this. Though I no longer need the lifeline in exactly the same way I did when I was younger, I still feel the richness and delight of each discovery and how they make the world seem like an astonishing place brimming with expression, excitement and a ton of stuff worth adding to my cool list. I found that thrilling and inspiring at age 14 and I still do. I sat down recently to write my 40-year- old self a letter and I have a feeling she’ll agree.Related