There’s a wonderful scene in the recent mid-season finale of Mad Men where tweenage Sally Draper pilfers a cute older boy’s sentiment about the moon landing while speaking about it to Don. Echoing his overheard opinion that such a journey is a waste of money that could be better-spent solving problems on Earth, she sounds suddenly informed and aggressively virtuous. I loved this moment because it’s so true to life, such an obvious reality, but one that—when captured properly—still strikes us via our ability to relate. Yup, we think to ourselves, we’ve been there, co-opting other people’s statements, their interests, or, perhaps, their more intelligent-sounding words and ideas, hoping to pass them off as our own. These hoodwinks are pronounced in adolescence, when we’re in the throes of trying to construct an S-E-L-F amidst a surge of mind-boggling hormones and confusing signals from our brains, bodies, and equally-perplexed buddies.
It got me thinking about these moments in my own life–of which there are many–and one in particular stood out among the detritus of “somethings-borrowed.”
During the summer before my junior year of high school, I spent a month or so in London for an internship program. My search for “self” was flaring, and it was prime time for appropriating the habits and cannier thoughts of others. My favorite movie for the few years leading up to this had been Almost Famous—which seemed highly original and cool then, but wasn’t exactly Truffaut. It’s still a favorite, as I’ve thankfully lost the teenage need to constantly assert myself as different from the crowd (a crowd which, by and large, also loves the movie). Cameron Crowe’s flick seemed to synthesize my experience of outsider-status and my desire for a more exciting, less-generic lifestyle into one very addictive film. It helped flesh out the feelings that I didn’t yet have a vocabulary for.
It did this, mainly, by providing me with an arsenal of tools for both being and thinking about “cool.”
In London that summer, I stumbled upon an original Tommy album at a flea market. The moment felt religious—a holy sign to seal our fate. At the time, I only knew a few of the songs, but no matter—I was sure I’d love it all. After all, Zooey Deschanel had promised that if I listened “to Tommy with a candle burning” I would “see [my] entire future.”
I left the details of its origin out when name-dropping it to my clearly more basic teenage friends. I also failed to mention that one reason I found the album so intriguing was its shared name with my seventh grade lover, Tommy, the local drug dealer whose decidedly bad boy ways had given me my first dose of, ahem, weird vibes down under. Though those lovey-dovey feelings had passed by my junior year, the nostalgia of it all (even at sixteen, when there was little to look back on) had been a powerful seductress. Oh to be young, I laughably thought, barely comfortable using a tampon.
The movie also shifted my worldview, constructing a vision of seventies-era living whose melding of free love, real music, and mind-altering drugs was intoxicating when compared to my bland suburban reality. Penny Lane had a confidence I would’ve killed for at the time, as I struggled to make sense of my awkward features and emotional volatility. She was the carefree spirit I wanted to be, despite all evidence (Jewish guilt, neuroses, etc.) that that just wasn’t in the cards. These disappointing signs didn’t matter, though—this movie made me dream, and it was a dream I happily indulged in.
Once I had carried around these stolen goods long enough (the album, a sheepskin jacket in the vein of PL’s, the film’s too-good-to-be-true quotes) they became a legitimate brick in the wall of my character, one that I still revisit when I’m verging on the darker shades of blue.
When Philip Seymour Hoffman, as Lester Bangs, tells the main character, “They make you feel cool. And hey. I met you. You are not cool,” he’s talking to me (and maybe, you), too. I’ve always been left of center, and even if the qualities that made me that way are–in young adulthood–no longer seen as weird, they were once quite ostracizing. He continues with, “We’re uncool. And while women will always be a problem for us, most of the great art in the world is about that very same problem. Good-looking people don’t have any spine. Their art never lasts. They get the girls, but we’re smarter. Yeah, great art is about conflict and pain and guilt and longing and love disguised as sex, and sex disguised as love… and let’s face it, you got a big head start.” What he did for me in middle school, and at age sixteen (and still now, at twenty-three), was dress my un-coolness up in something attractive and serve it to me on a cold, hard plate. He laid out this harsh reality (you’re not conventional, in any sense), but made it beautiful—even worthy. And it’s now a message as ingrained in me as my spine.
Like my love of Tommy, it’s stolen goods. But these ‘goods’ have been party to so much of my experience by now, their birthplace doesn’t matter. They’re mine—and like a lot of great art, they feel sometimes like they’re mine and mine alone, speaking to some vague part of me that NO ONE ELSE understands. “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool,” says Lester Bangs, and, for fleeting moments, he seems to speak to the one-off conversation between my life and this particular film. And, god, those moments are great.