Every week or so I get an email from the Red Room Author/Reader site that tosses out a blog topic. For whatever reason, this one appealed to me. A couple of years ago, I signed up at Red Room as an author, but it seems I've since disappeared. But, never one to waste a blog, I thought I'd share it here. L.
I’m about to turn forty-eight years old, and sometime during the last couple of years a gene I thought I was missing finally kicked in. I don’t remember the exact day, though I wish I did. All my life I’d felt the absence of it, and suddenly, significantly, it was there. Finally, I was the proud bearer of the IDGAD gene.
Cover the ears of the kiddies if you’re reading this aloud because, while a few people discover they have this gene around the age of two, and even more around the age of fifteen, it’s most properly enjoyed by the over-forty crowd. Why? Because the IDGAD (specifically the I DON’T GIVE A DAMN gene) is extremely dangerous when expressed by those who don’t have sufficient experience with the more widely known ICWYTOM (I CARE WHAT YOU THINK OF ME) gene.
Sometimes I think I got a mutant ICWYTOM gene. I cared way too much about what I--and this is a key word, here--imagined other people thought of me. And not just what they thought of me as a person, but what I wore, ate, said. How I lived my life. How I voted. How I drove. How I raised my children. What I wrote. Even what I thought. It sounds positively pathological when I say it aloud. Perhaps it is/was. But it was my reality, and it kept me from fully experiencing my life for a very long time.
I don’t want to delve too far into the psychology of the thing. I’ll admit to having been raised in a reasonably critical environment--a home in which appearances were important. Details and motivations were important. But it wasn’t such a bad thing. My parents stopped worrying about my appearance when I became a teenager and stopped hanging around them, and I can tear apart a book, an argument, a red carpet fashion parade, a speech, a phony or a bad film with the best of them. I can smell bullshit from miles away. In many ways it was a gift.
But that way of life is a torment on the other side of the mirror. If I was so aware of what I saw as others’ pathetic weaknesses, then I was convinced that they were very aware of mine.
The ICWYTOM gene is a civilizing influence. It often--along with social training--keeps us from regularly stealing from or viciously insulting one another, both of which can lead to violence. It keeps politicians electable, and shades our tender eyes from behaviors that should stay behind closed doors. It allows us to have in-laws, company meetings, and murder-free school hallways. It helps us to appear merciful, generous, and kind--even if we can’t, at that moment, feel those things sincerely in our hearts. Really, it keeps us alive.
Too much of it, though, is stifling, and leads to egocentrism and flights of extreme fantasy. My Notes From the Handbasket readers already know about my obsession with the duMaurier novel, Rebecca. Recently I complained about how the narrator too thoroughly visualizes and imagines her predecessor. She’s so convinced that she knows the motivations of the people around her, that her narration begins to sound quite mad. She has trapped herself in a persecution fantasy. Really, she just needs to unknot her panties and fire her psycho housekeeper around page seventy-five!
Rebecca is a novel I’ve read many, many times, but I didn’t come to this realization about the narrator until my most recent reading. I can’t help but conclude that my IDGAD gene kicked in somewhere between that reading and the penultimate one. I recognized the narrator as an extreme version of myself. (For the sake of argument, let’s disregard the fact that I’m a novelist and hyper-visualization is what pays my bills, okay?)
God, I love the freedom of the IDGAD gene!
I first realized the IDGAD gene had seriously kicked in last summer when I decided to only buy and wear clothes from the U.S.’s largest discounter for a year. Why? I don’t really know--it just occurred to me as kind of a cool project. I saw it as a kind of a test of my vanity, my extreme ICWYTOM gene. And I did it--well, for five months and two days, anyway. I, who would never think of wearing cheap clothes or lingerie, lest it sully my uber-middle class image of myself. (The project is chronicled here: www.wardrobebysam.blogspot.com) My whole adult life I’d worried that someone--anyone--would think I was cheaply dressed. When I was in my twenties, my vanity even drove me into crippling debt. But I put all that away, quickly and decisively. Why did I stop at five months and two days? Not because I couldn’t do it any longer. But because I could. I got bored. I had proved my point to myself and discovered that no one in my everyday life really gave a damn what I wore.
That’s the point: most people are way too wrapped in the throes of their own ICWYTOM genes to see what’s going on with the people around them. Oh, a few get into the habit of projecting their own concerns on other people: the insecure parent, the idealist who get it all backwards and thinks she should be able to tell other people what they should care about. People are the stars of their own little Broadway shows. They want to be on. They want to be admired. They want to be totally and completely correct, as well as true to their own precious self-images at all times.
The IDGAD gene can free us from such self-imposed tyranny.
If I don’t want to go somewhere, I can just say, “no.” No excuses. No apologies. Just a “thank you, no.” If I want to go somewhere, I can make a plan. Even if it’s somewhere that someone else thinks is foolish or dangerous or silly. I can offer an opinion and, if someone doesn’t like it and tells me so, life will go on. Sometimes there’s a cost, but it probably won’t be a life-threatening one.
I can disagree with my partner, my friend, my mother. Will they stop loving me? I doubt it. Will they think I’m foolish or dangerous or silly? Maybe. But I can’t control that, so why should I try? Politeness is always in order, self-abnegation is not.
Back to the age thing...Damn, I feel old. I feel old every time I drop my son off at school in the middle of a gaggle of smooth-skinned, thirty-somethings in designer sweats and diamond earrings. I feel old when I browse those red carpet pics on E! and realize I don’t know who half of the actresses are. I feel really old when I look in the mirror and see a new wrinkle that my fancy anti-age lotion didn’t prevent. (Hey, I didn’t say I lost all my vanity!)
I used to kind of snicker in my head when I saw cheerful, over-forty-five women in figure-hiding linen dresses or battered garden hats or tank tops that revealed their, uh, less-than-supple shoulders and biceps. I would never, ever be caught looking like that. I would never, ever appear less than tasteful--or at least less than well-toned.
I probably don’t even need to say that I’m thinking rather differently these days. While I haven’t lost my figure, I do find linen comfy and my biceps aren’t terribly taut. I’ve learned what those women learned themselves: It just doesn’t matter all that much in the larger world. There are, indeed, many things to be truly concerned about. But worrying about them doesn’t change anything. It’s the doing that matters. And doing takes guts and moxie and balls and all those other inappropriate things that the ICWYTOM gene doesn’t totally cover.
When I get terribly old, I fear I’ll suffer from the same over-stimulation of the IDGAD gene that most terribly old people experience. It’s possible that I’ll complain about my perfectly-cooked food and contemporary politics in a voice that will mortify my children, I’ll criticize my adult grandchildren’s table manners, and observe, loudly, that the young woman selling me support hose looks like she could use a shave. I sure hope not. But if I am, in the end, overcome by too much of the I DON’T GIVE A DAMN gene, maybe I can rationalize it by recalling all those years of faithful worrying about what everyone else was thinking. Or, better yet, I just won’t care!