Cool

Katherine Gorman '07, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

All is as it should be
As it must be
And most importantly
As it is.
               — Zen Proverb

Now and again my mom likes to tell me a certain story from my childhood. A week ago I was home for Mother's Day and a game at Fenway Park and I heard this story again. She tells me about a parent-teacher conference she once had with my third grade teacher, Miss Luke. I think of third grade as formative year in my life. Until I was eight my nickname (for my full name, Katharine) was Katie. It fit me well enough, I suppose, though one never really has much say in the matter of their name. What's in a name, really? Katharine and its many nicknames — Katie, Kathy, Kate, Kat — is of Greek origin and means "pure or virginal." But in light of last night and ones similar to it, I find this utterly laughable. I cannot say how it happened but I know that somewhere in that third grade year I became a Kate. Kate has suited me far better than Katie — Katie seems meek and timid, as if I need someone to take care of me. No. "Never be one man away from poverty," my mom has always hammered (probably since I was three) "always think for yourself, always have your own money." Which reminds me, in third grade David Jaquet — the class clown — once shouted "God Kate, your eyes are SO big!" in a mean way, that made everyone on the school bus turn and stare. I faced him and slapped him flat across the face, leaving a burning hand print on his smooth left cheek. I was a Kate alright, as hip as could be, a real don't-mess-with-me chick. Anyway, the story my mother tells is truly beautiful . . .

When it was time to leave the classroom and go to the library or the cafeteria, and in order to prevent a mad rush to the door and fights over but-I-was here-first and but-you're-always-in-the-front-of-the-line, Miss Luke played a game. She might offer "anyone who is wearing a red shirt can go get in line" or "if you like broccoli, get in line." One day, I'm told, Miss Luke called for "anyone who thinks they're cool to get in line." I was the only girl to stand up along with all the boys in the class. It might have been that I had finally wised up to the fact that, really, one could get in line even if they didn't like broccoli or didn't think they were cool (How was Miss Luke going to know?) Indeed, I am a shamelessly good liar. But no. Given the feminist mothering I received and the fact that I had let my new name-Kate-go to my head, I believe it. I was cool, and bold to admit it; to stand beside the boys. I wish I could tell you that I grew ever more confident and retained my cool ability to stand up and always think highly of myself, surrounded by the boys or not, but I think this is not the way life goes.

* * * * *

My mom also likes to tease me about another parent-teacher conference that took place some years later. In eighth grade I had an English teacher, Mr. Hurray, who gave the class an assignment to write a short personal essay. The only requirement was that we be "honest and complete." I'm not sure I knew what he meant by complete, but at 14 I knew what it meant to be honest. I wrote a story about a family trip to the French countryside, about how I missed my tabby cat Bessy and how, at one scenic venue, I spotted a woman who was carrying a cat. Without saying a word she turned to me and offered her cat for me to hold. I developed what I thought was a brilliant metaphor about crossing language barriers and the universality of cat ownership. The thing is though; nothing about that story is true. I had not yet been to France, I didn't even have a cat (Bessy developed a rancid smell a few months after we'd picked up at the MSPCA. She had feline AIDS and we had to put her "to sleep" which is a nice way of saying "we had her killed"). You can imagine my surprise when, at a parent-teacher-student conference, Mr. Hurray told my mom about a fantastic story I'd written about "you know, that cat in France..."

"Oh yes, that trip to France!" my mom lied.

My mom saved me that day and thought it so hysterical I had successfully handed in fiction in the place of fact, she didn't punish me. Still, my heart sank. I'd been dishonest and incomplete — apparently I didn't think any true stories were worthy enough to write down — and I felt guilty about that and immured myself in an anxious internal monologue of questions. What am I becoming? What did it mean that I'd renounced my own life? My life! I'm not sure I knew how to answer these questions, but I knew what I'd done wasn't too cool. I no longer saw myself as cool.

* * * * *

When I alone think about my not-so-far-away childhood I think about an afternoon not of my childhood at all, an afternoon late in my senior year of high school, a warm Thursday in the spring of 2003. I was lying on a brown leather couch in the living room of my mother's house (my calculus class that afternoon had been cancelled, I do not now recall how I had gotten home, I didn't have a car), lying there alone rereading an essay by E.B. White and listening to Paul Simon's song "I know what I know" on repeat, I heard the mail push through the slot in the front door and land on the floor. The sound startled me and sent Myles (my cat) who had been sitting in the open window next to the couch, running upstairs. I descended the flight to the front door and stood barefooted on the cold green tile picking up the envelopes and glossy catalogues that had dropped. Among the mass of paper was an envelope addressed to me, in oddly familiar handwriting, a yellow-flowered stamp at the upper right corner. I walked back upstairs and flopped onto the same leather couch, turning the envelope over. A quiet breeze blew through the screen in the window next to the couch, fluttering the wisps of hair about my face that had fallen loose from my ponytail. Across the seal of the envelope in blue pen read: "prepare for a blast from the past." I carefully ripped the envelope apart and drew out the white lined paper.

On a Friday afternoon, between Spanish class and summer vacation, my seventh-grade history teacher, Mr. Keller, handed out sheets of white paper with blue lines and no margins and told the class we were going to spend the period writing letters to ourselves. He would mail them to us right before we graduated high school and he assured us he wouldn't read them. He told us we might consider writing down our hopes for the future and about a day-in-the-life of a 13-year-old in 1998. The assignment created quite a fluster of excitement, or maybe it was just that there were 30 minutes left of the school year. Anyway my peers were rowdy and talked as they wrote their letters. I remember one boy, Chris Cassorla, announcing through a mouth full of braces that he was going to ask his 18-year-old self if he had had sex yet, "you better have," he wrote. The class laughed at this and I remember wanting to ask myself the same question, but too embarrassed to even write the word sex, I settled on "do you have a boyfriend?" I cannot recollect anymore particulars about that last day of seventh-grade but I can clearly remember the day my 18-year-old self received my 13-year-old self in a letter in the mail.

Dear 18-year-old Kate, Dear me;

I can't believe I'm 18 now. It must be soooo cool to be 18. Did you forget you wrote this on June 22, 1998 on the last day of school in 7th grade? I can't believe I'm graduating from high school. That seems so far away! Wow, you can drive too. Duh, 18 is older than 16. Do you have a car?

How was prom? I hope my prom dress is long and flowy and light purple or blue with little jewels on the back and silver high heels. Do you have a boyfriend? I hope so and I hope he's really cute too. Right now you have a huge crush on Nathan Guttman. Oh, your favorite color is blue and you love sunshine. Abby [my sister] is in 3rd grade and she is soooo annoying. Is Uncle John married yet? He's still single now.

You're really excited for summer. This summer you're going to Nobles Day Camp for 6 weeks and then to New Seabury in Cape Cod. Mom and Dad rented the same "up-side down" house as last summer, ya know, the one with the kitchen on the second floor? Your favorite TV shows are Dawson's Creek and Dharma & Greg.

I hope that high school is really fun. You really like acting and playing the clarinet. You want to go to Brown for college and be either a doctor or a writer and live in Seattle. That's all I have time to write except this afternoon you're going to meet Steph Kenney (she's your best friend) at her locker and walk to her house and stop at CVS to get candy. Then you're going to swim in her pool and have a sleepover at her house. Ahhh, it's time to put the chairs up. Yay summer!!!!!!

Love, you at age 13.

All that afternoon I lay on that brown leather couch and all that afternoon I read my letter over and over to the rise and fall of Paul Simon's voice "I've said what I've said/ There's a thing that I keep in the back of my head," the sunlight stretching through the big windows in the living room, sipping my glass of ice water and discovering, in the spaces between the blue-inked words, something I had not known before about having visions for a future self and growing up and looking backward. Yes, there was something there. There was a hidden meaning I was onto, what was it? What did it all mean! But meanings escaped me then.

I had a boyfriend at the time (who liked to wax philosophical) tell me that our minds imbue nature — our lives — with form and meaning, and that the universe as we know it, is built and experienced entirely within our own heads. There is no meaning beyond that which we make for ourselves. And I believed that well enough because in the spring of 2003, his words made as much sense as anything else did. After all, Steph Kenney was dead. She had been hit by a train one night a month before while smoking pot on the tracks with Drew Conrad — and I couldn't see the meaning behind that and certainly didn't think much on the meaning, the meaning, of my letter.

Instead my mind gravitated toward the humorous and the tangible. I thought on the image of my dream prom dress and how the real one was actually a cream color and had tiny flowers of pink, purple and green embroidered in a vine pattern over the whole dress. It was strapless, had no jewels and my shoes were pink, not silver.

I remember nearly choking when I read that I had hoped to go to Brown. Somehow that lofty goal had manifested itself, as did the desire for a "cute" future boyfriend. But Nathan Guttman in the end was gay, and that bit about loving sunshine! Funny I felt the need to write that down...

Anyway I didn't think much of the letter or its meaning until I came across it — on accident when I was helping my mother move recently — and read it again several times through. Such a seventh-grade life now seems unreal in every detail: the idea of having had a sleepover at Steph Kenney's house, going to day camp, playing the clarinet, having parents who were married to each other, and even putting a chair up on a desk at the end of a school day now seems to me to be so foreign as to be almost phantasmal, suggesting not only that the narrative line on which I grew up now no longer applies, but that now it seems there is no line at all. And that makes me feel lost. The distance I have come from the world in which I was a kid is oceans wide and I'm not sure where the Pangaea of my childhood broke into separate continents.

That day in seventh grade must have been the first time I was asked (somewhat seriously) to address my future, and maybe that single act was a catalyst for everything that shifted thereafter. The act of writing down my hopes for the future somehow made them permanent goals. And if I didn't make them a lived reality, I would have fallen short. I would have strayed from my self and have failed to become what I dreamed I'd be. A dream! The absurdity! A vision for one's future is dangerous if it means living for a dream that is structured and measurable. Did I lose my cool; my unashamedly honest and free-thinking self who could stand alone with the boys, feeling just as cool and proud, the day I wrote that letter? If I hadn't written it, would I be at Brown today? Would I be on the path to becoming a journalist — a writer — if I hadn't written it down and read it again years later? But even that idea is absurd. Robert Penn Warren had it right when he noted that "the world is a giant snowball rolling downhill, and it never rolls uphill to unwind itself back to nothing at all and non-happening." We can't step outside ourselves and learn what things would be like if we'd done it all differently. And there ain't no use in dwelling on "what ifs."

* * * * *

Lately I've taken to looking at pictures of myself as a young girl and it amazes me that my physical appearance is, by and large, unchanged. I can see in the photographs that my eyes now look just as they did when I was five. My face has aged since then, but the features of then-and-now are one and the same. I've always thought that, like our facial features, there are innate set points within everyone-that there is something in us that intrinsically makes us different from everyone else-that makes us, deep down, who we are.

* * * * *

Not long ago I chanced on a wonderful book by anthropologist Robert Murphy, called the Body Silent. In it he describes his experience becoming paraplegic. As the spinal tumor grew and he slowly lost the ability to move his toes, then legs, then arms, and fingers; he lost his self: "in only a few months, I had moved subtly from the center of my society to its perimeter. I had acquired a new identity that was contingent on my defects and that...compromised, or altered my prior claims to personhood." If an individual's concept of his or her self is a mutable entity, subject to change when given new experiences and new environments, can there be such a thing as a fundamental self — a soul — unique to everyone? Murphy's experience transitioning from an able-bodied member of society to a disabled member would suggest not. My letter from seventh grade, I suppose, suggests the same. Indeed, I am no longer who I was then, or who I was when I read it the afternoon I was 18. I am no longer the cool eight-year-old Kate, or the phony eighth grader. But I cannot let the idea go — that who I am is a set point-there are subtle elements of me that were present at eight, at 13, at 14, today, and will be there when I am 30. And I can't help but think there is a core, an ultimate me I must strive to find.

* * * * *

When a college advisor smiled at me and said during a meeting, "I guess I forgot that, when I was young, I thought my life was going to have all this meaning," I felt something in me stir. It wasn't the bit about meaning that got to me. I am not so naïve as to think that my life has some great cosmic meaning. It will never have any meaning beyond that which I make. No, it was the part about forgetting: If who I am is going to continually change, I hope, at the very least I retain some knowledge of who I once was. I hope I am able to keep in touch with the people I used to be. I am only an occasional journal writer, so I suppose that the letter from seventh grade is one of few pieces of testimony from my former selves. Perhaps, then, I should try my hand at another letter...

* * * * *

Dear me, age 30,

It is mid-May in 2005, late in your sophomore year at Brown. I do not want to make any structured, measurable, or permanent goals here. I don't want you to feel like you've failed your old self. I don't want to let any dreams that I may write here be so rigid that they get in the way of just living life. Living any life. I realize, however, that part of who I am now has everything to do with what I want for myself in the future. I am in college to learn, but to also think about what I am going to do with my new knowledge. I am writing-ultimately-to keep in touch. I am writing so that when I am 30, I may have something of an old self back. I will dispense something of this 20-year-old self now.

I hope that by the time I am 30 I have a better idea of what lies at my core, and of who my truest self is. I want to travel. I have never been to Asia, or Africa, and I hope I get there. I want to become a writer, though I can't imagine ever writing a book. Journalism seems to be my direction of the moment. I want to be in a relationship with a man, and I hope that if I'm not married at 30, I don't freak out. It would be preferable if I didn't settle in Massachusetts, it would be even better if I never settled, and I mean that both in reference to location and to men. I think it would be cool to spend years on end traveling, enrolling my children in different schools around the world; that way they would never really be from anywhere. I think it might have been interesting to have grown up like that. Really, I hope I end up doing something, somewhere, that I can honestly say I love.

It has been said that we forget all too soon the things we thought we never would: old loves, betrayals, whispers, screams; so here is some of that...You don't like to think about Steve, but you do, and you tell yourself you only miss the idea of him-though it breaks your heart at little to know he has moved on. I am wondering now if I still know him at 30. This is not the place to dwell on Steve; there have been other men...that Lebanese guy, Meesh, who you met at a college party, for instance. "Mi companera de vida!" he whispered drunkenly at 2 AM, "tu eres bonita, un beso!" And you promised yourself to never again let a strange foreigner follow walk you back to your dorm room. There was, of course, Alanna Gold. She started out as your roommate, but her drug habits got the best of your friendship, and after a fight that ended with Alanna screaming, "you're such a bitch, I hate you, I hope you die!" you sobbed, and in October moved out, and never looked back. Crazy. You have a number of friends, but your mother is the person you are closest to, and though she is still trying to pick up the pieces, her depression has never been under better control. You are still trying to carve a life for yourself in Providence and you take care, against the jokes your friends make, to get the proper amount of calcium everyday. You don't want to end up like your grandmother who shrunk eight inches. I hope you still get plenty of calcium and I also hope you do not stress too much about finding the meaning in things. But, even if everything mentioned above goes to shit and you are a paraplegic and forever in Boston, I hope above all else who you are is honest and complete . . . and cool.

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Last modified 17 May 2005