closet optimist

I was raised to be a cynic. My parents’ attitude towards our very preppy town was one of contempt, and ridicule – of the girls who became JAPpy*, the mothers who bought their teenage daughters designer purses, and the boys whose tongues flowed with self-promotion and ladder-climbing. They hated it, although they had chosen it precisely for the quality of school and opportunity, and we were meant to despise it as well. I wasn’t supposed to want those things, and I actually didn’t, honestly. I trained myself to not want anything. I think their intention was mainly just that we not become spoiled like most people were, but I don’t think they realized what planting that seed of contempt in young kids could breed. Hypocrisy, cynicism… among other things.

Following all those birth-order prescriptions, I also fit into the mold of the younger child as the entertainer, comic relief. My participation in family dinner conversation would be little one-liners, like a running commentary. And the comments that gained traction, that made them laugh, were sardonic little jokes, biting statements, the kinds of things I wouldn’t realize until much much later, were actually kind of mean. That was what entertained the audience though, so as a kid, that’s what you learn to do.

So I was cynical and sarcastic beyond my years, as a little kid, and later as a teenager. I didn’t watch cheesy tv shows ever, I watched “Married With Children,” way before I really understood why it was funny, and at the same time, not. It seemed normal to me, and just the way that my personality was meant to be. I thought I fit into my family, because I had that little niche for myself. And I got used to being known for my “sense of humor,” such as it was, which seemed to entertain people, though not endear me to them.

Except—

Just like many kids start getting snappy and sarcastic as teenagers, a form of rebellion and independence, I eventually (in the beginning of my twenties) found myself going in reverse, becoming maybe more naïve, more open, more sunny. It started with a boyfriend with a language barrier, who never understood my jokes. It went on with watching shows like Dancing with the Stars, things that can’t help but make you smile and feel something, if you give them a chance – as I never would have before. I stopped pretending I didn’t like it and gave myself over to the cheese of awards shows – and I stopped being able to watch them with family members, who seemed to have nothing but criticisms for the people and the self-congratulation of it all. Sure, you can look at it that way; or you can cheer up and see the fun and the limitless positivity of it all, an escape from reality.

Does that all sound trite? Ok. It wasn’t just what I watched.

After college, feeling lost, I started taking night classes at FIT – the kind of thing, working with your hands, where you have a lot of time to talk to the other students, joke around, and have fun with it. Maybe it was just that the classes were something that really made me happy – I enjoyed just being there, even untangling and solving the complex problems that came up – but for the first time I was meeting new people, not caught up in that personality which I thought had defined me. I was laughing a lot, excited and cheerful, and instead of that behavior meeting with friction, my new friends accepted this was who I was.

We were talking one day about the much-hyped opening of Topshop in NY, how celebrities had shown up, and how one in particular had hired an assistant to follow her around, tousle her hair, and spritz her with her own brand-name perfume every five minutes. “We should just be thankful that she’s employing all these people, in this economy,” I said. I made them laugh, for the right reasons this time. And my friend said, “You can always find the positive side of things, I love that.”

It was just a silly throwaway comment, but for me, it really opened my eyes. Maybe I’m not who I thought I was.

*Jewish American Princess…. a term I loathe, but which is the ubiquitous one here

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