Essay / THE COOL THING
How do we become what we have become? Is there always a moment which stands out?
I imagine the sound of a time machine: it is something between an airplane taking off, water boiling in a kettle, a distant humming of a beehive… Following this sound, I travel back to the end of the Eighties. Every Sunday morning, while my mom is still asleep, I get up and tiptoe to our kitchen. I climb a chair and place a blank paper on the white and blue surface of the table. I bite into the soft wood of a color pencil and, frowning my forehead, the tip of my tongue sticking out, I slowly draw the first line.
Around the same time, my mom is summoned by a preschool teacher. With a solemn face, the teacher shows her my last piece: a drawing of a nude body composed of rudimentary shapes: a big round belly, two breasts with nipples, and then, the crucial part which almost makes the teacher blush: between two legs made of disproportionately small rectangles, there are both – a vagina and a penis, fully exposed. My mother’s reaction is nothing that my teacher expects: „Oh, look at those circles, aren’t they perfect for a five years old?“
In the early nineties, as soon as I started attending primary school, my mother signed me up for afternoon fine art classes that were part of the state education system. One of the few things I remember – besides building cities out of empty medicine boxes and listening to the eighties hits our teacher would play us on a cassette stereo – is the heavy, sweet scent of her perfume that would disclose her presence anywhere she moved and lingered long after she was gone. Even her keys, which she sometimes lend me to bring some stuff from her cabinet – even their metal smelled of this mysterious substance, like a mango orchard heavy with ripe fruits.
Until my second year, the fine art path I followed seemed pretty steady. But then something had changed. The smell of mango slowly faded as I got to know about a “Barbie workshop” that was about to start in the local kids club. I had no idea what such a thing would be, but I thought it was something cool – and I really wanted to be a cool kid.
The decision was not easy though, as the barbie thing coincided with the schedule of my fine art class. I had to choose. After some negotiations my mother let me do my supposedly cool thing.
After one or two classes of the “Barbie workshop” I realized that my new endeavour was not as exciting as I expected. One of the things we were taught was to hem a simple dress for our dolls. Being advanced in dress-making which I passionately practiced at home, I got bored pretty soon. Nevertheless, there was a higher motivation which kept me going. In my mind I was clinging to the final event: a Barbie carnival, with Ken being the first prize – Ken whom I needed so much. At the age of nine, me and my friends were improvising a “love story” by banging two plastic bodies against each other, one barbie acting as a she, the other barbie as him. With Ken, the real boyfriend, the “game” would be much better.
And so I kept my eyes on the prize. The point of the Barbie Carnival was to create costumes for our dolls and present them in front of a jury. Driven by my ambition, I was deadly serious about my Barbie’s attire. As far as I can remember, this was the very first time when I felt the need to go beyond the obvious, to follow my own vision. So at the very beginning, I excluded princesses and other superficial characters – I wanted more than that. As soon as I found a piece of translucent blue fabric, I started putting together something that would align with my vision: I decided my Barbie would be a wind.
Barbie as a wind – well, it almost sounds like an oxymoron. Looking back, it seems impossible to impose a role like that onto this profane creature. Anyhow, it did not stop me. With my little fingers, I was stitching the sky blue cloth into a dress that appeared both wild and abstract. I still remember the material and its structure as it folded under my fingers. The dress was quite simple, but it had long straps of fabric hanging down, like scattered wings to be lifted by air during my performance. To make my piece complete, I learnt a poem by heart – it was a poem about wind. I remember practising my piece vigorously, holding my Barbie in one hand, passionately waving her body covered in a strappy dress floating in the air of my grandparents living room as I recited the poem.
The day D came. Fully equipped, with the doll hiding in my pink backpack, I walked to the school. And this is when events took an unexpected turn. Sometime in between classes my Barbie caught my schoolmate’s attention. As soon as she found out about the competition, she decided to join me for the Carnival. Inspecting her own Barbie, wearing a somewhat slutty red dress, I heard her saying: „Well, she could be…“ she paused for a moment, thinking, and then, taking a deep breath, she pronounced a bold statement: „….she will be The Little Red Riding Hood!“
I don’t remember anything in between, not even my own performance, which must have been a little awkward and, maybe, too conceptual. Completely out of place, my Barbie must have felt like Kate Bush at a wrong disco. But none of it mattered: at the end of the day, my schoolmate won the first prize.
Utterly disappointed, I saw the coveted Ken landing in someone else’s hands. It was the first time I felt profound injustice and also something else, more crucial: I followed my own vision and was not understood. Trying to do anything to calm me down, my mother made a promise to buy me the Ken, a promise she could not keep – being a single parent, she was not going to sacrifice three Sunday lunches for a plastic man. Thus I was forced to find my own way. I took one of my barbies and cut her hair short: a Ken with boobs.
The next thing is I’m back to my fine arts class, with a lovely new teacher whose work I remember better than her perfume.
There could be a whole new article analyzing all the precious life lessons contained in this little story – it’s meaning would unfold over the years that followed. Nevertheless, one thing stands out: it was a long journey to redefine my idea of real coolness and this had been a pretty cool start of everything that followed.