I was at the dealership signing final papers for a new car when my chatty sales guy mentioned something about having been kind of nerdy growing up. “Tell me about it!” I commiserated distractedly while trying to make sure I wasn’t being charged thousands of dollars of hidden “handling” or “prepping” or “moving the car from one corner of the lot to the other” fees. “I was pretty nerdy, too.”
He studied my face for a moment and said pleasantly, “Yeah… Your bangs are kind of nerdy.”
I protested, launching into a diatribe about my bangs being hip, not nerdy, and something-something about not wanting to look like Marcia—or Jan—Brady. I mean, please. I look so much dorkier with my hair hanging limply around my passably attractive-but-not-all-that-exciting face!
The exchange reminded me of a game I used to play in my head back when I had to fill my public downtime with an activity other than killing pigs by flinging birds at them with my finger. I called this game “Totally Geek or Totally Chic?” after the ’80s movie Can’t Buy Me Love wherein a nerdy high school student secretly pays the most popular girl in school to go out with him and a classmate notes his sudden transformation “from totally geek to totally chic!”
That man at the bar in the too-short jeans and glasses with the duct-taped bridge—is he an actual geek—a Microsoft employee or young statistics professor, perhaps?—or is he a trendy, popular kid trying to look like a geek, thereby rendering him in the eyes of hipster culture totally chic? The line can be very blurry, especially here in Seattle. If someone is wearing athletic socks with leather sandals, how do you ascertain whether it’s being done ironically? And if it looks completely ridiculous, what does the distinction matter?
If a middle-aged car salesman from a small town in Idaho understands the motivation behind why I cover my forehead with a few inches of hair, will I suddenly strike him as cool despite copious evidence to the contrary? (Including the last bits of that sentence and the entirety of this one.)
I run a few years behind the curve on most matters. I didn’t purchase an iPhone until last year and didn’t contemplate bangs until every female celebrity and her mother had already acquired them. It took me forever to figure out what I wanted to be when I grew up, even though basically all I did as a child was read books and ask my mom to take me to the library. In college I refused to enroll in a single English class—a lame rebellion against being the offspring of an English professor and a librarian. I majored in psychology and took a lot of ceramics courses and failed to understand that I was a writer-in-the-making even as I wrote many long letters to friends about how I knew I was meant to be an artist of some sort—I just hadn’t “found my genre.”
When along the path towards finding my genre I learned that one “Jonathan Franzen” had been teaching for the English department at my college while I was an undergraduate there, I died a little on the inside. I’m not actually that huge a fan of his fiction, but Jonathan Franzen is one of my all-time favorite essayists—and, I will confess, one of my all-time favorite sex fantasies. I lust after four-eyes Franzen the way normal women lust after Justin Timberlake. My own personal Timberlake was teaching at my intimate little college and was recently separated from his wife and believes there is nothing sexier than a reader and…well…you do the math.
But at the tender age of 18 (through 22), I had not heard of Jonathan Franzen, nor did I realize I was on my way to becoming a writer myself (much less that somewhere deep inside I might possess the womanly powers necessary to make a grown man swoon). I was too busy studying the workings of the synapse, deciding whether a bra was required when wearing overalls (it is, girls), and trying to figure out whether my diet of Grape Nuts and black tea was what was making me supposedly anemic.
A decade after Jonathan Franzen and I walked the same sidewalks (our paths would naturally have crossed as he headed towards the English building for his midday class and I to the dining hall for my midday Grape Nuts), I saw him live and in the flesh for the first time at a reading he gave with Sherman Alexie, another one of my favorite fanta—uh—writers.
The event was like a perfect cross between church and porn. It was inspiring, transcendent, and wildly hot. I mean, I personally don’t find porn to be all that hot (or church to be all that inspiring or transcendent), but, you know, some people apparently do, and I imagine that porn (or church) to them might feel a lot like Jonathan Franzen and Sherman Alexie reading essays out loud together feels to me. The awkward pauses. The nervous laughter. The self-mocking-bordering-on-self-loathing humor. It was almost too gloriously sexy to handle.
When a few months later Chuck Klosterman stood at a Seattle bookstore lectern in hideous kelly-green vinyl high-top sneakers, ill-fitting jeans, an unflattering plaid shirt, and thick black-framed glasses and yammered on in a startlingly high-pitched voice about the cultural import of some obscure band from North Dakota, the women in the audience—including myself—craned their necks (and breasts) forward and giggled. The guys leaned back, mouths agape as it hit them: This guy is a total geek and he gets laid!
It turns out I’m not alone in my love for bespectacled men with self-conscious tendencies dressed in semi-ugly shirts. At some point without me noticing, it became a thing. The cool kids have apparently been dressing like homeless people in hand-me-down eyeglasses and unattractive sneakers for years, and this has added to their popularity rather than detracting from it.
After my own date-free adolescence and young adulthood, I spent my late twenties and now my thirties making an effort to look more attractive than I actually am. I seek out shirts and pants that accentuate my nice lines and obscure my lumpy ones and avoid shoes and sweaters that make me look like a granny on the cusp of indigence. I bought a pair of cat-eye glasses because they are more interesting to look at than my actual face, and got these bangs of mine so that when it’s hot outside I can pull my hair into a ponytail and not worry that I look like my dad.
If I believed any of my fashion choices were rendering me more nerdy-looking than I already am, I would hire some happening girl or gay guy to take me shopping straight away. It’s one thing to remind people of Tina Fey. It’s quite another to bring to mind Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
I wonder why so many attractive pseudo-geeky (Totally chic!) people at trendy bars (and less-trendy book readings) make willfully unattractive fashion decisions—jeans that are tight in all the wrong places, outsized eyeglasses, polyester knits. Are they so insecure about their appearance they don’t want to look like they’re trying at all, so they lean the opposite direction, inadvertently trying too hard the other way? Or are they so confident in their beauty they think they have to mar it lest too many people throw themselves at their feet, the way some Native American tribes sew an imperfection into their garments lest God think they’re trying to one-up Him, perfection-wise?
Or are they just astigmatic book-lovers (who only kind of understand how attractive they inherently are) trying to be—and love—their best selves, to embrace their own awkward nervousness in hopes that someone out there will find them almost too gloriously sexy and inspiring to handle?
Back at the car dealership I signed the papers and forked over a bunch of money. I drove my new car off into the ubiquitous Seattle rain, the drizzly humidity wreaking havoc on my bangs, which I had painstakingly spent three whole minutes styling that morning in a genuine attempt to pass as one of the cool kids.