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Learning about the transitory nature of coolness

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2004

At Large

Julia O'Malley can be reached at julia_o_malley@hotmail.com.

So, we were all sitting there at the end of yoga class in the lotus position with our hands in prayer when our instructor, this girl with a 2-foot long braid I'll call "yoga-babe," said, "I'd like to share a song with you."

Now, this wasn't top-of-the-line $12-a-class yoga where you might expect the woo-woo stuff, like oming or readings from "101 Buddhist Phrases." This was soulless yoga-in-the-box, held in a dark little studio at a chain gym. The classes came free with my $23 a month membership, and half my classmates had shown up directly from spinning class, and were wearing sweaty thong-leotards over stretch pants.

Anyway, you know how sometimes you can just see that someone is about to embarrass themselves and it's like you are watching them walk out into the highway, oblivious of an on-coming semi, and you want to yell stop? This was one of those moments.

Yoga-babe opened her mouth and what came out is this brassy, off-key Annie-meets-Phyllis Diller voice, singing a song that at first I couldn't place. Then, I realized it was "Rainbow Connection."

I made eye contact with a woman on a neighboring mat.

"Isn't this from the Muppets?" I whispered.

She shrugged.

"The love-ahs, the dream-ahs and me-ya!" belted yoga-babe, her palms outstretched like she was singing the last bar of a Broadway show.

Someone in the front row started to clap, and the rest of us joined in. Yoga-babe, her chest pumping like she just finished an Olympic ice-skating routine, took a minute to soak it in, and then gave a little bow.

Afterward, as I drove home, I couldn't help but think about what a complete dork she was. Sure, she had a 2-foot braid and a body like Brittany Spears, but she had to use her yoga class as a captive audience for her crappy singing. And, she totally, seriously thought she was cool. The whole thing seemed hysterical to me. As soon as I got in the front door I told Sara the story, and then I proceeded to tell everyone I saw for the next two days.

"Can you believe what a total freak that girl was? 'Rainbow Connection'?" I asked my friend M. over fried chicken at a soul food restaurant in my neighborhood. Sara, who had now heard the story about 80 times, rolled her eyes next to me in the booth. M. laughed, but only in a sort of obligatory way, and then stared into her collard greens.

I sighed. I could tell something about the "Rainbow Connection" story was reviving the ghost of a small tiff M. and I had a few weeks earlier.

See, M. had invited me to this party at her house. But, as it sometimes happens, the party chemistry was off. I tried to mingle, but everyone I talked to was so boring it caused me physical pain to keep smiling and nodding. Anyway, at a brunch a few days later, I was telling the story of the party, and I think I said something like, "It was like a room full of people with Asperger Syndrome." Then I started laughing. M. didn't, and later we had to process.

"You make fun of people all the time. I just get the feeling you think you are cooler than everyone else," she told me.

Of course I tried to deny that I thought I was cooler than the girls at M.'s party, but secretly I sort of did think I was cooler. Isn't secretly thinking you are cool part of the human condition? Isn't that why people take Prozac, because they don't secretly feel cool? It's not that I feel great all the time, but to be completely honest, since I'd moved to Portland where I didn't know too many people, making fun of characters like yoga-babe had become something of a feel-good hobby. Was it just that M. didn't have a sense of humor, or was I becoming a coolness snob? I couldn't decide, so I pouted into my lemonade, while Sara and M. split up the check.

The next day my 18-year-old cousin showed up for a visit. We are nearly the same size, so I went through my closet, offering her what I thought were some good finds.

"How about this see-though red sweater thingie?" I asked.

"Um, Julia, that's a little bit 2001, don't you think?"

"Okay, how about these jeans?"

"My mother wears her waists that high."

"How about this nice vest?"

"Vest?"

My cousin tilted her head, giving me a charitable look.

"Maybe we should just go for a walk," she said.

As we strolled around the neighborhood, under a canopy of cherry blossoms, I listened to her talk about boys, college and outfits, and I realized that when you are 18, you are at a pinnacle of coolness. After that it's a luge ride to high-waisted dorktown. Here I was, a person who still had vests in her closet, making fun of yoga-babe for singing to her class? Pointing out other people's quirks wasn't really a feel-good hobby, it was actually a little bit mean, and knowing that didn't make me feel secretly cool at all. It was about then that I noticed that my cousin was quiet and I was doing that dorky thing where you unconsciously start humming.

"Hey, isn't that from the Muppets?" she asked.



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