Young Star

Nobody wants to be everybody

SENSES WORKING OVERTIME - Luis Katigbak - The Philippine Star

In which we ask ourselves, is it really important to wonder what people think of the things we like?

We like to believe that we are the sum total of our choices. Perhaps the idea gives us a sense of control, of having a deliberate shape to our lives. This belief is adhered to most fervently when it comes to the choices we make regarding what we watch, what we listen to, what we read, what we eat, and what we wear. In short, what we like (and what we Like). In another time, that would have been trivia. In our day, it constitutes our identity.

This is why Apple owners lost their s*** when U2 and Tim Cook forced a free album on them. Nobody wanted a corporation, or a band, blatantly making assumptions about their snowflake-unique tastes, even though marketers and machines have been fine-tuning and laser-guiding those assumptions for decades. Some people were so eager to distance themselves from the ploy that they would declare online “U2 has sucked since (name of ‘80s U2 album only avid U2 listeners would have known).” It was not cool to be excited by a new album from a gang of 50-plus-year-old chasers of glories past, but more to the point, overreactions abounded because people feared being thought of as the kind of person on whom that ploy was supposed to work (which, according to Apple, was everybody).

The idea of the curated (and updated) expression of a personality and lifestyle is not just a familiar one by now, it is practically a regular — and sadly, non-paying — job. This is why it takes us hours to post those “10 Films That Have Changed My Life” lists on Facebook. This is why we Instagram obscure vinyl. This is why people take pictures of themselves reading Jacques Derrida or A Book of Surrealist Games. Walker Percy once wrote that a person passing us on the street, walking in the opposite direction, has one power that will forever be denied to us: the power to assess us in a second, at a glance, to come to a conclusion about our being that will be denied us no matter how many hours we stare at a mirror or spend writing in a journal. The difference is, these days, we make damn sure that glance is at something we have arranged and considered beforehand.

In general, though, we are not masterminds of planning. At best we have a vague sense of cool and uncool (which encompasses the idea that embracing the patently uncool is in its own way cool), and try to err on the side of presenting the former. This whole process — presenting ourselves to ourselves and to others — is inevitably incomplete and imprecise. We are bumbling amateur detectives in the mysteries of our own lives. (Is this new Taylor Swift album a clue? What about this bowl of ramen? My shoes? My Instagram of my shoes?)

We didn’t worry about these things too much, or at all, not too long ago. My childhood was notable for the absence of Tolstoy and the opera (much like my adulthood); instead, I was raised by talking animals and giant robots. I admit, however, to being happy about the fact that my library of paper books, unlike the media on my computer, has no records of how many times I’ve gone through a particular item. Maybe I don’t want to face the fact that my sense of humor was honed, not so much by, say, Mark Twain, but by Jovial Bob Stine’s How To Be Funny. (This is a book that sports a photo on the back of Stine wearing rabbit ears, with the caption “The author working on his next book, How To Be Bunny.”)

Sometimes these clues are useful; sometimes they lead to other things we genuinely enjoy, or better yet, other people we genuinely enjoy. Being up-front and unforced is key: I knew someone who would try to get close to people by finding out what they liked and then reshaping his tastes to those likes. It was the creepiest f***ing thing I ever saw. (Seriously, Stephen King wrote a short story based on that very premise.)

Assembling a self is a lifelong process. We make do with the materials at hand. (Sometimes even that doesn’t account for it: Why is my brother a businessman/triathlete while I’m a writer/sloth? We grew up in the same circumstances. We were even both fat comics readers, once upon a time. I suppose only I had the resolve to stay the course.) What we like, or say we like, can serve as guides of a sort — “signposts in a strange land,” to quote Walker Percy again — but we musn’t mistake the signs for the terrain, which is, indeed, strange, as strange as we ever dreamed or wanted it to be.

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