Feeling Stupid, Looking Smart

Every time I’m faced with highly confusing information, I have an automatic response. I narrow my eyes and nod, like I know what the other person is talking about and I’m not a completely hopeless dolt.

I narrow and nod, for example, every single time I’m ever talking to a mechanic and he is telling me there is something wrong with my car — something serious, of course, like the carburetor has sprung an aneurysm and is plummeting into retrograde and time is of the essence and money is no object and disaster is imminent.

Oh, the carburetor! An aneurysm! Yes, of course! And oh, God, no, not retrograde! We have to take extreme measures! Whatever it takes! I’m pretty sure if you examined the inside of my head at a time like this, it has gone completely blank, all tabula rasa on me, in my overwhelming desire to, above all, not look like an idiot.

Mechanics bring this out in me. So do any kind of fantasy football addicts, Proust scholars, CPAs, hardcore music buffs, readers of fantasy or vampire novels, insurance adjusters, and people who take astrological signs seriously.

Add to this list the very nice guy who makes those skim lattes for me when I’m starting to nod off and drool. He’s young, of course. Everybody in the universe is young, except me, I have begun to suspect.

Anyway, yesterday, Latte Guy told me he’d gone to a costume party over the weekend. “We dressed up in nineties outfits,” he said.

I narrowed, I nodded, I tried not to look blank and panic-stricken. “That sounds like a lot of fun!” I said brightly.

I thanked him and left as quickly as I could. I wanted to throw myself on the hot sidewalk and die. What on earth are nineties clothes? I mean, I lived in that decade, didn’t I? I got dressed every day. Logically, I must have been wearing nineties clothes all those 10 years. But what were they? Why would you want to design a costume party around them?

I wracked my brain. All I could remember was that, by the nineties, I had managed to finally ease my way out of maternity clothes. Also, as I recall, I often wore exercise clothes in the dim hopes people would think I worked out constantly. Other than that, I had no clue. I can tell you about fifties clothes, sixties, seventies. I can remember eighties hair. But the nineties?

I told my friend Brenda about it as we walked to a music concert that evening. “I think I’m still wearing nineties clothes,” she said. “My closet’s probably full of them. You think they’ve gone out of style?”

A couple of hours later, we were listening to Emmylou Harris and her band. “We need to be dressing like that,” Brenda said, nodding at Emmylou’s fringed skirt and long, fringed boots.

Emmylou sang for a good 90 minutes. Her voice is still crystalline and she looks like a zillion bucks, if you care about superficial things like that (we do). “She’s at least 65,” Brenda said.

Then, near the end of the concert, a drunk fan called out a request. “I could sing that,” Emmylou said coolly. “But I won’t right now. You see, I’m in charge here.”

I’m in charge here! I sat and marveled at what it must be like to say no so authoritatively, so unapologetically, just to say and do whatever the hell you feel like. Not to try to please others, not to pretend you know something you don’t, not to kowtow and nod.

Could I ever be a person like that? I wondered.

Just as quickly as that hopeless little dream blossomed in my mind, it withered and died a fast death. The odds of my becoming a dominatrix on stage or in life are about the same as the odds of my wearing a fringed skirt and long fringed boots. Life might be crazy and unpredictable, it might even be a costume party. But you have to be nuts to expect it to deliver miracles like that.

(Copyright 2011 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a marginally related saga about how it’s better to pretend you have a headache than to lose at Scrabble





25 comments… add one
  • Oh wow. I love that line from Emmylou. I need to practice saying that. I am in charge here. I am in charge here. If I say it enough, I may believe it.

    I too am not really sure what is 90s clothes. I was too busy being a mom to have a clue about fashion. I think stirrup pants were around in the early 90s. At least I had them. I don’t know what else at all. This definitely makes me feel old.

  • Cindy A Link

    I was panicked and couldn’t remember, either, since I still wear most of MY nineties clothes. But then Wikipedia enlightened me. T-shirts, blue jeans, flannel shirts (think Kurt Cobain), bare midriffs, the black Goth look for outcasts, and above all, thong underwear. And how could I forget those big ugly chunk-heeled shoes? I didn’t buy shoes for years!


  • Oh, Ruth! You always make me laugh so hard. Thanks. (I cannot remember what we wore in the nineties either!)

  • I like to think I was in my prime in the 1990s, and even *I* cannot remember what I wore. Uh-oh.

  • This post made me laugh and cry at the same time. (I think the tears started when I realized you were seeing Emmylou live – so jealous!) If you want fringed boots like Emmylou, I think you should get them – life’s too short to deny yourself any longer! I recently indulged in a pair of Frye boots, an item I’d coveted since — gasp! — 1978, and every time I wear them I feel like I’m standing up to those girls in high school who made me feel uncool.

  • ruthpennebaker Link

    Honestly? I’d feel like a dope in fringed boots.

  • “Latte Guy told me he’d gone to a costume party over the weekend. ‘We dressed up in nineties outfits,’ he said.”

    I must say, when I first read that I fancied how smart a figure Grover and Frances Folsom Cleveland must have cut while taking a Sunday stroll along Pennsylvania Avenue in– 1893, and imagined what a fun costume party Latte Guy must have attended. Reading further along, I discovered I may be confusing turns of the century. That there is a real probability that I just can’t accept that there is such a thing as a 21st century abloom. God, I feel so, so old.

  • There was a costume for the 90s – really? All I can remember are large, long, flowery jumpers (roses mostly I think).

    viv in nz

  • Hey, I was there at the concert with my friend Annie, who had been admiring my sensible shoes until she saw Emmylou’s fringed boots. F–k those sensible shoes, she said. I want those fringed boots!

  • I had no money to buy anything that decade, being a student for most of it. There were t shirts. There were jeans. Much like students still wear from what I see on campus when I teach now and again. No doubt proper “grown up” clothes were different, but I my wardrobe hasn’t been in the habit of bursting with those then or now.

  • OMG dress like the 90’s. Has the 90’s now replaced the 70’s costume party? Where have I been?

  • Cindy A Link

    I have Christmas pictures of me in fringed boots in the nineties. Nice suede ones with my jeans stuffed inside. They still make me cringe. It’s kind of like boots with an irrelevant person attached somewhere.

    Don’t do it, Ruth.

  • Craig Link

    I remember dressing like I had more money but as the politicos say you can put lipstick on a pig blah blah blah

  • Love that Emmylou line but not sure I’d have the guts to use it on a grown up (though no sweat with my kid).

  • Emmylou is fine…but I’m holding out for Stevie Nicks…
    What 90’s style, there was only ever T shirts and blue jeans. Kind of sad that today I see more and more people dressed down like the People of Walmart. God I wish the South would rise again so we could have some style with class.

  • Chris Link

    I immediately thought of the “Gay ’90s” as they were called, but the 1890s obviously although the 1990s were pretty gay.

    Saw Emmylou eons ago at Bob & Bernie’s Brandin’ Iron in San Bernardino, CA. At the end of the show, people called out for another song, and some burly guy sternly said, “That’s enough – she’s done” – she apparently wasn’t in charge then. I LURVE her hair now. She looks great. Me – I’d look like my grandmother.

  • Hmm. I could tell you about 70s and 80s clothing and styles. But 90s? Still trying to figure that one out.

  • Sheryl Link

    I suspect I’m still wearing those ’90s clothes that are current to me and retro to others. I figure the good thing is that they still fit. C’mon, Ruth, get those boots. Really. You’ll be able to be in charge when you wear them. A pair of fringed boots will do that to you.

  • Well, I DID buy a pair of Doc Martens last year – first pair I’ve owned since high school. I guess every day is a 90s costume party for me.

  • Hilarious post, Ruth. I have a similar response at the mechanic’s…

  • 90s. What were we wearing then, and yup, it’s probably still in my closet too. At my daughter’s old school they used to have 80s days. That made me feel old–but it was much easier to pull off–Madonna teased hair, wide belts and a material girl pout.

  • Ruth,
    anyone who appreciates Emmylou Harris is already smart. have to tell your friend, though, Emmy’s only 64…

  • Hmmm. 90s clothes… anything with baby spit-up on it would probably be mine.

    And I’m trying to be “in charge here” — I just hired a publicist/business coach to get me there. It’s clear I can’t do it on my own.

  • Coincidentally, I also attended a ’90s dance party last month. I had no idea what in hell ’90s fashion consisted of, but the invitation featured images from My So-Called Life, so I rocked the flannel and combat boots. Favors at the party included slap bracelets and ring pops.

    My personal favorite fashion era was always the ’60s.

  • I just laughed through this entire post. I didn’t even know there were 90s dress-up parties.

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