Thursday, February 7, 2013


Miriam was the first hipster chick I ever met. I met her way back in the 1970s in the year I was either fourteen or fifteen.

The obvious question is, How do I know she was really a hipster? I'll come back to that.

I was out sailing with my father when I met her. We went way up the reach 'cause it was blowing hard and it felt good to go tearing along. At one point we were both soaked to the skin, tired and hungry and maybe twelve to fifteen miles from home. And my father looked over towards the shore and said, "That's X's summer place."

It was a rocky shore and we pulled head to wind way out. I remember jumping out and standing in about four feet of water to hold the forestay while my father dropped the main, raised the centreboard and shipped the rudder so we could carry the dinghy up onto the grass (it was an International 14 for those who care about such things). Because the waves were running two to three feet, my head would be under water and my feet briefly off the ground at the peaks. It all felt good because it was an adventure and I was handling it well.

X was, and still is, a criminology professor (emeritus now). He is no longer married to Miriam. She was young, mid twenties. She may have been a former student. She was home alone. I remember she was wearing a long dress with a cardigan over the top and bare footed. I remember watching her walk about and realizing (because I was studying her with care) that she was wearing nothing at all underneath. This was a jolt because the dress and cardigan was like something someone's grandmother would have worn in the 1950s and to wear it bare-footed (among other things) was a playfully subversive thing to do.

Even as young as I was, I realized that Miriam was playing at life. She had no serious responsibilities and she wasn't in any hurry to assume them. The life she spoke of was like like student life only with no classes alternating with summering here up the reach. We changed into terrycloth robes X had for guests and she made us hot chocolate while our clothes dried. And she served us brownies.

And then we sailed back to the yacht club, put the boat away and drove home. At some point along the way, I noticed that my eyes felt funny. We were also both laughing very hard at one another's remarks. I remember giggling quietly to myself when it hit me that we were both stoned and it was the brownies that had done it. I had never been before. I think my father had the same revelation but, being father and son we couldn't talk about it.

There were also things about Miriam that we both were thinking but that fathers and sons don't typically discuss. Of what we could discuss I remember thinking that, normally, Miriam was a type that my father would have made some critical remark about. Not a cruel or disparaging remark but a remark designed to make it clear that you wouldn't want to make the life choices she had made. He didn't because she was a successful hipster. She pulled that vintage look off so well and with such ease that you could only approve of her.

And what was her life like? She was ambitious. That is the important thing to know. She wanted a career and she eventually got one, and quite a successful one in, of all things, intelligence. I found her on the net a while ago giving a talk at a UN conference about counter-terrorism. And you could see that driving ambition in the things she talked about back then.

But she cared not at all for what might be called the realities of the marketplace. This really struck me because I, only two generations off the farm on one side and descended from victims of the great famine on the other, was already being urged to think of a university degree in terms of where the jobs were likely to be and not in terms of what I wanted to do. Miriam was all about what she wanted to be.

She'd finished her degree and then had traveled to Europe and stayed there as long as she could make the money hold out. I don't know this but I suspect that nice young men she met on her travels helped her along the way. And I suspect that she got to be rather good at playing at being the various types required to satisfy varieties of great-romantic-adventure-while -traveling-in-Europe they wanted.

When she got home, she gravitated back to the college neighbourhood because she could continue to live the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed there. She'd come home with the faintest trace of an accent. It suggested that it was the last remnant of an accent she was slowly losing and I kept waiting for her to tell us she was born somewhere else (she wasn't). That, along with her vintage look, played just enough of the harmony notes for every man to supply the melody to accompany his Eliza Doolittle fantasy, particularly Professor X.

She didn't push her sexuality in any overt way. No cleavage or thighs were visible, her clothes were not tight and she had minimal, if any, make up on. Her hair was not styled. One of the effects of this, of course, was to make it clear that she didn't need to do these things. The other effect was effortless grace.

Underline that last: if there is one virtue that hipsters admire it is effortless grace. Someone who can gracefully recover from a gaffe is more admired than the person who is so studied so as never to commit a gaffe in the first place.

Final point: she wasn't rich. For there have always been kids who had years of leisure because they were rich and went to Oxford or some such place and they weren't hipsters. Hipsters have to get a job someday, they just don't have to do it just now. The flip side of that is that they are painfully aware of the social status that goes with jobs. They want a job with the right amount, which is to say quite a bit, of social status or one with none. Better to be a barista than a dental hygenist because you can brush of barista with a good ironic posture but a dental hygenist is what you are.

To come back to the question from the top: How do I know she was really a hipster? If you prefer, you can call her a proto-hipster. Either way, I'd argue she had all the defining characteristics. The other thing, and this is all crucially important, is that she was a successful hipster. Hipster is always and everywhere a pose and you can succeed or fail at pulling it off. And most people will fail. Even now that hipsters are far more common than they were back in Miriam's day, there are far more failed hipsters than successful ones. The temptation to sneer at hipsters is understandable and it comes easy but meet a successful hipster and you will be impressed.

No comments:

Post a Comment