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You & not & what have you become?: the isolation of quirkiness

Having spent the majority of my more formative adolescent years in Brookline, Massachusetts—a suburb surrounded by Boston—much of my personal and intellectual growth occurred in the maw of America’s academic mecca: Harvard, MIT, BU, BC, etc., etc.—essentially, an ego-squashingly successful, ivory-tower atmosphere that fervently valued prowess over vitality. 

My Illinois town had one toy shop and one bookstore; Brookline (not to mention Boston at large) had several of each. The Massachusetts Bay Area (MBA) seemed to have this unceasing constant-hustle-bustle mentality, one part immensely intimidating and another part immediately exhausting. Midwestern demeanor seemed completely incompatible with the infamous New Yorker lifestyle that seemed to, surprisingly, permeate New England.

Basically, adjusting to the area sucked. It was an environment hell-bent on perpetual ascension, with important emphasis on ranking, obsessed with words uttered rather than the breaths taken between them. And, beyond just eagle-eyed résumé-scrutinizing, the students—who claimed to “deviate” from the widespread (and, definitely, widely-recognized “Brooklineniness”) problematic pre-professional gumption of the larger community—tended to exhibit this sort of faux-“weirdness” that almost immediately warranted, from the community, an enthusiastic response, building on their “aesthetic” (not a bad thing in itself, but obviously problematic when the sole focus of an individual or community).

They were, mainly, “so random” outbursts (“weird” obsessions with certain foods, self-labeling as “nerds” for watching Harry Potter or the whole Birkenstock subculture) or even just adopting demeanors quite noticeably for status.

I don’t mean, here, to judge or quantify how weird people are—it just seemed, generally, to be the pursuit of the reputation (either in person or over social media) of an oddball character. Which isn’t an issue in itself—but can be problematic and irritating when sought after solely for status. I’m also biased, having moved there completely unfamiliar with anything in the city and having to start, socially, from scratch. Obviously, I am—and was—bitter. And I was envious of those Brookline High School students. It was deviating from the norm in an environment comfortable and welcoming for them; in other words, they had the privilege of stepping out of line in an environment that encouraged and embraced it.

But, for Brookline transplants, social conformity became the norm. “Quirkiness” wasn’t necessarily the trendy, desirable trait many others viewed it as; it was more something to obscure with the hope that, in doing so, one might start to become familiar with and welcomed in the environment; it was something shameful (at least for me) and a large source of self-hate (viz. “What’s wrong with me?” / “Why can’t I view anything the way they do?” / “Am I destined to be a malicious, hateful person because my means don’t justify the ends and I’m creepy and/or off-putting and/or wired incorrectly because my thoughts are shifted just so much so parallel to theirs that it’s not expected but just enough that it’s uncomfortable?”) which eventually turns to deeper-rooted questions of identity that shouldn’t have been called into consideration in the first place (“Is it normal to express my queerness in such a straight, cis environment?”, etc.). It just wasn’t easy.

That Patagonia, collared shirt, boat shoes, and khaki-zeitgeist kept my ego and self-worth quarantined in a neat, cramped box: I became convinced I was (at least in comparison to the other precocious academic types of the MBA) insufferably stupid. Success, I’d decided—for myself and, perhaps, others in similar situations—would never become a part of my lexicon; so I settled on writing rather than pursuing a “noble” or “academic” field in which nepotism would play an integral part.

It was really just a personality mismatch; it seemed I’d never have a place there, so I elected to head out to little ol’ Carleton College in some middle-of-nowhere part of the country the New England elites couldn’t be bothered to look up on Google Maps (e.g. “Where is that—Wisconsin?” / “Oh, sorry; that’s flyover country to me.”).

In leaving, I craved a place fundamentally different to Brookline; an environment based on authenticity without ego or the desire for unconventionality purely for unconventionality.

But it’s not that here, either.

Instead, we’ve got a similar sort of mindset—Carleton Quirkiness—which can often be confusing:

What is Carleton Quirkiness? Does it exist? From where does it emanate?

Pinning down the origins and causes of wide-spread, inherent and engrained social patterns and attitudes is nearly impossible. Their symptoms and effects however, are much easier to identify. But the underlying reasons can only be vaguely explored.

Maybe it’s just a general collegiate thing; it’s impossible to tell. Maybe it’s something predetermined about Carls; maybe, in that regard, it’s Carleton’s status as an “elite” liberal arts college, and the ineluctable self-congratulatory notions of justice and prestige that come with that:

That couldn’t be the case, though, because [Carleton College is an elite liberal arts college] Carleton students are overwhelmingly modest [in Northfield, Minnesota, with an impressive sub-20% acceptance rate]. I don’t think most of them know their school ranks so highly; [and subsequently sky-high college rankings—of particular importance is our status as #1 in Undergraduate Teaching,] in fact, Carleton is a member of the Annapolis Group, [per the U.S. News and World Report.] a group of colleges critical of the mainstream collegiate ranking system. [Carleton is an envied and respected school and students should be proud] We don’t take ourselves too seriously here. [and appreciative to attend such a high-achieving institution.] We’re just average Joe students.

And in the vein of elitism, it might be that sort of same “perpetual elitism” as attributed to Brookline:

We (students) are here, currently attending an (by most accounts) elite academic institution that, most likely, required standing out from a young age. (N.B.: This applies, here, to Carleton, but is applicable to any college—it’s a privilege very few humans get to experience.). Every single Carl worked hard to achieve a spot at such a place—beyond just strong grades (and all that other college admissions eye candy) and an ability to think creatively and intuitively.

It’s obvious—and warrants no further mention—that Carleton students are smart(ish).

Once again, maybe it’s students’ history of success that  predisposes them to an urge to act on their inherent uniqueness and that leads to their adoption of a quirky identity and, at large, the perpetration of the Carleton Quirky culture.

It’s important, however, to define what quirkiness even means (implies, contributes, associates, etc.):

The Cambridge Dictionary defines it as “the quality of being unusual in an attractive and interesting way,” but it seems that definition falls short of the fuller, more adaptive definition employed at Carleton. Here, it seems more a desire for connotation—perhaps that urge to validate a feeling of superiority (negative or otherwise) given that individual’s status as a Carleton student. Or maybe it’s a sense of purpose or requirement to fit into an environment of “complexity” and “intellect.” Fundamentally, what underlies the following of any trend is the desire to fit in and fly under the radar.

Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once argued in a lecture that “It is not only difficult to describe what appreciation consists in, but impossible. To describe what it consists in we would have to describe the whole environment.”

In this way, quirkiness (i.e. “appreciation” for it) probably varies from school to school, environment to environment; but, as with anything else, Carleton’s student body is completely unique, its personality and/or profile independent from any other community and only able to be described in context and fuller explanation. But, inevitably, all investigations fall short of true definition—as that would fall outside human capacity. 

To take this one step further: Appreciation is mastery, and mastery is, as close as is humanly possible, a full understanding—via experience—of an environment and its traits, trends, habits and more abstract atmosphere.

For myself (and, most likely, many other Carls), it’s experience with Carleton’s faux-quirkiness.

But this inquiry begs the question of “What on earth does ‘quirky’ even mean; do students even consider its definition before acting it?”

Via abductive reasoning and in that earlier Wittgenstein train of thought, it seems more fitting to adapt and revise the term’s exact definition in the fuller picture of Carleton’s via Brookline’s quirkiness, which are strikingly similar:

It’s built on a “so random” sense of humor via popular outlets (with the false pretense that they’re against the norm and not that popular; e.g. The Office, John Mulaney, Parks and Rec—which are all funny, valid forms of entertainment, but often a near-unquestionable norm); the desire to be “crunchy” and “anti-corporation” while still owning Apple products; a false sense of being oddball via subscribing to popular, widely-followed trends.

Above all, and most importantly, it’s a sense of unfamiliarity and discomfort with “true” quirkiness, as, then, being “left-field” changes from being “in,” “cool” and “offbeat” to something seemingly unapproachable and, to others, unattractive. I can only describe it semi-melodramatically as a fundamental sort of depression/emptiness:

You’re immediately bored by formulaic, repetitive behaviors that offer no stimulation for you at all; not that the behaviors are stupid or less valid by any means—they just don’t come across, fundamentally. It’s not really a choice; it’s just how you’re wired. Someone to be dealt with rather than talked to or spent time around. Maybe it’s even a sort of dopamine rush. It seems almost like thrill-seeking but, really, it’s a search for familiarity in the uncomfortable.

It (and its social ramifications) require therapy. It’s broken conclusions and the opposite of a rational agent; decisions don’t make sense and the only thing that does come across, logically, are those that are logically incompatible—at its core, really, the question of “Could this thing be done purely because nobody would necessarily want it to?”

Something like that. So, it’s not, really, just an aesthetic. It’s the dichotomy between what is and isn’t “real” quirkiness.

Sure, Carleton Quirkiness is standing out from the crowd—but it’s how much, exactly, one stands out that becomes the issue. It’s more a mainstream, familiar sense of unfamiliarity that is so routine at Carleton it pervades true quirkiness and ostracizes different-thinking individuals.

So, as in the Illinois–Brookline transition, it (seems to) warrants change. Your sense of self troubles you—something’s wrong, you’re the only one standing out; you’re not funny, nor are you nice or “normal”; you grate on others with a Velcro-esque edge, reminding you exactly of what you left home to avoid. You gradually transform:

But so what have you become? Does it render you the same type of banality and normalness that makes you depressed? Is it your true sense of vitality? Who even are you anymore? What were you?

And what is real quirkiness at Carleton? The real desire to deviate, or, like before, a status thing? Memory building on itself, informing your future actions—or changing them completely? Remembrance deposits objects in your plane of view from your moment of birth to the present; is that a rose-colored lens or a clear prescription?

It seems that, at least personally, quirkiness underlies a fractured sense of identity akin to a firecracker for which no one label makes sense, one moment providing comfort and the next dismantling it.

It subverts the inherent meaning of the term, obscuring it and calling into question what even constitutes its meaning anymore.

It seems that Carleton Quirkiness isn’t quirkiness at all; in fact, it doesn’t seem to exist—it seems more a pretense and perhaps false belief (maybe even the presence of an oppressive, deceptive culture) than the “real” Carleton mindset it’s made out to be.

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