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Faking My Way Through Tolkien

Lord of the Clueless

by LINDA UEKI ABSHER

The Lord of the Rings is the hot tranny mess of my reading past: complicated, overly dramatic and involves costumes. And like that mess, my copy of the trilogy taunts me as mercilessly as a Christina Aguilera wannabe taunts a Jaegermeister-addled frat boy stupid enough to scream in the middle of her Lady Marmalade tribute.

It’s a rebuke of a half-hearted attempt at personal revisionism, sitting on a less accessible bookshelf in my basement, the one squeezed between a broken television and an inflatable exercise ball purchased in a panic after realizing I had become far too cozy with tubes of Nestle toll-house cookie dough. 

Not content to accept banishment, it mocks me as I try ignoring it on the way to the washing machine.  I’ve even carried the laundry basket on my shoulder in an effort to block the books from my line of vision, but the only thing I’ve been able to accomplish is knocking a fan blade off an overly-rattaned combo ceiling fan/light fixture that came with the house.

So why am I keeping the damn set?  Like so much of the personal detritus I’ve schlepped throughout my life, from the roommate-go-round of my twenties to my current pseudo-landed-gentry life in the Pacific Northwest, it’s a talisman of my youth.  It’s my paper monument to jealousy and, more importantly, pre-adolescent desperation. 

Feelin’ Clueless

The year: 1972. It was a time of insane fashion trends: hot pants, maxi-coats (and pads) and shirts echoing the semi-pornographic catch phrases of the times, usually illustrated with rollicking furries in an effort to belie its porny context.  It was not a time for the faint-hearted.

But I was faint-hearted.  Terrified would be more accurate. I was entering a new school in a new town in a country I hadn’t live in since I was eight: the United States.  I spent the late sixties and early seventies in a cultural bubble known as an air force base, one plopped in the middle of an island off the coast of Japan, an insular time-warp replete with ranch houses made of cinder-block and streets improbably named “Patterson Avenue” or “Sterling Heights”.

I had a feeling the United States wasn’t going to be the sprightly Batman/Petula Clark/Easy Bake Oven country of memory, but a scarier United States, a place The Stars & Stripes (the newspaper of record for the Armed Forces and of my youth) portrayed in such horrific detail (Hippies!  Narcotics!  Hippies on narcotics!) By the time we landed, I had pretty much convinced myself we would be greeted by people in fringed vests with syringes hanging conveniently from their forearms.

Since I didn’t fit in (or so I thought) I was desperate for a new identity. My sister had squatter’s rights on the cute/adorable/PYT persona; the only one left that was acceptable to both parents was one that I later discovered would make high school life a living hell: The Smart One.

The only problem was, I wasn’t that smart. Sure, I could work in references to Betty Friedan with only the vaguest notion about who she was, but when you’re surrounded with a peer group who thinks the face of feminism is Velma from Scooby Doo, it was easy, except for the one person who was the true intellectual of my junior high experience: Julie Nakagawa.

Julie represented everything I wasn’t: a polite, wise-beyond-her-years semi-adolescent with perfect skin and hair, who sported a near genius-level intellect and perfect bangs. Think of an Asian Susan Dey with actual musical talent and the potential to enter Berkeley at fourteen. And it didn’t help to have a mother whose daily morning greeting was "why can’t you be like Julie?"

I was in love/hate over Julie. If Julie wore cute A-line dresses, I wore A-line dresses, only twelve sizes larger. If Julie cut her hair, so did I. The problem was, she had straight Japanese hair that tumbled dutifully back into place whenever she tossed her sylph-like neck. Me? Picture the hair of a vaguely Asian Pillsbury Doughboy with a jewfro and you get the idea.

The one thing that stood out most about Julie was her and her equally intellectually superior friends’ obsession with LOTR. She told stories of their endless hair-splitting discussions of Middle Earth, wizards, ents or whatever vaguely Ango-Saxonish genus they cared to dissect. Images of Julie and her semi-elvish friends, slipping from class to class, dodging dull students while laughing in silvery lilts, dogged me during my English class discussions of The Red Badge of Courage. They were ninth-grade gods with braces.

It wasn’t until Julie told me they left an inside joke about their instructor on the blackboard in Elvish in one of their gifted classes that I decided to take action: I hopped on my orange ten-speed Schwinn, rode to the local K-Mart (my mother’s go-to place to buy my clothes) and bought the Trilogy.

I started out strong: the hobbits I was comfortable with. Then came the Elves. Then the dwarfs, the trolls, the orcas and the line of other LOTR races who, despite endless pages on how different they were from each other, spoke exactly the same way. Along with the anesthetizing parade of Middle Earth names like Bombadil, Elendil or Everclear, I had the horrible realization I was hopelessly lost. And it wasn’t going to be easy to find my way back.

But I was undeterred. I sloughed my way through Fellowship, then Two Towers and Return of the King. I played little tricks to keep me interested: pretending  I was a plucky hobbit with a troubling preoccupation with pipes and clawed toes, or fantasizing I was Elven goddess–anything to keep me reading. It must have worked because I did finish the damned set.

But the plan didn’t work. I was still me: I tossed witticisms about Boromir to classmates in what I thought was the same manner Dorothy Parker showered bon mots at the Algonquin Roundtable, but quickly realized first-period home ec was not exactly the gathering of the tribes when it came to intellectual discourse, particularly when attempting to learn how to sew elastic into a peasant blouse. I even tried impressing Julie with my knowledge of All Things LOTR, only to discover that she had moved on to reading Herman Hesse and Margaret Mead.

What did I get out of the whole ordeal? I was still as plump and unruly-haired as ever, though with the addition of an orange tie-dye shirt, I now had the added novelty factor of looking like a slightly abused pumpkin from afar.  Worse, my mother not only kept comparing me to Julie, she started pulling out Polaroids to illustrate her point. I shoved the books on the top shelf and tried not to think about being a Smart Kid ever again.

But it was too late. I had already learned an important lesson:  given the right crowd and props, I could sound and act as if I actually knew what I was talking about, which meant I could put myself in places that would get me somewhere.  Like college. 

But I still break out in a sweat whenever I hear a precocious tweener parsing the subtleties of the Council of Elrond.  If she knows what’s good for her, she needs to start swooning over sensitive vampire loners with great abs….

LINDA UEKI ABSHER is the creator of The Lipstick Librarian!  web site and has been featured in CounterPunch and Nerve.com  She works as a librarian in Portland, Oregon.