From the ages of 8 to 11 I wore berets to school. Every day. In my mind the wearing of berets made me a sophisticate, an eight year-old far more worldly than my classmates in their bedazzled fare. At the height of my beret period I owned upwards of 23 berets. It was like Dr. Seuss. There were blue berets and red berets, school berets and bed berets. I wore berets while playing ball. I wore berets while at the mall. I wore them here, I wore them there. I wore them nearly everywhere. Throughout third, fourth, and fifth grade, they were a mainstay. And I thought I was the coolest. I made no connection between my donning of hats meant for gay poodles, and my staggering unpopularity.
On the first day of middle school, I strolled into the kitchen wearing one of my jauntiest numbers, a purple wool beret with silver studs around the base. And my mother, with love in her heart, looked me in the 11 year-old eye and said, “If you ever want to have friends, you will stop wearing berets.” She made me take it off. I was hurt.
Throughout that first day, I encountered a new level of school bullying. My property was stolen and destroyed. I was covered in RC Cola. I was so, so glad that my mother made me take off the beret. I have no doubt the beret would have upped the ante considerably, and I enjoy not being burned in effigy. I only wish my mother had told me I looked like a dumbass earlier.
If you are engaging in jackassery, the better friend is not the one who supports your fantasy. The better friend says, “That makes you look fat,” or “There’s no way you can hit the high notes in ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’”, or “Honey, you are just not a lesbian. I’m sorry, but you’re not.” Reality bites. But in a good way.
Reality is a harsh teacher. And it gets a bad rep, for pulling no punches, and delving into corruption, and barbarity, and hopelessness. But with every act of cruelty it is begging us to make it better. Fantasy never asks for help. It never strives for improvement, because it already thinks it’s perfect. And that is dangerous. Fantastical thinking says, “Worry not about global warming.” It says, “Enjoy Pokemon. Believe in Scientology. Eat Hot Pockets.”
Also, Reality has better stories than Fantasy. There’s no fucking contest.
In Narnia, the Pevensie children escape the London Blitz and party down with talking animals and Christian allegory. They become war heroes, and leaders, and journeymen of the fantastical.
But in the inescapable Netherlands of World War II, a fifteen year-old Audrey Hepburn carried messages for the Dutch Resistance in her ballet shoes, and danced for audiences of spies by candlelight. When she finished they held their arms aloft in silent praise and thanks, because applause would bring the police.
In Hogwarts, an unassuming kid named Harry Potter discovers he has magical powers, becomes the greatest wizard ever, and saves the world, and it is, indeed, awesome.
In Kyoto there was a warrior named Okita Soji. He was a captain in the army. He was considered the greatest swordsman of his time. He was fourteen fucking years old.
In Verona, teenagers named Romeo and Juliet meet a tragic end because of unyielding parents and a series of contrived misfortunes, and it’s hella romantic.
In 1898 Britain a guy named Ewart Grogon falls in love with a woman named Gertrude. Her dad doesn’t like him, doesn’t think he’ll make anything of himself. So Ewart says he will walk across the length of Africa and prove he can do whatever he sets his mind to. Potential father in law is like, “A worthy task. Best of luck,” which is the Victorian equivalent of “Never gonna happen. Go for it, douchebag.” Ewart walks from Cape Town to Cairo. It takes two and a half years. He survives cannibals and fever, thieves and heat. He marries Gertrude shortly there after, and is “most joyously pleased,” which is Victorian for “Bangin’ your daughter tonight.”
Fantasy is what we can’t do. What we can’t have. What we can’t be.
Reality is the intricacy of blood vessels. It is the truth that we will destroy ourselves or venture to the stars. It is genocide and kindness, orgasm and prison. Reality is the most hilariously awful date ever, and the existence of Jolly Ranchers, and that time I totally got laid in a library. If there is a God, God’s face will be more wondrous and inane than anything we could dream. Reality is.
I am grateful for flights of fantasy, and the occasional escape. They are not without merit. Often, they are inspirational and necessary. But Jeff Mangum never records In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, unless he falls a little in love with Anne Frank. Richard Adams never tells his daughters a story about rabbits called Watership Down, unless he first learns true camaraderie during the Battle of Arnhem. Gene Roddenberry never creates Star Trek, and Sydney Newman never creates Doctor Who, and Charlaine Harris never creates True Blood, without first wanting a reality in which we actually don’t discriminate against those who are different, and we actually learn from the mistakes of our past, and in which we actually go boldly where we have never gone before. The fantasy of it, the trappings of vampires, of a goofy British time traveler, and the crew of the USS Enterprise, they’re trappings. Beneath, Reality is still there, more varied and kaleidoscopic than any artist can capture, begging us to make it even better.
And, yes, each night, as I drift off to sleep, I wander through fantastical, wonderful scenarios. I win awards, I perform with rock stars, I spend a sordid and sweaty week with Simon Pegg.
But the reality that cradles me is pretty sweeter. My boyfriend holds me, working out the problems of the day. And, I am able to sleep, and dream, because I know that in the morning, he will actually be there.
That’s what can happen when you accept the world as it is and stop wearing fucking berets.