One of the Cool Kids

“I always feel like such a loser!” lamented one of my coolest friends as we sipped from our respective mochas at a downtown Alterra.

An extended eye roll from my side of the table caused her to further elaborate on her melodrama in an attempt to legitimize her case. Realizing halfway through her rant that she was failing to chip away at my disbelief, she raked her pink-tipped fingers through her choppy bangs and blurted out “Becky, I’m serious! This is a real issue!” before driving her face into the nook of her crooked elbow, which was resting on the edge of the table. Her edgy auburn ponytail quivered as she continued grumbling into the ridges of the wooden surface.

I suppose that’s what happens when one is pursuing a career in the fashion world.

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That’s right—this is her! Feel free to roll your eyes along with my past self.

Still, it never fails to boggle my mind when my friend gets into one of these funks. Always on top of the latest trends, my friend is gorgeous, charismatic, brilliant, and loved by everyone who comes into contact with her—save the occasional jealous female who finds my friend intimidating. As usual, I gently reminded her of all the aforementioned things. Dismissing my words with a wave of her hand, she raised her head, let out a deep sigh of exasperation, and asked how I manage to feel cool all the time.

Taken slightly aback, I assured her that I did not always manage to feel cool. Yet, as the phrase escaped from my lips, the words of a dynamic guest speaker a professor brought into my class semester filled my mind: “Be Cool, Stick Out, Make a Difference“. Maybe I should always feel cool.

Hours upon the conclusion of my friend session, I found myself wondering what it meant to truly encompass the arbitrary state of “being cool”. What do I do that makes me feel “cool”? Well, since you asked:

  1. Laugh. Laugh with reckless abandon. Interact with people who’s sense of humor aligns with yours, and don’t try and suppress the joy that bubbles out of your system. Afraid someone will be irritated by your unbridled happiness? Don’t be. As a cool person, you should know that their irritation only stems from jealousy. You are clearly having the time of your life, while they are having a mediocre day at best.
  2. Capitalize on a talent. For me, this includes figure skating. Parents and children have stopped dead in their tracks on route to the public skate rink, mesmerized by the way that my friends and I spun and leapt across the ice. The shiny national silver medal in my room helps as well. This is not to say that your coolness needs to be reaffirmed by the public. Who wouldn’t feel cool blasting N*SYNC at 5:30 a.m. while doing laps on an empty rink?
  3. Read. Do you know how many literary references are made in movies, songs, comedy acts, or simply every day life? No? Imagine how much cooler you would feel if you caught on to that obscure line from 1984 in that one Rage Against the Machine song! On a similar note…
  4. Stay up to date with pop culture. Certainly, you do not need to watch every episode of Glee. Being aware of the basic plot line and a couple main characters could be useful, however. Watch the Oscars. Read some EW articles from time to time—just to make sure you did not miss any breaking news on the latest Chris and Rihanna drama.
  5. Lend a helping hand. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Look over someone’s paper. Become a cat socializer at a local animal shelter. Opportunities to make the world a better place are in abundance. A warm fuzzy feeling will fill your soul and spill over to those around you when lending a hand. To say the least, it is a cool feeling.

Of course, there are a plethora of ways to accomplish the goal of “being cool”. This short list barely touches upon the endless possibilities. Regardless of the route you choose to tread on your quest for coolness, do be sure to ultimately reach that promised land. In the world of Public Relations, being cool is of the utmost importance. Boring people fade into the background, while the loud, creative ones with all kinds of bizarre stories rise to the top. Find out what your cool factor is and flaunt it. Know that others are trying to do the exact same thing, and refuse to be intimidated by their cool factor. Because, if you cannot connect to the power of your coolness—it is unlikely that others will be able to see it.

Being Confident

Earlier this week, I had the great pleasure of meeting with Carrie Nygren of Laughlin Constable’s Milwaukee office. I have known her for years as the mother of an old skating buddy, but recently rediscovered her as a wise woman in the advertising world. We talked about a lot of thing—the sad state that figure skating is in, the differences between the North and the South (she grew up in Tennessee), the pros and cons regarding various agencies in town, and the small world of Milwaukee PR.

As she looked over my resume, Carrie offered up one main critique: “Be more confident”

She smiled, letting the initial wave of shock behind her statement resonate with me before it faded into confusion. Furrowing my eyebrows, I look from my resume to her, then back to my resume. As I opened my mouth to question her, she laughed and explained that she knows I’m confident. “But,” she said as she pointed to the first few bullet points on my resume, “these points do not necessarily showcase that”.

I could feel my eyes reaching full expansion capacity as she continued her bullet-by-bullet explanation. Obviously, she was right. What I couldn’t believe was that I had been doing the same thing that so many women before me had done. I had been doing exactly what so many professors had been warning us about and begging us not to do.

I had been selling myself short!

I know, I know. It's shameful.

I know, I know. It’s shameful.

As Carrie knows, confidence is not something I lack. Maybe this was instilled in me through DSHA. Maybe it was through my life in the spotlight as a competitive figure skater. Maybe it was through my bombtastic friends who always make me feel like a San Fran 49er pre-SB ’13. It could just be my Puerto Rican blood. In fact, my parents might tell you that I came tumbling out of the womb radiating spunk and tenacity. I really can’t say. Regardless, I know I’m smart, funny, fun, talented, and whatnot. Plus, on the few days a month when my hair decides to drop its attitude and behave, I am nearly unstoppable!

Bringing it back to my future career, talking and writing have always been my strongest points. To the dismay of my grade school teachers and the delight of my current professors, it’s what I do best. Everyone who knows me knows this.

Yet, as Carrie pointed out—not once did I mention my communication skills on my resume. Similarly, my writing skills had hardly been touched upon. The same went for my unique ability to connect with pretty much any audience. The points on my resume could effectively let an HR person know that I have had legitimate internships, but it hardly describes the extent to which I threw myself into my work experiences and turned it into something more valuable than a job description on Big Shoes Network.

When professors spoke of women who rely on hedging as a crutch, who are afraid to ask for a raise, and who continuously fail to highlight their successes, I never thought they were referring to me. Surely, blunt and boisterous Becky rose above all that! Right?

I mean, look how strong and aggressive I am!

Look how strong and aggressive I am!

Nope. What’s worse is that I thought I was properly displaying myself to the world. I thought I was coming off as a powerful woman. Alas, I had fallen into the same trap as so many others. As it turns out, the disconnect between women’s true selves and the way they portray themselves on paper is more common than I had assumed. This type of behavior is so customary that some of us are oblivious to our own passiveness!

Talk about a much needed reality check. Looks like “amplify resume’s aggressive power” just got added to my weekend to-do list.

So, to my fellow dynamic female compadres—check yourselves! This could be happening to you. Look over your personal branding material. Could you be taking a more aggressive approach to the presentation of your skill set? Standing out in a crowd is crucial to success, and bland resume statements are the equivalent of a beige sweater.

After all, no one wants to be the Michelle of the group.

After all, no one wants to be the Michelle of the group.

Soundtrack to my Life—Dealing With It

Intro

I am constantly listening to music.

I have an obscene amount of playlists created on my iTunes account. Some were created with specific events in mind, others are simply labeled “Mood A” and so on. I ran out of letters at one point, so I’m starting to borrow letters from other languages, such as “ñ” and “ç”. But, that’s not entirely relevant. The point is: Music defines me.

One of the friends that I lived with during my time in Madison felt similarly. We both had a working knowledge of thousands of songs and (much to the annoyance of our other roommates) occasionally spoke to each other exclusively in song lyrics. Pulling various lines from various decades, we would sing-talk at each other for hours.

Sometimes, bands and artists really nail it; on occasion, we will find a song that perfectly sums up that indefinable thought that has been racing through our heads.

Dealing With It

With the help of some songs that I have been listening to recently, I am going to discuss the events of 3/8/13-3/14/13.

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I never thought [you’d] die alone. [You] laughed the loudest, who’d have known?

About a week ago, as I was decimating a heavily sauced turkey burger and enjoying a drag show at a local restaurant where a few of my friends work, I received a phone call that shot back and grabbed a long-forgotten fear of mine from a dark corner in my brain, dragging it to the forefront of my mind and leaving it there to re-root itself in my head.

My mind went numb as I listened to the frantic voice of my younger sister on the line. I sat in shock as I registered phrases like “He shot himself in the stomach,” “No note,” “No one knows why,” and “They pulled the plug” coming from the other line.

Full of broken thoughts I cannot repair, beneath the stains of time…

When I was in high school, one of my greatest fears was that a friend would commit suicide. High school was a tough time for many of the people I knew, and the media was constantly barraging the public with the latest high school suicide rates. I learned about self-mutilation during my freshman year and was horrified to discover that this was not an uncommon practice for people in my age bracket.

But it didn’t happen. We all made it through without having to attend any of each other’s funerals. As college began and one year gave way to another, I watched everyone grow up. No longer was anyone suffering under the toils of puberty and the Mean Girls-esque high school social scene. Sure, we still struggled from time to time, but it was a different kind of struggle. A struggle that was manageable, now that we were all adults. We all knew how to talk out our problems now, and we knew when to seek professional help (there wasn’t a stigma attached to therapy anymore). Now that we were older, we stopped blaming ourselves for things that were out of our control. We had people we could trust. As adults, we learned to deal with the things that life threw at us.

Or, at least, that’s what I thought. How terribly, terribly naive of me.

2638_58416419321_795356_nDidn’t even think he had a problem…

It was an old friend of mine from my hometown, one that I had been rather close to during my high school years. As cliche as it sounds, he was one of the last people I would have ever expected to take his own life. He greeted everyone with the biggest of bear hugs—even if it was the first time he had ever met someone. People would light up when he walked into the room because his joy and fun-loving attitude were that contagious. Spending time with him ensured gratuitous amounts of laughter and singing, usually in combination with the kind of crazy adventures that result from a small hometown, a big truck, and a handful of hyper teenagers. This friend also knew how to listen. People came to him with their woes. Life’s tribulations were seemingly no match for him, as every misery-stricken friend who came to him left with a renewed sense of spirit and a gleaming smile that threatened to dissolve into giggles at any second. The kind of smile that mirrored the one that was always on his face.

Now, I am not one to over-glorify the dead. He had flaws, of course. After all, he was an unapologetic country fan. He had a tendency to cancel plans at the last minute. He broke a heart or two. Typical teen stuff. But, this was all overshadowed by the overwhelming amount of positive in that kid. Always polite, always loving, always singing, always involved with his church and community.

Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did…

As friends share old photos and memories on his Facebook wall, the same underlying message rings clearly behind everyone’s sentiments: WHY?

As was said during the eulogy at his funeral, he had a way of making people feel special. He would loudly greet people with a “[insert first and last name of person being addressed here]! HOW THE HECK ARE YA’ DOIN’?!” before they even knew he had arrived. One time he had stopped by my house unexpectedly. When I heard his typical greeting echo down the hallway, I bounced up, took three powerful strides, and leapt into his arms. Not realizing how powerful the velocity behind my excitement was, I had nearly bowled him over. The apology I had tried to offer was lost in his laughter. He had been used to those kinds of shenanigans from people. Everyone who was fortunate enough to encounter him loved him.

The entire city was in pain. We all lost a family member that night.

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And you feel the eyes upon you, as you’re shaking off the cold. You pretend it doesn’t bother you, but you just want to explode.

Alas, the world had not actually stopped turning. Days passed, and before our weary souls knew it, it was Monday. Time to drag our heavy hearts to work. Chipper coworkers would stop by before I even took my coat off and—as routine would have it—ask how my weekend went. The amount of effort it took to take a deep breath, smile, and say that it was “okay” was unreal. How was I supposed to answer that question?

My attempt to talk to as few people as possible that Monday completely backfired. I seemed to leave my desk at the exact time that everyone else got up to do something. It felt like I was forced into polite hallway conversation that day more than any other day in my 22 years on this earth. The weight of my grief was starting to be rivaled by that of my irritability. More than ever, I just wanted to be left alone to focus on work. Naturally, it had to be the day that everyone was torturing me with all kinds of questions about my weekend. Somewhere in the back of my head, a voice of reason was gently reminding me that they were not actually trying to be malicious and that I would have reveled in this attention any other week. The voice was right, of course, but it was just as equally irrelevant.

The mental friction caused by trying to continuously shove these thoughts out of my head while reminders kept flowing in was wearing on me. It was exhausting. In spite of everything, I still managed to be productive. However, my fierce level of focus was not without consequence. A raging headache plagued me for the remainder of the evening—the result of a 9 hour mind battle during which I fought hard to keep him out of my thoughts.

I can’t look out the window. I can’t look at this place. I can’t look at the stars, they make me wonder where you are.

During the days leading up to the funeral, I desperately tried to distract myself. The problem was, he was everywhere. My boyfriend and I went shopping, hoping that good ol’ retail therapy would cheer me up. On the way to a store in the mall, we passed the food court. Almost immediately, the smell of cheap Mexican food worked its way into my olfactory system.

Once the smell hit, I was taken back to a time with my late friend. We had been riding in his big, shoddy, ridiculously hick-looking truck. I had no idea where we were going, because planning a destination to our “road trips” across town conflicted with his style. I had shaken my head and giggled as he rolled down the windows and sang—no, screamed—along to some terrible country song. Suddenly, he had turned off the radio and veered into the parking lot of our local Taco Bell. He told me that night that he he hoped I was hungry, because he was buying.

Lost in this memory, I floated through the shopping trip. I hardly remember doing any shopping.

217549_6340029321_3380_nBlackbird singing in the dead of night, take these broken wings and learn to fly. All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise […] Blackbird, fly into the light of the dark black night

Thursday morning eventually arrived. The day where we would lay my friend to rest had come. Work was a blur. The bus rides there and back were a blur. I only vaguely recall curling the ends of my hair and changing.

Before I knew it, I was at my parents’ house with my little sister.

Would I be out of line if I said: I miss you?

Standing in line at the wake, we smiled. There were somewhere between 12 and 20 poster boards that were covered in pictures of him at varying ages. We laughed as we recalled a few more of his stories. Ah, and there hung a string of his countless hats. I had nearly forgotten how much he had loved hats.

Turning around, I became acutely aware of exactly how vast his impact was on my community. Never before had I see my humble little church so full of people. Almost two hours before the service was scheduled to start, the seats were nearly full. Members of the church were scrambling to find folding chairs to elongate the rows. Chairs were even beginning to be set up in the foyer, just so everyone who wanted to stay could do so. Even still, people started lining up behind chairs and around the wall, knowing full well that there would not be enough seats for all who were mourning that day.

Pulled away before your time—I can’t deal, it’s so unfair! And it feels, and it feels like heaven is so far away. And it feels, yeah it feels like the world is so cold, now that you’ve gone away.

I couldn’t do it.

I had just rounded the last corner before approaching the casket and the family. As shoulders and feet shuffled, I caught a glimpse of him lying there. Lifeless. Contrasting so sharply with every memory I had with him. My throat tightened, and I stepped out of line. I couldn’t face him. I couldn’t deal with it. Ashamed, I kept my head down and my shoulders hunched slightly forward as I slipped into the back row.

Each of his younger siblings and both sets of his parents wrote letters to him and read them aloud to the congregation. The letters were a tragic, yet perfect mix of beauty, love, and pain. Their words reflected their current state: afraid, unsure, raw, broken, sincere, clinging tightly to anything they could. At that moment, their suffering seemed almost tangible. The air became thick with the pain of everyone in the room. An acidic taste developed in the back of my throat, and my lungs began to tighten. Heat rose to my face, centering itself behind my eyes. Muscles in my arms and legs began to inexplicably tense up. Slamming my eyelids shut, I silently willed myself to keep it together.

It’s alright, ’cause there’s beauty in the breakdown. So let go, let go…

And then, it was over.

Moving on autopilot, I grabbed my coat and got into the car. On the way back to Milwaukee, I slid my big, black sunglasses onto my face. The cover of darkness failed to offer enough privacy. Five or so minutes into the trip, the tension that nearly suffocated me at church was released. Finally, tears poured freely. Relief surged throughout my body. Every salty tear took a worry or question with it as it slid down my cheek. Some of the excess weight on my shoulders evaporated. A wave of peace rolled through me, and I realized that I was starting to move on. It would be a long journey, but I had taken the first steps.