Once I was Cool by Megan Stielstra
Publisher: Curbside Splendor
Guest Reviewed by Lavinia Ludlow
The conflict of growing up and inevitably “losing ourselves” affects us all. Everyone has to grow up and deal with inherited responsibilities of our situations—chosen or not—and how we work through those painful transitions is a test of our resilience and mind over matter. In this case, Megan Stielstra passed with flying colors. Once I Was Cool is a nostalgic look-back on the author’s life, illustrating a graceful transformation from awkward youth to adulthood where she has blossomed into a successful professional, wife, and mother.
She opens her collection with a simplistic, almost a dear-diary-like narrative, speaking to the reader as she reminisces about her early teenage years when she was fifteen, attending Lollapalooza, and “making out with boys who wore eye makeup.” Presently, she’s thirty-eight and living condo life, drinking Cabernet, and reflecting on just how abrupt the transitioned seemed to happen, and how in retrospect, she wished she’d known better:
“We hooked up, moved in together, got a dog, got married and now we’re supposed to buy a place ‘cause that’s the American Dream” sort of thing, because what if that dream changes? What if that dream is changing, right now, this moment, a plot-point on our historical timeline about privilege and ownership and societal norms and do you really want to buy this condo? I mean, far be it from me in the safety of hindsight to tell you what you should and should not do but man, if I could yell back across time to my younger self, I’d tell her, Honey—Rent.”
She waffles between periods of pride and uncertainty, not necessarily riddled with regret, but in need of validation of how, as the collection’s title suggests:
“Then I got out my cellphone and called my son’s godfather, my oldest friend, Jeff. ‘You have to promise,’ I said when he picked up. ‘Promise you’ll tell him that once, I was cool.’”
The theme carries over to other stories where Stielstra exhibits signs of a slight early mid-life crisis:
“Recently, I dropped a bunch of ecstasy and went to the symphony. A couple of lifetimes ago, I did this all the time: sinking down in my seat and wrapping the sound around me like a blanket, timpani dancing in my fingertips, the cello section syncing with my heartbeat. But then, what always happens happened: I got a job, got married, had a kid, and woke up one morning suddenly, surprisingly, a grown-up. What did you do when you realized you were…old?”
One slight snag in this collection: some of the narratives tailspin into how Stielstra has succeeded in life as a writer, mother, full-time teacher, how hot and amazing her husband is, which is fine, but at times, she lays it on a little thick and occasionally makes the book feel more like a HuffPost personal testimonial (particularly when the narration slips into informal raves) about how proud she is of her awesome life. Sometimes it felt as if she was trying to convince herself more than her audience. Staying focused on the stories versus internal reflection might have been a little more effective.
However, her zeal makes her collection (and personal journey) no less commendable. She has effectively illustrated what so many of us struggle with (and maybe cringe) when forced to reflect, or forced to confront those uncomfortable and often excruciating transitions between youth and adulthood. At one point, everyone is part of the upcoming generation all other generations are rolling their eyes at, and everyone inevitably ages into a generation of eye-rollers. As much as we would all like to stay cool forever as ageless Lost Boys inhabiting Neverland, life does not operate that way.
Many times, I was able to identify with the central theme, particularly becoming an age where I am starting to panic about being old and un-cool, and how the things I might be doing aren’t taboo anymore, they’re just sad and pathetic. At thirty-one, dropping E or staying out all night getting hammered and waking up in a public playground isn’t a scandalous naughty rush anymore, it’s just dumb. I’m twelve years too old to become a teen pregnancy statistic, and I’ve aged into that generation rolling its eyes at all those bright-eyed millennials who have never owned a compact disk or played an old school Nintendo, nor do they understand Office Space references—come on! Everyone has to know about Lumbergh, flair, and beating the shit out of a fax machine. “What’s a fax machine?” they ask. I’ve never used one either but at least I’ve seen the movie.
All in all, the collection has amazing personality, perhaps, I should say, the author has amazing personality. Stielstra takes us through her personal transformations over the years, we hear her first loves, her literary affair with Kafka, living abroad, pregnancy scares, and her lessons learned on dating, career, travel, and seeking out one’s self, even finding one’s voice. We see (and hear) how much this woman has transformed and matured from a young girl who:
“…wore combat boots, listened exclusively to Nine Inch Nails, and read waaaay too much Sylvia Plath for anybody’s health. My boyfriend was Ricky—he had green hair, AND a leather jacket, held together with safety pins. We’d met dissecting frogs in freshman biology, which in retrospect is an appropriate metaphor for our relationship.”
and grew into a responsible teacher, wife, and mother who now adores romantic comedies, flowers, and chocolates.
The coming-of-age stories are blatantly comical, and her eccentric openings reminded me of Scott McClanahan tales:
“In high school, a guy in my English class told me he was having recurring dreams about waking up as a giant cockroach.”
“When I was eighteen, I accidentally went to bed with a guy who had a glass testicle.”
Once I Was Cool highlights the most overlooked pieces of advice out there, that life is fleeting and no one should go along with a “once I get (or accomplish) this, I’ll be able to do this” mentality. We inevitably age out of our current set of circumstances, conflicts, and opportunities, and inherit new ones, and all the aspirations we carry into the next decade aren’t easier to accomplish when life throws new curve balls, be it economic, personal, physical, or emotional.
My last takeaway and the one that hit me the hardest, particularly as a book reviewer:
“Be honest in your assessment, be authentic in your language, but be nice.”
I give Stielstra heaps of credit for navigating through life’s major milestones and coming out the other side having stayed true to herself, her family, and her art. She maintains a household, a family, and a career, on top of being a major literary influencer. Megan, you’re (still) more than just cool, you’re fucking awesome.
Lavinia Ludlow is a musician, writer, and occasional contortionist. Her debut novel alt.punk can be purchased through major online retailers as well as Casperian Books’ website. Her sophomore novel Single Stroke Seven was signed to Casperian Books and will release in the distant future. In her free time, she is a reviewer at Small Press Reviews, The Nervous Breakdown, American Book Review, and now The Next Best Book Blog.