Digital Tattoo

Writers are a pack of liars, and the only people who will tell you the truth. They take that wound and rub lemons and salt in it. They fatten the scar and then show you. You’ll be hard pressed to tell what’s genuine.

I broke my wrist when I was in fourth grade playing a game we enthusiastically called “Smear the Queer.” Kids call it “Spear the Weird” now; did you know that? I learned that the other day. I’m both tickled and mortified, because there will always be a “weird,” even as we demolish specifics, and I know I’ll always be one of them.

Or, I guess I’ll always know I was one of them. Bruce Springsteen told Elizabeth Wurtzel that your darkness goes away as you age. Mine’s going away, even though I know there’s a darkness on the edge of town, and I’m wanting things that can only be found there.

I believe intentionality is governed partly by choice but mostly by lizard brained, subconscious impulses that we don’t quite understand. Our digital footprint (those of us raised on the internet, at least) more resembles the scarification from adolescent stupidity than it does well thought out mature modes of expression. (The success of which can be determined by marketability, I’ve only recently realized).

If you’ve never played the game, it’s where someone gets the football (some unlucky, scrawny sucker like myself back then), and the rest of everybody else piles on top of him until he’s flattened into the dirt. Just clobbered into paste.

I landed the way they always tell you not to: I put my hand out, trying to break my fall, and it snapped against the ground. POP! I remember my fingernails touching the backs of my wrist, and pain sensations shooting into my brain, but, more than anything, I remember not wanting to look weak.

So I jumped around like a duck on a hot plate, and I didn’t scream, and I didn’t cry, and I didn’t admit that my nerves were swimming dumbly through my arm, and my hand was going numb. I ignored the ugly lump forming at my wrist where the bone was starting to sag through. I kept playing.

It wasn’t until I went in for a tackle of my own, and my wrist snapped back a second time, and I could actually watch my hand flop back over my arm, that I realized I had some kind of a problem.

I still didn’t feel I should admit it, but I’m glad I finally did. That would have been an awful secret to hide.

If you’ve ever been in a cast, you know there’s a funky smell that builds up around it, beyond the thick plaster and the cotton insides. It’s a hot, wet smell. Imagine if your running shoes were alive and sweating and you’ll get the idea. It’s the smell of moisture building up on your skin, and you not being able to wash it, and I could not stop smelling it for the life of me when I was a kid.

It was a real gas, I thought, and it repulsed me, but I would always smell it again, as if just to remind myself that my arm was actually in there, somewhere in the dark, and it was…what, rotting away?

(If your arm’s in a cast, but you can’t see it, is it still there?)

When the cast came off my arm felt new and strange and weak like a lifeless action figure I’d liberated from its clamshell case—a hunk of plastic that was somehow a part of me. It is the opposite of phantom limb syndrome. It was pale and small and I thought for sure it would break again, but it hasn’t.

It got stronger, maybe, than it had been before. Such is the nature of wounds.

I think I was upset that it didn’t leave a scar. I’ve got an army of those, and I love them like children. There’s one on my chin from diving into the shallow end of the pool. The hairs on my chin don’t grow there, but I’m proud of that spot. It is the only bald spot I can really get behind.

I’m also proud of a funky nest of scars on my chest that are from climbing out of a different pool a few years later. There was some kind of pipe dangling over the edge puking water into the deep end, and I was blissfully unaware of it. I got real excited by diving back and forth across the top of the water like a bullet, and I’d climb out just as quickly, run to the chain link fence that surrounded the pool, and do it again.

Well, I musta done that all day long before finally emerging where that pipe was. I shot through the metal, and it’s aggravating to me that two objects cannot be in the same place at the same time. I got all caught up on that pipe, slicing my face and my chest on the thing as I shot out of the water. Soon, little ruby blood drops spotted the blue chlorine, and I was dashing to the bathroom trying not to make a spectacle. Which, in hindsight, was a joke. A friend of mine ran after me holding something pink and waxy in his hand yelling “You left a piece of your face on the pipe!”

We couldn’t graft it back on. I think someone suggested tape. Oh, to be young.

Somehow, the face didn’t scar, but for a while I had a rigid dagger of a scab that snaked its way down my forehead. I wore glasses at the time, too, and was a dead ringer for Harry Potter. That somehow mortified me back then, but I’m charmed by it now. You learn to love your scars as you do some bad memories. They’re all you’ve got like tattoos in your mind and on your body.

And what of my online presence? Well, it’s gonna look loved too, I guess. As a generation, we’re tearing our insides out on this thing. The blogs are our confessionals, and the high school/college photo-galleries are our amateurish efforts at marketing ourselves.

A woman I work with introduced me to the term “Digital Tattoo” the other day. It’s a mark you’ve left on the internet, an electronic slug trail, and I guess that’s what this is: a digital tattoo. The idea, of course, is that it’s something you might regret later, so you should be wary about what you put out there into the Wild Wild West that is the internet, before it’s there permanently.

I believe intentionality is governed partly by choice but mostly by lizard brained, subconscious impulses that we don’t quite understand. Our digital footprint (those of us raised on the internet, at least) more resembles the scarification from adolescent stupidity than it does well thought out mature modes of expression. (The success of which can be determined by marketability, I’ve only recently realized).

This is where I’m dumping my scars. I called them “Digital Keloid” last month, and I’m partial to that myself. Somewhere, James Woods is chanting “Long Live the New Flesh” as a VCR opens up in his belly. We’re living it, you know? Carving our own little corners in the digital flesh, leaving ourselves there. We really should be careful, but sometimes the scars—the imperfections—are what make us interesting.

It makes sense. The dings in your flesh—the lines in your forehead and face, the calluses on your hands—they’re the only evidence you have of a life lived. And don’t get me wrong, growing older is the pits, but the blossoming imperfections have a weight to them that’s hard to appreciate when you’re outside the flesh. But when you’re inside? All those sags and tabs and divots—they’re representative of something.

When I was a small child, and I’d get dispirited that an action figure I’d banged against the wall too many times had become disfigured, my mom would tell me the figure had been “loved,” and I guess that’s what I’m getting at.

All of this aging means I got mileage out of my body. My machine is gonna be a peeling paint job some day, but it will hopefully speak fondly to the past.

Do you ever think that, maybe, we shouldn’t have been given the incredible power the internet provides to try and externalize all that before we were even legally allowed to drink?

And what of my online presence? Well, it’s gonna look loved too, I guess. As a generation, we’re tearing our insides out on this thing. The blogs are our confessionals, and the high school/college photo-galleries are our amateurish efforts at marketing ourselves.

Evidence of a stubborn declaration that the past was better, even as it was unfolding in the present, by virtue of it not being the future, which was (and is) a tangled mess of a nightmare.

I think our digital scars are manifestations of a fear we’ve internalized.

We’ve been told for a very long time that our generation is screwed. That we’re going to have to pay for all of it—the debt, the Medicare, the Social Security, the wars we didn’t want, the things we never had much of a say in until recently. We’re told that it’s over. The ozone is going to burn up and kill us, the environment’s going to commit suicide, we’re going to suck up all the oil from the earth until it’s just dry and brittle.

The planet’s gonna explode, terrorists will bomb us to tar, unless we do something about it. There’s a huge number of us—more than the baby boomers—but we seem small somehow. Like the debt and the future have conspired against us and dwarfed us. We stop having kids. We look for new ways out. We shirk away from it all—our adolescence extended, our undergraduate degrees useless, our loved super hero action figures given pulses at the cinema.

Stuck in a spot where all popular culture is aimed at adolescents with disposable income, and we find our pop culture sensibilities growing while our income diminishes and we realize, with dread, that we’ve physically outgrown our adolescence, but mentally, human anatomy still makes us giggle.

What are we? We are Millennials. Hear us roar.

Are we bad? I’ve suckled on the teet of electronic trash since I was old enough to type; it’s not my fault if the milk is bad. I think it tastes good. I’m the product of my environment—its crashing, electric lights, and microscopic pixels. I’m more comfortable with high definition than I am with real life.

Do you ever think that, maybe, we shouldn’t have been given the incredible power the internet provides to try and externalize all that before we were even legally allowed to drink?

I can’t even internalize it now, but here I am, spitting it back at you.

We love The Big Lebowski: “F*** it, dude. Let’s go bowling.”

We’re left with:
Let’s make the most of the night like we’re gonna die young.

Worse, we’re left with:
YOLO.

Our youth displays the digital scars of being left in a scramble for self-validation, of living in the moment, trying to preserve the moment, knowing the moment was something, that it was anything at all, a kind of currency (the only currency), because it’s all coming down anyway.

Our digital scars are a condemnation of the future. We’re checkered, alright.

Notice that we’ve learned to love our zombie apocalypse scenarios.

Spoiled? You bet. Romantic? I think.

We learned to sell it, at least. Whatever it is we had. We weren’t just having a good time in life –we were photographing it and updating about it and selling the idea that we were having a good time, even while that good time was happening. We knew it wasn’t all that great, because we couldn’t stop freaking out about what came after it. It didn’t matter if we were falling apart on the inside. You can’t see it in the pictures, and appearances have maybe always been everything.

If someone is rotting on the inside, but smiling on the outside, is it really happening?

Likewise, if someone hosts a party in the woods, and no outsiders see it, does it even matter?

At some point, we’re all writers—writing with images and status updates, lying and living and hustling. We are buying and selling moments in a hall of mirrors where we all live for the applause to drown out the crushing impossibility we have to someday face.

Growing up. What a nightmare.

Notice that we’ve learned to love our zombie apocalypse scenarios. Zombie movies are both the apocalypse we’re convinced will come to pass and the apocalypse we secretly want, maybe, to smash through that hall of mirrors. Life would be simpler without the digital keloid, maybe. Without the pressure it warrants, without the pressure to sell even if you haven’t got a product. Maybe better not to have a pot to piss in, and only have to worry about where you’re gonna stock up ammunition to fight a horde of

the undead.

We’re still wracking up friend requests, though, and followers—better my zombie crushing army is bigger than yours, lest we have to fight someday. Competition rules the day. It’s in our DNA, and flowers around our scars and beautifies our tattoos.

(And this disaster fetish is a privilege of the spoiled anyway, isn’t it? The ultimate expression of the spoiled romantic.)

What interests me is what’s in the cracks, beyond the photo galleries and the shared videos. The Badlands. The Darkness Springsteen said we’d get over.

I’m getting over mine, but it’s still there. I don’t think my digital record, or my body at large, will ever be entirely scrubbed clean. It’d take a lot of airbrush to get rid of all the imperfections.

I guess, maybe, getting over your darkness is realizing that you don’t want to diminish those things. When you stop obsessively clearing your history. When you embrace your mistakes and inadequacies and learn to work on them without secretly wanting to mortally wound them.

You don’t need to salt and lemon the wounds, but you don’t need to airbrush them, either.

You, at some point, learn to accept these misguided monuments to a past that was perfect because of its recklessness. The scars, the dings, the digital disasters—you romanticize them. (Something maybe we were ill-equipped to do in the moment; what with all the pressure of appearances and the blood drops flowering in the swimming pool).

You learn, quite motherly, to take solace in the fact that all those little imperfections, like the ones spotting your banged up toys, are evidence that you were loved.

The trick, I guess, would be in not needing to see it to believe it. To know that you’re still there beneath the cast, and you’re not all that rotten after all.

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