Starting in middle school, my friends decorated their bedroom walls with posters of sports cars whose names, to my virgin ears, suggested high end Italian prostitutes.
Lamborghini Countach might wear something gauzy and translucent as she lured me into her softly lit Tuscan den of iniquity, while Ferrari Testarossa would teach me moves that were surely illegal in the U.S. in her Milan apartment full of mirrors and vinyl furniture the color of lipstick.
My adolescent friends dreamed of the day they could drive fast cars to attract women with big hair and small bikinis, which was the basic plot summary of every Duran Duran video on MTV at the time.
In high school, one friend would go on to fix up a ‘67 Mustang with a cherry red paint job while another spent his after school job earnings on a truck with a two foot suspension, large knobby tires and vanity plates boasting “IDSMOKU.” But I am getting ahead of myself.
As the oldest in the group, I was first among my friends to get a license and became the reluctant chauffeur for a loud group of hormonal sophomores with correspondingly sophomoric humor. My borrowed Saturday night ride was mom’s Chevy Caprice Classic, a big red station wagon.
My peers cruised our town’s main street with tricked out sound systems that occupied the entirety of their back seats and were powerful enough to dissolve kidney stones. The bass on my GM stock radio brought to mind a toddler striking a metal lunch box. The lone bumper sticker read: “I’m the mommy, that’s why!” My ride was humble, signaling to potential mates, “He may not have roguish charm, ladies, but he can drive your children from prior relationships to and from elementary school no problem.”
I’d bring the station wagon with me to college, upgrading to a velvet-upholstered Oldsmobile inherited from my grandfather. When that car died, a 1996 Saturn sedan (the only new car I’ve ever owned) was a surprise gift from my parents during medical school. I’d drive it into the ground, trading it in 14 years later for a used Kia, which is the nicest car I’ve ever driven.
These days, I don’t mind driving the biggest beater in the doctor’s parking lot – I’ve come to grow into my outsider identity, and I gratefully learned at an early age not to link my self-worth to my automobile. Doctor friends I socialize with have created a unique mental category (I’d like to think it’s lovable weirdo) to exempt me from their judgment, since they can’t figure out what yardstick to use for comparison. Exclusion has its privileges.
When I think about the factors that cultivated my sense of outsider status during my formative years, driving an embarrassing mommy car was right up there. The (possibly unintentional) gift of teen shame was bestowed upon me at exactly the right time by my parents. My folks generously shared with me what they had to give, but they never overextended their spending to keep up with the Joneses, and watching how effortlessly comfortable they felt in their skin (not an easy task for immigrants) taught me by example.
I went on to marry a woman whose first car was also a station wagon – any coincidence that she is comfortable bucking mainstream expectations alongside her frugal husband? The wife and I often discuss how we can similarly cultivate a sense of outsider status in our kids. Just as vaccines protect them from physical diseases, we hope to inoculate the kids against the judgments of others and reduce the short and long-term effects of peer pressure, for the benefit of their psyches and their wallets.
The earlier we can help them opt out of internalizing or seeking to adapt to the judgments of others, the better-equipped they’ll be to live the lives they want instead of the lives others think they should want. The FIRE movement is filled with the deliberately oblivious, and with foresight (and a bit of luck) we’ll recruit our kids to this greater cause.