Drive around the rural United States and you will find the detritus of the spiritual descendants of the Freemasons of the late Middle Ages. The Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, Moose, Odd Fellows and other like societies still have meeting halls in large towns and small cities, some still supporting residence homes for their elders and an occasional orphanage. The first president of the United States who was not a member of a Masonic order was John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who escaped the honor, it is fair to believe, because he was born and bred a Roman Catholic, in a church historically antipathetic to Masons. The joining urge is eternal. To the insecure, the only true security is exclusive inclusion.
The era of formal, organized, oath-taking, dues-paying, secret-handshake-sharing, member-supporting fraternal orders may be done and gone. But the most fundamental motivation -- the yearning to belong and by belonging to reject -- lives on, immortal. Through history, tribal orders, fraternal groupings and tree-house boys clubs have defined themselves by language that to outsiders is glossolalia. They bond with ritual, costume and attitude.
Consider Hipsters, the Freemasons of the New World Order.
If you are mystified, as I was, have a look at The Hipster Handbook, by Robert Lanham (Anchor / Random House, 170 pages, $9.95 softcover).
"Hipsters," Lanham asserts, "are a vital part of the international social fabric." Insisting they are a "ubiquitous genus," he declares that "anyone can become one with the proper education." There aren't many Rosicrucians around these days. But when there were, there was no Internet and no electronic music downloading, both mainstays of the rituals and identity of Hipsters.
One of the many determinants of Hipsterness, is distain for the SUV -- "Smog Unleashing Vehicle." Politically, they lean to the left and toward Tibetan, Vietnamese and Moroccan food. They believe or aver, Lanham declares, "that NPR is a pillar of objective journalism." Quintessential Hipsters are Marcel Duchamp, Sitting Bull, Lao Tzu. Gluten is a verb meaning "eat."
You can take this book as an enormous spoof wrapped as an insider's manual. Or you can take it as a genuine insider's manual packaged as an enormous spoof. Both are right. It is delightful, entertaining. And there are more illustrations to flesh out styles and practices than Colin Powell's slide show to the U.N. Security Council.
"Even Hipsters need a refresher course from time to time," Lanham writes, in naked mock seriousness. "And you wouldn't want to be throwing out dated slang like 'grody' or 'wicked' when mixing with other Hipsters in the know."
The book's -- or, rather, the Hipsters' -- values, if that term is taken to be appropriate, fall between two ultimate superlatives. The positive extreme is "deck." The negative is "fin." Heaven, it is implied, is deck. Hell, fin. Life is deck; death, fin. Never the twain shall meet -- but there are degrees along the scale and variations within categories. "Midtown" refers to attitudes and affects that are thoroughly fin, but since it implies some attempt at deckness, it is not a capital crime.
Nowhere does Lanham relate the etymology of either term. It has been written elsewhere that their origins lie in surfing -- that the top of a surfboard is its deck, and the underside, with its little keel, is its fin.
It may be that language is all that this book is about. Up-to-dateness is vital, and thus readers are instructed to put behind them now-antique terminology that antedates "deck" -- "depending on your age, groovy, nifty, fresh, chic, savvy, fly, bodacious, jazzy, cool, righteous, hip and hep." "Cool" is definingly ... well, uncool.
Lanham breaks the tribe down into personality types: Among them are the UTF (Unemployed Trust-Funder), the Loner, the Clubber, the Schmooze (careerist), Maxwells (gay men), Carpets (lesbians), CK-1s (open bisexuals), the WASH (Waitstaff and Service Hipster), the neo-Crunch, the Teeter, the Polit, and the Bipster.
"The most common type of Hipster," Lanham writes, is the WASH. There are three intensely stated pages defining this subspecies. They work "as bartenders, waiters / waitresses, in coffee shops, and sometimes at record and video stores. WASHers are noted for their idealism, but infamous for their cynical dispositions." They major in English or philosophy, usually in public universities. "A WASH without a piercing is like a Jehovah's Witness without a bike. WASHers tend to think Salvation Army is an important design company in the same ranks as Gucci."
The uninitiated must beware of counterfeits. "Models, actors and actresses who work in restaurants," Lanham writes, "are sometimes mistaken for WASHers in urban centers such as Los Angeles or New York, but models and actors are generally not Hipsters. Striving to be on All My Children ... is never deck."
The book runneth over with glossaries, lists of do's and don'ts, catechisms of grooming, clothing style, drink preferences, diet, dating practices and more, more, more.
The array of beard and mustache styles -- 13 illustrated in all -- is rigidly defining. There are 12 hairdos for men (including "tossed Caesar" and "chiadome") and 12 for women ("Wispy Dixie" and "Ratt's Nest").
Lanham and the 34 collaborators and contributors he credits may well have made up the bulk of the terminology and images, practically the entire idea. Whatever. The book is rollicking, raging fun, provocative and weirdly wise.
Lanham suggests, more or less, taking a Hipster to dinner, for all society's sake. "Most Hipsters" he entreats, "become more well-rounded and less condescending when forced to socialize in mixed groups that include Republicans, actors, bankers, and people who believe in God."
Perhaps. Given the intricacy of language and form, the certitude of values, the very tribal solidarity of the genus, despite Lanham's expert guidance, as I neared the end of the book I found myself resigned to a life of outsiderness -- hopelessly, blindly fin. Then I came to the final chapter, a questionnaire: "Are You a Hipster?" containing 30 questions, each with five possible answers.
I scored 22 out of 30, which put me in the category "On the Precipice," four slim points below "Deck" -- and left me in state of utterly befuddled vertigo. To think, I never even knew I'd signed up.