"I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I write and I understand." - Chinese proverb

Thursday, May 27, 2010


You know how they always say "Hey, it's your life, do what you want, whatever makes you feel good (as long as it's not illegal, immoral or fattening)?"  I never had a problem with this.  Who doesn't want to feel good?  It's like my friend Holly says -- Holly, who can pull off any look, including a Britney Spears moment when she shaved her head and just ended up looking kind of exotic -- when we talk about what's "in" for the new season: "What's in style is what I feel like wearing."  True.  So true.

So since no one in my nuclear family (father, mother, brother -- so 1950's) ever berated one another for ridiculous reasons (I might make fun of my brother for striking out in Little League, for example, and he might tease me for crashing my bicycle, but those are good reasons) I figured this is the way the world goes: what you wear, say or do is your business.  If it makes you happy, and doesn't hurt (or offend) anyone (unless by accident) of course, it's all good. 

But apparently not.  Apparently, Other People have a say in this stuff.

My family is a little eccentric.  My mother wore a yellow nightgown to her job as a church secretary, for example, because she thought it looked nice.  Like a "shift."  Shifts were sleeveless pullover dresses.  Very popular at one time.  My father smoked his pipe in the bath tub.  He also shingled the roof in a suit and tie.  My brother was perhaps the least eccentric of all of us, but only on the surface.  (Trust me.)  So when Mattel came out with a line of miniature dolls in 1966 called "Liddle Kiddles," and I thought they were really neat and I asked for one, and got the one that came in a plastic "locket," I wore it.
I soon learned this was not wise of me.  What no one in my immediate family considered worthy of a remark did not carry over to schoolmates.  I think I had a sneaking suspicion, when I walked out the front door that morning wearing a doll around my neck, that there would be trouble.  I mean I am not talking kindergarten or first grade here.  These dolls were manufactured in 1966; I was ten years old then, definitely old enough to know that this was a stupid, albeit rebellious, act on my part. My expectations were crystal clear. Sure enough it took no time at all for other kids to start heckling me.  Not all of them; some had apparently achieved a healthy sense of self-actualization at a young age, and are surely doing well now.  At least I hope so.  But really, one kid or ten, one remark or twenty, I didn't ever forget, did I?  I don't remember exactly what was said, only that it both validated my fears and bothered me.  It bothered me a lot.  Not like I wasn't asking for it, but it bothered me.

I was unprepared for the level of absolute meanness that lurked around any given corner.  My family is not above raising a disapproving eyebrow at one another (you think my skirts were always long enough for my parents' liking?  You think my mother really liked it when I came back from California with pink hair?  You think I would be seen with my mother when she was wearing white ankle socks and short pants?)  But we've kinda earned that right, being family in the first place (and I would make it clear to my nephews as kids, just as it was made clear to me, that everybody isn't going to be nice to you, everybody isn't going to like you, but we will, always).  Nevertheless, nobody wants to be an easy mark.

So by the time I got to junior high I caved.  I began to pay tremendous attention to what I wore and how I acted and what I did, because while it may not have been what I wanted, it saved me from ridicule or worse.  Especially in high school.  This was the early 70's when we were supposed to become nonconformists.  Testing the waters.  Acting like an individual.  Ha!  That's funny.  It's when everybody wore long straight hair and wire-frame glasses, so I wore long hair and wire-frame glasses.  It's when everybody wore Topsiders (boat shoes) and denim jackets, so I wore Topsiders and denim jackets.  It's when everybody wore "love beads" and patchouli, so, well, you get the idea.  Not that I didn't like any of this stuff, because I did.  I liked all of it, and I wear the wire-rim glasses, the jean jackets and the patchouli to this day.  (I'm sure I'd wear the love beads too, if they hadn't broken.)  But I wore it to fit in.  I didn't wear it because it made me happy.  I wore it because it made me happy not to be picked on.  (When I talked to my dad about this post, he coined the term "dressing defensively."  That's a really good way to put it.)

And shame on me, I even became one of the hecklers once.  Because in my class there was, in fact, a true non-conformist.  She was a girl with dark wavy hair cut in a side-parted bob, and she dressed old-fashioned.  Cardigans and plaid skirts.  Jumpers.  Knee socks.  Loafers.  Actually, she was kind of pretty.   She was very, very quiet; she just went about her business and never bothered much with anyone.  She was who I really wanted to be.  It took me years to realize that.  In the meantime, I joined in one day when some kids had grabbed her books and were tossing them back and forth while she tried to grab them back.  This proved nothing whatsoever to me.  It did not make me feel particularly bad, nor did it give me any satisfaction or joy.  I was a square peg in a round hole; you kind of had to be, in my family -- it was inevitable, but I was doing everything I could possibly do to fit.  Why?  Because then people wouldn't make me out to be a laughingstock, and I'd be happy.  I'd be happier being myself, of course, but the joy of blending in was nothing to be scoffed at.

Let's skip the disco era which was miserable and involved things like jumpsuits and platform shoes.  Let's go forward to me in my early 40's when I had a smattering of under-the-table jobs.  One job which my handsome friend Gregg, a boutique owner, got for me through networking was to clean a 14-room-house in an exclusive setting (Fenwick, where Katharine Hepburn lived) on the shore.  The house was wonderful.  I think there were seven bathrooms.  I was able to get the job done from top to bottom in three hours.  And make no mistake, the family who lived in this house dirtied it up.   There was the mother and father and three grown daughters with various husbands and kids.  And friends.  And animals.

I had these tight shorts that were long, like bicycle shorts, made of this stretchy material, and they were bright cobalt blue with big white tropical flowers on them.  They were the sort of shorts you wear when you're going to be working out in your flower bed or sitting on your patio reading a book, or in my case, cleaning a 14-room house in Fenwick.  They were perfectly respectable shorts.  Silly, but respectable.
Do you think that someone whose family owns a 14-room "summer house" with all these amenities, someone fortunate enough to have a great spouse (I'm assuming) and a beautiful little kid or two, and a nice place in New York City or Seattle, is a kind person?  That they would smile when they saw me cleaning, make small talk and offer me a glass of lemonade when they could see I was working up a sweat cleaning stuff (yeah, you know what) off their toilet?  No.  No, they weren't kind.  They made sarcastic remarks about my tropical shorts, for one thing, and asked me if Gregg was my friend or my boyfriend in the tone of voice that indicated they were just on the verge of snickering.  Or even guffawing.  It was very sad.  They were way too old for this.  They had kids of their own, for god's sake.

So you get to a stage where you don't always wear, or do, or even say what makes you happy, because it makes you so very unhappy to garner so much attention from people who make no bones about the fact that they think you are stupid or fat or weird.  You don't ever quite know why they see the need to scrutinize you and your actions to the level that they do, much less to jeer at you.  They "need to put others down because they don't feel secure or good about themselves," studied people theorize.  Baloney.  You don't feel good about yourself, go get your hair done or take a power walk or volunteer at an old folks' home.  That you have this much time on your hands to look around insulting other people, well, that in itself is amazing.  This ain't "Project Runway."

It always hurts to be made fun of, and I still consider not just social mores but others' reactions before saying or doing something out of the mainstream.  It is so tedious, but in the long run, not being noticed in a negative manner does make me happy.  I am not the court jester or the rodeo clown.  Neither is the guy in the next town over who walks two Rottweillers in his bare feet, summer and winter.  Neither is my neighbor who has Bela Lugosi's face tattooed on his shin.  Neither is the gal who works at the library and who drives a hybrid car with roughly twenty-seven bumper stickers on it.  You don't like looking at it, look at something else.  Really, in this day and age, anything goes.  So leave off it, please.

Because I'm not just playacting that I'm different.  I am different.  Different from you, anyway.  I mean, as my wonderful aunt used to always say, what a boring world it would be if we were all cut from the same cloth.  I'm not here on earth to entertain the masses.  But, if you want to guffaw a little when you see me in those bright blue spandex shorts with white flowers, feel free.  It's really none of my business.     

People will be people.  This includes me.  Of course I laugh to myself at how some people look or act or talk.  Of course, once or twice in my life (!) I've made a catty remark (behind the scenes, of course) at something someone else has done, or how they look.  The point is, "average," while acceptable, is just sad.  And individuality and shock value might as well be synonyms in the dictionary.  Because the edges are pretty blurry.  Now I dare you to look sideways at the diamond stud in my nose.

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