Wednesday, 11 November 2015

Pondering The Negative Side of Normal

People fascinate me - because they're so weird - and that's why I love them so much. One of the key things that fascinates me is why people like what they like. Usually they don't know. Sometimes they think they like things (or pretend to?) because they are mainstream popular. That's a weird reason to like something, but people are often uncomfortable if they don't conform. I find that a bit sad. It's one thing if you are obliged to conform (office dress code) but to do it just to feel like you fit into society, well, that's a shame.

I like men in eyeliner. I really do. It probably doesn't suit everyone, but those who wear it seem to rock it. When I was discussing this with someone, she said "it makes them look like cats". I said "I like cats". So here's a question. Do I like men in eyeliner because they look like cats, or do I like cats because they look like they are wearing eyeliner? is probably far more it nothing to do with that at all, just "one of those things"? I'm also drawn to artwork with black lines in it, and I like Celtic knotwork and stained glass. Is there a pattern, or is it....just one of those things?

But there's another reason I like men in eyeliner, that's not an aesthetic matter. I like the rebellion factor. I like the way it draws out the homophobes, and I particularly like the way it makes beige people uncomfortable. I really enjoy making beige people uncomfortable.

If you don't know what I mean by beige people, you've obviously never listened to Billy Connolly, but it's an easy concept to wrap your noddle around. Beige people are the opposite of colourful people. Beige people never dare. They never do anything outside what they think of as safe and normal. This often leads them to use a lot of beige (or other neutral tones) in their wardrobe and decorating, because it's "safe". They enjoy bland. They are happy with dull. They PREFER boring. But it's not just their colour schemes that are beige. It's their food, their conversation, their musical tastes. Everything they do is unadventurous.

They are, mostly, harmless, so why do I like making them uncomfortable? Because they make me uncomfortable. Fair's fair, etc. They think I'm weird, and I think they are. We don't get along.

I would not hurt them. But I do like making them uncomfortable. I like forcing them to face things that they find too adventurous. You can think of it as mischief if you like, I feel that it's educational. Here's your "outside the box" moment of the day.

There are less beige people than there used to be. When I was a child there were far more. Especially older people. You could line up 20 older people at random and they'd all look roughly the same. Every so often there'd be one that stood out, and people would mock. They'd call them eccentric or worse. Those were the people I liked best. They were more fun, more interesting, more watchable.

On TV there were entertainers who were "over the top" but it was all forced. It was a show, an act. Take away the costume and the script and they were just beige too. Then there were a few who stood out, true colourful characters. I'm not sure at which point I decided I would never be beige, but it was quite young. So I didn't ever get into the habit of conformity. It never made any sense.

There were many advantages to this. Mistakes I didn't make from just trying to go along with the crowd. Never smoked, never did drugs. Didn't hang out in dangerous places with bad people. Those who did thought they were rebelling, of course. They thought they were being daring. I thought they were being fooled.

I just did my own thing, so you can imagine everyone's shock when I married young. In white even. IN A CHURCH. But you see, the advantage of not giving a damn what others think, is that everything is open to you. There is no need to behave in a wild way just to keep up an image. Doing things to keep up an image isn't authentic. It's just another type of conformity.

But the funniest part of doing your own thing is that the exact same thing can look like conformity or rebellion depending on perception. For example, I had 6 children. Some people saw this as terribly old-fashioned and traditional (which it it was once), while others saw this as quite radical (which it is these days). I saw it as just what happened, it wasn't a plan I had. Just how life worked out. But people "read" things that aren't there.

So, now, with all those years of doing things my way, and the person I am now as a result, I'm often seen as complex and interesting. Which I can assure you I'm not. I am quite possibly the least complex person you'll ever meet. I don't have any hidden depths. When you meet me you get to know me very fast, and there are no surprises afterwards. I wear my heart on my sleeve...look, I even write stuff like this.

And I keep running into people who are afraid to be themselves. Oh gosh, there are lots of reasons why, and some of them even make sense. But mostly I think our culture is just weird. People think it's normal, because it's familiar, but that's all it is. Habit. Comes from just doing things without thinking. Living on auto-pilot.

People do this because it saves effort. It's too much work to consider things, to compare, to rationalize, and above all to question.

So that's where I come in. Well, not just me. People like me. People who question a lot and find that habit is often very silly. We mess with their heads by forcing them to think, and they retaliate by calling us eccentrics or worse. Then we really confuse them by not caring about the insults.

Our culture is absurd.

Did you know that the correct answer to the old greeting "How Do You Do" was actually "How Do You Do". A greeting that is a question, for which the correct thing to do is not reply, but to ask the same question, which no reply is expected for.

This is completely and utterly ridiculous. At least (sometimes) these days we actually answer the question. But usually not truthfully. Usually when we answer any enquiry into our well being we say "Fine!" even when we are sick, exhausted, stressed, or simply having a shitty day. It's one of the quirks of etiquette that it's correct to ask how you are, but incorrect to burden others with your troubles. I have had several doctors in my life who would greet patients with "How are you today?" I think they forgot why people had come to see them. And yet I found myself saying "Oh fine thank you" and THEN explaining why I had just told a great big lie. I much prefer doctors who greet you with "And what is the problem today?" or similar. It makes so much more sense.

And I've told this story a million times but it's worth repeating while on this topic. I am English and I don't drink tea.

Before we go any further, let's consider what etiquette is. It's a pattern of habits designed to make things easier for everyone. In this way it's a very good thing. It's about hospitality and even actual kindness. The motivation is impossible to criticize. Somehow along the way, some people misunderstood it, and some aspects of it subsequently conflicted. You see, one of the central aspects of etiquette is to pretend you don't notice when somebody breaks the rules. It's all very complicated really, but it boils down to being nice. And it's assumed you've been learning this since infancy, so you should have got it by now.

Nevertheless, I had so many experiences of there being a problem over tea, that it formed a large part of who I am. I'm quite serious about this. Being a non-tea drinker in England helped create my personality.

Of course, if I had been the conforming type to begin with, I'd have swallowed the stuff regardless and probably got used to it. I daresay there are many people out there who have done this. There would have been parents who insisted they drink it, and so on.

But as it was, I was not the conforming type. I wasn't being difficult. All I ever requested as an alternative was plain water. And if that caused any inconvenience at all I would just go thirsty. Plenty of time I DID, because it was, apparently, too much trouble.

The routine would go like this. I would arrive somewhere, with my mother or grandparents when I was very young, and later on independently, and would be offered tea. That was the standard etiquette. A visitor was offered tea. Not "would you like a drink"? No. Just the offer of tea. I would then say "no, thank you", as politely as I could. This was almost always followed by, at the very least, "are you sure?" and I would say I was quite sure. But at least half the time, it was questioned. Because it was not normal to decline. It was normal to accept. Even if you weren't thirsty. Even if you hated tea. It was a ritual, not a REAL act of hospitality. That would involve actually finding out what your visitor needed, which may be something you weren't willing to give......

Back in the 60s, wherever you went, most people smoked. They never thought twice about it. Everywhere smelled of it, and sometimes it was overwhelming. Visiting my paternal grandfather I could have really have done with a gas mask or perhaps even an aqualung. For many places I went, if there had been such a thing as true hospitality towards visitors, and I'd been asked if I needed anything, the answer would have been "fresh air please". Of course, that would never have happened, it would have been "rude". Apparently choking your visitors wasn't rude. But that's how it was then. Children were expected to just tolerate it. No wonder my generation, now in power, has created so many laws to prevent that.

Then there was the temperature. As you arrived they would offer to take your coat for you. Had I said "no thanks, it's freezing in here, I'll keep it on" that would have been "rude". But it was perfectly OK to freeze your guests. It was also OK to let your poodle hump them, make them sit on furniture covered in dog hair, let your obnoxious nephew make airplane noises the entire time, or insist they watch your tedious holiday slides. This was all OK.

But you had to offer them tea.

The child who refused tea was often considered a bad child. I was not a bad child. Don't assume that because I was not a conforming child that I was a bad child. I was not "high-spirited". I did not touch what wasn't mine. I did not run about and knock things over. I did not interrupt adults who were talking. I spoke, politely, when spoken to. I had good table manners. I even ate all my vegetables. Nobody could call me a bad child. I was easily amused with a very small amount of toys, or a colouring book. If there were a few small cars to play with you wouldn't know I was there. If there was a garden to play in you wouldn't see me at all for the entire visit.

All I ever did to upset people was refuse tea.

And it did upset them. It threw them for a loop. Their whole routine had to change. They had to stop and think. Some people managed to find the cold water tap, but then didn't have a suitable glass to put it in. I was often given water in a teacup or a sherry glass. Once, the only thing that could be found was a cut lead crystal whisky glass, and my host watched me with hand outstretched at every sip lest I drop it.

Some people were more used to children, and would have orange squash available. If you've never experienced orange squash just think yourself lucky. It's a colonial thing, British, Indian, and Australian, what. I imagine that originally it was made from real oranges much like homemade lemonade, but in the 60s it was at least partially artificial, and yet somehow still contained debris. Not pulp, you understand, but who knows what in the bottom. Floor sweepings possibly. It was also almost always over-diluted, and never the right sweetness. Ever. It was always far too sweet, or somehow not sweet enough, there was never a balance. It was never good. And often it was vile.

So, the ungrateful child who had already refused tea, would refuse the orange squash too. That's when the dirty looks were pretty much guaranteed. Often the comments. Often the exasperated questions. All I ever asked for was water.

Through all this, I stayed polite. And resolute. Thanks be, my mother always supported me 100%. So, at least, when she was around it never got to the point of me being actually scolded by anyone. As I got a little older, and was visiting people without her, and people wouldn't go so easy on me, I got sarcasm and even criticism. Now, as far as I know, the Big Book of Etiquette (wherever it is) does not include either of those. Which tells you that this tea ritual is not hospitality at all. It's something else. A test?

I survived, obviously. I still hate tea. The world has changed around me, and it's been an awfully long time since I was offered tea. I tend to mix with people who offer wine to visitors. I have kids who like tea. They make their own.

Looking back, I learned an awful lot about people from this bizarre ritual. Most of it revolves around habit and expectations. I would see the look of discomfort on their faces as the dissent confused them. I never wanted to hurt anyone, and I hope I did no real harm. I would like to think it caused them to re-think their attitude towards visitors, to actually realise what hospitality is, but I doubt it. I doubt they remembered it for long, and it certainly wouldn't have had the impact on them that it had on me. For cultural habits to change it takes time and repetition, and I was never a frequent visitor. Once I grew up I simply avoided visiting the type of people who would do this, and once you start on that road, it leads you to the fringe. The less you socialize with people of cultural habit, the less you can relate to them, and the harder it gets.

Here in the 21st century the freaks have risen. A lot of the rituals have melted away and there is far more authenticity in society. Everything is more flexible, people are more adaptable. People don't look shocked anymore when somebody is non-mainstream. There are still beige people, and they are allowed to exist. I just like giving them a little poke now and again, because had we never done so, we wouldn't have reached this level. It was the troublemakers that changed all the things that needed changing. The people who started the ball rolling over slavery were not beige. Revolutionaries are not beige. The women who fought for the right to vote were not beige.

Each event in history, especially in comparatively recent history, that has caused the masses to actually stop and think, and make changes which benefit everyone, began with a few people who didn't fit in, who thought outside the box, and who dared to suggest a different way of doing things. Hippies and human rights go together, and that shouldn't surprise anyone. They dared to grow their hair AND they dared to oppose war.

Beige people don't really do much harm, but they don't do a lot of good either. They are apathetic to change if not actually resistant. When people like me kick them up the butt by forcing them to consider the existence of men wearing eyeliner, there's always a slim chance it leads to other things. It might give them a push, you never know. We need movers and shakers, and they are rarely if ever beige.

"Well-behaved women seldom make history."

- Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

1 comment:

  1. Interesting about 'beige people.' "Vanilla" was another popular expression for boring and bland, but perhaps that was a disservice to vanilla? Don't know.....

    I will have you know that, even among family members, honest responses are not always welcome. Case in point: this very morning, daughter arose and I asked her how she was: "Good morning, how are you, dear?" I received a polite, if mumbled response: "Good morning, okay." Brother said, "Good morning," and he received an aggravated grunt in response.

    When called to task as to why he got a grunt (clearly not appreciative of the fact that he could have had no response at all), while Mom got a more pleasant answer, we were informed: "Well, if I didn't answer mom the right way, she would have made me explain why." Brothers, apparently, are not afforded that same measure of either politeness or accommodation. ;)

    Ah, honesty in a household on the spectrum...gotta love it. ;) ~ Blessings! :)