Thursday, August 11, 2011

Appearances

The missus and the hon. Richard Talleywhacker hate this honest self-portrait. They are so superficial.

I got involved in a little Twitter exchange, and found my opinions being choked off by the narrow bandwidth. So Terriaminute, here's what a hundred-and-forty characters would not carry.

My feelings about appearances were fixed early in childhood -- try and ignore them as much as possible. They are definitively superficial, and when you pay attention to an unattractive surface, you may be doing harm to a heart.

This has been reflected in the way I present myself to the world. Not only do I know almost nothing about grooming and dressing, until quite recently I took pride in that -- it showed a certain purity of character.

Now I think my attitudes about superficiality were a little shallow.

Unusual appearances can be isolating, and it is important not to make assumptions about people based on aspects of their person that are not decisions they've made.

As someone who can present a relatively conventional appearance, there is a lot of nonsense I simply do not have to deal with. But at times, I have not presented as a typical human being, and I have dealt with the rude personal questions and comments that come the minute you step an inch off the common grounds. Anyone with an innately attention-grabbing personal appearance deals with a continual flow of shit unimaginable to anyone who hasn't witnessed or experienced it.

This affects who you are, and how you respond to other people. It can bring defensiveness and it can bring dignity. One reason I try and be open to unconventional people is that I'm more likely to find a common attitude there, or a willingness to accept my rough edges. A lot of my personality was formed when I was socially isolated, so it's a suggestion that someone might be able to understand me. So appearances do have a substantial effect, even though they aren't legitimate cause for judgment.

When someone makes a decision about their appearance, then it does say something about them. The decisions I've tended to make about my appearance did say, "I am a soul above the petty trappings and extravagances of the social realm," it also said, "I wear the uniform of the single-parent army with a notable lack of grace; I am unfit to care for myself, and if someone cares for me, they don't bother to screw my clothes on evenly."

And there are people willing to look past that. Thank you, thank you, thank you, kind people, the missus in particular.

But a while back, I ran across a Malcolm Gladwell book in which he mentioned that in many ways, New York's improved crime rate was the result of improving the appearance of the city.

I'm a street kid, so I've always approved of graffiti -- it's a way of reclaiming a sense of power. But it turns out that it also tends to produce a certain tone in the environment, one that made people conscious of the option of crime. When things got cleaned up, and it was proven that they could be kept clean, it had a deep effect on the culture.

Appearances, and the ability to take responsibility for them, have real power. I'd like to acquire some of that power.

So these days, I try and pay attention to how I look. Minimal dog hair. Don't wear clothes I actually dislike. Wear a jacket or overshirt if possible -- try and not look like an overgrown toddler while wearing a T-shirt. Distinguish between punk rips and throw it out rips.

Punk! Perfect example.

I've always felt like a punk fraud. During the punk days, I was listening to the Beatles, Randy Newman, Taj Mahal, and a terrifying collection of fifties debris including everything from Harry Belefonte and The Kingston Trio to The Best Of Gilbert And Sullivan. I heard the names, saw the pictures, thought they were hilarious, thought I Wanna Be Sedated was great, thought the Sex Pistols sounded like a pissed-off cat sliding down a shale slope.

I'm a Repo Man punk, God help me. I had a Mohawk in the eighties, I've recorded more than one song with 'Fuck' in the title, one of which I am not allowed to ever release because my chickenshit bandmates were all scared of no-fly lists and shit. They said, give us a rant, I gave 'em a rant, they got all excited, and then once they listened to it in cold blood, they were terrified. Pissants.

So I see young punks on the street, teenagers with more money invested in leather and studs than I've ever seen at one time, and I feel a certain... "Uh-huh. And what do you play?" Or, "That is so fucking quaint. That's like someone in the seventies wearing spats." Annoyed superiority, which is one of the worst things, bad like fly bites or rotten onions.

But I scored a leather jacket a while ago for fifteen bucks. I'm six-three with ape arms, I don't find jackets often. Me in black leather? Too much -- but it's a Ramones-style jacket, and it fits, and fifteen bucks...

So last winter, I went out on a cold day. Cold enough to justify the jacket. Black T-shirt with a red Maori face, black fedora with the dog hair cleaned off it so it's actually black. I took a minute to look in the mirror, make sure everything is right...

... and out on the street, I walk a little taller, have a hint of a smile. I know I look a little silly, but it's fun. Passing the Jack-In-The-Box down on San Pablo, I noticed a couple of baby punks at the intersection. While I waited for the light, I noticed them whispering to each other, and then they crossed the street.

"Hey," the guy said. "We like your hat."

Normally, when someone says something like that to me, they're yanking my chain. But this time, it honestly seemed as though they just wanted to... Fuck, how do you put this? Touch the hem of my garment? Receive a benediction? There is no way of putting this that doesn't smack of hubris.

All of a sudden, I stopped feeling like a wan little wannabe all punked out out in the boonies, wishing I could touch the real thing. I was transformed into a wise old punk, one who had been in the scene at times and in places where the scene would otherwise not have existed. It was as if they could sense the Mohawk I had in Sonoma. The dryer-in-a-stairwell quality of my bass.

It just charmed the living shit out of me.

So we had a nice little exchange, and went on our ways. And ever since then? When I see a punk on the street, I no longer see a pathetic overpriviliged wannabe, and I no longer feel defensive. I see someone looking for an identity, finding a culture, and preserving a tradition, and someone who would have respect for me in that tradition. Punk is not what it was, but it is not something I hold in scorn. No more snotty remarks about Gilman Street from me. And no more embarrassment about my own punk phase. I earned it, I own it.

Think of it this way -- punks revere their elders. This isn't just a cultural pun, this is an ironic tap-dance worthy of Wodehouse. And they do so to such a degree as to confer benefits to the likes of me. That is so sweet!

And now the urban landscape looks different to me. Friendlier. Black leather and tattoos mean I'm included.

So you can see why I'm becoming more and more fascinated with appearances. They are the primary tool you use to determine how people will react to you. Which means they really are most of what you are for most of the people you encounter.

There's real depth to superficiality.

3 comments:

cathschaffstump said...

I really enjoyed this. Lots to chew on.

EFKelley said...

A superior post. I especially like the wrap-up. Brilliant, and useful for writing.

Sean Craven said...

Well, I'm realizing that it's not that the world hates me, it's just that I don't know how to talk to it.