Most days I wake up and my first instinct is to hop right out of bed. Then life slow motion bitch-slaps me onto my right side and I take a deep breath, prop myself up on my elbow then grimace my way to a sitting position. I’d walk you through the next fifteen minutes of my day but A) I don’t want to lose you in the first paragraph, and B) I can’t walk upright until I’ve been awake at least a half an hour. Living with chronic pain literally sucks – energy, patience and confidence – and I didn’t ask for this but it’s my reality so I deal with it. It’s not exactly something I like to advertise so I relegate it to the bottom of the barrel of my attributes where it belongs, beside such predictably annoying classics like ‘always cold’ and ‘compulsively tries to finish people’s sentences’. I work very hard to make sure that most people wouldn’t even realize there’s anything wrong with me, because that’s not how I wish to be seen. I’ve tried to construct a version of myself that I can share with the outside world, but the truth is, the outside world doesn’t care. I don’t mean that to sound maudlin or pathetic but the fact is I’m just one of many billions of people and the world is largely indifferent towards me. I’ve spent a good portion of my adult existence trying to act like that isn’t the case, and I’ve only recently decided for myself that if how I look is an accurate representation of how I feel it doesn’t mean I’m weak, it merely means I’m human.
Nick and I have a game we play in the car. It’s not really a game per se but it’s something we do to pass the time. We talk for people we see on the street, give them funny voices and names and back-stories. For example, say we see a woman standing on the sidewalk wearing pajama bottoms, Crocs and a beer t-shirt. Nick might say in an effeminate voice, “It’s laundry day, all my mirrors are broken and I’ve given up on life, but I decided to leave the house anyway. I’m out of Funyuns.” It’s a snarky variation of the Assumption Game which is played in a setting when people don’t really know each other yet, say, on the first day of school, or during prisoner intake at the local pen (where it’s probably called something pithy like, ‘Spot the Bitch’). I played it at an acting class I attended many years ago. Here’s how it works: one person stands at the front of the room and the others shout assumptions about that person based solely on the way they look so it’s best played when people are strangers to one another and there’s no familiarity. The woman teaching the acting class was really into it. She was prompting us to make assumptions about jobs, parentage, economic background, education, hobbies and such, because it’s not easy to get a room full of (sober) strangers to just judge each other publicly. The assumptions that were made about me were mostly wrong: education and physical abilities were over-estimated, they were off on my age, and I had to suppress spewing bile onto the person that suggested I loved romantic comedies (yes, things got that specific). My fellow classmates were surprised to find out I wasn’t a student but a bartender, I was single and loved hockey, and the only reason I might ever ‘go for a run’ was if I was being chased by a saccharine Nancy Myers screenplay. Later that night I looked at myself in the mirror and tried to see what they had seen.
When Nick and I play our game it doesn’t matter if we’re wrong. That lady in the Crocs and PJ’s may be the sole caretaker for her invalid mother and only had a brief window of opportunity to leave the house to run to the pharmacy, so putting jeans on wasn’t a priority. Or maybe that lady simply doesn’t give a shit what anyone thinks about the way she looks. For our purposes, the reality of her situation doesn’t matter because for the time it took our car to pass her on the street we’d already judged her. It’s not right or wrong, it’s just human nature. Ask anyone who works in the service industry and they will tell you they definitely judge customers in about thirty seconds and tailor their level of service accordingly. A bunch of dreadlocked college students will never get the same attention to detail that a server gives a group of businessmen wearing designer watches and Italian shoes. For servers it’s a question of economics. Why bust your ass for eight kids sharing a pitcher and nachos when you can fawn over a group of professionals who you know will expense the entire bill? Of course there are exceptions, and I’m not fond of generalizing, but my 19 years of ‘field research’ revealed very few Freshmen who tip over 10% if they tip at all, and countless many businesspeople who will make your section a regular stop when entertaining out-of-town clients and pay well over 30% for the privilege. My livelihood depended on being judgmental and it’s a skill I used to be proud of. Now it’s something I’m trying to un-learn.
Tim often bemoans my relentlessly high expectations of humanity. I too, recognize that I’m mostly charging at windmills but my cartoonish fury at our tragi-comic existence is really just optimism in disguise. I know in my heart that we can do better. I know that I can do better. It’s not important to succeed every time, but it is imperative that we try. Just. Fucking. Try. I think that might be why I used to be so easily offended by someone dressed badly. And it’s not about economics, because clothing is cheaper today than it’s ever been. It wasn’t because I think I’m so much more fashionable than anyone else, I just used to believe that a lazy attitude towards appearance belied a lack of effort. If someone can’t be bothered to at least try to look decent when they walk out the door where else in life are they slacking? Do these people cheat on their taxes and not stoop and scoop their dog’s business either? I know it’s ludicrous to suggest that simply because someone wears white after Labor Day means they park in the handicapped spot and therefore deserve my derision for lacking some falsely constructed sense of propriety I employ as a personality barometer. In the last couple of years I’ve worked at getting past this nonsensical notion because what someone else puts on their body is none of my business. Whether someone is dressed well or poorly should have no bearing on who they are as a person. Just because I’ve decided to hold myself to such unnecessarily lofty standards doesn’t mean I should expect anyone else to do the same. I get it intellectually – it’s first day of Kindergarten stuff – but it’s years of learned behavior I have to reverse. Kind of like how I know I shouldn’t take Uggs personally yet I still consider them an affront to my senses. I recognize this as ridiculous and I’m working on it.
When I leave the house I am subjecting myself to scrutiny I have absolutely no control over. What I can control is whether it matters to me what people think of me based on my appearance. I can control the way I view others. I understand that everyone has a complex set of circumstances they have to navigate through to get up in the morning, just like I do, and that hemlines and logos are so inconsequential to this it would be funny if some people didn’t take them so seriously. These days when I see someone dressed in a way I dislike I remember that whatever I think about that person is probably wrong, and that someone’s proclivity for wearing tights instead of pants doesn’t mean they’re a bad person. In fact it doesn’t mean anything at all. I think one of the most beautiful things about human beings is that no matter how hard we try to reach perfection we will fail, and no matter how hard we try to understand each other we will be wrong. But it’s in the trying that we discover the details that make this world a little less boring and maybe even a little more bearable.