Seattle Light - By Julie Quiring (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Whenever I fly into San Francisco airport and drive north through the hillsides of tract homes towards the city, I start singing the 1960’s folk song, “Little Boxes,” and inform anyone within earshot that Malvina Reynolds’ ode to conformity was written while driving through that particular bit of California development. Imparting trivia is one of life’s simple pleasures. The story is that the song came on suddenly, like a heart attack or the 24-hour flu. She had her husband take over the wheel, grabbed pen and paper and proceeded to immortalize Daly City as the poster child for homogeneity. The song is catchy in the way that the ocean is wet - three days later I have to listen to Led Zeppelin to get the tune out of my head.
Conformity and I have been in a stormy, long-term relationship since about the first grade. My father is a devout nonconformist, and wanted his daughters to follow in his footsteps as nature-loving, institution-hating rebels. I was a pink tutu-wearing teacher’s pet, torn between the sweetness of Mary Ann and the glamour of Ginger on Gilligan’s Island. When I was nine, we moved to a Quaker community in rural California, sleeping in tent cabins and sharing 80 acres with an assortment of bipeds, including the gentlest woman I have ever met, who allowed mosquitoes to bite her, saying, “They don’t take much.” There were longhaired, guitar-toting hippies from Antioch University and a tall, kind man named Caspar whose epileptic wife, Adele, took thirty-two pills a day. I liked all of these people, and enjoyed sleeping in a tent cabin with my sisters, but I was painfully conscious of being branded the town weirdos, and embarrassed to invite a friend home from school.
I longed for bell-bottomed pants and peasant blouses with a passion that ought to be reserved for, say, eradicating poverty. I felt guilty about my desire to conform, but as we stood in vigils in downtown Fresno to protest the Vietnam War, and between rows of grapevines to support Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers, my mind would wander to the distressing fact that my mother’s main criteria in choosing her daughters’ clothing was its ability to double as a tarp in bad weather.
We immigrated to Canada, and by fluke ended up in the sole apartment building in the British Properties, an elite area of West Vancouver. To say that we did not fit in would be like saying that Joseph McCarthy and Nikita Khrushchev were not close. Our table was made from a door laid on two stacks of canning jar boxes. On one end was affixed a hand grinder, and every Saturday morning we ground twenty-two cups of wheat into flour, taking turns pouring and turning the handle. We didn’t own a television or a couch. Our only vehicle was a red 1952 Ford pickup, which could be heard long before it came into view.
My older sister wore our difference as a badge of pride, while I cringed and wished my parents were normal. My younger sister earned the highest marks by chasing boys into the girls’ bathroom at recess and kicking them in the shins. A future recipient of a Ph.D. in English, she shocked her second grade teacher by turning in a paper on which she had written in blue crayon, “A boy is like a runned over rat with its guts hanging out.” Unlike her two sisters before her, teachers were not writing on her report card that they wished there were more like her. Dad was thrilled; finally something of himself had shown up in one of his offspring.
Looking back, I would not trade my experiences for a more conventional childhood, even granting that such a thing exists. For one thing, it is comforting to know that if I am ever required to use an outhouse in subzero weather, I am equal to the task. Ditto using said outhouse with large spiders in attendance. On a somewhat less practical note, it gave me a lifelong interest in the dynamics of conformity, and made me aware that the pressure not to conform, and be proud of it, is the same as the pressure to do the accepted thing. At this point, being ‘alternative’ is such a well-established subgroup it might as well be mainstream, at least in some parts of the country. Both have arbitrary prejudices and preferences, and neither places enough value on the deeper complexity that makes us who we are.
Not surprisingly in our image-obsessed culture, we tend to associate conformity, or lack thereof, with what is readily visible - things like clothing, vocation and lifestyle. But these aren’t the real clues to our differences, and are often red herrings. Rather, our uniqueness reveals itself in our particular blend of courage and cowardice, selfishness and generosity, judgment and forgiveness. Our individuality is our embodiment of human contradictions.
The psychologist Carl Jung once said that nothing worse could happen to one than to be completely understood. Increasingly, I find that whatever explanation I give for an action or reaction – whether my own or someone else’s - feels incomplete. As hard as we try and as much as we study ourselves, it is impossible to tell the whole story,
I have been known to lament my personal blend of complexity. I’d like to be an outspoken, take-no-prisoners woman capable of making recalcitrant children sit up straight and powerful men edge towards the door. Frankly, there are a few shins I would have kicked, if only I’d had the nerve. I’d like to be good at debate and negotiation, and I’d appreciate the knack of dressing like my friend Sarah, who always looks hip without undue effort or cash. But I have to work with the materials at hand. It’s like cooking. The real test is not what we produce with a foolproof recipe, unlimited funds and a trip to Trader Joe’s, It’s what we create on a realistic budget from our own refrigerator.
Easier to Love
The home page of The New York Times on-line features a continuously updating list of their ten most e-mailed articles, ranked in order of popularity, and a few years ago I began paying attention to the topics most frequently zipped around cyberspace. Usually the list changes fairly frequently, so I couldn’t help noticing that for the past four weeks, an article titled “What Shamu Taught Me About A Happy Marriage” has not dropped lower than number three - a feat not achieved by any other piece of writing that I can remember.
It was written by Amy Sutherland, the author of “Kicked, Bitten and Scratched: Life and Lessons at the Premier School for Exotic Animal Trainers.” In well-written, witty prose, Ms. Sutherland describes her experiment in applying the training techniques employed to get a baboon to flip or a cougar to placidly offer its paw for a nail clipping to another species: The American Husband. In particular, one named Scott. You see why it’s so popular. It will probably still be on the list in 2023, surpassing articles on cures for cancer and upper arm wattles.
Anyone familiar with parenting a toddler knows the drill: reward the behavior you like, give praise for small improvements, don’t respond to irritating behavior, avoid nagging, pick your battles, don’t take it personally. I appreciated her articulation of the importance of understanding the exotic species you are dealing with. What are its habits? Is it an alpha male? A loner? A herd animal? Her insights were very practical, although they did not shed light on the pressing marital question we all have to answer sooner or later: Hurtling dinnerware – is there a right time?
I loved Ms. Sutherland’s confession that she wanted to nudge her husband a little closer to perfect; make him a little easier to love. She simply wanted to customize him for optimal convenience and personal enjoyment, like an iPod or a new car. We want options and upgrades for everything else, why not our mate? It’s the American Dream meets Live Your Dream, where everything can be improved upon - a perpetual tinkering with the thermostat, in the hopes of arriving at conditions that ensure we never have to put on a sweater or open a window.
This tinkering has become a guiding principle, and while it can result in needed improvements, it can also distract us from learning valuable skills. Take the matter of gainful employment. In my working life over the past three decades, I’ve done creative things like calligraphy and graphic design and tedious things like stamping the return date on 2000 of those little cards that used to go in the front of library books to tell you when they were due. The one common denominator of every job I’ve ever held, besides a lunch hour and a paycheck, is that each contained a combination of tasks I enjoyed, tasks that were boring and tasks I found objectionable.
You can’t tinker your way out of this; you must approach it head-on. I came to this conclusion after trying a variety of strategies: Avoid boring and objectionable stuff until dire consequences are imminent. Do yucky jobs first, so they are not hanging over my head. Use enjoyable tasks as reward. Use Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup as reward. Engage in ritual of organization wherein odious tasks are placed at the bottom of the pile and somehow never gotten around to before quitting time. (Repeat daily.)
The only method that has ever given me real satisfaction, however, goes like this: 1) Put everything in a pile; 2) do what’s on top. The key is not to give a moment’s thought as to where each task falls on the sliding scale of enjoyable to objectionable. Do not, I repeat, do not evaluate the desirability of the tasks. It is all simply what needs to be done, and since you cannot get up and walk out the door without forfeiting your entitlement to a paycheck (see foundational attributes of employment, above), you might as well get on with it. After doing this a few times at work, I went on to discover its wider application possibilities - household chores are prime candidates, as is cleaning out the basement or garage. Once you have some practice, the mindset can come in handy for ignoring your mate’s annoying habits and applying yourself to the challenge of loving an actual human being, as opposed to the improved version you carry around in your head.
This is a radical proposition in the age of mandatory progress, where our work, our mates, our cars and our hair must all be, like Mary Poppins, practically perfect in every way or we’re just not trying hard enough. Nothing is okay just the way it is, it’s all just a starting point for a makeover. Like our teeth, which are no longer allowed to be tooth-colored, but must gleam with such whiteness we are in danger of compromising our companion’s eyesight. In Los Angeles they have to wear sunglasses to guard against this.
For the past month, as I have stood in line to purchase my daily bread, I’ve been confronted with a magazine declaring in gigantic bold type: LOVE YOUR BODY, and all I can think is, “Really? Do I have to love it? How about if I just sort of tolerate it and appreciate the fact that it works pretty well and doesn’t hurt very often?” Must we be excessively thrilled about everything? Couldn’t some things be allowed to languish in the land of so-so, fine, and not-too-bad?
The value of putting up with stuff we’re not wild about doesn’t get much press. It doesn’t make for interesting headlines. It’s not sexy. There’s not a hot guy in a convertible whisking you off to Fiji for some meaningful conversation at sunset, or a supermodel who drops by to clean your apartment, find your car keys and have a sleepover. But once you get the hang of it, it’s very relaxing.
Say What You Mean
When I was 20, a man I had recently met told me he was at a point in his life where he was getting real clear about his needs, and it took me a minute to realize that this statement directly related to his having just invited me in for the proverbial nightcap. I found this style of proposition less than irresistible – in fact, as my years of assorted proposals fade into distant memory, it stands out as one of the least difficult to refuse, even for a girl who had trouble saying no. My requirements may not have been stringent, but one of them was that the man had to convincingly pretend that his desire for more intimacy – or at any rate less clothing – had something to do with me.
A couple of decades later, we’ve all been to therapy to get clear about our needs, to the point where it is time to declare a moratorium on our promiscuous use of the ‘n’ word. Instead, I propose we go back to the old fashioned, unpretentious ‘want.’ “I want to spend the weekend alone with the phone unplugged.” “I want a pint of Haagen Dazs.” “I want my partner to cater to my every whim while declaring me to be delightfully low maintenance.” In a world of overwhelming need, it seems important to distinguish between the two.
Dressing up a want as a need is common practice, inflating its importance and subtly manipulating the listener in order to increase the likelihood of getting our way. I remember the day my four year old, having been told we were not going to buy an ice cream cone, said plaintively, “ but I need one!” Modern children understand the power of playing the need card.
There is an organization in the United Kingdom called The Plain English Campaign that lobbies for clear, complete and concise language in the public sphere. They hold summer competitions for “waffle-free translations of banking correspondence, tax demands or other letters or forms that people have found incomprehensible.” You have to love people who would do that for fun. But what endeared them to me was the fact that they solicit nominations and vote to create a list of the ten most annoying phrases.
Although it wasn’t on their list, I would nominate the expression, “that doesn’t work for me.” As soon as someone says this I break out in a rash, because in much the same way as we disguise wants as needs, saying something doesn’t work for us is usually a way of dressing up a mere preference in lofty, self-actualized attire. People never say, “I’m sorry, that doesn’t work for me,” when they can’t plan something at a particular time due to a dentist appointment. They say it when they would rather take a nap or play tennis, daring you to question the prioritizing of their spiritual and physical wellbeing.
In heated discussions, rather than objecting to an irritating behavior on its merits, some have been known to intone, “That just doesn’t work for me,” as if your relationship is a small appliance and they are in sole possession of the manual. “See here, it says on page 4, paragraph 8, that you may NOT talk to me like that!” Again, the purpose is to disarm the opposition by suggesting that you hold an exclusive on absolutes from on high, rather than stating your case properly. It’s just a rumor, but I’ve heard judicious use of, “I don’t give a rat’s derriere whether it works for you or not” is a good defense.
Next in line for annoying expressions would be the terms Alive and Awake, when what is meant is stimulated, alert, engaged, energized or focused. Yes, I know the terms are metaphors for becoming less habituated and paying attention, and these are good things, but why not say what you mean? “I’m so alive,” makes it sound like you are a bit more evolved than the general population of sleepwalking corpses. Imagine people in Sub-Saharan Africa learning that Americans pay money for workshops on being alive and awake. Perspective is a beautiful thing.
In Bill McFarlan’s Drop the Pink Elephant: 15 Ways to Say What You Mean…And Mean What You Say, there are two sections that summarize the matter nicely. Section One is called “Dump the Baggage and Create Clarity,” followed by “Be Principled in What You Say.” When my daughter came home from school in the third grade and announced, “Violet is so stupid!” I prodded her into articulating what she found objectionable. Was Violet inconsiderate? Forgetful? Bossy? A smartypants? Mostly this had the effect of shifting my daughter’s annoyance from the beleaguered Violet to me, but I stand by the belief that it is valuable to know precisely why someone rubs you the wrong way before you summarily dismiss her from your social roster.
Manners come in handy in the campaign for plain speaking. In fact, manners and truth are a highly underrated combination. Remember what your mother told you to say at a friend’s house if they were serving liver that made you want to throw up just smelling it? She didn’t tell you to say that liver didn’t work for you. Nor did she tell you to make gagging noises or mime putting your finger down your throat. Instead, she told you to say, “I don’t care for any, thank you, but I’d love some mashed potatoes.” Actually, my mother, who would wear a hair shirt if they made them, said you had to buck up and eat it or else. But other mothers gave you a polite escape plan that cleverly combined truth with diplomacy.
The truth may not set us free, but without it we’ll never get anywhere - evolution on its own is way too slow. Good comedians remind us that there is nothing funnier, and more liberating, than telling the unadorned truth about human behavior in all its petty, idiotic glory. Anything else just doesn’t work for me.
Julia Quiring is a long time essayist for a Seattle area paper. She serves as Managing Editor for Many Rivers, the organization which cordinates the international work of British poet and consultant David Whyte.
Having a Nice Day (Spring '06 Column)
A couple of weeks ago I visited New
York City for the first time. I'm a west coast girl, born and raised
in the land of the genetically friendly, so I braced myself for New
Yorkers' legendary brusqueness. My expectations were grim but eager,
kind of like when I was on the school bus in the fifth grade and
Randy Rassmussen passed around a tiny magazine picture reported to
be male genitalia. I knew it wasn't going to be pleasant, but it was
all part of growing up. As it turned out, I only had one New York
encounter that fit the stereotype: the woman taking our tickets to
see Les Paul demanded our money, told us how much more we were
required to spend inside and ordered us to sit down, with the 'and
shut up' clearly implied, making no pretense to care one way or
another if we chose instead to turn around and throw ourselves under