Square Peg, Round Hole

I don’t know about other bloggers, but I tend to think about my blog posts for a while before I actually write them.  I select a topic that happens to interest me, and then I think of what, exactly, I’d like to say about that topic, and even compose a few sentences in my head before I ever sit down in front of the computer.  If I’m lucky, the writing process is smooth and quick, and I hammer out my usual 500 to 700 word post without too much effort or angst.

But there are the times when I just can’t get it right, and when I rewrite the opening paragraphs several times, only to find that I have written myself right into a corner each time.  Sometimes I actually have to get up and walk away from my computer for a little while, and then come back and look at my draft with fresh eyes.  And when I do that, I almost always realize that the problem is that one of the sentences or ideas I came up with I came up with when I was thinking about the post just didn’t fit when I was actually writing the post, even though I kept putting it into each and every draft.  Unfortunately, I had liked that particular string of words so much (it was clever, darn it!) that I was blind to the fact that it needed to be cut.  I can be stubborn that way.

Sadly, that stubbornness isn’t limited to my writing.  I like to meet new people, try new things, and despite being a fiercely independent person, join new groups.  And that’s usually a good thing, as it has exposed me to lots of new ideas, some dear friends and some worthy causes. But there are times when as I get to know a person better, I realize that we  have very little in common and have some totally incompatible values.  Or that I didn’t like a particular activity nearly as much as I thought I would, or that despite my best efforts, I simply don’t fit into a particular group or organization.  And that’s when most people would immediately back off, but all too often, I hang in there, just sure that if I try a little bit harder, everything will work out.  I guess I’m afraid of being a quitter, or admitting that I can’t really be all things to all people.

When I was in college, most of my friends pledged a sorority, so despite my considerable misgivings, I decided to join one too.  I lasted only three months.  Not because I had joined the wrong sorority…it was a perfectly good one, with lots of nice women….but because I’m far too much of an individualist to be the right person for any sorority.  Luckily, that was one time when I recognized my mistake early on and addressed it quickly. Everyone was quite nice about it, and even though I quit the sorority, I remained friends with several of its members.   If I had tried to stick with it, skipping meetings, complaining,  and ignoring rules I didn’t like, I probably would have managed to alienate all the members.

And that’s something I need to remember all these years later when I find myself being stubborn about trying to stick with something that just isn’t right for me.  No matter how hard I try, not everyone is going to like me.  And despite my best efforts, I’m not going to be an effective and helpful member of every new group I try.  And that’s okay.  Because no one fits in everywhere, but everyone fits in somewhere.

I Think I’ll Pass…

For me, one of the best parts about growing older is no longer feeling the need to keep up with current trends.  The only social media I use is Facebook; I recognize almost no one in People Magazine; my home decorating style is hopelessly old-fashioned, and I never follow the latest fashion styles. (I don’t own a single pair of skinny jeans.  Partly because they don’t look comfortable, but mostly because the world has enough problems these days without anyone having to look at me stuffed into a pair of skinny jeans.)  In most areas of my life, I’m able to easily ignore fads and trends, and am quite happy to do so.

Sadly, some trends are easier to avoid than others.  My husband and I enjoy dining out, and  up until a few years ago, we used to especially enjoy trying to new restaurants.  We’re lucky to live in a large city where new restaurants open frequently, and it was fun to find a new place to eat that offered great food, good service, and reasonable prices. The problem is, most new restaurants also tend to be rather trendy, and I don’t particularly like, or even understand, most of the new trends in dining out.

IMG_1387Some I find simply annoying, like referring to the person standing behind the bar as a “mixologist” instead of a bartender.  Isn’t mixing drinks what bartenders have always done?  I know that many new restaurants and bars offer a huge array of complicated drinks, but I honestly prefer a simple glass of white wine with my meal.  And I don’t like feeling guilty about wasting the talent of the restaurant’s “mixologist” when I order it. (Although my son made up for it when we took him out for his birthday dinner and he ordered a smoked martini.  And yes, it was actually smoking when it came to the table.)

Other trends I find truly off-putting, like the new “communal table” seating.  I don’t go out to eat because I want to be squeezed into a bench at a long table that reminds me of lunchtime in my high school cafeteria.  I don’t like having to watch what I say because I know the strangers on either side of me can hear my conversation perfectly, and might even decide to chime in.  Nor do I want to know all the intimate details of their lives, unless they’re up to something especially interesting or illegal.  Also, I don’t want to be sitting close enough to other diners that I’m not only tempted to steal a french fry off their plate, but I’m actually able to do so if they are silly enough to look away for a second or two.  Fighting temptation is not one of my strong points.

And it might be my age, but I don’t like the high ceilings, concrete floors and general industrial warehouse decor that so many new restaurants choose, because it means the noise level in those restaurants is really, really loud.  My hearing is still pretty good, but in those settings, I find myself asking my husband and friends to repeat themselves far too often.  Sometimes I just give it up and smile and nod at whatever they are saying, hoping they aren’t asking for a loan or if I’d like to babysit their grandkids for a week while they go on vacation.

These days, it’s become fairly rare for my husband and I to try a new restaurant, as we find ourselves sticking to a few “tried and true” favorites where we know the noise level will be low, the tables set apart enough to ensure a private conversation, and no one is pressing us to try a drink that emits smoke.  I know that someday, the latest trends in dining out will probably be something more to my liking.  I also know that I’ll need someone to tell me about it, because, as is the case with most new fads, I probably won’t be paying attention.

What Am I?

IMG_1080I have gotten to the point where I just hate labels.  Not the kind of labels we find on our groceries, of course…they keep me from eating too much sodium or trans fat, and that’s a good thing.   I mean the labels that we give ourselves, and worse, the labels we assign to other people.  Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a joiner, and no matter what group of people I’m with, I almost always feel like the “odd one out.”  Or maybe it’s because most of the people I know well are complicated, complex individuals who don’t fit the labels that we toss about so casually.  All I know is that the minute people start assigning labels, to themselves or to others, I get very uncomfortable.

Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why people like labels so much.  We want to know something about each other, and being able to identify someone as a “Southerner” or a “Liberal” or a “Protestant” seems as if it would help.  We think it gives us a point of reference, of knowing just how much someone is like us, or even whether or not we think the person is worth bothering to get to know.  Sorting everyone neatly into categories seems like an efficient way to deal with all the people who cross our path, and we know right away who’s “in” and who’s “out.”  What could be simpler?

The trouble is, simple isn’t always good, or accurate.  There are tons of different interpretations of just about every label out there, and it’s a mistake to just assume that our interpretation is the same as someone else’s.  (Personally, I am still completely confused on just what exactly is the difference between a “right-wing dictator” and a “left-wing dictator,” yet we hear those terms all the time as if everyone knows.)  It’s sort of like when we talk to someone from another country and they ask, “What do Americans think about that?”  And the only honest answer I can give is, “That depends on which American you ask.”  We may all live in the same country, but we definitely do not all think alike.

And that, I think, is what I find the most offensive about labels:  the assumption that everyone within that label thinks exactly alike and shares exactly the same values. I don’t want to be “assigned” a to a group that I don’t truly fit in with, and I haven’t yet found a group that I always agree with, on everything.  Or even a group I usually agree with, if I’m totally honest.  And I doubt very seriously that I ever will.

I want the freedom to think for myself, and to draw my own conclusions.  I want to be allowed to have a “conservative” opinion on one issue, and a “liberal” opinion on another.  I want to associate with lots of different kinds of people so that I never stop learning, never stop expanding my personal horizons, and, most importantly, never become complacent in the supposed superiority my own beliefs.  I also want the option of changing my mind, either because I’ve learned new facts or because I’ve simply finally figured out that the way I’ve always thought about something is just plain wrong.

But I know that there are always going to be people who prefer labels, and that there are always going to be people who are eager to stick a label on me.  And when that’s the case, the label I’d prefer is simply “human.”  That one fits me like a glove.

My Turn

Whenever I’m having a particularly bad day volunteering at the Humane Society, I will often joke to someone that the committee whose job it is to make my life difficult must have met recently.  In my mind, I envision a group of people sitting solemnly around the table, saying things like, “Well, Ann has finally memorized the door code, so that means it’s time to change it.”  Of course nothing of the sort is happening, there are just times when it feels like it, because there are always all sorts of changes and rules that I didn’t come up with and that I don’t particularly like.

But the Humane Society is certainly not the only place where I sometimes feel that others are setting the standards that I am expected to follow, even when I don’t like them one little bit.  For instance, who decided that in order to be considered physically attractive in our culture, a woman must be slim, long-legged, large-busted and have no hair on most of the places on her body that hair naturally grows?  Real women come in all shapes and sizes, and honestly, we don’t always have the time to shave our legs each and every day.  If I were the one in charge of determining our cultural standards of female beauty, it would be a very different thing than what I see staring back at me from the glossy pages of fashion magazines.

IMG_0430I live in an older house, with separated rooms, light hardwood floors and maple cabinets in the kitchen.  And every single time I tune into a program on HGTV, I realize that my house, my beloved house that my husband and I have spent years renovating, is completely out of style.  Someone, somewhere, decided that we all need “open concept” in our houses, which means that those pesky walls must be knocked down so we can live in one giant, single room, and that all floors must be dark hardwood and that maple cabinets are “so yesterday.”

I’m not sure who these people are who get to decide what’s “in” and “out” for the rest of us, but I can tell you that I’ve decided I want to be one of them.  I want to be the person who determines the clothing fashions, so that I can make sure that the clothes that flatter the aging, pear-shaped figure are the latest trend.   I want to make traditional homes (with lots of walls and original floors) cutting edge again, and I want the authors I like to have their books on the best-sellers list, and while I’m at it, I think I’d like our society to value maturity over youth.

Mostly, I want to stop feeling hopelessly out-of-the-loop because I don’t dress, look, think, or act exactly the way our current culture thinks I should, right at this very moment.  Just for a little while, I want it to be my turn to decide what’s hot and what’s not.

But since that’s probably not going to happen, maybe I’ll just settle for ignoring all those nameless, faceless people who are setting the standards and live by my own values instead.  Sometimes the simplest solution is also the best.

 

 

Go Your Own Way

IMG_0237A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to be invited to join my neighborhood book club.  The women, who are mostly middle aged like me, are friendly and the discussion is lively and interesting.  But I have to admit that, while I enjoy being with this group, I don’t really feel as if I fit in.  We’re never going to read any of my favorite books because they aren’t popular, which means there aren’t enough available copies at the library.  (Most of my favorite books are also out of print.)  I almost always have a different opinion about the books we read than the rest of the group; I’m one of the few women who can’t easily and quickly look up potential book selections on her phone; I am often the only one in the room not wearing comfort shoes (my feet are too big), and I don’t have any grandchildren yet.  But I don’t care.  I don’t need to “fit in” to enjoy my book club; I enjoy it because it gives me the chance to read books I’ve never heard of, to get to know my neighbors a bit better and to hear new and interesting points of view.

Admittedly, I’ve spent most of my life paying very careful attention to what the other women in my age group were doing, what they were wearing, what they thought, etc.  It started in grade school, when fitting in was extremely important, and I remember the distinct and rigid groups of my high school years, and how it seemed that everyone tried to belong to at least one of them.  When I was a younger adult, I know I tried to fit in with my co-workers, with the other mothers, with my neighbors, etc.   Of course I had my own tastes and ideas, but they were always tempered with what I thought was expected of me, and what was the “right thing” to be doing and thinking.

Then I hit middle age, and gradually the old rules of conformity just slipped away, and not just for me. The issues of middle age may be universal:  the physical decline, the changing family dynamics, knowing that retirement and the “golden years” are just around the corner. But from what I’ve seen, the way we cope with those issues are as unique as they are varied. I know middle aged women who are happy to let their hair go grey, and I know others who dye their hair every three weeks just to make sure they don’t have grey roots.  (I’m in the second category.)  I know women who feel their sags and wrinkles are a sign of a life fully lived, and others who have had plastic surgery to smooth the wrinkles away.  I know people who are reveling in the freedom of the “empty nest,” and others who are spending their days helping to raise their grandchildren.  Some people are using their middle years as a time to slow down from the hectic pace of their lives, while others are busier than ever as they juggle the demands of a career, their children and caring for aging parents.

And I think that is exactly as it should be, because  there is no right or wrong way to live out our middle years.  Each of us gets to make the choices that work best for our unique situation and our unique personalities, and the pressure to conform seems to be over and done with.  Personally, I love the freedom to follow my own path, and the diversity that I see in my middle age contemporaries.  I’m just sorry that it took us so long to realize that it really is okay to be different, and wish that we had all figured this out a long time ago.  Just think how much easier high school would have been…..