Tools for being human, part ten: Costumes

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My birthday sits just in front of the largest costume event on the calendar. One way I mark the passing of the years is by attempting to one-up my previous years Halloween efforts. What is it about dressing up that excites me? Is it just showing off, or can it really be a useful tool for being human?

I imagine clothing started off as purely practical. Warmth, protection from the elements, a way of enabling us to walk quickly down a gravel driveway, or cross a pit of Lego bricks, or traverse the hot sands between the shade of the beachside pine trees and the cooling temptations of the blue sea.

I reckon that occasionally some new idea would provide an evolutionary advantage. The first person to carve a tread into the bottom of their moccasins, she gained a speed advantage over her tribe-mates. “I don’t need to outrun the sabre tooth cheetah, I just need to outrun Og and his sister Grog.” Sneaker envy was born.

It’s impossible to pinpoint when dressing-up as a pastime began, but I’m guessing somewhere between the development of the fireman’s uniform and the release of the Village People’s first music video. I can though pinpoint the catalyst for my own infatuation with costumes.


Costumes can transform the way I see myself

My first costuming memory is of me cutting up an old sheet in order to produce a Luke Skywalker outfit for a school production. There are many, many blessings to being schooled prior to the development of social media. An absence of record of me dancing to “We built this city on rock and roll” with my legs wrapped in tea-stained bandages is one of them. But without that costume, anxiety would have had me in the audience, rather than on the stage.

As a kid we get to try things on for size. Cowboy hats, a shopkeeper’s apron, your Mum’s high heels, your Dad’s shaving cream. We have a freedom to become.

But as an adult, we often feel a pressure to make decisions, to choose a career, to define ourselves in a number of ways. Am I guy who goes to football matches, or to the theatre? Do I believe in a God? Republican or Democrat? I’m expected to make choices, to vocalise my opinions, and to stick to both. I don’t then mention that I dreamt of being a train driver, or a doctor, or an elf. 

A costume is an opportunity to voice to a part of us that is usually heard only within the walls of our mind. We get to be amorous, vocal, smug, complicated, emotional…we get to pair up with other cat-in-the-hats, dance with John & Ringo, wolf-whistle at Marilyn Monroe. There’s a delicious freedom in the becoming, and costume can enable that. If you asked the average person in my society to play a role for an hour, you’ll invoke “fight or flight”. But if you give them a wig and a mirror…put a wig on them and give them a mirror…


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Costumes can transform the way others see me

I flew to New York City last year with two primary goals:

  1. To experience (and write about) the presidential election.
  2. To take part in the East Village Halloween parade.

A week before the world shifted under the weight of that election result, I dressed up as a Zombie Astronaut and travelled on the subway from Williamsburg to Manhattan. That journey was where my metropolitan crush began. That evening I wasn’t a white-guy tourist on a train, I was a zombie in a space suit. Lights pulsed on my back and blood ran down my neck. 

A young black family boarded the crowded carriage at Broadway.  The young daughter looked to my neck wound, then to her Mom. Mom reassured her. “He’s just playing, honey.” And for the next six stops I got non-stop acting tips from a six-year-old and her nine-year-old brother, and an apologetic shrug from their grinning mother.

I harvested hugs, hit out at high-fives, and allowed myself to be drawn into selfies. Our appearance guides people’s first impressions. When you’re obviously dressed as an impossibility, then prejudices can be nullified. As I walked up the steps up to Canal Street I wondered what the world would be like if we all shifted appearance intermittently. Where then would racism land?

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Costumes are catalysts to play

My sister and her husband run a backpacker hostel in Derry, Northern Ireland, a city which hosts one of Europe’s most enthusiastic Halloween events. I love visiting at the end of October, chasing down costume accessories with enthusiastic Spanish, carving pumpkins in the basement with the Germans. 

I also love applying makeup to anxious first-timers. They shrug their shoulders, accept a glass of snakebite with a trembling hand, and sit quietly as I paint those devil’s eyes. I step away and they move towards a mirror or appreciative applause, and their demon lip curls, and a convert struts out into a city of happy terrors.

I’ve watched Elvis dance-offs, I’ve seen T-Rexes twerking, I’ve paused as NYC police lined up to get photos with the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. I spent a month doing night-shoots on Lord of the Rings, and one of my most vivid memories is of standing amongst a dozen warriors atop a castle wall, playing charades with a group of Orcs below.

Too often we designate playtime as a function of childhood, but there’s a reason that none of us wanted to be home in time for dinner. Because we valued fun over safety, over pretenses, over rules. There’s something about dressing as someone else that can reawaken that state. And I think fun is one of the most important factors in my enjoyment of being human.

Final words

Costumes can break down barriers by momentarily masking our default selves. They can disrupt our visual prejudices. They give us an excuse to play. Sometimes it is only in dressing as someone else, that you get an opportunity to reflect on who it is that you’ve chosen to be.

It’s exactly two months until Halloween. Happy days.

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Spring (AKA the day the sun came back)

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Today was shaping up to be a dozen things. It began with a long walk in the morning frost, steps towards removing the hibernation band that’s appeared around my waist over winter. Then it was time spent on another short story. This one’s about the descent of a man, about the stretching of time and the perspective that offers as he falls twenty-four storeys to the earth. And after crafting a fiction about the plummeting of a fragile soul, I had to shift head-space and finish writing an application for a grown-up job in the big city.

All the while the sun beckoned. It stroked my cheek as I hung washing on the clothes line. It slipped between the tilted blinds behind the computer, casting venetian shadows on the teal wall behind me. And it played along the drift of incense smoke that drifted from the mantlepiece, charming the strands of burnt sandalwood, teasing the wisps of charred Dragon’s Blood.

The call of outside was too loud. I clicked a “Send” button, then lifted my speakers on my way out to the car. I lowered all the windows, tapped a playlist, and drove towards the steeply stacked shoreline and wooden boneyards that define Turakina Beach. As Katchafire replaced Coldplay (don’t dare judge me…) I grinned out the window to the blue skies and suckling lambs of almost-spring.

The neighbouring west coast beaches tend towards dark sands and isolation. As I wound between low sand dunes I slipped my shoes from my feet and slowed, letting the earth’s warmth ease my long-stowed toes. There was a single vehicle parked high on the sand, abandoned and empty. The low tide exposed long walking options north and south. I chose to head northward, clambering over bridges built of china-white logs and mammoth’s tusks, to where the green paddocks of ocean-side farmlets crumble like shortcake, into the blue-green sea.

I slipped headphones over ears and set a soundtrack to my meander. I let the beat run through me, I dropped my jersey and hat in a dry-beach stack. I danced in the shifting line between states of liquid and solid. I leapt from logs, pirouetted with my shadow, and let the narratives of past and future slip away. And as I span in gentle circles, there was no one to judge, no whispers, no giggles that weren’t my own.

At the moment I spend the majority of my week alone, installed in my 88 days of thoughts and words. But within this oasis my head is rarely resting within a moment. Rather it’s shuttling back and forth, between past and future. The one exception is when I’m inside the head of a character. A man bound to himself with cable-ties and determination, a girl trying to interpret dinosaur footprints, an oak tree trying to interpret a young boy’s pain. Then I’m inside their moment.

But I need to remember to make time to spend with myself. With a tune, in the sun, with my shade and my light. My heartbeat is a rhythm, and while it beats I have to remember to make time to dance.

The places stories come from (and take me to)

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Writing fiction, wow. After several months of writing from my own experience, you know, facts, I’m now free to write anything.

Of course “anything” could also be a little intimidating. Like “infinity”, or “Welcome to Subway, what are you after today?” So one of my tasks, lately, has been figuring out how to locate ideas, and then turn them into stories.

Over the past five weeks I have used a few lunch-hours (I’m still working two days a week to cover coffees and bills) to come up with a list of thirty-seven short story ideas. Of these single paragraph descriptions, I chose eight to start fleshing out into stories. And of these eight, I’ve so-far completed three. As in I’ve started soliciting feedback on them brought them from others.

So why these three stories? Where did they come from? And where did they take me?

 

Story one: The pub quiz

I posted the first couple of pages of this first story a couple of weeks ago. It starts with a man whose ambition and joy for living has slipped away so gradually hadn’t noticed. The story picks up momentum (and hope) when he meets a woman who might offer him a chance to rewrite his future. Is he still capable of taking it?

I love those magical moments in life when I meet someone new, and there’s this powerful frisson, this trembling, vibrating understanding that they could represent a significant, positive transformation. Occasionally though, I’ve found this feeling being almost immediately tempered by a wave of self-reproach. “Why would they want to be friends/tag-team-wrestling-partners/lovers with me?”

I’m intimidated by the degree of feeling they generate, and I start thinking about how much more terrible rejection feels, when it comes from those people I choose to raise above me. And then that lump forms between throat and heart, and self-doubt begins to eclipse hope.

Sometimes I want to make a part of myself transparent, so that this person might see the parts of me of which I’m most proud. But translucency means they get to see the shadows as well.

Writing this story allowed me to characterise that part of me, to give it a name, Gavin. Then I got to create the person who evokes that astounding feeling in Gavin. I named her Alice. Then I put them at a table at the Red Lion, on a busy quiz night, and I let them decide where the story went.

 

Story two: The list maker

The second story I completed is about a treasure hunt, and it is about Alzheimer’s, and it is mostly about the degree to which we let a select number of our memories define who we are. It puts the reader inside an older man’s head for an afternoon, as he attempts to solve a gentle mystery.

It was an opportunity to tell what is essentially a very sad story, but tell it from the largely positive viewpoint of an endearing old gent. It was a chance to remind myself of the importance of living life as engaged as possible. It gave me a reason to ask myself some important questions. What are the moments that I believe define me? Who will be there for me if I begin to lose aspects of myself? Who do I want to be there for, if they find themselves struggling for definition?

 

Story three: The first and last hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca

I was listening to an interview with an author a couple of weeks ago, and she pointed out that there was no reason for short fiction to stick with a single character, or be restricted to a short time period. Just because you only have a few thousand words, there’s no reason you can’t tell a story from multiple viewpoints, or utilise something other than real-time. That got me thinking:

“What if I offered the first few hours of someone’s life, and then the last? And this became an opportunity for the reader to fill the gaps between?”

And so my third completed story describes the first and last few hours of Hector Fuego-Salamanca. Hector is born under difficult circumstances, birthed in the back of a stolen four-wheel drive, which is parked on the edge of an ancient New Zealand forest. Hector’s last few hours are hardly less arduous, most of them are spent blindfolded and tied, in the back of a stolen army vehicle.

The fun thing with this, is that I am a strong believer in self-determination. And so I wanted to start with an evocative (if you were raised in New Zealand) name. Then I wanted to add a sprinkling of facts, a description of a person for whom the odds have been stacked against. I wanted the reader to start telling their own story. And then I wanted Hector to transcend expectations. What would he need in order to do this? What is it that we use to fight fate, to reverse expectations, to counteract a dearth of privilege?

The short story offers an opportunity to experiment with new characters every day. Maybe I’ll spend the morning with a man peering through windows as he falls from the top of a thirty storey building. Measuring his reasons for jumping, against what he sees in the faces of those he glimpses during his descent.

Perhaps I’ll then choose to spend the evening in the moonlit company of two teenage girls as they quietly construct a series of crop circles on farmland in Cornwall. I get to listen in on their stories, their observations, and then I get to see what happens when their creative efforts attract an unexpected visitor.

Yes, endless possibilities can be intimidating. But my imagination is my most treasured of all my gifts. If shit gets dark, if I find myself at a fork in the road and I feel that either direction will lead me to a place I don’t want to go, then my imagination helps me forge a new path.

Writing fiction is yoga for my imagination. Hmm, maybe there’s a story in the naming of downward facing dog…