Tag Archives: nyc

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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Losses and gains

Cognitive dissonance is a term for what happens when you experience something which upsets your understanding of how the world works. Like being told by the people you surround yourself with that a comet will destroy the world on October 12th, giving away all your worldly possessions, breaking ties with your  family and friends, and then waking up on October 13th to someone’s Beyoncé alarm.

As I climbed into a yellow cab outside JFK three weeks ago, I believed that Trump’s loss was inevitable. I believed this with the same depth of surety with which I’d once dismissed the Internet as ‘just a fad’. I was about to become very familiar with cognitive dissonance.

As I looked out the taxi window onto the streets of Queens I was also preparing myself to be lonely in a new city, to be ready for rejection on both sides. But despite my anxieties, New York City and I just…clicked. Within days we ended up giggling together, telling in-jokes and slamming Hennessey and Red Bulls in dive bars at 3:00am. I remember a moment, maybe a week before I flew out of New Zealand, when I read something about New York being a place that all sorts of dreamers headed, in order to birth their ideas. And that was it, I met so many people who had dreams, and talents, and self belief. And they talked with me. They shuffled along the bench and made room for my ass and my ideas. My imaginative soul had found a new home.

This all began well before election day. I had made what ended up being a very good decision to begin my exploration of the city from a Williamsburg base. From there I found great coffee, astounding vegan Reuben sandwiches, and hundreds of artisans practising intricate arts, from distilling to button-making. I found centres for Judaic thought, summer food-markets that looked out over Manhattan, and people who looked me in the eye when I explained who I wanted to be. And looking back on it, I realise that as much as that time was about New York charming me, it was also about me appealing to her.

It isn’t easy to explain, but I think it was about being open to anything. It was about starting the conversations, sitting at the bar rather than the booth, dancing on the rooftop rather than in my dreams. It was about expression and engagement. It was also about being comfortable and confident. I was surprised to find I was more comfortable in that city than anywhere else I’d ever travelled. I was frequently a racial minority of one, but most of my endearing moments were with people who had been labelled as minorities their whole lives. I was often lost, but I quickly built a trust that lost was a euphemism for ‘on the way to an unexpected experience.’

And then just as all was going so well, there was that election night. At around 4:00pm I stood on the corner of 46th and 9th Ave, debating which party to attend. A tall beggar in a thick coat asked me for a dollar for cawfee, and I declined. He began an explanation as to why I was making a poor choice. As he talked I noticed shapely sculptures outside an Irish bar, The Playwright. I gave him a ‘waddayagunnado?’ shrug and explained I had no change and I was meeting a friend. A friend called Bud. Who was apparently half-price between 4 and 6pm. Good timing Bud.

Half the screens above the bar showed sport, the other showed a mute countdown to the first voting results. I dragged a stool under myself and drank in the scene. There was a good mix of characterful faces, and there was a password for free wi-fi. So I ordered a beer, connected, and an hour out from the start of Trump’s ascendency I found out a young man I knew had taken his life. I looked about the thickening crowd, I looked down at my hand about the pint glass, and I looked back to the last times I heard from him. I swallowed back my beer then I noticed a woman next to me was drinking from two different glasses.

‘What are you drinking?’ I enquired, hoping for something more exotic than Budweiser.

‘Hennessey,’ she replied, ‘and Red Bull.’

And in that exchange I found a new friend. And even as I struggled to come to terms with a feelings of loss, either I or the universe found a way to balance some sort of scales. I’m not suggesting that a new friendship can offset such dreadful loss. No, it was simply my head trying to find a way to reconcile a fresh case of cognitive dissonance.

The next morning I said goodbye to Matt from Bow Bridge in Central Park. I think he would have appreciated the view, and my imagining characters from the film Highlander beside me, talking about the coming end of days. I looked to the water below, the layer of fallen leaves. Then I looked up to the skyline, to the sunshadow forms of skyscrapers, and the sun behind them. And although I felt lead in my centre, I also felt the lightness that acceptance in a strange and new place brings. And now I wish that somehow I’d been able to help Matt find that. Or whatever it was that he’d needed to make a different choice.

The days following the US election results have reminded me of the importance of finding our voices. Of telling stories, and of being actively, positively human. And so I am going to start a new set of writings in the coming weeks. I’m going to try to hunt out 100 tools for being human. From Eye Contact to Trees, from Hope to Lego, I’ll be exploring the things that help me maintain my positivity, my humanity, in what can be a difficult world if we let it. Because I need to ensure that I’m doing, rather than simply being. And because I want to be there for people, more effectively than I have been in the past.