Tag Archives: prejudice

Tools for being human, part ten: Costumes

Screen Shot 2017-08-31 at 12.10.47 pm

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…

DSC_3659 (1)

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?


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.


Tools for being human, part eight: Owning my age

pigs head

My age was a defining characteristic right from the start. Actually, probably before the start, measured really from the moment of conception. Once I was freed of the womb, it was a scale against  which my progress was judged. “Oh, so he isn’t crawling yet? Never mind, maybe he can be a conservative.”

It soon became part of the way I defined myself. “My name is Regan, I can draw an airplane and tie my shoe laces and I am four-and-three-quarters”. It became a ranking system in social situations. The five-year-olds got the toy rifles, those under five made do with sticks or finger-pointing. Though I did learn to draw that Remington two-finger pretty damn quick.

It was age-division that was my first experience of segregation. Specifically the great adult-child divide. At celebrations us children got a lower table, fewer items of cutlery, and higher sugar-content foods. The adults had the taller tables, more complicated social rules, and decisions to make on who would have to drive. I also learnt that certain behaviour, activities and ideologies were restricted to each side. Alcohol, untruths and high-impact cursing were strictly for “the adults”. Imagination, playtime and brutal honesty were the domain of children.

And yet my memories of childhood are largely of sunlight and adventure. I didn’t undergo any of the maturity summoning transformations that some of my peers had to face. My parents never divorced, I didn’t have to raise my siblings, I was neither abused nor abandoned. I got to be a very thorough eight year old, building fortresses from cushions, mown-grass, and imagination. I was a competent ten-year old, earning my scars by playing games of “policemen versus protestors”, riding my BMX off cliffs, and hurling adult-branded curses at bullies. And I became well-versed in the dark arts of teenageism. Blushing around girls, arguing with Dad about the length of my hair, and replacing judicious portions of my parent’s darker spirits with tea.

When I look at a photo of myself on my 21st birthday, I realise that I largely matched society’s age-expectations. I had a peer-inherited (and media enhanced) disregard for authority. I had long hair, and a tattoo with an ungracious story. I left university classes early to play bass guitar in a metal band named Shocker. And I had a Rainman-like ability to calculate the best alcohol-by-volume-by-price in a bottle store. Yip, 94% age-appropriate.

Social pressure remained relentless, if not always overt. I understood that by the age of thirty I should have been married, with a house, and maybe a child on the way. I rebelled. It wasn’t until thirty-one I had a wife and a house. And horses. I had a good, steady job that paid well, but I’d demoted fantasy and imagination, replaced some of my dreams with wants. As a result there was a tension within me, a pull between society’s expectations, and my buried needs. At thirty-three, I imploded. House, home, relationship, job. I didn’t have the emotional maturity to deal with the aftermath. So I boarded a plane.

For the next few years I put myself in situations where I lived, worked and danced with people ten years younger than me. People who labelled their hopes as certainties rather than impracticalities. People who looked for their options on a wide horizon rather than down a narrow tunnel. Ok, some of them pissed in the laundry, shat in the shower or offered loud advice from places of ignorance. But by now I knew that age was no antidote to foolishness. I started to realise that elucidation had to be earned, not granted. So I paid attention to my surroundings.

One of the greatest things about immersing yourself in an unfamiliar community, is that you have a chance of developing empathy, appreciation, understanding. Ageing is an opportunity through which we can build comprehension through experience. What it is like to sit in your first maths lesson. What it means to be afraid of the dark. What it means to be struggling with teenage ideas around gender. Imagine what we might gain if had to live through a range of ethnicities? Or if over our lifetime we gradually shifted gender? What insights and understanding might we draw?

And yet such opportunities might well be squandered. At thirty I believed that the people I could best relate to, were those of my own age. I thought that we’d been born at the best possible time, and that we shared things no other age could understand. Hair metal, misogyny, The Goonies. Besides, society frowns at the idea of inter-age mingling. It represents it as insidious, or inappropriate, or sad. At thirty-three I began to undo my prejudice. As a consequence I spent the next ten years learning my most consequential lessons in humility, creativity, and the development of wisdom, from yoofs.

One of those world-shakers was my girlfriend for much of that time. She taught me the importance of honesty, and honour. Of forgiveness.The difference in our ages wasn’t a problem until a biological alarm shifted her world. Fortunately she’d also taught me enough about self-reflection to avoid immolation, and so I began hosting couch surfers in order to fill a number of voids. And I was surprised to find that one of the most spontaneous, creative and inspirational was a woman just a little older than me. She had endless stories, she’d made beer for years, and she lived in Boulder, Colorado. Like Mork and Mindy (kids my age will get it…). I booked another flight.

She introduced me to a range of wonderful people, people who at forty, or fifty, or sixty, who still had an eye on the horizon. People who didn’t let their age dictate who they should be. People who rather than giving up on their dreams, had chased them down, and then found new ones. And since then I keep finding older-aged heroes.

Ageism is a powerful prejudice, one which build barriers and promotes ignorance. Our societies should promote kinship, not division. And as with anything societal, it is up to me to be part of any change.

So I choose to see age as a choice, not a curse. I can choose to age poorly. Choose a diet designed to challenge my heart and bowels rather than befriend them. Choose to define functional alcoholism my pointing to the one gunt in the pub that’s more pished than I am. Choose to tell myself that a sore back, a beer belly, and a mutually damaging relationship with a girlfriend I’ve taught myself to hate, are all symptoms of too many years, rather than my own poor choices.

Or I can choose to learn every day, to rewrite my prejudices through experience. Choose to summon the vigour and hope of my teens and wrap this around the compassion and care I’ve taken on in my forties. Choose to measure people by the depth of their hugs, the warmth of their smile, and their capacity for enjoyment, rather than the country of their birth, the number of candles on their cake, or their possession (or lack of) a Y-chromosome.

I choose to make (as much as possible) my own choices.

Tools for being human, part seven: Eclecticism


I once sat between two huge men in a seedy Budapest bar, hoping my mate Paul wasn’t being drowned by their companions in some dark stretch of the Danube. One of us (I don’t think either of us remembers/admits whose idea it was) told the other “let’s get a cab to the seediest pub in the city”, and there I sat, dripping with sweat and regret. It was a situation which taught me several things. That I can trust Paul in a sticky situation. That if you’re unable to pay a debt to the Hungarian Mafia, then you get pimped out in live sex shows. And that my desire to experience more of life occasionally threatens to shorten it.

The other significant understanding that hindsight offers, is that my willingness to engage with as many different ideas, experiences and people as possible, builds the parts of me I’m most proud of. I believe there is a cost in denying myself an opportunity to try something out. The price is ignorance, reduced opportunities. And most disappointing of all, it means fewer chances to overlap with other people.

It frustrates me when people reject things without strong reasoning. “I don’t dance, I don’t read anything by female authors, I’ll never watch anything made by Disney.” It upsets me when I realise I’ve rejected something from a place of ignorance, from prejudice. Short-cut thinking is something I battle against, mental laziness. And sometimes it really is a battle. It is easy to maintain a huge list of ideas with a yes/no indicator next to them. Do I give a shit about dinosaurs? No. Do I care about someone else’s faith? No. But I find it is then very difficult to undo these binary indicators.

Instead though, I can leave a space next to anything that I haven’t tried. Am I going to be impressed by walking in the footprints of dinosaurs in Colorado? Blank space. I’m far more likely to convince myself to give something a try, if my mind isn’t already saying “not interested”. And once I’ve built a history of saying “Cool, I’m up for it”, then the momentum of previous exciting experiences builds, and it generates FOMO as a by-product. And the Fear Of Missing Out, is a great counter-balance to niggling anxieties about exposure to shame, embarrassment, or naked flames.

I’d like to congratulate my family for their contribution to this mental attitude. I grew up with two siblings, and though we all shared a love of hair metal and bourbon, we also developed independent ideas of what constituted a good time. For example my brother was the martial arts one, and my sister the horse riding one. And growing up with them meant I watched them find grins and LOLs in places I hadn’t been. And eventually I guess it was FOMO again, which led me to dabble in their respective arts. So one day I trained in Japanese sword fighting, which led to my involvement in the Lord of the Rings films. And another time I began taking riding lessons, which has led to trots amongst the fairy chimneys of Cappadocia, tolts through the snow on Icelandic horses, and limb-ducking gallops across Czech forests. Oh, and several friendships, and a marriage.

My Dad didn’t do anything to counter my desire for diverse experiences. First, library visits with him meant I found joy in reading science fiction, Aesop’s fables, and to a lesser degree the ingredients on a can of toilet spray while I wait for difficult movements. This led to a (at this stage embryonic) career in writing, an inescapable interest in foreign lands and people, and a solid knowledge of non-CFC propellant mechanisms. Dad also had a strong desire to be his own boss, twinned with a low tolerance for boredom. So his decision to wear many different hats (firman’s helmet, chef’s toque, SCUBA mask) contributed to the ease with which I visualised myself as a chainsaw sculptor.

And then my wonderful Mum, she trained as a nurse, she worked with special needs kids, and then she led her and my Dad into a career in the wine industry when she decided to train in viticulture. So yip, I blame her for my weakness around an open bottle of wine, but also for my compassion, and that one time I worked as an art tutor with vulnerable communities.

So I have my family to thank for one of my greatest super-powers. And one of the greatest benefits of this power, is that it helps counteract a natural shyness. My readiness to consider almost anything has resulted in an interest in almost everything. I find that in general, when I meet someone new, I can usually find areas of commonality. Of overlap. This isn’t necessarily a shared experience or expertise, but if I haven’t told myself I don’t give a shit about laser holograms, then each time I encounter something around them, I build a little understanding. I write something other than “NO” in that blank box. And so when I meet an old Canadian scientist in a mead-dealing pub in Cesky Krumlov, we share an evening of stories, laughter, and herbed honey wines.

Common ground is a wonderful place for two people to start building a conversation, or mutual respect, or a plan to spend more time together. It doesn’t matter that I’m a Kiwi of no fixed career, and she’s a world class Brazilian surfer, my ability to find joy in more things rather than less, means that I’m more likely to be as interested in her side of the conversation as my own.

I’m far from perfect. There are plenty of things that I reacted against with minimal information. But I didn’t write “NO!” in the boxes next to Drum and Bass, or Trailer parks, or Bluegrass, and so when I eventually tried them, I discovered some of my most transcendent escapades. So I’ll push myself to maintain an open mind on as much as life as possible, because each new experience is a teacher, and each teacher guides me from places of ignorance, towards greater communion, towards stronger friendships, and towards being a more capable human.