Or, why I dress the way I do.
I recently worked at a job with a regular shift turnover—a totally mindless, boring, punch in—do the thing—punch out—go home—repeat—collect paycheck kind of job. One morning, I came in and was setting aside my lunchbox and such while some folks from the shift previous were in the break room killing the last few minutes before they could clock out. One particular trio of folks dominated the atmosphere of the room; that is to say, one gentleman talking to two companions dominated the atmosphere of the room.
He was a youngish sort, a Millennial of indeterminate 20s age, of mildly unkempt hair in contrast to his rather well sculpted facial scruff, but most notably, he wore a headband easily recognizable as one of the ninja clan headbands from the popular anime Naruto. The subject of his conversation was, I surmised, a perceived response to his choice of dress. I had seen this gentleman on a few shift turnovers and knew that the headband was not a new or random choice; it was part of his regular attire, at least enough such that I couldn’t recall an instance where he hadn’t been wearing it.
“I mean, I get judged all the time for wearing this,” he went on. “But what about the people who dress normal?” His theory was that people who dress “normal” are always the ones in stories who are hiding something. They’re either the red shirts who die because they’re a step behind the main character, or the villains, ultimately. “They’re the ones with the bodies in the closets. I mean, think about it: how many people in TV shows or movies who dress like this (indicating himself) have ever been caught with bodies in their basement?”
I had a bad feeling where this was going, but I grinned despite myself. That turned out to be my damnation, as it revealed that I was listening.
“See?” the gentleman said, pointing me out to his companions. “This guy knows what I’m talking about.”
You see, that day, I had chosen to wear the world’s most boring green sweater. I admit it—it’s ghastly. It’s not just an ugly dad sweater, it’s an ugly granddad sweater. If I’m lucky, I may grow into the appropriate age to wear that sweater around the time I retire. With the right oxford and tie, a Millennial can make sweater vests look in-fashion, even swag, but this sweater is simply beyond hope. If St. Peter at the Pearly Gates sported argyle, you’d find a seraph with this sweater. Unfortunately for me, it’s also extraordinarily comfortable on cold weather days, which this happened to be one of.
“Actually, I do know,” I said. “I enjoyed some animes as well. I grew up looking forward to Robotech on the original Toonami block (I mean the original original. With Moltar). To this day I still pontificate about the possible military applicability of giant mechanized robots with opposable thumbs. Part me probably still has a soft spot for Ami Mizuno. I have plans to go see The Wind Rises this weekend with a friend, because Miyazaki has directed some of the finest stories I can recall during my transition into a young adult. I kindly ask others whether they mean the Fritz Lang or Katsuhiro Otomo Metropolis, and I think Samurai Champloo is a must-see for anyone with a taste in music.
“See, I may dress ‘normal,’ but I think people like me—we don’t dress normal because of the bodies in our basement, but rather, because it’s an acknowledgement that we all have skeletons in our closets.”
In the interest of revealing the entire truth as I remember it, that was where I left the conversation to clock in, but I wanted to go on. If I could have, I would have continued with this:
“No, it’s true: I’m not an otaku.” An otaku, for those unfamiliar with the term, is essentially a “geek” or a “nerd” as it pertains specifically to the culture of anime or anime-style media (video games, manga, et cetera). “I have not spent more than one day at a con, and that was enough for me. I don’t own any of the kitsch, and I’ve never had the urge to cosplay. That is not my interest. I also don’t think of anime as anime, because giving it that convention makes it something to either fawn over or ignore entirely without respecting the differences and individualities of specific titles within the medium. I call them cartoons, or in the cases of some directors like Miyazaki or Otomo, they are ‘Miyazaki films’ or ‘Otomo films’ in the way that one might go see a Tarantino flick, a Joss Whedon show or a Disney film.
“However, when I was young(er), I seem to recall that ‘anime’ was largely based in this idea that the heroes—the people worth writing stories about—dressed what you call ‘normally’ every day. There appeared to be this unspoken acknowledgement that beneath the normal, we were all fascinating, beautiful human beings. Normal was simply the costume we all agreed to wear, like logging into the server in the grand MMORPG we called ‘society.’ The cute schoolgirl was just as likely to be a killer government robot as she was to be a universal super soldier. The overly pretty boyfriend might be an alien from another planet bent on the conquest of the human race (but he was also tragically the last of his kind). The best friend was a closet cross-dresser but wielded a club that took ten men to lift. The pop girls and band geeks might be dark lords or star queens. And everyone, including us, had algebra homework every evening that was somehow just as important as saving the world. It was a generation where anyone and everyone could be Spiderman—equally awkward and clumsy but secretly amazing, and we always possessed the perfect witty comeback or one-liner for any situation.
“And then something changed.
“People felt free to celebrate their communal beauty and awesomeness, but they did it behind raised walls, and in searching for the most beautiful and awesome of their number, they found instead the most eccentric. Teams were formed. The class split into clans. No longer was it one society from which the hero was drawn, but a hero of one fragment of strange that was pitted against other heroes from other different kinds of strange, and the story was told from the point of view of the victor. Somewhere along the line, normal was deemed ‘no longer interesting enough.’ ‘Interesting’ had to be shown, to be proved, branded on arms and hands and foreheads or worn around necks like medals because they didn’t want to admit that they actually lacked the ability to suddenly scream like powerlifters and burst into golden flames. In attempting to assure the rest of their community that they were indeed worthy of fascination, many people, frankly, just got weird instead.
“Mind you, I have nothing against cosplayers. I’m not particularly interested in it myself (even if I could totally rock an Eren Jeager look), but I do think it’s an absolutely valid expression of one’s creativity and costume design—and, seriously, some of them look totally badass. I cannot stress enough, however, that just being an otaku is not an immediate sign of possessing (or lacking) any qualities of interest. Maybe it’s true that it’s some strange assurance that, statistically, you’re probably not a serial killer…though, if we’re taking evidence from fictional events, there’s an episode of CSI that’s just begging to be mentioned.
“But at the same time, I’ve met too many truly interesting people at this point in my life whom, were you to cross them in the street, you would have no idea they were a world-class chef, or an amazing yoga instructor, or writing this book that will totally change your life. They don’t wear headbands. They don’t belong to ninja clans or Hogwarts houses. They’re muggles, at least, on the surface, tattooed or decorated not according to the rules of an entirely fictional body of government, but rather only by the rules of their whimsy. They can probably do these things because they spend most of the time working on the things that they do to make them interesting and don’t worry so much about what they are, or what groups they belong to, or how others see them. I think, maybe it’s like how people are mostly water, and—like water—if you can see what the depths conceal, then you know it must be rather shallow.”
I admit, I didn’t say any of this to our gentleman. I had to go do that entirely boring thing I was clocking in to do so I could earn my paycheck…the exact same entirely boring thing he had just gotten done doing for a shift. The only difference between us, so far as anyone there could tell, was that he wore a headband from Naruto, and I wore the world’s most boring green sweater. As I’ve since left that job, for all I know, he’s out saving the world somewhere.
As for me? I’m still a muggle, and I think that sweater’s still somewhere in my closet. Right there, next to the skeleton.
Photo: MIKI Yoshihito/Flickr