Living the Alien

The other day, while I was waiting for an appointment, I started leafing through the magazines provided.  The selection was relatively up-to-date and heavily

Find the Alien!

concentrated on the popular press.  As I leafed through People and skimmed the photo essays, I found myself wondering…  Do people really care what the current celebrities wore to some event?  Why is it important who was best dressed and who was worst dressed?

Then I admitted to myself that maybe people do.  I’m pretty much a fashion failure.  One of my best friends likes to tease me about my propensity for wearing jeans and tee-shirts all the time.  I don’t wear make-up.  I don’t dye my hair.  So probably I’m not the right person for judging whether fashion is important or not.

I think the interest in what other people wear (especially “famous” people) goes deeper than a mere interest in what looks good, what doesn’t.

When you think about it, clothing and hair style is about the only thing we can use to judge for ourselves when trying to get a feel for most celebrities.  We don’t know what is going on in their heads.  We know what their press secretaries tell us they think and feel, but we don’t know if that’s the truth or whether it’s been made up as good promotional material.

After a while, I start wondering, do these people even dress themselves or is their “personal look” designed by someone else to promote an agenda of some sort?  We can’t really know.  Perhaps that person in the disastrous gown was told to wear it to deliberately raise their profile.  Maybe being on a “worst dressed” list is better than being passed over entirely.

So maybe it’s all an illusion, even the things we “know” from seeing them with our own eyes aren’t true.  And when people start imitating these celebrities as “fashion icons,” what was unreal from the start become a version of reality…

Many years ago, the World Fantasy Convention was held in a hotel across the street from a huge shopping mall.  During a break in the action, Jim and I and David and Sharon Weber decided to go over and have lunch.  As we walked through the mall, I realized I felt like I was in another world.  It wasn’t just the different styles of clothing (the convention was in the Midwest; I live in the Southwest), it was little things, right down to how people walked and used the space around them.

Having been told over and over and over again that mass media and rapid transit have all but eliminated regional differences in culture, I was surprised how out of place I felt in this most normal of American settings.  I felt something like relief when we returned to the convention and I was surrounded by people who were “familiar” in some indefinable way.

Nonetheless, with the contrasts fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help but realize how weird my “normal” would feel to the bulk of the people over in that shopping mall.   The feeling of being in a world within a world that might not be a real world stayed with me the rest of the weekend.

Has anything ever made you see the world inside out?  I’m not talking about a sensation as negative as “alienation” – just the little things that take you out of your zone and make you see the world fresh, that make you, even if for just a moment, an alien.

6 Responses to “Living the Alien”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Heh, I feel like an alien all the time. I hate the SImpsons and South Park and anything like it, never drink, I was never a trouble maker or partyer in high school, I don’t follow most of the music the worlds adores, I never…

    You get the idea. People rattle off this and that about “modern” culture and often I have no idea what they’re talking about. Talk football or (to a small but growing degree) hockey, now you’re speaking my native language. But so many times the masses are laughing, while I’m looking around trying to understand why that’s funny.

    These days I find myself taking advice from one of my own races. “Don’t try to understand why humans do what they do. Just understand that they do what they do when they do it. Anything more will drive you mad.”

  2. heteromeles Says:

    I’m with Nicholas. Perhaps it’s a guy thing? I still call my suit “urban camouflage,” for example. So much of it really is conforming. I’d wear a tuxedo to the Oscars, were I ever unlucky enough to attend–but only to blend in.

    A TV show on Discovery Channel called “Head Games” had fun playing with people’s desire to conform. While they trotted out some (suspect) evolutionary psychology reasoning for why their tricks worked the way they did, people’s desire to conform was impressive. They conditioned people to respond to a bell (a la Pavlov), to walk on a zig-zagging taped line in a museum, even though the line went around pillars, and in one case, looped around a pillar, all very simply. People like to conform, to belong to some group or other. So much of what we see is simply about subtly telling people where they belong, encouraging correct behavior, and inspiring longing to belong to some other group, one which they might have to pay money to join, and so on. That last is my (male) take on fashion magazines.

  3. Paul Says:

    I’m an alien in lots of settings. My first visit to a black church, for example (I’m white). In the library book clubs I belong to, I still find people who think science fiction is all ray guns and rockets and can’t understand my enjoyment of it. (I have tricked some into reading some SF they ended up liking, not realizing that’s what it was.) My enjoyment of old western movies leaves even my wife puzzled (it’s one of those things that, if you understand it, no explanation is necessary; if you don’t, no explanation is possible.) In college and in the service, I would go partying with friends even though I didn’t drink the hard stuff, and sometimes that one thing would be alien to everyone else — until it was time to drive back and I was the only one sober. I actually had an educated (but clueless) friend ask me why, if I was interested in astronomy, I wasn’t interested in astrology. There are all kinds of situations in which I could consider myself an alien of sorts — but I don’t care. And finally that’s what seems to count with the “non-aliens.”

  4. Julie Hagan Bloch Says:

    It’s not only a guy thing. My idea of high or formal fashion is pants that aren’t blue jeans, and that have no patches, glue, ink, or paint on them. And a shirt that buttons and sort of vaguely goes with the pants. My standard response to the comment that what I’m wearing doesn’t “go together”: “Well, it does geographically”. I think it’s stupid to waste money on clothes that don’t get worn much. And I have 6 pairs of shoes (3 pairs of sandals, 3 pairs of boots), no high heels (why do women wear them? They hurt and look silly.)
    And popular culture — forget sports, except swimming (and then, I’d rather do it than watch, with the exception of the Olympics). Heavy Metal to me is associated with radioactivity.
    I will conform if it means that I’ll get hurt if I don’t. I’m used to people looking at me strangely and sort of smirking.
    But the only times I really *felt* sort of the way I suppose an alien might feel, is after major changes or shocks, such as after the death of someone dear to me.. I guess I’m used to feeling out of synch!
    And here’s a thing: do you ever walk around, *trying* to feel what it might be like if you were actually dreaming? Or from another planet? What if you were from a planet whose inhabitants main method for getting information about the environment were not sight but, say, hearing or smell? Or air pressure? Or heat?

    • janelindskold Says:

      Yes! Of course, I write SF/F, so maybe thinking about such stuff is normal, but I definitely do think about such things.

      It’s really on my mind right now as I’m working on the books with David Weber. The treecats don’t talk or perceive in the same way we do — and the differences get complex, far beyond sharper senses. I find myself thinking about how their different means of perception filters down into a whole lot of other things, up to and including their value systems.

      It’s a great challenge but one I really enjoy.

  5. Other Jane Says:

    I think there are so many “worlds” out there that most people are unaware of (unless they are involved in them). My nieces and nephew are into soccer and there’s a incredible amount of detail (and politics) involved in a kid’s sports league.

    I heard a report on the radio today about how Olympic athletes train for years for what essentially comes down to a few minutes of competition. The interviewer asked the athlete if they thought it was odd that they trained and trained for that one brief competition and the athlete responded that they don’t think of it that way…that’s just the way it is.

    Even outside of sports, there are people passionate (obsessive) about all sorts of hobbies – like quilting or classic cars. If you find yourself surrounded by a group of like-minded folks, you feel the outsider for sure.

    Jane, I’m sure you’re right – your normal would feel very odd to most of the people there. (FYI – I’m with you!)

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