Individuality

Last Saturday we had about a dozen people over at our place making and decorating cookies.  I did most of the making, because there’s only so much room to roll dough and, anyhow, it gave me a chance to play with my frighteningly huge collection of cookie cutters.

Just a Few of This Year's Cookies!

Just a Few of This Year’s Cookies!

I have enough cutters to overfill one of those long plastic boxes that most people use to keep sweaters or other bulky clothing items out of sight under the bed.  These cutters range from the common shapes – Christmas trees (three different), Santa, sleigh, gingerbread men, reindeer, star, bell – to  the still traditional but slightly less common shapes –  camels, trains, candle, chapel, angel, candy cane, holly leaf, snowflakes, cottage, elves, packages, and, of course, seals.

(Hey, you’ve heard of Christmas seals, right?)

Then there are the completely non-traditional, but what the heck, why not shapes: unicorn, rhino, horse, wolves, bear, fish, dogs, pick-up truck, buffalo, saguaro cactus, ankh, hedgehog, squirrels, cats, guinea pigs.  This year we added bats and a mummy case, for reasons that made perfect sense at the time.

By no accident at all, our guests included friends who we knew were artistically talented or who had shown interest in decorating cookies in the past.  These included my book cover illustrators, Tori Hansen (Wanderings on Writing) and Rowan Derrick (Curiosities).  Oh, and Cale Mims, who came up with the original cover design for Artemis Awakening, was also present.

Jim and I enjoy decorating cookies.  In fact, he’s developed a real gift for channeling the exuberance of his inner five year-old (although with a lot more dexterity).  However, what we learned the first time we included a few other people to help with decorating is if you give a bunch of people the same batch of sprinkles (okay, we have a lot of those, too, including black, which was Very Popular this year) and bags of frosting for piping,  you end up with a whole lot of variety in what the cookies look like in the end.

Since we’re not looking for neat arrays of elegantly matched cookies, we are completely thrilled with this.  In fact, the only thing that’s tough is deciding which miniature work of art to eat next.  “There’s Melissa’s candy cane!”  “Or, there’s Hilary’s wolf!”  “Or, did you see that incredibly detailed tree Pati did?”

Joy!

This holiday season, as we wandered about doing our Christmas shopping, I became very aware of two conflicting elements that seemed to be competing: a desire for individuality and a desire to be up on whatever everyone else is into.

Among the gift offerings I saw frequently repeated was some variation on the classic charm bracelet.  Sometimes a necklace – rather than just a bracelet – was being promoted.  I saw a nifty locket that opened so that tiny charms could be inserted inside to create a sort of medicine pouch of emblems significant to the individual wearer.

Nor was this desire for individuality restricted to jewelry.  Michael’s craft store (a chain here in the U.S.) was encouraging people to buy charms and make them into pictures – for example, a Christmas tree shape, made from a dozen or more different charms.

Christmas tree ornaments into which a photo could be inserted were popular, as were kits that could be used to make an ornament featuring a pet’s paw print or child’s handprint.  Catalogs promoted gifts personalized with monograms or mix and match shopping for anything from soaps to candies to coffees – to give the gift “that personal touch.”

I admit, I do a fair amount of my shopping either from artists directly or at arts and crafts stores, so maybe I come across more of this than is usual, but I was impressed by how many ways there were to purchase mass-made items that could then be made more personal with minimal effort.

Side by side with this, however, individuality is competing with those who want these same individuals to make certain they are not left out of the herd.  We see this year-round with websites that inform you, “If you liked this… Then you’ll like that.”  Or “People who purchased this item, also purchased this other item” with the implication that you’re not an individual so much as an element in a specific herd: a wildebeest rather than a zebra, but still one with the herd.

As the year ends, we’re beginning to see a plethora of “best of” lists as well.   Lists that promote the best books, movies, anime, television shows, webcomics, whatever… all imply that in order to be “in” or “hep” or “cool” or “chill” or whatever, you need to be familiar with all of these works, since someone has named them “best.”

Never mind that individual tastes vary widely.  If someone else ordains an item “best,” you’d better jump for it.  I’ll admit, I’m just cranky enough that this sort of list is probably the best way to keep me from reading, viewing, whatevering, the item in question.

(The one exception to this is the Nebula Awards where, as a voter, I feel a responsibility to at least sample the items most likely to show up on the ballot.  For this reason, I wish to high heaven they hadn’t changed the rules and gave us more time!!)

A new wrinkle on these “best of” lists is the “most anticipated” list.  These are works that aren’t even out, but are being promoted with an appeal to the herd instinct.  Even when a work I am, in fact, anticipating (in my case, Maggie Stiefvater’s The Raven King) is on the list, I feel absolutely no desire to get in line for the rest.  In fact, I’m aware of a strong desire to not even read the books I am interested in.

So…  Individuality or herd…  Or both.  Honestly, I think that all of us react with a certain amount of “both.”  I enjoy reading books my friends are reading so we can have heated discussions on them.  However, my best book buddies are those who abide by the unwritten rule: Just because I liked it doesn’t mean you must.  Just because I hated it doesn’t mean you must.

And I still haven’t seen Buffy.  Ever.  However, despite my dislike of anything to do with vampires, I must admit, a show that Yvonne, Julie, and Sally have all at different times been crazy about probably merits watching.  Maybe this year I’ll see about joining the herd.  Maybe!

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6 Responses to “Individuality”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Good to know we’re not the only ones who went cookie crazy this year. What’s the oldest cookie cutter in your collection, Jane? My mom has two she inherited from her grandmother, and we’ll get them soon enough, I think.

    As for DIY jewelry and such, I like going to bead shops, and there’s a Gem Faire ™ that tours up and down the west coast that’s often fun to go to, although I didn’t get any Christmas gifts there this year. It’s everything from high end jewelry to cheap beads, and quite a lot for people who make their own. There’s also a huge jewelry, mineral, and fossil show coming up in Tucson at the end of January through Valentine’s day. I haven’t been to that, but maybe some year.

    • Sally Says:

      If you ever do decide to go to the Tucson show (which by all accounts is amazing) make your reservations early! It’s the place to be in February if you’re in the business. My boss, back when I worked at a rock & mineral shop, used to return with a 18 foot truck loaded with things she’d bought.

    • Jane Lindskold Says:

      My cutters are all ones I’ve purchased or been given, although I do have a few that I found at “antique” malls that are probably older.

      My mom is still using hers and I hope will be for many years to come. I don’t know if either grandma made cut-out cookies. We didn’t have that sort of relationship.

  2. Nicholas Wells Says:

    Why am I not surprised you have a wolf cookie cutter shape? lol.

    Do try Buffy. She fights more than vampires, and it’s got lots of humor in it too.

  3. CBI Says:

    I suspect that you are right about each person being a mixture of “herd” and “individual”, which is probably as it should be. We are each individuals and valuable as such, but we are also set within a community and need to care for others.

    I think that each of these has its own virtue or virtues associated as well. The virtue of the herd is the self-sacrifice of the individual; the virtue of the individual is self-integrity when standing up to a deviant herd.

    There are also associated pathologies: a “party spirit” which leads to malicious tribalism and rioting, as well as a malicious iconoclasm which seeks to tear down and destroy things which may well be of value.

    Each of these can be contrasted to a “middle way”, which seeks to avoid either. This avoids the specific pathologies, but also avoids the virtues. I’d say that the middle way has its own virtues and pathologies.

    The problem is at times to burn hot, at times to freeze, at times to be temperate — and, quoting R.Niebuhr — having the “wisdom to know the difference.” Not easy.

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