Thursday, July 24, 2008

"Uncle Grumpy - on Belonging"

I know you’ve missed him, so here he is: my highly opinionated, and not always wrong, Uncle Grumpy. Comments, as usual – directly to him.

Hit it, Unc.

I’ve never belonged to anything.

“That’s because nobody likes you.”

Shut up! I hate that wise-ass Inner Voice.

This has nothing to do with being liked. Like Barack said about Hillary, I’m likable enough. But that’s not the point. My not belonging is a choice. A choice I easily understand why others don’t make. The “not belonging” choice comes with a price. My mailman notices.

“Why don’t you get invitations to anything?”

“I don’t belong to anything.”

“How come? Doesn’t anyone like you?”

I hate a nosey mailman. No Christmas box of candy for that guy.

Yes, there’s a price for not belonging. As I once said to somebody, “I’m a recluse. But not by choice.”

I understand the appeal of belonging. Belonging accords membership. You go to meetings, you’re part of a group. You’re asked to perform essential tasks, like “Recording Secretary” or “Chairperson of the Soft Drinks Committee.” You consort with like-minded people, some with appealing physical attributes.

Characterized perfectly in my favorite TV drama, The West Wing, belonging means, “You get jackets.”

Empowering and bonding, belonging energizes your entire being. It’s reflected in your body language. As one delinquent assures another in West Side Story,

“We always walk tall. We’re Jets.”

Belonging makes you a Jet.
“So if belonging’s so great, how come you don’t belong to anything? It sounds suspiciously like nobody likes you.”

The only thing worse than a wise-ass Inner Voice is a repetitive wise-ass Inner Voice.

I don’t belong to anything because I believe that the price of belonging is far greater than the rewards.

An illustrative analogy.

“Can’t you just talk straight?”

I like analogies, okay? Shut up.

Up till the late Fifties, or early Sixties – which were merely an extension of the Fifties – decades rarely end on time – all men wore hats.

Homburgs, derbies, fedoras, Borsalinos, flat-topped skimmers – a covering of some type sat perched atop every male adult’s head. Male children wore miniature versions. Training hats.

Then – I heard this from a guy who sold hats – because new car designs opted for lower roofs, the hat became suddenly obsolete. Lower car roofs were squashing it out of existence.

Imagine the catastrophe. You’re in the hat business – manufacture or retail – and the roof is literally falling in on your business.

What a nightmare. The item that reliably put food on the table has suddenly become

“Old hat.”

This is serious, if you’re in the hat business, and even if you’re not. Who knows? This could be the beginning of a sartorial revolution. You know the story. “They came for the hats, but I wasn’t in hats, so I said nothing…”, the message being that you wear something, and sooner of later, they’ll be coming for that.

(You see what I’m doing here? An analogy within an analogy. You don’t see that in all the blogs. My nephew is lucky to have me.)

Okay. Hats are in serious danger of extinction. What do you do?

You organize.

You hold meetings, rallying crowds with fiery, pro-hat oratory. You form committees. You print pamphlets.

You plan strategies.

You lobby Congress for urgently needed hat-saving legislation. You dig up academics claiming, with scientific certainty, that hat wearing will prolong your life. You retain ad agencies to devise catchy slogans:

“Hang On To Your Hats!”

You build up your membership. With whom? Hat people first – their fat’s in the fire – but recruits could come from anywhere:

An aging “Lefty” mobilized by the hat-crushing strategies of Big Business.

A hatband heiress staring poverty in the face.

An angry grandchild, whose beloved grandpa, going “fashionably” hatless in a downpour, catching cold, and, later, dying.

A loner, searching for women, I mean, a cause.

A rag-tag assemblage, no doubt, but what’s wrong with rag-tag? Are they any different from the rebels who stared England in the eye in 1776?

Once they fought for freedom. Today, it’s hats.

Your join out of boredom, or curiosity, or both. They start you out stuffing envelopes, passing out flyers on the street. Surrounded by Believers, you eventually catch the “bug.” Suddenly, you’re badgering family and friends, you’re “cold calling” strangers, melting their apathy with Doomsday scenarios. (See: the Analogy within the Analogy.)

There are no moderates in a crusade. “I’m sort of a Red Sox fan”? It doesn’t happen. It’s total immersion. All or nothing.

You surrender to the Message. You eat, sleep and breath The Cause. And The Cause is


Your friends think you’re boring. “She used to be fun; now, it’s just “Hats, hats, hats.” Rejected by the outside world, you commit yourself even further, your affiliation single-minded and intense. It’s

“Hats or Death!”

One night, a huge fundraiser is arranged, a “Pass the Hat” extravaganza, headlined by caring celebrities. The atmosphere is giddy. It could happen, you start to think. The clock can be turned back.

The hat will live again!

And then, amidst the jubilation, an inquisitive outsider raises an independent voice:

“Doesn’t a person have the right not to wear a hat if they want to?”

There is stunned silence.


The stadium erupts.

It’s a madhouse. And you, a once-disinterested bystander, are in the middle of it, flushed with membership affiliation and battlefield frenzy. Opposition factions, fueled by Libertarian rhetoric and free booze, are throwing punches left and right. Non-violent supporters weigh into the melee, hitting people with their hats.

The police arrive. Heads are cracked. Arrests are made. You’re carted off to prison, shouting, “Save the hat!” in a feral roar and feeling more alive than you’ve ever felt before. But the look in your crazed and confused eyes tells a different story:

“What have I become?”

That – with artistic privileges – is the price of belonging.

(An important exception: Support groups. For two reasons. One: I have evidence that support groups work. And two: They’re not requiring me to wear a hat.)

In exchange for the comforting security of “You’re with us”, when it comes to the issue the organization supports, belonging requires a surrender of your inalienable right to independent thought.

You think I’m exaggerating? Ask Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The Justice belongs to formidable organization championing reproductive “choice”, but when she suggested a stronger legal argument than “privacy”, the membership jumped all over her.

“That’s not the right way to think!”

It happened. And she was on their side!

Look. Don’t expect me to organize a mobilizing crusade against belonging. That would be, you know, totally contradictory to what I just wrote. I’m not even saying, “Don’t belong.” I’m merely suggesting that, while attending whatever group you’re affiliated with, when there’s a break in the proliferation of one-sided blah-blah, that you go inside your head and make sure you have at least a few brain cells that retain the possibility of thinking:

"Is it possible they’re not totally right?”


Anonymous said...

I think its easier to belong to groups as a kid. There's always an adult leader-type (ex:Boy scouts)so nobody is worried about their power to lead, or who is going to lead whom...

As adults, I think folks have a real problem following other's lead. I will follow someone who I know and understand and think is correct for the job of leader. I will not want to follow if I don't believe in the leader(s). I think most organizations seem to have power hungry leaders (looking for control, popularity and money connections), who are not necessarily my kind of humble, honourable folks. Therefore I am not a member of adult organizations so far. If one comes my way that I find "fits" my idea of a working GROUP of members, I may join.

Now many will perceive this as selfishness, and that one should donate time, money and energy for the "cause", and not take the obnoxious leadership to heart. But you know, I am flexible, believe it or not...I just can't follow leaders who I think are unethical, or are out for their own gain, and do not focus on the "cause"... It takes allot of time and energy to be an active member of most groups (well maybe not a reading group) and I cannot see sacrifice of family time, or other personal time, if I don't have my heart in the organization.

The Minstrel Boy said...

not a joiner either. mostly it's just misanthropy running rampant.

re: the hats

in max shulman's "sleep 'till noon" the father is a cap salesman, who is devastated by the advent of hats.

shulman changed my life.

diane said...

Uncle Grumpy;

Have you read anything about Stanley Millgram whose experiments in obedience to authority yielded quite shocking (no pun intended) results?

A quote from Prof. Millgram:

Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority.

I, wholeheartedly, agree with your suggestion to keep questioning your own thinking.

growingupartists said...

Uncle Grumpy, do you allow non-affiliated women into your men's club?