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Revolution in Beige

Is this the candy fluff you're looking for?

I am in the fortunate position of having a day job that has a symbiotic relationship to my creative work. Both have to do with crafting language, publishing, and storytelling. Both are weird. (Yes, that beautiful picture above is of me, purpling some cotton candy at work.) And right now, both are helping me to appreciate the stealthy powers of beige. Nobody expects the revolution in beige.

My darling husband, who had such a bizarre childhood and youth that the greatest shock he ever gave his friends was to settle down with a wife and a mortgage and a dependable insurance policy, has helped me explore this idea in both life and art. This winter, he showed me M.C. Escher's advice "to apply the function of contrasts... to cause a shock."

Since then, I've thought of many examples of this technique in some of my favorite writings and works of art. Authors Joyce Carol Oates and Chuck Palahniuk use it to expose the savage brutality that hides beneath the deceptive veneer of conventional life. Months after reading Margaret Atwood's novel Cat's Eye, I keep thinking about the fascinating complexity of the main character, Elaine Risley, who relentlessly pursues normalcy through a chaotic childhood and radical art career and refuses to identify herself as fringe.

Beige can be used to offset a variety of emotions, from horror to awe to humor.

Would Jerri Blank be as hilarious if she were not dressed like this?

“I see a carnival of colors. I see grays and browns and grays.”

I inadvertently practiced the power of the beige cardigan (literally, sometimes) after I gave birth to my daughter and one thousand percent stopped caring about expressing my individuality. I was so infatuated with the life I had just created that I truly desired to become nothing but a display stand for my glorious baby, like the creepy draped-with-cloth hidden mothers in Victorian child portraits. I went and got Mom Hair on purpose.

This was me, not trying to be funny:

I MAED DIS!

Ironically, the "mom look" just served to make me even more funny and shocking to people because I was still me, without trying to be, but I looked the part of a milktoast church secretary. The effect was even greater on my husband, who grew up telegraphing his weird to the world with neon orange pants and offensive t-shirts and candy raver accessories with a lumberjack beard. Cleaned up in a suit and tie, the little non-normative things he says and does are somehow more shocking.

It works the other way, too. We shock people by looking weird and acting normal as well. Like the time we traveled to Chicago, and my husband decided to put on some sassy leather accessories, and he couldn't understand why the male plane stewards kept winking at him, and then we found ourselves unexpectedly in the midst of the Mister Leather International pageant festivities, and I received so many looks of confusion and pity as the long-suffering beard wife who actually accompanied my husband to Mister Leather, pushing a pink baby stroller down the sidewalk behind men in latex aprons and assless chaps.


During this time, people would laugh out loud at my comments that "I'm so hot my breastmilk is curdling" and the like, which weren't as funny when I had blue hair and dressed like a Dr. Seuss extra. People have high expectations for the court jester but completely let their guards down around that sweet, stupid church lady with the gay husband.

So beige can be used (even accidentally) to set up a surprise or to emphasize an accent color.

While I was at work over the weekend, I also thought about how neutral aesthetics can soothe anxieties and normalize differences when applied by an institution. Some churches with conservative, traditional theologies try to jazz up their worship style and outward appearance to proclaim, "We're cool!" and my church does the exact opposite. We take a bunch of truly out-there ideas, people, and activities, and dress them in stodgy neutrals to proclaim, "This is our normal." Instead of perking up the prosaic, my church normalizes the weird.

My church has been in the national news lately for befriending the local mosque--yes, even as we wave our rainbow flags for gay pride and share many smug-atheist chuckles over the silliness of religious dogma. (If you are curious about this madness, here is a crash course on Unitarian history starting with Queen Isabella of Transylvania and Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent in the 16th century.)

My church recently sold its outgrown building and renovated an old school, where we have a lot more space to throw giant celebrations and fit in everyone's unique brand of weird. As we dreamed of all the pagan revelries, interfaith dinners, kumihimo classes, protest concerts, and gay weddings we'd enjoy in this new space, huge numbers of our people put on their work gloves and came together--old and young, Christian and Jewish and Buddhist and atheist and Quaker and Baha'i, transgender and polyamorous and lesbian farmer, parents of many children and parents of service-dogs-in-training, liberals and super-liberals and closeted political conservatives--and they lifted their paintbrushes together and...

...painted that motherlover beige!

That's my new office!

When the church first decided to move, the leadership hired consultants to help us with decision-making, branding, and design. One professional advised us to ditch the dowdy sign out front and install something more modern and edgy, to reflect the progressiveness of our church culture.

But there's something I desperately love about that old-school sign filled with a passage from the Qur'an and flanked by rainbow flags.


This display has elicited so much joy in our hometown, and it's been up for weeks without any signs of vandalism. Please pray to the Spaghetti Monster for us that the good vibes hold up.

On the first Sunday after we moved in, 400 people showed up to worship. I looked around the crowd--hundreds of people relaxed and laughing and happy to be there, men dressed mostly in the most basic of khaki pants and polo shirts, women in floral dresses, a few folks with Manic Panic hair sprinkled in--and I felt inspired by the radical statement made by the matrix of outward banality that so comfortably embraced such a diversity of human personality, ideology, spirituality, sexuality, heritage, and style.

We don't always sing in English, but when we do, our songs are mostly radical poetry set to the dirge-like melodies of 19th century Protestant hymns. Plus some Harry Belafonte.

It can be awesome to venture out to the frontiers of society and let a freak flag fly, but it's also pretty rad to reclaim and redefine normal. If you think about it, to put a frame of exceptionalism around a statement is to internalize the primacy of the dominant narrative. In our own space, we don't have to do that.

This idea permeates my work in progress, The Grove of Thorismud, more and more. Instead of taking a stale narrative and dressing it up in gimmicks (everyone is robots! or wait, zombies! and they are on a spaceship!) I am attempting to take up a familiar setting and overtly recognizable characters and have them play out a story that is different, in subtle but important ways, than any I have ever read. And on top of that, I want to have this happen without including too many explicit judgments about which parts are inherently strange. What's weird is normal, and what's normal is weird, depending on your perspective.

At work, I'm finding my new beige office surprisingly inspiring. I kind of want to paint my whole house beige now. And buy another beige cardigan.

I guess I'm just weird like that.

Comments

  1. I'VE GOT SOMETHING TO SAY! You're a delightfully subversive weirdo. But please don't paint your house beige. I'll cry.

    Also, perhaps I'm dense but can you explain this in further detail? "If you think about it, to put a frame of exceptionalism around a statement is to internalize the primacy of the dominant narrative." I feel like I'm not quite grasping this. Are you saying that by framing exceptionalism around a statement, you are basically saying that the original statement is the correct one? If I'm understanding this, it reminds me of Sarah Silverman's bit: "Stop telling girls they can be anything they want when they grow up. I think it’s a mistake. Not because they can’t, but because it would’ve never occurred to them they couldn’t." It's like by trying to teach this lesson, you subtly reinforce the dominant narrative that they couldn't be anything they wanted. Am I getting the gist of it or I am missing the point entirely?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. YES! That is what I meant exactly. Thank you, Sarah Silverman.

      And don't try to crush my Amy Sedaris home decorating dreams with your tears. You try living in a house painted neon colors layered with the murals of a toddler for five years and then tell me how you feel about neutralizing your living space.

      *CLEAN, Butters...*

      Delete

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