Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Label Maker

From the time we were small children until long after we have died, those that live among us today and those we may leave behind go to great lengths to confine our existence into a singular definition, usually one or two words that blanket a lifetime of cyclic emotional experiences that can cater to our most basic of mentalities or our highest delusions of grandeur.

Mussolini made the trains run on time
David Koresh was a crackpot
Rosa Parks was brave
Hemmingway was a drunk

Society puts us in a box and places us on a shelf with a diminutive, cramped classification of our largest personality trait that, if left unchecked and—God forgive—even believed in, can end up taking over our lives and changing how we not only see ourselves but how we see the world around us.

Parks may have been scared all her life; Hemmingway sometimes sober; Koresh sane.

Often times there is nothing we can do about it but finally come to terms with our label, what defines us as a person; as a result, we tend to bend our personality toward that one attribute, like the prophet predicting the outcome of an event, thereby controlling that very outcome through his prediction. What we do, who we are, how we decide to live our lives is something that is reflected by the actions we take, the roads we walk, the connections we make and the perceptions of those around us: “Every cop’s a criminal and all the sinners saints.”

Sure, we’re all different in some subtle way, just like one snowflake is different from another, but lumped together, it’s all snow just as we’re all people. What we learned from The Breakfast Club: At times, we can be eccentric, grounded, dark, affable, depressed, elated, loyal, untrustworthy, zealously Christian, atheistically Pagan, emotionally scarred, abandoned, simple, easy going, ruthless, passionate, shy, bashful, selfish, crazy, easy, closed off.

Sometimes we’re all of these things at once… or none of them at all. But in the end, after all is said and done, our skeletons…the bones we leave behind…they all look exactly the same.

How's this: We’re all lost in one way or another, and that’s the scariest label of them all.

During our years between birth and death, most of what we do comes across as a visible perception to others, what we look like, who we are, where we live, the people we associate with, how we dress. People look angry, they look selfish, crazy, abandoned, scarred, loyal or grounded. There’s a physical appearance attached to a scoundrel, a malcontent, a punk, a princess. In a judge-a-book-by-the-cover world, you are what you look like and first impressions are often times lasting impressions regardless of the weight of their truth. Have you ever disliked someone merely based on their appearance; maybe you were right, the stuffy looking man in the expensive suit really is a jerk or the one in rags is actually crazy, but I’m sure you’ve been wrong too.

We place so much importance on appearance, much more so than on character or personality, that we are driven by it, rejecting the conventions and standards of an emotional response, instead coveting material beauty. What’s worse is that we live by the categories we create for other people, fearing the moment when our cover is blown or our predictions about someone’s personality becomes true. Our fears translate into conformity. Be like everyone else, just like we were taught in school, and you can’t be wrong. Where will it end? At some sort of anti-Darwinian thrust into the genetic code to predispose our children to a certain list of criteria in the distant future as the abilities of science overcomes the miracles of nature: “My baby must have green eyes like her grandfather, but brown hair like her mother…and if she can be tall, I’d like her to play basketball at Amherst.” In People magazine this week there was an article about a 12-year-old girl who decided that liposuction could solve her weight problem, and kids in Japan are getting treatments that make their eyes more rounded, more “western.” They’re even augmenting eyelashes now so they’re bigger, fuller.

Is it right? Is it wrong? Well, yes and no to both questions, if that makes any sense.

When Natalie was born three years ago, the position her head just prior to delivery (Kara was in labor for most of a day) caused both of her ears to fold over and inward, and when she came out, she looked like a little elf. Upon seeing her for the first time, I wouldn’t have cared if she was sprouting maple leaves from the top of her head (such is the blind love of a father) but I remember my brother Jason’s reaction specifically. He saw her laying there on the warming table as the nurses poked and prodded for measurements and in a genuinely concerned tone, he said, “Oh, her little ears.” He had a worried look on his face, as if seeing something so beautiful but hurt or damaged, like a painting with a scratch on it. He had good reason to make that comment as his ears make barely noticeable points at the top and if you were looking right at him you wouldn’t think to notice. Since I was too busy making fun of him and his elf ears for most of his life, I’ve never taken the time to ask him if they had made him self conscious at all. Perhaps they have, but at that moment, he had a connection with Natalie that I found interesting.

Kara and I just supposed that Gnat’s ears would right themselves over time; after all, when we first got Elsa, her radar-tower ears were equally folded over. One day they popped to attention…but getting her to listen is another story.

So we waited on Natalie, but no such luck. She grew up from a baby to a toddler to the little girl she is today, and her ears are just as pronounced as they were that first day of her life.

Come to find out, it could have been prevented. Thanks to mankind’s need to label everything, the structure of the ear is well defined, physically, and the problem for Natalie stems with her lack of antihelical fold. Reach up and feel your ear with your fingers. At the top of the outside of your ear is the helix, that sharp flap of skin that creases over, giving your ear its nicely rounded shape, and if you were to follow the helix down the back of your hear, you would come across the lobe. At the top of the ear lobe, feel for the hardened bit of cartilage. It’s called the antitragus (right below the tragus, that part you use to help plug your ears with your fingers). Follow the antitragus up and around your ear, through a small indentation that dips slightly toward your auditory canal and up to the antihelix. This part of the ear follows the same course as does the helix, but it is larger and smoother than the helix. The part at the top is called the antihelical fold.

Well Natalie doesn’t have one of those, and because of that one missing development, her ears stick out. Take your fingers and put them on the back of your ear, and with your thumb, push on your antihelical fold and you’ll see what I mean. Without that fold, like a piece of corrugated cardboard, there’s no support to hold the ear in place against the side of the head.

It bothers me. I know it shouldn’t, but it does.

Over the course of the last six months of reading my entries, I’m sure you’ve surmised by now that I’m a worrier, and if you haven’t: I am. I picture into the future. Natalie’s in school and the kids are making fun of her ears, calling her Dumbo, Mickey Mouse or the Easter Bunny, giving her a nickname like Rabbit or Radar and making her life miserable. I see Natalie as a fragile person, easily upset and often sensitive. I see her either retreating into a shell of seclusion and isolation or striking out against everyone and anything.

It should go without saying that I want the best for my children and that I will try to provide them with every practical advantage possible (of course, that very idea is the folly of parenting in America today), but how can I counter this? Teach her not to care what people think or say? Impossible, as that is just a defense mechanism. Every child wants to be accepted by their peers, their teachers and their parents, and the ones that don’t are just fooling themselves. Kids care what others think. It is the very nature of being a kid, and conformity is one of the first concepts to be taught in school—school bells, line up, desks are in rows, raise your hand, “one of these things is not like the other.” The list goes on, so how can we not notice the differences in those that are around us and point them out.

When I was in preschool, I remember there was a Chinese woman aide that worked in the classroom and I asked her why her face was flat. I feel bad for it now, but I didn’t know. I was three or four years old. Kids are like that. In grade school, we made fun of a Motts Johnson (I doubt very much I spelled that right) because he was Swedish, another because he had red hair, Mylon Miller. We used to chant that he had fleas until he cried and went on a rampage. For what reason? None at all. He just had red hair and an unusual name, and it is easy to do if other kids are doing it too. Not me, as I always felt a little bad for him but some kids made fun of Brenton King because he as a little slow, and another, Tony Romano, because he had ADD, although we hadn’t heard of that then (he was in the second grade doing sixth-grade math, so perhaps he was a little on the savant side too).

Were those kids affected for the rest of their lives because of the taunting they endured when they were kids? I couldn’t tell you because after a few years, I never saw them again. I don’t remember if Mylon or Motts was in junior high with me or not, and Brenton’s parents were divorced soon after the first grade so he moved away with his mother. I’m going to guess that they were. I’m going to say that everything someone else says to you makes a lasting impression, and every time a label is slapped on your forehead, for whatever reason, you file it away in your drawer and build on it. Maybe you construct a fanciful wall around those feelings, forever shutting down certain emotions of trust and compassion or maybe you overanalyze it all and spiral into a self-conscious puddle of emotional mess, but either way, it changes who you are, what you believe about yourself and your peers and the kind of person you become in life. Hands down, the wonders of childhood, the horrors of adolescence and the identity crisis of the 20s are all psychologically designed to develop you into something, a good person, an achiever, a producer, a consumer, a warrior, a princess…whatever. Each brick builds you as a person, and I believe you get those bricks from the people around you and the situations you encounter.

Nobody made fun of me, at least not to my face and not that I know of (or remember… have I repressed them?). I’m not going to say that I was liked by all, as I have some letters from some girls in junior high that don’t mix words on that fact, but I wasn’t an outcast. I wasn’t the subject of ridicule because of some obvious thing “that’s not like the other” and I certainly didn’t live on the receiving end of torment.

A person’s physical appearance is an easy target, especially for kids, and I don’t want to see Natalie shying away from people because she thinks they are making fun of her. As it is now, I transpose my self-conscious characterizations on her when she wears a ponytail in public, and I try to resist the urge to do so, but it gets me every time. Fridays, we go to dance class, and in dance class, the girls have to wear ponytails for reasons beyond my male comprehension. With her hair pulled back, Natalie’s ears poke out like an alert poodle, and I think that people might be snickering at her, or at least they don’t look at her in that same way they do when her hair is down. It’s terrible to say that, and I feel horrible for even thinking it, but I can’t help it. Natalie gets lots of comments from strangers, and nearly every time we go out, someone is commenting on how beautiful she is. Matthew gets them too, and when they’re together, I get the impression people want to take a picture of them to show their folks back east how beautiful California-bred children are.

Am I ashamed of her or embarrassed by her? God no, never. Like I said, I’m the father, and she could be akin to Shrek and I would still see her as Cinderella. What I’m embarrassed of are my own feelings, and I’m ashamed that I entertain such thoughts of kids making fun of my daughter, that she’ll have a difficult time making friends or that she’ll metamorphose into an emotional recluse. I think that’s where the real pain originates, and I secretly ensure myself that she’ll grow up to be a rock of moral fortitude, a solid foundation of inner personal fiber and an emotional statue that will deflect the most critical of comments.

But what is to become of Natalie and her ears? They won’t fix themselves it is evident, and kids are cruel. One of the largest pains my heart is recently forced to tolerate is Natalie’s emotional well being. I like to make her happy, and I love to see her smile, and that might be pushing me down the self-righteous road to spoiling my little “Princess, Mermaid, Butterfly” but seeing her upset just kills me. She cries when I take her to school. She doesn’t want to go, and this morning, she stood there as I was hugging her good bye, saying that she wanted to “go home and be with you.” She insists she won’t have a good day and that school is not fun (even though when we go and pick her up, she’s having a ball and sometimes doesn’t want to leave).

Kara and I decided to take Natalie to a plastic surgeon for his opinion, and a couple of weeks ago we met the Doogie Houser of plastic surgery, and the doctor couldn’t have been any older than 20 it seems (perhaps he had a facelift…after all, a good landscape designer should have a beautiful front yard).

He told us two interesting things:

1) It could have been prevented. When born, your cartilage has that fresh-from-the-oven softness, and it is still malleable if need be. All they could have done was add a couple of clamps to the antihelical fold and the problem would have been solved.

2) He wants the kids to make fun of her.

That was indeed an interesting revelation. Psychologically, the doctor wants Natalie to understand the need to have the surgery, and he wants her to be “on board” with the process. That can only happen if she endures some ridicule or decides on her own that she’s not happy that her ears don't look like everyone else’s. If not, she may struggle with the bandages and end up hurting herself by constantly trying to remove them. Plus, it is proven that positive people heal quicker. On the other hand, he said, if kids don’t make fun of her ears or she doesn’t mind, then there’s no sense in going through with it if she doesn’t want to. The doctor wanted to make the surgery as much Natalie’s decision as it is ours, as her parents.

Still, no matter the outcome, she’ll get labels from people and there is very little I can do about but teach her to be true to herself and what she believes in. We all get typecast from everyone we meet, put into a little category and subjugated to a routine examination. And we usually return the favor, because interactions between people inevitably require a description of who or what we encountered, be it only a mental note to ourselves whispered in the basement where nobody else will hear or a blasting, defaming remark shouted from the rooftops for everyone’s ears.

Everyone’s ears, that is, but Natalie’s.

4 comments:

Kara said...

Your blog brought tears to my eyes today.

Anonymous said...

I came upon your blog during my random sojourn through the "next blog" button and am so glad that I did. I intend to post a link on my blog so I can easily visit again to spend more time reading. I wouldn't worry too much about Natalie -- especially after seeing the photos you posted of her. She's totally cute. Maybe not analagous, but. . .My daughter has an eartag that's like a little knob of the side of her face, right next to the opening of her ear. It is not noticeable when her hair is down, but it is obvious when her hair is pulled back. When she was young, she sometimes mentioned that other kids asked her about it or teased her about it. Eventually, however, it became a non-issue, particularly as time passed (she was in school with the same kids from Kindergarten to 8th grade so that probably helped). There were times when she expressed interest in having it removed, but at this point (she is now 14) she has no interest in having it removed and sees the ear tag as a mark of her individuality. I usually don't leave such long comments but I understand your concern and hope to offer some comfort. You are clearly a devoted daddy.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ry,

All right Mr. Worrier. In love, I say enough. I have not see Miss Gnat, but I highly doubt it is as bad as you think.

We did go to junior high with Mats and with Mylyn. Mats went all the way through high school with us. He was an incredibly talented swimmer and absolutely gorgeous. He did not lack any self-confidence and I am certain that he is successful today. Mylyn found his strength in the Lord. He went into ministry and does not lack confidence. I, also, find him attractive. He even dated Christy Conners in college.

Being on the other side of the road, I was made fun of for more reasons than I can even remember. I know I was outrageously tall until high school. I remember some of our dear friends calling me bug eyes and beetle eyes. I dressed seriously weird. I also found my strength in the Lord. This allowed me to find my confidence in something other than my external appearance. When my appearance was destroyed in the accident, it had almost no impact on my self-image because I did not derive my self-image from my appearance.

I know that Brian Bentwood my made fun of extensively when we were in elementary school and middle school for being exceptionally small. He found his strength from the Lord. He is exceptionally successful today.

I do not know what God has in store for Natalie's life, but the harder things she goes through will make her stronger and allow her to be able to handle more than simple, easy beauty.

I would love to talk with you and hope that this helps. I think that you are noticing more that other people. It is exceptionally rare that anyone comments or asks about the scares on my face. As my son, Christian, always reminds me: it not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside that counts.

Love to you all,
Heidi

Anonymous said...

Hi Ry,

All right Mr. Worrier. In love, I say enough. I have not see Miss Gnat, but I highly doubt it is as bad as you think.

We did go to junior high with Mats and with Mylyn. Mats went all the way through high school with us. He was an incredibly talented swimmer and absolutely gorgeous. He did not lack any self-confidence and I am certain that he is successful today. Mylyn found his strength in the Lord. He went into ministry and does not lack confidence. I, also, find him attractive. He even dated Christy Conners in college.

Being on the other side of the road, I was made fun of for more reasons than I can even remember. I know I was outrageously tall until high school. I remember some of our dear friends calling me bug eyes and beetle eyes. I dressed seriously weird. I also found my strength in the Lord. This allowed me to find my confidence in something other than my external appearance. When my appearance was destroyed in the accident, it had almost no impact on my self-image because I did not derive my self-image from my appearance.

I know that Brian Bentwood my made fun of extensively when we were in elementary school and middle school for being exceptionally small. He found his strength from the Lord. He is exceptionally successful today.

I do not know what God has in store for Natalie's life, but the harder things she goes through will make her stronger and allow her to be able to handle more than simple, easy beauty.

I would love to talk with you and hope that this helps. I think that you are noticing more that other people. It is exceptionally rare that anyone comments or asks about the scares on my face. As my son, Christian, always reminds me: it not what is on the outside, but what is on the inside that counts.

Love to you all,
Heidi

 

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