Friday night, during the interminable airport delay I encountered in Phoenix, I found myself in a longish line behind two nice people. The woman, a talkative but down to earth soul who told me about her wolf puppy, chatted with her friend Ian (a handsome-ish fellow who looked rather like someone who longed for days gone by) about the Society for Creative Anachronism event in Denver to which they were both bound.
As I listened to their description of internal politics within their particular kingdom, bold tales of fraudfeasor knights trying to get their friends ribbons, or dukedoms denied by wise assemblies of knights, I thought how many folks are insiders. I never partook of the Society for Creative Anachronism, although I had friends in college who did. One friend adopted the character of a jester, and I must say that I thought it had chutzpah to wear the hooded outfit with the bells all around his head around campus. Another went with a cape for effect, but the effect he excited differed, sadly, from the noblesse he sought to convey. In my heart, I have a kind of fondness for this group of folks who started their own "in-crowd" to replace the various unsuitable in-crowd they saw all around them. I remember the jester fellow giving unmelodious but sufficiently illustrative demonstrations of songs the group sang at get-togethers. One which sticks with me is the song "freaking out the mundanes", which seemed to run to the tune of "bringing in the sheaves". Mundanes, of course, are the muggles of the SCA universe, in other words, those of us who consistently lead mundane lives.
I have some real fellow feeling with folks who invent ways to relate to one another not based on football or job title or "looking good". I grew up in a small town where everyone seemed very different from me. I can easily understand the desire to strike a new path.
I read sometimes of the mystery religions which arose in gnostic times gone by, with secret rituals and shared ecstatic experiences. I believe even yet that "secret societies" feature ritual and degrees of freemasonry, admixed liberally with pancake breakfasts and drives to collect eyeglasses for folks.
I think sometimes, too, of sororities at my university. Women would drop out of college if they did not get accepted as pledges in the right one. Mothers reportedly went to bed with a bottle of whisky on pledge night, as they perceived their daughters' entire future depended on particular invitations to pledge. Those reports seemed exaggerated, except that some women did depart college over a failure to become a Tri Delt. At my college, women at that particular sorority answered the phone "Delta Delta Delta can I help you help you help you?", which sounds less suggestive to me now than it did when I was eighteen.
I think of all the ways in which people group and subgroup. It's as though just being people is not enough--life requires the color which cliques provide. One can't enjoy just driving a car--one must "rally" with others who are similarly minded. This may be a good thing, in some ways, because common interests are a defense against loneliness. I could not fit into this society, so I formed a better one--this has some very worthwhile aspects--perhaps this is the true transformation by the renewing of mind.
But I'm also intrigued by the term "hoi polloi". I know someone who uses this expression with only mild irony, to describe people she imagines less privileged than herself. There are so many ways to enter the "hoi polloi", but they all begin with being less fortunate than others. There's the common way of simply being middle class instead of rich. But the material elite are not the only elite.
I'm intrigued by the idea of the hard-working also-ran. Perhaps I relate the most to these folks. The "also-rans" do not suffer real indignity or injustice--they're just lesser at some skill or attribute than others we know. Sadly, sometimes one can trace this directly to a skill set shortfall which one has. Sometimes, folks are "hoi polloi" though they thought they had the right skills and the right approach.
I think of the musician who plays great music, but isn't quite as skilled or as innovative as his or her set. I think of the poets who write stuff that matters to them, but cannot get it published. I think of lawyers I know with heart and good intentions, but not the basic skill to carry the day. I think of a myriad of folks who fall outside margins they cannot control, of looks, of stamina, of even good health itself.
I suppose I've identified the most with "ordinary people", because I think that the grasping inherent in so much of this ordering of people repels me. I therefore like to say that I am ordinary (and when I don't use spell check, I can prove it). That's not to say I am immune from comparisons, or judgment. I find that I have more than my requisite share of arrogance and false pride. I mean instead that while the broadcasting of interests among people is in some ways a very good thing, the constant comparison with others sometimes engendered--the searching for ways in which one might not be in the "hoi polloi"--is a corrosive, and a needless one.
I like a quote I read from the Dalai Lama:
"It is more difficult to feel compassion for someone who is experiencing what Buddhists refer to as the suffering of change, which in conventional terms would be pleasurable experiences such as the enjoyment of fame or wealth. This is a second kind of suffering.When we see people enjoying such wordly success, instead of feeling compassion because we know it will eventually end, leaving them to experience disappointment after their loss, often our reaction is to feel admiration and sometimes envy. If we had a genuine experience of suffering and its nature, we would recognize how the experience of fame and wealth are temporary, and how the pleasure they bring will naturally end, causing one to suffer".
I am skeptical of notions that money always brings misery, particularly after I read in Skeptic Magazine about a poll that says rich people are in the main happier than the poor. But I do know that the corrosion of comparison takes many a livable life and turns it into misery.
I think it's very good and true and noble to want to succeed and prosper. I am not much into that idea that one "claims" prosperity as a birthright. I am very much into the idea that redefining prosperity so that it is not about material comfort or condescension is a very good thing. But when the desire to succeed becomes only a focus on one's lacks, then I wonder if the game is worth the candle one must light in order to play it.
Sometimes I meet lawyers who live professional lives much more successful than mine--they make far more money, they handle larger cases, they wear more expensive suits, and they even seem to take longer and more exotic vacations.I meet other lawyers who do far more good than I do, and sacrifice far more materially in order to help people than I do. I'm in the middle someplace. I live in a nice tract home, in a neighborhood with great but not quite top schools,drive a car that's paid for but well-driven, and help the poor sometimes but perhaps not often enough. I am probably not the rich man who would strain to get through the eye of the needle, but I'm not an ascetic saint either. I'm quite popular with my clients, but I'll never make "D" Magazine's "top Dallas lawyers" list. I'm a "B" chess player, better than 90something percent of all rated players, and yet not really any "good". I can't play music, though I'd love to, and my poetry is frankly quite frighteningly obvious most of the time. I love aquariums, but I can only really keep guppies or other easy livebearers, as I am not all that good a fishkeeper. I love houseplants, but I am limited to cacti and terrariums for the same reason. In order to create some "elite", I would have to define my sub-sub-sub-set of elitism so narrowly. I might be an "elite" chess poet (although, actually, a Canadian fellow named Solway is probably truly elite at this skill) or an elite something else, provided that "something else" has five adjectives in front of it which disqualify anyone else. This may be why doing a CD of electric football field music was a bit of genius. It's easier to be a pioneer in the field.
But I would be less than honest if I did not confess that I share that greed which I here pillory. I wish I had what I call the right kind of fame. You know, the fame in which you're known to the cognoscenti as someone who can do something, but the public at large does not know what it is you do. I do not want to be of the hoi polloi, even as I know I am. I am not sure if I wish to be Gandhi, or a chess grandmaster, or simply an oft-published poet.
But I am sure I want to be an elevator notation. I once got in an elevator in which Ross Perot was standing. I barely recognized him, but a man in a tuxedo told his wife after Mr. Perot got off, "that's Ross Perot!" as if we'd sighted royalty. Now I consider many celebrities ludicrous and don't really have a strong opinion on Mr. Perot. But I must admit I'd love to step off an elevator and be "noted".
As with so many posts, this one rambles in three directions and doesn't really stop at any destination. But I do notice "hoi polloi" thinking. I also notice that I embrace being of the "hoi polloi" and yet long to leave it from time to time.