Variations on a Theme

When my sisters and I were kids, we wanted to be like other kids, to fit in and have friends. But we lived on the poor side of town, wore clothes others had worn before us, and often relied on the charity of others for food and Santa’s holiday visits – and no one wanted us around. We tried to blend in, saying and doing the things they did, hoping they’d accept us.

They’d either ignored our futile attempts to emulate them or mock us. Elongating their frames, they’d raise their chins slightly, drink in all the air around them and puff up their chests like Tarzan, and shaping their features into their best sneer, they’d shout “Copycat! Copycat!”

We were brought up believing that imitation was the sincerest form of flattery, but their jeers were accusations rather than acknowledgments of compliments bestowed.

Not long ago I was looking at a photo of my grandmother’s wedding party that I’d blown up and framed. It’s a time capsule of a world that now seems light-years away. My grandmother wore practical shoes – black lace-ups with relatively flat heels and eight opposing grommets. The matching black laces tied at the top around the ankles. Clunkers. All the women in that photograph were wearing them. The shoe type never varied whether the venue was home, field, funerals, or weddings. The shoes remained the same.

In Grandma’s time, people didn’t experiment with alternate identities, didn’t try on new faces. They didn’t embrace an individualism of which they were unaware. It wasn’t an option. They were too busy working together to survive their harsh reality. They were peasants from Yugoslavia and much like worker bees sustaining their hives, their overall focus was

Queen bee 1

Queen bee 1 (Photo credit: quisnovus)

the good of their farms. Each member of the farm, like each bee in the hive, had a job to do. There were no work or social ladders to climb. The bees who fanned their wings to cool the hive didn’t decide one day to become guard bees or scouts instead. There were no job openings in other parts of the hive that were better than any others.

In the bee kingdom a quorum for agreement is required when changes are needed, like finding a new hive. No one bee makes the decision alone. Rather, it is made by the swarm based on the input of various scout bees. This works because their goal is the same, finding a new hive, making more honey. Working the farm. Democracy in action.

This is how it worked in Grandma’s time and place, too. Like their bee counterparts, farmers and their families shared one goal: survival.

But today’s society has seen, and encouraged, the rise of competing interests.  We worship at the throne of individualism, yet for all our talk of espousing it, we’re not the individuals we’d like to think we are. As soon as someone tries something new, adopts a different look, attitude, manner of dress, or lifestyle, millions of others copy it – all in the name of expressing their individuality. It’s like that trick with the mirrors. You know, the one in the carnival funhouse constructed to reflect the same image over and over ad infinitum.

Crazes, fads, trends: they come and go, and not without significant fanfare. Remember bell-bottoms and flares, flower children, afros, shags, chia pets, skinny jeans and capris, even pet rocks? No matter what it is, everyone has to own one, wear one, drive one. You’re an individual one day, and a minor player in a cast of thousands the next. Just like everyone else.

Copycats are still around, but the new word for them is “trendy.” We test a variety of ideas to see what fits best. We follow trends. At least that doesn’t drag around negative baggage that follows copycat wherever it goes – political correctness at its apogee.

If being an individual means being different, if it means standing out in a crowd, how do you set yourself apart from others when you’re doing, saying, thinking like most everyone else? When you’re rubber-stamping others’ ideas and positions instead of offering your own?

Aren’t we more alike than we are different? Each a variation on a theme? Niccolo Paganini had the right idea, on some level at least, when he expanded

English: Daguerreotype of Niccolo Paganini

English: Daguerreotype of Niccolo Paganini (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

the possibilities in music, immortalizing one of his compositions in 24 capricci for the violin – 24 variations of that one piece (we’ll get back to this in a later post). If we concentrate on raising awareness of our similarities rather than our differences, we might be able to affect a positive change and leave a better mark on the various worlds that inhabit the planet on which we all live.

Grandma wore practical shoes. They did what she needed them to do – efficiently work in the fields, feed the animals, shovel snow, slog through the mud to the creek to wash clothes, walk two miles to church and two miles back, and get married. Mom was pretty practical, too, though she did venture into tennis shoes on occasion and simple pumps with sturdy heels for church.

I have more choices than Grandma had, but practical shoes aren’t my style. I’m into stilettos, along with a lot of other women just like me.


5 thoughts on “Variations on a Theme

  1. howardaldrich

    “That man is a creature who needs order yet yearns for change is the creative contradiction at the heart of the laws which structure his conformity and define his deviancy.”
    -Freda Adler

  2. J.H. White

    Evocative as usual, Linda. I also enjoy diversity…adding to my closet of costumes ala the Goodwill and a critical discerning eye. We are after all, a culture of instant visuals. And I keep my favorite heels polished and ready.


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