Giving One To the Team

I want to provide a rationale for paying some attention to how one looks to others. I will want to say there there are some contexts where looking “better” [to be defined soon] is a service people can provide to each other and that looking “worse” is a disservice in these circumstances.

Let me say up front that nearly everyone I know, who regularly reads this blog, is going todressup 2 find it offensive. I wish they wouldn’t but I would like to make the case anyway and count more, in the long run, more on their forgiveness than on their agreement in the short term.

I’m picturing a group of people who live in the same senior center and who hang around together. Bette and I have not yet chosen our preferred senior center so I call it Paleo Acres. They go on trips together, often have dinner together, watch movies together, and so on. They are a group. Not a tight exclusive group, but more than a category like left-handed, bald former athletes.

Let me start somewhere easier and try to work my way up. Here’s a line from Dorothy Sayers marvelous mystery,  Gaudy Night. I am pretty sure this is the seed that led to the several years of thought that led to this essay.

Harriet Vane and the Dean of Shrewsbury College are waiting in the Senior Common Room for Lord Peter Wimsey to show up. Then “…an elegant figure paraded towards them from the direction of the New Quadrangle.”

Miss Shaw’s got a new frock,” said Harriet

So she has, “said the Dean, “How posh of her.”

Then, a few lines later, as Wimsey is showing up.

“Looking at a bunch of students who happened to pass at the moment, Harriet wished she could have said the same of them [that they were appropriately attired] They were grubby and dishevelled and she felt unexpectedly obliged to Miss Shaw for having made an effort in the matter of dress.”

Why did Miss Vane feel obliged to Miss Shaw? Miss Shaw had honored the occasion by her dress. She gave the meeting a little class, we might say, and all the participants benefitted by her action. That was the new idea to me—or at least the seed of the idea.

dressup 7Note a few things this is not. Miss Shaw is not, according to this description, calling attention to herself. She is not trying to win some undeclared competition with any of the other women by dressing more formally than they did. What she did makes a statement of some sort about the group and/or about the occasion. The statement would be something like, “We are a group of women academics who know how to present themselves appropriately to a famous visitor.” [1]

The expression “taking one for the team” is common now. It refers to a member of an group who has borne some burden that would otherwise have had to be borne by the group at large. In this essay,  I’m thinking about something more like “giving one to the team.” [2] Miss Shaw took an action that reflected well on the whole group of women and on the nature of the meeting they were to have. That is what Miss Vane saw and liked. That is why she felt “obliged to Miss Shaw for having made an effort in the matter of dress.”

This is not really an odd idea. It makes perfect sense for anyone to arrive at a gathering of some sort and look around at the choices people have made about how to present themselves and to make a quick judgment about “what kind of an event this is.” A lobbyist who sits down at the witness table before a legislative committee automatically notices who is wearing what, who is putting in the effort to maintain the dignity of the hearing, and who is just killing time; whether the manner of interaction is correct and formal, friendly and informal, or cold and hostile. What you see, as you sit at the table, tells you how to present the argument you are there to make.

If you were a second term legislator (a sophomore, as they put it in Oregon) and were chairing your first committee, you might be eager to present to the public the appearance you had chosen for the committee, “what kind of committee we are,” you would say. Let’s say you had chosen “formal and businesslike” as the image you wanted to project. Wouldn’t you feel, as the chair, “obliged to Rep. Shaw in the matter of dress” if she showed up looking and acting in a businesslike manner? Of course you would.

I’m going to get to Paleo Acres very soon now. I have two small preemptive remarks to dressup 8make and then a proposed master metaphor and then we’re there. The first remark is that this picture—Miss Shaw is “giving one to the team”—appears to deny that Miss Shaw has any notion of how she is presenting herself as a person. And that is, in fact, the use that Dorothy Sayers makes of this remark in Gaudy Night. But there is no reason why Miss Shaw cannot have in mind how good she is going to look and also have the intention of lifting the self-image of the group. The one exception to this would be if her showing up looking good were construed as making the other women look bad. That could (probably would) cost the group as much as Miss Shaw’s appearance benefitted it.

The second preemptive remark is that this little scene imagines that there is no difference of opinion between Miss Shaw’s judgments about “lookin’ good” and everyone else’s judgment. In another book, it might be that Miss Shaw was a white haired old lady of the “when I am old, I will wear purple” school. She would think, in this re-imagining of the scene, that it made her look daring; everyone else would think it made her look awful. Sayers bypasses all such considerations by focusing on Miss Shaw’s “effort,” as in “made an effort in the matter of dress,” and just assuming everything else.

The image I want to use now is group buoyancy. A group needs a certain amount of levity (I don’t mean humor, just “lightness”) if it is not going to sink. There is enough gravity (I don’t mean earth’s gravity, just “heaviness”) in any case, for reasons we will get to shortly. [3] So the group needs to remain at a certain level of buoyancy to be viable, i.e., to do for its members what the members need to have done for them. Let’s call that zero. [4] Certain things the members bring to the group—we are considering only their appearance in this piece—provide “levity” and lift the group above where it would otherwise be. They are uplifting, we might say. Miss Shaw did that for Dorothy Sayers’ Shrewsbury College group. Other things the members might bring provide “gravity;” they are onerous, burdensome.

Because this is a group, it needs a certain buoyancy to remain viable. That means a certain ratio of levity to gravity. But not everyone needs to take this into account all the time. The man who comes to be with the group having freshly showered and put on different clothes than he wore yesterday and the woman who comes to the group, having stopped at the mirror in her unit to be sure that her appearance will add a little uplift to the group, both help the group to stay buoyant. And given that they have done that, the group can manage the member who is having an off day and comes to the group wearing soiled clothes or messy hair or without his glasses or his hearing aids.dressup 8

The two units of levity can handle the one unit of gravity. It’s easy to see that, especially with the illustration.  But even this simple illustration requires that we attend to an unusual criterion of self-presentation. This “self-presentation” is not about me. It is about us. The appearance I bring to the group—and we are talking this time only of appearance, not of behavior—is my gift to the group; everyone benefits from it. Or, conversely, it’s a bad appearance day for me (for any one of a number of possible reasons, some beyond my ability to control; some not) but I come to sit with the group anyway, knowing that they can handle the stress of gravity my appearance imposes today.

TELEVISION PROGRAMMES... One Foot In The Grave; Richard Wilson pictured as Victor Meldrew.

TELEVISION PROGRAMMES… One Foot In The Grave; Richard Wilson pictured as Victor Meldrew.

So what is all this? It’s one way to think of one’s appearance in a setting where everyone is old. One way, that is, apart from the solution to the left.  It’s not the only way. One’s appearance is not the most important thing a person could bring to the group. But I have spent this much of my time on it—and possibly even your time—because it is a new idea to me. I have thought of my appearance as my business. [5] And that’s all still true. But now I have the chance to think of my appearance as an additional stream of revenue for the group (levity) or as an additional tax on the group (gravity), and I am thinking that is a way of looking at the matter that is worth considering.

[1] The famous visitor is a man, visiting the faculty of a women’s college, but it is his status as an expert on crime, not his status as an available man, that is featured in this scene.
[2] It is TO the team and also FOR the team. It’s hard to choose one to the neglect of the other, but when you choose both, you really neglect both, so I’m staying with “to.”
[3] I see now that I am not actually going to get there. The reference is to psychologist Erik Erkison’s idea that “despair” is the trap that is always waiting to sabotage the older person. That is the gravity.
[4] I just barely fended off an urge to identify a sustainable social level with the letter C, indicating that A and B were submerged, while D and E were not. That would have led, in very short order to a “below C level” remark. I fended it off by promising myself I could always put it in a footnote.
[5]Well, Bette’s business too, since we often appear as a set and some responsibility for how I look will be attributed to her, whether she likes it or not.

About hessd

Here is all you need to know to follow this blog. I am an old man and I love to think about why we say the things we do. I've taught at the elementary, secondary, collegiate, and doctoral levels. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. I have taught political science for a long time and have practiced politics in and around the Oregon Legislature. I don't think one is easier than another. They are hard in different ways. You'll be seeing a lot about my favorite topics here. There will be religious reflections (I'm a Christian) and political reflections (I'm a Democrat) and a good deal of whimsy. I'm a dilettante.
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