The Patty Duke theme says it best: “Meet Cathy, whose lived most everywhere, from Zanzibar to Berkeley Square. But Patty’s only seen the sights a girl can see from Brooklyn Heights—what a crazy pair!” How beautiful and true. Human beings, in all their full spectrum variety, are herd animals (at least that‘s my takeaway from the Patty Duke theme).
Yes, we’ve walked on the moon and invented words like “autoclave” and “ideation”, but these startling “top-of-food-chain” magic tricks do not change the essential truth of our species; we all need to do and wear and say the same stuff lest we become vulnerable and exposed. This somewhat poignant state of being is almost surely the result of our anthropological hard-wiring.
The human race has attained a truly bossy and sometimes benevolent dominion over all the realms of the Earth—the “…houseplants and barnyard fowl and pets, the creeping things and beasts that hop and shout,” as the book of Genesis so movingly phrases it. Our species has reached the top of the Chuck Darwin step ladder due in part to our individualized instinct for vanishing into the warm center of our roaming herd as it plies the tundra. When the wolves come loping relaxedly out of the woods, descend on us with bored wolf expressions and begin picking us off from the edges of the herd, does it profit one to be an outlier? Yes, if you consider being torn asunder without anesthesia a plus.
HIPness = Life Itself
In modern sociological terms what we’re talking about is a Herding Instinct Proclivity (HIP). It’s everything in the game of survival. Your public school has long infected your child with the toxic message that there is some majestic humanist value to being as individual as a snowflake, but all that really gets you is devoured. It’s time we told the kids the truth, and modeled it for their edification. We all need to be as anonymous and indistinguishable from each other as possible as we all make our way down the aptly named evolutionary Plain. Are light brown polyester pantsuits all the the rage? Well, we may be the paragon of animals, but this month the paragons are in light brown polyester. And so on. Let’s look at a couple of familiar instances of HIP; 1. Our species-wide adoption of the flimsy, ridged down jacket, and 2. The habit among young men of spitting something out of the mouth in a gesture of salivary insouciance.
Lightweight Ridged Salvation
You can’t fearfully raise your eyes from the sidewalk these days without seeing an immediate dozen or so people walking unself-consciously around in the same ridged jacket. These jackets are everywhere. The stunning ubiquity of this ridged outerwear would be amusing if it wasn’t so central to protecting our viscera from toothy predation. The ridged jacket is lightweight and supple, and comes in sleeveless and sleevy varieties. Its horizontal ridges are closely spaced, such that the wearer somewhat resembles a bi-pedal armadillo. And it is mostly available in black and navy blue.
Those who incompletely adopt the current HIP, acquiring the ridged jacket in red, say, are quickly plucked from the periphery of the herd and noisily devoured. One day you will see, among the placid sea of pedestrians in their ridged black and navy blue jackets, a few clueless outliers in red or purple ridges. How did these doomed snowflakes not get the memo, you wonder. It doesn’t matter. Within several days they will have been removed from the general population. That is the nature of Nature. Is nature cruel? No, nature is but a mindless, autonomically self-improving machine, a Blind Watchmaker, as soft-spoken Creationism Complainant Richard Dawkins calls it. That the Blind Watchmaker hates red or purple-ridged jackets is inexplicable, and can be chalked up as another of the infrequently entertaining Mysteries of Evolution.
At the other end of the HIP spectrum—the less benevolent end—is the haunting phenomenon of the Sputum Cutie. All the males are doing it this year, and it is maddening. You’ve seen this guy walking our streets and sidewalks in his pricey blue jeans and shades. His hands are in his pockets and he is staring straight ahead with a studied nonchalance as he strides, Starsky-like, down the street. Without warning a strangely coherent wad of goomba loops balletically from his unmoving yap and falls to earth in a tiny ballistic arc. This deadpan fashion-spitting is all the rage. Still, one is compelled to ask; what and why are you spitting, spit men? May I approach you and ask that very question without you pushing me down to the ground with a hand on my startled face? “You there! What the hell did you just spit out?! Why are you people spitting all the time? By g*d, I’ve got to know!”
You see, our herd’s evolutionary perch atop all the Earth’s dominions and stuff—it has come with a price tag. Our opposable thumbs and Darwin-approved tool making have driven us into a cul-de-sac. Combine our reckless ingenuity with our desire to all do the same thing and you’ve got a looming extinction event. These are the days a person can go to his or her death while typing behind the wheel of a moving car, for instance. Typically the driver’s last message to the world is something like “I’m typing and I’m driving”. This is the future. Even you missed it, Nostradamus, and who can blame you?
Mourning is Broken
There is, anymore, a helpful sameness to our grief, too. In the wake of these fiery text-based crashes, the heartbroken are known to express their unspeakable grief through social media. A little cartoon of a bawling face with cartoon water splashing out of the eyes is today’s most typical gesture of consolation. Sometimes we are shocked by a loved one’s “heartbreaking tweet” and are obliged to reach out with a little yellow face contorted with sorrow and flying water. “Oh my God…the love of my life just died…” Concerned and stricken friends of the bereaved will have the unpleasant task of selecting the perfect little yellow cartoon face to represent their sympathy and support.
If we had half a mind left as a culture, the very phrase ‘heartbreaking tweet’ would give us pause. Alas we do not have half a mind as a culture, and neither has this Gilded Age of witless advances managed to stamp out world hunger or eradicate poverty. Just sayin’. On the other hand, our laudable tendency to mass sameness makes it easier to suffer this foolishness.
So do practice your fashion-spitting. It’s got to look very natural, not like Jack Elam or some other grizzled cowboy actor theatrically squirting mouth juice into a spittoon. It’s gotta look cool. If you are wearing a lightweight black or navy blue ridged jacket while casually spitting into the Queen Anne Palms along State Street, all the better. Remember, these jackets come in sleeved and sleeve-free versions. Either one will cloak you when the wolves come out. Celebrate your uniqueness in absolute quietude or you’re screwed. Tell the kids, too. Again, the Patty Duke theme offers helpful guidance:
“Where Cathy adores a minuet, the Ballet Russes and crepe suzette, our Patty loves to rock and roll, a hot dog makes her lose control — what a wild duet! But they’re cousins! Identical cousins!”
Live it. For the good of the species.