Keeping Up Appearances

The one outfit we all wear is ever-present: our outer shell of gender, features, skin, and ethnicity/race — with an evolving overcoat of age


Ex-Mayor/ex-con Kwame Kilpatrick strolled into a private party in a downtown restaurant recently, wearing jeans, grinning, and appearing remarkably relaxed after a day spent standing trial in Federal District Court in Detroit. The charismatic corruption defendant was greeted by smiles and open affection.

On that same evening, current Mayor Dave Bing faced — and retreated from — a hostile reception at a community meeting of residents angry over extended shifts for police and plans to improve and protect Belle Isle by leasing it to the state.

The mayoral scenarios, which unfolded less than two miles apart, amounted to A Tale of Two Cities.

As Bing told Hour Detroit, the practice of letting municipal problems go unchecked for years led to the festering financial mess he’s now struggling to rectify. Playing the role of the “adult” can be unpleasant. Our job titles, like the clothes we wear, invite assumptions. And there’s an odd rule that, often, those who try hardest endure the harshest criticism.

Movie clichés have trained us to believe that the character with the flannel shirt, wrinkled trousers, and disheveled hair is the cuddly Everyman. We reject polish and effort and dedication, partly because we’re threatened by it. We are, after all, the culture that wants a president who’s the kind of “guy” with whom we could have a beer.

This month, on Nov. 11, we honor Americans who wore a U.S. military uniform: people who know the importance of showing up, following rules, and looking good in a spit-and-polish way — even if they do all look the same. Our coins read “united we stand,” but in civilian life, many of us invest considerable effort in carving out our individuality. In doing so, we’re closer to wearing a uniform than we think; we dress alike to identify with our social “tribes.”

The one outfit we all wear is ever-present: our outer shell of gender, features, skin, and ethnicity/race — with an evolving overcoat of age. It’s with that outfit that we face life, being judged and judging others along the way.

Regardless of appearance — given or chosen — at some point we just have to get down to work and fill our roles.

Time to dress the part and make an effort.

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