By Reyna Eisenstark
My old friend George liked to say that there were only three types of men: dogs, priests, and liars. “The worst are the liars who think they’re priests,” he warned me. For a while, I classified the men I knew this way: dog, dog, liar, dog, etc. George delighted in describing himself as a dog, but he turned out to be a liar. I should have seen that coming.
As for me, I liked to divide up human beings this way: the bullied, the bullies, or the ones that said, “Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right.” This last one was the one I most admired, the one I most aspired to be as an adult. In truth, I have been all of those things in my life. Probably everyone has. I do tend to lean toward the third category more and more these days, which I suspect has something to do with confidence. Or wisdom. People are either wise or they’re not wise. That one’s easy.
“When you hit forty, you realize that you’ve met or seen every kind of person there is,” Bert Cooper told Don Draper on Mad Men, and I could not stop thinking about this for a long time. I once asked my father why he thought people tended to get more conservative as they got older (something which has not happened to him, I should note). “As you get older,” he said, “you just want a shorthand for things. You just want everything to fit into a specific category.”
Even though I’m aware of this, I tend to do it too (dog, dog, liar, dog, etc.) and even with my children (what kind of music do your friends like?), but sometimes it’s simply that I like to make lists for the fun of it.
My younger daughter once told me that she no longer liked the new girl in her class. She had hoped that maybe this new girl would be her kind of weird, which is what she’s always been looking for. But she was sadly disappointed. “She’s such a rule follower,” she declared. I knew exactly what she meant. And even though I felt her disappointment, my heart swelled with pride. Because the people I tend to dislike are the ones I call “rule followers,” though I have never actually expressed this thought to my children. At least, not overtly. What I mean by rule followers (and what my daughter clearly meant as well) are those people who lack creativity, who follow rules without questioning them, who cannot make decisions for themselves. I am not suggesting that people should be reckless. I am not even suggesting that my daughter rebel against her teachers. I just think it’s important that she question everything, even if it’s only to herself. I asked questions constantly as a child. I thought by asking as many questions as possible I could finally get to what I wanted to know, which was everything. Questions, I thought, might somehow help me to figure out exactly what category a person might fit into. If I had to, you know, make a list. I still ask questions, and I’ve only gotten a little bit closer to knowing.
Many years ago, when my children were so young that the greatest thrill of all our lives was to go to a local church that, on Wednesday mornings, had a little playgroup, I one day wandered away from the snack table (tiny pieces of cheese with crackers! Cups of apple juice!) because I heard something that sounded like crying coming from nearby. There was a little supply closet not too far from the snack table and as I approached it, the crying grew louder. The door was slightly open and I looked inside and saw a little girl sobbing. “What are you doing in there?” I asked her, immediately horrified.
She choked out the words, “My mother told me to…stay in here!”
Something in me snapped (“Guys, come on, stop it! That’s totally not right”), and I stormed over to the girl’s mother. She was a woman I barely knew but I had seen her enough times to recognize her as the child’s mother. “Do you seriously think it is a good idea to put a child in a closet?” I demanded.
She looked taken aback. “I didn’t put her in the closet,” she said calmly. And then explained that her daughter needed a time out and she had given her daughter a choice of places to go. “She chose the closet,” she told me.
“But do you think,” I said, my voice rising, aware that I was making a bit of a scene, “that a closet is an appropriate place for a child?”
She continued to defend herself, explaining that she knew where her daughter was, that it was a place for her to calm down, that she would be coming to get her in a minute. And I could see that as we talked, as everyone turned to watch us, as I stormed off, that I was no longer that third highly admired category, but that I was turning into kind of a bully.
The next time I saw that woman at the playgroup, I apologized for my outburst the last time, and she was very gracious about it, and we spent a little while making small talk about our children, and then we never spoke to each other again. My intentions had been good, I think, but I had a hard time coming down from my righteous high. Perhaps I had singled her out as a rule follower. I’m still not sure she was one.
Once I mentioned to my older daughter that I thought one of her friends was a much better artist than another friend who had won an art prize at school. “I don’t want to talk about my friends like that!” she said, which also made my heart swell with pride. It turns out that she doesn’t put people into categories all that often. Now that I think about it, perhaps that is really the job of rule followers. Perhaps we are all, in our own extremely complicated and misunderstood ways, dogs, priests, and liars. Perhaps we should just spend the rest of our lives not really knowing. At a certain point, you realize that there are questions that will never be answered, categories and lists that will never be completed. But when you hit forty, the relief of knowing this can feel something like delight.
REYNA EISENSTARK is a freelance writer living in Chatham, New York. You can read more of her writing at reynaeisenstark.wordpress.com.