~ The Mask of Normality ~
“So Bryan, what is it that you do?”
I looked at my fellow wanderer across the dinner table from me. He was a man of the backpacking world. He was a man who had done many jobs, who had travelled many places – a man who, like me, struggled to categorise his entire existence in the universe within a specific labelled box of employment. Still, after swallowing the food he was chewing on, he began to try and justify his bohemian lifestyle to the family. I sat back and studied him curiously, knowing that it was normally me on the receiving end of this question, flapping and flailing around like a fish out of water, unable to give them the solid answer they sought.
After a couple of minutes of explaining how he worked and travelled, how he didn’t have a set home, and how he had recently spent a year living in a hostel, an awkward silence fell over us. I looked at the mother and father across the table. If they had been culturally programmed robots, then you could almost see the sparks flying from their eyes. You could see the circuits crashing and the sound of ‘malfunction – malfunction – malfunction’. It was a sight I knew all too well; whenever people couldn’t categorise you easily within a culturally and economically defined box, then they often stalled and didn’t know what to say. Their silence was deafening but thankfully Bryan found some humorous words:
“Well, it looks like my mask of normality just fell off.”
I let out an awkward little laugh and thought about the absurdity of the scenario. Here we were once again justifying our bizarre and unconventional lives to a family we were visiting. Often we had joked about the looks of bewilderment that were cast our way whenever we talked about our lives. I guess you didn’t really think about it until you were out of education. When you were still studying you could say you were in education to get people off your back. But the second you were out of school and didn’t have your identity assigned by a job role, the looks of bewilderment and judgment were thrown your way by the bucket load. It seemed that in society a man or woman’s destiny was to become a particular thing, a labelled component of the cultural machine, and this was reflected in the fact that one of the first questions people asked each other when meeting was ‘what do you do?’
No matter where you went in life, the question was always there. Meeting a girl in a bar – “what do you do?” Meeting a stranger on your travels – “what do you do back home?” Meeting some relatives – ‘what are you doing now?’ Even turning on the television and watching a game show – one of the first questions was always “what do you do?” Everywhere I went I curiously observed my species take part in this behaviour when interacting with each other. If you could toss out a label of economic-based existence and explain it with a couple of sentences, then the process would be very swiftly done. Out your label would come, the other person would then categorise and judge you on what sort of person you were, and then the conversation would move on. The problem for Bryan as well as me was that I just didn’t have an answer that would satisfy them all. Once somebody asked me the question, I had to go on a long-winded explanation telling them of all the different jobs I had done, my partition in medical trials, my backpacking trips, my writing and the general disastrous concoction of chaos and anarchy that was my life. Like Bryan had noted, it was usually at this point the mask of normality was blown off and I was exposed for the abnormal creature I was. From the top of my head, I could remember at least ten times this had happened, and I had been automatically cast as the outsider of the group. Their stares of shock and confusion were seared into my mind.
I guess I should have just accepted it and replied that I was effectively a drifter. I mean, I was a drifter, there was no way around it anymore. But I guess I was a little uncomfortable with that label due to the connotations it had. It’s not that I was completely destitute or homeless or something like that, but it was true that I roamed around from one place to the other with not too much of a long-term plan. Of course, there was a romantic side to the image of being a drifter, but mostly it just scared people away and made them think of you as a loser, a loner or an outcast. Yes, all things considered, the mask of normality was well and truly off if you gave yourself that label.
One day I decided I would just make up a role whilst out on my travels. Meeting people you were never going to see again made it possible to experiment with alternative identities, sort of like a mild schizophrenic, I guess. I went ahead with this idea and started to say I was a journalist. This masked identity had a level of credibility to it because I had actually obtained a degree in journalism early in my adult life. I could talk about the industry and use its terms and even reference a business magazine I had done unpaid work in the past. What’s more, it was a revered profession, so this allowed the person I was speaking with to have some level of respect for me. This answer allowed the mask of normality to stay placed on my alien face. With a nod of the other person’s head and a smile on their face, I was an accepted member of the human race.
To raise the stakes one time out of the interest of an experiment, I thought I would go all out and give myself the label that was revered as ‘successful’ and the epitome of a respected profession. I decided to say I was a lawyer. I had taken a few law modules in my journalism degree and even sat in on court hearings while writing and reporting. Because of this, I again knew some of the terms and areas of law I could talk about. After hearing their profession first to make sure they weren’t actually a real lawyer, I explained away my made-up role as a solicitor. As I did, I observed the looks of approval on their faces. My mask of normality and acceptability was fixed on my face stronger than ever with this label. People in bars gravitated toward me. Girls even desired me more. It truly was amazing to see the difference what a single word could do. With this mask I was more than just an accepted member of human civilisation; I was in actual fact a respected member of human civilisation.
The schizophrenic madness went on and eventually I got to a point in my life where I had self-published a book and received a total of two hundred and something sales. I had been writing all my adult life but now I actually had something published which was available to buy online. This meant I could give myself the labelled identity of a ‘writer’. I mean, ultimately in reality I was a largely unknown writer with a very small following, but to some other fellow outcasts and outsiders who read my writing, I was indeed a ‘writer’. I got started with using this answer whenever I was struck with the ‘what do you do?’ question. As I did, I noticed that people responded to it the most out of any of the labels of existence I had fed them. The interesting thing was that the mask of normality fell off your face if you said this anyway, especially if they went on to ask what sort of stuff you wrote. My stuff consisted of stories and thoughts of an outsider, all full of existential and alienated angst. If they were to actually read what I had written, then that was an automatic exposure as the misfit I was. Often, to my horror, some of them even bought my book – at which point my mask of normality was destroyed beyond repair and they naturally distanced themselves from me cautiously.
Eventually I faced the facts and realised I didn’t really have the right to say I was a ‘writer’ either. The ‘do’ question was more referencing what you did in order to get money. I hadn’t made more than a few dozen pounds with my writing; in fact, I had actually lost money taking into account the online adverts I occasionally did. So I retreated back to being a person with no real label. It was time to just try to avoid the question and stop lying that I actually was a regular human-being with some sort of actual normal identity. I couldn’t keep my face straight and live in my world of lies anymore. Back to being undefined and unclassified I went.
As my life went on this way, I resigned myself to the awkward pauses and stares whenever the ‘Do’ question was thrown my way. Consequently, there were great moments when imposter syndrome struck severely. Talking to girls in bars or attempting to apply for jobs, I never truly felt comfortable that I was one of them. At all times I was just a couple of questions from being exposed as the misfit and weirdo I was. I guess this hit its peak when I went back home with a city career girl who promptly packed up and left when I described my life to her as we lay in bed. Naturally I soon started to feel a million miles away from the world of normal people that continuously pounded the pavements of society next to me. They were all around me and often it got exhausting interacting with all the new people you’d meet out on those streets. I had rarely come across someone who even remotely understood what I was attempting to do with my life – that I was more interested in exploring, adventuring and seeking to create art over anything conventional like a career or starting a family. What I ‘did’ wasn’t possible to define within one word. At the core of it, I was a misunderstood individual getting more and more tired with humanity with every superficial interaction and tongue flicker of that awful question.
Sometimes, when the social alienation got too much, I would rack my brain into thinking what mask of normality I could try and give myself to get people off my back. Maybe I could just reside myself to a normal career. Maybe I could eventually even get a job in copywriting or something off the back of my creative writing. Maybe one day I could be a regular person, shepherded and confined within a labelled box of economic employment like the rest of the human race. I got lost in these thoughts gradually but eventually sobered up from my mental musings. The truth was the truth and, in all honesty, I guess I was just an alien like my good friend Bryan. An interstellar mutant of some kind, destined to wander on from place to place and job to job until the end of my days. The mask of normality had no place on my face. I was too awkward, too incompatible – too insane to fit into a socially approved box of existence. In a world of accepted citizens who had found their place in human society, I limped on through like some out-of-place extraterrestrial, winging it and somehow finding a way to get by and survive. ‘Too weird to live; too rare to die’ as Hunter had said. That is what I did. That is what I do. And that, as I sit alone again in this dark room pouring the mess in my mind onto this page, is what I will always do…