Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Black Sheep

I've always found unconventional people fascinating - the common thread that seems to tie them (us) all together is some degree of irreverence and an ability to relish in the confounded looks that their opinions, behavior or attire evokes from people. A little black sheep (or at least grey) in a mob of white is a surprisingly comforting reminder that we're not all interested in following a common schedule or plan in life that we had little do with establishing.

Taking unconventionality to an extreme, perhaps the most amusing and studied of the bunch are true eccentrics - not just those that question and defy particular conventions (most of us do to some degree), but those individuals that commit to their eccentricity and oddball ways as more than just a "phase", but a lifestyle. Someone who only wears one color, head to toe, every day of their adult life. The ancient man (or Imelda Marcos) that leaves his fortune to his dog. Howard Hughes. Joan Crawford. Karl Lagerfeld. Michael Jackson.

Two common denominators among eccentrics seem to be money and age. Christopher Hitchens' article on British eccentrics in January's Vanity Fair arguably says it best; "true eccentricity requires some leisure time, and some money, for its cultivation". If you're rich or old enough to afford not needing to be industrious and work to maintain a lifestyle, it's easy to see yourself getting bored. And if you get bored, you easily get into trouble. You start to think too much. Question too much, observe too much. Perceive that everything and everyone around you feels mundane, and that you need to develop an identity. So you begin to dress only in yellow, talk to your dog or pet cow (the only being that truly understands and loves you for who you are). Arrive at public events dressed in a tutu (particularly impressive if you're a man), ride a crocodile bareback, or spend an inordinate amount of time observing clouds (see Vanity Fair article).

Eccentrics keep the world around them interesting (and interested) - particularly when it's a wealthy circle with time, expectations, norms, an implicit code of conduct, and few responsibilities in their hands. You rarely hear about poor or middle-class eccentrics. Instead, they're condemned as crazy, senile, or tacky. It's mostly only the rich (or onetime wealthy) that become eccentric. They have the luxury of time, resources and imagination - and use it very comically (and vainly) to avoid becoming the cliched old, rich man/woman - only to ironically become the cliched eccentric, old, rich man/woman. Only the context for the eccentricity itself seems to differ.

Cheers to the eccentric, bizarre, quirky and original that keep the world colorful and offbeat - but here's to hoping that they'll leave their money to a good, charitable cause and not to their pet parrot.