Author Archive: Anna Hougardy

On the Bus: Of The Awareness of Turkeys and People

The walk to the bus
Is a preview of spring,
Full of friendly jade trees and honeyed sunbeams,
And a warm wind smelling of sweet sap and freedom.
It tries to hold me there, to slow me,
But the bus will come and be gone, soon.
That wind is a nice reminder of how it is nicer to be seeing trees,
Than to be looking through them and seeing thoughts
And missing their beauty while chained to the mind.
This free breeze lingers by the bus stop.
I feel it,
The wild turkeys in the field feel it,
And I wonder if this businessman type with the slicked-back hair I see every time
Can feel it.
There is something different about his eyes today,
But I cannot place it.
I look back to the turkeys,
Rummaging through the grass,
And try to reach out.
I do not move or speak,
I try to reach them with my heart and focused energy.
And it could have only been in my head,
With nothing reaching the turkeys at all,
With my attempt at a sort of unspoken greeting,
Almost like how people wave to each other-
It could have been a coincidence, but-
Eight wrinkled bird heads raise up
At nearly the same instant.
Not frightened, they seem,
But pausing
And looking
At me.
I had not been expecting a response,
So I release all but the front two
And say hello without even thinking the word.
And their meandering path as they graze,
Still looking
At me,
Begins to come closer.
Quickly, I stop broadcasting out.
There is no time for turkeys now.
The bus should be here
The slicked-back hair man seems to be thinking this too.
He checks his watch.
But he has not spared the turkeys a second glance.
I watch them as they move down the field and cross the road.
The first two saunter across the asphalt,
Ignoring the cars waiting on them.
There is a third, several paces behind.
He is sauntering too,
But with a limp.
The cars move past after him, cutting the group in half.
The other turkeys don’t saunter.
They scuttle.
Which is good, because the bus is coming up the road.
Bus drivers don’t like stopping for turkeys,
As a general rule.
The last, littlest turkey just crosses the center line as the bus roars up.
He has a limp too,
And is moving (unevenly) as fast as his little legs can go
To get out of the road.
I can breathe easy once he’s clear,
Breathe easy and get on the bus.
On the bus,
I’m at the back, near the man with the slicked-back hair.
I look out the window as the bus moves along, collects more people.
We are halfway down the big hill
When I realize
I am the only one doing this.
Including the businessman from my stop,
Are looking at their phones,
Or staring at the seat in front of them without seeing,
With earbuds in
Or headphones on.
Are they thinking hard about something?
Are they trying to imagine being somewhere else?
Is being here on the bus so bad that they want to disappear?
I feel like the only one awake
In a world of sleepers.
It’s beautiful outside.
You can see the seasons change,
And nothing is ever the same twice.
I always like to watch for the orange cat.
He lives right about here.
And then I realize I’d been asleep too,
In a different way.
The man in the corner,
Where he always sits,
With down syndrome and the camo jacket,
Looks out the window too.
Does he also look for the orange cat?
The businessman pointedly ignores him.
I had been doing so too
Without realizing.
The businessman pretends not to notice
As the man smiles and waves at him
When their eyes make contact
The only person I’ve ever seen
Wave back
Is that short kid
Who sits across from him
Just a quick wave and
The flash of a friendly smile
Before disappearing into his own quiet world
And an iPhone.
That’s all.
That’s more than the businessman can do.
Could I do that?
I want to know what this detached man
With the slicked-back hair
Is feeling.
I reach out,
Like I did the turkeys.
He does not react
Or notice.
I can feel that he can’t see me there.
People are less aware than turkeys.
And anyways, I wasn’t trying to announce myself to him.
I was trying to be sneaky.
Just trying to focus on his energy.
And the grief I feel as I focus on him
Comes to me exactly as I realize
What is different about his eyes.
They don’t look sad, not unless you look for it,
But they do look
As though he had been crying.
When I slip out of his feelings,
I can see it in his body language, too.
The man with the crying eyes and the the slicked-back hair and the silver wedding band
Is tense and distant
Every time I see him,
But not more so than the average businessman
With slicked-back hair
That you see on the street.
But today he sighs,
A tiny, silent sigh,
That releases no tension,
Though that would probably help
A bit.
It is a troubled, unhappy motion without sound,
Despairing, perhaps.
Perhaps his dog has died.
Perhaps his spouse is deadly ill.
Perhaps he is unhappy with his life.
Still, he goes to work.
Perhaps that is what is making him unhappy.
Perhaps he hates his work.
I don’t know what he does.
I say businessman because he is
In demeanor.
I make a lot of assumptions,
About him
Based on his body language.
But he could be anybody.
A spy.
An accountant.
An father.
A businessman.
I will probably never know
Because professional
Means not talking to anybody
You don’t know
If you don’t have to.
If they wave to you on the bus.
It also means
Getting uncomfortable
If you notice someone
Noticing you,
So before he notices me
Noticing him,
I focus on a classmate instead.
I do not feel sadness from him.
I feel numbness.
He has earbuds in and is staring into space.
I know he is smart
And does well in school
And music
And sports
And has lots of friends,
But is this how people feel all day?
Was this how the professional man with the crying eyes felt
Every day
Before feeling sad?
Or are all of these feelings
That belong to other people
Just in my head
And not in them?
We are coming to the stop of the down syndrome man
With the sincere smile.
And he is polite
As he lets the person between him and the aisle know
That he needs to get up.
And without meaning to,
I am focusing on the young man who gets up
To let him past.
And I don’t know
If the sudden flash of fear I feel
Is mine or his
As the man with the big smile
And the bright grey eyes
Goes past us both.
If it is mine,
Am I really scared of being smiled at by a stranger on the bus
And having to smile back?
It’s not hard and I think it would come automatically
If someone else smiled first
Or even met my eyes.
I am not scared of this man
Or the fact that he is different.
I am different too.
We both look out the window
Sometimes seeing an orange cat.
So perhaps I am scared
Of the rigid social norm,
That brittle, uncomfortable silence
That is what professional people
Say is good,
Being broken.
Perhaps I am
The little girl
In her puffy pink parka
Is not scared of breaking it,
But she is protected by age,
And the gentle shushes of her mother.
She is not professional.
The man with the slicked-back hair stares at nothing
With those crying eyes.
He pretends not to notice as the man
Who is nice,
And real,
But not professional,
Walks past.
The man with the crying eyes
Is professional
Even though his eyes show signs of crying.
Maybe it is being professional
That made him cry.
My classmate is also professional.
He pretends not to notice things,
And he is very good at it.
But he is numb,
Feeling not much of anything,
Or trying not to,
And the man is sad.
Perhaps he tried to not feel anything
Until he had to let something in,
And it was sadness.
The little girl is not always bubbly.
Sometimes she is sad too
Or frustrated,
But she welcomes these feelings,
And mostly she is happy,
For now,
While she can remain unprofessional.
I have not yet gotten a good reading from the smiling man,
But he never seems numb
Or grieving.
These two men,
Both always riding the bus,
One professional,
One not.
I don’t think I am professional like the man who may or may not be a businessman,
Even if I seem it,
I am a chameleon,
Who can play the part and
Act like everyone else,
At least in this way.
Once I ignored the person who sat next to me all the way until I had to get off,
Like a good, professional girl.
And when I finally looked at her,
I saw a woman with a yoga mat in her backpack,
And the kindest face
I had ever seen,
So I smiled at her,
I may seem professional,
But if that man smiles or waves or even just looks
At me,
Then I will smile back.
I may seem professional,
But I look out the window,
And I try to talk to turkeys.
And I reflect on the contrasting men I don’t know,
Different, but perhaps they have more in common than they think.
Perhaps they are both a little lonely.
Perhaps they would both look for an orange cat,
If they both knew he was there.
Those different bus-riders,
The man in the corner who looks out the window and sometimes treats people to his smiles,
And the man with the slicked-back hair and the tearstained eyes.

A Study of High School Social Structure and Human Behaviors Volume One

NOTE: This is a school essay previously known as “A Long, Off-Topic Rant” for a ninth grade health class that has been revised for public posting.

The excerpt from Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher is about the changes girls go through when going from middle to high school. Pipher specifically states that when her tomboy cousin Polly started junior high, she was excluded by both girls and boys and she ended up withdrawn from both. The excerpt says Polly, “. . . reentered as Becky Thatcher. She wore stylish clothes and watched from the sidelines . . . Once again she was accpeted and popular.” In my life, I’ve known many girls that were once tomboyish, loud, and creative, but for the sake of gaining popularity, forsake who they were. Acceptance and, by extension, popularity, is something that is extremely valuable in middle and especially high school. For some reason, having lots of friends, even if they’re not good friends, even if you really don’t know each other at all on any level beyond the surface, makes people think that you’re cool or nice because more people hang out with you. Perhaps to a degree, but in my experience this logic is flawed because some of the nicest people I know aren’t popular. Popular people who think that they’re really nice people usually turn out to be the ones to snub you or look down their nose at you if you aren’t popular. Pipher says that, “Adolescence is when girls experience social pressure to put aside their authentic selves and to display only a small portion of their gifts.” The gifts that these girls choose to display are generally, in my experiences, those that will make them more popular: social skills, dress sense, and a mask they can don to hide true feelings. These girls also tend to start valuing things they couldn’t have cared less about before their metamorphosis: appearance, social media, boys, celebrities, and, most of all, how others see them. This last one is vitally important because this determines if they’re accepted or not, if they’re popular or not. Actually, all of their new values tie into acceptance and popularity because if they don’t look good enough or don’t look like they care about how they look, if they don’t want to be connected with everyone else or even just think like everyone else and act like everyone else, then it is that much harder to rise in popularity.

Whenever people around me act in ways I don’t understand because I would never do myself, I try to rationalize their behavior into something that would make sense on a basic survival level. Acceptance itself is very primal: everyone wants to be accepted because people don’t want to be alone. They worry about being scorned or dismissed as the last dregs of the population, about others seeing them as “those guys that nobody wants to hang out with.” Teenage girls getting boyfriends (or girlfriends) is common because of the basic, subconscious notion that those people are good enough, fit enough that someone would choose to be with them. The media also plays a massive role in how the masses think. If a celebrity does something – wears a certain kind or shirt or talks in a certain way – people instantly want to do the same thing – but why? Most likely because people see them as being immensely popular. If you do the things that popular people do, then you’ll become more accepted by them and therefore more popular. If the alpha (since humans evolved as social creatures) likes something, you gain their approval by doing the same thing. Imitation is a powerful drive. If you’re hanging around someone, its very likely that some of how they act will rub off on you, no matter how popular they are. I’ve observed this in both my friends and myself. For example, one of my friends used to use the word “groady” to describe gross or unpleasant things. I’d barely ever heard the term before, but after a couple weeks of being exposed to the groadiness, I found myself using it even when they weren’t around. Why does this happen? It strengthens bonds between people and it makes you more likeable to them because you share some of the same “ideas” and act similarly, and everyone likes to be around people with views similar to their own because they’ll fight less and life will be less stressful. Acting more like someone else ensures that you’ll stay with them, so you’ll always (theoretically) have someone there and you won’t be viewed as an outsider. This primal need has lead to the rise of popular songs, trends, social media, and dress types.

Yet, sometimes you get shunted for too heavily imitating people. This is because if you act too much like other people, then others will tend to label you as unoriginal. Unoriginal people wouldn’t be a survival asset because they wouldn’t bring anything new to the group. Popular people imitate celebrities – they are cooler because they’re like them. The idea is to act like the popular people for that reason, but if you try TOO much to match someone (especially if they aren’t a celebrity), then suddenly you’re lesser in the rest of society’s eyes. The trick is to find the balance between cool and copy-cat.

What about appearance? I never understood why girls spend so much time fussing in the bathroom with combs and mascara and concealer, plucking eyebrows and painting nails and brushing hair. Appearance would have a major role in survival: when looking for potential packmates or mates, you’d want healthy people so you wouldn’t get sick, too (and in the case of mates, someone who could produce a healthy child). Clear skin and neat hair would mean less of a chance of rashes, diseases, lice, or mites that could be transmitted, so technically its only natural that people want to look somewhat decent (right?). A lean, athletic build (thin but not emaciated) means good muscle tone and the ability to survive easily, while too much bulk or too little would mean less success in those areas. But it’s not enough to only be pretty, you have to be effortlessly pretty. The same goes for social skills and any other kind of skill – art, dress sense, hair, music, writing, biking, running, rock climbing. You have to be good at it but you can’t try too hard because trying means that you’re not the best. Having to work and practice means you’re not inherently perfect. Since popular people and celebrities generally tend to try to make themselves look good, look “sexier”, effortlessly so, it makes sense that our masses of people desperate for acceptance would follow that lead. And when the celebrities and people in advertisements ramp it up, so will the masses. Solved.

Popular people (and also celebrities) tend to be very good socially. The idea of good social skills can be traced to, once again, the addition they would bring to a group in a survival situation. These people would be good at taking a leadership position if necessary, and they’d be able to bond with others and share their ideas. It’s also easy to quickly determine if you want to be friends with a talkative person: if they are willing to talk, then you can swiftly see if they share similar interests with you and if they have intelligent things to say. People that are good socially tend to be quick when put on the spot because they always have something witty or intelligent to say. This quick decisiveness is good when put into a risky survival situation. But if a person is too quiet, it’s hard to get to know them and being around a quiet person can get awkward very quickly. There also seems to be, at least on a subconscious level, the notion that people that say less have less to say or simply don’t have as much in their heads, which is completely false. In my experience, people that say less think more about what they say before they say it rather than just blurting everything that comes through their minds in a type of “word vomit.” People that talk too much are almost as unpleasant to be around for our primal selves as quiet people. They can be overbearing or annoying or useless as they refuse to let others put forward ideas in survival situations.

This leads us to the high school caste system. It is a harsh and shifting lawbook of unspoken terms and agreements and hierarchy. For the sake of simplicity, let’s say that everyone is the same grade to minimize the complexity that follows age differences and thus differences in dominance. At the top are the popular groups. There are several of these, and they’re slightly different, but they are willing to act like someone they’re not in order to remain at the top. They wear the right things, say the right things, put the right things on their face. They are good socially and have great “poker” faces – great fake smiles and laughs. Good grades, however, do not have a factor of popularity in many of these groups. Similar interests and good social skills are more important. After the popular kids, there is a slew of different families, species if you will – the goths, track jocks, soccer jocks, geeks, openly LGBTQs, band kids, choir kids, orchestra kids, art kids, hippies, druggies, rich kids, frenchies, punk rockers, video gamers, hikers, bikers, to name a few and to be very general and stereotypical. There is an order to these groups too, and internal structure in each, but it’s long and ever-changing. The groups that act less like the popular ones are less respected overall, and the ones that act in a more “acceptable” way are more respected. But it really doesn’t matter if your group is weird: you are automatically more popular than those without groups because you at least have someone. Loners, floaters, outcasts are the lowest of the low because no one, not even one of the less popular groups, wants to be with you. It doesn’t matter that they could have their own set of talents. They don’t fit anyone’s criteria and so therefor they are not accepted, not acceptable to be around. People in the “loner bands” aren’t much better off. Loner bands are groups of people who were loners until they found other rejected people to band together with, so of course they’re not gonna be popular.

But really, what is popularity and acceptance? Is it being liked, liked because they want to be with you because you fit the standards, or is it respect, respect because you’re good-looking or have the right personality or share similar ideas or have done something cool? There can be a form of respect below popularity, too. Below the idea that you’re popular and generally accepted as “cool,” there is a form of basic respect. It comes from the masses, of any group. It’s the jock nod – not friendly but not cold – that repents past scorn or simply says, “Hey, you’re good at something. I don’t want to be your friend, but I respect you. I respect you enough to maybe say hi if I sit next to you in class.” Judgement passed can mean respect or acceptance or scorn, but judgement is passed usually only once. This point of decision is passed only once in most cases. It can be revised in the light of some new achievement or a complete remodeling of personality, demeanor, and appearance, as Pipher states, but in many cases it remains even if you do not. This judgement is often passed without getting to know the person being judged, and I’ve seen tenth graders base their assumptions about people off of something they decided after having that one class with them in sixth grade.

So, really, the changes and suppressing of true self that Mary Pipher talks about in Reviving Ophelia can all be traced back to the primal basics of survival. Our society has drowned, buried the survival and primal qualities, but it has not in any way gotten rid of what these subconscious needs lead to.