By Jen Jackson Quintano
This morning, for the first time since our daughter started attending her new school, I dressed like a normal person for the morning drop-off. And, oh, how my little girl smiled. When I waltzed out of the bedroom wearing — gasp! — attire designed for my gender and sporting no stains, Sylvie exclaimed, “You’re wearing that to bring me to school?!” And then I got a hug. It was a lovely start to a day without tree work.
The sad state of affairs for my fashion-conscious girl is that her mother’s work uniform typically consists of haute couture à la Carhartt menswear. Not only do I wear this, but she must be seen with me wearing it at pick-ups and drop-offs. In the evenings, she draws pictures of me sporting high heels; this is her attempt to manifest the impossible. Yet, still I show up in the school parking lot in logging boots. Sadly, we don’t get to choose the families we are born into.
After 12 years of inhabiting bar-oil-stained canvas, I’m comfortable in my uniform. I don’t usually give it a second thought. Show me anything smaller than a loaf of bread, and I probably have a pocket for that. Show me liquids of varying viscosities, and I probably have a stain for that. However, upon Sylvie starting first grade, I suddenly had a new group of parents with whom to build relationships… all while looking like the love child of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor and Jeremiah Johnson. Who wants to send their kid to my place for a playdate? No one.
Uniforms carry fascinating magic. They both impart a sense of identity upon the wearer and broadcast a separate one out to the community at large. Also, especially for women, there is the funny liminal ground between those two identities wherein one senses how she is perceived by others — sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly — and responds to that assumption. For instance, I don my tree gear feeling confident and capable. I am a formidable force in the forest. Then I venture into a decidedly non-forested environment (e.g. the school parking lot) and, out of context, am perceived in various ways by strangers (perhaps as a construction worker or maybe as an itinerant trying to steal children). Then there’s me trying to ascertain how I am seen, assuming the worst, and then suddenly not feeling confident and capable but just… dirty.
I think that friction between how we identify, how we are perceived and how we perceive that we are perceived, is uncomfortable. We want all the identities to align. One of our deepest desires as human beings is to be seen. To be understood. To belong. Hence the meteoric rise of social media. These digital platforms are designed specifically to (aside from harvesting our data) scratch the itch that drives us to proclaim, This is who I am! See me! Know me! Like me!
Facebook, Instagram and Twitter unveiled the ego-stroking rush of being able to define ourselves on our own terms, of curating our identities, and that drive has spread well beyond the internet.
Not too long ago, we weren’t all flying our individual ideological flags from garages and trucks. We didn’t have political lawn signs up year round. There wasn’t quite the proliferation of antagonizing and classifying and dividing bumper stickers (my favorite being the, “I drive a hybrid but I’m not a liberal,” sticker on a Prius, just in case you were going to cut that snowflake off in traffic). We are such social creatures, and now such socially divided creatures, so it is ever more important to stake our claims on appropriate identities lest we be seen on the wrong side of the fault line.
Here in North Idaho, I feel much different driving my Subaru than I do our Dodge work truck. Is it my imagination — my imperfect perception of others’ perceptions — or do I get fewer two-finger waves on the dirt roads and more tailgating on the highway in the Subaru? I loaned one of our trucks to a friend who couldn’t fit a new bed frame in her Prius. She returned from the endeavor grinning and exclaiming, “I felt so badass!” I totally got it. That diesel grumble is a positive signifier in a region where your bumper sticker must atone for your Prius-driving ways.
As social creatures, the use and assessment of signifiers is unavoidable. Our clothing, our vehicles and lately our mask-wearing choices are all a kind of uniform. It just feels a bit more extreme now, as I don’t remember folks wearing George H.W. Bush shirts and “Read my lips, no new taxes” hats in non-election years — or ever, for that matter — during my childhood. I currently have a “Love Lives Here” sign in our yard, but my parents’ closest corollary was the pile of bikes in the front lawn signifying “Kids Play Here.” Why, now, are we always advertising the commodity that is ourselves?
Perhaps, we simply want to belong. To something. To anything. The Clan of the Gadsden Flag, or whatever.
I don’t know if my awareness of my work attire and how it is perceived is heightened by this era of egoic overshare and divisiveness or not. My uniform includes signifiers — chainsaws, big trucks, steel-toed boots — that seem at odds with my ideologies. In a binary world (i.e., “You’re either with us or against us”), such ambiguity is difficult. Some of my awareness is likely a byproduct of wanting to belong — of wanting my daughter to belong — in a community whose demographic is drastically changing. Sometimes, I feel like an outlier. Like the aforementioned Prius bumper sticker, I want a badge proclaiming, But I clean up nice.
Yet, for now, I can set these thoughts regarding uniform aside. It is the end of the work season. It is time to relax for a few, brief snowy months before the tree removals of 2022 consume us. It is time for my daughter to have a clean, presentable escort to school. It’s time for me to be the me that doesn’t smell like grand fir and gasoline at the end of the day, who doesn’t mistakenly get addressed as “sir” based on her attire and height, the me with no overt signifiers or agenda, the me who might just score a playdate for my daughter… but will continue to dash hopes of high heels.
Jen Jackson Quintano writes and runs an arborist business with her husband in Sandpoint. Find their website at sandcreektreeservice.com. See more of Quintano’s writing at jenjacksonquintano.com.
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