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I rode the subway to work this morning as I do each day. The F to 14th St. and one block to work. It’s just enough time to allow me to drift into and out of a daydream (morningdream?), become captivated by Claire Keegan’s Walk the Blue Fields (short stories inspired from bygone days in Ireland), play Rachael Yamagata’s “Even if I Don’t,” on repeat x 6, and of course, people watch.

People watching in New York City is, in my opinion, an activity that everyone experiences at least once a day. From walking out your front door, to taking a seat on the subway or a bench in the park, people are everywhere. It inspires, intrigues and engages. This morning it left me in the spaces between intrigued and engaged. I stood behind a 10 year old boy who arrived on the train at York St., the last stop in Brooklyn before departing for Manhattan.

I took no notice of him at first, or at least thought nothing of his behavior.  He wore a school uniform. Had a number 3 haircut and straightened his book bag with straps that hung low down his back. He then took a drink from a bottle that was misleading from its contents, and after catching his reflection in the train’s windows, straightened his tie. And…straightened his tie and collar. And collar and tie and tie and collar…and yes, it went back and forth like this for a solid 90 seconds. I watched him care for his appearance and tidy his look as we rolled into and out of stations. Silently, to myself, I tried to imagine his upbringing and what values his parents worked to instill in him. It’s not often I observe a young boy being mindful of his appearance by ensuring apparel is straight and linear, and nearly wrinkle-free. Taking notice of him I thought, “He must be really disciplined, attend to his homework without being asked and maybe he’ll grow up to be valedictorian…”. I don’t really know where these ideas were going, but I imagined if his mother or father could see him, they’d be proud. Perhaps I subconsciously wished I’d been of that mindset at his age and maybe it would’ve led me down a more traditional path…

But that got me thinking, and raised a question, “At what age does spending (too much) time in front of a mirror begin to reflect your vanity?” “When is it seen as being too vain or superior?” I saw this boy of school-age who simply appeared to be making sure he was presentable but imagined him 15 years later with those other men and women I’ve seen who spend what is perceived, and may very well be, too much time and money on their appearance? At what point does one go from observing a child and praising him or her for their manners and ability to groom themselves, to thinking they’re haughty, or too proud? Can instilling your child or a close loved one with values that are supposed to prepare them to take care of their themselves, and thus their health, well-being, etc. reach an unnecessary or inappropriate level?

No Caption Needed is a blog dedicated to photojournalism. It’s insightful, presents images paired with the authors’ (Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites) opinions and it’s incredibly inspiring. Their writing causes you to stop and think, take a sip of jasmine green tea, reflect on what’s written and ponder – which is exactly how I reacted to one of their posts last year on Haiti as they reported on the aftermath of the country’s earthquake. Have a look, one of the images poses this very thought as a refugee is seen amid the debris pausing to check her appearance in a dresser’s mirror. Given the context, Hariman stages the argument that it is an, “…Act of triumph over adversity.” Having a routine activity when tragedy strikes provides some sense of normalcy which helps. Right?

I don’t know whether that young boy will grow up wanting to straighten his tie day after day, or if he’ll grow up and with it, grow an aversion toward wearing ties for work. Or if that young girl who paused for a moment to see her reflection in an unclaimed dresser mirror will grow up dreaming of a job on 5th Ave in fashion merchandising. I don’t know if appearance should speak for itself or whether personality and vanity go hand in hand and correlate with one another. I don’t think appearance should speak for itself, and I also believe personality and vanity are not mutually exclusive. Can an individual who looks to put a lot of time and money into their appearance, with mani-pedi’s and Marc Jacobs bags, but works for an NGO addressing education in indigenous communities still be a perfectly wonderful human being?

I’d like to think the answer is yes. It may not be my taste, or upon-receiving-a-paycheck-pursuit, but wouldn’t the world be awfully boring if we all splurged on gourmet coffee and a nice sushi dinner?

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