Not Proper

I’ve recently finished this book, and really enjoyed it. The bit about the white noise at the end of an LP and how when you’re with the right person it can go on and on and you just don’t care had me welling up with nostalgia and grinning over the memory of dorm rooms and Cocteau Twins records and kissing my first boyfriend back in 1986.

But the entry for ‘Common’ brought back memories too, what with its slipperiness and ever-shifting quantification – which seemed weird because it wasn’t a word that was used in my family vernacular. Lying in bed that night, it occurred to me what it is that’s so familiar about it. Unlike most of the American kids I knew, who had things that were Allowed and Not Allowed, generally for either rational or obvious or because-i-said-so reasons, in our house, with my Very Geman mom, there was the deeply opaque concept of Proper. Or, more to the point, Not Proper. It was virtually guaranteed that anything I wanted to do, right up until I moved out of the house permanently (and indeed for some time afterward – I can’t quite come up with when it disappeared from common usage) would be Not Proper. This included but was by no means limited to:

  • going to unchaperoned parties
  • giggle fits
  • moving in with my boyfriend after I graduated from university
  • befriending people who were Not Proper (which list was something of a moving target itself)
  • drinking in the company of my friends, unchaperoned (drinking at family events and dinner parties was all right and Proper)
  • smoking
  • swearing
  • slouching
  • being unladylike*
  • kissing (until I was about 21, then it just wasn’t discussed. I’m assuming it’s still unladylike)
  • showing off
  • writing insincere Thank You notes (or, heaven forbid, not writing them at all)
  • being late
  • bad table manners
  • folding jumpers improperly
  • not tidying one’s room (and don’t even get me started on the concept of tidy)
  • seeing films that were Not Proper (which had at least as much to do with personal taste as with MPAA ratings)
  • listening (until I was 13 or so) to rock music; after that, a lot of music simply became ‘unladylike’
  • dishevelment
  • sex

* This was an excellent twist – the concept of unladylike could easily have been confused with Not Proper-status (and indeed, everything that was Not Proper was definitely not ladylike either), but there was something else about it – an aesthetic component, governed by my mother’s personal preferences. Therefore, most of the haircuts (and a fair few hair colours) I’ve had for the past 10 years have been unladylike (and by extension Not Proper), as have been many of my favourite clothes, and every pair of platform shoes I ever owned. Though she might have been right about those.

That makes it sound like my childhood was entirely spent struggling to live up to some unattainable standard, sitting in constricting clothing in stiff and straight-backed chairs but I can assure you this is not the case. While Not Proper was a more or less constant presence, it (strangely) didn’t all that often lead to proper punishment. It was more a psychological tool, meant to modify behaviour through guilt (a mother’s best friend), which only sometimes worked. My friends and I looked on it as a hilarious running joke for the most part, and as such, spent quite a good deal of time coming up with ever more inventive improprieties.

So if you need a way to keep your kids in line and you don’t fancy using Common, try Not Proper. With a less extensive history and lower usage, you can probably get away with using it to discourage pretty much anything – and while it might not work, at least it’s a new and different approach. Just don’t try using it on me.