I feel like a sausage. Like fatty meat squeezed into a sheath, praying the sides don’t split open. But of course they won’t. This is intended. This is supposed to look good.
Susan and I are counter-culture. By that I mean we ignore societal norms. Not in a contrived “if it’s popular, I won’t do it” sort of way. Our counter-culturalism comes naturally. We each have our reasons—speaking for myself: I’m lazy. I’m frugal. I hate shopping. I simply can’t be bothered to keep up with the Joneses. To the point where it easily becomes noticeable.
Cell phones: I won’t get one. I’ve had one in the past, twelve years ago. I hated carrying it. Susan has one, a pay-as-you-go, no data plan. She rarely has it with her. Our Hair: we’re both gray. Not so unusual for a man in his mid-fifties, but for a woman in her mid-forties? Years ago, Susan got sick of coloring it, of adding highlights to mask the gray. She let it grow out, and now it’s her signature look. One of the things (I think) that makes her more beautiful than the next woman. Television: we have one. That’s about as far as it goes. I can’t even bring myself to settle in and watch the Olympics. Watching a TV set feels like a complete waste of time. Susan watches about six minutes more TV each week than I do.
Communication, appearance, entertainment: we’re different from those around us.
One of those norms I buck is popular clothing. I will wear name-brand clothes—Adidas, Under Armour, Nike—t-shirts with a prominently displayed logo, but I don’t seek them out. I’ll buy them if their cheap… and comfortable. Which is rare. Typically, I’ll find these buried in the deep-clearance box near the end of the winter, after they’ve been marked down six times. The crap no one else wants. That’s pretty much how I select all of my clothing.
My casual wardrobe is comprised of Gap “Classic Tees”. Plain, cotton t-shirts. They fit me well; they last a couple of years; they look good with jeans. People pay sixteen dollars for these. I won’t. Annually, they go on sale for five dollars each. If I happen to stumble upon this sale, I’ll by six of them. And move my last batch to the weekend pile—the clothes I wear when doing yard work or if I’m painting something.
Thrifty? Cheap? One of these. My shirt budget averages out to about fifteen dollars a year. So it drives me nuts when one of my kids wants to go to a single-brand retailer to buy overpriced clothes. But this is how I spent one Friday night a year and a half ago.
Eli had been wanting turtleneck shirts. I wear them around the house all winter: ratty old things, frayed at the neck. Stained and baggy. Bought from LL Bean in the 1990s. But they keep me warm in the winter. He thought he would like two or three. I suggested Target. Eye-roll, head-shake, frown! The only store he was willing to consider was Under Armour. We looked on-line and saw that their turtlenecks are about fifty dollars each. He said: “No, those are the adult shirt prices. Kids’ shirts will be much cheaper.”
An hour later, I was in my sausage outfit. Trying on a compression shirt as a goof. Eli had already tried on the turtlenecks, they were uncomfortable. They were too tight. This makes sense. He won’t wear jeans because they feel restrictive. Why squish into a Kevlar turtleneck.
I exited the dressing room to a round of laughter—Eli, Sophie, even Susan. My compression shirt: I wasn’t pulling it off.
There’s an oddly funny scene in Pulp Fiction: After accidentally splattering themselves with blood, John Travolta and Samuel Jackson change into clean outfits provided by Quentin Tarantino’s character, Jimmy. These outfits are exactly the sort of thing I’d wear. T-shirt, shorts, sandals. Jackson looks OK in his outfit, but Travolta looks like an idiot. “A dork” is the term Jimmy uses in the film. “You look like a couple of dorks.” I disagree. Jackson didn’t look like a dork, Travolta did. Just like I looked like a dork in my compression shirt.
So why is this. Why can’t Travolta pull off a look that millions of less attractive, middle aged men get away with daily? Why can’t I pull off a compression shirt? I’m certainly fit enough. Low body fat, muscular in a wiry way. I frequently see less fit people wearing these shirts at the gym. They look fine. Maybe a bit uncomfortable (to me), but not idiotic, not dorky. No one is laughing at them.
I’m misshapen—broad back, sloping shoulders. An active, athletic life with poor posture. My left shoulder is a couple of inches less wide than my right. Rebuilt after a serious bicycle accident. These things might matter in a skin-tight shirt. Or maybe not.
I look better in my clothes—Tarantino’s clothes—than Travolta does. John Cusack only looks good in a suit. Evel Knievel pulls off the big-collar-jumpsuit. Elvis did too. No one else does. Susan makes her gray hair work. Me? Gap Tees seem to look good on me. Oh, and Old Navy cotton sweaters in the winter. That’s what I wear to work. My style: Suburban Dad Dull.
I recently heard my daughter talking with her friend Eva about mirrors and photos. Eva prefers seeing herself in the mirror. She finds something disturbing about seeing herself as others do. In this world of non-stop selfies, I would think these teenagers would be comfortable with their photographed image. But the thing about mirrors is we always get to pose. We get to subconsciously present ourselves in the way we think looks best.
When I was seven, my parents gave me a tape recorder for Christmas. My older brothers and I each said something into the microphone. When we played back the tape, all three of us argued “That’s not what I sound like!” But of course it was. We have a mental image of who we are, and it probably doesn’t match what others see. Yes, we do the work to create the image that others expect from us, but what we present and what they see isn’t the same person.
When I go to my therapist’s office, I ride past two large plate-glass windows. One is the side of a Subway restaurant, and the other is the entryway to a fire house. In each section of my ride, I get to look at my reflection as I fly by on my fixed-gear bike. These images are the highlight of my trip. When I see myself cruising past, I’m certain I look cool. No, bad-ass. I look Bad-Ass. And it doesn’t matter to me that sometimes, when I bump into coworkers out on the street while riding my bike, they sometimes chuckle a little. “Look at the old dude on his bike…” My self-image is the only image I really care about.
The last TV show I watched with any regularity was How I Met Your Mother. In one episode, Ted buys himself a pair of red cowboy boots. His friends think they look ridiculous. But Ted views himself differently, and he keeps on wearing them. Eventually, he visits a “Gay Couple Without Kids” for their impression. Their opinion counts—they get the final word in the argument—because of their “impeccable taste and style.” When Ted gets his GCWOC report on his boots, he learns he is “Pulling. Them. Off.”
I never got a compression shirt. I agree with my family, it looked silly on me. Eli didn’t get one either. He wound up getting a red zipper-up track-suit jacket from the Under Armour store (on sale). That jacket became his signature look for the next eighteen months.