Time keeps on slipping, and I’m content to slide, skidding sideways into the uncertainty of tomorrow and tomorrow, but sometimes the rituals and obligations of presumptive adulthood grate on me as I hit the rough surfaces along the way. Circumstance has dictated that I need a semi-formal outfit of clothes, and so, after a few frustrating weeks of trying on countless sport coats, slacks, and ensembles in realms from the lowest thrift stores to the loftiest of fine retailers of menswear, I finally found a basic, serviceable suit for slightly less than I’ll be getting back in my tax return this year.
This ought to be a satisfying purchase, but in all honesty, I feel cross and resentful that I’m caught up in adulthood’s grotesque pageantry. It’s not the responsibility, as I have been a legitimate, self-sustaining, reasonably functioning adult since I put down the princely sum of one hundred five dollars for my room in a grim basement apartment on the shaggy side of a college down and emancipated myself forcefully from the comfort of youth at the tender age of seventeen. It’s not the nuance, either, as I’m all for a level of subtlety in my affectations, as evidenced by my continual evolution in the realm of facial topiary and my music-making efforts, which have become so detailed in their studied stillness as to be practically indistinguishable from near-silence.
I don’t mind looking older than I am, or manifesting the scars and marks and bristling late-life hairy patches that come from a life of bumps and scrapes, and I don’t mind that I look to the news and can’t, for the life of me, identify celebrities that the talking heads indicate is an A-list VIP. Music in genres that ring no bells comes and goes, and that’s okay, as I’ve got a lifetime of organized sound in my collection. I haven’t read the hot new author, or watched the exciting new film, or followed the thrilling new series on the television, and that’s okay, too.
I’m insulated from one of the key elements of supposed maturation in that I do not have, and never will have, children, and that, too, is fine. I enjoy the energy and presence of my nieces and nephews and the children of friends, and enjoy being able to bid them a fond adieu and return to my small apartment and my dogs. The ugly conservatives of the world would be only to happy to point out that I’m somehow more prone to the excesses of narcissistic selfishness in this regard, but I’m secure in my knowledge that I am no more likely to live exclusively for myself than anyone else by virtue of who and what I am. How I relate to the world is my own responsibility and it is a chore that I take seriously.
So I stood in the focal range of five mirrors, caught up in a funhouse view of myself as I struggled to seem remotely comfortable in a perfectly handsome charcoal grey suit that appeared to fit properly, even as it did what suits always do, limiting the range and expressiveness of my moves and gestures.
“What if I need to do this?” I asked the saleswoman, raising both hands in the air and waving them like I just didn’t care.
“Will you be doing that very often?” she asked in response.
“Probably not, but knowing I can’t will make me want to even more.”
She smiled a very solicitous smile, but couldn’t come up with a response. I know, on some level, that she was making a mental note, but I get a lot of that, and it, too, is okay. It’s just—well, I hate these damn things. I don’t mind formality, but I chafe against the reality that puts a formal woman into what can be a lovely, flowing, comfortable thing and puts a formal man into a restraint.
I have worn formalwear a handful of times in the past twenty years. For my twentieth high school reunion, I bought a lovely suit at a thrift store and tailored it myself to make me look to be in far better shape than nudity would reveal. Having put on a few pounds, I hurriedly bought a sport coat for the memorial service for my uncle, but the sleeves were too long and I attempted to cover this by engineering reasons to extend my arms, thus bringing the cuffs to a more appropriate position on my forearm, though in retrospect, I think I ended up looking more like a questing Frankenstein’s monster or a sleepwalker than a formal funerarian.
In a way, it’s down to some of the things I reject about adulthood, which leaves me with few places to tread the boards in my fancypants. As a wayward thirteen year-old, I reveled in my peculiar friendship with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti by wearing the jacket from the navy blue doubleknit suit, purchased so I could attend my best friend’s bar mitzvah without embarrassing myself, over my shoulders, Italian-style, like a cape. I did my best to gesture appropriately and to affect a throughly continental manner until my stylish excesses got me sent to the vice principal’s office.
“Mrs. Wall, Joe’s come up with a new one,” my beleaguered sparring partner in the office said, speaking to my mother on the telephone. “He’s been wearing a blazer to school over his shoulders, claiming to know the composer Gian Carlo Menotti and otherwise acting all Italian.”
“Well, Joe does know Gian Carlo Menotti,” my mother said to a rather surprised middle school vice principal, and I think it may have been one of her few pleasantly smug moments in three years of difficult parent-teacher relations. “I’ll ask him to tone it down, though.”
The rest of the time, I just don’t get it. I could probably be more secure and more solvent if I surrendered to the middle-age middle-class office world, where the foot soldiers of the mundane clomp around in formation in service to the almighty fear of difference, but those clothes and those roles make me feel panicky and sick, and the tension builds until I want to roll around the floor of the cubicle farms clawing at my straightjacket.
I don’t go to weddings, and I’ve pretended that it’s because I’m protesting the lack of equal treatment for all of us in marriage, but to be fair, I have to admit that I just hate them. I hate the rituals, the showy repetition of stupid cutesy little obligations that are part and parcel of the event, and the horrid ridiculousness of a big show that exists partly to shut our parents up and partly because we’re all brainwashed into believing that a relationship that’s rooted in our love and trust and adoration for another person requires validation by the masses. More than all that, I think you have to be a complete and utter imbecile to spend the absurd amounts of money that people flush down the toilet at the start of their couplehood instead of putting it into a down payment for a house, a certificate of deposit, or—god forbid—something more charitable, like having a well dug for a village in Africa.
Throughout my life, I have often felt like an anthropologist from another planet, largely because a lot of givens get lost on me. I don’t get sports, particularly in the sense that we start off in our youth in the wild, joyous hurly-burly of actual play and end up in our constrained adulthood perched in front of television sets, cheering as someone else plays, and then fuss about how out of shape we are. I don’t get hypercharged regionalism, nationalism, or yellow dog partisanship, complete with all the pomp and circumstance of lifeless repetition that goes along with these things. What’s wrong with a player of one, on the team of the whole planet?
We doll ourselves up for church, too, and like the airy cookie-cutter splendor of weddings, I’m just confused by it all. I don’t wonder why I’m here, and the meaning of life isn’t a mystery to me. We’re here to make meaningful lives, and lives are meaningful when we give back more to the world than we’re given. When we can see ourselves in others, it becomes harder and harder to be selfish. I don’t need to sit in a pew to know this, trapped in an itchy suit. Where I need to change is in holding myself to a higher standard each day, and my history recounts that I’ve done this, and continue to do so. I suspect I’d understand it all better if I believed I was a wicked sinner in need of special redemption, but alas, I don’t believe that. When I need insight, I can read the Tao Te Ching or the Bible or the Dhammapada, or better yet, I can look to the people that I know who live lives of virtue and ask myself how I can better follow their example. No jacket required for any of that.
Still, I’m not completely insulated from the instincts and strictures of fashion. The sight of a grown man in flip-flops always makes me wrinkle my nose a bit, and public appearances of home horrors like sweatpants, droopy drawers, and outfits that function more like billboards for a product you already paid for just make me sneer. I think in a way, given my druthers, I’d turn into a bit of an iconoclastic dandy like my late poet friend, David Franks, who was generally someone you could describe as “dapper” without exaggeration, but when you price out the admission fee for dapper—sheeeeeeeesh. Who can manage that without already being wealthy?
Maybe I’m just annoyed that I’ve embraced so much of what is great about adulthood for so long that I don’t feel like I should have to play the signs and symbols game. If I ever get married, it’s going to be in a courthouse. If I feel compelled to flaunt my couplehood, I’ll rent a pavilion in the state park and have a pot luck with all my friends and loved ones. If I die, I want no ridiculous funeral of weeping folks in scratchy formalwear—I just want my ashes scattered somewhere nice. The moon would be a good place, come to think of it.
The rest of the time, I’m content with the way that age and maturity make things better every day, even as I find it harder and harder to deny the uglier sides of being human. There’s a richness to things I’ve treasured for as long as I can remember that just expands with experience. Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring, a piece of music I’ve loved since I was a freshly minted teen, just gets broader and more amazing with every passing year. The films The Red Balloon meant so much to me as a kid, and means more now. Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory? Oh my. I don’t understand why the uniform of our latter years is so restrictive, though, other than the conservatism of the grand old gestalt, but I’ll be goddamned if I’m going to keep my arms down because adulthood is supposed to be a sober, taciturn time in our lives.
Maybe I just need to wave my arms in that perfect flail that Kermit the Frog taught me so very, very long ago, and maybe a fitted suit jacket is going to make that moment even more ridiculous, but a frog’s gotta do what a frog’s gotta do.
© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall