Saturday, June 30, 2012
KNOCKING DOWN APPEARANCES
Rose B. Thorny Copyright 2012
I have a confession. I was a sucker for a three-piece suit.
It was a long time ago and I was young and naïve and I bought into what I’d been spoon-fed from the cradle – that clothes make the man.
Not just the man, of course. The woman, too… and the child. Appearances were everything.
Even “play clothes” were to be kept as clean as possible. Grass stains on knees were a reason to call out the militia and were guaranteed to end the playtime outdoors. Grass and mud stains meant more work that needed to be attended to immediately, and were, therefore, a huge imposition on an already overworked housewife. In retrospect, though, I realized that the important part, to my mother, was getting the stain out to return the offending garment to its previously pristine condition. It must look fresh and new. Nothing must ever look as if it was actually old, or worse, *used.* Old and used meant poor, and poor was anathema to her.
It was always like that, to the point where, without realizing it until much later in my life, there was constant, underlying stress about getting any clothes soiled, or worse, damaged by a rip, or a tear, or a pulled thread. It was difficult for me to really cut loose and have unbridled fun, when there was always the danger of getting my clothes dirty and damaging them, possibly irreparably. Walking on eggshells is the perfect metaphor. Bruises fade and cuts and scrapes heal, but stains last forever and everyone can see them if you can’t get them out. That was what I learned young.
It was like that as far as other people were judged, too. They were sized up on how they dressed. Were they neat and tidy? Were their clothes spotless? Were the suits obviously expensive? Were the creases in the trousers pressed to a knife edge?
Men in suits and ties, wearing starched white shirts, were admired. They were successful and, thus, respected.
I wasn’t alone in being raised this way, of course. Other kids, the “Boomers” who grew up in the 50s and 60s, were fed this almost religious doctrine of appearance, though possibly for different reasons. In high school, the “tech” guys – the boys, who took shop as an option, and worked on cars and other mechanical equipment, or on cabinetry and woodworking – were called “greasers,” and the nice girls, the good girls, wouldn’t have much to do with them. At the time, it seemed that many of the boys in the arts and science courses looked down on the ST&T (science, trade and technology) guys. Those guys would become “the workies,” labourers. They’d be the mechanics, who only fix cars for a living, or work on construction sites. They’d pursue trades and be plumbers and electricians and house builders and they’d get their hands, as well as their clothes, dirty.
My father was a chef in a fine restaurant. He wore his whites and they’d get stained and smudged and splattered during the course of his work day. (He was a real chef, by the way, not one of those arrogant, spoiled, angry, bellowing blowhards on the egregiously misnamed “reality” cooking shows.)
My mother loved him dearly, and I do believe that she was sincerely proud of him and his accomplishments. It wasn’t easy being an immigrant in a new country, but he worked hard. He was the breadwinner and that counted for a lot, and he was crazy about her. She always made sure that when he went to work, on the buses and the subway, that he was dressed in a suit and starched white shirt. At work, he’d change into his work uniform. I didn’t see anything wrong with this, and I still don’t, but it became an obsession with her, this appearance of monetary wealth, when that type of wealth wasn’t part of the equation.
What I remember most clearly, though, was how, in later years, after he retired and joined an opera chorus, she would positively beam with pride, when, for concert appearances, he would dress up in his best suit, polished black shoes, bow tie with a matching handkerchief just showing in the breast pocket, and a carnation in his lapel. This was her ideal of how a man *should* look. This was the appearance of the romantic hero, the one to which she ascribed, and the one she taught her daughters to seek.
After my father died, and even before, the photo my mother kept of him, in an honoured, place, reminiscent of a shrine, even while he was alive, was of him posed and dressed to the nines, before a concert. It was a lovely gold-framed photo, and we fulfilled her request that it be buried with her. I have a print of it, somewhere, but it isn’t the photo of my Dad that I keep handy.
My favourite photo of my Dad is a candid one. I had my camera with me, poised and ready to shoot, when I visited one day, and surprised him working in their backyard. The photo captures him wearing a canvas fishing hat, a favourite, long-sleeved T-shirt, casual work pants, and he’s holding a rake. I called to him and he looked up and smiled, waving at me. I snapped the photo that best reflects the relationship he and I had – casual, laid back, without pretense.
When I was a mere 18, I was fooled by the suited look. I met a man – an older man of 22 – who was talented and brilliant, and handsome to boot. If you wanted to cast Christian Grey of “Fifty Shades of Grey,” fame, and had a time machine, you could abduct this guy in 1969 and not look any further for your – *ahem* – “romantic hero.” He was a classically-trained musician on his way to becoming “somebody” and, as I recall, he didn’t have calluses on his hands. Always impeccably dressed, most often in well-tailored three-piece suits, with nary a stain in sight, I was completely taken by him. I fell head over heels, and my mother thought he was the cat’s ass. He was a take-charge kind of man and demanded much of those who sought to curry his favour. So commanding, but in a way that seemed so damned admirable. I saw everything on the surface there was to see. He was sophisticated and articulate, vibrant and breathtaking. I heard the charming, lovely words and the grand talk of a romantic affair and I was seduced. I use the word “seduced,” because that is the word of romantic, erotic liaisons. It’s the word used by romance writers.
The word I really mean is suckered. I was sucked in by the *appearance* of beauty and the sound of the words I’d always heard in romance movies, the movies I’d grown up watching and believing, though, admittedly, I never got into reading romance novels. (There just wasn’t enough hot sex in them, for my tastes, when I was of that impressionable age to read them.)
And that is when I learned the lesson of being fooled by appearances. That is when I realized just how big a lie the romance movies were. Oh, they’re pretty enough to look at. After all, that’s the whole point of them. Make it all look as pretty as possible. Grow that fantasy. Make the man handsome, and preferable rich, and the woman beautiful. Make him a doctor, or a lawyer, or a leader of industry, a man of business, or a wealthy magnate. Even a struggling writer will do, as long as it’s a sure bet he’ll inherit from an estranged father at some point in the story, but he must have clean hands and clean clothes. No auto mechanics or plumbers or electricians or short-order cooks need apply.
I have to admit that I did a bit of knee-jerk thing after that ersatz romance fiasco. Upon being dumped, like so much trash, after giving up what I’d foolishly always believed I would be saving till my wedding night (also for the sake of certain appearances that had been drummed into me), and following the initial entertainment of fantasies involving myriad methods of revenge, bloody and otherwise, I assimilated the data and drew the preliminary conclusion: Don’t trust a suit. I saved the in-depth analysis for much later – ascertain *which* suits you can trust and which ones you should avoid like the plague they are – but in the nonce, I simply went with “Never trust a suit again.”
Despite the extreme response at the time, it was a still a good lesson learned. For all the angst and devastated ego, humiliation and self-loathing, rage at him for being such a shithead and at myself for being so incredibly stupid, I weathered the emotional shit-storm that was the fallout of that ill-fated liaison. I have, ever since, resisted the lure of the three-piece suit, and other superficial clothing, both real and metaphorical.
It isn’t always easy. I see an elegantly-dressed man, neatly coiffed and looking all sophisticated and there’s that momentary feeling of, “My, isn’t he something,” and just that thought itself is enough to remember that it can all so easily be a total lie.
If someone seems just a little too smooth, a little too seductive, a little too charmingly arrogant, a little too magnetic with acolytes fluttering around him (I’m talking about men here, because I never really trusted women anyway even when I was young and *knew* how phony they can be) like besotted moths, fawning and praising, my brain superimposes that little, yellow toxic materials warning symbol on him.
My mother always adored my boyfriends best when they were all dressed up and looking suave and immaculate. When the man, who would become my husband (we’ve been together almost 39 years now and married for almost 38) showed up at our door for our first real date (we’d met at the drop zone when I took up parachuting), he was wearing blue jeans, a black T-shirt, and Adidas, his long copper-red curls cascading to his shoulders and complementing his mustache and beard. He was looking just a little dusty, even after washing up and blowing off the accumulated crud of a hard day’s work in the bodyshop. (He worked nearby, but lived a good distance away, so he didn’t have time to go home first.) I didn’t have to be Sherlock Holmes or Miss Marple to ascertain that my mother was not exactly overwhelmed by his appearance, but I really didn’t care. I *knew* what I was seeing. I was looking at a good man, hard-working, honest and true, reliable and loyal, with a droll sense of humour and a taste for adventure. On top of that, it didn’t take me long to find out he was brilliant and talented as well; well-read, self-educated way beyond the grade 10 level at which he was forced to drop out of school, and loved classical music. Not bad for a guy who didn’t *appear* to be son-in-law material as far as my mother was concerned. Some part of me *knew,* even in those first few encounters that this was a man who would not be fooled by appearances. I was right. And I was lucky. And I’ve never seen him in a suit. He doesn’t even own one.