Archive for February, 2009

The Iron Laws Of Sartorial Splendor

images1As expected, the bible says it best: “Vanity of vanities; all is vanity. 

Once the requirements of necessity are met; the covering of our nakedness, comfort, protection from the elements, think if you can of any plausible reason for attending to your appearance beyond the following two considerations: 

1.     To signify, hold or advance your position in society.

 2.     To get laid. 

I find it difficult to posit any other reasons* for concern about personal appearance that do not fall under those two simple umbrellas. 

This small revelation into the human penchant for adornment, for gilding the lilies of our physical selves, struck me decades ago on a rainy winter’s morning. Like Poincare’s sudden grasping of the mathematical theorem that bears his name. “I was stepping up onto the omnibus, when it came to me,” I was stepping down off a local train when I noticed the variety, narrow as it was, in the raingear of my fellow commuters. This was in the foppish nineteen-seventies, and while tan or beige raincoats dominated, the more stylish proclaimed their presence in black or russet or even among the ladies, white. Aside from the basic London Fogs and their knock-offs, there were even the retro trench-coats from a forgotten war, some with woolen collar liners, and some even had the Burberry belt clips for officer’s equipment. 

This small awakening led me to a conclusion regarding the first part of my Iron Law, the one about status. Again, once necessity is dealt with, all else represents choice, and choice in matters of style becomes statement. This is who I am, or even more important in our own times, this is who I wish to be taken for. 

Going from there, I began to study the clothing choices of my fellow worker bees and drones within the large corporate bureaucracy where I was serving my time. In sorting out the proclaimers of status form the aspirants, I noted that an absence of attention to detail was as much a statement as conscious choice. To not participate was a decision. Those who appeared to take no care in their appearance seemed also to have lost interest in the advancement of their careers. 

While many of the top-tier executives were graduates of Ivy League schools, an outsider if asked to identify the Yalies and Princeton Tigers among us would have probably chosen a couple of the aspirational night-school or day-hop graduates, several of whom  who took more care in appearing preppie than their casually entitled superiors. I can’t remember who coined the phrase about “the imposter defining the type,” but it was applied to a public-school, officer-type like George Orwell who became the compleate working-class bloke. Then there was Irwin Rommel, the lower-middle-class Bavarian as Prussian Junker.  The ambitious up-from-the-ranks guys in my office were significantly   more Ivy than the guys they were imitating. Hmmm. 

As far as Law Two, the sexual imperative: Ask yourself, why do so many   people, particularly men, cease to take care of their appearance as they age? Maybe there isn’t much point to preening when you know you are no longer in the game. As for the lifelong, competitive appearance drive exhibited by so many women, I offer the Van Morrison line that, “the girls go by dressed up for each other.” 

* The only possible dispensation I could grant to the dogmatic rules of appearance goes to the those happy souls who see life as nothing more than a continuing costume party, and array themselves in accordance. 



My Updike Problem

imagesThe Updike tributes in the current New Yorker magazine have left me a bit shaken, in particular the lengthy selection of excerpts from his years of writing. They are so good, so apparently, effortlessly masterful that I can only for a moment say to myself, “that’s it, there’s no point in my continuing on in this conceit that I might in any way, write.”

Several early Updike short stories are vivid parts of my interior landscape. A & P is one. But aside from meeting an affable and courteous John Updike at a Philadelphia Library Author Event, my strongest remembrance of him will remain a short New Yorker piece of several years ago. Writing about his waking up in the night after returning from a long trip away, China as I remember it, he describes his standing alone, downstairs in his newly unfamiliar and darkened house. He reflects upon his awareness of the growing imminence of his own death. Strong stuff, all the stronger for being delivered in his exquisite, elegant, matter-of-fact style.

I had never been able to get into his longer works, one of the Rabbit books was my limit. I have always wondered why, and have chalked it up to a blind spot on my part. But upon reading the Updike obits, I’ve begun to believe that his vision of the world and mine were mutually exclusive in ways that the fluency, the genius of his style couldn’t bridge. I am referring to his support for the war in Vietnam. I can only say that he may have been right and I may have been wrong, but I remain unable to grant him that. And possibly, I sensed that buried inside his literary worldview lay the bases for his acquiescence in, his acceptance of something as catastrophic, irredeemable and nationally self-destructive as that war.

John Updike’s America, while infinitely better explicated than virtually any other, was not and could never be my country.

Crisis? What Crisis?

sb43_090102_140x1051I got cranky last night watching the Super Bowl. Other than the playing of the game itself, the whole self-congratulatory vibe of the NFL has always kind of pissed me off, seeming to exemplify everything that’s gone wrong with this country over the past forty or fifty years. They did have Bruce on at halftime, and last year it was Tom Petty. But last night, awash in the worst a crassly commercial culture can dish out, I couldn’t help but contrast the celebratory hype for so many lousy overblown movies, the outrageously overproduced commercials for sugar-water sodas and the pitches for more outsized, gas-guzzling cars and trucks, all of it against the backdrop of an ongoing economic disaster. It all seemed just so inappropriate, so tone-deaf, so like striking up the orchestra on a sinking ship.

Status Quo Ante Bellum?

images-1It’s easy to forget the shallow Cold War triumphalism, particularly from the American Right, that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Now with free-market economies worldwide in disarray, the words of Juan Goytisolo’s 1993 novel, The Marx Family Saga echo with prescience. 

“…you wanted to show how at the very moment when communism was being buried and the system was bankrupt, when [Marx]’s doctrines had really been discredited and the whole world was submitting either willingly or of necessity to the harsh law, but law all the same, of monetarism and the free market, the so-called leap forward was simultaneously a leap backward, things had returned to their point of departure…four-fifths of the world lived in dire poverty, millions of children were staving to death in the midst of saurian or reptile indifference, encouraged by its victories and the death of its enemy the capitalism that ruled over Europe and America was still, as its most lucid critics admitted, savagely destructive, based on immediate profit-taking and the jettisoning of civic responsibilities, and while aggressive nationalism, inter-ethnic struggles and racial cleansing spread from the underdeveloped world into the heartlands of Europe, you were all witness in your impotence to the waste of absurd military budgets, to the pillaging of nations and entire continents, to the systematic devastation of the planet, its polluted seas and sickly forests!” 

For the above quote, thanks to Terry Pitts and his blog site Vertigo: Collecting & Reading W. G. Sebald at