Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Things You Won't Learn in Church

I’ll try to understand You’re out lookin’ for a man But you’re fightin’ ‘em off Just as hard as you can Girl, what you gonna do When I don’t run away with you Maybe finally realize That I’m just passin’ through --Reckless Kelly, “Passin’ Through”[1] It’s often been said that “clothes make the man.” To a certain extent this is true. But it really doesn’t tell the entire story.[2] Assuming this is the case, it can easily be said that I’m not the man I was three years ago. To wit, I’d like to present to you a triptych of images. First, Geds’s closet today: Second, Geds’s closet, circa January 2007 (a dramatization): Third, Geds’s functional wardrobe, circa January 2007 (a dramatization): Now, it’s important to make a few notes on these images. First, some of the clothing in the top image stretches back as far as high school. Every single shirt in that image is “in the rotation,” as I say, to one degree or another. The important thing is, though, that about half of the items in that image came in to my possession in the past year (for my next trick, I’ll be burning my Kohl’s card. Seriously, that thing gets me in trouble). Second, for the final image it’s important to realize that it was pretty much the t-shirts, fleeces, and sweatshirts that mattered, as this was right after I graduated from college and was working at a job that had absolutely no dress code. The few nice shirts depicted were often in a wrinkled heap in a hamper somewhere. Also, there were a few more t-shirts in the rotation at the time, but I have no idea where any of them are now. The point you need to take home from this is that I wasn’t exactly a snappy dresser three years ago. Or, for that matter, a year and a half ago. All of this is what I would call “hard won wisdom.” I was thinking about it today due to a confluence of thoughts on clothes. First, there was my realization yesterday that I could wear a different shirt every day for two months based on what’s in my closet right now.[3] And that just represents the shirts I like. I have a bunch of other stuff that will probably soon be on its way to Goodwill or something. Second, there is this post from yesterday over at Forever in Hell (warning: bewbs), which is a response to a particularly intellectually twisted post with the spectacularly paternalistic title of “How Modesty Helps You” by a guy (more precisely, a sheltered teenage guy) who claims “I am internationally recognized as an expert in the area of how guys see girls (well, not me specifically, but my gender in general)”[4] that gave me any number of bad purity talk flashbacks. Third, I’ve spent a bunch of time around a particularly fascinating (in the train wreck sort of way) member of the female gender since I moved. Let me see if I can bring all of these threads together. I’ve sat through an awful lot of dreary, cookie-cutter sermons about how women should be modest in my life. They often came down to, “Now, girls, don’t wear tank-tops, two-piece bathing suits, or Daisy Dukes, because they’ll make boys want to have sex with you. And when they want to have sex with you they’ll sin and Baby Jesus will cry and it will be your fault.” Let’s leave aside the standard objections people who haven’t spent a lifetime in Evangelical circles usually come up with. Yes, it’s paternalist blame laying. Yes, it ignores the fact that men and boys should be in control of their own urges. Yes, it makes women in to nothing more than sex objects. Yes, it completely ignores the possibility that the female gender might enjoy sex and have their own lust issues to deal with. Yes, it ignores that sex and lust is simply a part (a rather important part, really…) of the human condition. My problem is that the simplistic reasoning of the sermonizer in this case has fuck-all to do with observable reality. There exist in this world women who could parade around in their underwear all day long and never invite lustful thoughts in to my head (there are some who could even go so far as to create disgust). There also exist in this world women who could wear nothing but baggy pants and shapeless sweaters and leave me continually…excited. For that matter, I’m reasonably sure that Shirley Manson will always be one of my Top 20 Sexiest Women of All Time, not because she’s hot (but, seriously, in the ‘90s…day-um. And I’m just gonna go ahead and say that even at, I believe, 44, she’s still got most, if not all, of “it”), but because of the fact that the music created by Garbage drips with sex and it’s Shirley Manson who sells it. Between “Queer” and the last minute fifty of “Hammering in My Head,” let’s just say that I’m Shirley Manson’s for the taking. And the thing is, if you pick another guy at random there’s a reasonably good chance he won’t agree with me. Hell, one of my best friends, with whom I have a running joke that we think with the same brain (because on many, many issues we do) has completely different opinions on the subject of women than I do. It’s actually a running thing. If you name two women we both know/know of who are similar, then ask both of us to pick one, odds are really good that we’ll each pick a different one every single time without discussing it beforehand or hesitating. That’s just how it is. Which brings us to a Tale of Three Girlies.[5] I’ll call the first one Li’l Sis. She was one of my friends out at college. When I first met her I realized that she was pretty much her own worst enemy and tried to help her figure herself out. There was also a bit of the ol’ Christian mentoring going on, so, y’know, there’s that. I never found her to be romantic partner material, but plenty of people did. She was pretty much always on the prowl for a boyfriend, as she was a serial dater and, as I said, her own worst enemy. But in the process she also received an awful lot of unwanted attention from a particular type of guy I’ve taken to referring to as “creepy guys.” They’re generally harmless, clueless, sad sacks who decide, for reasons I could never figure out, that this one particular girl likes them. The part I could never quantify was the way it seemed like some girls like Li’l Sis had a new one every three days while other girls never seemed to get a creepy guy following. Let’s take, for instance, the second girl in my little triptych[6] of profiles. I’ll call her, well, Her. The one thing that always confused me…erm, one of the things that always confused me about that particular relationship was the fact that knowing Li’l Sis often gave me keen insight in to what was going on in Her head (also, that’s a grammatically incorrect sentence, since in this case Her is a proper noun. It should read “in Her’s head.” But that just looks weird). I tended to simply chalk it up to the fact that I found Her attractive while I didn’t find Li’l Sis attractive. This is reasonable enough, but there was the small matter of the creepy guys. There weren’t any following Her around. I always suspected it was based on a single variable. That variable could best be summed up with the notion that Li’l Sis invited the attention, however unwittingly, while She most certainly did not. I had to prove, for all intents and purposes, that I belonged on the same continent as Her before She even bothered to remember my name. That actually worked to my advantage, as I never really had to get particularly jealous. I took Her to a Local H concert one time. After the show I wandered over to the merch table to pick up the demo CD that had recently come out, leaving her alone for a good five minutes. When we re-joined She was smiling. Upon getting in to my car She told me what had just happened. While She was waiting a guy apparently swaggered on up to Her and said, “Hey, I’m Brian.” She looked back at him (and I swear I can still see this exact look to this day. I wasn’t there, but I know exactly what the look was. I call it “smoldering contempt”) and said, “So?” I’ve tended to assume that the main thing that kept me going back to Her was the intoxicating aroma of what I call The Crazy. Because She had it in spades and, for that matter, it was that particular quality that she shared with Li’l Sis. What I now realize is that far, far more than The Crazy, the thing that kept me going back was that air of inaccessibility. She didn’t even notice most guys and took joy in shooting them down with one word and a testicle-shrinking glower, but She claimed to love me. That’s a big effing deal. The problem is that I only had two real data points to work with, so I couldn’t come up with a unifying theory of The Crazy and creepy guys. Then I moved to Dallas and met Carrot[7]. It’s hard to describe, but Carrot is a walking disaster. She’s almost exactly average in appearance and while she’s not fat no one would ever call her thin. She does – to borrow from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s description of Tom’s mistress – manage to carry her extra weight sensuously, as some women are capable of doing. Most importantly, she’s what I have come to refer to as “Garbage sexy,” which will make sense if you just go back up and read my description of Shirley Manson. Oh, and she has The Crazy in spades. Let me see if I can paint a picture in broad strokes. I’ve known Carrot since the beginning of December. In that time she’s had at least one boyfriend who she moved in with sometime in December and broke up with in January when she found out he was cheating on her. She has one stalker that I’ve seen and with whom she’s on surprisingly friendly terms (given that he’s the harmless “creepy guy” variety, but, still, he creeps me out and I’m reasonably certain that, all else being equal, I could break him if I had to fight him). While telling the tale of a different stalker she casually dropped in the phrase, “I had a girlfriend at the time,” then when I forced her to elaborate on that comment she said, “Yeah, I was with her for about two years. She was crazy, though.” There’s approximately a 103% chance she’s pregnant at the moment, which came up when she casually mentioned she had sudden craving for onion rings, which she usually hates, and was eight days late, but she wasn’t too worried since she’d been stressed out. My best summation of the idea of dating Carrot is this: It would be like buying a crotch rocket. The ride would be an absolute blast for that first quarter-mile until you ended up flying head-first in to a wall and killing yourself. The thing is, there is a definite part of me that wants to take that ride. The logical part of my brain says, “No. Fucking. Way.” But the lizard part of my brain says, “Aww, hell yeah!” And it has nothing to do with the way Carrot dresses. It has everything to do with the fact that she throws her sexuality out in to the public spaces for all to see. So now we have three data points. All have The Crazy, all three get their own amounts of attention from guys, but all of them are different in quantifiable ways. And what I’ve realized is that it has to do with is control. She kept (keeps, I suppose) a tightly controlled, unapproachable public image. It was the sort of thing where the vibe She gave was basically, “Back off if you know what’s good for you.” Your average creepy guy is a sad sack who’s looking for a girl, any girl, who makes (or appears to make) the first move. She wasn’t gonna do that. Li’l Sis didn’t control her public image. But, by the same token, she was unaware of the messages she was giving off to guys. As such, she had her fair share of creepy guys. Carrot controls her public image. But her public image pretty much revolves around sexuality. She knows what she’s doing and, to be frank, she’s damn good at it. The only problem is that she’s going to end up with a long and unsatisfying string of loser who want nothing more than to take advantage of her or sad sacks who will gladly let her drain them of their resources. And something tells me she won’t be aging quite as well as Shirley Manson. And, again, clothing has nothing to do with it. Of the Three Girlies there’s absolutely no question that She was the best dressed and the one who most understood what proper dressing meant. The thing is, it was always about appropriateness. Not “appropriate” as in “appropriate for a church picnic,” mind you, but “appropriate for the situation.” And the weird thing is that I owe that two months worth of shirts in my closet to the things I didn’t realize I was learning from Her. The reason I chose January 2007 for my former closet wasn’t arbitrary. There are three stories that explain it. I always assumed I could wear anything I wanted and it wouldn’t matter. I mean, I knew that there was a general sense of appropriateness in clothing. You wear a suit to a job interview, you don’t wear a Hawaiian shirt to a funeral. You know, that sort of thing. But, as I said, for the most part I wore t-shirts or hoodies and complained about dressing in anything more formal. This, for the record, frustrated my mother to no end. But who listens to their mother, really? But, as I said, I have illustrations. 1.) At some point during the first summer, a.k.a. “The good months,” we were going to go mini golfing. I was wearing cargo shorts and a spectacularly not presentable t-shirt when she arrived. The shirt in question is no longer in my possession, as it’s apparently below the level of work out gear in terms of presentability now. I still have two high school gym shirts in my workout gear, if that tells you anything. She was dressed, um, slightly better. As in, skirt, nice top, y’know, like she was about to go out on a date with a guy who wasn’t a slob. At some point during that evening we ended up at my sister and bro-in-law’s house. My sister took one look at us and said to Her, “So do you feel a little overdressed right now?” 2.) At some point I pulled a random red, short-sleeved oxford shirt out of my closet (that can still be an oxford, right? I mean, it’s about the button-down and collar, not the sleeve length, right?). At one point She said, “I’ve never seen that on you. It looks good.” This, I now realize, is what is known as a “hint.” And by, “I now realize,” I literally mean, “About three hours ago when I was taking pictures of my closet I remembered this little vignette and realized, ‘Oh, that was a hint.’” The point may well have been, “You should wear red more often,” too, but, in general, I suspect, “You should dress like a not-slob more often,” was the general gist of the hint. Subtlety is not my strong suit. 3.) Towards the very bitter end of the sad affair something was going on that was really important to her. She wanted me to go and informed me her parents would be there. Now, I’d never met her father, but she pretty much worshipped the ground he walked on. She said – repeatedly, as I recall – that I could not wear jeans to the event. Such was the state of my wardrobe at the time (and, in an entirely unrelated note, I’d put on a couple pounds) that I could find one clean pair of pants and one clean shirt that counted as wearable for the event in question. The only problem was that the pants and shirt in question did not, by any stretch of the imagination, go together. I was also an anti-social snot that night and later attempted to blame it on her, so, y’know, there’s that. But we’re limiting it to a story about clothing right now. A message was sent by the clothing in each of these stories, and it did not at any point have anything to do with sex. The message in stories number 1 and 3 was simple, direct, and to the point. And it was sent by me. I was basically telling her, “I don’t give a shit about what you think or how you feel about the image you’re giving off in public.” This, in fact, reminds me of a fourth, bonus story. At some point the subject of pink shirts came up. I said, in no uncertain terms, that I’d never, ever wear a pink shirt (and, to be fair, even though I have two months worth of shirts I still don’t own a pink one. But I did buy a violet shirt this past weekend). She pointed out that the popularity of the pink shirt was that it was a neutral color and so girls liked it when their guys wore pink because it went with anything. When I scoffed at that idea and said that it just reduced men to an accessory she said, “Well, yeah, that’s what you are.” The reverse objectification, it burns.[8] In the larger context of the discussion of clothing, however, that comment makes a hell of a lot of sense. Because I received three messages from her relating to clothing that all boiled down to, “Could you dress up, please? Y’know, put some effort in.” The crazy thing is that each of the shirts in my closet fits in one or two specific categories. There are about ten that I’d never, ever wear to work. There are only about five or six that I’d wear with a suit and tie. There are eleven (yes, eleven) that look real good with jeans and a blazer. There are about five or six that I consider my go-to shirts, where if I know I need to look and feel good I’m pulling one of those shirts out. A couple of those are from the non-work category, a couple from the suit category, and a couple from the “wear to work on a Tuesday” category. And, when it gets right down to it, I still own a whole bunch of t-shirts I like and I’ll wear if I’m just hanging out. I’ve got some hoodies and fleeces I can throw on if I’m cold. The reason for all of this is because I’ve learned that I send a message with the clothes I wear. That message has nothing to do with modesty and everything to do with appropriateness. -------------------------- [1]On the subject of “passing through,” I notice from Reckless Kelly’s website that they’re going to be at Shank Hall in Milwaukee on April 14th, the High Noon Saloon in Madison on the 15th, and Joe’s on Weed Street on the 16th. I saw Mike Doughty at Shank Hall in October, RCPM at High Noon Saloon at the tail end of Rogtober, as well as Jessi Lynn in August. I’ve seen RCPM at Joe’s, um, four times, I think. I’m suddenly feeling homesick… [2]This is an example of the second-lowest form of the high school paper introduction, close behind “Webster’s Dictionary defines [word] as [semi-cogent dictionary definition of word].” The introductory paragraph of this post exists entirely to justify this footnote, because the idea of tossing this in amused the hell out of me while I was walking to the mailbox. [3]Ironically, I spend a lot of time doing laundry. [4]The only thing worse than that being true (at least in the mind of the guy) is if my suspicions that it’s a terrible, terrible joke that falls completely flat are correct. I mean, as an internationally recognized expert in the area parenthetical thought, I know one of the most important aspects of writing a good parenthetical is to make sure that the subject in the parenthetical at the very least refers back to the subject of the overall sentence, since if it doesn’t your reader is just left wondering things like, “Does ‘my gender in general’ refer back to his use of the word ‘guys’ or is he admitting to a sex change operation (since the other option is that his parents took one look at him and said, ‘That’s one ugly baby girl we have. Let’s call her Benjamin and hope no one notices)?” [5]Offense and/or belittlement not intended. That’s just the only way the title flows. Trust me, I settled on that after three other tries… [6]Apparently “triptych” is the word of the day. My TV and loveseat just started jumping around and screaming. [7]That’s a joke fake name that requires one to know Carrot’s nickname and understand the Byzantine humor of the Geds. But, trust me, I find it hilarious. [8]Also, there are points when I drop the whole “capitalized pronoun” convention when discussing her. Those points are extremely specific. I think it has something to do with re-humanization.


Fake Al Gore said...

I'll only start worrying if you refer to the next woman-worthy-of-mention as "Broccoli."

As for my own closet, I have about 20 business casual button-ups, two pair of slacks, five pair of jeans, and one pair of khaki pants. I keep telling myself I'll buy some better clothes once I lose weight. I've been telling myself that for a couple of years now.

Michael Mock said...

My closet is slowly but surely being taken over by work shirts, since work provides more frequently than I wear them out. I have a selection (not large, but sufficient) to go with them.

I also have a collection of T-shirts, at least some of which date back to college. What I tend to run short on is casual pants: jeans, cargo pants, shorts.

But, yeah: I was also raised to think that "appearance doesn't matter, it's what's inside the counts". As it turns out, this is just as false (and potentially damaging) as thinking that appearance is everything; go too far in either direction and you start missing information.

Geds said...

Fake Al Gore: Crap. You've totally ruined the intro to my next post.

"So I've started seeing this girl. I'll call her 'Maize.'"

Should I start using prototype names for Intel processors, instead?

Michael Mock: Totally. You can't be all surface and no substance, but no surface gets real old after a while.

I've realized that I knew absolutely nothing about women. I mean, I'm not saying I know much now, but at least I know that I didn't know anything then (eat it, Socrates!).

For the life of me I don't know what makes a woman look at a guy and say, "He's really attractive." But what I have figured out is that no matter what that thing is, she does want to be able to feel proud she's with that guy in public, much the same way guys want to show their girls off.

Too many times of standing around cringing because he's dressed like a slob kinda wears the shine off after a while. Or, so I imagine. And if he doesn't take the hint that he should take better care of himself, there's a really good chance she'll decide it's not worth the effort any more.

Fake Al Gore said...

I dated a girl that was obsessed with appearance. She even made me wear cologne to bed. Those were some good times, and I came out with a better sense of style (about which I give not one shit).

If you do wind up naming women after Intel codenames, it will imply that they're as large as small cities, rivers, and mountains. Do you really want to name a girl Gulftown, Sandy Bridge (which sounds like a proper female name already), or Haswell?

The Woeful Budgie said...

She looked back at him (and I swear I can still see this exact look to this day. I wasn’t there, but I know exactly what the look was. I call it “smoldering contempt”) and said, “So?”

Huh. That sounds like something I might've said when I was, oh, maybe eight or nine. Right before my mama slapped me.

Anyway, I used to play the whole "appearance doesn't matter" angle myself, but I think, for me, it was mainly a way of putting a virtuous spin on what could only be called insecurity. The unspoken reasoning was: "If I don't make an effort, people will be used to seeing me as I really am, and won't ever be disappointed". Took me a while to see that viewing myself as inherently disappointing isn't really the healthiest way to go through life...

Funny thing is, for all these modesty/purity types blather about "teaching women self-respect", their mindset was probably the top contributor to the crippling self-consciousness and body shame I carried around. I remember being fed the notion that dressing "immodestly" indicates a lack of self-respect, but really, dressing like you're apologizing for your tits all the time is just the flip side of the same coin. Self-respect is the central issue; clothing is incidental.

Laura over at Red-Headed Skeptic had an interesting post a while back on the topic: apparently, Jessica Simpson originally had tried to get into the Christian music industry, but none of the labels would accept her because, no matter how conservatively she dressed, she was still deemed "too sexy". It didn't matter that her clothes met all the standards for evangelical "modesty"...because her body didn't.

Geds said...

Okay, first things first: things that are said that would get you slapped by your mama are awesome when directed punk guys trying to hit on you at a Local H show. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. Especially, again, from the perspective of the guy she came and left with.

Second, that's crazy stuff about the appropriate female appearance in Brio and whatnot. I don't think I ever thought about choices of flat-chested, small hipped girls as the Christian ideal before. Deeply, deeply strange subculture there...

Michael Mock said...

Yeah, if we're being completely honest... I think I have a certain amount in common with Her. Mainly, the ability to just... shut people down... socially. I just posted one of my favorite Stories From College on my blog, and it's reminded me of just how much I wanted people to go away... and just how thoroughly that was rooted in my own insecurity, the fear that if they even started to know me, they'd want to go away without any prompting. Easier to chase them off preemptively, really...

I have a memory of sitting in a bar in Oxford. Most of the rest of the group is out on the dance floor. One of the girls has come back to the table where I'm sitting/watching/waiting. She has said that she finds me interesting. She says that she'd like to get to know me better.

I said, "Good luck."

She didn't slap me hard, but she still slapped me. And you know what? She was right.

Geds said...

Okay, you know what's truly sad? I've known you have a blog for at least a few weeks. This morning I was still like, "Michael Mock has a blog?"

I'm brilliant...

Also, that is an awesome story.

You made me think about insecurities, though. I think that mine tend to cause me to want to be able to basically predict the future. I try to account for all of the variables and control (or at least control for) all possible outcomes. It's why I wrote a blog post about buying a car that actually had very little to do with buying a car.

However, as a follow-up to that, I've recently become a big fan of the Subaru Outback and Legacy, but they don't come in any trim levels I'd be willing to buy at prices I'd be willing to pay.

But when Honda offers you a 2010 Accord with 0% financing, well, the only appropriate response is, "Can I get an EX-L in blue?"