“Tonight’s the night when I go to all the parties down my street. I wash my hair and I kid myself I look real smooth” ¹
When my dad reached his mid-eighties, he remarked one day about what a shock it was to look in the mirror and see this old man staring back at him. I asked what he expected to see instead. He thought for a moment and said, “a little boy.” We both laughed at that. A few minutes later, though, he changed his answer to a middle-aged man instead. I suspect he was looking for that best version of himself.
Don’t we all do that to some extent? Isn’t there a fixed self-image that we each have, which we then mentally choose to be our face to the public?
I’m not suggesting a kind of British “stiff upper lip” concept here, but an actual physical look that, at least in our own minds, is presented to the outside world. Of course, this can run the gamut from low-self-esteem to sheer narcissism. You and I, dear reader, are somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, of course.
I thought about all of this recently when I took stock of my own appearance. With more than a dose of sheepishness, I noticed a couple of weeks ago that I have “inadvertently” morphed into a state of dishevelment. Not enough for strangers to walk up and offer to buy me a sandwich, but enough to realize that maybe I’ve gone a wee bit too far in my pursuit of that carefree, early retirement vibe. There are probably limits in how far one should go… in letting themselves go.
So how did this happen? And just as important, how do I go about correcting it? Should I even correct it? After all, it’s the inner me that’s most essential, right?
The first question is pretty easy to answer: I’m as content as a pig in mud right now. I’m also very grateful to not have to think about dressing “correctly” at daybreak anymore. It feels as if its been light years since I had to worry about which tie goes with which shirt, under which suit, and with what pair of shoes. Let’s also not forget those special moments when I specifically chose brown socks, only to discover while sitting cross-legged at a mid-afternoon meeting that they were in fact blue. There’s no more of that kind of nonsense. In the last few years my wardrobe has mostly consisted of jersey shirts with jeans or cargo shorts. Casual Friday? Nope, more like Permanent Saturday.
My initial flourish after retiring was to drastically cut my hair and convert to a classic brush cut. I was going for a 1950’s “Biff” persona. This look didn’t win me any GQ awards but that was sort of the point. I was no longer a working professional. It felt good to shed the whole grooming routine of comb, brush, hair gel, and mirrors — especially those mirrors. Come to think of it, perhaps I do tilt slightly to the insecure on that self-image spectrum after all. But no matter: I had created my initial Florida image and presented to the world.
After about a year, I decided it was time to have to a full head of hair again (my apologies to the bald men out there who view this as rather cavalier on my part). This period also coincided in a very convenient way with my getting a part-time job and returning to work as a law librarian. Unlike the more august federal government settings of my career, this job was at a county public law library. Wearing jeans was completely appropriate when paired with a nice button down, open-collard shirt and comfortable shoes. From a sartorial standpoint, It felt more like returning to college rather than an actual job.
Slightly less than a year later, Gorgeous and I moved to St. Augustine to buy a home and settle in permanently. By a stroke of good luck, my boss asked me to manage a few accounts of hers at some Jacksonville law firms. One day a week I maintain the law libraries at a handful of firms all within walking distance of one another. At first I assumed this meant that I would need to dress formal again, or at least wear dress pants along with a shirt and tie. And so for my first two months I did just that. Slowly, however, I noticed two things: (1) most of the male lawyers at each firm were dressed quite casually, and (2) I was as unhappy as a pig in a sterilized room.
One day I made a point to ask one of the admin staff, with whom I had developed a friendly rapport, if she thought it would be okay if I dressed slightly more casual. Her answer was declarative: “pfft, uh… yeah!“ That was all I needed to hear. The following week I put on tan jeans and a short-sleeve button down shirt. My consolation to formality was a comfy pair of Docker loafers. My admin friend gave me a wave and a hearty thumb’s up when I arrived at the office. To me that was good as gold.
And so it went for a few more months.
And then winter arrived.
This past winter the east coast of the U.S. suffered from an intense cold snap. Florida wasn’t spared, and sweaters, coats, and gloves were omnipresent for a few weeks in January and February. Without even really thinking about it, I went into work one of those days wearing blue jeans, a flannel shirt, and sneakers. No one said a word; I was just that part-time dude who comes and goes according his own schedule. Gorgeous raised an eyebrow or two each time I left for work, but I stayed with pretty much the same ensemble even as the weather began to return to mild temperatures again, sans flannel.
Finally a couple of weeks ago, while using the men’s room, I did what I rarely ever do anymore: I looked in the mirror. Not unlike my father’s earlier reaction to his own image, I was shocked to see this completely unkempt, late-middle-aged man staring back at me. My shirt was hanging out on one side, my jeans were ill-fitting, and my hair was giving the younger Lyle Lovett some serious competition.
I looked like hell.
This was my wake-up call. I most definitely was not looking at the best version of myself. In fact, I was mortified at just how far I had gone from an earlier period when I was way more fastidious.
The very next day I got a haircut. I also made an extended visit to my closet and started tossing clothes that are clearly no longer worth keeping. The 2000’s are long past, but according to my wardrobe someone forgot to tell me.
As the budget allows, I’m making a point of visiting clothing stores in search of updating myself. For instance, out with some of the cargo shorts and in with more dressy replacements. Gorgeous always dresses like a million bucks every time we step out, so maybe it’s time to stop the caricatures of Beauty and the Beast.
In the meantime, call me a work in progress. And yes, that might be a little hair gel you’re seeing. What of it?
Until next time…
¹ Joe Jackson, “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” From the “Look Sharp!” album (1979).