Writing Calisthenics

AvatarA collection of short stories, essays, and exercises to keep my brain from rusting between larger works.

Dangerous Clothing

It's been a decade since I last cared about the way I dressed.  It was a difficult decade, one that lasted much longer than the usual ten years and one I fear may not be over.  They were years marked; scraped bloody then healed over with the fibrous scar of a burn.  They were years of loud and one-sided compromise where the very idea of improvement was trampled underfoot by the grinding endurance required to just stay afloat.      Looking back, it seems less and less of a coincidence that I took up the marathon during this time.  Turning that emotional perseverance into something physical provided evidence of accomplishment I could feel with my hands.  Medals and race bibs were material things that had substance, things that I could hold onto and say with certainty that stamina and persistence produced results.  In a time marked by hopelessness and alienation, running created its own light.
    As I ran, I lost weight, I gained strength, and my body changed, though never enough to overcome the betrayal of premature baldness I'd carried since my teens.  But the more I ran, the further and further the bright spots grew apart: ten miles away this week, twelve miles next, sixteen, twenty.  With each success came even more failures: injury, fatigue, and missed goals.  I pushed harder and broke down more often until I literally could not run any more.  For the first time since I'd started running, I gave up during a race.  As a runner, this is what defines failure: DNF.  Did not finish.
    Something was wrong.  I was proud of what I had accomplished — too proud in retrospect — but there was always another goal that hadn't been reached.  There was always an accomplishment I hadn't achieved.  I was defining happiness outside of myself.  Instead of doing the things that I knew would make me happy, I was trying to make my happiness fit into those things that others said I should be happy with.
    I was stoic.  I was long-suffering.  I was unwaveringly loyal.  I reached each goal regardless of cost, and I was miserable.  I invested so much in fulfilling someone else's dreams that I couldn't enjoy the simplicity of being me; I didn't enjoy the now.  Happiness was something I would deserve when I finished my first marathon, and yet when I got there it wasn't enough.  Now it would be something I would deserve when I finished in under four hours.  Then it would be mine when I qualified for the Boston marathon. 
    I couldn't grasp the simple concept that I could make choices that would let me be happy just because I was alive.  Happiness was something to be doled out in dribs and drabs.  It was a pill called vacation I would take in mountain, ocean or desert form for a week or two a year; an anti-depressant agent to fight the demoralizing flatlands of the Midwest.  Happiness was a night on the town every few months when the good shirt would come out of its plastic laundry bag, and for just an evening or an afternoon I would be an actor instead of part of the set.
    Not that there was a closet full of clothes waiting to be worn.  For that decade my wardrobe was at the mercy of gifts.  I wore pants bought at Kohl's for 70% off with no one in particular in mind.  I wore shirts bought in twos and threes for sons and son-in-law alike.  More than one Christmas or summer reunion photo has a brother-in-law and I an embarrassed book-end distance apart.  For work it was vendor shirts and khaki pants.  Microsoft and Cisco figured in my wardrobe as much as any designer's name.  Casual clothing was button-fly jeans, a race t-shirt, and worn out running shoes.  There was little of me in the way I dressed.  My wardrobe consisted entirely of things given to me as a token reward for being a serviceable husband, son-in-law, customer, or runner.
    It wasn't long after my DNF that I stopped running and started writing.  I had tried writing once before and was so disappointed that it was twenty years before I worked up the courage to try again.  An undergraduate in English literature had convinced me that the only voices worth listening to were Faulkner and Papa Hemingway.  It took twenty years to understand that I could express myself in my own way and be happy with it.  I could generate my own bright spots from within: while I was writing; while I was thinking about writing; while I was learning to engage the world not as something that happens to me, but as something I wished to actively participate in.
    It was shortly after I started writing that I found myself in Las Vegas wandering aimlessly through miles of shops.  Without being aware of it, I had stopped in front of "Ben Sherman's" and found myself looking through the window at a shirt and smiling.  I went in, asked for the shirt, and tried it on.  It was a simple pleasure, but as I looked in the mirror, a child-like happiness filled me with the unexpected joy of forgotten music.  The shirt was me.  It was a little silly, a little serious, and a little foreign.  For the first time in a long time I was wearing something that described me without defining me.  It was my favorite kind of clothing: the kind where when you wear it around people you know for the first time, they assume you've always owned it.  The price tag made me hesitate, but only for a moment.  Somewhere I had already made that dangerous decision that regardless of the cost, it would be worth it.
    I started replacing my wardrobe one or two pieces at a time.  Serviceable clothes went to Goodwill, the rest became rags or dust cloths.  This change wasn't just about the way I looked though, and it wasn't just about comfort.  I was learning to take pleasure in the details of the everyday, and was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with those details which were perfunctory or utilitarian or just plain expected.  There was something civilized about wearing t-shirts made with collars that didn't droop and fabric that didn't chafe like steel wool with moisture.  I was pleasantly surprised at how refined it felt to pull up a pair of quality socks.  These were simple things, but they made me feel good; about myself, and in an odd way, about the people around me.  When I dressed nicely, I felt less alone, less invisible.  I was no longer anonymous.
    There is nothing metaphorical about the cost of that change though.  Nicer clothes are expensive.  While I still can't tell the difference between a twelve dollar pair of briefs and a fifty-five dollar pair, I can definitely feel the difference between a twelve dollar pair and a pack of ten-for-twelve-dollars pair.  Perhaps not tomorrow, but today that difference is worth every penny.  Still, those pennies come from somewhere.  Every dollar spent here is a dollar not spent there.  I don't have a spare pool of cash waiting to help me enrich my life.  Every change comes with a decision, and with every decision, a sacrifice or at the very least, a shift in priority.
    I realize now that there's a danger with allowing myself the luxury of change.  It seems my clothes are not the only strictly serviceable things I've gathered around me.  I drive a common-sense car.  My career is literally workaday.  Nearly all of my relationships are defined as much by absence and distance as by closeness and affection. The part of the country I live in is flat, featureless, ugly, and depressing to return to.  I'm not naive though: I understand that even the most mundane of these are prominent figures in someone else's dream.  Just not in mine.
    And yet, I treat the rememdy to all of these with the same spareness which until recently I applied to my clothes.  Once or twice a year I allow myself to sample a beautiful part of the world.  It makes me feel good.  It makes me ask myself why I don't live there.  It makes me ask myself why I don't live every day with nicely dressed surroundings.  And when I slide back home out of the bluffs that surround the Mississippi river valley and descend into the khaki colored prairie that stretches from Iowa to Indiana, the every day feels as ugly and cheap as a cuffed pair of Dockers.
    I drive my car and it performs like a pair of dollar-store Nikes spelled with a 'y'.  The stick shift wrestles with me over whose idea of the letter 'H' is correct, then I pat myself on the back for not having a car payment while my car disappears — once more — on the flatbed of a tow-truck.  I make six phone calls to find someone to drink with and find my friendship isn't worth the price of a babysitter.  I'm on the losing end of a coin flip: go for a beer or stay home on the chance that ESPN may broadcast something that will never be shown again.  I end up standing on my front lawn with an empty glass of Scotch in my hand, staring at rows and rows of houses, wondering where in the hell all the people have gone.  I pick a fight with my wife.  There are so many that I don't choose carefully: they're all as worn and threadbare as my old wardrobe.  She's smart and I hold out hope for change, but she's not bothered by the vesture of our lives the way I am.  She says "pot-a-to", I say let's call the whole thing off.
    I look at all these things and wonder at the cost of change.  There is liberty even in the wondering.  The mental shift from stasis to window-shopping feels like a move in the right direction.  I build a spreadsheet and calculate a budget of physical, emotional, and financial costs. 
    The store is much bigger than it was decade ago.  California, Split, London, Milan: these are no longer out of reach.  I have capital, but even now it has limits.  There are children and a wife whose lives would be taxed to share the cost.  There will come a time when wondering is no longer enough though.  One day that dangerous moment will arrive where I stand in front of a shop window and smile because I've found myself on the other side.  Until then, I can only speculate at the price.

(Thanks for the edits FVWkins)

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