Lately I’ve started wearing sturdy button-down Oxford shirts
and a tie to work — and not just a tie, but a tie bar,
too. And on Wednesdays when we have staff meetings,
French-cuff shirts and cuff-links!
Not a suit, mind you. That would just be pretentious. I’m a
coder, not a banker or a lawyer.
And it’s not that I work in an office environment that
requires these sorts of accouterments; it’s been decades
since such extra decorations were expected of the rank and
file. Indeed, except for middle and upper management types,
and the occasional visiting Extremely Important Executive,
the Innsbrook Technical Center is a bastion of Business
Casual and Jeans Each And Every Friday — endless diffident
cubicles and hallways and lunch tables of pasty men clad in
khakis and polo shirts, tubular women slacked and bloused
like markdown mannequins at a fire sale.
In fact, I used to be (more-or-less) one of those
down-dressed sadlings myself. I had my own private uniform:
black jeans and solid color double-knit shirts — with a
handy pocket for my pens and pads — and on days when I felt
especially curmudgeonly toward the world, my six-inch slide
rule and a little microwave detector that would chirp
intermittently like a demented robotic squirrel as I walked
down halls or into meeting rooms. I wore a hat — not just
any hat, but a black Chairman Mao hat (sans red star,
fortunately). My hair was appropriately ponytailed. My
shoes were scuffed and world-weary, my gait the downcast
resentful shuffle of the socially inept.
No whiskers, though. Not even a chin-tuft. I was reaching
more for a suffering, slightly-puffy Chopin-esque look.
Tormented. Misunderstood. Soldiering up the Sisyphean slope
toward ennui and regret. A doughy sack of existential doubt.
Taken in toto, these are, of course, the usual warning flags
and buoy markers of a typical introverted software type,
teetering on the abyss of Asperger’s, allergic to sports and
manly comradeship, more comfortable with finite state
machines than with the infinitely more complicated gadgetry
of human interaction.
Acerbic retorts always loaded in the reply hopper? Oh, yes.
Pun-and-wordplay-generator set a maximum? Yup.
A compulsive need to hyper-analyze the simplest, most
inoffensive sentence, proffering inscrutable replies? Check.
An indefinable, angst-laced ache at People With Friends,
People with Important Filled Calendars, People brimming with
Manly (or Womanly) Purpose stormtroopering into Futures
bursting with fulfillment and repose?
I don’t recall that I ever intentionally set out to wrap
myself in such a pall of archetypal pretensions. I didn’t
even have the excuse of recent teenager-hood to explain my
sullen affectations. I’m careening toward sixty, and I’ve
been at this same job (writing pretty much the same type of
process-control software) for over thirty-five years.
But over those same years, I suppose I’ve neglected my garden
of self. The weeds had grown. The hedges had become
untrimmed. I had cracks in my brickwork.
And don’t get me started about how much the fence needed
straightening, repairing, repainting.
Then just about a year ago — temporarily — we hired an
additional software type into our group. I say temporarily,
because by now that restless soul has moved on to another
lily-pad in a new puddle of self-made tears (as indeed, their
resume strongly suggested would be the case, inevitably).
But for those few months I had (temporarily) an example of
what I had become — a mirror, of sorts, reflecting me back
at myself. Distorted and inexact, since this restless one was
roughly half my age, but recognizable.
Social awkwardness worn like a bandoleer. Quirky, prickly
personality, rife with cracks and traps for the unwary. A
plethora of behaviors, hobbies, speech-patterns, attitudes
and attributes all neon-bright, billboard-large, and,
Black hat, too. And scruffy clothing. And the resentful,
In a moment of intense, Hitchcockian clarity, I realized what
a guy nearly sixty must look like, behaving that way. What
an object of penguin-shaped, bumbling ridicule he must
present to the world.
Okay — maybe not quite that bad. But I did suddenly
realize that, whether through sloth or simple neglect, I had
allowed myself to morph into a slope-shouldered trope of
nerdly self-loathing. And I didn’t want to be that way any
So I ditched the jeans and the polo shirts for some dress
shirts and slacks. I got my spouse to cut my hair. I lost
thirty pounds. I even bought a new car — not for the manly
status potential (it’s a peppy little Fiat 500, if you must
know) or as the balm for some psychic mid-life pimple I’m too
timid to pop — but because my previous car had become a
handy excuse to feel disadvantaged and at odds with the
world, another notice-me neon pointing to my own diminished
sense of self.
And I started wearing a tie. Not as a new species of
notice-me billboard, or as some sort of improved armor to
protect me from the world of loud, brash, purpose-packed
extroverts, but as a reminder to myself that how I feel,
how I meet the world, what I am, is as much under my
control as anything can be in this age of data mining and
twittering connectivity, selfies and social networks,
15-nanosecond celebrities and round-the-clock news cycles.
It seems to work, too. I don’t look at the ground so much as
I walk. I try to keep my shoulders back. When I notice a
furtive double-take from a co-worker, I smile
ever-so-slightly, as though I’d just learned a wonderful
secret (better late than never). And I don’t shuffle.