On Cowardly Lying

Yesterday at brunch, as my (most congenial) companions and I were nearing the end of our meal, I was disturbed by something taking place across from us. We were seated on a covered, outdoor patio at long tables with benches, rather than chairs.  A couple in their mid-20’s arrived midway through our meal, and sat on the other side of the patio from us. He was wearing a polo shirt and shorts; she was wearing a fitted, diaphanous skirt, whose hem touched the floor.

At one point I overheard her comment to him that she wanted to switch the bench she was sitting on for another. She then got up, dragged the bench she had been sitting on across the patio, and dragged another bench back to their table. Her skirt being less than ideal for performing manual labor, and the benches being rather heavy, this task was performed in a somewhat awkward, ungainly manner.

What I found particularly disturbing about this incident was the fact that while all of this was going on, her hale and hearty, sporty boyfriend continued to eat his appetizer, and did not make a move or even offer to assist her. Rather, he left her to do all of the work herself, despite the fact that he was in a far better position to lend a hand moving furniture about, given what she was wearing, and that the bench she wanted was one directly across from him.  One was tempted to comment to her, upon leaving the restaurant, “You know, this fellow is probably not someone you want to continue seeing.”

Now I admit, it’s entirely possible that the boyfriend did nothing because, based on previous experience, she may have informed him that she does not like men to do things for her, such as open a door or pull out a chair – a mindset which has its own set of problems. However I rather suspect, from what I observed, that he was quite the dominant person in the relationship. He was simply more interested in eating his boudin balls, than in attending to her needs.

Does this mean that I am judging? You bet I am. For as it happens, I’m not only judging this couple – I’m also judging myself.

When I saw that she was struggling, why didn’t *I* get up and assist her? Why didn’t I intervene, even at the risk of making him seem like the fool which he so clearly was? Couldn’t I have even voiced, “Would you like a hand?”

The answer is, sadly, that we have all embraced cowardice as the social norm, in our uncivilized culture. We roar and wail in our various forms of media about all sorts of perceived injustices and slights. Nevertheless, when we come face-to-face with a situation in which a wrong is taking place, chances are fairly good that we will do nothing. We lie to ourselves, and think that we are brave, because we post a comment that takes a stand on an issue, when the fact is that in the crunch, most of us back away. 

You’ve probably read or heard recent reports about a young man who was stabbed to death on the DC Metro a few weeks ago in broad daylight, on a train full of passengers, only one of whom even dared to say anything to his attacker. The commentariat’s outrage machine, full of armchair quarterbacks as it always is, exploded with nonsense along the lines of, “I would have done x, had I been there.” The truth is, upon finding themselves in a similar situation, most would have done exactly the same thing as the other passengers on the train: embraced their inner coward, sat there quietly, and done nothing.

I do not suggest that all of us need to jump into a knife fight, the next time we come across one in our travels. However I do argue that we need to stop lying to ourselves and recover our sense of courage, if we are also to recover our culture. There is little real bravery in hitting a “like” button, particularly if you never take any action in real life.

Sometimes, yes, it is wiser to keep our mouth shut, and our opinions to ourselves. It would be foolish to think we ought to do so ALL the time. Otherwise, we train ourselves and others to believe that intervention is always wrong, unless the circumstances are such that we will be quite safe, whether in real life, or behind an electronic screen.

We do not need any kind of bizarre, social vigilantism, in which we dash about spreading our jackets over mud puddles for perfect strangers or breaking up fights between drunken louts we see sprawling about in an alleyway. Yet we could make the effort to be a little bit braver, a little bit more conscious of those around us, particularly those in need of assistance. For while it is true that we must “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” it is also true that, “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, you do unto Me.” 

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Go Put Your Pants On

A week or two ago I noticed a rather disturbing trend among men here in the Nation’s Capital, something which I had read about in several publications, but until then I had not noticed on our sidewalks: the trend of wearing a shirt and tie to work…with shorts.

Now let me begin this post with a caveat. As an attorney, I admit that I work in a sartorially buttoned-up profession. I wear a suit most days, and always on days when I have scheduled meetings. On those days when I don’t have to meet anyone in person, I might wear a blazer or sports jacket, but always with a tie, dress shirt, dress shoes, and trousers. It would never occur to me to wear shorts to the office.

I also know that many professions allow for shorts, due to the nature of the work itself. A driver delivering packages, or a waiter serving tables at an outdoor restaurant, no doubt is grateful not to have wear long pants as part of his uniform.  Particularly in this swamp-like city, the ability to wear shorts to work can be a great blessing for those engaged in manual labor in the services and trades.

For those who work in offices however, I find the trend of shorts and ties ridiculous and incomprehensible. It lends an infantile air to someone who ought to know better than to imagine that other adults are going to take them seriously. Because to be frank, if you came into my office wearing shorts and a tie, I would from the get-go think there was something deeply wrong with you, even if I might not say it aloud.

In some ways, this trend is of a piece with the increasingly lackadaisical attitude toward men wearing shorts in cities in general. I am not quite sure when adult males collectively decided that what they wore to the beach was acceptable at the supermarket, as if they were only 11 years old and out shopping with their mommies.  And the overall laxity of standards in this regard is perhaps most irritating when it comes to church.

My Fellow Fisheaters: there is NO excuse for a grown man to wear shorts to Mass. None. If you are old enough to vote, buy cigarettes, and pay taxes, you are too old to wear shorts to Mass. Even then, I would suggest the cut-off date probably lies closer to the age you begin shaving.

I do not care how hot it is. I do not care what you are doing before or after Mass. I do not care that the church has no air conditioning, or that you are on vacation. In fact, the latter is something baffling that I witness at my downtown DC parish all the time, surrounded as it is by hotels. If you’re visiting someone else’s home for the first time for an indoor, sit-down supper – and in this case, the Supper of all suppers – why would you show up dressed for a volleyball tournament? Look at pictures of your grandfather attending Mass fifty years ago, and I guarantee you that there will be not a single one of him inside a church wearing shorts.

How did we get to the point where no one even thinks this is worth criticizing? It occurred largely because people are now deathly afraid to criticize, which of course is part of the reason we have grown a large crop of infantile males who would want to dress like this in the first place, over the last few decades. It is also because we have forgotten the difference between style and fashion.

Style exists in tandem with, but ultimately independently of, fashion. Cuts, colors, and fabrics can change from season to season, as they go in and out of fashion. Yet style changes more slowly, developing as one ages. I could never pull off a leather jacket when I was a fresh-faced kid; now that I’m more weathered, I could never pull off a shirt and tie with shorts – nor would I attempt to. In what I choose to wear, I send a message; if I choose well, the viewer appreciates the clothes, but appreciates me, more.

What’s the message a grown man in shorts and a tie is trying to send as he clomps along in dress shoes without socks – I’ll save that pet peeve for another time – to those who see him on the street? That he may technically be an adult, but he would rather be in Kindergarten? That it’s better in the Bahamas? That he’s a member of a Boyz II Men cover band?

There is certainly a place for shorts in a man’s wardrobe, no one is questioning that. Not everything that is older is better: I would never suggest you play tennis in the summer in white flannels, for example.  Rather, the real point of inquiry is where and when the place for wearing shorts may legitimately be found. The answer will vary based on the activities you perform, and the environment in which you perform them.

However as a general rule, gentlemen, I am going to keep this simple for you. Please do not wear shorts with a tie. Ever. And more to the point, when you’re planning to see your bank manager, your attorney, or most importantly God, please go put your pants on.  

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Let’s Have Some Above-Average Life Goals

Some months ago, my attention was drawn to a popular Twitter account being linked to by a number of my contacts.  Average Life Goals tries to present aspirations which might be considered rather mundane, in a humorous way. Although meant to be ironic, the account’s writers often choose to look down upon things which, once upon a time, we saw as being acceptable and enjoyable, or at least suited to their purpose.

Take this tweet for example

I grew up in a rust belt Pennsylvania county where agriculture was the main industry, and steel manufacturing was a distant memory. There were only a couple of restaurants where one could expect a level of dining comparable to that you might find in an urban setting. Chain restaurants like this one, for most people, were as fancy as one could reasonably expect to be able to experience beyond fast food.

People in the hundreds of small towns across America whose pay does not allow them to dine luxuriously whenever they choose, are not going to be spoiled for choice when it comes to taking their sweetheart out to dinner on St. Valentine’s Day. So while it may not seem particularly nice to some that the anonymous fellow evoked in this tweet is taking his girlfriend to Golden Corral for a special dinner, maybe that is the best that he can afford to do? To scoff and suggest that there is little or no value to such a practice seems to me rather off-puttingly bitter and childish.

A similar tone of bitterness pervades the tone of the following tweet:

Here, someone’s parents paid for and installed this contraption for their child out of love, but we are supposed to mock it for not being…what, exactly? Gold-plated? Signed by Lebron? Would it be better if it came complete with tattoo artist, pole dancing Kardashian, and contraceptive/marijuana dispensing unit? Would that then make it more palatable?.

Now to be fair, two tweets do not condemn an entire Twitter account. Some of the tweets posted by those who run this particular account are actually quite sensible and even clever. Yet these tweets should make us pause and ask, what do we actually value? Are we really so jejune, that we have to denigrate others’ aspirations or acts of generosity? And to what end?

We should certainly cultivate an appreciation for quality, and aspire to learn more about the world around us. Yet being a little more charitable, and engaging in more realistic self-examination as part of that charity, would go a long way toward our treating one another with a bit more compassion, patience, and appreciation. Those would be far better life goals for each of us to try to espouse.