Taking A Walk on The Wilde Side

“My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s.”  So wrote the acerbic, witty and unrelenting Oscar Wilde in Lady Windermere’s Fan in 1892.  Wilde openly led a movement of aestheticism and public decadence in a time when sins were expected to be committed with discretion out of the public eye of a highly pious Victorian society.  The age-old struggle of good versus evil and the ensuing black comedy that resulted from every human’s double life was his central theme – one as apropos today as it was during the time of this “wicked” Irish iconoclast.

As a recovering collegiate sybarite and literary enthusiast, I have always been fascinated by Wilde.  I am drawn to his sarcasm and often rely on his wit when trying to contend with a world that judges too harshly.  While I cannot condone Wilde’s lifestyle choices, I could never disparage his genius.  Like so many great writers and contrarians, his tortured soul and conflicted contempt for what Victorian society viewed as “decency” compelled him to persistently test its boundaries.  In doing so, he sealed his own fate but left us timeless footprints in the forms of quotes, stories and plays.  Wilde might have been considered a troublesome dissident by today’s standards — constantly prodding and testing our conventions and hidden hypocrisies.  Although I wonder if Wilde was born in 1964 instead of 1854, if society would have been more forgiving — celebrating his brilliance and choosing to not be so offended by his habitual testing of the status quo.  A few gems:

  • Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, fa...
    Oscar Wilde, three-quarter length portrait, facing front, seated, leaning forward, left elbow resting on knee, hand to chin, holding walking stick in right hand, wearing coat. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

    “ A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal..” My mother called it “compulsive candor.  Wilde’s strengths taken to excess became his weakness and ultimately led to his decent into a determined frontal assault on society.  However, the truth was too tempting to not flaunt in the face of a pious England that held itself in such high esteem while choosing to conduct its venal pursuits in far off places and under the complicated cloak of class and corruption.

  • “Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them more.” There is indeed power, liberation and humor in forgiveness.  Making one’s amends and stepping up to apologize for your part of a conflict defuses a situation and gives you the upper hand.  One spiritual advisor once chided me to pray for my enemies.  “Perhaps if he gets exactly what he wants, he may no longer offend you or better yet, he may actually get what is coming to him. Either way, it’s out of your hands and it takes away people’s power over you to forgive them – especially without their permission.”
  • “A cynic is a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.” It seems in a society that has come to judge material gain as a yardstick for personal advancement, we have come to understand how much everything costs but have lost our ability to understand intrinsic value.  Real moral and spiritual value requires a more complex calculus of living whose numerator is one’s impact on others – the lives we change and the legacies we leave divided by the price others pay as we achieve them. Many build wealth but may not recognize the intangible deficits they accumulate over a lifetime of misguided priorities.
  • “Wisdom comes with winters.” Our emotional intelligence is forged from the difficulties we endure.  The unexpected stone thrown through the bay window of our lives often forms the foundation for stronger character and a more resilient future.  Every winter holds the promise of an ensuing spring of insights, but only if we have the humility to seek these lessons.
  • “When the Gods wish to punish us, they answer our prayers.” We often say be careful what you wish for.  “You want to make God laugh?  Tell him your plans.”  In praying for something, perhaps we would be better served praying for strength to deal with whatever is to come our way.  Our own best thinking and resolve to get our way usually get us into a tangled mess.  Perhaps our lives are best guided by a point of reference other than ourselves.

In the end, Wilde’s determined sybaritic lifestyle – “working is the curse of the drinking classes”  where “only dull people are brilliant at breakfast”) – became his undoing.  In the midst of his physical and intellectual self-indulgence and his war against the English establishment, he penned brilliant works of literature : The Importance of Being Ernest, The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Canterville Ghost among others.

Wilde dared to suggest that human beings are a mass of contradictions.  We must periodically remind ourselves, as mistakes are made, boundaries broken and glass shattered, that it’s all part of the human condition.  As we move back and forth along life’s continuum between self and selfless, we should never forget that no one is without fault.

Wilde paid the ultimate price by flaunting his own self-destructive behavior in the face of an unforgiving society, then publicly challenging its hypocrisy.  He was imprisoned and died penniless three years later.  His “gross indecency” led to his mortal defeat, but also opened society’s aperture to tolerance and change.  He left us as an immortal — a fire that burned too bright, too hot and became too dangerous for the conventions of his day.  

Even now, as I finish this essay and tiptoe into a darkened kitchen in search of Easter candy hidden by my wife, Wilde whispers to me, “I can resist anything but temptation”.

Ask Jack

Male model looking pretty relaxed (IMG_7726a)
Image by Alaskan Dude via Flickr

Ask Jack

“Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” Oscar Wilde

It was a cloudless September Saturday full of Indian summer promises. I had emerged from my closet ready to pace the sidelines of two football fields.  I had my usual ensemble – white cargo pants, black tee shirt, flip flops, backward facing baseball cap and retro Ray Bans.

“Oh, oh, oh”.  At first I thought my partner was talking to the dog.  It was that same lilting expression one utters when chastising a pet for coveting the food on the counter.  “ Are you going to wear that today? “I heard from the opposite closet. “It’s after Labor Day.  Time to wind up the white shorts.”

This was not the first time I had been rounded up by the fashion police.  Over twenty years of marriage, I have been picked up more times than a Hunts Point streetwalker.  I was feeling defensive knowing that in 47 years I had made little progress against my style disability.

“Who made that rule up anyway?” I retorted. ” It was probably started by some New England pilgrim who thought their rear end looked too big in white.”  Or maybe, I thought, it was a concession to mothers sick of scrubbing summer stained white garments.  The color white did seem to attract stains, marks and dirt.  Although my mother always appreciated white as it was an anthropologist’s road map to what we had eaten and where we had been over the past 12 hours.   I asked around town.  People shrugged.  “ It’s just the way we’ve always done things.” It seemed everyone had been living by this ancient code, perhaps secretly afraid that some punctilious maven might assail them on Elm Street for their complete disregard of fashion etiquette.

Growing up in California, white clothing was an essential year round accessory.  There was no Labor Day rule.  There were three types of men’s fashion styles – surfer, casual and preppy.  As a third child, I was a fashion orphan condemned to battered hand me downs and out-of-date clothes.  I was not allowed to have an opinion about clothes and as such, my fashion sense was stunted from an early age. To complicate things, I was cursed with the physique of a squat Irish peat bog worker while my older brothers were blessed with continental European metabolisms and the builds of clothing store mannequins.  I was meant to wear an animal skin not light-weight, cotton chinos.

As my mother attempted to foist the secondhand clothes on me, I was further dehumanized by the inability to fit into pants too slender, shirt collars too tight and belts missing one critical belt loop.  Given my unique physiology, any trousers that actually did fit would inevitably rip in the crotch, often at the most inopportune times – revealing my tightie-whities and furthering my public humiliation.  No less than five times, did my Mom have to come to school to airdrop replacement pants.  We finally came to the collective realization that only denim was strong enough to endure my thunder thighs.

My older brother was elegant and slender – resembling a youthful Cary Grant.  He possessed instinctive élan and style actually enjoying clothes shopping with my mother.  He did not get his apparel at any old department store.  No, he purchased his wardrobe at a Men’s Store called “ Atkinsons”.

Atkinsons was very posh.  The attractive girl behind the counter that you would never get to meet because she went to a “private school” boxed your purchases in bright red boxes sealing them with a canary yellow ribbon. The salesmen were a natty, sartorial charm of thirty-something ex-USC frat boys who would coo and fawn over my elegant sibling.  They would then turn their disappointed gazes on me, frowning to my Mom,  “ I am not sure we have anything in his size.”   At that point, I fully rejected the superficial uniform of the preppies and the posers and dressed like a jock.  If I went out with a girl, perhaps, I would turn my baseball cap around to be more formal.

I secretly envied those tailored Trojans and wanted to be like them.  A very cute blond named Kathy Kelly once told me when I was wearing a periwinkle blue shirt that I had nice eyes.  “ It must be the shirt” she cooed.  Ok, blue it is! My poor mom had to find me light blue everything for the next year.  Admittedly, I had never really understood or paid attention to fashion. Perhaps, it was that straight legged jeans, tight Euro shirts and funky tennis shoes seemed not to be made for sons of Irish and German immigrants who eat like they are anticipating a famine.  I just could never really pull off the latest look and I seemed to have a bent antenna when it came to understanding that madras shorts and a striped button down shirt don’t go together unless you are trying to find out which of your friends has epilepsy.

As I got older, I picked up a few sound bites that only distorted my narrow understanding of fashion. “ If you have a larger physique, you should wear black.  It is a slimming color.”  I was all for “slimming “ and proceeded to buy black everything until someone asked me if I was Johnny Cash’s brother or perhaps a devil worshipper. When someone suggested that all black meant that I vacationed with Satan, ate bats heads and listened to Ozzie Osbourne, I abandoned my mono-color scheme. If I was, as my mother suggested, what I wore, then I was a Crayola box with only two colors.

It got worse when I left the cocoon of my Southern California suburb and went to college.   I recall going to party and seeing guys from the east coast who wore their polo tee shirts with collars up, jetty red shorts and cordovan penny loafers.  I did not even know how to begin to belittle this bizarre uniform that made them look like emasculated, metro-sexual vampires.  Yet, they looked at me like I had just gotten off work from my construction job and to add insult to injury, the girls seemed to naturally gravitate toward their “sofisticatezza”.

I would learn more painful lessons about fashion and its fickle, unpredictable life expectancy.  Clothes could actually go out of style before they were too worn out to use.  It was as if the garment industry was trying to force you to replace your perfectly good clothes with new ones by convincing you that you were out of step with men you would never possibly look like.

As with many things, marriage and a spouse determined to sandpaper my rough edges began to polish my rough exterior.  However, I was often caught attempting to leave the house with clothes that were out of season, too short, too long, stained, torn, garish, brutish or just plain, pathetic.  I started receiving clothes as “ gifts.”

That’s when you know you are officially an adult – you get clothes for Christmas and your birthday.  They are not clothes you would pick out.  They are the clothes purchased by someone trying to turn you into an accidental fashionista.  Dark shirts with weird flaring collars, jeans with meticulously fake faded spots – not a pleat seen for miles, and funky euro shoes with long elfin tips….If I actually wore all of these clothes, I would surely not be able to walk five feet.  I broke down and finally tried them on.  I suddenly noticed other husbands that were also being dressed up as reluctant mannequins.  Who said that little girls eventually stopped playing with dolls?

I had to take back control of my wardrobe but I knew I could not make it alone.  I needed a wingman.  And then one day while roaming the web I stumbled upon my Jack,  J. Crew’s Style confidant.  I bored deeper into cyberspace and found a treasure trove of trend setting websites – all promising to cure me of my lifelong disability like a Miracle Worker.  It seemed that there was now a safe place to go for the garment geeks. The legions of the challenged and style-less could now ask those embarrassing questions like,  “what can I wear to a beach wedding?” , “What are the do’s and don’ts of sandals?”, “How do you dress for winter without looking like a tool? “

Can I wear a tank top to the gym?  Answer from AskMen.com, “ If you must show off the guns, please wear a sleeveless shirt.  ‘A shirts’ – tank tops associated with domestic abuse – are not really recommended anywhere (except the bleacher section of a Yankee game).  What about those guys wearing spandex?, “For women, spandex is a privilege, not a right.  For men, it is neither.  It is a very, very bad mistake.”

The websites challenged me and probed. Did I want to be a Trend Setter, Preppy, Hipster, Rocker, Classic or Sporty Chic?  Actually, I just wanted to know whether it was ok to wear my cargo shorts into October.  Ask Jack hesitated and then answered. “White or wheat denim long pants work year round.”

Huh ?

Screw it, it’s 80 degrees and I’m wearin’ the white shorts.