Middle-aged man earns right to dress himself – for now

My wife hates the way I dress. The shirts and ties I wear to work are okay (just okay, nothing fantastic), but the clothes I wear in more casual circumstances will not do. The shade of my blue jeans is not right; I wear my shirt tucked in when all the hip older gentlemen are leaving theirs out; and having pants that fit just right is no excuse not to wear a belt. I didn’t know this, but holding your britches up is only one of the reasons to wear a belt, and probably not the primary one.

I’m a country boy, and I dress like it. I wear clothes to be clothed. Warmth, comfort, and hiding my shame are my concerns when it comes to wardrobe. I developed a dislike for clothes shopping early in life and have honored that dislike to this very day, which is why I tend to wear an article until it is no longer comfortable or has quit hiding the more disturbing views of my shame.

I grew up being told to tuck in my shirt. That was how you made yourself look respectable. After many years, I finally learned to do this routinely and figured I was set, as far as managing the transition between shirt and pants. I was wrong. Tucking your shirt in no longer makes you respectable, as I interpret the messages I’m getting. It makes you look like an old man who still dresses like a little boy. It also shows off that gaping faux pas where your superfluous belt should be.

I can’t help it if I become a Social Media Influencer in my Sunday-go-to-meetin’ clothes. (Image: Russell Lee)

My wife grew up in a completely opposite world. She came from the affluent suburbs, where people didn’t have the social freedom to dress like farmers. While I was dodging cow patties, she was dodging the societal pitfalls of matching the wrong top with her shoes. The poor girl had to spend her spare time accessorizing. The closest I ever came to that was finding a pair of matching socks. I’m not saying I did that every day, but I had my debonair moments.

Whenever my shame starts to feel a breeze I reluctantly go out and buy something modern. I don’t make a point to show my new garments to my wife, but she always notices them. I know she’s noticed when she says, “I wish you would just let me shop for you.” This doesn’t always come off sounding like the compliment she means it to be, but I can usually dig down to the loving sentiment beneath it all.

The last time I wore a new outfit, it caught her off guard. She looked at me and let out, “Oh, you look so nice!” before she realized I was wearing new clothes that I’d bought for myself. She had to concede I’d dressed myself like a grown up, but not perfectly so. “Now we just need to get you into a nice pair of Sperrys,” she added.

I think those might be shoes.

Hi, I’m Grumpy, and this is my brother, Sleepy – and this is my other brother, Sleepy

I know it’s going to be a difficult morning when I go to wake Buster. Buster is the closest kid we have to a morning person. After one week of school, I’ve formed the habit of getting him up first. I start off easy and work my way up to the hard cases.

It’s Tuesday morning, after the long Labor Day weekend. Last week went all right, but now they’ve had a four-day weekend to consider things and realize they dislike school just as much as they ever did. The new year hasn’t changed the fact that “The Man” is still holding them down with classroom rules and homework.

They’ve gone for the gusto over these four days off, trying to relive the entire summer in a long weekend. It’s time to pay the piper.

Buster (2nd grade) doesn’t sit up when I put my hand on his covers. I try to rub him awake. “I can’t,” he groans. “I’m too tired.” I pull the covers off him. He pulls them back on.

I move three feet below to the lower bunk. I don’t have high hopes for waking Big Man. Big Man (Kindergarten) is sleeping upside down. This isn’t a good sign he’s well-rested and ready to face a new day. He does not respond to any of my gentle attempts to rouse him. The lower bunk is like a bear cave. I contort myself to squeeze under the upper bunk without banging my head (which I’ve already done twice in 3.5 days of school). I grab the cub’s toe and drag him out of his hole.

Leaving Big Man in the bathroom to brush his teeth, at least the front ones, I return to Buster. All the tumult in the bunk below has made it impossible for him to get any rest. His spirit is broken and he allows me to carry him to the bathroom.

It’s now time to tackle the biggest Billy goat. At least Big Brother (6th grade) doesn’t have a bunk bed, so I won’t bruise myself waking him. He is larger though, so I have to pull by booth feet to drag him from the bed.

Downstairs, I offer the little boys breakfast. Buster answers all my overtures with grunts. Big Man says he isn’t hungry, but I don’t want to send them off with empty bellies. Big Man finally condescends to accept some bread and butter. I’ve got to get these kids off and get myself to work, so I don’t have time to negotiate him into a heartier meal.

I give Buster and pad and pen. I tell him to write what he wants to eat. He doesn’t know how to sound out grunts, so he writes Nothing. It’s spelled right.

I hate to send him to school like this, but he might learn a lesson from a hungry morning. Plus, he spelled Nothing right. It’s too early in the morning not to accept the victories these kids hand me.

This one’s all ready to go. Good work, Dad!

The beasts awaken

Mommy’s new job means she leaves the house each morning before we four boys wake up. Mommy is the big winner in this new reality, because none of the men she leaves behind wake up pretty.

The first to wake up is Daddy. He is not a morning person, but he has seen enough dawns to realize the world wasn’t designed for night owls, and he must suck it up, even as he bounces off the bathroom door frame, which he walked into sideways.

After Daddy showers and shaves, he wakes up Big Brother. Big Brother is also not a morning person. He knows 7 a.m. is a horrible time to wake up. This makes angriness a constant part of his morning routine. Big Brother shuffles to the bathroom to assemble his many complaints for the day and do an inventory of all the aches that, in a just world, would keep him home from school.

Next to rise is Buster. He is less of a non-morning person. This is not to say he won’t be in a bad mood in the morning, it’s just that he is equally likely to be nudged into surliness in the afternoon or evening. Buster often wakes up by himself. He gives Daddy a nice hug, and it all goes downhill from there. Making him brush his teeth could be the thing that sends him into a funk. Or it might be the criminal lack of donuts for breakfast. Asking him to write out his spelling words before the test is a surefire way to send him into a spiral of grunts and foot stomping.

Children who study their spelling words can win handsome plaques. Or maybe it’s for clean teeth. Probably not a donut-eating award. Image: Harris & Ewing

Big Man is the wild card. Sometimes he wakes up early and sometimes he pushes sleep to the limit. Big Man is unlikely to be angry. He’s just very sleepy. Even when he gets up early, he often drags his blanket downstairs to curl up on the floor. He likes to stay in his pajamas, regardless of where he needs to be. He takes his time about getting around to breakfast. Big Man’s saving grace is that when he puts up a stink, at least he argues using English words instead of grunting his rebuttals like his caveman brothers.

Of the four, only Daddy shows any urgency about getting people where they need to be on time. The poor, hopeless man struggles against the current of chronological apathy every day, and every day it comes near drowning him in tardiness.

It is a maelstrom of his own making. Who gave Big Brother a nature that recoils from the rising sun? Who gave Buster the expectations of a prince in the robes of a pauper? Who gave Big Man the English language, to spout in endless explanation of why it’s not yet the right moment to put his shoes on, instead of just putting his damned shoes on?

I don’t know. Maybe it was Mommy.

Focus on the good guys

After I get all my hugs and kisses, I go to the garage and get into my car, ready to drive to work. This morning Big Man came to the door as I was about to leave. “Wait! I have to tell you something!” he yelled from the threshold.

I rolled down the window. “What is it?”

“If you see somebody, and it’s a bad guy, tell us. Call us!”

“Okay, I will,” I answered.

There was no particular impetus for this request that I know about. It’s not as if Big Man lives his life in fear of bad guys, but he doesn’t like to let his guard down either.

Big Man and Buster like to keep the family protected from bad guys. They don’t always have a sharp picture in their minds about who these bad guys are, but they have little doubt they’ll know ‘em when they see ‘em.

Whenever they build forts, they make sure the entrances are well-protected so the bad guys can’t get in. They keep plenty of Nerf ammunition behind the ramparts in case the bad guys are foolish enough to try them.

Big Brother is not as interested in erecting fortifications throughout the house anymore. He fights his bad guys in Fortnite. He does his best work for the forces of light from the couch, a game controller his only weapon.

One evening, Big Man barricaded the two of us in the back room so we could watch TV together without being bothered by any bad guys. In that instance bad guys might a have been a euphemism for big brothers. I’m not sure. All I know is I had to dig myself out of the room when I wanted a snack. Next time, put the barricades on the far side of the fridge, General.

Looking out for bad guys

Build your fort, look out for bad guys, and most importantly, don’t barricade the path to the ice cream sammiches.

Clearly, these boys don’t have a consistent picture of who the bad guys are. That’s understandable. Lots of people have trouble identifying bad guys. The world changes its mind about who the bad guys are all the time. I’m not worried about that.

What’s more important to me is these boys know what good guys look like. I’d like them to know who they see in the mirror.

I have many aspirations for our boys. I want them to be happy and successful. I want them to find their talents. I want them to form healthy relationships. High on the list of things I want is this: I want them to be, in the big things and in the little things, good guys.