Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Seven months and twenty-one days: appropriate dress

Sandra Bullock and I don't have much in common. Our basic incompatibility is the stuff of legend. One thing we've always agreed on, though, is that our child would never appear in public wearing sweats. It's a small thing, but apparently enough to build on. Seventeen years and counting, as of last September 20.

I don't remember when we decided on this. It may have been something that occurred organically in unspoken, silent agreement during the pregnancy. It might have been decided after seeing one of my co-workers' children wearing a baggy, purple Washington Huskies sweatsuit at a school event.

Thinking back, that may have been the confirmation. And I apologize to this woman, a fellow teacher at Blanchet High School in 1996. She was a perfectly nice woman, probably a good teacher, but she let her kid run around in a purple sweatsuit on multiple occasions. Perhaps she was the catalyst: no slovenly-dressed children in our family.

By the time the Jawa arrived, on August 3, 1997, we'd already assembled an impressive collection of small clothes. Three baby showers will do that, especially if every guest has been briefed beforehand: though there was no "registering at Baby Gap" in 1997, there is no doubt that our friends and benefactors were given the hints necessary to steer clear of the Carter's store.

It may be that we were simply following the example of our parental mentor, my older sister, who once famously said, "People will be a lot more patient with a crying baby if it's dressed really cute." Words to live by.

Maybe we overdid it. Have you ever tried to put shoes on someone whose feet are barely larger than their ankles?

For several years, spanning a period that saw us relocate from Seattle to San Francisco, the Jawa adhered to our admittedly shallow fashion code: No sweats in public.

He wore the latest in carpenter jeans from Old Navy, striped long-sleeve t-shirts from The Gap. On his feet were Adidas Sambas, New Balance running shoes, Vans. And it was true: people were more likely to put up with a public tantrum when it came from a snappily-dressed child. It was like buying insurance.

When we started at Brandeis Hillel Day School, I remember marveling at the difference between our kindergarteners and the graduating eighth grade class. Did I say marveling? I meant "wondering in horror." At the first grade Tefillah, a weekly service held at nearby Temple Beth Israel Judea, our grade school neophytes arrived clad in little khakis, their hair neatly combed.

Then came the eighth-graders, a sloppy, slouching crew, ill-behaved, smirking, wearing too-large jeans, stained t-shirts, gravity-defying hair shooting off in so many directions as to confuse the most well-calibrated weather vane.

"Is this how our children are going to look in eight years?" we asked each other. Will all of our work turn out to be time wasted? All of that money spent at Baby Gap, all of those repeated instructions, the battles in front of the mirror to subdue flyaway Jewish hair; were they all in vain? Is sloppiness the birthright of even sheltered, socially conscious teens like ours?

The short answer is: yes.

It began two years ago, when I noticed that the Jawa, who'd impressed me with a savvy and hip fashion sense based on Anime- and Japanese monster movie-themed t-shirts, was wearing the same t-shirts over and over. His rotation was down to about two. Three months passed before I realized that he was just grabbing whatever t-shirt was on the top of the pile in his dresser. Easy enough; since I do the laundry, I now rotate his t-shirts. At least then I get to see his entire collection, including my favorites, the Ninjatown t-shirt and the Boba Fett shirt he got at a Star Wars exhibit in Los Angeles.

This year, despite the sudden appearance of girls in his life, and despite the undeniably dapper figure he cuts each weekend in his slick three-button Nordstrom's Bar Mitzvah suit, his day-to-day fashion sense has all but evaporated.

I took care of the t-shirts. He ditched his long-sleeved ones, though. They sit in his drawer, unloved no matter what the weather. That North Face jacket we got? It hangs untouched for weeks at a time, victim of a variation to the t-shirt theory: it's on a hook, while his Vans hoodie is conveniently located on the floor. Much easier to get that way.

After a short stint where he refused to wear jeans because they "weren't comfortable," the Jawa now makes the scene in his Josh Safier-inspired skinny jeans. When we can convince him. On the weekends and after Thursday night swim lessons, he insists on wearing -- yup -- sweatpants.

Twelve years later, they look no better on him than they did on the purple kid, though his lack of a mullet helps out a little bit. Still, there's nothing cool, at least not to me, about a kid rolling out in too-short sweat pants. That's without even mentioning the annoying sound nylon makes when it rubs together while walking.

Last summer, he bought a trucker hat at camp. It's black and white and says "Walton's Grizzly Lodge" across the front. Every morning, right before we leave for school, he jams it on his head. I may be imagining it, but I'm pretty sure there's a moment, every day, when he holds the hat in one hand and pauses, deciding as if for the first time if he's going to wear the hat today.

I'm convinced that he thinks there's a chance, each day, that he'll actually wet his hair and run a brush through it, instead of going back to the hat. And then, every day, he makes the same decision. Ashton Kutcher would be proud.

What I'm telling you is that the effort we put into instilling a sense of responsibility to look neat and presentable had about as much of an impact on our child as the hours of televised sporting events I forced him to watch during his formative years. That is to say, none at all. The child reached the age of reason (ten? eleven?) and decided that, for him, sweats in public is a perfectly reasonable choice.

Then, as if to remind us that all the books in the world cannot unlock the secrets of the adolescent mind, he suddenly decided to have an opinion about his hair style. "I'm going to tell Tony to leave my hair longer," he confided to me last Saturday. However, at the moment of truth, when he hit the chair, he chickened out and let Tony do whatever he wanted, same as he's done every few months since he was three.

That night, though, I overheard him discussing his hair with Sandra Bullock. Next time, he said, he's going to ask Tony to leave it longer. And he'll do this without the benefit of styling products like gel or mousse, thank you very much.

Meanwhile, a whole new generation of parents attended the first grade Tefillah this year and were horrified to see the middle school kids' idea of respectful, respectable dress. If I'd been there, I could have stood before them with my palms held up to the sky, shrugging. Do your best, I would have said, but don't be surprised when things turn out differently than you'd planned.


Butter Goats said...

If he's planning to go long, he'll be needing to re-think that whole "no gel" thing. At least consider a "styling creme". Take it from one who knows.

The Hammer said...

This fashion/hair/hat transition sounds exactly, and I mean exactly, like my son. Amazing but obviously normal. Somehow, they still seem to clean up nicely when absolutely necessary. i keep telling myself and The Wine Guy that we must choose our battles so we can be sure to win a few. Every day sloppy is ok as long as he pulls it together when we want him to.

Noodle's Mom said...

I just have one word to say in regards to spending lots of time, money, and effort in making sure you have a perfectly turned out child when they are young: Noodles. Now she is more likely to be wearing a ratty sweatshirt covered in horse hair. She is thinking about wearing her plaid riding breeches to school with her boots. Her big, black, rubber, boots.....