Credit and possible apologies are due FCB for the title.
As I drew closer to my 40th birthday, I acted on an impulse that seemed so spectacularly foolish, I thought it might border on a crazed sort of wisdom: I went on-line and bought a T-shirt from a band's website. I won't bother you with who the band is (the members are 20 years younger than I am, and I've already embarrassed myself with the tattoo post), but the shirt is black and has a scary-looking skull on it. The catalog description read, "This is the shirt your mother warned you about!"
In the six months I've owned this shirt, I've only worn it once. Such a shirt would indeed have irked my mother - had I worn it in my teens. Were she to catch sight of me wearing it now, she might raise an eyebrow. More likely she'd just snicker at it for what it is: the indulgence of a man chin-deep in midlife.
As the pastor's wife, she could quickly spot men getting the midlife sillies, and she quietly pointed out behavior my father (and the rest of us) were oblivious to. This often related to hair. A newly-acquired hairpiece was a quick giveaway, but my mother also noticed which men were resorting to Grecian Formula. (She stopped sharing these observations after she caught me and my brother roaming the foyer crowd and parotting the TV commercial punchline: "Hey, Rocket - two minutes for looking so good!"). Then in 1985, she witnessed a host of gentleman in their 40s with a tiny "tail" sticking out from collar-clipped hairlines. Some even went so far as to dye and braid the little feller. She'd compliment the man in question, and the reply was universal: "Oh, my mother is fit to be tied."
My mother approved. "If that's all his midlife crisis amounts to, I'm all for it," she'd say.
This response occurred to me the first time I wore the "skull" shirt. Walking my girls to school, I bumped into four shirts of similar design on teenagers and eight-year-olds. I dropped off the girls, then went to pick up the mail at the post office and face the Post Office Ladies. We chatted amiably, as we always do, and I knew without a doubt they were looking at this ridiculous skull and thinking the self-same thoughts my mother did when she first saw a 40-year-old man sporting a tiny pink "tail" flipped over the collar of his pastel yellow Polo shirt. When, less than an hour later, I encountered a four-year-old wearing a black T with a flaming skull, I knew how completely I had just outed myself.
Yes, you know you've lost your "edge" when you're wearing the same shirt as a four-year-old. Why didn't I just grab the ring and put on a "Barney" shirt? Or better yet, design my own shirt with the monogram, "I'm wearing this in an effort to demonstrate just how cool I still am, despite my advancing years." For good measure, I could splash across my shoulders, "Please don't think me pathetic."
Robert Bly has it right. And yet, I can't help wondering if I didn't just pick the wrong era of shirt. In Oshawa I saw a guy my age (a little older, maybe) wearing a Judas Priest "British Steel" concert shirt. At first I marvelled at its mint condition, thinking he was clearly old enough to have seen them back in the day. Of course, whether or not he saw them on this tour was a moot point: the shirt is probably a reproduction of the original. But it fits, because he and the shirt are the same vintage. This is how it shakes down, then: a 13-year-old could wear that shirt and look cool; get the older gent to put on a Linkin Park shirt, and he looks lame.
Ah, but I'd look lame wearing any of the metal acts from my day. I simply lack all trace of the prerequisite conviction. Even back when they were the rage I recognized just how creaky it all was - I could never make it work today. The best I could achieve is "irony", and I'm too old for that.
No, the only band I could "wear" with any conviction would be that multi-cultural trio of suburban-bred geeks who filled countless rec-rooms with their esoteric, cymbal-smashing anthems: RUSH. Be on the lookout for me in this. And even if I embarrass you, please don't hesitate to shake my hand and say "hi".