I just spent a week in Atlanta at the American Academy of Religion (AAR). These are America’s preeminent religion experts—the people who teach at our great universities and college—and I was there to sell HarperOne’s books, talk to our authors, and scout for new ones.
The AAR people are fashion failures. Well, that isn’t really fair. The men are fashion failures. Some of the women actually know how to dress, and occasionally the exotic garb of someone from overseas lit up the hall. But in general, academics look as though they dress in an unlighted closet every morning—and I fit right in.
The other day I was ironing one of my shirts when I discovered two of those little plastic thingamabobs that the manufacturer inserts in the corners of the collar to maintain its shape in the store. This wouldn’t be that unusual, except that I have already owned this particular shirt for more than a year, and have worn it probably fifty times. When I find an article of clothing I like, I stick to it, by gum, often until it disintegrates. Also, since my method of washing clothes is to put huge loads in the washing machine in a super-size, cold-water wash, the shirt’s color—originally an attractive, slightly metallic blue as I remember it—is now leaning more to the grey color that all my clothing takes on in time. After I “wash” the clothes I take them up in a hamper to the bedroom, where in theory they will be folded and put in drawers or hung on hangers. In reality, they remain in these baskets, sometimes for months. Each morning I claw through the tangled mess, dumping half of it on the floor as I frantically search for matching socks, or at least two socks that could be mistaken for a match if no one looks too closely. Also, I do a lot of ironing.
I have lived in some very fashion-conscious places in my life: New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Omaha—but I have never managed to grasp the concept of how to connect the fashion awareness around me—the stores, the snappily dressed people—with my actual person. Sometimes, in fact, I think I would be better suited to a more rural life—living, perhaps, in a cave—where all that was expected of me is that I would, in fact, wear clothing in the presence of other people. Or not.
At my own wedding I forgot to bring my good shoes, and after solving this problem, my brother Dave stopped me from walking down the aisle with the Macy’s sticker still on the sleeve of my suit. Not that I was ashamed—we got it for a pretty good price. However, this wasn’t something that needed to be advertised at that particular moment.
Like all fashion-challenged people, I justify my bad taste and poor judgment by saying I am not a materialist, I am not interested in all the beautiful people, I rise above these things because I am thinking about more important matters than youth, beauty, money, style, and so forth. These rationalizations are completely ridiculous: if my fairy godmother showed up and waved a wand, making me handsome, well-dressed, and a prince, I wouldn’t turn her down.