Saturday, January 14, 2012

Topsiders, Duct Tape, and the National Dilemma of Wealth

I finally broke down and got a new pair of shoes last week. The old ones had become so worn that the sole had actually come loose and was flopping around like one of those clown shoes and had to be held in place with duct tape.Now here's a funny thing; when I was a college kid the whole duct-tape-on-the-Topsiders was considered the height of studly cool in some quarters.

Specifically, preppy quarters.

Remember "preppies"? There was a whole little cottage-industry of preppy-this and preppy-that in the late Seventies and Eighties, if I recall correctly. The whole plaid-skirt and penny-loafers for women, khakis and Lacoste shirts for men (and crew-neck sweaters for both, of course...) was the popular image of the thing. Labrador retrievers were involved, too, I think (or maybe Goldens. It was a while ago, c'mon).Now I was no different than many young people in their early twenties. I had just outgrown my childhood but was fitting badly into adulthood. I was turning and tapping bits of myself to try and see how to make them fit. I invented bits of this and lies about that to try and make myself seem...cooler, more interesting, different, more exciting.

But what I more than anything else wanted was to fit in. To be part of the accepted center of my then-life, a small, undeservedly-snooty Eastern liberal arts college. And a huge proportion of the "accepted center" of that place were the young people who had come from the private schools of the U.S. Northeast.

I don't really have any sense of the breed today, but in the Seventies the products of the Peddie School, Deerfield, and Lawrenceville Academy were the most upper of upper-middle class America. They had spent a dozen years acquiring not just a private-school education but a private school "manner" and part of that manner was the clothes they wore.

Now I was too callow to understand that a dozen years at the Peddie School would do more than teach you how to wear a polo shirt inside a button-down shirt under a crew-neck sweater. But that fashion was the only thing I could understand, and so it was the fashions I aped.It is more than thirty years since I left that place, and my sense of person has expanded to fill the inside of my head since then. I no longer feel any particular need to dress, or be, anyone to please anyone other than myself, my bride, and my children - all the public I need at this point in life.

But some things linger long after the reasons for them have fled, and I still find the Topsider shoes the most comfortable and easy to wear of any men's footwear.So when my old shoes finally died it wasn't a huge surprise that they were made by the folks at Sperry, or that I jacked some tape around them to hold them together before they went to their reward. If it worked in 1977...But I got to thinking, as I painfully parted with the cost of new shoes, that the people whose style I still walked in would have thought little and cared less for the expense.

And that really means something.

Because for most of us, for most Americans, for most people, life centers around the arithmetic that Dickens describes as "Income twenty pounds, expenses nineteen pounds, eleven shillings, sixpence, result; happiness. Income twenty pounds, expenses twenty pounds sixpence, result; misery."

I'm not saying that most of us are poor. What I'm saying is that most of us need to watch what we spend and what we save. We have to worry about things like getting sick. Or getting fired or losing our jobs. Of our roofs leaking, or our cars breaking down, or our taxes being screwed up and costing us penalties and interest.

And the one thing I've noticed now - especially this election year, but for quite some time now - is that the people our political class has chosen to "lead" us seem somewhere between somewhat to utterly clueless about that life.This year's poster boy, of course, is Willard Romney, who can and did talk about "firing" his insurance company.

That's really all you have to know about "Mitt" (a preppy nickname if ever there was one and, sure enough, Willard attended the Cranbrook School in Michigan [his wife prepped, too, at Kingswood]). Most of us don't "fire" our insurance companies; we hope instead that we don't get sick enough that our insurance companies don't force us into bankruptcy and then fire US. That Willard thinks such a thing tells you that the man had lived his entire life swathed, wrapped, bathed, and laved in what in the Army we used to call "fuck-you money".

And you know what?

Damn near all the other pols I can think of are, too. And that's no surprise, because for all we like to pretend it's not true, it's nearly impossible - and by that I mean 99.94% impossible - for a poor or even a modestly wealthy person to run for high office in this country.

Because I've thought about running for office. I'm a pretty smart, well-informed guy. I speak well, I write well. I understand the principles of this country and I think I have a good sense of what is in the best interests of most of its people.

But I can't afford to run.

I can't afford to lost the time I'd need to spend schmoozing the local Democratic Party, volunteering, getting to know the Thrones and Dominations. I can't afford to spend the money I'd need networking, or the lost work time in commuting to Salem or to various meet-and-greets. And if I GOT elected I'd have to constantly fundraise because I couldn't then afford to lost my government job and go BACK to my work as a geologist; I'd simply be too old, too disconnected, too...well, I'd be unemployable. So I'd have to slime my way back to Salem, or D.C. as some kind of lobbyist. Or think-tank scum. Or "consultant"...And that's really sad, and wrong.

Looking around it seems like we're beavering away trying to institutionalize not just bad governance (although God knows we seem to be doing that) but bad, clueless, craphanded, entitled governance. The kind of governance that fusses about "Islamofascism" but not unemployment, about deficits but not bankruptcy, homelessness, and civil rights.

And it may be a coincidence - but it seems unlikely - that it also seems nearly impossible to find anyone in, or running for, public office from local to state to federal who is intellectually anything other than a Lacoste-and-topsiders-or-plaid-skirt-and-pearl-wearing-variety, clueless, craphanded, entitled preppy asshole.And then we wonder why it seems like the world wags towards them and not towards us.

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