How I cured myself of a craving for selvedge denim.
I'm on daughter No. 3 in five years. Hence I'm derelict in my professional life, my ambition falters more by the minute, I do not play as much tennis as I used to, or read as many novels, or see as many plays, or talk as languorously on the telephone with old friends, and I am now awakened about two hours earlier than my body would like. But I have no nostalgia for the time before I was a father. I like most everything about dadding (I just coined that—pass it on). There is, however, one exception to my general infatuation with the dadly life: the way it has complicated my relationship to money.
If parenthood meant I could no longer afford the things I badly wanted, that would be regrettable, but not exactly complicated. My problem is rather different: I actually have very simple pleasures, and I can still afford all of them. Whereas some people enjoy backpacking in Thailand, leased BMWs, and triple-mint real estate, I like skim mochas at the local coffee shop in the winter, Starbucks Frappuccinos in the summer, ice cream at the local parlor year-round, a few new books a year, and midprice new clothes bought at T.J. Maxx or at chain stores you can find in the average upscale mall. I have enough money that I could buy everything I want. But I now have children, and no money saved for, say, college-tuition payments. And yet even if I forewent every frappuccino and pair of corduroys for the next 20 years, I fear I would not save enough money for one year of college for one daughter. So while in one sense every frappuccino is money wasted, in another sense every penny saved is for naught.
In a strange trope of sublimation, I have begun to gravitate in my late-night Web searching to sites featuring stuff I cannot even remotely afford and never could, very expensive men's clothing and accessories. Think neckties from the Hill-side, shoes from Quoddy, the suits J. Crew is selling in its Liquor Store collection. This is stuff I was never interested in buying when I could have done so guilt-free. But now that parenthood has discombobulated my relationship to the family fisc, I'm obsessed with the fantasy that for the first time, at age 36, I might start dressing in finer threads. And for the first time since becoming a dad, I have had thoughts along the lines of, "If I had no children, I could own jeans of authentic selvedge denim." And I don't even know what selvedge denim is.
Given all this anxiety about parenthood and vesture, a book I could not resist reading—no matter how bad for my mental health—is How To Be a Man, by one Glenn O'Brien. I came across Glenn O'Brien when I was skipping about the Web, reading here and there about bespoke suits. O'Brien, I ascertained, is a bohemian downtown underground New York legend: cohort of Andy Warhol, former editor of Interview, host of a storied public-access New Wave rock-and-roll and talk show in the late 1970s, columnist for GQ, and famously well-dressed man about town. It says a great deal about me that, despite being a fellow journalist, I had never heard of O'Brien, and says a great deal about my current clotheshorsemanship that I quickly developed a lusty man-crush on him. There was no question that I needed to read this book.
How To Be a Man is a collection of essays, many previously published in GQ,10Man (whatever that is), and the Bergdorf Goodman magazine. They mostly take the form of advice columns, and as such they are funny and pleasingly didactic. He is for bold colors, against dyeing one's hair, and very much against wearing sneakers with formalwear. His tone is firm enough to please insecure men who really want to be told how to dress and groom themselves, but arbitrary and pointed enough to keep his savvier readers from taking him too seriously: "Young men should have long hair, because they won't be able to wear it when they're fifty. If you don't believe me, look at Aerosmith. Russell Brand has got about three years left." (From the chapter "How To Be Sexual.")
It quickly becomes apparent that O'Brien is not one to be confined to clothing advice; he eagerly moves beyond clothing into general wisdom for living large: "Men will have to refrain from compulsive trifling, habitual lechery, and flagrant promiscuity. Women will have to forgive us once in a while." (From "How To Be an Animal.") "A man must wear a suit. He must not be a suit." (From "On Suits.") "I love the necktie because it is the only article of clothing in a man's wardrobe that has real enemies. Iranian revolutionaries, for instance, see the tie as an evil phallic symbol of Western decadence …" (From "On Ties.") Speaking of mullahs, O'Brien also has a memorable riff on why they wish to preserve Persian men's unibrows.
Taken together, O'Brien's short essays convey a philosophy of what we might call democratic dandyism. He believes that true counterculture, which is healthy for a democracy, requires sartorial liberalism, which will give rise to a uniform of protest; but because the great subversive looks of the recent past, from beat to hippie to Goth, have all been co-opted by consumer culture, all that is left for the man of action is to become a real peacock, a connoisseur of elegance, ideally one with some handmade shoes and perhaps even a smoking jacket and foulard in his closet. As if to conform to his clothing, a man thus outfitted will have a certain brusque, no-bullshit swagger. The best essay here, a real classic, is his taxonomy of insult words. "A dick is a careless egotist who abuses others in demonstration of his high and misplaced self-regard," O'Brien writes. "A dickhead is similarly uncaring and overconfident but generally with less intelligence and skill. … Dick Cheney is a dick; George Bush is a dickhead."
There are some who will be intoxicated by O'Brien. If you have dandyish leanings yourself, or if you envy people who seem to live with the unafraid brio that a fat bank account allows, who may attend the best parties but are confident enough to skip them, who may attend them but get thrown out after throwing a punch, then O'Brien is an amiable guide to the life that perhaps you were meant to live.
But others will be repulsed by this book, and not just those uncomfortable with pomposity, high style, and assumptions of wealth. (Given O'Brien's penchant for name-dropping great New York bohemians of the 1970s and '80s, many of whom were broke as wedding vows, it is surprising how little he has to say to the writers, artists, and musicians who did not graduate to great incomes.) There is something a bit too cavalier in O'Brien's assumption that the life well displayed is the life well lived. He is quite the poet of chivalry and gallantry, but he is not much interested in the virtues that those honor codes are meant to support. He hates religion, as many of the best people do. But that hatred seems to extend to any code that might demand sacrifice. There is no mention in this book of charity, for example; manhood apparently does not recommend even fashionable sorts of largesse, like giving away money or serving on nonprofit boards. It certainly does not include picking up litter at the neighborhood park, or volunteering for the PTA. From what I can tell, manhood does not require voting.
As for fatherhood, O'Brien seems unmanfully undecided. He is a heterosexual, as he reminds us more than once, more than twice even. He even relishes enacting a kind of macho, Mars/Venus cluelessness ("Women are essentially different from men … [a]nd even though we wind up in the most intimate collaboration possible, we are never quite sure of our partner's motivations or rewards"). He is a father, although the reader is never clear of how many, because O'Brien prefers vague, arch formulations like, "I don't wear a plow or a sword, but on the reproductive front I am getting the job done." Charming, no? We learn almost nothing about his child (children?) except that O'Brien is willing to use television and video games to win quiet: "And while I have certain regrets over purchasing a video-game system for my son, I have taken some mischievous delight in passing on this incurable addiction to the obstreperous children of guests."
How To Be a Man is funny and urbane, beautifully bound and deckle-edged. But I loved reading it because it cured me of my temporary hankering to be more of a Glenn O'Brien-type, with better clothes, a busier social calendar, and a facility for apothegms like, "Buy a Star Trek uniform in case you get called for jury duty." It is probably possible to live a meaningful existence amid all that frippery, but if so, O'Brien does not make the case. I think he is probably quite sad. He does not seem to like women much, and I gather he likes children even less, although he probably loves his own. He used to love gay men, back when they were flamboyant and fun, but now they are domestic and shabbily dressed. He hates cats, tolerates dogs. He does not seem to know any poor people anymore, unless they are cleaning up after him.
I find O'Brien's existence alluring, but there is something dirty about this book. I read it because I was thinking a lot about clothes, and now I feel bad for having thought that much about clothes. Most people, if they are lucky enough to have some disposable income, balance frugality and consumption; they want to treat themselves well, but believe there is such thing as too much. O'Brien thinks otherwise. Having been well-regarded and well-fed for several decades now, he is eager to recommend that state. I probably will not be joining him at the party, and would not even if I could; but thanks to him, I would know precisely what to wear.
Mark Oppenheimer writes the Beliefs column for the New York Times. He can be found at markoppenheimer.com and followed on Twitter @markopp1.
Illustration by Rob Donnelly.