Monday, June 02, 2014

tyin’ up my white tie

I suspect that the average American male around my age last wore a dinner jacket at his senior prom.  Or maybe his wedding.

We are not a formal attire people.  Especially, those of us who grew up in the American West – where formal attire meant wearing silver tips on your bolo tie.

And the last time I wore a dinner jacket?  Last night, of course.  Well, not a dinner jacket.  I uncloseted the white tie outfit for its fourth outing.  It was formal night on the Noordam.

But, just as Rick in Casablanca was misinformed about the waters of Morocco, I was misinformed about the requirements for formal wear on the ship.  My travel agent told me that Holland America was one of the few ships that still require
black tie on formal night.  In all public areas of the ship.

The briefing papers that arrived with my cruise documents backed her up.  “In order to complement your fellow guests, Holland America Line asks that you observe the suggested dress code throughout the entire evening.”

I purchased my first dinner jacket while I was stationed in England in the 1970s.  My commander informed me I would be invited to functions where black tie would be required and mess dress would not be an appropriate option.  So, I bought one with a bit of American flair to it.

It turned out to be a wise purchase.  I wore it at least twice a week -- to dinners, to the theater, to concerts.

But that was just my introduction to formal wear.  While I was at Oxford, my classmates informed me I would now need a full white tie kit for our dining club -- and for invitations home to some of Britain’s nicer homes.  The boy from Powers laughed a lot at himself dressed up as part of the crowd his ancestors had fought back in 1776.

Since then, I have owned a couple of dinner jackets that would come out of storage for cruises or Christmas dinners.  But all of that changed when I moved to Mexico.  Wearing long pants was about as formal as I was going to be in my new country.  So, the formal wear was shipped off to Goodwill.

We all know the rest of the story.  My tailor sewed together the most comfortable set of clothes I have ever owned.

On each of our formal nights, I have stuffed my formal shirt to comply with a dress code that appears not to exist.  It is true that the dining room requires coat and tie on formal night (with the wait captain providing a jacket for those who have forgotten theirs).  But there certainly is no black tie -- let alone, white tie -- requirement.

That is too bad.  I had manufactured several well-honed quips based on the assumption the rest of the men in the room would all look like an After Six advertisement.  Instead, the dining room looks like Friday night dinner at the Elk’s Club in Bozeman.

Much to my surprise, I have enjoyed dressing up as if I were heading to dinner in Oxford.  There is something pleasant about donning a costume when setting out to play a new role.

Unfortunately, tightly-written scripts require the active participation of more than one person.  On this cruise, we do not sit at an assigned table with the same people each night.  Instead, we are seated with whoever happens to be in line next to us that night.  A little bit like flying Southwest Airlines.

There are positives and negatives.  The biggest positive is the opportunity to meet new people each night.  The biggest negative is meeting new people each night and never getting past the small talk of: “Why did you move to Mexico?”  “Are you retired?”  “What do you do with your time?”  “Wasn’t the weather lovely today?  Rather mind-numbing stuff.

And venturing outside the trivial can be costly.  I sat across from a woman one night who announced out of the blue: “Anyone who opposes President Obama is a racist.”  When I asked her what she based that on, she put on her stained glass voice: “Because he is our first black president.”  “Half black; half white,” said the editor personality in my soul.  “That’s an example.  Bringing race into the conversation is racist.”  I was going to point out that she brought up the topic of race, but the conversation was already in a power-on stall.

The next night, a fellow raised in Brooklyn, who now lives in Florida, was talking with an Australian.  The Australian asked him if he had purchased health insurance as the result of Obamacare.  The Floridian’s face went beet red.  “Don’t even mention that man’s name.”  He then blathered on how all politicians are crooks -- plus several other comments that might interest the FBI, if not the Secret Service.

I was beginning to fear that the art of conversation was dead.  Then I ran into a couple from Nevada.  At first, he was reluctant to discuss anything other than chit-chat.  But, with a bit of probing, I discovered our politics were about as far away from one another as is possible.  Over the course of just over an hour, we had shared philosophical, religious, and historical view points.  Pressing.  Testing.  Laughing.  He told me it was the best dinner conversation he had had on the ship.  That was true for me, as well.

There was a day when people could dress up in their finery and attend dinners where the conversation would not only be challenging, but entertaining.  At least, on one night, I discovered that the art of civility and advocacy are not necessarily the antithesis of each other.

Even if I am dressed to play the role of a British major in a Shaw play.

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