Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Dear Banana Republic: I'm Breaking Up With You

This is so hard. I just don't know where to start. Please forgive me for putting this in writing. I know it's avoidant. I know you deserve better. I simply lack the courage to face you at this time. You've done so much for me. You helped me realize that the way I present myself matters. You introduced me to slim fit dress shirts. You gave me not only wrinkle-free shirts, but pants as well! There's been family deal after family deal. You've given yourself fully to me and never expected that much in return, often no more than 60% of retail, to be exact.

I remember the way things got started. My college years marked a time when I cared very little for how I looked. Most days, I would grab a pair of jeans, one of 35 Virginia Tech t-shirts and be on my way. My standards were so low. I had no idea I deserved better. I remember really noticing you for the first time as I graduated. I can't recall exactly where it was, perhaps in a local mall, or maybe one of your flyers hit my mailbox. Maybe it was you who made the first move. At first, I thought you were entirely out of my league. I'd shop your outlets just for the label, although the fit and finish of your outlet line was never what I saw in the magazines. I wanted to be with you, but I figured you were just out for the higher class guys. Still every now and then, I'd shop those outlets and find a great deal. It was on one of these outlet trips in Delaware that you really made yourself available to me. As I came to the check out counter, the sales associate offered me a BR credit card. At first I passed, wondering why I would get a card for a place I could barely afford. He assured me I would save 30% on that purchase. I couldn't pass it up. I applied and you accepted me. Despite my baggage, student loans and dependence on the graphic t as a fashion staple, you accepted me for all that I was. You were so graceful. Our relationship truly materialized on that day.

I had some very real needs at that time. I was no longer a college kid, I was a business professional. My wardrobe just didn't reflect this transition. Many of my collared shirts and ties had stains on them from years of waiting tables. What was presentable was still ill-fitting. So, I spent more time with you. I perused your aisles and websites. I'd day dream about the new season's arrivals. Sometimes I'd struggle to focus on work as I devoted myself to your website, learning every detail  of your clothing lines. As we often do in exciting, blossoming relationships, I completely leaned on you in my times of need. I solely looked to you to remedy my dirth of professional and classy casual attire. I lavished you with large percentages of my salary. You gave back. To simply take from me was never your way. As if clothing me wasn't enough, you made me feel special. In that first year, I hit a spending level that provided me with a BR Luxe Card. In return for my faithfulness to you, you gave me deep discounts, access to special events and free alterations. I was so taken with the tortoise shell finish on that card. In fact, I still am.

This marked the beginning of the Golden Age of our time together. You always provided whatever I needed. This was never more clear than during my argyle phase in the winter of 2006-2007. Rather than letting me commit a fashion faux pas with someone else, you gave me the most tasteful argyle you could, allowing me to indulge in several sweaters while keeping my dignity. Those sweaters still reside in my closet, memories of some maturation I still had left to wade through as you held my hand. Soon after, I discovered your slim-fit dress shirt line. The first one I purchased was for an interview with the FBI. I also bought a tasteful blue and red striped tie that day. It was plain but classy, just what I believed the FBI would want to see. That shirt helped me through that interview and since has been through two weddings. While it's a little dingy and has stains on the chest from a poorly affixed boutonniere, it still hangs among the others in my closet, my go to for an understated look in a suit. That shirt began a tradition. From then on, whenever I entered a round of interviews for a new job or had any other type of important meeting, I would visit you for a new shirt. You gifted me the confidence to know I could impress anyone who sat across the table from me. Additionally, until I met Ledbury, I never bought a dress shirt from any other maker. Your newer, tailored slim-fit hugs me so closely I always feel loved when wearing it.

And, oh, you're jeans! They fit me perfectly. It was like they had a deep knowledge of me. Every now and then, I could stack discounts and rewards and get a truly premium pair. My first $110 pair of jeans that I purchased for $45 were sublime. I wore them until they fell apart. It was no problem when they did fall apart, though. When it was time for a new pair, I would just order a new pair in the same size and cut. There was no need to try anything on. You were so consistent in the way you felt tailored to me. I even remember when I was strapped for cash at one time, you let me shop with my Luxe Card at your little brother, The Gap. I got my discounts and a near identical fit at a cheaper price point. You were so gracious.

Soon, you were all I wore. People started noticing that I was with someone new. At first, they would ask, "Where are those jeans from? That's a really nice shirt, where did you get it?" Early on, I was occasionally wearing someone else. Quickly, it was always you. Underwear, socks, belt, suit, pants, shirt, it was only you. Eventually those who knew me learned not to ask. On the seldom occasion they would make such an inquiry, I'd look at them with disdain, my glare or dismissive sigh conveyed I would never be with anyone but you.

The honeymoon was wonderful. I believe it was longer than most, but it would not last. As The Second Law of Thermodynamics and Chinua Achebe tell us, things fall apart. And fall apart we did. Our end came as sleep comes: Slowly at first, then all at once. It began with your jeans. Your sizing became inconsistent. I couldn't count on your fit anymore. You'd always try to make it right, with streamlined returns and replacements, but we just couldn't find our groove like we used to. Then I started to notice those "Made in China" tags that you were always carrying on you. Why had you fallen in with such company? You never used to carry those tags. Finally, your sales just got too prolific. They were no longer just for me as a Luxe member. On many days, you'd offer 40% off to anyone who walked through your doors. It was like you didn't respect yourself or understand your value. You were just like the Jos. A. Banks of the world who present ridiculously high retail prices that one should never pay, only to have 45% off sales every other day. Honestly, I believe you're better than that, but maybe that's just wishful thinking, maybe you're not who you used to be. Your jeans sure indicate you aren't.

This isn't just about me, either. I really want you to be happy. I think I fooled us both into believing I was the type of guy for you. You fit me better than anyone had before, I thought we were tailor made for each other. The truth is, the more I explore you, the more I realize you're great, the best I've been with, but we're just not right for each other. When I get those mailers from you, you always feature rail thin men with thick heads of hair. That's just not me. Even when skinny, I'm broad shouldered. Barring some long overdue advances in the scientific community, my hairstyle of choice will be a buzzed head till I die. You're looking for a different kind of guy than me, and I think you deserve to find him.

BR, you've been good to me, but if we're honest with one another, we both know it's time to move on. I have a history of holding on to things too long, and I just don't want that to be the case here. We've already both made some memories that we'd rather forget. I want to focus on the good times. You gave me a lot. You got me through some hard times. You helped me to take pride in my appearance and form a better view of who I should be with. It's time for me to go find them. I hope they'll be much like you, but American made, full of a little more confidence, and better tailored for me. I hope you find that super lean guy with a dark, full head of hair you're always dreaming about. You might hear from me from time to time, but just know that this is the end, and I'm grateful for the time we had.

Much Love (Just not THAT kind, anymore),


Someone Like You by Adele on Grooveshark

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

On Resolve

Compared to some of the other athletic endeavors I’ve encountered, walking is fairly easy. It’s very rare that we find ourselves in a place where we can’t put one foot in front of the other. That’s why this moment was particularly disheartening. We were struggling up a well-worn trail, the Salkantay, in the Andes. It’s a little known fact that while Machu Picchu is on a mountain top, it’s actually in a depression relative to most of the surrounding areas. Most people who visit Peru make a pilgrimage terminating at Machu Picchu, meaning that while difficult, the weary travelers ultimately experience a loss in altitude during their journey. In other words, they’re going downhill more than uphill. My party decided to go the opposite way. This decision was mostly due to time constraints, but looking back I think it was also a result of ignorance to aforementioned geographic features.

It was the last day of our three day trek and I was struggling mightily under the weight of a mostly empty pack at about 13,000 feet. That morning, wild dogs had stolen our food for the day, so I was suffering a pretty serious caloric deficit. I dug my trekking poles into the ground and hoisted myself up with my arms and shoulders, my legs lacked the strength to carry my weight. Incapable of keeping any consistent pace, no matter how slow, I had to develop strategies to keep myself going. I settled on 45 seconds of walking followed by 15 seconds of rest. This pace even felt more than I could handle. Two others had gone ahead, concerned that we would miss the driver waiting for us at the terminus. Aaron and I served as each other’s carrots, each leading the other for a time, before changing positions. Oxygen depletion and exhaustion were playing tricks on my senses, I barely knew where I was. I stalled for a little while. Aaron came up from behind and took his place by my side.

“Clint, I haven’t known you for very long, but from what I’ve seen of your life, I know one thing about you. There is no quit in you.”

Empowered by his encouragement and my survival instinct, I continued up the mountain. We hit the final pass a brief period later, much to my relief. We snapped pictures and celebrated our victory. The descent down the back side of that final climb wasn’t easy, but at least it was downhill. We arrived to a Peruvian trail guide waving flags and screaming that he needed to meet the crazy mother******s (His words, not mine, although mine may not have been entirely dissimilar at that point) who completed a four day trip in three days, backwards. This was a few months after my mother passed, and I desperately needed a win. I remember looking back through the window of our van at that mountain, a symbol that I could still accomplish something wonderful.

I think Aaron misjudged me that day. I have a history of giving up on many things fairly easily. This is one of the qualities I find most disappointing in myself. However, Aaron’s words made me believe that I could change this part of me. I determined that if there was a single person in the world who saw me in that light, I could become a person with grit, determination and no quit. Although I saw Aaron’s words as totally off-base and lacking insight, I decided to make them prophetic. Those words have echoed in my head for nearly a year now.

“There is no quit in you.”

So, I’ve resolved to fight the challenges that are thrown in front of me. I get discouraged, and I sometimes cope in ways that I wish I wouldn’t, but I fight. I refuse to be brought down. I refuse to be broken. There are just a few problems with this resolution.

It’s exhausting. Not long ago, I ended up in conflict with a close friend. I couldn’t figure out why we had come to this place. Then I realized that I’ve been in a defensive, battle-ready posture for over two years. When I face harsh criticism or rejection I dig in my heels and anticipate or engage conflict. Not only is this hard on relationships, but it’s exhausting. Constantly preparing for the next battle drains a lot of emotional and physical resources. Next, I’ve begun to identify too closely with my toughness. Grace, love, acceptance, patience: These are characteristics to truly aspire toward. A stubborn refusal to be hurt? Not so much. Sometimes it’s the pain and hurt that make their way into our lives that do the best job of shaping us into who we should be. Another issue I have is stubborn loyalty or resolve to fix situations that just aren’t working. This is actually one place where my past actions directly contradict my perception that I give up easily. The hallmark of this shortcoming in my life has been in romantic relationships. I just don’t know when to quit. I know this has resulted in a tremendous amount of heartache both for me and a couple of women in my life.
There’s one last problem with always needing to hold things together: Sometimes we need to be broken. Greek mythology gives us two amazing examples of beings that are destroyed to make way for new beings. The first is the Phoenix, which bursts into flames and is rebirthed. The second is the story of Halcyon, a woman who loses her love and, heartbroken, throws herself from a cliff. She is raised and reborn as a beautiful kingfisher.

In the Christian faith, we are called to die to ourselves and be reborn in Christ. This isn’t a decision we make once, when we give our lives over to Christ. It’s a decision that we have to make every day. Just like I’ve found myself embattled with friends and family at times. I’ve embattled myself with God. I currently view being brought down or broken as the one thing I will not accept. This makes all problems mine to handle, rather than handing them over to God. I’m also starting to get the feeling at God is pretty set on breaking me. I think he wants to convince me that my life and my problems are not mine to handle. Rather than accepting his grace and love in such a time, my petty ego is insulted that he’s trying to make a point. In short, I think I may be in a battle of wills with God. I’ll let you know how that turns out.

A few months ago, I was out on a company retreat and we were racing around a ranch in off-road go-carts. On straightaways, I had the pedal set against the floor, the speedometer pegged at its max. I slid in and out of turns wildly, exhilarated by the speed and tiptoeing along the line between control and recklessness. My passenger and I switched positions. Although his driving was markedly similar to my own, I was in a complete panic. He never would have known, but I was miserable. The same experience that was invigorating to me moments ago was now terrifying, merely because I did not have control. As we skidded around a corner, my friend oversteered slightly. Our front, passenger side wheel dug into the soft grass just on the inside of the turn and our forward momentum became sideways momentum. It felt like an eternity from when I saw what was happening in my mind to when the roll became a reality. I felt my shoulder and face slam into the ground harshly and the strange unweighting of doing a full flip. We landed with the wheels on the ground, stunned but okay. Our worst case scenario was pretty much realized. There was some damage to the vehicle, which we were regretful to report, but we were alright, albeit sore for a couple of days. I let go, we crashed, but we learned some lessons.

This may be where I am in life right now. I may need to let go and let someone else drive for a spell. Life may get still harder for a moment, but may be better in the long run. Have you ever battled God, or simply life’s circumstances for control? Are you doing it now? How do you think you can let go? What do you think would happen if you did?