A restored Pennsylvania farmhouse, not unlike the one in which I spent most of my formative years.
"Just where do you come off telling others what clothes to wear and how to live their lives?" began the rather nasty e-mail I received the other day. "And who the blankety-blank-blank do you think you are?" It continued on in that vein for quite some way, but you get the general idea. Sigh. This was a first for me. E-hatemail. Isn't the relative anonymity of the web great? I guess if you stick your head up above the crowd, especially online, someone is bound to take a pot shot or two at it sooner or later. It's easier now than ever before to do that.
Ok. The following probably will not win me many friends, but here you go. I'm the 40-something son of an upper middle class WASPy family (mostly Episcopalians, some Methodists, and one Southern Baptist who liked his whisky sours) that stretched from Massachusetts and Rhode Island through the Poconos in Pennsylvania to the Philadelphia area and adjacent nicer parts of New Jersey plus Maryland and Virginia, all the way to Central North Carolina, where the roots and some of the family have remained.
My sister and I were brought up in southeastern Pennsylvania ourselves (District Township in Berks County, two hours outside Philadelphia), the products of a reasonably good (at the time) semi-rural public school district. Our grandparents' generation spoke with a soft, educated North Carolina accent that you'd almost miss if you weren't paying attention. Certainly, it was nothing like the imagined pronounced redneck accent that those unfamiliar with The American South think everyone below the Mason-Dixon Line has.
The various male figures in the extended family were, in no particular order, two corporate VPs in the financial (my father) and building materials sectors, two surgeons, a clergyman who later earned his Ph.D. in Theology and Philosophy and is now a professor, another professor (my step-father), an attorney, plus military and naval higher-ups who simultaneously worked within the National Security Agency (NSA). Another Navy officer in the family finally became an admiral and had charge of a base in the Pacific before retiring as a 30-year man 20 years ago. Still another male family member was in the furniture industry, and there was one who owned his own printing and stationary factory. One more was a county commissioner and owner of several car dealerships, while another was a teacher and later an elementary school principal back when that meant more than it seems to now.
The women were either what we used to call housewives, who also kept busy with organizations like the National Episcopal Church Women (NECW), or they were nurses and teachers. Pretty traditional roles for the time. Typically, most of them (my grandmother's generation) had help come in a few mornings a week to do laundry, ironing, general house-keeping, and some occasional cooking. One or two of the great aunts in the family still in North Carolina had a house-keeper six days a week. My divorced mother was the notable exception. A trained painter and sculptor, she worked in the retail end of the garment industry, as a buyer and store manager until my sister and I were out of high school. My own wife is a college professor by the way.
As youngsters at home, we had horses and ponies with weekly riding lessons (Mom rode well and did so until recently when a knee began giving her trouble), along with dogs and cats, plus some chickens and geese for a while. We also looked after the ponies and sheep that belonged to Mrs. Conrad, a widow who lived half a mile or so up the country road where our homes were located.
My sister and I attended YWCA/YMCA summer camps for a few weeks each summer for several years (with swimming, riding, and tennis lessons among other things) until we developed other interests as teenagers. It's worth noting that we came into contact with lots of different boys and girls there, who came from a diverse array of social backgrounds and even other countries around the world. Back at home, horse shows, country fairs, and auctions were also part of our family routine during spring, summer, and occasionally early fall weekends for many years.
Much of the extended family spent a couple of weeks each summer on the Chesapeake Bay, or along the Carolina Coast, either the NC Outer Banks, or near North Myrtle Beach in SC. I mentioned that elsewhere at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style a few weeks ago. Quite a few of the adults, the men especially but not exclusively, played Bridge until the wee hours every night and enjoyed their particular medicinal drink of choice (G&T, scotch and soda, scotch and water, or bourbon, rye, or gin and orange juice for instance) during these almost round-the-clock card games. There were always three of four Bridge tables set up in the large living-dining space on the first floor of the beach houses for example.
Yet even with all of that drinking, there was no bad behavior, no habitually loud voices, and no swearing. Off color stories might be told once in a great while by the men, but only if and when the ladies were out of earshot. That meant outside on the beach well away from the houses or cottage. If and when a family member had more than he or she ought to during the evening hours after supper when the adults returned to the card tables, they were just put quietly to bed -- face down of course -- and checked later to make certain everything was all right. For all of that, gentility really was the unspoken rule. Even in the middle of the night as the last of the evening's Bridge players traipsed stealthily, if somewhat unsteadily, off to bed.
At these annual beach gatherings, a couple of great aunts ran the kitchen with an iron hand and kept a lid on three generations of men and boys on summer vacation. With one notable exception. An unreformed practical joker, Great Uncle Syd used to pinch the exposed Achilles tendons of the adult women in the family (everyone wore leather or canvas deck shoes, flip-flops, or white Keds without socks at the beach) without warning and make loud yapping barks like a small dog as he did.
"Oh! Syd!!!" they'd exclaim and stamp their feet in anger. "Go away!" The older generation of women hated these hijinks, but my mother's generation and we kids thought they were hysterical.
Uncle Syd also scared the life out of Aunt Marnie another summer with one of those cheap rubber hands from a joke shop, hiding it in a kitchen cabinet just over the counter one year, where it was visible but just barely. And it's a wonder the police or beach patrol didn't knock on the door given the volume of her screams once she noticed it peeking out at her from behind some coffee mugs and stacked salad bowls. Practical jokes aside, there was always lively conversation about this or that, and family stories handed down from one generation to the next.
The girls and younger women of various ages in the family behaved pleasantly in those days (with one notable exception who was a royal pain in the neck. . . and still is as an adult) and had little to do with their more clueless and goofier male siblings and cousins. As recently as the 1980s, there was no such thing as slutty "ladette" behavior among the girls in our family. That particular concept had yet to manifest itself across much of society. Nope. Ours were all nice, refined southern gals even if they hadn't lived in the region for years. Very funny and warm, good conversationalists, some of them quite interesting, but all well-mannered and reserved though genuinely nice cousins, (great) aunts, and mothers.
Finally, we were either taught outright as children, or simply picked up through osmosis, a certain quiet, understated way of being and dressing along with a reasonable amount of what used to be considered good taste with a healthy dose of finesse thrown into the mix. We never labelled it as Trad, or Preppy, or WASP, which seems to be the practice in much of cyberspace on the various blogs and websites that espouse that kind of thing. We never thought about it at all actually. It certainly wasn't talked about. It's just the way things were and, to some extent, how they remain for some of the extended family at least. Within the generation below mine, however, those in their late 20s-early 30s, things have slipped somewhat, and some are, well, a bit crass with what passes for acceptable conversation topics and conduct when in a mixed group, but I digress.
Oh yeah. Almost forgot. Yours truly had long and BIG 1980s hair and played the electric guitar or bass in several different bands into my early twenties, yet I managed to stay away from drugs and the problems that go with them. I also worked a blue collar job in a non-union supermarket for much of that same period until I decided to return to school at 25, finally cutting my hair a couple of years later, you know, to get with the program. As an adult, I realize that I didn't really fit in there as hard as I might have tried at the time.
But no Ivy League here, so don't throw that large rock in your hand at me just yet. My own post-secondary education comes from three degree programs at two large public universities in the Upper Midwest, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of Minnesota (where I met my wife). Starting at a community college for five semesters, I worked hard to get into both universities, finance everything, and managed to kick some serious academic ass at both places, thank you very much, even winning a Fulbright Scholarship between my M.A. and Ph. D. programs for further study and archival work at a large Norwegian university. On a related note, I also speak, read, and/or write three other languages well besides English. . . and can make sense of six others.
For the most part, our existence is and was extremely comfortable and happy, for which I make no apologies. Not everyone enjoys a life like that. It is and has been "idyllic," in a word, a way of living and being that many insist never was. . . except in the minds of TV and movie scriptwriters. Let me assure you, that life did and does still exist to some degree. My own family was and remains extremely fortunate compared to many others in the world. I never forget that. But let me point out that the good fortune I describe, across several generations, came, in every case, through hard work, scrimping, and saving plus some lean times. It wasn't handed to anyone. . . contrary to what many might want to think.
So, there you are. That's who I am, where I come from, why I approach things like I do in my personal life, and why I offer the kind of advice and guidance found at The Average Guy's Guide to Classic Style. Take or leave what you choose. You might disagree vehemently with much of what's on offer here, but, hopefully, you might also find a few small things that are useful in your own efforts to kick up your everyday style several notches.