Family Ties

Alphabet Soup

It’s that time of year again — the ho-ho-holidays, the spend-yourself-silly countdown to December 25. I’m a sucker for a shopping mall any day of the year, so I find myself passing extraordinary amounts of time in them during the pre-Christmas season. There is, of course, plenty of blatant materialism and commercialism involved in these endeavors, but I also find myself learning a little lesson in diversity nearly every year.

It happens when I’m in pursuit of gifts for certain male relatives, the type who routinely sport the attire of a professional man. For me, there’s no greater holiday rush than picking out a dress shirt and a tie that goes with it — it’s something I don’t get to do in my normal life.

(It’s almost as much fun as buying baby clothes, but I get to do that all year long, especially since my friends and family keep popping ‘em out.)

My boss tells me he knows little about buying dress shirts; for the most part, they just appear in his closet. His wife, it turns out, gets to have the thrill of shopping for men’s shirts and ties whenever she wants. She doesn’t need the excuse of a holiday.

And it is a thrill, at least for me. I find myself captivated by all the colors of the dress shirts and their nice clean lines, the way they’re cut, the way the collars button down (or don’t), the simplicity and elegance of that garment worn by U.S. presidents and prep school boys, by department store managers and grocery store baggers alike.

But those elements don’t even scratch the surface of the sheer joy of buying a dress shirt and tie, because the real fun is in finding the right shirt-and-tie combination. I spend probably 90 percent of my time in the men’s department trying to find the perfect match in a tie. You have to find a tasteful design, either bold or conservative (depending on the recipient), it has to match or complement the shirt’s color, ideally it should be versatile, so the college professor can wear it to work or to his dinner party on Saturday night. If all goes well, your favorite tie in the store matches your favorite shirt in the store.

It’s enough to give a lesbian heart palpitations.

I don’t tend to classify myself on a butch/femme scale — except sometimes, when I’m trying to be clever — but during Christmas shopping time, the butch in me comes out. I find myself identifying a little bit with what it might be like to be transgendered — the rush I feel in matching up shirts and ties is so heady that it makes me wonder if there’s a calling I’m ignoring.

Of course, I’d look ridiculous in such a get-up, and I don’t really have any desire to put the things on. I’ve done all five seconds of my annual seasonal soul-searching about my gender identity and yup, I’m still happily female.

So far this year, I’ve visited one venue. Surprisingly, it was sparsely populated with shoppers, giving me plenty of time and space to examine just about every shirt and tie combination available in the store. For a while I wasn’t aware of anyone else in my little corner of the store, my little section of the world — until I heard two young straight women. One of them wanted to buy a tie for “him. ” I am guessing he was her husband, based on clues she dropped as they shopped, loudly.

They seemed a little perplexed by the mission; it was all I could do to not offer my help.

“I’m a lesbian, ” I wanted to tell them. “I don’t wear shirts and ties, and I’m not married to anyone who does, but trust me. ”

After all, who typically can better judge women’s fashions — straight men or their gay brethren? It’s something about our different balance of hormones, maybe, or perhaps it’s just that sexual thoughts don’t get in the way when we look at a stylish someone of the opposite gender — we can study their outfits instead.

At one point the louder of the two women lamented that she was just drawn to wave patterns on ties — she couldn’t help it. The other one was exhausted and wanted to leave; she didn’t say as much but it was plain as day. Clearly their hearts weren’t in it.

As for me, my heart was so far in it that I decided the selection before me wasn’t sufficient. There weren’t enough ties to choose from, and the sales are bound to get better, giving me more buying power on my gift-swap budget. I’m not especially savvy with my finances, but I know how to make the most of a Secret Santa spending ceiling.

Also, the recipient of this gift is someone extra special. He’s not my husband, but his daughter was foolish enough to take my hand in a Vermont marriage a couple of years ago. Before my partner’s family started a Secret Santa exchange last Christmas, Kim and I used to shop for her dad together every year.

Oh, how I loved that part of the Christmas chore. I’d fight the crowds to find all the possible shirt-and-tie permutations, present them to her, watch her wrinkle her nose, and gleefully go back and try again. It was, really, delightful.

I got lucky this year and the neutral party known as our Christmas Elf assigned Karl Sr. to me — meaning I get to pick the shirt and tie myself. The only nose wrinkling is my own. And maybe his, I suppose, on Christmas Day. But at least he knows it was a match made with love.

Kristina Campbell writes biweekly for MW, and she’s looking for more men to add to her Christmas gift list. Buddy up to her at kcampbell@metroweekly.net.

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