Down in the cellar one night, I pulled my favorite pair of jeans from the washing machine and groaned. Upstairs, the popcorn was on its second minute in the microwave, and I didn't want it to scorch, but when I looked at the size of the rip in the right knee of those jeans I forgot about eating. The rip had grown another inch since last I'd checked: The few thin strands of thread that stretched across the ragged hole were milk-white and limp as linguini. Another washing and, without intending to, I'd be in style, like one of those trendy movie stars with strategically placed knee rips.
But I have known for years I am incapable of handling that much cool, and so, instead of feeling positive, I felt only dismay.
Like most people who have gotten past 40 and marvel at having survived in an environment ridden with crime, cancer-causing substances and some pretty terrible flavors of Gatorade, I tend to resist change. And while I usually think of change in macro terms -- children growing up, moving away, getting married, joining the Army, having babies -- it was down at the washing machine I was reminded of the basic truth that most change is small change.
As small and simple as this basic truth: There comes a point in life when your good pair of jeans becomes your hack-around pair of jeans. When that happens, a chain reaction of change takes place in the jean pool -- a reaction just as rigid and immutable as the effect of a booming stereo on a father trying to sleep late on a Saturday morning. Your old hack-around jeans become your new lawn mowing-house painting jeans; and your old lawn mowing jeans become your new summer cutoffs; and your old cutoffs become the new rag you use to wipe the spilled paint off the house painting jeans; and the old rags crawl meekly off to a grungy box beneath the kitchen sink.
It's this kind of change I find most disconcerting. Somehow you know your babies are going to grow up to be cowboys, but you always expect your pants to stay the same. Or I do anyway. Around my house I am still held up to ridicule for having hung onto a pair of sneakers for 14 years. So many toes finally poked through them that I was muscled into the family sedan one Saturday, driven to the mall and warned not to come out without something new on my feet.
I did as I was told, although I had a hard time getting the sales clerk to understand that when I said I wanted sneaks, I did not mean jogging shoes or cross training shoes or mountain climbing shoes or any kind of shoes. I meant sneaks. I finally pointed to a pair on display that fit my definition, and the clerk brightened and said, "Oh, you mean basketball shoes."
When I eventually emerged from the mall I could tell by the stunned looks on the faces of my wife and children that the change they had orchestrated hadn't lived up to their expectations. For even among those who love you, there is something aesthetically offensive about a graying, middle-aged guy with a bald spot and the suggestions of a spare tire, wearing a pair of bright, shiny white leather basketball shoes -- especially when it is sadly apparent that his fadeaway jumper has long since faded. I can at least report that they are fine shoes, my toes are happy and I recommend new sneaks to everyone. And I'm sure in another year or two I'll be able to bring myself to throw out the old pair, still hovering hopefully at the back of my closet.
The point is, small changes take more getting used to than large changes. I carry that baggage from kidhood. In those days, I couldn't wait to get home from parochial school each afternoon and climb out of the old-man, gray flannel slacks we were all forced to wear, and to pull on something that made me feel more like a kid. Jeans -- they used to be dunagrees, another small change I continue to mourn -- were as sacred to boys then as the starched linen garments the priests pulled on over their heads before they said Mass.
To rip a hole in a knee of your jeans meant a red flannel patch sewn over the hole. It was a rare kid who didn't have a patched knee and a rare family that could afford to keep their kids in new jeans. Thus, even today, I won't purchase a new pair of jeans until the former new pair has been passed down the line. Then, following at least two weeks of pre-jean-buying hysteria -- during which I ritualistically lament the need to trek to the mall and spend a small fortune on a new pair of jeans -- I take the plunge and return home with a pair of pants as stiff and uncomfortable as a dead cat.
There begins the painful breaking-in process, or what I have come to call the courting period. I've been courting my newest pair of jeans these last few days and it hasn't been easy. Even when you buy pre-washed and pre-shrunk jeans, they still have a feel of newness to them that is just short of being trustworthy. There's only one thing to do: Wear them long enough to break them in. And so I have, but I've also had a nagging feeling that these new jeans are just too blue. They'll never fade the way the old ones did. Some nights when I hang them up I think I've made a big mistake. Maybe I should have gotten the boot cut or the lighter colored blue or the kind with buttons on the fly.
My wife, who prefers to worry about more global problems like war and peace, thinks I spend utterly too many hours grieving over my old jeans. And I probably do. I can even remember the exact moment that wonderful pair sustained their death rip, when the tear had been a tiny hole no bigger than a white lie.
It was over at Jerry's house. We were all waiting for Rocky to show up so we could go out together, but Rocky was taking his sweet time and I was pacing and Jerry said you'd better sit down, it'll be awhile, and I finally decided to sit down but I didn't look where I was going and banged my knee against the coffee table. A metal corner penetrated the stiff, never-been-washed denim, severing just two or three threads, but denting my knee bone so hard I hollered bad things about Rocky in such a loud voice that it scared Jerry's dog.
I tried to pretend to myself then that it was such a teeny hole it would never matter. For two or three wearings I even treated them like they were perfectly all right. But they weren't. The hole slowly got bigger and bigger and the more I tried to ignore it, the more the jeans changed on me.
And then, that night in the basement, they were telling me it was time to move them down the line.
I don't know, maybe this new pair will turn out all right. Maybe I'll take them out for a walk, maybe roll around in the dirt a little. Tough love is sometimes the only way to go with a problem pair of jeans. I know for darn sure I'm never going near a coffee table again. Those things are dangerous.