If a team of advance scouts from an alien race intent on overtaking our planet were to reconnoiter from a back table at a business summit they would probably knock off early feeling pretty good about their chances. They would observe a culture limited in communication to a small handful of words: execute, strategy, leverage, win, people, passion, paradigm, innovate, dynamic, commitment, platform, values, scalable, synergistic, and sustainable.
They would also observe a race transacting primarily in giant novelty checks.
These earthlings are primitive, they would report back to supreme command.
This one is in the bag.
And so I thought as I sat in my rental tuxedo 1,500 miles from the farm in the large downtown hotel at the dinner organized to recognize a handful of business leaders. Under the sterile drone of air conditioning, intermittent flash of game show pyrotechnics, brief snippets of overexaggerated emcee British accents and the faint odor of cologne, hubris, and low golf handicaps. I may as well have been 150,000 miles from the farm.
“Daddy you look so fancy,” my daughter said in admiration the day before as I left for the airport. I wore a grey and blue striped Nike golf shirt tucked into flat-front chinos and Nike running shoes. I looked like a caddie. But to my daughter, more accustomed to seeing me in blood-stained denim, torn plaids, threadbare cotton, steel-toed leather, and faded Patagonia synthetics I looked like something else.
If she could only see me now, I thought.
But thank goodness the neighbors couldn’t. I’d have a lot of explaining to do.
My tux felt stiff and unnatural, like wearing a cardboard box. But misery loves company and I took a degree of comfort in observing the men around me who looked even more uncomfortable. A man takes a bet with terrible odds when he decides to buy his own tuxedo. Judging by the groan of wool and polyester against bulges of middle-aged hair and fat, there were a lot of losing gamblers in that hotel ballroom.
Earlier in the day, as I waited at the rental outlet for a final pressing and shining of my kit I perused the latest offerings. Indecorous corals, neons, polka dots, pinstripes. Top hats. Canes. Half the inventory would have been more suited to a costume store.
A couple in their late 50’s entered. The husband stood a shade short of six feet, with cropped and receding sandy blonde hair, a ruddy face, a pronounced strip of visceral waistline fat, and thick sinewy hands that almost entirely concealed the thin wedding band he wore on his left hand. He wore a short sleeve woven shirt untucked over relaxed-fit blue jeans. The quintessential Costco man, right down to his black Court Classic shoes, there to try on his outfit for the Franklin wedding.
Five minutes later he emerged from the dressing room wearing a snow white tuxedo with pink spaghetti-width pinstripes. He looked as flamboyant as an NBA lottery pick on draft night. That is if the NBA were in the business of drafting 5’9”, 260 lb. high school biology teachers. His wife snorted audibly at first glance, covering her mouth with a concealing hand, before quickly composing herself. “Don’t you look nice” she said in a voice more patronizing and pitying than sincere.
So, relatively speaking, I was happy with my rental. It could have been much worse.
Conversation on the other hand was a challenge.
Lately I’ve come to notice that I am losing fluency in the sort of casual dinner conversation that is the hallmark of mainstream business circles. I had once been a natural at it, above average even. Private schooling, exotic vacations, courtside seats, general contractors, and run-ins with the unwashed masses. I could dish on all of it.
But now that I’m a part-time farmer I sometimes struggle.
No hablo tuxedo.
“So this is what passes for asparagus these days?” I blurted loudly when the waitstaff served up a plateful of stems that had roughly the same color and texture of raisins.
It’s hard to not be critical of something you know just slipped off the back of the Sysco truck. Something you know traveled farther to your table over the last several weeks than its farmer has traveled in a lifetime. But otherwise good, smart, upstanding people were busy smacking lips and Instagramming photos of the stuff. So I shut up.
The filet was spongy, bland, and flat with that distinctively modern, clinical flavor. Like chewing on an inch-thick bandaid. It was laboratory food subjected to more chemical injections than Roger Clemens.
“What kind of beef is this?” I asked the waiter.
“It’s filet mignon, sir.”
“Yeah, but what breed? Where was it raised?
“No idea pal, I just serve it.”
After dinner the subject at my corner of the table turned briefly to commutes.
“Must be brutal,” I remarked, shaking my head sympathetically about the daily drive a colleagues’ grown boy was now making to his new job.
“It’s fifteen minutes,” he answered back incredulously, almost offended. “Twenty tops.”
Right, but you’re talking to a guy that measures commutes not in minutes but in footsteps. A guy that is building out a new office that will cut his current thirty-step commute in half. A guy that works in an office where socks and pants and showers are strictly optional.
I chortled audibly when a video was shown of a group developing athletic tape used to treat and prevent knee pain and shin splints. A lifestyle brand for marathoners and beach volleyball players. “We don’t sell tape, we sell a solution” said the therapeutic tape guys.
“That would do wonders for my manure elbow,” I told someone across the table to a chorus of blank stares.
After three hours they had passed out all the trophies, given all the speeches, distributed all the novelty checks, and snapped all the photos. I hunted for souvenirs.
I always try to bring something back for my little homegrown labor pool, but with eight kids I can’t go overboard. I had already procured a hotel pen, a toothbrush, a plastic key card and a bag of pretzels from the plane on this trip.
Our table had been supplied with novelty cowbell noisemakers. So I grabbed all three. These kids are so spoiled, I thought as I stuffed them into my jacket pocket.
I said my congratulations and goodbyes, and then made a beeline for the exit. I was still nursing ravenous hunger and three blocks away there was a beloved taco cart in the old Sears parking lot. Mentally I was already stripped down to jeans and a t-shirt, pounding barbacoa tacos and Sangria Señorial.
But in the hallway, I caught a glimpse of my self in the mirror.
My, you do look fancy.
I abruptly spun around midstride and asked a bored looking bartender to take my picture.
“For Facebook?” he asked as he clicked away.
“Nope,” I answered, “this one is for my daughter.”