"You're supposed to go commando," my boss said.
"That's what we all wondered," my mother said, speaking of her girlhood friends in Cleveland.
"Are you. . . ?" my wife asked.
I wanted to know, too, since I had to wear a kilt for the first time Thursday. Heading out the door of the kilt shop, my tartan and jacket in a bag over my shoulder, I turned to ask the lady clerk, "What do I wear under it?"
"Nothing!" she enthused. "Nothing's the tradition!"
WINDY CITY INDEED
I am not a man given to sporting distinctive ethnic garb.... Not even the minimal headgear of my own clan. The only time I ever wore a yarmulke -- a head-covering the size of a small pancake -- on a public street was while walking in Jerusalem. And even then, I viewed it as a kind of location-induced temporary derangement, the way sedate Lutherans, shocked to find themselves actually in the Holy Land, will sometimes become unhinged, strip off their clothing and declare themselves the Messiah.
So when an editor stuck her head in my office and suggested that, in advance of this weekend's Celtic Fest at Millennium Park, it might be a worthwhile exercise if I were to wear a kilt downtown, my reaction was not enthusiasm, but a kind of vertigo.
My mind flashed to 20 years ago. In a fit of sartorial experimentation, I had purchased a bow tie. Knotting my new bow tie, I wandered into the Loop in an agony of self-consciousness. The sidewalk seemed to pitch like a ship in a storm. Every snatch of conversation, every peal of distant laughter, struck me as being about my bow tie. "I could not have felt more uncomfortable," I confessed later, "had I been wearing a cotillion gown."
But "no" seemed the path of the coward. And I have mellowed in 20 years, and learned an important lesson: People don't care, not really. Don't worry much what they think. Be yourself, hold your head high.
That said, I did have two concerns. First, I wanted to check that this wouldn't be offensive -- not that I'm against offending, when necessary, but there's no reason to antagonize a group known for its bellicosity on an editor's whim.
Every Scot I asked thought it a bonnie idea, however, and, indeed, young men of all nationalities wear kilts nowadays without drawing complaints. In my view, Scots display a refreshing lack of aggrievement, despite having been relentlessly taunted for the past 350 years, and by the English no less.
Even the staid Encyclopaedia Britannica begins its rumination on Scottish civilization this way: "Scotland has retained much of its cultural identity. Superficially, the external perception of this may descend to an image of whiskey-swilling, tartan-clad highlanders in mist-enshrouded castles, looking backward to bloody battles and romantic tales."
Not quite Groundskeeper Willie, but not a compliment either.
My other stipulation was: I wanted the full get-up. Not a plaid blanket wrapped around my waist, but the kilt, the sporran -- a furry purse worn in front, since kilts have no pockets -- the special socks.
This rig was acquired at the Scottish Shop on Archer Avenue in Summit. In the window was a huge sign, "Kilt Rental," which left me wondering why men might rent kilts, though not for long.
"When's the wedding?" asked the clerk, who decked me out in a Black Watch tartan -- the green matches my eyes -- and a formal jacket.
Thursday, I began kilt day with oatmeal, an inside joke (the definition of "oats" in Samuel Johnson's great 1755 dictionary is "A grain which in England is generally given to horses, but in Scotland supports the people.")
At the train, people noticed, obviously, but politeness kept them mute. Only one comment, from an acquaintance.
"I don't have to ask who won the bet," he grinned.
Striding across the Loop -- from Union Station to the Sun-Times, from the Sun-Times to Petterino's -- it seemed that nobody noticed the kilt at all. Only later, looking at the photos, did I realize that pedestrians were just waiting until I passed to gape.
Scotland is a small place -- about half the size of Illinois, with about half the population of the Chicago metro area -- yet had a significant role in founding Chicago, in the meat-packing trade, and starting several noted businesses, including Carson Pirie Scott, unsurprisingly.
The festival sounds fun but, alas, the kilt is due back Saturday morning. As to the central kilt question, well, I think a bit of mystery is appropriate. Though I did worry more about updrafts than is usual.
TODAY'S CHUCKLE . . .
While there is no shortage of kilt jokes and thrifty Scot jokes, there are too many notorious put-downs not to share a few, as the greats of English literature lined up to condemn Scotland for being a land not unlike their own populated by a people not unlike themselves.
"A land of meanness, sophistry and mist," wrote Lord Byron. "Each breeze from foggy mount and marshy plain/Dilutes with drivel every drizzly brain."
"Scotland," Sydney Smith quipped. "That knuckle-end of England, that land of Calvin, oatcakes and sulphur."
Boswell's Life of Johnson is 1,500 pages of continual Scot-bashing, but I'll try to give Boswell his due on Sunday.
The sharpest line is John Cleveland's couplet from 1647:
Had Cain been Scot, God would have changed his doom.
Not forced him wander, but confined him home.
—Originally published May 7, 2010
Oh that it ended there. But that was just the beginning....
Humiliation is a lapse in perspective. Your focus narrows to the 300 people jeering at you in the theater, your mind is entirely filled by the one gaffe in a two-hour speech.
It's agony, nausea. You want to die, but you don't die, generally, and then a miracle occurs -- your perspective opens back up again. All it takes is a generous dose of time for life to magically expand. You realize that 99.999 percent of the world doesn't know about you, never mind your errors. Those who do know, who care now, will care less soon and forget about it in time, while your family forgives, as families do. The idea of shame sticking to you -- of Lord Jim wandering the Far East, while the stigma of his cowardice aboard the sinking Patna follows him around like a faithful dog, is the stuff of literature, not life.
But some never learn that lesson, and then it's too late.
'PLEATS IN BACK!'
Saturday morning errands. Coffee, "Rigoletto" and a 40-mile drive down to Summit to return a rented outfit. Park the van on Archer Avenue, swing the red plastic hanger with the rental kilt, jacket and sporran over my shoulder and head into the tiny Scottish Shop, past the rows of hanging tartans and plaid ties.
"What's the name?" owner Jack Thompson asks.
"Steinberg," I say.
"You wanna know something?" he asks.
"Yes I know," I say.
"You had the kilt on backwards," he says.
"Yes I know."
"The pleats go in back," he says.
"Yes I know."
"The plain part, in front," he says.
I turn to one of the grinning men in the store and ask: "What part of 'Yes I know' do you think isn't getting across?"
Thompson taps his finger on a page from Friday's Sun-Times -- my column -- torn out, waiting on the counter.
"We've got the picture," he says. "We're putting it up."
"Be my guest," I say,
As an inadvertent expert in shame, let me share a secret with you: It's a process. You have to soldier on, to endure, one day at a time, and if you don't -- forgive my injecting something so serious into a lighthearted column -- you end up stepping in front of a commuter train like Metra executive director Phil Pagano did last week.
The shock of humiliation grabs you, squeezes, distorts your reason. Perspective gone, you forget the crime of financial impropriety pales compared with the horrendous harm inflicted on your loved ones by killing yourself.
Nobody wants to lose his job or see his reputation ruined, so rather than experience that, Pagano did something far worse. To avoid . . . what? Sixteen months in jail?
Compare this tragedy with what Dan Rostenkowski did. The powerful congressman went to prison, head held high, came out, 50 pounds lighter and was warmly welcomed by his friends and family.
We are taught the only way to avoid embarrassment is by never doing anything wrong.
That is ideal. But the truth is, your moment can come even if you're both honest and careful. You don't have to be Tiger Woods and invite destruction -- you can be the award recipient who forgets his speech, the Gold Glove winner who drops the ball. You don't have to be John Edwards; think Howard Dean -- one over-exuberant cry and you're a laughingstock.
Nothing to do but wait and try not to care. That's hard. When the first "hey idiot your kilt is backward" e-mail showed up, 7 a.m. Friday, I tried telling myself it didn't matter. How many people know how to properly wear a kilt anyway?
Quite a lot, it turns out. Cops especially — they have that bagpipe band, and so are familiar with kilts, and experienced at forcefully pointing out the missteps of others.
But I knew it would pass. That's a crucial understanding. They should teach embarrassment in school: "Handling Humiliation." Kids could spend an afternoon wearing the special Hat of Shame through the halls, a pointed affair, with bells.
Because while screwing up is sometimes the result of misdeeds, where punishment is deserved, more frequently it is the result of trying stuff. It was my first time in a kilt, and while I had done my prep work — spoke to various Scots, quizzed the clerk fitting me — there was a lot of information to absorb. How does the sporran go and how do the sock flashes work and how does the kilt wrap and of course the underwear question. The concept of there being a front and a back presented itself when I was putting it on at home. I picked what looked best and guessed wrong.
"Own the sin," our Colonial forefathers said. Don't cringe from your mistakes, but embrace them. Yeah, embarrassing as heck — but nothing to do about it now, short of going back in time, and the necessary time travel technology just isn't there yet.
Never commit a crime, certainly. But also, never make a mistake, never do anything that might attract mockery and you run the risk of becoming the kind of overly cautious guy who never dances because he can't stand the idea of looking stupid.
Everybody looks stupid dancing. Looking stupid now and again builds character, and is a sign that you are still trying. Driving back from the Scottish Shop, mulling over the above, I started laughing, out loud. At least this is a more elevated embarrassment, compared with previous embarrassments, I thought. Progress of a sort.
Laughter is cleansing, when you're the one laughing.
—Originally published May 10, 2010