Fit to be Tied

Some writers, it seems, hard to read, struggle to get a piece going unless they have something to talk about, but something to talk about doesn’t come from the same reservoir as having something to say. Some of our most interesting and arresting writers have written profoundly, enjoyably, articulately, about, by all appearances, nothing. Others wait until fit to be tied with a topic under the acrimonious assumption readers are awaiting their latest culled diatribe.

Men’s neckties provide rich fodder for topic matter. The tie is a remarkable piece of nothing. The necktie reached a new height with Annie Hall, who looked and moved like she was taking cues from Charlie Chaplin. After Annie Hall, the necktie could only be pastiche and kitsch and irony. But Annie, or Woody, wasn’t the first out of Hollywood to use the tie to say something at once both memorable and forgettable. W. C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton – all sported neckties as part of their costume, part of their act. Rodney Dangerfield mastered the wearing of a loose tie, and of using the tie as an expressive prop for his hands. Rodney rarely appeared without a tie, usually wore a red one, and he wasn’t as funny tieless, open-collared. Only with his tie on could he reach the proper level of fit to be tied where his humor worked.

Donning a tie of course is no guarantee to successful stand-up, won’t necessarily make you funny. On the contrary, ties usually suggest a portent, a serious person. White collar workers wore ties because their work was often so unintelligible and without obvious skill that they needed something to enhance their heft in society. Without a necktie, the white collar worker could easily be mistaken for a bum, someone characteristically out of work. To go on a bummer is to loaf about with no clear or obvious purpose, a near perfect description of the average white collar worker. At the same time, a loose tie, particularly when worn toward the late afternoon, may suggest one has been hard at work. Either that or the office air conditioner is on the fritz.

The opposite of wearing a tie, if one is out and about, is wearing only an undershirt. The t-shirt was invented to be worn inside, an undergarment, worn under an overshirt, not to be seen. Originally titled “The Poker Night,” Tennessee Williams’s play “A Streetcar Named Desire,” dresses Stanley Kowalski in a t-shirt, hot and sweaty on a humid August Southern night, drinking and smoking, worked up and fit to be tied. Stanley enters, “roughly dressed in blue denim work clothes. Stanley carries his bowling jacket and a red-stained package from a butcher’s.” Tennessee Williams might have dressed Stanley in a tie, had he known more about office workers.

But it turns out Stanley does wear a tie, has a collection of three. Or maybe we’re confusing the play with the happier ending movie. In any case, it just goes to show anyone can wear a tie, and it means nothing.

Blest Be the Tie that Binds

One year, on a trip north from Los Angeles, we stopped off at the University of California at Santa Cruz campus to visit a married couple, both in graduate school studying computer programing. When I asked about their projects, one of the students said she was working on a component that would become part of another system, but she didn’t know its ultimate purpose. It might be military; it could be household. She said computers would improve lifestyle and livability. For example, she said, when you arrived at the front door of your house, a computer would recognize you, and your door would open automatically. Later, I learned that, having completed his graduate program, her husband got a good programming job, but due to a misunderstanding regarding dress code, he quit his first day at work because he was expected to wear a tie. That same day, he went to another computer programming firm in the area, where ties were not required, and was immediately hired.

About ten years later, this time on a trip north from Portland, in Seattle on business, I visited a friend who was working in the computer industry. He took me on a trip of the home office, which was called a campus. With its various outdoor activity fields, the low profile buildings, the walkways – it looked and felt like a school campus. On our way to an onsite cafeteria for lunch, we passed through a couple of long corridors lined on both sides with solid doors opening into offices the size of telephone booths where single workers sat hunched toward a computer screen. After finding a table in the cafeteria and settling into lunch, I glanced around and gradually noticed I was the only guy in the whole place wearing a tie.

Glancing around today, I notice that one of the few industries still apparently requiring a tie is politics. But I’ve also noticed that news media people on camera also wear ties. They all seem to share similar clothing styles, the men and the women, the politicians on both sides of the aisle, the leaders in industry, the ladies and gentlemen of the world. It’s a wonder they don’t all get along better, and one wonders what today a tie might signify. The tie seems now only a theoretical construct – its purpose and meaning are not directly observable. It no longer binds, but unbinds.

The title of this post is taken from the hymn by John Fawcett:

“Blest Be the Tie that Binds”
by John Fawcett, 1740-1817

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Before our Father’s throne
We pour our ardent prayers;
Our fears, our hopes, our alms, are one,
Our comforts and our cares.

We share our mutual woes,
Our mutual burdens bear,
And often for each other flows
The sympathizing tear.

When here our pathways part,
We suffer bitter pain;
Yet, one in Christ and one in heart,
We hope to meet again.

This glorious hope revives
Our courage by the way,
While each in expectation lives
And longs to see the day.

From sorrow, toil, and pain,
And sin we shall be free
And perfect love and friendship reign
Through all eternity.

Hymn #464
The Lutheran Hymnal
Text: Eph. 4:3
Author: John Fawcett, 1772, alt.
Composer: Lowell Mason, 1832
Tune: “Boylston”