Today on Alphabet City: When Jon Paul goes topless on the tennis court, he worries about becoming his father.
I realize it’s a bit of a cliché to talk about becoming more like our parents as we grow older, but nonetheless, here I am, at 41 ½ indulging in that recognition. Not only do I sport the bulky frame glasses my Dad wore in the 1960s, but I battle his bushy eyebrows and problem toe nails—more successfully than he did I like to think. With my recent weight loss and improved upper body strength, I’ve pretty much perfected the same stocky German build he had most of his life.
But I knew it had gotten worse a few weekends ago when Chef discovered me pulling weeds in our outdoor patio with my shirt off.
“Hi hunky gardener. How did I get so lucky?” he teased.
“Oh, I don’t know,” I replied, a tad bit embarrassed.
The thing is that I grew up with a Dad who took his shirt off at almost every outdoor task. It was the manly thing to do. And I never quite felt like the man. When Dad forced me into duty pulling weeds behind the prickly Chinaberry bushes at our house, I certainly didn’t want to take off my shirt for fear of getting scratched. And when Dad insisted going topless on the tennis court when he played doubles with his friends every weekend, I couldn’t have been more embarrassed. Why was he such an exhibitionist? Other men mowed the lawn and played racquet sports fully clothed. What was his problem?
And then a few weeks ago, it happened to me. My first summer outing on the NYC courts and I felt compelled to lose my shirt. It was just way too hot and I didn’t want to wear a tank top dripping sweat on the chilly subway ride home. One yank later, and it felt liberating. In short order, my opponent/friend followed suit, as did the much hunkier boys playing on the neighboring courts. Lucky us!
Back at home, my upper torso continued to bare itself as I completed some necessary yard work. That’s when Chef caught me.
“I can put a shirt back on if you think it’s too much for the folks at the Church,” I said.
The Baptist Church behind us has a direct view of our garden, and my tattooed pecs.
“No, I was just going to say it’s a good idea. Great way to get Vitamin D,” Chef said as he tugged off his own shirt and plopped down.
I was astonished since Chef religiously avoids contact with the sun when not wearing sunblock. But he told me he’d just read a New York Times story on getting 10-15 minutes of sun a day sans Coppertone.
“Now you’ve got a medical excuse to do your chores topless!” Chef announced.
I laughed and thought that after a lifetime of battling weight issues, including a few eating disorders, my willingness to take my shirt off was finally empowering. It’s not about showing off to others but proving something to myself—that I’m comfortable with and in my skin. It’s about erasing all those awful moments at camp or in the locker room when I worried what my mates would think of me.
At times, like when those Columbia College boys were pounding serves on the court next to me, I’m sometimes painfully aware I don’t have the six-pack abs of a toned Adonis. But then I think, neither did my Dad. And it didn’t seem to bother him. Now if he’d just worried more about those eyebrows and toenails, I could relax. Thank god for Vitamin D.