One of the benefits of reaching middle age is that it provides me with a believable excuse for avoiding certain lifestyle decisions that challenge younger men. One choice I am especially happy to pass up is whether or not my physical appearance would be improved by wearing an earring.
Don't get me wrong. I have no objections to guys sporting jewelry wherever and whenever they choose. But we all grow up within a particular set of behavioral boundary lines, and being well past the 40-year mark, I know that some of those boundaries cannot be straddled gracefully.
The rules on this subject were clear and specific when I was a kid. In those days, men who wore earrings were classified as dangerous outlaws (motorcycle gang members/pirates), social rebels (beatniks/musicians/artists), or commercial icons (Mr. Clean). Responsible, middle-class adult males didn't even consider the possibility. My dad was part of the generation that fought and won World War II. For him, the notion of wearing an earring to work would have been as incomprehensible as wearing a toga, and I inherited his no-frills approach to personal attire.
But during the past 15 years, lifestyles and cultural attitudes have changed. Earrings for men are now standard equipment. And, like most fashion trends, this one is youth driven. I therefore feel no pressure to adjust my current dress code. Having ears that are unencumbered by foreign objects suits my personality. I feel the same way about my neck, which is probably why I never started wearing gold chains back in the '70s.
Clint Eastwood said it in "Magnum Force," and it applies perfectly: "A man's got to know his limitations." I do not possess the aesthetic judgment to know which ear to use or whether a ring is more impressive than a simple stud. Precious and semi-precious stones are an option, too, adding economic stress to the equation. These issues are earmarked for other people.
What interests me is how far the trend eventually will spread. I have not yet seen a male TV anchor wearing an earring on a network news program, though Ed Bradley sometimes sports a tiny gem in his ear. And men in the political arena seem unsure about the subject. What really goes with gray pinstripes? Will voters back a candidate who has that extra sparkle? It could happen. But it won't happen to me. I've spent too many years establishing an identity that is fashion-neutral. Decorating my ears now would be a comical gesture. It just wouldn't ring true.
* Jeffrey Shaffer, a Portland, Ore., writer, does commentary for Oregon Public Radio.