Last Call


Flying by the seat of your pants when you can least afford the exposure.

By From the June 2010 issue

In this age of technological solutions for most things, of redundant networks and backup files, there is still no contingency plan for the individual -- man or woman -- who splits the seat of a pair of pants while at work or otherwise out in the world. The popular saying has it that when we improvise, we're "flying by the seat of our pants," but this credits fabric with more reliability than it deserves. When you split the pair of pants whose seat you have placed so much faith in, you're done flying for the day.

Of course, lots of bad things can happen once you're dressed for a day's labors, but most are remediable, even if you work in office clothes that aren't supposed to get dirty or damaged. Let's say you spill coffee on your blouse or shirt or over unfortunate locations on your pants. It's true that you'll have a stain, though the stain is not likely to be as bad as you feared, and water can work wonders. Given the generally dark hues of office wear, the stain is not likely to stand out much. Even in the worst cases, you're still fit for social interaction; your mishap has been shared at some point by most of your colleagues, and you're safely above the realm of ridicule.

But the ripped seat of the pants -- a bad rip, as most are -- is another matter entirely. It's a much more personal disaster, reducing you to the workplace equivalent of someone getting dressed before an uncurtained window. Worse, there is no recourse. Short of having a needle and thread handy, and possessing skills developed in a past life as a garment worker, you have no credible options. Let's assume that you don't keep a spare pair of pants in the office -- an easy assumption to make, because you don't. No one does. You're left in your place of business with a hole in the most unforgiving place, clearly visible when you walk, which you cannot avoid doing entirely -- to meet with colleagues in another office, to use the restroom. And this is to say nothing of stepping out of the building for lunch. Probably today you should have your lunch delivered.

You might opt for going home right away. This is, after all, one of those events for which we not only tend to be unprepared but which has a way of rendering most of our other efforts in the mortal realm frail and dispensable. Even if it's busy at work, with meetings and other tasks that you can't afford to forgo, you'll be sorely tempted by the lure of getting the almighty hell out of sight of other humans, especially humans who know you and have formed some idea of you, good or ill. But there is no escaping the journey outside eventually, where you'll expand your shame zone many-fold: you still must walk among the crowd with a rip in your seat large enough to let in the breeze, on your way to the safety of home and the end of humiliation. Determined to disguise the rent in the garment, you walk in such a way as to prevent long strides, a bit like an old man walking on ice.

Perhaps you shouldn't take it so seriously. As with coffee spills, these things happen. But in an era when so many crave exposure, certain rare things still have the power to make us remember just how unpleasant exposure can be -- and how much we count on being inconspicuous most of the time. The discomfort of this experience is something like a real-life version of the dream, apparently common to childhood, in which we attend school in our pajamas. There is the same helpless desire for invisibility, a dropping away of other important things for the profound wish to disappear. We learn that it is not so easy to disappear, and most difficult when we most wish to.

Once we are safely home and have changed our pants, some of us will find some cause for consolation: even as it showers us with its many wonders and mixed blessings, technology has yet to displace the humility that life seems designed to impose.

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About the Author

Paul Beston is associate editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.