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Strangely enough, as I sit here in Shanghai, I find myself wanting to write about men’s clothing.

Odd, I know. But there it is. And, after all, this is called “OffBeat.”

I’m pretty sure that it is because for much of this week, I’ve been interviewing senior executives from many of the world’s major retailing and manufacturing companies. And sitting across from them, I’ve thought about the time that George Gobel was on “The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson” and found himself sitting next to Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Carson, and said, "Did you ever feel life was a tuxedo and you were a pair of brown shoes?”

I have to tell you, these European executives know how to dress. There’s something about how they wear their clothes, in addition to the clothes they choose to wear, that make the pinstripes straighter, the ties more rakish, the shirts a little crisper, and (in the case of Feargal Quinn) the socks a little brighter. It doesn’t matter if they’re wearing a dark suit or a simple blazer and slacks.

The Americans, not so much. They look good, of course, but somehow not as stylish or distinctive.

European men just know how to wear clothes. There’s an effortless elegance that I really admire.

I’ve been sitting across from these guys, pretty nicely cleaned up, I think, in my good blue suit. (Actually, my only suit.) And I’ve felt sort of like Lt. Columbo on a bad day. No raincoat, but you get the idea.

I think they understand – or at least appreciate – something about clothing that many American men do not – that it can serve as a calling card of sorts, a reflection of one’s personality as serious or whimsical or inventive.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m going to give up my summer uniform of shorts, t-shirts and flip-flops, nor my rest-of-the-year uniform of jeans and sneakers. I like to think of these choices as whimsical, but they’re not. They’re just me.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t spent more than a few minutes thinking that these guys dress like grownups, and me, not so much.

There’s one gentleman here, a French retailer, who has the interesting habit of wearing a sweater tied over his shoulders on top of his sports jacket (like preppy guys might do over a polo shirt). There’s no practical reason for doing so, but he always wears it that way. Now, I have to tell you, he looks great – but there’s nobody else that I know who could pull it off.

This trip, I finally got up the courage to ask him about his habit: “I don’t want to offend you, but I’m curious. Is it a family tradition? Something you saw in a movie?”

He smiled, and told me that when he started out in the business he worked for a man who wore a sweater that way as a kind of personal trademark. And he always admired that man, both for his business acumen and his personal style. And so, when he moved to a new company, this man decided to emulate his mentor…and has been doing so ever since.

That sweater, cast casually across his shoulders, suddenly is a lot more than a sweater now. It is both tribute and trademark, a symbol of respect and of generational passages. And I admire that.

Like I said, European men know how to wear clothes.

Two observations from having spent a week in Shanghai.

1. It is hot as hell, and most public places don’t have the kind of air conditioning that Americans are used to. This will, I think, make people (especially the media) very cranky when they come here next summer for the Olympics. (The hotel rooms are better; I’ve gotten mine so cold that you could hang meat in here.)

2. The traffic is nuts. Not just busy (though not as bad as I remember it being in Taiwan when I was there a dozen years or so ago), but also apparently without rules. Bicyclists drive down major thoroughfares in the middle of the road on the wrong side of the street, and cars careen back and forth without a care in the world. And pedestrians here are more daring and carefree than in New York – they walk out in the middle of the street like traffic lights are merely advisory, and the cars keep going and you figure that this is going to end badly and then suddenly the moment has passed and you’re not quite sure how. I haven’t actually seen an accident, which amazes me, but I have to imagine that they happen all the time.

This doesn’t seem like a Communist country, what with all the modern buildings and the fast food chains and the Starbucks and the Hooters and the neon advertising, and most of the people I’ve spoken with say it is more like a tightly regulated capitalist nation.

But I keep reminding myself that these are the guys who kidnapped Jack Bauer. Which means that ultimately, they are the guys responsible for the sub-par television season on “24” last year.

They must not, they cannot, be forgiven.

A final, personal note this Friday…

One of the downsides of what I do for a living is that I occasionally have to be away from home for important occasions. Now, I’ve always tried to be pretty good about this and keep my priorities in order – I have three kids and I have missed exactly one birthday over all these years.

This week, however, the unavoidable happened. I had to be in Shanghai because I’m producing a food safety video that required interviewing many of the assembled CEOs (the well-dressed folks I described above), and this was the only time and place it could be done. This meant that I had to miss my 18-year-old son Brian’s high school graduation ceremony.

Now, Brian has been a real grownup about this, maybe even more so than his old man. He said that the ceremony would be boring and that as long I made it back for the party – which happens on Sunday, and I’ll be there if I have to swim the Pacific – he was okay with it. And we talked by phone after the ceremony, which made me feel better.

But mostly this week, as I’ve thought about this young man who goes off to college in the fall, and who makes me proud, I can’t help thinking of the little boy who I coached in Little League, who always has beaten me playing “21” in basketball and in backgammon at the dining room table, who seems to have lived his life getting bruised in touch football and Frisbee and getting up with a smile, and who has always lived and died with every NY Mets victory and defeat. And I’m proud of him.

I wasn’t there to give him a hug after the graduation ceremony this week, so this is my poor excuse for a substitute – giving him a very public hug in front of the more than 20,000 people who subscribe to MNB.

Until Monday … Sláinte!!
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