Entries: December 2004

Pretty Pretty

It is impossible to ignore the fact that the construction cranes that stand over the incomplete “other Bay Bridge” project are now festooned with joyous holiday lights. What better way to highlight a debacle in the making than to turn it into multicolored constellation of logic-eating fund-raping jubilation? Seriously, I think the City is onto something. This is in the spirit of dentist drills with kazoos built in, or Cirque du Soleil tax audits administered by twin Asian contortionists in monkey-fish costumes, or the American invasion force in Iraq wearing Hello Kitty fatigues, and the Disney Main Street Electrical Parade marching through Baghdad every night.

Personally, I love the idea of dressing up tragedy, though I can see where one might think it misleading to adorn objects of shame in such gay finery. Can a fleet of clown cars add that extra something to the sweet wonder of the George W. Bush funerary procession? Do loose chimpanzees in darling cowboy costumes, and jingle bells retrofitted to the machetes of marauding rebel assassins really lift the spirits of fleeing African villagers? Should my boss deliver my performance review, a la Blue Man Group, through a corrugated PVC didgeridoo? The answer to each of these questions is a resounding yes!

When we celebrate misfortune we’re grabbing life by the hips and saying, “it would seem that I am your daddy!” To do anything less is to concede to our own inevitable defeat. Let us instead make adversity our pretty pony, and let sorrow be the burkha that covers our hilarious Groucho glasses. L’chai-im! I think each lie should be delivered with a gummy bear, each spanking with calliope music. Coffins should have jalopy tail fins, and chrome mufflers, and spinners! And as for those dormant cranes, I don’t think we’ve gone nearly far enough. The decorations should take a note from the Price Is Right props department, with a thousand glimmering dollar bill signs, while strap-on klaxons belt out the whistling portion of the Colonel Bogey March.

I want to hear that drum roll as our self-celebrated little society circles the drain, and that one last cymbal crash when the cockroaches realize that the long nightmare is finally over.

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“What are these patches?” I held the robe out to my sister.

She sat amidst a pile of old photos, and for a moment I saw her as a child again, playing in the leaves Dad had raked into a pile. “I don’t know,” she said. “Let me see.”

She stepped over the mementoes spread out over the attic floor, careful not to disturb them with her shins. “Here, around the collar,” I said.

There were two thin patches at the neckline, curiously threadbare, like a Rorschach pattern eaten into the cloth. “Oh, from shaving,” she said. I tried to work it out in my head. She smiled and took the robe. “Like this,” she said, donning the robe. She cinched the collar around her neck, and then made small sweeping gestures with her right hand at her neck. “He used an electric razor,” she said. I hadn’t remembered. “And over the years he shaved down the top of his collar.”

“And it never grew back,” I thought aloud, without intending to. She rolled her eyes, and retreated back to the photo pile still wearing the robe.

I returned to the wooden case I’d been plundering, with the hope of finding an artifact that might provide insight into a life I’d been less than familiar with. In a hinged box I found a collection of tie pins and cufflinks, mingling with some novelty coins from a long forgotten county fair.

“Do you remember his beard?” my sister asked.

“I can picture him with a beard, but I don’t know if it’s a memory,” I said.

“You may have been too young. Here’s one,” she said, and dangled a photo from her fingertips. I got up and peered at the picture of a bearish man beaming from the business end of a motorboat. “He grew it out every summer when school was out,” she told me. “The bushier the better. It was his way of relaxing.”

The knees of whomever had taken the photo—presumably mother—were visible at the bottom of the frame. “Where was that?” I asked.

My sister snapped the picture back and examined it closely. “That’s Green Lake. Up in Maine. Yeah, so this is before you. I hardly remember it myself.”

“I guess I don’t really remember the beard,” I said.

“Mom said that he stopped growing it out eventually, because one summer it came in gray, like something had happened over the winter without him even realizing it. So he kept it shaved that summer and sulked about it for a long time. Ruminative, that’s the word Mom used.” My sister sat for a moment longer, considering the photo of the bearded holiday fisherman.

“I’m familiar with it,” I said.

My sister looked up, “Mm?”

I rubbed at my forehead with my index finger. “I was only out of high school a year when I first noticed I was losing my hair.”

“Oh, I see,” she said. “Not like Dad there.”

“Skips a generation,” I said. “As the years went by my hairline grew softer, until it wasn’t so much of a line as it was a suggestion. And at some point in this process I noticed this scar high up on my forehead.”

She blinked. “Really? Let me see.” I bowed, indicating the thin white line that described a mystery wound. “I never noticed it, but that’s definitely a scar,” she said with appreciation. “What’s it from?”

“No idea,” I said. I had no memory of receiving such a wound, but frequently puzzled over it as my fingers moved up and down the numb ridge. I couldn’t help but to think that this might finally explain so much, and romantic notions of midnight kidnappings and secret brain surgery took my fancy.

Finally my sister dropped the photo into the pocket of my father’s robe, and grabbed another handful from the pile. “Hair is weird,” she said.

“It is,” I agreed, not without a touch of sadness.

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A Hero’s Lament

Lunch in hand, your hero crosses the cafeteria floor, his adrenaline sloshing around in a body carved for battle. His competitive eyes seek challenge, but there is none here. Rather, conversations about flower pot arrangement, weekend Ikea junkets, commuter expense reimbursement… such discourse is a prescription for warrior atrophy.

Defeated, your hero makes his way toward the bank of microwaves. At the other end of the line, a coworker has just placed her quiche tray at the center of her oven’s turntable, and now enters numbers on the touchpad. Your hero notes that quiche-eater’s data entry skills are pitiful! Her fingers are flaccid and her movements sluggish. In contrast, the office warrior will be able to enter the cooking figures in one third the time. Vegan textured protein pie in place, he slams the microwave’s door shut and hits the digits with the accuracy of a factory robot.

Where she is sloppy, he is precise. Where she is slow, he is fleet. Now your hero finds himself with a relative time surplus. Advantage: hero. Now the question becomes how he will use all this extra time. To bask in his superiority, that’s how. He looks over at his coworker—his pupil—and nods his head, “Take note.” But she is washing her utensils and doesn’t notice.

Acknowledgment of victory is unnecessary however. Your hero is reminded of this morning’s commute triumph, wherein he was able to take the highway offramp turn just inches from the inside wall, his speed even, his path sure, describing an arc of geometric perfection. However, the minivan in front of him took the turn like an overfed cow lumbering down a spiral staircase. While your hero steadied his turn with pinkies on the wiper and turn signal handles, respectively, minivan driver’s path was a series of erratic line segments joined by short, suspension-testing seizures.

The warrior aesthete looks upon such imprecise maneuvering with disdain. Spastic children with buckets on their heads bounce from the walls with greater predictability, and your hero refuses to allow motor skills to grow so lax. His grip is tighter, his eyes keener, and his lips more slick with the sputum of superiority.

Night falls on your hero conducting research into the nature of the modern man’s plight of stifled competition. Taking the library steps in twos, he dashes to the top floor with the grace of a dancer, the speed of a gazelle, overtaking an aged man for whom each step is a lesson in pain. With pity, your hero quietly acknowledges the compounded wages of a lifetime of imperfection, manifest as calcified deposits between swollen joints. “Go easy, hapless wretch,” thinks the youthful paragon.

Though superior in all measurable ways, your hero finds himself winded by the time he reaches the top floor, but refuses to break the silence with audible exhale. A little respiratory discipline is what’s called for here, all the better to impress his audience. They must be thinking, “How is it that a person can dash up several flights of steps and not be out of breath as they make their way to the reference section?” Aha! Through sheer strength of will, that’s how. And as he forcefully holds shut his epiglottis for nearly a minute, your hero’s pulse throbs in his beat-red temples. He embraces sacrificial restraint, that others might learn to refrain from their oxygen-slurping nasal cacophonies, if only in sympathetic appreciation.

And as strobes dance before his fading eyes, your hero recalls a passage from the warrior’s canon: Cowards fear loss of consciousness due to asphyxiation. Heroes welcome it.

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