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Monday, October 3, 2016

Panhandler Anxiety Parts 1 & 2

Panhandler Anxiety: Hardluck Lesbian

On a quest for picture frames, I parked by Michael’s. Looking up from my iPhone, I saw a couple of yuppie women (now known as soccer moms?) tying up a conversation about dog grooming. Back to the phone. Suddenly the women were gone, rapidly, scattering like prey spotting an oncoming predator. Now I would be the prey. A wobbling female approached me with intermittent teeth and an aura of motivation. Up came that feeling, that fizzy intestinal dread-knot: I would now be panhandled, but with what result?

Over my half-open window, I beheld her, and she began. I have been trapped like this before. I hate to be rude, but I also have little patience for bullshit. Not only do these panhandler humans usually get money from me, they leave me feeling conned, ripped off, bamboozled. Not so much because they scored some small amount of cash from me, but because I always sense I’m being lied to, and I think that is part of their game. Sometimes I even assume that, when streetpeople cross paths behind Brown Derby or under laundromat awnings or wherever, they trade strategies—as in, which tales of woe get the best results. Why do I always feel this way? It probably started back when I was just as poor as they were, when their lack of a cigarette seemed no more urgent than my lack of a cold drink. But now that I am much more middle-classy, I still can’t stop parsing the theatricality of the various need-ploys that arise.

My mind racing, I rolled up my window. She immediately assumed that this was to shut her down, but it was actually just the current step in normal car-parking procedure. I planned on hearing her out, but now she was walking away, with a bit of piss in her gait. I climbed out of the car and promptly locked my keys inside, instantly realizing my mistake. Simultaneously I was trying to ask her what she needed, while also experiencing potent “aw, shit!” rage that might have gone about 30% of the way toward killing her. But instead of slinging her to the pavement by the shirt and yelling, “I JUST LOCKED MY KEYS IN MY CAR BECAUSE MY PANHANDLER ANXIETY BLEW MY FUCKING MIND,” I said something like, “Hang on, what do you need?”

Apparently I had a strong subconscious desire to be five bucks poorer, because I could have just let her keep walking. Some preliminary stammering later, she was asking for money in the most roundabout way possible—a shabby, hard-luck narrative, something involving a bus ticket that would get her child back from another state, or take her back to said other state to find her child, I think. I’ve heard a few variations on the bus ticket theme before. Bus tickets figure heavily in the panhandling universe, which makes perfect sense x2: buses are all about carrying poor people (truthiness), plus the NIMBY bonus—giving this person money sends this person away from me by bus. Some towns even have programs where they round up homeless people and give them bus tickets which must be used to leave town, under threat of jail. So, adding a bus ticket to a panhandling narrative gives you more buck for your bang, in my estimation.

This is about the time I remembered, mercifully, that one of my back doors was probably unlocked. Thank fuck, it was! Keys back in fist, I was able to come to grips with the woman. I finally just gave her five bucks. That’s honestly something for me, because I still scold myself for breaking the five dollar mark at lunchtime. However, in the adrenalized afterglow of not quite locking my keys inside my car, five dollars down felt like a goddamn breeze of enfranchised relief.

After completing my Michael’s mission, I hit the nearby Walmart by way of the Nursery. Maybe 15-20 minutes had passed, and there by the houseplants and shovels was my sponsored lady-friend, hug-hanging on her lesbian lover. They were buying some stuff that didn’t seem highly conducive to bus travel, such as houseplants. That’s fine, I just think they should have invited me over to see what they’re doing with the decor.

Of course I wish I could say “honesty is the best policy” to beggars, but I suppose that wouldn’t be honest. Had she come up and asked for money because she and her girlfriend had a list of housewares they wanted, then I might have just said, “No shit? Cuz at your age, I had an apartment in Florida furnished entirely by dumpster diving!” Except, when my sister found out I was sleeping on the floor-ida (see, it’s easy to write for Bob’s Burgers), she phone-ordered me a futon… so maybe we all need sponsors.

But maybe all I really want is for panhandlers to be required to listen to some story of mine before getting my money. I mean, I’m the one with the cash, so they should have to listen to me and pretend I’m smart as any self-help guru, because next to them I’m obviously Suze Orman, with my paid-off automobile and my numerous teeth. If Hardluck Lesbian had any tenacity, I would say, “Hey, I have aloe vera plants and a wandering jew—I don’t know if that’s racist to call a plant that, but that’s what it’s called—I can give you starts from both those plants for free. All you need is, like, two cups of dirt.” But then, Suze Orman doesn’t pay people to listen to her—they pay HER. So I guess I’m no Suze Orman, but I still think beggars should have to listen to me, maybe for a good, long lecture.

Panhandler Anxiety 2: Return of Hardluck Lesbian

In another stage of life and in a crappier car, I used to drive many a Sunday evening to buy a $5 pizza at Cheezie’s on S. Kimbrough. It was cheap, but more importantly, it was great pizza, but most importantly, it was cheap. Once, with my pizza upon my hand like a waiter’s tray, I emerged to a lovely sundowny moment, precursor to driving the pizza home in the passenger seat like a tasty date, precursor to devouring this esteemed pizza with my wife during Sunday night cartoons. This was before we had a tiny daughter who ushered in the current stage of life where we buy multiple pizzas for Sunday evening even though she eats shockingly little, and the television is barely audible over her incessant yammering.

Halfway to the car, I looked across the street, as if warned by spider-sense or peripheral vision—directly at a heteronormative couple. They were both looking at me, targeting me like a Womp Rat back home in their T16s (cashing in on Star Wars fever). I instantly knew—THEY knew I could afford pizza. Now I would be the prey. I beelined for my car with the exact same gait as before, but with less sincerity since I would have preferred to run. (Fantasy response: Throw my pizza at them like a frisbee, yell, “Take it, then!” and then march right back into Cheezie’s and say, “Okay, make me another goddamn pizza!)

Long story short, they caught me as I took the driver’s seat, and started in on some kind of woeful tale about a vehicle breakdown. Being already ten seconds into a mild fight-or-flight quickening and now trapped in my car by whatever awkward hybrid of embarrassment and courtesy that keeps one from public shrieking, I channeled my dad and turned into a dick. I interrupted them with, “I don’t care—just tell me what you need!” I think I ended up giving them a couple of dollars; more importantly, I demonstrated my first ever refusal to submit to panhandle protocol. Part of the issue was the rising discomfort of being trapped in my car with delicious, guilt-scented pizza; part was my ever-growing skepticism over the tales told by panhandlers, and that new guilt forming over my own stingy unwillingness to listen.

The whole phenomenon just wrecks my brain. It’s a gordian knot with its own feedback loop: I want to believe people/I know that if they are being honest, panhandler protocol is debasing and demoralizing for them/I don’t mind giving someone some money if they really need it/I suspect they find rather quickly that “grooming” the truth leads to more success in gathering donations/I worry that the enterprise of panhandling is a game best played by the biggest liars/I feel guilt for judging them without actually knowing their circumstances/The only way to discern the truth is to engage this person on a deeper level and risk entangling oneself in their messy life which is very likely an expression of mental illness/etc.

Years later, (and now over a year ago), I was trapped again by the nomadic needy. Again I ran aground on my own refusal to submit to panhandler protocol. I was at work, throwing some junk off the back of my pickup and into the nearby dumpster. Lo, there approached a meager little person—a girl of indeterminate age on a bicycle, and not quite a bike for an adult. Just when I realized she was homing in on me rather than passing through, it came back to me that I’d spotted this depressing anthropoid several times over the past few days, from a distance, around the village. Now that she was upon me, I immediately knew what she’d been up to in the neighborhood. Despite my hobo-esque workstyling, which my wife calls “Your Homeless Look,” I would now be out-bummed.

She was visiting from out of state—Florida? Someplace south of here—staying at a relative’s house nearby, as indicated by a directional shrug. She should have used dental ambition as a motivating factor, because her opened mouth, while not beyond redemption, was a solid 4 on the scale of orthodontic calamity. A perhaps malnourished, androgynous womanling with very little traction in the American Power Aesthetic. By nature, I should feel sympathy for if not kinship with such a being, at least until that moment when her sales pitch begins.

“I hate to ask…” was in there somewhere, then pointing out the tweenish dirtbike she rode was part of her plight/schtick. “I even had to borrow this kid’s bike to get around…” In that hot reflected light from the white gravel driveway, she was fumbling her delivery rather soundly. Whatever necessity she wished to portray floundered in a mostly tongue-tied blather. It just made me impatient. Even accounting for the way I felt a little bit trapped, something in her approach made me irrationally angry. Having paused to listen, I went back to pulling junk off my tailgate to throw it out, maintaining my “busy look” to appear Very Busy instead of the actuality of Moderately Busy. Then the English teacher in me started coming out (I wanted her to understand that she was failing miserably to construct a winning argument)—but was overtaken by my inner Guy Who Just Wants to Take His Pizza Home and Eat It.

“God, just shut up and tell me what you need. What are you asking for?” Money, of course. But I don’t think she had gotten so far as to ask for money, almost a minute into her hapless spiel about where she was going and where she had been. 

I don’t even recall what she said. I had wrecked her momentum, and she never recovered. Finally, I just leveled with her. “I feel like there’s no way for me to know if anything you say is true.”

“Yeah, that’s true,” she agreed, maybe too easily.

“It’s just goddamn ridiculous, to have to sort through a bunch of bullshit stories and try to figure out why this... person is… I don’t know—bugging me!”

“Sorry to bother you,” she said with extra defeat as she walked away, pushing her less-than-adult bicycle, now very much like a whipped dog. At this point she finally seemed more genuine. I felt guilty, coming quite close to calling her back and giving her some money. But I didn’t.

After she left, I wondered, Why had I taken such a harsh turn with her? Was I developing an appetite for crushing the weak, like the glee I feel when I smash a mosquito? I hoped not. I had a track record of giving to people—nothing impressive, but enough to disprove sadism. It took me an hour or two to realize: that had been, I believe, the same irksome tragedoid I’d encountered at Michaels so many moons ago. What a twerp, revealing the jerk in me. But I felt justified in some ways, since she continued to misrepresent herself as Less Than a Career Panhandler.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Parental Undersight

Another victim of glasses

Parental Undersight

In a five-day, four-eye-doctor marathon (counting the school nurse who started it all), my nine-year-old niece learned she has one really bad eye. It dawned like some elaborate hoax on my sister, Kristine, who started off thinking, “Well, the school nurse is kind of an idiot, so maybe it’s nothing.” But it wasn’t the school nurse who identified the problem—it was a visiting county nurse, testing wholesale, one assumes, the many eyeballs of the children of greater Los Angeles one class at a time. At least a lieutenant in the ranks of school nurses, and she did manage to spot the problem that had somehow eluded everyone else.
    My sister called me early in the process, probably because I have the worst eyesight in the family, and have worn glasses since I was five. Plus, my daughter Penelope wears glasses now.
    “I feel like such a horrible parent now,” Kristine said. “We just went to the eye doctor at Cosco, and they said they’d never seen anything like it. The optometrist shined that light in her eye and said, ‘I can see all the way through her eye!’ And then she said they might not even be able to make glasses that will work for her.”
    “Really?” I asked. “Why? Because one lens would be so much thicker than the other? I think they can make glasses for anyone now. And what did she mean, She could see all the way through her eye?” Like, into her brain? Kristine had wondered the same thing.
Raleigh looks just like her dad (in photos, we have referred to her as “Li’l Shane”), but she may have inherited some unfortunate Woody traits—eye trouble for starters. Heritable Woody meanness may have passed her up for her little sister, Georgia, who used to rage against chairs in a knee-high gladiatorial fury, such that curious onlookers would ask, “Why is she so mad?” to which my sister would reply, “I don’t know—she was born a dwarf… you’d probably be mad too, if you were born a dwarf.” After the Cosco visit, Kristine said they would have to try a more expert eye doctor. Georgia complained, “Does that mean I’ll have to sit through ANOTHER long eye appointment?” Nothing can infuriate a Woody like another Woody.
    “Are you kidding me?” my sister snapped. “Do you know how many of YOUR appointments we’ve had to sit through, you little shit!” Being a dwarf, Georgia had required many doctor visits, especially for ear problems.
    “Isn’t shit a bad word?” Georgia groused.
    “Yes,” Kristine said, “You’re being a shit.” Later she told me that she might make sure Georgia attends Raleigh’s eye appointments regardless of babysitting availability.

Everyone wondered how Raleigh’s bad eye hadn’t manifested openly if it was so bad—no lazy eye or eye crossing like my daughter Penelope, no apparent trouble seeing chalkboards and such, as I’d had when I was little. But, she does have one perfectly good eye. Apparently her brain just relied on the strong eye and let the bad one sit out, getting even weaker with disuse.
    Since they live in California, I barely know the kid, but Kristine reports that she’s kind of like I was in early years—shy at school, bookish, not very socially assertive. I wonder, as I have before, if vision problems in some way precipitate introversion, which in turn may feed the creaky stereotype that glasses signify smarts/social inferiority/general nerdiness. Fortunately for Raleigh, the stereotype has faded enormously in our time. Not only have nerds conquered much of pop culture, but nerd chic has elevated many of them (the attractive ones) to higher social rungs. We 40-somethings grew up watching Christopher Reeve and Lynda Carter downgrade Superman and Wonder Woman into hapless weaklings by putting on glasses*. Sure, Katy Perry still has to ditch them to live a “Teenage Dream,” and superheroes still don’t wear them, but at least it’s been a long time since I heard someone called “four eyes” on a sitcom. My wife (glasses unnecessary) and daughter get crazy compliments on their glasses, so I know it’s a thing.

*There’s even a beauty pageant episode of Wonder Woman where she has to infiltrate and inevitably win the pageant to stop something nefarious. At some point, the dopey Major Dimwit/leading man turns to Wonder Woman after she has spun down into her secretarial “Diana” mode, with her glasses and pulled-back hair, and says something clueless like, “I wish you could enter the pageant, Diana… but we need someone who is really beautiful.” Curious and ironic that comic-book alter-ego formulations intended, most likely, to give nerdy fans an empowering association with hidden strength were finally dumbed down to one subtext: eyeglasses can make even a demigod looked like chopped liver.

"If only these glasses didn't make me look like a leggy bucket of sewage."
My sister drove Raleigh into LA to see another eye doctor on Saturday. I think, in Los Angeles fashion, she based the choice largely on location and availability—living in LA is mostly about avoiding as much of LA as possible, after all. Unfortunately, they ended up at another optometrist rather than at a pediatric eye specialist. The ominous prognosis suggested by the earlier examinations meant that the whole family went. Shane and Kristine were both quite worried, and Georgia was of course in tow for make-up empathy points.
    At the clinic they were told that only one parent could accompany the patient in the exam room. But that’s not how Kristine and Shane roll. They all wanted to go in, so that’s what they did. When the eye doctor entered, he grumbled about how there were too many of them in there.
    “Oh,” Kristine said, “I thought you were joking about that.” She was just trying to defuse his authoritarian impulses, but she later said he stuck slightly to his guns and remained a bit of an asshole. “Shane was really worried, and I wanted him to hear everything—he’d missed the first appointment. That doctor just wasn’t very friendly.”
    So Raleigh got another eye exam. This new doctor had similar misgivings about her eyes, and wrote a prescription that was more than 200 points different from the previous one. Fortunately, he also recommended they go to a specialist, providing a doctor’s name and a warning: “Most people don’t like her very much, but she’s a good doctor.”
    “Why don’t people like her?” Kristine asked.
    “She doesn’t have a very good bedside manner.”
    “So,” Kristine told me later, “I was kind of worried, like, if this jerk thinks she’s bad, then HOW BAD is she going to be?”
    “Yeah, who knows?” I said. But it did cross my mind that maybe the enemy of your enemy could be your friend. “So, no idea which prescription is right?” I asked. “Those are really far apart.”
    “Oh, they’re crazy different.”

Once freed from the exam, my sister felt compelled to consult Yelp, the Californian’s handiest, iPhoniest oracle, about the next eye doctor. I don’t know how many reviews she found, but they were predominantly negative. So, they entered Raleigh’s third appointment with considerable apprehension.
    After Kristine summed up their story, the doctor tossed the first of several bedside-manner grenades that immediately demonstrated why Yelp is a mouthpiece often hijacked by semi-pro complainers and weak whiners overloading their squeaky-wheeled shopping carts.
    “So why” asked the doctor, “did you think that the place where you sample sausages and get your tires rotated would be the best place to have your kid’s eyes examined?”
    Ha ha! I don’t know if she told the doctor the same truth she told me in the retelling: “We go to Cosco all the time, we love it… the other night when there was a big storm, Shane decided he really wanted some of their cinnamon rolls. So we were driving around in all this wind, seeing trees broken on the road, but we just had to go eat cinnamon rolls!” I suppose the doc would have asked if they also sampled some sausages and picked up a six-pack of faulty glasses for the whole family!
    So the fateful moment arrived. Raleigh got a real eye exam from a real ophthalmologist. Kristine asked her if Raleigh would be able to get glasses. “The other place said maybe they couldn’t even make glasses for her because… they could see all the way through her eye.”
    “Because they’re idiots!” said the doctor. “I’ll bet they didn’t go to Stanford and get one of these.” She pointed to her diploma on the wall.
    After dilating Raleigh’s eyes and a couple more jokes at the expense of the stupid optometrists of greater LA, they had a prescription for glasses that sounded, in the one lens, not all that far from my own strong lenses.
    “So, she said Raleigh could get glasses?” I asked later. “Her eye wasn’t going to be a lost cause anymore, like the others made it sound?”
    “Yeah,” Kristine said, “she told us to try the glasses for a couple of months and then see her again. She sounded like it wasn’t that big a deal. I mean, she’ll probably have one weak eye from here on….”
    “But at least it’s correctable,” I said. The optometrists had scared us into thinking there was something freaky and calamitous going on.

One excuse for my sister’s failure to get it right the first time (or the second) is the generalized overuse of the term “eye doctor” for the vaguely similar words “optometrist” and “ophthalmologist.” A bigger excuse is that we Woodies were raised rather carelessly and on the cheap. Even by the more libertarian and free-range standards of that earlier time, we were parented haphazardly. Our parents meant well, I assume. We didn’t get any drunken beatings, exposure to drugs, rapey molestation, or even diddling by untested mom-boyfriends. Just envelope-stretching neglect (more than once in the 5-7 age range, I had sunburns so bad that coin-sized water-filled blisters covered my back, because I suppose I should have known to pack my own sunscreen) punctuated by screaming fights and the occasional rage eruption ending with broken furniture or a horse beaten to death. My dad, as might be expected, was the anger volcano, but I’ve learned over the years that my mom is far from innocent when it comes to keeping the peace. Despite appearances of sweetness, she became a master of turning our lives into a pressure cooker of intolerable conditions—most notably, accumulating animal hoards at the expense of a decent lifestyle.
    It also takes a special sort of patience to put up with my mom’s layer cake of mental illness—a cake that self-frosts with blame for others when it comes to the screwball drama of her own life. Unfortunately, she’s become a completely unreliable witness, especially when it comes to reporting her own experiences. A snowballing mass of obsessions, paranoias, and revised memories clouds her judgment in general; in particular, our family history and her own health issues have been distorted by years in the echo chamber of her mind, where she has spent decades hammering away on the anvil of her favorite narratives: being Norwegian (she’s only half, and has never been to Norway), improving people’s lives by selling them purebred dogs (maybe in some cases), blaming my dad for all that’s wrong with her, being “a survivor,” having to figure out her own medical needs because most doctors are bad people if not conspiring against her along with Obama and the government, and a smorgasbord of racist/socioreligious prejudgments, simplifications, and misconceptions. The ice cream on top of the cake is that many years of bipolar thinking and medication have perhaps eaten away at the wall between her objectivity and her subconscious. She literally lets material from dreams—maybe even daydreams—scurry into her record of day-to-day experience, so that she believes firmly in a number of things that never happened. Finally, as if to specifically annoy her family, she has a terrible memory for things that we think matter (such as my wife’s full name or where she works), yet seems to have total recall for the detailed personal histories of her kennel customers.
    At the time of Raleigh’s eye trouble discovery, my mom was tangled up, as always, in a new and unnecessary drama. At least this time it wasn’t her fault, but the outcome is always the same—there’s little room made in her life for meaningful interaction with her kids/grandkids. Just the day before, she’d phoned me about my dad having a psycho-rage-fit at the neighbors—their best neighbors, who have helped them with numerous problems—after both parties’ herd bulls knocked down fences to fight each other in the road. Mom was naturally upset; unlike my dad, she prefers not to be friendless. Such emotional messes always launch her back into accounts of the bad old days when she was institutionalized, and how my dad had her put away, and was going to let them kill her by putting her in (the state mental hospital in) Nevada (, Missouri), because if you go to Nevada you never come back (even though I believe she did go there once), and if it hadn’t been for Greg Crouch (their large-animal vet in the ‘80s—large-animal vets are frequently the heroes in my mom’s mythology), she would have been put away forever and probably killed… and my dad didn’t care, he went away to work and didn’t even leave money for food for us kids, all while Family Services was trying to get us kids.  
    “Well,” I responded, “we did eat… I mean, I remember we weren’t starving.”
    To make sense of some of this, you have to know more backstory. Family Services was never TRYING to get us—had they had been trying, it wouldn’t have been hard. I was seven, Kristine was 12, and for weeks at a time we were left alone on a farm with a few dogs, a few dozen cattle, and several horses. My mom spent a few months that year committed to a mental hospital. My dad did month-long stretches, on average, working out of state for other cattle ranches. By today’s standard’s it’s insane. Back then, it was somehow possible to squeak by, by not saying anything to teachers, and with the help of a complicit neighbor or two. As far as I can tell, that would be the neighbor who was also our landlord, so I suppose he wanted his payments to keep coming in. Our closest relatives were near Chicago. That’s really where we should have been sent, but then my dad would have had to pay someone to feed his livestock. Ironically, he never seemed too keen on having kids, but he still thought the two of us were reliable enough to balance the farm on our scanty little shoulders.
    “You kids only had money to buy food,” my mom claimed, “because Kristine found the silver dollars from Reno that your dad kept in a drawer.”
    Having never heard the silver dollar thing in that context before, I wasn’t prepared to argue. Plus, I had been six years old at the time in question, so those memories are quite spotty. The next day, I spoke to my sister again.
    “Mom thought we bought all our food with those silver dollars,” I said, “but there’s no way, I mean, there were only a handful of those… I stole a couple, but I don’t remember riding our bikes up to Willard with our pockets loaded down with silver dollars. Didn’t Dad leave us a twenty or something? I seem to remember getting twenty bucks worth of groceries.”
    “Yeah, but Dad didn’t send us anything for food. He was too much of an asshole to do that,” Kristine said. “He would send us a check in the mail to buy feed with, for $100, but it was made out to the feed store, wherever we got our cattle feed.”
    “Uh… Tindle Mills.”
    “Yes, and then I had to ask them if they would give us money back if we bought less grain, so I’d say, Can we just buy 80 bucks worth of grain, and then get 20 bucks back? And they were cool with it!”
    “Ha ha!” I said. “But how did we get up there? We couldn’t drive yet.”
    “The neighbors drove us. The Burkses.” I can’t really remember any of that, but I was probably just in the back of the supercab reading a dinosaur book, along for the ride. I don’t even know if we used our truck or theirs.     

I don’t recall very much from that time. I know my sister told me what to do, and I usually did it, but every once in a while I would get snotty, probably in refusal to do what she deemed my share of the work, and she would clobber me. I remember never brushing my teeth, and not bathing for a week or longer. Either I was too young to stink much, or too young to be conscious of it. I did fine in school, if not quite well. I read a lot. My interests were shifting from dinosaurs to Encyclopedia Brown and nuclear war.
    Some years ago, I wrote a poem about those days. I think it remains pretty accurate.

    Sympathy for the Mental

When they took away our crazy mom,
my sister and I survived for a while
without her. Days or weeks at a time
we were alone. Our dad went to work
in other states and told us what to feed
the cattle and horses before he left,
and knowing him he probably left us
a twenty but no real advice on how kids
of six and eleven should get groceries.
We only knew we had to be careful
to seem cared for, so Family Services
wouldn’t come take us away, but I
rarely bathed or brushed my teeth. My sister
looked nice, though, I’m sure, as we rode
our bikes to the IGA food store in Willard.

We weren’t wise when we shopped—buying
junk, our dad would say—but we got bread
and some other right things, plus marshmallows
and pop. I’ll bet we looked at Lucky Charms
and Fruit Roll-Ups, and ruled them out: too high,
for the rich, a frightening magic word back then,
meaning people who might get us, but also
what we wished to be. We bought pickles
that day—sweet gherkins, like Gramma would eat—
hoping no one there would remember us
from when our mom screamed about the Devil
and spread-eagled herself in the automatic door
so we could escape these people, their store
suddenly a trap set just for us.

Paper bags wrapped over bike handlebars,
we rode home, avoiding cars. Almost there,
my sister’s bag split open on the last big hill,
pickles smashing on the road, lighter stuff
flying into the ditch. I remember thinking
all those pickles were really still good, we
could just gather them up, pick out the glass.
I can’t remember what we did with them,
though—my sister was the mom at the time.

And we had some fun being by ourselves:
me not bathing, warming fish-stick dinners,
mixing a ketchup-and-mayo tartar sauce
that we thought was the best. Missing
our mom wasn’t so bad—I stole silver dollars
from my dad’s drawer, as big as my palm,
cold silver dollars “from Reno,” and bought
candy with them. I read dinosaur books
and collected rocks. But I figure our mom
had a harder time, locked up with strange
strangers in the mental institution, the devil
always rooming just around the corner,
a hospital like a maze full of “city people”
who smoked and ranted and never rode horses—
locked away from her life while her kids
and her dogs went on without her.

I wore glasses back then, too, so someone must have taken me to the eye doctor at some point. But it was never in a hospital. Back then, Pearl Vision was just about the only game in town. I think we had to go all the way to Battlefield Mall, which meant the south side of Springfield, which meant a 40-minute drive and complaints about how much my glasses cost. I can’t remember prices, but I know I felt guilty about the cost of my glasses—enough that the life of any pair I ever had was stretched out as long as possible. Many months could be added to the useful life of any glasses with a combination of squinting and duct tape. Even if my parents were around, I can’t remember them ever volunteering that I needed new glasses. I think I just played it cool (or, super uncool, with my duct-taped loser glasses) as long as possible so they wouldn’t grouse about how expensive my eyesight habit was getting, every couple of years. Ophthalmologist? None of us knew what the fuck that was. I was lucky to see a damn optometrist—and in the rich-people mall. It was near an Orange Julius!
    So, any deprivations suffered by Penelope, Raleigh, or Georgia are rather dinky by comparison. Except of course the part where Raleigh’s eye almost died. I’ll try to tamp down my dickish Woody instincts to remind Penelope how many sacks of Sweet Grain we could have bought with her eyeglasses money, or to call Raleigh a cyclops.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Moment of Terror

 Several years ago, it was about 24 minutes before the final episode of 24, and I had just enough time to make it home from work for the sake of Jack Bauer’s inevitable pyrrhic victory. Then, in a plot-twisting complication, I got a phone call from Elizabeth, the 70-something retired secretary from my workplace. It had been a couple of years since we worked together, but I still talked to her sometimes, and helped her with lawn chores ‘n’ whatnot.
    “Chad, it’s Elizabeth. I just wondered if you could come by. My refrigerator is making a bad sound, and I’m afraid it’s going to die on me.”
    “Oh, uh… Yeah, I’m headed home now, so I can swing by.” Aargh! This would make me late, for sure! I almost made an excuse based on the fact that I don’t really know much about refrigerators anyway, but if Jack Bauer can consistently go 24 hours at a time without eating, drinking, peeing, or defecating, then I can stop by an old woman’s house to listen to her fridge.
    Once there, I entered the pantry area, where a few stairs lead to the kitchen. Elizabeth said she just started hearing the noise an hour or two earlier.
    “Huh,” I said, “You don’t think it ever made this sound before?”
    “No, it really sounds sick.”
    Using my youthful-human hearing abilities, I quickly homed in on the buzzing. It wasn’t coming from the refrigerator at all. A few feet from the fridge door, a furious buglike sound came from a beige canvas duffel bag squished beneath some sacks of stuff—probably a wealth of Ritz crackers and Werther’s Originals. Elizabeth’s place is always overstocked with snack foods. If her refrigerator does fail, she can still survive for several weeks on candy, crackers, and cookies.
    “Sounds like it’s in here,” I told her, “Kinda sounds like an angry mud-dauber.” I cautiously unzipped the bag. In seconds, I switched from stinging-insect apprehension to a completely unexpected fear. Shifting the contents of the bag, I found the butt-end of a plastic cylinder, the size of a flashlight… was it a “personal massager?” Was I about to pull an old lady’s vibrator out into the light of day? Too late to retreat now.
    “I guess it’s this,” I said, lifting the object from the bag.
    “Oh, that thing,” Elizabeth said. I turned it to find the OFF switch, and was relieved to see the brand PEDI-PAWS stamped into the rubber grip. “Sophie’s nail-trimming doodad.” Phew, little dog Sophie had her own personal hygiene needs. I turned it off.
    “Mystery solved, I guess.”
    “It must have gotten turned on,” she guessed, “when I set that other bag on top of it.”
    I scooted on home, wondering how many Pedi-Paws are sold to people without pets.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Wisdom Derived From Dolphins

How Performing Dolphins Can Predict Your Family’s Future

1. A Regrettable Pennypinch

My wife and I were extracting ourselves from the Dolphin Show Pavilion (or whatever it’s called) at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium as the show ended. The audience hesitantly filed out, checking cameras and children, glancing back at the water to catch any unscheduled farewell antics from mankind’s aquatic buddies/captives. This was the main event, in a sense—the pay-extra-for-it ticket option at the entry counter, so I’m sure people wanted to feel very dolphin-saturated and -satiated before they cut loose from the acrobatic geniuses of the sea. I remember feeling less than aglow but basically satisfied, dolphin-wise, and guilty after stealing numerous glances at a nearby woman with a very lovely ear and elegant nose-profile, when I looked at my wife. We decided we were glad that we’d paid the extra ten or twelve bucks apiece to see this part of the aquarium. A stream of kids ran by and I almost started crying then, realizing that, several years earlier, I’d brought my little brother here but passed up the rare chance for farm kids from Missouri to see dolphins. I’d been too cheap.
    In the Big Picture this becomes more tragic, if you’re prone to rolling up the Big Picture and beating yourself with it: All of us are born in only one place and one time, with all of human civilization building toward this golden age when marine spectacles are corralled for our edutainment until that fast-approaching day when they—or we—will likely become extinct, not to mention all the minor happenstances governing our own lives that must line up favorably to make such a trip possible: having time, not being tied down by work or school, having gas money, owning a working vehicle, etc. In this case, it was probably the last time my brother and I took a trip together before growing up into separate lives. “You only live once,” as folks would say. At the most.

2. One’s Own Weaknesses

But before this becomes a simple “stop and smell the roses” tale, I’ll jump back 25+ years and dig up the earlier episode. When I was about four, I was taken with my sister to the Great America (Six Flags over Great America?) Theme Park, somewhere in Illinois. My sister was five years older than I was (still is, luckily), so she and my mother were calling all the shots I’m sure, pulling me wherever they went, which would inevitably involve animals. This drew us to an amphitheater where dolphins leapt from the water in splashy, crowd-pleasing parabolic curves. I really remember nothing of it, except for the brightness of the outdoors (I wonder if little kids have any special evolutionary eyeball defenses to offset the need to run around looking up at/for adults) and that my fifteen minutes of fame lunged at me too soon, in a belittling forest of human witnesses.
    The dolphin trainers went zipping through the crowd for volunteers, and suddenly I was singled out: Would I like to go help a dolphin do a trick? I looked around. What? No, not by myself.... I was too shy. Could my mom or my sister go with me? No? No, not by myself. I must have been cute enough to draw them in, but of course they had to get the show on the road, not stand around while some little boy struggled to overcome innate shyness in the freight-train glare of audience anticipation. So, the moment passed—they moved on, finding some other shrimp to hold a sardine out, leaving me to years of disappointed admonishment from my sister and mom. They both so wanted me in that smidgen of limelight that I think they formed an unspoken agreement to jibe me into sociability with little reminders of how lame I was, like, “Oh, wouldn’t that have been neat if you would have gotten into that dolphin show?” I know they told the story throughout the land, and it always ended with, “But Chad was too shy to go with them, so he didn’t get to do it.” It’s probably my earliest recollection of failure as a social being—the first in a rich and lengthy tradition.*

3. The Most Charismatic of All Megafauna

So maybe the hype about dolphins is true: maybe they do have the power to show us who we are. In my case, not because I give a particular shit about dolphins or believe them to be magical, spiritual creatures (maybe they are; I’m sure they’re very nice and smart), but because each time I’ve ever been around them, my sibling relationships have been summed up instantly** as if the dolphins were shining some psychic flashlight on us:
    My sister, the showpiece of the family, who should have been selected from the dolphin audience and would have jumped at the chance if offered, who could have handily starred successfully in a new TV version of Flipper if given a few pointers, clearly had the social chops to cavort with dolphins. Hanging with such popular creatures requires charisma, which requires confidence and a non-crap attitude; I would be lucky to withstand the company of a hermit crab or a newt or a pigeon or a mudskipper, which is a precise summary of the pets I would have in the ensuing years. Allowing most of them to die or escape on their own biological timeline would eventually cure me of the need to claim a pet of any kind. My sister, on the flip side, has long-standing companionship with horses, great danes and colorful birds. She’s just the kind of person you’d expect to see zipped into a wetsuit handing food to marine mammals in a shower of cheers. I, on the other hand, used to let a scrawny anole crawl around in my hair.
    It’s easy to see how people came up with the idea that witches had familiars in animal form, or that Native Americans had animal totems, or even lycanthrope forms. People are drawn to other living things that reflect them or sympathize with them. I believe I’ve seen a Warner Brothers cartoon where people walking their dogs look like those dogs: a beefy construction worker led by a bulldog, a snooty old lady tethered to a French poodle, etc. I think it’s a parallel we all get, and we get the joke when the pet doesn’t fit the owner, like a hugely muscled bruiser carrying a shivering teacup Chihuahua.
    While dolphins are generally beyond the sphere of pets, they still operate as totems, radiating oceanic romance, acrobatic speed and agility, and smiles seemingly built right into their faces, not to mention legendary intelligence that lets them interact with people on the level of colleagues. They’re animals of the highest order. They’re also assigned, by some commentaries, credit for therapeutic empathy with humans, especially crippled or retarded ones. I think this is constructed by our culture, but built around the naturally pleasing appearance and role of this animal: they swim as well as sharks, but don’t tend toward eating us; they’re smart as chimps, but don’t throw poop or scratch mangy patches of hair; they’re cute as ducks, but less silly; they’re mammals unbound by any of the landlubber rules of mammaldom.***

4. The Dolphin Crystal Ball has 20/20 Hindsight

Maybe we think dolphins are smart for the same reason one might think my mom is dumb: they usually seem very pleased with things. The capacity to be pleased probably has little to do with raw intelligence, but it is definitely wise to be pleased with things: if an otter will spend much of its time clutching at glossy edibles while splashing about, it might as well feel good doing so. The Dalai Lama has been squeezed out of his own country and he still has the gumption to seem pleased. When my mom says to my brother, “Bubby, don’t you think that girl would make a nice girlfriend for you?” he’s likely to say, “Shut up, you’re dumb.” This is the sort of response that makes us all marvel at my brother’s harshness, and makes me think I failed him somehow—maybe it was when I didn’t buy us tickets to the dolphin show; maybe it was when I left him in dirty diapers while my friends slept over and he got raging diaper rash; maybe it was when I was teaching him the alphabet by making little letter cards (which are still sticking to the inside of my closet door at my parents’ house 20 years later), and I gave up after the letter “E.” Maybe I screwed him up. Or maybe I made him better. Kids are complex machines, and adults are downright inscrutable. Most people would be easier to kill than to change. We are pretty much who we are. That’s why it’s so impressive when someone loses 400 pounds, or gives away all his possessions and hikes to Alaska. What power, to rewrite one’s own identity.
    While writing this, I learned that my sister’s new baby will be a dwarf, according to doctors. Suddenly all previous comments about how fat and Bibendum-like this baby is seemed like clues to her proportion problem. While no one in my family is tall, we have no known history of dwarfism, either. It might be fun to blame the air quality in Los Angeles, or terrorists, or Don Rickles, but I knew right away that my sister would think it was karma balancing some kind of vanity scales. My mom confirmed this later, and I decided then that, while karma is a good belief system for society at large (sort of an inescapable Golden Rule that keeps people on good behavior), it falls far short of the truth. If the scales are made to be balanced, they rarely balance in this lifetime, so what’s the point?
    The truth is, chance, physics, and biology do it all, and we imagine patterns shaped by karma, or God’s will, or Satan’s trickery, etc. We imagine the dolphins are smiling when the shape of their mouths is likely just hydrodynamic design. We imagine shapes and names for constellations because we like shapes and names. We imagine this daughter will be sad when she can’t reach a cabinet or eclipse the silhouette that says, “You must be taller than this to ride this ride.” We imagine our own weaknesses through the lives of others—weaknesses they may not have.

5. However

My mom frets a lot despite seeming pleased, and dolphins still look like they’re smiling when they’re caught in a fishing net. It took me 29 years just to get my first date despite being genetically normal and arguably satisfactory-looking, while being legally blind has been only a minor inconvenience (unless of course it was the glasses that kept me from getting dates, in which case I’m pretty fucking pissed off about that). When this short baby gets older, she may do a dozen things better than any of us—have a miniature horse rodeo or her own small merry-go-round, and so many friends and accomplishments that we’ll say, man, I’m getting sick of that little hot-shot making us look like chumps!
    If dogs can sense fear, what can dolphins sense?

*Competing mainly with breaking the grandfather clock my grandfather made, letting my hermit crab die by not watering it, and asking my well-mannered grandma if she farted after hearing her fart, which rather infuriated her.

**in a way I wouldn’t see until years later, of course

*** They also have their shitass tendencies, if you pay close enough attention to nature shows. They’ve been caught on film harrassing lesser creatures, even mauling/killing them for fun (or at least, not for food), like cuttlefish, which they often tear to shreds but do not eat, and I think they sometimes commit what appears to be rape.