Archive for the ‘Life’ Category

ImageThe summer is filled with buzzing—weed-whackers, motorized toys, motorcycles in the distance…and insects. Most of the insects are nothing more than an annoyance; these are the house flys, the beetles bumping endlessly against the screen, the cicadas in the trees. Then you have the more sinister insects, the ones that bite and sting and burrow in your skin and menace the world. These insects produce a different, more ominous buzz. A low pitched, creeping sort of vibration that drones on like industrial machinery.

 I woke from a power nap one afternoon to such a sound and jumped to attention. Though usually a slow-riser, I was immediately alert. Natural selection kicked in and flight was immediately engaged. I skittered into the next room and peered around the corner. Circling the living room was a massive hornet. His lean, striped abdomen bobbed gently, like a boxer’s power hand cocked, waiting for the moment to land the hay maker. This was the conquistador of hornets. He had ventured into the new world of my living room in search of food and nest building material—hornet gold. He was not to be trusted and I knew right away he was no Quetzalcoatl but a yellow and black demon. After several attempts to kill the fiend, I finally dealt a death blow when he became trapped against a sunny window.

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Hernan Cortez, himself. He won’t be conquering anyone now.

I should have known there were more barbarian predators lurking nearby. When I discovered the nest my reaction was hardly one of shock. It was Saturday, errand day, and I was in the mode of checking things off the list. This would be one more short term goal achieved, I thought, as I shook the can of hornet spray. The unsuspecting hornets were hard at work constructing their fortress where, no doubt, they were raising an army intent on destroying the human race. I said a prayer. I raised my can and pressed the button.

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The horror.

Their skinny bodies dropped from the nest like ash from the sky during a wildfire. Convinced they were helpless, I knocked the nest to ground and watched the last few evil bugs writhe slowly as their dismal lives faded away. The world was once again safe for democracy.

Just as I was about to go inside, a hornet returned; he must have been out getting a pack of smokes or something. He flew around confused, circling the spot where his home used to be. Where was the nest? Where was his family? He looked to the ground, and with horror, spotted them all scattered and stiff on the concrete, drenched in poison.Image He thought of all the mistakes he’d made, the selfishness and sin of his younger years. Why did those innocents have to be the ones to die? Why had he been spared? Why had the God of all Hornets forsaken him?

He looked at me. I looked back at him, imagined the hatred in his eyes. I watched him swear to avenge this senseless genocide. I felt my fingers loosen from the can. I let it drop to the ground and ran inside.

What had I done? I’d made a martyr of the colony. But I had to do it! It was them or me! I had to defend my home; it was survival of the fittest and damn it, I’M the fittest! But still. I’d created a hornet holocaust.

Now every day when I go outside, I have to do it with eyes in the back of my head. I know he’s there, in the shadows of the gutter, or inside some hollow log nearby, just waiting, waiting for the right time to attack. Or maybe he’s after every human he can find. Hundreds of good men, women and children are feeling the wrath of my actions while peacefully sunbathing or mowing the lawn. Like the hornet himself, my suffering is not physical, but psychological—the pain of guilt.

I will live the rest of my summer in a deep paranoia, never more than an arm’s length from my precious hornet spray. He haunts my dreams as if a Mel Gibson character.

There is no hope for me. Save yourselves.

Possibilities

1. This is a farewell message  meant to indicate a speedy takeoff since the driver’s vehicle is about to leave yours in the dust. Of course, this seems unlikely since the vehicle is an ordinary Ford Explorer. Maybe, with the economic downturn the driver, like all of us, was forced to make cuts and simply kept the license plate from his Ferrari after he traded it in for the Explorer.

2. When the driver leaves you, which he inevitably will because he’s a ramblin’ man and/or rollin’ stone, you will see the plate and you’ll know its message means he’s never coming back, but that you’ll always be his friend and sometimes lover. Only, he’s not the only ramblin’ man, in fact he’s not even the first ramblin’ man so he had to use an alternate and unfortunately vague spelling for his farewell.

3. The driver invented a product called “Bud,” intended for lonely people.  Bud is a robot that can be programmed to be your best bud. Everyone needs a friend. The driver, of course, would like you to buy either a) the robot itself or b) the patent rights.

4. The driver is a marijuana dealer. This plate is basic advertising and effective, but not a good way to avoid The Man.

5. The driver is a marijuana advocate and/or consumer. He feels that one good toke can heal the world’s wounds. The plate is not meant as a form of self-identification, but as an appeal to the masses.

6. Repeat possibilities four(4) and five (5), replacing “marijuana” with, like, flowers or whatever.

7. The driver is a patriot and therefore an advocate for responsible, honest commerce. He happens to be a marijuana (flower) user, but what really matters is that when you want some, let’s say bud for instance, you get it by exchanging hard-earned currency for the goods, not by stealing from hardworking folks either literally or in the form of  Universal Bud Care, which are basically the same thing.

8. The driver is a misanthrope. The plate is an axiom meant to suggest that if you want a real friend, then like anything worth having in this world,  you have to pay for it.

9. The driver believes so wholeheartedly in capitalism that he sees it as the only reliable institution left. Therefore, Possibility Eight (8).

On Gene Kelly’s 100th birthday, I found myself seated in the dentist’s chair, overwhelmed by that robust anxiety that cannot be ignored, suppressed or rationalized— it is that feeling beyond fear and apprehension: the anticipation, the expectation of pain.

Sure, this is the twenty-first century and dental technology has come so far as to make actual pain largely psychological. (just think of the sound of that drill and tell me you don’t feel at least a little pinch). But beyond that is the utter invasiveness of a series of tools and gauze and clamps and fingers in your mouth for over an hour. This infringement on personal space is one of the most grotesque procedures a person can endure and perhaps the physical pain we dread is actually only a projection of the greater fear of personal violation.

Whatever the reason, any dental experience becomes precisely the stark reality we try to transcend (if not avoid entirely). There are some pleasures in life — a first kiss, a home run, a good tiramisu — we try to relive long after they occur. These were experiences that ended before we were finished with them; they happened in a flash, but they exist forever in our minds and on our tongues.

An experience like a trip to the dentist exists on the other end of the same spectrum. It is a memorable experience all right, but it’s one we’d rather forget even as it’s happening.

The way I manage to do this is to try to create an out of body experience, to leave my body entirely. I am not particularly religious, but I believe I am capable of separating body and mind. I think of it as spacing out. Nothing helps me do this like cinema. My dentist understands this and allows me to watch television while he has his way with my ailing bicuspids. I always go straight for TCM.

It’s hard to understand, in a visual sense, what’s happening with my mouth. You usually can’t see most of your teeth without really examining them in earnest. For this reason, it’s hard to picture the various foreign feelings going on when the dentist is at work; combine this with a local anesthetic and it adds up to a very peculiar blend of unpleasant sensations. Meanwhile, for the dentist and hygienist, this is the equivalent of routine paperwork. The drill buzzes away, they’re chatting about their weekends and of course, the patient can’t talk, so they don’t really bother talking to the patient.

So where does this leave the individual trapped inside a restrained and vulnerable body? In the perfect position to drift away into fantasy.

To honor the great star of  Singin’ In The Rain and An American In Paris TCM was airing a marathon of Kelly pictures. I am hardly the world’s biggest fan of musicals and I have to admit that I have seen only a tiny percentage of Kelly’s body of work, so had I been on my own couch channel surfing, I probably wouldn’t have settled on The Pirate from 1948 starring Kelly and Judy Garland. I was, however, immobile and practically forced to watch, i.e. A Clockwork Orange. When I turned it on, the movie was already into the third act. I could only hear bits and pieces of the dialogue over the buzzing drill and grinding away of my damaged enamel so I had no idea what was happening in the way of story. All I saw was a confused Judy Garland, a corpulent villain, the dashing Kelly and a bunch of extras.

 

Then I saw this:

I became mesmerized by Kelly’s skill. Not only was I captivated by his charm and suave demeanor, I was in awe, perplexed even, at the athleticism and precision of his dancing. I was no longer in a dentist’s chair. I was no longer a part of the planet or the human race. Everything stopped and this ridiculous, yet masterful dance was suddenly the only thing that existed.

“Uh oh,” said the dentist. A statement which must certainly be banned ADA. Turns out once he’d removed the damaged filling, there was more decay than he realized and darned if the damage wasn’t right over the nerve.

“Let me know if you need more juice,” he said holding up the novacane needle. I glanced at the female hygienist and told him I’d be fine without it.

“Suit yourself,” he said firing up the drill.

Now the pain was more than just psychological. I tried to think of anything else: the Phillies, my girlfriend, the Pleiades. I tried to get back into The Pirate but things on the screen had gotten intense too! Now all the extras were attacking Gene Kelly with pies and juggling pins and there was pandemonium in my mouth, in the movie, in Syria. Everything was totally fucked!

It was Judy Garland to the rescue:

I won’t say it felt any better, but at least I had a distraction. Was The Pirate the conveyor of any great truth of the human experience? Did it seek to create some exaggerated form of emotion like in Fellini or Sirk? Was it in any way a literal reflection of the tragic, beautiful lives of Men and Women?

Nope.

But it got me out of that chair and out of the masochistic ritual of decay, aging and the decades of brutal maintenance to come. I was at my quota of the real world. I needed fantasy that existed only for its own sake. Artifice was the only truth. The rest was chaos.

At one point, the dentist took a break and glanced at the screen.

“An oldie, huh?” I swear he rolled his eyes at the hygienist.

He’d obviously spent too much time on the other side of the drill.

        

Inside the old theater, austere and immense, a haze of tobacco creates an aura of the surreal. Mia Farrow fidgets in her seat, along with the other patrons, waiting for the picture to begin as if it is the only thing that matters in the world. Already, they are completely engrossed by what they are about to see on the giant screen, larger than life. As the movie begins, her eyes reflect the light from the screen and sparkle as she takes in the wide-eyed adventurer, young Jeff Daniels in khaki and pith helmet and the glossy Manhattanites in tuxedos and gowns, sipping Martinis at the Copa Cabana. She is utterly entranced by the perfection of the enormous black and white world before her.

Outside the theater, the world is bleak, cold and grey. She lives in a manufacturing town in New Jersey and the Depression is on. Her husband is lazy, unfaithful and abusive. Unemployed, he relies on her job waiting tables at a shabby diner to support them while he shoots dice, drinks and womanizes. At the diner customers and her boss yell at her because lost in the reverie of daydreams she is always a step behind, careless and dropping plates. These daydreams, we see, are not merely a hindrance, or mark of irresponsibility, but the very thing that enables her to get through a miserable reality.

At one point, even people in the movies had imperfect teeth. Watch something as recent as the 80s or early 90s and you’ll see coffee and nicotine stained off-whites and beige tints behind even the most glamorous red lips.

Totally fixable.

Granted, there are fewer smokers in Hollywood these days, but there has been an utter scourge of unnaturally perfect teeth on and off the silver screen. As smokers are pushed further and further into the margins of society and coffee is replaced by energy drinks and adderall, the staining of teeth is at an all-time low. Combine this with the easy access to over-the-counter whitening treatments along with the full-court press of professional treatments at the dentist and voila: we find ourselves in period of perfect-looking teeth, an illusion of vitality and perfection we can reveal to the world with a generous grin.

At the dentist last week, I was dismayed to get the news (delivered through the blinding whiteness of my dentist’s smile) that I had two cavities, both related to the breaking of fillings. I try hard to take care of my teeth but I have many fillings and they will continue to break for the rest of my life, trapping bacteria and forever creating a tiny reminder of the human condition.

“This one down here is next in line,” he said, poking at a molar on my lower left side. “We’ll probably be looking at a crown, but that can wait another six months.” He examined my front teeth. “You should consider some orthodontic work,” he said. “Your lower arch is collapsing and causing the front teeth to wear down. Before long, you won’t have anything left.” I cringed. “Don’t worry, forget about those old-fashioned metal braces. Have you heard of Invisa-line?” He looked over at the hygienist. “Diane, see that he gets some literature to take home before he leaves.” He exhaled conclusively and returned his attention to me. “But other than that, everything looks good!”

I scheduled another appointment and readied myself for the fear, the discomfort and the unbelievable cost that awaited me.

Still got it.

This is the reality of my mouth. A reality that despite brushing three times day, flossing and rinsing with antiseptic will only get bleaker as I get older. Then, the rest of my body will follow, sore joints, torn muscles, strained ligament, high blood pressure and God knows what else before finally, I’m spending my days in an easy chair, surrounded by prescription pill bottles, waiting to die.

When Jeff Daniels, the handsome and esteemed archeologist, jumps off the screen and offers Mia Farrow an opportunity to join him in the world of Hollywood fantasy, she turns it down for the promise of a real-life fantasy fulfillment with the actor that plays him. The latter fantasy proves to be a mere charade, a ruse played by the masterful actor as a way to trick his character into going back where he came from.

In the movies, everyone has perfect teeth. Everyone stays young, strong, beautiful and happy forever, immortalized for all time in their idealized roles. We can have teeth like that: white, perfect and smiling, but despite the illusion, ours always decay.

This afternoon I stopped, during work, at a bank in Hanover to deposit last week’s paycheck. I stood at the counter, calculating how the deposit would affect both my checking and savings and trying to fill out the deposit slips accordingly. I was uncomfortable since this wasn’t my regular branch; I thought of an argument I’d had with a teller at another unfamiliar branch in the past over some petty discrepancy.

There was a lot of noise in the lobby, nothing severe — only the spontaneous, manic laughter of any workplace on a busy Monday afternoon; a lot of people talking at once, all of them women, middle-aged and speaking with cigarette-shredded voices and the peculiar Pennsylvania accent of that area. One teller was shouting through a microphone to a customer at the drive-through window in order to sound clear through the speaker on the other end. She was only doing this out of perceived necessity, but it was excessive and it left me unnerved.

I was fidgeting at the teller’s window in the moments it takes to make the deposit when a man approached the teller’s window next to mine. He was older, and although I didn’t look at him directly, I got the feeling that upon further inspection, he would appear much older than he actually was. Holding his hand was a little girl, no more than ten years old. He panted, worn out by the midday heat and, I sensed, a rather lousy day. Dropping his keys on the counter, he requested that his check be cashed. He wasn’t an account holder and the teller was obliged to request a second form of identification in addition to his driver’s license. When he said he didn’t have one, I felt the tension forming and anticipated trouble. The teller went through the various forms of acceptable ID — birth certificate, passport, armed service ID, vehicle registration — as if he wouldn’t know if he had one of those documents. I could sense his frustration as one by one he rejected her suggestions. It was as if each rejection were its own tiny badge of failure and he delivered each one with an increasing note of despair; not a strategy to elicit sympathy or in any way manipulate. It was the downtrodden voice of bona fide sadness. No, he’d never left the country. He’d never served. Nope, he wasn’t a vehicle owner. Birth certificate? He’d lost it years ago. “You can see, plain as day, by the picture on my license it’s me,” he said, raising his voice, but obviously pleading. “They let me cash my checks at the other place.”

I’ve been flat broke and desperate and I know as well as anyone how it feels to finally get my hands on a few dollars so I could get something to eat. I felt that failure sting, that feeling I thought I’d left behind forever. I saw not him, but myself walking out the door with nothing but a worthless slip of paper in one hand and my hat in the other. To say I sympathized with him would be a lie, it went beyond that. I identified with him. I was his kindred spirit. I hated him for it. I thought “Well for Chrissakes, go cash it the other place and make those people feel uncomfortable. Go force them to choose between professional duties and their loyalty to the human race. It’s not like you’re doing anyone a favor with your ‘business.’ No legitimate institution in the world makes their nut cashing checks for free.”

I waited, bracing myself along with everyone in the lobby for the outburst, but the denouement was nothing more than a futile snicker and a sharp gesture in which he snatched his keys from the counter and turned himself around toward the door in a single motion.

My teller finished making the deposit and smiled at me in a way that was more genuine than teller’s smiles usually are. There was a clear message of camaraderie and the relief that our privileged world had once again been defended from a familiar invader.

I followed the man and the little girl to the parking lot. He was still gripping her hand as if he were a child himself clutching a stuffed animal. From the angle, I could see the girl’s eyes as she looked up at him, inquisitive, careful and worried. “Did you just lose your cool?” she asked in her little girl’s voice. “Not quite,” he said in a voice even smaller.

If someone else would have witnessed this scene with me, what would I say later on? “That poor man,” I’d say, “This economy,” or something apropos of the time, or whatever.

Am I supposed to feel guilty for the things I thought back at the teller’s window, a hostile reaction that I happened to articulate using words? I didn’t ask to have unpleasant emotions stimulated, dragged from the garbage can inside me I haven’t had a chance to empty. The catalyst for my discomfort was external. I was fine before any of that happened. Then my precious, fragile mood was shot. If this guy reminded me of the possibilities—the way my life used to be, or could be in some alternate, but entirely possible reality—then shit. It wasn’t him I hated. It was myself. In America, you don’t have to be rich to live in the leisure class. I’m one of the group of fortunate souls who ranks noisy bank lobbies as one of my pressing issues.

I’m terrified of anything worse.

Maybe it was her innocent ignorance of the reality of the situation. Perhaps it was an innate gift or  possibly a learned sensitivity from already having experienced a life no child should ever have to, but as soon as he uttered those words, I watched her reach out a skinny arm, and rub his back. She comforted him all the way to their car.

“Dear God,” I thought, “Please, don’t let me hear him cry.”