Wednesday, February 29, 2012

When Angelina Jolie Judges the Talent Show, I Will Have A Snack Handy

Whoever said the truth is stranger than fiction must not have been subject to the imagination of a child. As misconceptions go, a kid’s brain is full of treasures, better than anything most of us come across in our real lives.  Right, kids say the darndest things.  I’m not the first to say so.  They really do.  I try to save the cutesy anecdotes for grandparents and the like.  I’m terrified of being one of those mothers who rambles on about the adorable things my kids do in a crowd of people who really don’t care but smile politely.  Most of them are probably only funny if you’re present for them anyway, like last week when the 9 year old instructed the 3 year old not to pick her nose because “that’s dead brain cells in there, and you shouldn’t pick them all out.”  “Don’t tell her that!”  I exclaimed from the driver’s seat.  “Why not?  It’s the truth,” she replied in all earnestness.  I had to pull over.  I was quite literally laughing too hard to drive.  Her sweet blue eyes watched me suspiciously from the passenger’s side.  “Well then, what is it?”  My GOD!  All these years she thought those were her brains leaking out every time she blew her nose!?  I can’t believe she didn’t ask for a portable IV of penicillin and a hazmat suit for Christmas.  

Every once in a while, though, a real gem shines through and sparks my own imagination like a ray of sunshine through a kaleidoscope.   Gross exaggerations are spawned in my twisted adult mind from the single misconceived notion of a fourth grader.  I don’t know where they come up with this stuff, but I’m telling you, is GOLD.  I’m guessing Herman Melville’s kid had a fish tank.

And so I find myself inspired by my daughter’s excitement about her first junior high school talent show.  She’s already preparing for it, though it’s two years out.  The big time.  The real deal.  Just one rung short of American Idol on the ladder of big-time-brink-of-fame-performance-shows.  If you win, you win HUGE.  You win.... $500, presented by someone really famous.  Like who?  Like Angelina Jolie.  This is no shit.  Angelina Jolie is the Tooth Fairy of junior high school talent shows.  She keeps hundred dollar bills rolled together in bundles of 5, and passes them out to the kids who win.  Oh, and she judges, of course.  She’s not just some lame showcase model who poses with you and a giant check for your small town newspaper.  She’s Simon Cowell and Vanna White all rolled in one beautiful, perfectly coiffed package.  Except she’s not drunk.  Probably.  

And so the following story was born, not out of my own imagination (I haven’t got an original thought in my head), but out of the misconception of a fourth grader.  I really don’t write fiction, but I can’t help being swept away by this current of enthusiasm.  What will happen when Angelina Jolie shows up to judge the talent show?  Here’s how I envision it...

A beautiful spring day, students and staff filing into the big auditorium, excited for an afternoon spent outside of the classroom, for the impending end of the school year, but mostly excited by the whirl of helicopter blades they hear outside the school.  “She’s here!”  “That must be her!”  “Murmur, murmur, whisper, rustle, shudder, shudder, rustle...”  In sweeps Angelina Jolie, wearing the black gown she wore to this year’s Academy Awards, flanked by a dozen or more personal assistants, body guards, stylists, secretaries and a personal trainer who is whispering to her to remember this is Kegel hour.  She stops inside the double doors of the auditorium, juts her right leg through the thigh-high slit in her dress, hands on her hips, gives an immaculate smile, then continues down the aisle, past star-struck, silent mid-western tweens and their parents, to take her place in front of the stage.  From her clutch purse she extracts a small vial of liquid (that must be lunch) and a pocket sized notebook, but damn, she’s forgotten a pen.  She snaps.  An assistant hands her his, and the talent show begins.  One after the other, nervous 11 through 13 year olds take the stage.  There are magic acts, comedians, dancers, pianists, a tuba player, a weird kid who trained his ferret to pull a lizard in a little wagon, and my Macie, singing like an angel, probably a Beatles’ song, while she juggles flaming knives on a unicycle, wearing a suit she crocheted herself from the thread of cruelty-free silkworms and a hat that funded 60 bowls of food for the Humane Society.  She brings down the house, of course, and is clearly the front runner of the contestants.  After the last performance, Angelina Jolie takes the stage.  Again, she dramatically juts her right leg through the slit in her dress while all the 8th grade boys shift nervously in their seats and pull their backpacks into their laps.  The gym teacher has a noticeable vein bulging on his forehead as he furiously tries to redirect his blood flow.  Angelina Jolie, smiling, announces the winner: the tuba player.  Seriously?  The screechy tuba player?  Okay, win some, lose some, I think.  It’s good for kids to experience disappointment.  And it’s really good for tuba players to be handed 5 bills by Angelina Jolie in front of the whole, entire school.  

Later, in the lobby I console my daughter.  She is visibly disappointed, but not crying.  She's not easily broken, that one.  As Angelina swishes past on her way back to the waiting helicopter, she notices the sad face of the girl with the curly blond hair, the one who sang so beautifully.  “Sorry, kid.  Not every pony grows up to be a Pegasus,” she remarks cooly, then continues toward the door.  “Hey!” I shout after her.  She stops, turns, juts her leg through the slit in her skirt, hands on her hips, saccharine smile on her lips.  Is this the female equivalent of put up your dukes?   I think yes.
“You have lipstick on your teeth,” I say.  This is the female equivalent of a right upper cut.  Her smile fades.  I see her tongue trace over her her teeth behind her pursed lips.  “...and is your left breast bigger than the right?  Is that why you always wear those asymmetrical dresses?  That’s a good trick.”  Left hook.  Her eye begins to twitch.  Time for my round house kick to finish her off.  I reach into my dumpy purse, feel the crinkle of cellophane between my fingers, and produce a small baggie of Goldfish crackers.  Angelina Jolie’s perfectly toned and tan shoulders slump in defeat.  Her lips part as if to say something, but the only sound that escapes her is a wheeze.  I hand her the fishies, amid protests from my youngest child.  “How much for the kid?”  She sprays a fine dust of orange crumbs as she gestures toward the baby with her mouth full.  “Oh, sorry, she’s not actually for sale,”  I tell her.  She shrugs and resumes her path to the helicopter which will carry her to Davenport or Colorado Springs or wherever her judging talents are needed.  She’s not really mean.  She was just hungry.  

Monday, February 27, 2012

Some Words on Words

The baby has started saying Oh Shit.   What’s more, she perfectly adapts the tone of her usually perky voice to mimic the sound of defeat she must hear when I use this expression.  She uses it in the right places, and seems to genuinely grasp the sentiment: drops computer on the floor Oh Shit...head pops off a doll Oh Shit...spills her juice inside my shoe Oh Shit.   There are about 300 instances in a day in the life of an average three year old when something goes terribly, terribly wrong.  We try to correct her through fits of laughter, with our hands clamped over our mouths and our shoulders convulsing in silent hysterics. We instruct her to use the phrase “Oh Pickles” when something is not going her way.  It’s not really working.  Probably we should take it more seriously.  Sometimes she catches herself: Oh Shit.  But I’m not appose-ta say Shit, I say Pickles.  Now you’re getting it, kid.  Words matter.  

As words go, Shit is on my list of what I call “grown-up” words.  Meaning when you are an adult you will know how to use them responsibly.  Like voting or drinking or watching on-line porn.  The idea is that when you reach a certain age you will have the ability to measure the weight of your words and use them deliberately and with calculation.  This ability will be the result of years of reading and writing and speaking and practicing with verbal and non-verbal communication under the close supervision of your elder tribesmen.  You’ll know exactly how you feel and which words will best express that (I’ll come back to this thought in a minute, because this happens infrequently).  I have another list called “bad” words.  They are harmful words that label people and hurt feelings and imply hate and intolerance.  You are familiar with these words, I’m sure.  It’s important for me to clarify the difference between “grown-up” words and “bad” words.  Bad words are the words I hope my kids will never say.  Ever.  And I hope they’ll tell anyone they hear saying these words that they are completely full of shit.  However shocking it is to hear a tiny person exclaim Oh Shit in a tiny, defeated voice in the grocery store when she knocks over a shelf of 200 condoms (they really do package those things to look a lot like candy) it really doesn’t hurt anyone.  What I was thinking was: Oh MY!!  This is probably the most embarrassing thing that could have happened in this aisle of the grocery store, though it does call attention to the prophylactics for anyone who might have been looking for them, and simultaneously suggests that you might want to grab some as long as you’re here for anyone who wasn’t.  What was about to come out of my mouth was, in all likelihood, Oh Shit, but she beat me to it.   

Why do I reserve these “grown-up” words for later use, when they can vote and drink wine and rack up credit card debt?  Because I truly believe words matter.  Thoughts matter.  Intentions and sentiment and all that psychic energy...they matter.  And before you can summarize into one brief expletive the true nature of your sentiment, you must first learn to navigate language.  Frustration is an early experience.  It’s one of our first physical experiences.  Life can be...uncomfortable.  I have always considered language one of our greatest achievements.  Within a few years, we learn that whimpering and wailing are not the best ways to express frustration, nor get our needs met.  There is a more effective tool.  Words.  Sure, walking upright is handy for picking apples, and fire is very cool, especially in fall with marshmallows, and without thumbs I would not be the Regional Thumb Wrestling Champion of 2004.  But words...that’s what really puts the sprinkles on my doughnut.  I’m not a great orator, nor a great writer, but I worship those who are.  Noam Chomsky is my Elvis.   It’s ironic, this mention of achievement, because I sense a strange backslide in the area of language, an abbreviation of sorts, that has me wondering what happens when all the sentiment goes out of the words.  If we use language as a means to communicate an idea, or a single concept, but we ditch allegory and dull the color of the thought by stripping it of any descriptive property, of any adjective, of any humor...well, why not just point at stuff and grunt with inflection?  My hope for my kids, for all kids, is that they will be well-read and well-versed in actual, real live, face-to-face conversation, enough so that they can effectively communicate in expletives and essays alike.  I am as guilty as the next guy of using text as a method of communication (though mine are usually too long and I’ve never caught on to the abbreviations), but my kids are not allowed to use text as a way of talking to me.  Outside of arranging rides home from school, it’s off limits between us.  I would be less horrified to receive a text from my kid that said: “Shitballs, motherfucker!”  than one that said:  “Mom, I asked out that girl I like and she said yes!”   Some conversations are meant for face-time, or at the very least, over the phone so I can hear the intonation of a voice.  Last week someone texted me a job offer.  What???  Or should I say WTF???  I always think these things are best worked out over a beer, but a phone call would suffice.  I’m old-fashioned, I know, but is this where we’re headed?

-House caught fire, dog is ok, ur album collection is destroyed
-Ur grandpa died, funeral 2sday, 11:30
-Ur adoption application has been approved.  Pick up kid next Friday.
-Hi hon.  Our application was approved.  We pick up kid next Friday.  
-Mom, need 2 borrow 5k.  Send a ck, pls.
-imho, u r a tdb, nvr cma dh!

And where from there?  If we get so used to “speaking” through abbreviated, non-emotive, less than complete sentences, what the hell is going to happen at Thanksgiving?  I talk too much, I always have, so my family is safe.  But what about yours?  You remember how to talk to people, because you are of a generation where people had to talk to each other, if not in person, at least on a gigantic cell phone that had to be transported in it’s own backpack.  My kids are not so lucky.  Their phones will fit in their pockets or their watches and will avail them a form of communication that requires no emotional investment on their part, nor any real grasp of the magic words lend.  I see text abbreviations as having the potential to affect language the way auto-tune and Protools have affected pop music.  All the individuality has gone out of the sound.  There’s nothing authentic there.   Give me something. Horns! Gospel choirs! Big drums! Something. Give me Ernest Hemingway and run-on sentences that take up whole pages and say the same thing six ways without ever saying the same thing. Give me Moby fucking Dick.

I hope there will always be radical wordsmiths, clinging to their typewriters in a storm of digital abbreviations, scouring the attics and basements of abandoned office supply stores for pens, learning to make their own paper from rice.  They’ll teach their kids to use words as a measure of thought.  They will probably have a list of “grown-up” words and a list of “bad” words.  In my imaginary dystopian version of this scene, all the words on my list of “bad” words have been eradicated from daily speech and exist only in Mark Twain novels and Lou Reed lyrics.  My writer’s list of “bad” words that he hopes his kid will never say, ever, probably include OMG, BRB, CU and TMI.  In his opinion, there is no such thing as too much information.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Generally speaking...

I was brought up by fair-minded people who taught me that generalizations are, generally, impolite.  They instructed me that to classify an entire group of people who happen to possess a common trait is an invitation to misunderstanding and prolonged resentment.  I’m passing this and other idealistic tidbits along so that my kids will be untainted by my assumptions, and the biases and prejudices that have come with age and repeat experience.  Of course I make generalizations.  Life has a way of sneaking into your parents’ ideology and tweaking it ever so subtly to be in tune with the truth...something that is usually less rosy than they would have liked it to be.  Now I know what they knew, and it’s why I’m attempting to give my kids the same blank canvas to paint.  

But not all generalizations are unhealthy, and some can even help us understand each other a little better.

So now that I’ve established that I’m not just some dick who goes around thinking you can tell everything about a person by looking at that I’ve convinced you that I don’t think it’s fair to make superficial assumptions about someone simply because of what they do for a living (I have convinced you, right?)...I’m going to tell you some general truths about your waitress.  This is the general, 98%-of-the-time-this-is-the-truth truth about your waitress.

#1.  Your waitress does not know you personally and is entirely unaware of your personal preferences.  An exception to this is: your waitress does know you personally, i.e. you are a friend, relative or repeat customer.  I can intuit a lot about a person, I’m sensitive that way.  I can get a read on whether or not you’re enjoying your day and essentially what your expectation is from me.  I can usually tell if you’re a happy person, if your heart is heavy, if you need extra attention or would prefer less.  What I can’t tell you is if you are going to like the black bean burger better than the falafel.  I don’t know you.  I can describe things for you in exquisite detail.  By the time I’m done talking about this food you’ll probably feel like you’ve already eaten it.  But asking a waitress which thing you’re going to like the best puts an undue amount of pressure on her.  Frankly, I have more faith in you than this anyway.  You’re selling yourself short.  I believe you have the strength to dig deep inside your own psyche and root around in that muck until you come up with an answer that you have meditated on and sorted out and then pulled from your pure and bright and clear and organic connection to the divine...and you will know what you’re hungry for.  If not, then this is a question for your mother.  In this age of technology I just know your mom has a cell phone at the ready for emergencies like this one.  Text her.  She lives for this shit.  Within seconds you are going to have a reply similar to this one: u r going 2 like the hamburger but not 2 well done c u sunday at ur sis.   Don’t ask me why all moms forget the rules of grammar in text messages.  They just do.  The point is, she can help you.  I’m sorry, I really can’t.

#2.  Your waitress is hungry.  It’s dinnertime.  She meant to eat before she came to work but she was helping her kids with their homework and trying to get glue out of the cat’s tail and she wasn’t really hungry anyway because it was 4:30 in the afternoon and she had a late lunch and now, oh shit, it’s dinnertime and all this beautiful food is for someone else.  There are no vending machines in the break room.  What break room?  There’s no Nutri-Grain bar in the desk drawer.  Nothing to be done, really, but keep putting one foot in front of the other until it’s her turn to eat.  At midnight.  She’s hungry, you’re eating dinner.  Be nice to her.

#3.  Your waitress has to pee.  She has had to pee for over two hours.  She’s been trying to fill her empty stomach with water and now she’s looking for that long shot two minute window of opportunity to use the restroom.  Sure, she could ask someone else to watch her tables, but she’s thinking: just as soon as I run this food I’ll go.  Whoap, extra napkins, oh, and one more glass of wine over here, more water over by one the “one-more-things” have added up and now it’s been hours and she’s starting to go numb from the waist down while some guy is holding her as his tableside hostage because he can’t just grow a pair already and make a decision about what he wants to eat.  

#4.  Your waitress thinks you overpacked for this occasion.  That’s right.  She’s judging you, and she wonders why you needed to take up a table for four people in the middle of a rush when there are only two of you.  On closer inspection, she surmises that it’s because you each needed a chair for your respective gigantic handbags.  What exactly is in those things, anyway?  This is a restaurant.  We are prepared for any emergency here.  We have food.  We have wine.  We have trained professionals who will usher you through any unforeseen calamity that might befall you here.  You can leave your hair dryer at home next time.  Here’s what you need when you go out to eat:  car keys, some money (try the easily portable kind, like cash or a credit card, so you don’t have to haul around a bunch of dubloons or something), maybe a lipstick, and your phone in case you need to text your mom about the menu offerings.  That’s really all.  We have everything else.

I’m sure that you could make similar generalizations about the people who do whatever sort of work you do.  I like to imagine them.  I like to think that all financial planners play the lottery, that all construction workers have a thermos of strong, black coffee inside a tin lunchbox, and that all grocery store checkers have some kind of vibrating device in the insoles of their shoes to tickle their feet at random intervals, operated by remote control from a panel behind those two way mirrors at the front of the store.  But I'm only guessing about these things because I have no way of knowing what really goes on in those worlds. It would be better, and more accurate, if there was an open exchange of the general truth so we can make each other’s lives a little easier.  It’s really tough to achieve sensitivity to others’ experiences when they’re dissimilar to our own.  The only way to reach understanding, and avoid inaccurate generalizations, is to tell the truth and disclose the accurate generalizations.  I genuinely want to know how I can make someone’s day a little easier by avoiding the most common annoyances of their profession.  So please, tell me what you do, and how I can stay out of your hair today.