Monthly ArchiveJune 2012
Commentary 28 Jun 2012 09:59 am
The human mind cannot accept a negative.
This is why when somebody says, “Do not think of the color red,” the first image that comes to mind is crimson. Or when a friend posts a picture on Facebook of two Star Trek characters, a chicken and the warning, “Do not look at this chicken,” your brain cries foul — or fowl.
That’s fun for parlor tricks, but more seriously, it’s also the reason why people who go through life saying that they will not be like their parents end up exactly like them, because their minds ignore the “not” and instead reinforce whatever negative traits they are trying to avoid. Fait accompli.
All of which explains my ongoing struggles to avoid cheese on my hamburgers.
See, for decades I’ve waged a War on Cheese comparable to the federal government’s War on Drugs, and with about the same results. No matter how often or how clearly I say, “No cheese,” the fast-food jockeys on the other end of the drive-thru microphone or the other side of the counter never hear the “no,” which leaves me with a gooey mass of yellow phlegm melted to patty and bun.
If I’ve ordered at the drive-thru, I have at least two choices: let the rest of my order get cold while I go back and explain to the vacant-eyed, polyester-wearing employee (Welcome to Bob’s Burger Barn, my name is Ken) that some people really, really don’t like cheese; or scrape the offending slice off the bun at home, which leaves a residue and a bitter aftertaste, like bad Chinese carryout or a chubby ballerina’s unfulfilled dreams.
If I’m dining in the restaurant, I must get back in line behind the little kid who’s digging for boogers the way a prospector mines for gold while his mom — the kid’s, not the prospector’s — patiently waits for him to decide on the fruit cup or the applesauce. When I finally return to my seat, everybody else in my party has finished, so I must wolf down my cheeseless entrée while they fiddle with cellphones or flick plastic silverware into empty french fry containers.
But my cheese dilemma isn’t confined only to fast-food emporiums. It also affects meals in upper-scale restaurants. Because I order hamburgers anytime, anywhere, even passing over hoity-toity choices like cognac shrimp with beurre blanc sauce or petit fois for the sublime taste sensation of a good old greasy burger, I must also occasionally fight with snotty head waiters over my right to live a cheese-free existence. Our conversations go something like this:
Me: Excuse me, good sir, but I would like your very finest hamburger, harvested at the peak of patty perfection from a USDA-approved hamburger orchard where all trees are fertilized with mushrooms and ketchup.
Maître d: Vous say vous wants zee haimburgair?
Me: Oui. And please, sir, NO CHEESE.
Maître d: Ah, monsieur likes zee cheese, eh?
Me: No, no, no cheese.
Maître d: Ah! Yes, yes, yes to zee cheese!
Me: No cheese. Negatory cheese. Ixnay on the eesechay.
Maître d: Ah, then monsieur no longer wants zee haimburgair.
Me: No, monsieur wants, monsieur wants. What monsieur does NOT want is the cheese.
Maître d: Voila … zee cheeseburgair, eh?
Last month, I bit into a Combo No. 1 from Wendy’s when I detected the yellow intruder bubbling up on top of the patty the way cartoon fungi invade toenails in athlete’s foot commercials. I didn’t want to slog back to the counter and complain, so I ate it.
It wasn’t exactly a Sam I Am epiphany — Say, I do, I do so like green eggs and ham! — but it didn’t suck either. So maybe from now on I’ll just grin and eat it.
But thinking back to how the mind cannot accept a negative, I’m wondering what would happen if I asked counter jockeys or waiters NOT to imagine a plain burger. Maybe that’s exactly what I’d get, which would be a darn sight better than seeing red over cheese.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published in The Alliance Review on June 28, 2012
It had been a perfectly lousy spring, but summer was looking up.
In May of last year, we made the decision to put our 12-year-old husky mix, Molly, to sleep. I sat with her during her last moments, and I’m not ashamed to say that I pulled the car off the road and cried after leaving the vet’s.
Life as a non-dog owner was different, but I adapted. Sure, I was a little blue at the loss of my friend, but part of me — a part that grew larger every day — recognized that her departure brought new freedoms.
I was no longer attached to an invisible leash that brought me home every six or seven hours to “put the dog out.” Pre- and post-vacation trips to the kennel were a thing of the past. On rainy days, I didn’t need to wipe off her paws before she came inside. I could leave food on the table with the reasonable expectation that it would still be there when I came back.
On June 9, I announced, “You know, I’m OK with not having a dog anymore. Really.” And I was.
So imagine my surprise 20 minutes later when my daughter handed me an early birthday present: a golden retriever pup she had named Cooper, after my favorite rock-and-roll singer. She said I looked sad lately and she wanted to cheer me up.
If life were a Hallmark movie, we would have hugged. Instead, I said, “Thanks for the 5-and-a-half-pound pooping and peeing machine.” Except I didn’t say pooping and peeing. It wasn’t exactly a Kodak moment.
Summer churned by. Cooper was sweet, lovable, adorable, fill-in-your-favorite-cute-adjective, but my first assessment was correct: He was a boatload of gastrointestinal problems of the explosive, runny variety.
I often spent lunch breaks swamping out the inside of his cage. Because it was too big, we cordoned him off in the front half with the plastic lid from a large storage bin. On more than one occasion when nobody was home, he knocked the lid over, defecated on top, and then rolled through it repeatedly. I called this the “poop slide,” except I didn’t say “poop.”
I was becoming an expert at chocolatey puppy baths, not a profession I aspired to. Plotting an exit strategy, I had my wife call the breeder and ask about the return policy. A veterinarian had to certify in writing that the dog had health problems. All I had to do was look in the cage at noon each day for evidence of that.
My life paraphrased a Clash song: Should he stay or should he go? If he stayed, I would be miserable. If he went, I would be miserable because I made him go. I took the path of least resistance, but told myself it was temporary.
Summer turned to fall. Cooper’s snout elongated like a dishonest Pinocchio’s nose, his hair went from short and spiky to long and curly, and his stomach, thankfully, settled. His early morning walks (5:30 a.m. daily — including weekends — a dog’s bladder knows no holiday) netted some curious finds — gum and candy wrappers in abundance, of course, but also a bicycle helmet, mittens, a surgical mask and the frozen corpse of a squirrel.
Cooper retrieved but did not relinquish, so I had to pry most items from between his teeth, except the icy squirrelsicle, which he dropped unceremoniously on my shoe.
By late autumn, I was still asking around to see who wanted a dog, but less frequently and without much heart. Around Christmas I relented and decided he could stay. Everybody else already knew this, of course. I’m kind of slow that way.
Cooper has grown and grown — in physical size, but also on me. Today, he weighs around 85 pounds, and his head alone is bigger than the puppy he once was. I look forward to coming home and being greeted by him and whatever object he chooses to bring me — napkins, wooden spoons from a kitchen drawer that he butts open with his head, or a pair of my wife’s shoes, chewed with reckless abandon. If he were gone, I’d be spared much frustration and inconvenience, but I’d also miss long walks, wet-tongue kisses and endless games of catch.
I still wouldn’t advocate buying a dog as a gift unless you ask the recipient first, but in my case, it worked out. So I guess this is my way of acknowledging to my daughter, one year later, that she knew me better than I knew myself.
Sincerely, thanks for the 5-and-a-half pound pooping and peeing machine. He’s retrieved my heart, but has yet to relinquish it.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on June 21, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
Some writers, artists and musicians make an indelible first impression, so that we remember exactly where we were, who we were with and what we were doing when we first encountered their work.
Others, however, are more subtle — creators who seem always to have been a part of the DNA of our imagination, whose stories or films or songs have taken root and sprouted seeds in our conscious and subconscious minds.
That’s how I feel about Ray Bradbury, the noted fantasy writer (I won’t say “science-fiction,” although much of his work is billed as such because he chose to pepper his stories with rocket ships and alien worlds), who gave us the gifts of “Fahrenheit 451,” “Something Wicked This Way Comes” and “Dandelion Wine,” to name only a few.
Oh, I suppose if I thought about it long enough, I could remember where his work and my life first intersected. It might have been in junior high, when I discovered his wonderfully creepy “Emissary” in a magazine at a school book fair. It’s the story of a sick boy, his loyal dog and a sympathetic teacher who visits his bedside. When the teacher dies suddenly, the dog goes digging in the graveyard to fulfill his master’s wish to see her again.
The story is a paean to youth, a melancholy reflection on innocence lost (why DO people have to die?) and a flesh-crawling exercise in terror, all perfectly realized in a few short pages.
But was that before or after I read “The Martian Chronicles,” the book of short stories that inspired a television mini-series? Or before I discovered the time-travel classic “Sound of Thunder” adapted as a comic book?
I don’t know. Bradbury has always just been there, timeless and seemingly immortal, a Mount Vesuvius of creativity who could be counted on to erupt every few years with another collection of stories or essays.
Beyond the work, however, there was Bradbury himself, consummate fan of the fantastic and ardent supporter of reconnecting with one’s inner child, a muse to whom he attributed all his success.
“When it is a long damp November in my soul,” Bradbury wrote, paraphrasing Melville, “and I think too much and perceive too little, I know it is high time to get back to that boy with the tennis shoes, the high fevers, the multitudinous joys, and the terrible nightmares. I’m not sure where he leaves off and I start. But I’m proud of the tandem team.”
Bradbury was an unapologetic believer that life should be about joy, that if something vexed you, it wasn’t worth your time, but that if something inspired you, you should pursue it with all your mind and heart. He is sometimes criticized as treacly and simple because this theme recurs in much of his work, but truly, I’m hard pressed to think of a better recipe for happiness.
As a teacher, I came to an additional respect for Bradbury because his stories and pronouncements never failed to ignite response. Students scoffed at his contention that he remembered his own birth and circumcision. We had to research eidetic memory to learn the phenomenon was real, although many remained unconvinced of Bradbury’s claim.
But by far the biggest reaction came from “Fahrenheit 451,” the prophetic novel of book-burning and censorship that is second to only “1984″ as the consummate dystopian fiction. A few years ago, we were listening as a class to the novel on cassette when we realized the tape had characters spouting the occasional “damn” or “hell,” while the printed page did not.
“How ironic,” remarked one student. “They censored ‘Fahrenheit 451.’”
Indeed they had, something Bradbury himself was unaware of for many years, until other students (not mine!) made him aware of the changes. In a 1979 coda to the novel, he proudly announced that the book was being reset, “with all the damns and hells back in place.”
Elsewhere in the same piece, Bradbury offered my favorite anti-censorship quote: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.”
Bradbury died last week at the age of 91. His passing reminded me of one final quote, from an appreciation of Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan and John Carter of Mars, that Bradbury wrote in 1975:
“I went home to Mars often when I was eleven and twelve and every year since, and the astronauts with me, as far as the Moon to start … Because of (Burroughs) and men like him, one day in the next five centuries, we will commute forever, we will go away…
“And never come back.
“And so live forever.”
Mr. Bradbury, thanks for the memories, and have a nice trip.
@cschillig on Twitter
Originally published on June 14, 2012, in The Alliance Review.
The world’s gone and caught the shutter bug.
Statistics are hard to come by, but humanity has captured north of 3.5 trillion photos since the dawn of the daguerreotype in 1838, according to the 1000 Memories organization, which estimates that we add 375 billion new photos annually in this, the age of digital photography. 1000 Memories also estimates that 20 percent of all digital photos will end up in the same place, Facebook, which has a collection 10,000 times larger than the Library of Congress. (These statistics are from a blog entry in September, so figures have grown since.)
Now, I have a hard time wrapping my brain around numbers much larger than three. Many people share my problem, as witnessed by the popularity of trios such as the Three Bears, Three Blind Mice, Three Little Pigs, Three Wise Men, Three Stooges, and Peter, Paul and Mary, not to mention the cherished theory that famous people die in threes. So imagining 3.5 trillion photos is daunting, although it’s dwarfed by the $15 trillion national debt, which makes my head hurt even more. But it’s believable — society’s photo mania, not the national debt — when you consider it anecdotally. My wife and I spent last week in Washington, D.C., where we were the only tourists not making love to cameras every waking moment.
Wherever we went, visitors were snapping pictures — of monuments, of each other, and of each other in front of monuments. If they had confined themselves to such photos, it would be understandable. But they didn’t. When they finished with monuments, they focused on crazy stuff, like squirrels hopping across the National Mall, or empty park benches.
Everywhere I stepped, I ruined somebody’s picture. Like some demented mime display of the stop, drop and roll creed, people in front of me plunged to the ground or Tebowed to find the perfect angle of sunlight glinting off a nearby hot dog vendor’s cart, or stepped into traffic to capture motorcycles rumbling along Constitution Avenue.
Some people obviously believe a camera slung around the neck confers immunity from injury, that it won’t hurt to be run over by a Harley Davidson as long as you get a picture of it on your way to the pavement and the emergency room.
One old man in the Museum of Natural History wouldn’t rest until he had taken a photo of his companion in front of a stuffed black bear behind glass, even though the light from his flash bounced off the display case and surely ruined the shot, and his strategic placement in the middle of the room blocked dozens of other visitors.
Look, we all have our individual quirks and obsessions, but unless these guys were naturalists who had made Ursus americanus their life’s work, they tied up museum traffic for no reason.
Back when each image cost money to develop, such unimportant pictures would die stillborn in the amateur photographer’s imagination. Readers of a certain age can remember the role the number 24 played in photography — 24 shots on a standard roll of 35-millimeter film (sometimes 27, if you were lucky). Having a finite number meant you self-edited before pressing the shutter button. If I take 24 pictures of a display case full of brochures at the hotel, then I won’t have any left for George Washington’s false teeth on display in Mount Vernon. (By the way, taking pictures of Washington’s teeth is strictly prohibited.)
Today’s photographers needn’t worry about self-editing. We fire at will as we march bravely toward 4, 5, and 6 trillion pictures, snapping more images in two minutes than the entire human race throughout the 1800s and compulsively loading them to Facebook, so our friends know we are on vacation and that our houses can be pillaged at will.
One of my favorite memories of this year’s vacation is the photographer in a subway tunnel, standing 6 inches from a poster of a watercolor painting that advertised an art show, snapping and re-snapping and complaining about glare.
A few dozen steps would have put him on the subway, where he could have gone to see the painting itself for free.
Now that’s a guy who’s sick in the head for pictures.
@cschillig on Twitter