“Slowly I Turned”: Beyond the Pale

It won’t be much by way of confession if I say I have a weakness for old-fashioned—dare I say archaic—words and phrases. Language seems to have lost all elegance over the past century or so. So most people don’t use the phrase “beyond the pale,” let alone know what it originally meant. The Pale: a boundary, specifically used in history for the line demarcating the part of Ireland that was controlled by England and the part that most definitely was not. To be “beyond the pale” was to pass the point of civilization. Mind you, that’s the perspective from one side of the boundary, not the other. Being part Irish myself, I have my own streak of contrariness. What is civilized to me doesn’t always correspond to that which others consider civilized. Toy dogs, for one thing. Brazilian waxes, for another. The color pink, as a third. If that’s what qualifies as civilized, then consider me well beyond the pale.


This post is dedicated to all those whom the world might consider on the wrong side of civilization’s fence. Let’s be friends. The human race has too great a penchant for over-refining itself according to the most ridiculous standards. It needs the corrective presence of those who have too much good sense to get dragged along in that breakneck race to reach a state of pure senselessness.


Think about it: we’ve attempted to strain out every possible vestige of animal nature in our pets in order to make them fit for household use, until relationally-challenged owners can let a lapdog lick them right on the mouth without a qualm. Never mind that the dog just licked its own rear just a moment before—we’ve done studies, you know, that say a dog’s mouth is much, much cleaner than a human’s. “Dogs are people too,” you know. Better, in fact, since they demand nothing more than we are willing to give and never question us. Never mind that they grow neurotic because we teach them through everyday practice that they’re practically our equals, but we refuse to let them mark territory in the house. We give them one idea of their place in the pack’s hierarchy, and then we bring home infants who ought to be lower in the hierarchy (in the logic of dogs) and give them dominion over their elders—our poor, demented, over-bred purse pets.


Think about this, too: we’ve “refined” human appearance to the point where the hairless of both sexes have become the ideal. Honest, can you think of the last time you saw a male celebrity voluntarily sporting a beard? (I won’t ask if you’ve seen a female celebrity in the same state…) Ever since the early twentieth century, the idealized female body has more resembled an adolescent male’s than an adult woman’s. I have met women who literally would rather be found deceased in a public restroom than be seen in public without their cosmetic camouflage. And men haven’t escaped their own form of this “refinement” process. There’s one approved silhouette for men, and another for women. Woe to you if you fail to match your approved shape, be it tall and muscular or sleek and slender.


And I haven’t even asked you to think about the color pink yet. I have never been a fan of the color, and what I have seen in my adult years has pushed me beyond apathy to antipathy. Pink is no longer just a color; it’s a culture. It represents womanhood refined straight beyond the reach of  intellect. It stands for the type of clothing that appliques a word straight across the buttock region of a pair of pants, for the sole purpose of drawing attention to the shape of your backside. It stands for the high school girl who stuffs her brains in the farthest back corner of her closet because she thinks it’s more advantageous to be “hot” than smart. I’m not even a feminist, and it still bugs me. Pink has come to represent anemic femininity and effeminate masculinity.


So here’s to those “beyond the pale,” as it were. Here’s to those who wear what they like, whether it shows up in a magazine or not. Here’s to those who read random books off the library shelf, bypassing the waiting-list shelf. Here’s to those who build snug doghouses and leave their pets outdoors in nature, where they are best fitted to live. Here’s to those who shave only when they feel like it. Here’s to the wearers of sensible shoes, the savages who venture forth without makeup, who care more about the condition of their bodies than the public reception thereof. Here’s to those who refuse to get a prestigious college degree just because it’s what’s expected, those who pursue instead their life’s calling in obscurity if need be. Here’s to the little guys who by force of their integrity make others look up to them regardless of their vertical challenges, and to the big guys who stretch out their arms like guardian teddy bears for kids of all ages. Here’s to the women who aren’t afraid to keep woman’s shape, flabby triceps and uneven breasts and all. Here’s to those who let their true gifts shine, no matter whether those gifts are “sexy” or not.


To those beyond the pale, I salute you!


“Slowly I Turned”: Not The Same Thing A Bit

Every so often, I get the eerie sense that I’ve wandered into a scene from a Lewis Carroll book. It happened once at my first job, my senior year in high school. There was a woman working there alongside me who could have passed easily as a ringer for the Queen of Hearts—complete with the upper Midwestern version of “Off with his head!” I had that feeling again a couple of days ago, again at work. Different job, same eerie sensation. It reminded me of the conversation between Alice, the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, and the Dormouse. You know the shtick: You should say what you mean, says the March Hare, to which Alice ingenuously replies, I do—at least, I mean what I say—that’s the same thing, you know. They, the lunatics, point out the fallacy in her reasoning—but I wasn’t nuts enough to try doing the same in my situation.


Anyone who cares about words and language knows what I’m talking about when I say that people don’t usually say what they mean, no matter how sincerely they mean what they say. I’ll offer you my example: a coworker going through trying life circumstances has been anything but reticent about making her troubles known, generally in loud and angry complaints about anything and everything. However sympathetic I try to be toward her, I always end up at the conclusion that she is too belligerent to be borne. This came to a head one afternoon when a messenger from my supervisor came down the hall to deliver a handful of unexpected extra work. It was aimed at me and one other clerk, name omitted here, but the acrimonious one exploded into a tantrum: Fine, send me EXTRA work! I’m already too overwhelmed with everything I have to do, but does anybody care about that? NO, nobody cares that I’m about at the end of my… (You get the idea.)


I snapped. Fortunately, for me, it wasn’t one of my more appalling snaps, having very little recoil and creating very little collateral damage. I simply turned to her and said, “She said it’s for me and [name omitted]. She didn’t say anything about you!” I handed half the work to [name omitted] and took the rest to my desk. Madame Acrimony was very quiet for a bit. Then, rather gruffly, she said something that really set me off inside. She said, “Sorry I’ve been so crabby, but I’ve got a lot of really overwhelming problems right now.”


I didn’t snap this time. Mind you, I didn’t say anything at all, though I was perfectly aware that I was supposed to say, “Oh, that’s okay. I understand.” Since the first half would be a lie (not the second half), I decided that the only harmless form of honesty was silence. See, I do understand; but that doesn’t make what she did okay in the least.


All this to say, I have discovered a new pet peeve: people who speak the proper social formulae but mean something completely opposed to the actual words. Take the aforementioned “I’m sorry.” What she actually meant was, “Don’t penalize me for doing whatever the [insert favorite expletive here] I want.” It’s an all-too-common form of manipulation… and I’m not having any of it anymore.


Here’s another one: “Excuse me.” On this one, you must weigh the tone of voice instead of the words, otherwise you might mistake it for a courtesy. Most of the time it can mean anything from “Get out of my way” to “Get over yourself.”


I wish people would just say what they really mean. If they heard the truth of their words out loud, maybe then they would give a second thought to what they really meant. And I plead with those of you who love words: don’t stand silent as words are twisted into a hypocrisy they were never intended to convey. I appreciate words because they reveal. They create images. They open doorways in the mind to the new and the hitherto unexplored. But like everything else in this broken and frustrate world, they get twisted into a caricature of themselves, in which genuine understanding is crushed beneath a load of pretense. Don’t stand by in passive acceptance, an accomplice to duplicity. Say what you mean, and keep the people whom you love accountable for what they say. Weigh your words accurately. A sincere right word at the right time can be worth more than anything else in this world.

“Slowly I Turned”: Writer as Human Cannonball

In my place of work, we often use a certain term for the feeling one gets from workdays that begin at a hectic pace: being shot out of a cannon. This year, May is the month when my life gets shot out of a cannon. I am trying to finish a novel. I am primarily responsible for organizing a large semi-formal academic ceremony that takes place on the second-to-last Thursday of the month. By noon on the last Thursday of the month, I must have all my possessions removed from my current apartment to storage, awaiting the first of the next month when the lease on my new apartment goes into effect.


They say the only really dangerous part about being a human cannonball is the landing. (Sudden deceleration* can be quite unhealthy, according to the physics community. And the medical community. And common sense, which seems not to have much of a community around it.) Many complex calculations go into the planning, in hopes of making the landing safe enough to repeat. I mean, anyone can land once at great speed. The trick is to manage it so as to get up from the landing and do it again.


Maybe this sounds morbid to some ears. You know perfectly well I’m not talking about a circus act. Well, not an official circus act. I do work in an inner-city high school, so there’s always a whiff of carnival about my job. Caught at this junction of circumstances as I am, I’m continually doing an awful lot of calculations to make sure I don’t end up as a grease stain on the floor of the big top. I’ll admit freely that I do have a pathological fear of going splat! in my daily life. That’s something I’ve been working to overcome for several years now.


One of my calculations involves a very personal question: can I afford to spend my time finishing a novel that won’t see daylight for quite some time even when it is finished? And with that, the corresponding question: can I afford not to write? Because if my calculations are off by even a few degrees, I’ll never hit the net. Writing gives me the oomph I need to keep going. In this case, it may be especially important. It’s a comedy as well as a fantasy. The darker the sky gets, the more important a cheerful heart becomes. I write for my own enjoyment and encouragement, after all. Before any other consideration of audience, before any thought of salability, I write what I write because I like it. In this case, I may be writing for my own health in part.


Still, each day has only so much time in it. Things being as they are, I cannot spend as much time with my stories as I would prefer. Today I carted my first load of boxed books to the car, on their way to the storage locker. Wouldn’t you know, I felt a distinct twinge. Books were my companions when I had no one at my side. To this day, the idea of throwing away a book makes me flinch, no matter how worthless and worn it may be. Putting them into storage isn’t like throwing them away, but still it’s a separation. Weird, isn’t it? You’d almost think books had personalities.


I hope they do. I hope mine do. One of the thoughts fortifying me amongst all my midair trajectory corrections is that someone will pick up this book one day and find in it a companion for a lonesome hour, as I have found other books in my time. The academic ceremony will pass, and nothing will be greatly harmed if one or two details are imperfect. And honestly, all I really need is to empty out my current apartment and clean it. I can do that within the next three weeks; it’s just a studio, after all. I have a few intrepid volunteers willing to lend their vehicles and their strength to the cause. And storage isn’t permanent. Within a month, I shall be able to bring my exiled companions back to their rightful places on my shelves. And finishing this novel by the end of May is, when all is said and done, a self-imposed deadline. I just need to finish it before I start final preparations for publication of the second Makkarios book.


I shall land safely. That’s not to say I’ll nail the landing—by no means is that assured—but I’ll survive it. Must… keep… reminding… myself… that…  [Geronimo!!]


*Why does the word “deceleration” sound like it ought to mean being deprived of one’s celery– much as being “defrocked” means to be deprived of ecclesiastical status? And why does celery have such a speedy-sounding name? If I have time to wonder about these things, I probably have time to get some more work in on the academic awards certificates. Or my current chapter. But not both. Not tonight.