Saturday, December 11, 2010

Dialing Cool

Tom Petty has power over this household of five women, ages 15 to 46. If one of my daughters wants to change the estrogen-fueled mood around here, she uses the power of the CD player and it works, buddy:  you've got five of us deeply engaged in karaoke, an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance" and a phantom drug trip, all at the same time. Somehow dinner gets slopped together. I can only imagine what my more bookish, introverted husband sees through the kitchen window at night, from somewhere between the detached Model T garage that is his reading retreat and the kitchen door. Most people try to keep our kind of dancing behavior below-the-belt in the car, so strangers don't stare, and the police don't consider the possibility of a seizure behind the wheel.

I feel a little sheepish admitting to a love of Tom Petty, something to do with a 1970s understanding of what "cool" means. The word was thrown around just as much then, but its true, awe-inspiring expression was, I believe, more carefully dialed and harder to achieve. Before we all parted ways with high school and the decade, the elusive "cool" meant showing off a deep working knowledge of two extremes  --  rock's founding artists and the more obscure bands of the period. It included a disdain for anything too Top 40; "well-known" could be cool but no test of a person's coolness. In a roomful of the coolest people, you didn't gush about a band any old classmate could discover on the radio.

I've since teased out what makes me love a musician or a band, vs. just appreciate one. I've gotten over the "cool" litmus test. A little. On my list of must-haves in personal favorites is, first, the artist has to be able to dance. (Watching Phil Collins on MTV taught me this. Don't ask me how it is that he's a great drummer and can't dance, but he's Judy-textbook for explaining the difference between appreciate, and love.) Second is, give me a song that tells a story.

So look again at Tom Petty, a master of the short story, a longtime magician with what has more recently been termed flash fiction:

"Me and Del were singing, Little Runaway ..."

"He met a girl out there with a tattoo too ..."

"You be the girl, at the high-school dance, I'll be the boy, in the corduroy pants ..."

Here at last  --  in the way that can only be found in blogs without benefit of editorial direction  --  we come to the point of this one. Which is, the girl at the high-school dance. Who is  --  in the way that all literary characters are to their readers  --  me.

And we come to my burning question.

What the hell happened to her?

(To be continued.)

Friday, December 10, 2010

Seasoned Life

Let us begin with a moment devoid of inspiration, on a day I couldn’t place in 2008 or 2009 exactly, in a place where, for entertainment, you go to marvel over the perfect, razor-sharp shear of the commercial carpet. Let us begin with checking Daughter #4 out of a routine orthodontist appointment.

Seasoned mothers—those who long ago lost that ooo-how-much-has-my-baby-gained-now enthusiasm—will know what I’m talking about. (They're the same mothers who hand over pages of important paperwork at the pediatrician’s office with nothing but a child’s name, birthday, and a quarter-size pool of mother-drool on them.) Very little in life is more milquetoast than the orthodontist’s office, or the orthodontist for that matter.

I’m looking down over a high counter on Receptionist Donna, who is blinking expectantly, wearing a periwinkle lab coat with Dancing Teeth all over it. She is waiting for an answer. I am scuffing my feet on that amazingly flat carpet, thinking shit shit shit and carefully forgetting something that will make the next appointment a month from now a vessel-buster. I feel like Charlie Brown banging his head on the wall to remember something, or Wile E. Coyote sliding over a cliff like a warm oil slick.

“Uh Wednesday!” I say. “Wednesday the 14th at 4 p.m. Yes, that will be fine, I’m sure of it.” In reality, I'm as sure that somebody I love very much is getting married that very second. Maybe I’m the matron of honor. You don’t ask too much of poor Donna’s dead glazed eyes, though. If I call back to schedule later, when I have some wits about me, a computer system programmed to issue appointment cards and school excuses at the same time will die. And if that happens, an entire township of adolescents will have crooked teeth. For life. More fearsome than Donna’s eyes are the mothers who would burn me alive for destroying their children’s social lives.

I hold my tongue about my doubts, then witness something extraordinary. Because suddenly, Dr. White Rice bursts through a door I never noticed before, slicing the office-filtered air like an albino porpoise on a Navy Seals mission. “Donna, I’m not going to tell you again,” he snarls through pursed lips. “I want the plant here.” He reaches to the counter and forcefully moves a calla lily I hadn’t noticed before two inches. Not three; two.

He stomps off. Donna looks at me with a tight thin smile and I hear her words inside my brain, though she remains silent: I’m in hell.

But not me. Now I know! Now I get it! Orthodontists go into orthodontia to ease their inborn Obsessive Compulsive Disorder! One more of life’s mysteries solved.

Leaving, I hook an arm into Daughter #4’s and give her a kiss. “Thanks kiddo,” I say. I could explain that I mean thanks for being a fourth set of goggles for this extraordinary view of the universe.

But I don’t. She’s used to non sequiturs.