Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Put me down, put me down!

From a young age, I’ve been completely magnetized by others’ cultural experience, human ways of being that are very different from my own. Up to a certain point, my mother would have grabbed me up by the collar to save me from my curious self, me wriggling and stroking the air like a rabbit being held by its neck fur.

With a little teenage autonomy and a car, I started exploring in earnest. I look back on a night I sat amongst the members of a major South El Paso street gang — in a dark, abandoned adobe house, guns, knives, bottles and bongs getting passed around with equal enthusiasm — and wonder, what the hell was I thinking? Like a white-blond, goody-two-shoes, 17-year-old East Side girl in an Izod shirt and saddle oxfords is going to pass for a fly on the wall? “Don’t mind me, ese, I’ll just squat here in this especially dark corner and be silent as a gargoyle. Proceed, proceed, pass those automatic weapons right along.” Girls like I was wind up the subjects of various CSI television series — and not in the good way. My mother tended never to believe the "anthropologist in training" explanation if I got myself caught, true as it was — nor would the court system, I suspect, if I'd found myself in it. Police busts, like revolutions and mob mentalities, usually sweep everyone up, even if one person in the group doesn't "look" like she belongs.

Luckily, I found safer ways to get inside strangers’ homes and study their lives at will, take notes even — first as a reporter for a newspaper, and later, in the actual, bona fide study of anthropology. (Looking at real estate works, too:  just don’t correct your agent’s misconceptions about the house you really want, and he or she will have to unlock lots and lots of doors for you.)

And of course, there’s travel. I've not gotten spectacular amounts of it, mind you; my life's been mostly otherwise engaged up until now. But one of my very fondest memories from my marriage is of sitting with Doug on a street curb in Juarez, Mexico, under a blazing hot summer sun, bathed in the language, color, stench and beauty of a big, robust city in an entirely different world. We were drinking fruity sodas from glass bottles, way too sweet for American tastes; Doug was asking for translations of the various billboards around us, with their oh-so-familiar American logos but colloquial slogans that made us laugh out loud. Behind us, the hand-blown-glass factory workers plied their dangerous trade in lava on a 114-degree day. People unlike us in every way swept by like water, diesel fumes and honking horns filled the air, whatever rules of the road existed failed to make any sense to us. I felt a familiar electrical sparking in my brain. I looked over at him, and he smiled, a discovery burgeoning and catching fire within him. I knew he got it — why I call travel to another country “the intellectual orgasm” — and I was overcome with the confirmation of that moment, that ours would be a long and happy pairing.

I write this as I consider some of the shocked responses I’ve gotten on my new tattoo. It seems strange to me. My own 80-something parents won’t be shocked. Not thrilled, but not shocked. Doing something like this is just like me. Ordering lunch with purple hair, in a Pennsylvania city where every last house is painted the exact same shade of white, makes me belly-laugh, and feel alive. Same with hiking to the furthest Anasazi outpost in Chaco Canyon, alone. Trying to blend in in South America, even if I am 5’11 and a female traveling alone. (People threw their arms around me with grief-stricken looks on their faces when they found out my husband was not with me, as though I'd been widowed and cast out onto the streets.)

I got this tattoo, 100 percent, for the experience. For the chance to think through such a scarily permanent change, and execute, even though I was scared. To see what all the fuss is about. To see if I could pull it off, with some degree of grace for a woman of my age. Typically for me, because I am older and smarter, I hope, I did my homework fiendishly. I wasn’t really seeking danger — I was seeking experience.

That I got, in a nice little chunk that didn’t require 20 hours on a plane and thousands of dollars. It was a perfect, crisp fall morning, punching the gas pedal through the Jefferson National Forest, speeding toward something that both frightened and excited me, and that I’ve been thinking about for almost 20 years. And wow — it turned out A-OK. Today, my dubious best friend said it was the most beautiful tattoo she’d ever seen. (Note: we have very similar tastes.) After an initial 12 hours of a little freaked-out buyer’s remorse, I am happy with it, too. Really happy.

But hoo boy, I’ve still got more to say. Like everything else in life, it's been a most interesting filter through which to consider the universe, internal and external. At least, to me, and isn't that the whole point with something as self-centered and personal as a tattoo? 

Next up:  why I feel a person should be in at least her fourth decade before getting a tattoo, maybe toward the end of it, and why I didn’t memorialize my son. And then to some other topic — promise.