Friday, March 13, 2009

Like Cheese and Wine; or Flashback Fridays, Week 2

Today's Flashback Friday post is a much-maligned piece I originally wrote as a contest entry. My hopes for a contest win, however, were crushed by a snarky judge who suggested the article would be truer to its theme if it were to "simply dissolve into nonsense" at its conclusion. Bouncing back from the setback, I retooled the piece as an introductory chapter for the aforementioned abandoned book project I plan to resurrect upon graduation.

Like Cheese and Wine

From an early age, I understood the second law of Thermodynamics. I may not have known it by that name, but I did notice that my music would last longer if I dubbed my record albums onto cassette, and even then, the ones I liked most would need to be taped again after the cassette succumbed to repeated rewinds. I noticed that Barbie’s best gowns would become frayed and wrinkled and pop their seams, until eventually they became castoffs for the Cinderella scenes. I noticed that even my most fantastic cardboard forts could not withstand more than three days of serious play or a single cloudburst.

It wasn’t long before I began to apply my dire observations of entropy to life itself. Hit a certain age, somewhere around thirty by all appearances, and it seems people begin to buckle under repeated use. Creases form, seams pop, and after a long day at work, some folks lack the fortitude to withstand any recreation at all. A cloudburst called time seemed destined to drown the spirit of youth. As I catapulted into my thirties with little more than a windblown umbrella of optimism to shield me from the forecasted deluge, my grandfather and my aged dog departed in the same year, passing me a torch that leaves me completely at odds with Newton.

As any grade school science text will tell you, Newton’s entropy promises nothing short of a total downward spiral. The Second Law confidently assures us that all things eventually return to baseline, leaving no impression, creating no change. Confronting my third decade, I was running scared from Newton and his empirical absolutes. Left to reflect on two radically different lives that each touched mine in seemingly incomparable ways, I discovered common denominator. Within the lives of my grandfather and my pet, I found an affront to Newton, a rejection of his Second Law, and a call to live my story rather than count its pages.

An American-born son of Italian immigrants, my grandfather was a high spirited boy of mischief, who dipped pigtails into inkwells and played pranks along with his trusty steed, Mr. Don, who was both his ride to school and his best friend. As a young newlywed, he cooked his way through World War II on a Navy ship, and when the war ended, he helped his father run the family spinning mill. I’ll never know if his adventurous tales peopled with shady Italian businessmen and ancestors with names like Uncle Icy were more family history or product of his well-honed affinity for spinning another type of yarn.

What I do know is that faster, quicker, sooner were the words by which my grandfather worked and lived. The mill was typically abuzz with excitement as Gramps single-handedly battled stray shipments, overdue accounts, or botched dye lots with an army’s arsenal. His visits to our house were frequent, brief, and sudden in nature. He’d blow through the front door, stir things up a bit with guessing games, cash prizes, and a few rash promises about purchasing ponies, then jingle his pocket change to signal his imminent departure.

Trips to the movies followed a strict blueprint. Waiting—either in line or in theatrical suspense—was not an option. We’d arrive at the theater while our chosen feature was already in progress, secure tickets for the next screening and then proceed directly into the darkened theater to view the final twenty minutes of the movie. After a brief intermission while the crowd and the reel changed, we’d watch the beginning straight though to the first familiar image that flashed across the screen. At that point the soundtrack would invariably shift to the subtle jingling of pocket change and we’d slip out the back. Sure, we had to piece the story together like a patchwork quilt on the way home, but we avoided the crowds.

With Gramps, everything was done both in bulk and with gusto. If a little was good, then a lot was far better. Food in general and whipped cream in particular best illustrated this point. A particularly memorable stomachache in the late seventies was traced to a piece of cake slightly smaller than a breadbox and topped off with a quart or two of cream. He bought in gross, cooked in surplus, and shared in abundance. A local food distributor promoted him to caterer status and gave him a corporate account. To this day, after visits with my grandmother I still return home with several of his industrial sized cans of tomatoes. Never mind the can is four times the size that my family of four really needs—in their excess, the tomatoes are a reminder of the largeness of my grandfather’s generous heart.

A man of adventure, travel, and action, Gramps would leave for his Florida house or a western dude ranch at the mere mention of snow. Things would quiet down a bit. My father needed the winter months to repair relations with the folks at the Dye Works. At home, we kept busy with the ill-behaved ponies Gramps purchased before one of his departures.

As he grew older, doctors worked to stay one step ahead of his failing heart. His adventures changed. Considering his history, I can do nothing but marvel at the things that captured his focus in his later years. Canvases transformed by color and life with scores of brushes and dozens of techniques. Carved furniture protected by coats of varnish totaling in the double digits and each needing a full day to dry. Carefully strung beadwork.

When he could no longer make car trips west to visit his beloved dude ranches, he learned to surf there instead. The Internet took him where he could no longer drive, and he took his zest for life into those journeys as well. An entire forest was sacrificed as he began a campaign to print out every page of every website west of the Mississippi. I smile now at the card on my dresser, reminding me of the trees that were planted in a great western forest, a touching memorial from a dear friend who had no way of knowing the irony of the tribute. In his honor, may they grow tall, strong—and quickly.

In his later years, Gramps learned to put his energies into fighting only chosen battles. He forgave old grievances and let go of past hurts. I think even the Dye Works received a full pardon. Gramps mellowed as maturity gave him the courage to expand and adapt his adventures.

Disease weakens muscle, but time strengthens the spirit.

Surprisingly, my pet’s life followed a similar pattern. An abandoned husky wandering busy streets, Kelly was a high spirited dog of mischief, boasting a long rap sheet on any one of her carefree days of puppyhood. She’d snatched sandwiches from the hands of innocent children. She chased mailmen. She chewed furniture and ate college textbooks. One romp of reckless abandon through my parent’s living room was mistaken for a burglary and the police were nearly summoned.

Like other dogs with a penchant for trouble, Kelly was expected to bide her time in a crate while the family was away. Mistress of Escape, Kelly chose instead to baffle us with her Houdini-like ability to elude confinement. We’d come home to find her crate completely intact while she lounged on some forbidden piece of furniture.

Thoroughly stubborn, Kelly was quite possibly Italian also, preferring to sup in the ancient Roman tradition of reclining on something soft. She’d transfer her meals in large mouthfuls, scatter the pieces across her favorite carpet and delicately pluck and consume each savory morsel without so much as raising her head. Today, stray dog food bits scattered by her offspring, two ill-mannered, genetically improbable Labradors, remind me that some things aren’t meant to be changed.

A dog of intellect, she reveled in new experiences. An unfamiliar walking route, visitors, car trips: things needed to be barked at, sniffed, investigated. As a pup, those traits amused and at times frustrated me. She required supervision, guidance, and discipline.

When she surprised us with a litter of labs halfway through her ninth year, her history made us fear that she would be a disastrous mother. Despite the one groggy moment when she got up after her emergency C-section and scattered her formerly nursing pups across the bathroom floor, she was a great mom.

Her life took on new dimensions as she became an old dog rediscovering the thrill of senseless puppy play. When a new walking route took us to the beach, she found out that the ocean is really a big game of tag, and that the best romps were ones that ended with sand and sea salt between her paw pads.

Maturity transformed my furry menace into a perfect companion. She wanted my company through thunderstorms, reveled in long brushings, and wedged herself in the doorframe to prevent me from leaving her behind when it was time to pick up the children each afternoon. But I didn’t want to leave her, anyway. She had mellowed. Time with her was pure pleasure. Even as veterinarians worked to stay one step ahead of the deterioration of her health in her advancing age, nothing could lift her spirits as high as an adventure. Our last years together are the ones I treasure most and have mourned the hardest.

Years wear the body, but experience makes us whole.

Learn new skills. Discover new games. Extend forbearance. The best times are together times. Grow. Mature. Improve. These are the lessons embodied in the stories of two adventurous souls who taught me that time is to be cherished, not feared. Their legacy is mine now, to nurture as my own story refines.

A high-spirited girl, familiar with mischief, I choose to remain at odds with Sir Isaac as the chapters of my life unfold. Wrinkles will mark the pages where rough edges have been softened. Wear and tear will tell of lessons learned and challenges conquered. I need not fear the evidence time will etch on my body, I must, instead, choreograph its signature on my soul.

It may seem tempting to buy into Newton’s law. One look in the mirror may convince you to accept the notion that the creases, wrinkles, and popped seams revealed therein are the grim but inevitable work of entropy. If you’ve read the right fairy tales, though, you already know that mirrors don’t always tell the truth. Science books don’t either.

1 comment:

Tranquil Thunder said...

I think this is the piece that convinced me that this is the book you should write. I want to be able to turn the page and keep reading...


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