I never fully appreciated just how deeply I could sink my fingernails into the chair of my barber as a child. One would think I was sitting in a dentist’s chair, and as it turned out, I reacted in this same completely unconscious manner with my dentist. As soon as someone put their fingers inside my mouth and I heard the buzz of the drill, my mind would go elsewhere and my fingernails would keep me from floating off the planetary surface.
I have no explanation for why my barber’s chair elicited this same response in me. Perhaps it was the buzzing of shears, or the incessant commands to hold still – tilt left, tilt right – that put something in me on red alert. Not that anyone in the barbershop realized that just under the barber cape my knuckles were an iridescent white. I was striving to be a picture-perfect consumer of male grooming behavior and with a high degree of precision I succeeded. But it is to suggest that nothing of much import seemed to come my way unless I had previously removed myself from any personal consideration, or ceased allowing myself to experience any modicum of personal satisfaction as the result of “my” achievement. Given that bleak forecast, getting out of bed every morning was a step into the heroic.
It was not until I had grown much older, experienced physical intimacy with women and then deigned to allow a massage therapist to touch my bare back that I began to loosen my hold on the arms of all modern torture devices, whatever form they might take. Something had to give and it had to be in me not because there was something obviously wrong with me, but that everyone else had run out of reasons to contribute to my self-destructive behavior. I hated myself, but I wanted you to love me so that I could then be justified in hating you, too. Not exactly a conscious-level plan on my part, just a preponderance of the extant evidence. This frame seems to fit the evidence well because I can see myself rolling and tumbling in the shame of it all to this very day.
Don’t get me wrong: I am positively joyous ninety five percent of the time. But the other five percent of the time makes me want to poke out my eyes with a sharp stick. The other five percent of the time I am caught in an obsessive web of want so sticky that I wonder if I will ever be able to just let it go and move on. Inevitably I do, of course, but where in the hell does the motivation, desire or inspiration come from to go forward once the glasses are all empty and the party is officially over?
I remember running the stairs in our high school stadium. The first few flights were easy, but then the burn started to take its toll and it began dogging me every step of the way. I could still move my legs up and down, but I couldn’t really feel them anymore. When I did feel them they told me to stop, that this was nuts, that there was no value in going any farther – but I couldn’t stop: you were still doing it, so I had to, too. You were still giving it your level best, so I couldn’t let the team down. And so it was the team and being a part of something bigger than myself that drove me to explore the area outside of my normal limits of endurance.
But where the hell does team spirit, or motivation, come from when, for more nights in a row than you can remember, you find yourself waking up alone to the glow of a test pattern illuminating your barely furnished living room? And forget about the motivation to pursue this sort of sport to its logical conclusion, where does the desire to stop one’s self from picking up a shotgun, pointing it in one’s mouth and pulling the trigger come from? It certainly will not be team spirit because I can attest to the fact that the “team” has long since found something more entertaining to do with their day than wait to see your head explode in a spray of red mist. They can see that sort of thing most every day on cable television…before the test pattern shows up.
Fear of death might come close, except for the fact that I have seen death come and take its prisoners several times now, and not one of them seemed to put up much of a fight. Once the diapers came out, once the wheelchair became a necessity, there was a quiet resignation that the fight had gone on long enough, that the fear was a waste of time and oxygen. There may have well been some residual fear of death but I can assure you that there was an even greater fear that the torment would go on. Still…no shotguns, no exhortations against a cruel supreme being and no drama. There were even, at times, moments of contentment and peace. One last walk up San Jacinto, one last trip through the old neighborhood to see children playing in the water and somewhere where the air is fresh, clean but thin, the yoke would leave its shell behind. What was left behind would gladly be left for others to feast on – it had long since passed its expiration date, anyway.
We are at this place as a nation and as a people. We have allowed ourselves to become the objects as well as the spectators of scandal after scandal, as if watching ourselves being eaten alive by parasites represents some call to a higher purpose, or a part in some drama foretold by an alleged supreme being who obviously cares nothing for our peace or our collective shame.
In these days of torment and torture, the demons sound like angels and the angels sound like demons. These are the times that try men and women’s souls. We ache for the heroic, but we refuse to turn our backs on all the scandal, envy and gossip-mongering. We receive justice, but then we complain because it is devoid of mercy. Those who can see no justice, no mercy and no heroism in the world are blinded to it by their choice not to see it. Or, having seen it, move to trample it under foot.
Sometimes getting a haircut can be heroic. But giving one never is.