I picked up some bad fiction the other day. By that, I don’t mean I purchased it. I mean I actually picked it up, read a few paragraphs, and put it back down. The author began their chapter with a bit about some character’s eyes. Green-gray pools of mystery. Black doorways that held a hint of deception. Seductive golden jewels belying a quiet sadness. That was enough for me.
We can do better than this, people. I know it’s fiction, but nobody spends that much time staring at their own reflection in the town sheriff’s steely gray gaze or sitting in the coffee shop cogitating the corneas of the hipster college kid drinking a chai latte. I know, I know–window to the soul and all. Nevertheless, it’s cliché and overdone.
The nose has smelt just as much as the eye has seen. The femur probably has some good stories (soccer balls and coffee table corners and such). Imagine the ingrown tales a toe would tell. Why eyes?
If it were any other body part, we’d realize how goofy the obsession with eyes can be.
Lona sneaked a glance a Ronald. His smile broadened, but there was something in his ears that gave her pause. Maybe it was the holes, the way the dark recesses of his ear canals pulled her into their waxy depths. She wondered what it would feel like to get lost in those ears, to lie beside him in the moonlight, wanting so desperately to find a Q-tip. His ears told the story of his life: unattached earlobes, fleshy and pink–a cherubic child. A piercing on the left–he’d been a rebel, once. Cauliflowered cartilage on the right side revealed he’d most likely stuck his head in a laundry chute or a coal scuttle. The salt and pepper bristles peeking out–no loving woman to care for him, to buy him a personal grooming appliance or shame him into finding a pair of scissors. Those ears haunted her dreams.
I had to have my photo taken this morning for a publication. Some people might be excited by that. I was not.
I used to enjoy being photographed. I still like having pictures taken with my family, of course. They’re usually sweaty hiking photos or all of us mugging for the camera.
But something the rest of the world is going to have to look at, even for one issue? Blech. When it comes to publications, I’d much rather see my byline than my face. As I’ve aged, the proportions of my face have changed. I used to be able to smile normally. Close inspectors might have discerned the overbite and accompanying weak chin that I cannot ever unsee, but I could grin and be okay with those things.
Something’s changed with my face in the last few years. Smiling no longer comes naturally. Oh sure, I still smile constantly. I’m a smiler. But the “photo smile?” It’s hard to produce. It feels concocted. Perhaps it’s because the fat pads that used to adorn my cheekbones have begun to slide down my face like the Raiders of the Lost Ark Nazi. I can’t be sure. But I have to work at smiling now.
This morning as I was doing my hair, I practiced my photo smile in the mirror. What I saw straddled the line between creepy clown and woman-who’s-just-inhaled-caterpillar. I tried closed lips. I tried smiling with the top teeth showing. I tried smiling with all of the teeth showing.
That was when I noticed the chip.
When I was 22, I fainted in the shower and hit the tile floor, hard. In addition to the concussion, I woke up with a corner of my front tooth missing. Luckily, I found a dentist who did a great job of repairing it and I went on my merry way through life, until last month, when I bit into a chewy kale-chia bar (yes, it tasted like kelp and regret), the composite broke off. I’d gotten 16 years out of it, which is a nice long run for a tooth patch, I’m told, and I got it fixed within 24-hours.
This morning, as I grinned at myself in the mirror and tried to talk my weak chin into making a man out of itself, I saw this newest chip.
To my credit, I maintained my composure. I figured, what the hell, I’ll kill two birds with one stone by foregoing the smile. The chin, the bite, the chip, the idiot smile–problems all solved. I’ll be a serious writer, looking appropriately miserable, as we all tend to be.
To pull off a really good serious face, you need a solid pout. To accent that solid pout, you need lipstick. I think. I don’t know–I don’t wear lipstick. For some reason, it mixes with my saliva and forms a pink band of goo on the inside my lower lip. If you’ve ever talked to me at length, you might have noticed me not-at-all-subtly dragging my thumbnails across my bottom lip. It’s not a nervous habit; I’m windshield-wiping away the lip goo, but I’m trying to be casual about it. And now I’ve just written about it so the jig is up. Anyway, I don’t own lipstick, so I knew I had to stop at CVS on the way to the photographer to buy some.
I read an article that said your perfect lipstick shade is the same color as your nipples. It made sense to me–what matches the nips matches the lips. The problem is finding that shade in the store. I don’t know what your town is like, but in Wheeling, we generally frown upon those who take a boob out in the makeup aisle. In the past, I’ve tried casually peeking down to determine what color scheme I should focus on, but within the darkness of my shirt cavity, I can’t get a solid gander at what I’m working with, areola-ically speaking.
Today, I knew I needed to be clever. After all, we live in the technology era. Every one of us has a camera. Why not make use of it and capture said nipple for in-store comparisons? Yet here arose still another problem: lighting. What type of lighting was best for photographing a nipple to bring out its true color? I walked around my house for a while, looking in different rooms at different lighting conditions: window, overhead, plant growth bulbs. Each cast a different kind of light. At the window, my skin was pink. By the shefflera, it looked orange. Next to the kitchen sink, it was purple. I wished the photographer was there to advise me.
I found hundreds of nipple shades on the shelves at the store. Maybelline nipples. Revlon nipples. Glossy nipples, glitter nipples, purples, reds, and blues (if that last one applies, you might see someone about your circulation). Since nobody else stood nearby in the makeup section, I got my phone out and pulled up the photo.
I have to admit to being taken somewhat aback when the image popped up. I’ve got a big phone. It’s a 7-inch screen. If anyone else had been nearby, they’d have spotted it. Seven inches is a big patch of skin. And despite the efforts of the great Renaissance artists, the thing by itself, divorced from the body, just isn’t all that cute.
Cameras dotted the ceiling. I didn’t know how much a security viewer could see, but I was running low on time, so with picture in hand, blazing on its brightest setting for proper study, I went from kiosk to shelf, searching for my perfect shade. I held each tube that caught my eye against the photo, squinting and rotating the phone. I found a promising color for $11, but balked at the price. The $9 shelf offered up some good shades, but nine still seemed a lot to spend on a one-time use. So I took my phone over to the $2 lipstick section and held it up against the Wet n Wild tubes, a brand that has offered low-quality products since before I was old enough to wear them.
And there I found it. My perfect shade. The shade that would adorn the lips that needed to close to cover the chip and hide the shark-mouth. Thank you Wet n Wild, I said, for your inexpensive-yet-accurate representation of the American nipple.
The checkout line stood several customers deep. I took my place between a trio of backpackers–not homeless but clearly rugged travelers making their way on foot–and an older man buying a bottle of Jim Beam. A woman at the checkout counter was confused; the cashier tried to help her swipe her card as we waited. I shifted my weight and grew impatient and nervous. All this lipstick baloney wouldn’t mean a thing if I missed my appointment.
“I hope they call another cashier,” one of the backpacker guys said.
I turned around and replied, “I know, I’m going to be late.”
Another one asked me, “Hey, do you know what time it is?”
I pulled out my phone to check.
The thing about smartphones is that they always return you to your most recent screen. If you last visited Facebook, the phone brings you right back to Facebook. If you were reading CNN, there it is, waiting, right where you left off.
And if you happened to be looking at a close-up of your own left boob with the screen set to maximum brightness, that photo is ready and waiting when you hit the power button.
There it was, smiling out at the world. And at the dudes in line around me.
I smashed the home button with my thumb and the image vanished into the ether. Nobody said anything.
There are moments when we’re faced with the choice to explain our behavior, to try to excuse the thing we’ve just sent out into the world or to shut up and own it. I wanted to look these people in the eye and tell them that I was having my picture taken and I had a weak chin and my smile made me look like I’d eaten an inchworm and my tooth chipped because the only food I’d had in the car was a chewy kale bar and I really needed a natural shade of lipstick and I didn’t want to expose myself in CVS.
Instead, I stared at my feet, bought my lipstick, and got the hell out of there.
In the car, the clock indicated that I was about to be late, so I ripped the wrapper off the lipstick tube and applied it, pleased to finally have the process finished.
I stretched up to see my mouth in the rear-view mirror. Pink lips puckered back at me. Cotton candy pink. Poochie-pink. Power Puff-pink.
This was not the shade I had been looking for. I hadn’t matched my lips to my skin; I’d matched them to My Little Pony. Grabbing a stray napkin, I put the car in drive and scrubbed at my mouth until my lips hurt. I had to get every molecule of pink off, lest anyone see the photo and assume I was sporting Strawberry Shortcake headlights under my shirt.
I glanced in the rearview mirror as I pulled out of parking lot. The backpackers waved.
I know, you all groan inwardly. Here again we must listen to the obsessive-compulsive, Type A, neurotic mess of a writer talk about her own insecurities and do a little whining, followed by a predictable conclusion. We just came to see the duck fucking she promised us a month and a half ago.
Well, first of all, I keep wanting to write about the randy mallards but then I realize it might go into my thesis, so I’m hesitant to blog about it.
Wednesday was my birthday. It actually sucked royally because I was recovering from an obscene migraine, and four days later I’m still so darn fatigued and headachey that I’m wondering if maybe I contracted Lyme Disease while romping around in the wilderness of Belmont County for the last few months. Oh yes, I’m a horrible hypochondriac. Just a mess of a hypochondriac. All winter I had a twitchy eye (or was it a twitchy finger?) and I was sure that there was a growth on one of my lobes. And then I switched to the far more realistic fear of an impending-anaphalactic reaction. Every time I took any sort of pill I was certain my throat was going to close up. I’m absolutely off my rocker, I know. I never did continue with the medication that was prescribed to me, because it clouded my head. And now that the stress of school is over, the anxiety has largely melted away. I even managed to ride in the passenger seat with Shawn driving and not brace my feet against the dashboard in crash position. That’s progress.
What does this have to do with my birthday? Not a damn thing. I had a migraine; it makes you stupid for a few days. It was a tangent. Anyway, the Lyme Disease thing…I’m calm about it, for once, and curious, and cautious. It’s something I’m keeping an eye on. Stiff neck, headaches, fatigue, confusion, joint pain…those little bastards are out there. There’s nothing so creepy as a parasite. Anyway.
As I lay there miserably on my birthday reading my plethora of Facebook birthday greetings, a theme emerged: You’re the funniest person I know. You’re so hilarious. You make me laugh.
Holy shit, Batman. Don’t tell an obsessive-compulsive that she’s funny. It’s too much.
I know I’m funny. God didn’t give me the gift of beauty, or a quick wit, and he didn’t make me much of a public speaker. (In fact, I think I’m far more likely to pass a thesis defense if I just sit there and shut up for an hour. Opening my mouth can only screw it up.) The one thing He gave me was a sense of humor. A very specific, sarcastic, biting one. I’ve learned to be careful; last year I almost ended a friendship when I made what I thought was an innocent crack about a friend’s pants. Not everybody appreciates it. But, it seems that many of my Facebook friends and my writer friends do. Write more funny, they say. Where’s the funny, my local writing group asks when I show up without something to read.
Do you know how hard it is to write “funny” on command? In fact, out of every ten essays I write, only one is funny. That blog early in the semester that everybody loved about my encounter with a rabid squirrel and walking into a log? That was me being “on.” Most of the time I’m not “on.” And as for the Facebook folk, they only see me when I’m “on.” Funny people shut the hell up when they’re not feeling funny, lest they be discovered as an ordinary, not-so-entertaining human being. When I’m not funny, I’m not talking, or writing.
Also, I’ve discovered in my MFA program that there’s a huge difference between a funny quip and a funny essay. Quips are easy. They’re like the whoopee cushion of writing. Writing a humorous essay, or story, requires the literary equivalent of a room full of fart gags, and chances are that after a few air biscuits the reader is going to be bored. That’s a lot of pressure (pun not intended but I’ll go with it), and what’s more, humor doesn’t sit in a jar waiting for the lid to be lifted so it can burst forth. Imagine the circumstances that came together that day last winter for me to write that humorous blog: the dog had diarrhea, the trapped squirrel, the log in my face, the fricking flat tire…that morning was a gift from the universe.f
(I think I just stated that walking face-first into a fallen tree was a blessing.)
Therein lies the part where “writer” comes in. I don’t get those sort of funny days very often, so this means I’m going to have to rely on my skills. (Ugh.) And in turn, that’s where the insecurity comes in. I’m not sure I can force funny on any given day. Rather than a steady stream of comedy, it seems to come in wee bursts, all-or-nothing funny flash-floods.
I read 300 pages of Freudian humor analysis this past semester. Freud taught me how to craft his version of a joke. But even if I had any respect for Siggy himself, I couldn’t agree less with the way he deconstructs humor. Sure, somebody has to do it. It’s interesting to note why things are funny to the joke-teller and the joke-receiver. But I think analysis falls apart in my hands when I’m writing something funny. Sometimes a joke is just a joke. I don’t give a shit why you laugh at what I say, as long as you laugh. Any press is good press.
Moreover, when I went to a one-day conference at school last fall, I sat in on a humor lecture. And there was no comedy in that room. That is to say, it was dark humor. Sad, ironic, look-what-the-characters-have-come-to humor. The essays didn’t make me smile. Sigh. I hate that kind of irony.
Okay, I love irony. Writers feed on irony the way my kids live on cereal. In high school we were force-fed irony until we puked up Sophocles. Our discussions were led while the word “Irony” was written on the chalk board in huge letters, as though irony were the orgasm of our literary roll in the hay. And, I suppose it is. But dark, ironic humor isn’t particularly funny to me. If you don’t smile when you read what I write, it’s not humor. It’s not comedy. It’s not fucking funny.
That’s not particularly scholarly of me, is it? I just want to make you people laugh. Life is serious enough, and nature writing has the potential to be a serious downer due to the fact that we’re all in a sorry-ass situation of our own making. (Irony! God, yes! Right there!) But dammit, if you keep telling me how funny I am and how I should do stand-up in my kitchen and write a Sedaris-esque book, I haven’t a chance in hell. Lower your expectations. Then, maybe I’ll come up with something cleverly humorous just to stick it to you.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to go check my scalp for a bullseye rash.