Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Catering to the Coward

I ask you: what is a dental spa? I don't pretend to know. I've never been to one. But it seems like an infamous case of euphemism to associate dentistry (which was and in many places still is a medically-sanctioned form of torture) with the relaxing atmosphere of a spa. Maybe it's not an exaggeration. Maybe they really do slather your face in a lavendar-infused pore-refining mask before they let loose on the root canal, but I have my doubts.

Anyway, I first saw this interesting word pairing on a billboard while waiting for my train at the Ballston metro station. (I had eleven minutes to kill, and you can only play so many rounds of Yahtzee against your cell phone). Even more absurd than the description of the dental spa was its chirpy little slogan: "We cater to cowards." How on earth, I wondered to myself, did that one slip by the focus groups? What business in its right mind invites you to call yourself a coward (even if it's true when it comes to your oral pain threshold)? What human failing is more censured than the white feather, the instinct for self-preservation run amuk?

It's true enough the courage is not as prized as it once was. Maybe that's for the best, as lots of nasty things have been done in the name of valor. This generation, at least, cannot be accused of inordinate bravado. We are a very pragmatic, self-compassionate group of people. We are willing to blink at the shortcuts that minimize our pain. But still, a remnant would agree with Winston Churchill that courage is the chief moral virtue, because by attaining it we secure all of her sister: honesty, charity, faith, perseverance, patience and generosity. All of these require us to thumb our noses as some very provocative, petulant fears. Personally, I have never had much patience with cowardice, except where it occurs in myself and goes by the alias of prudence.

The longer I stood there, waiting for the blinking footlights to herald the oncoming train, the more I was haunted by the inevitable conclusion that catering to the coward is all in a day's work for me. I fear financial insecurity, so I am only as generous as sociability requires. I fear disapproval, so my work ethic is based on avoiding censure. I fear exposure, so I deflect conversations that might uncover my human brokenness.

Cowardice is an alluring thing, because while you are at it, you feel pragmatic and reasonable. It is only afterward, when life becomes crippled and samll, that you see how your fears have backed you into some remote corner of your expansive, God-given inheritance. The subtlety of fear is that it claims to have cornered the market on reality. The debestating potential of what you fear looms so large and rational that nothing else seems safe, or even possible, but to heed its mandate.

But fear has a secret weakness. Its apparent inalienable truths are only phantoms. Every argument of cowardice begins with a "what if" clause. We do indeed have a choice, to live lives that are big and grand and bold, to win back our inheritance, to put our weight on tested promises instead of idle threats.

What does it mean? I hardly know. And frankly, catering to the coward is so comfortable (he's a pleasant houseguest, practically family, when undisturbed), that I hesitate to unseat him. But harder, stranger things have happened. And there is Help in time of need.

Monday, February 5, 2007

Periodic Desolation

The rose dies on the windowsill. For all the water that I give to it, for all that I tenderly push it into the anemic winter sun, its sallow leaves freckle and yellow, the hands of an old woman. Even its buds do not open, but shrivel into papery, rustling wads, like failed attempts at origami. I try not to take this as a personal affront -- sleep deprivation makes me overly sensitive.

2:34 am. Sleep evades me (I cannot even catch sight of it). After church, I made myself a plate of Bethany's dolmades for dinner- brown rice swaddled in grape leaves and bathed in crushed tomatoes. Take them cold from the refrigerator. Eat them standing up. Do yoga in my church clothes in the living room, while Honeydew watches, wondering why I cannot appreciate stillness.

Sometimes I cannot sleep in an empty house. Every room shines bright and cold with the wattage of Edison's inventions. The tinny voices on the radio share witty repartee, or Judy Garland sings on the television, a Technicolor ballad of unrequited love. Their noise is the worst kind of silence.

But out of doors I trust the night, the star-strewn cavern of sky, rich with cricket song. Alone under some bower of limbs tipped in silver by a timid moon (she shows but half her face), I cannot imagine feeling fear or loneliness. I never sleep so well or so soundly as I do in a forest glade. It is on the inside, where electricity makes an enemy of shadow, where the refrigerator is full of food to eat alone and the latch is on the door --yes, on the inside, that solitude is a periodic desolation.

When I was perhaps four or five, our house in Alamo was under construction. One morning, I came downstairs in a set of pink fleece footsie pajamas. There was a sheriff in the living room. It cannot be that I remember him well, but my imagination is happy to embellish the shards of memory. I see him as an armchair officer of the peace. His hair was thin and combed pitifully over the shiny pink dome of his head; his gut strained against the light brown of his neatly-creased shirt (it was just after the holidays, now that I think of it). He must have cruised the tree-lined boulevards of our white-collar, white-skinned suburbia, stopping too often for a donut hole and a cup of thin, scalding coffee, if only to have something to do. But that morning he was there to write a report.

During the night, some men had come into the house, prowled around, and stolen a video camera. Fortunately for us, the thieves were idiots. Because the property looked like a construction site, they assumed that no one lived there (though three little blonde girls were asleep just above their heads) and came looking for some power tools to steal. Later, they were caught with the video camera and cassette of Thoner family home movies. The bumbling crooks had actually taped themselves in the act and then kept the evidence within easy reach of the police, courteously supplying the key evidence necessary to convict them. The greatest loss of the evening, when all was said and done, was a piece of cinematic gold starring my oldest cousin in the bathtub. It was taped over (to the relief of at least one person).

Since then, I have not liked the night indoors, even in the ultra-safe neighborhood where I grew up. I compulsively closed blinds, drew bolts, and tried to make the dog sleep on my bed (The woman on "60 Minutes" said that a fierce dog is the best deterrent to a predator.) And still I would like awake, wishing that there was a lock on my bedrom door, wondering if anyone could sneak through my window by climbing up the geranium planter. I siezed upon reasons to fear. My sister once told me about two little girls playing in their front room at night (just as we were then), who looked up to see a peeping Tom crouched at the window. To this day I am chilled by the mental image I have conjured of those mad eyes, open to impossible widths past the iris, protruding like hard-boiled eggs, watching me with foul intent in a clouded mind. Then Polly Klaas, who lived perhaps thirty miles away, was abducted from a sleepover in her parents' home, and never again seen by the living. Tense as the mattress springs on which I lay, I prayed for legions of ten-foot warrior angels, with swords of steel and wings of bronze, to encamp around our property. I fought to talk my fear down to size and at last fell asleep.

Waiting in Line

Fourteen degrees and I missed the bus. That did it. I flagged the first cab to come chugging and puffing up Columbia Pike. It's worth a few dollars to me to keep my toes. The driver wasn't sure if my spare change would get me as far as I wanted to go, but he let me into the oasis of heat and pulled into traffic. With pride, he looked into the rearview mirror and told me that I was his first passenger on his first day as a taxi cab driver. I offered him congratulations.

Yonas came from Ethiopia three years ago. After his father died, he came to the United States where he worked as a valet parker while learning English as a second language at Northern Virginia Community College. His words are carefully unaccented.

We whiz past the Euro-Latino Market, where, like every day, two dozen men are waiting for someone to come by and offer them work. Their heads are invisible beneath the outsized hoods of grey cotton sweatshirts, ubiquitous as uniform. Their breaths come like the puffing of miniature locomotives. Fourteen degrees does not change their reality, or, more to the point, their illegality. They will do anything for whatever anyone will pay them. The debates on immigration, raging just a few miles away, have everything to do with them and little to do with the senators waxing grandiloquent about border sanctity and "waiting in line." Waiting in line is all that they do.