Isn’t It Ironic ?

Bob Dylan performing at St. Lawrence Universit...
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“A traffic jam when you’re already late

A no-smoking sign on your cigarette break

It’s like ten thousand spoons when all you need is a knife

It’s meeting the man of my dreams

And then meeting his beautiful wife

And isn’t it ironic…don’t you think

A little too ironic…and, yeah, I really do think…

It’s like rain on your wedding day

It’s a free ride when you’ve already paid

It’s the good advice that you just didn’t take

Who would’ve thought… it figures…”

Ironic, Alanis Morrisette

“….And then there is ‘Acc-is-mus.’” My literature professor purposefully enunciated this term and then hesitated as if we were apprentices in some Masonic society and he was waiting for the customary due guard response. He carried on like a farmer feeding filet mignon to his prized swine. “This form of irony might reveal itself in the shape of feigned indifference when in fact, the exact opposite sentiment holds true – – underneath there lies extreme prejudice.”  I scribbled the cryptic words in the margins of a note pad already crowded with strange literary terminology and countless doodles that betrayed my disinterest.  Beside several unevenly spaced words, there were drawings of surfers cutting out of perfect pipeline waves and a baseball hitter pivoting on his back foot to make perfect contact with a rotating fastball.  My class notes would be useless to any other human and a harbinger of my failure to achieve an acceptable grade in Literature 101.

Next to my perfect sketch of a feathering wave, I had penned the words “contradiction”, “hyperbole” and “malaprop.” A half hour earlier, I had also absent mindedly written the word “anti-phrastic” but had been distracted by an attractive coed from an adjacent college that was walking by our lecture hall.  Having no idea what anti-phrastic meant or who this Helen of Troy was, I fell further behind in the lecture.  I suddenly had the disconnected feeling that I was watching ancient Athenians converse in Greek.  This led to more introspection and resulted in my missing the final two terms: “synecdoche” and “metonymy”.  My professor droned on. “These tropes are the essential building blocks of literary irony.  Irony, my aspiring wordsmiths, is a vehicle by which all effective writers and communicators can engage and enlist their audience.”

What the hell was a trope?  I thought.  I strained to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who had floated like a cloud past my window.  Alas, she had vanished, stealing my attention, diverting my inspiration and perhaps sealing my fate in this class.

Before taking the notoriously humbling Lit 101 course – the equivalent of combining sixteen weeks at Marine boot camp and a colorectal exam, I had always considered myself a skilled prospector of irony.  I was an acolyte of Woody Allen and appreciated the dry, acerbic wits of Oscar Wilde, Ambrose Bierce and John Updike. I could separate the fool’s gold of camp-fire story irony from the timeless cunning of  Charles Dickens who excelled at situational and dramatic irony.  Whether it was his jilted bride that purposely raised a daughter incapable of love or an simple act of charity that led to a life-altering event, Dickens possesed an uncanny ability to divine irony out of the bleakest and hardened of places.

I grew up searching for meaning and irony in everything – history, television shows like the Twilight Zone and every song on the radio.  When you are young, everything is profound and ironic.  When you encounter irony as a child it is as if you have personally discovered some hidden message left exclusively for you – – a clue that might help unlock the mysteries of life. I remember memorizing the militant lyrics of Bob Dylan’s  “ When God’s On Your Side”:

But now we got weapons

Of the chemical dust

If fire them we’re forced to

Then fire them we must

One push of the button

And a shot the world-wide

And you never ask questions

When God’s on your side.

As a teen, my view of irony became cynical and agnostic.  Life was a Greek tragedy.  As a young literature major, irony was simply the Fates sadistically plucking at the gossamer strands of our mortal webs to remind us that we were mere pawns in some random cosmic chess game.  The universe offered no order or control.  When you are twenty years old, there is no shortage of conviction that you are the one who is in control and life is made or broken by your own best efforts.

Years later, when Alanis Morissette would paint her dark picture of life’s random injustices, critic Jon Winkour took exception to her ballad in an essay on Irony. In his tirade, he tried to dispel her notion of life’s ironic conditions. “Morissette’s situations purporting to be ironic are merely sad, random, or annoying. It is of course ironic that ‘Ironic’ is an unironic song about irony. Bonus irony: ‘Ironic’ is widely cited as an example of how Americans don’t get irony, despite the fact that Alanis Morissette is actually, Canadian.”

Fortunately, as with many things in life, we get older and learn from irony with the benefit of hindsight and perspective.  For many of us, wisdom comes when we finally begin to accept the cunning symmetry that is the universe.  Irony finds its way into your life like smoke under a door.  Instead of an empty cosmos inhabited by Gods who loathe mortals and toy with them like plastic figurines, we begin to see irony as a sign that there is a higher order to everything.  God indeed does exist and possesses a very warped and highly evolved sense of humor.   Perspective is not found in neon-lit classrooms or in a comfortable chair but in dark alleys and face down in a muddy street.  A gift is often wrapped around a brick and tossed through your window. A win is often disguised as failure.

Historical irony haunts us as we look back to see the most ecologically human of all people – – indigenous natives – become genocide victims at the hands of “civilized“ nations determined to fulfill their manifest destiny. There is irony in our present day foreign policy where it seems we are financing both sides of a war – – funding the enemy through fossil fuel dependence while fighting for our security to protect our right to stay addicted to the black opiate.  Some argue gunboat diplomacy can lead to peace. We keep rediscovering the painful irony that war is easy to begin and very hard to end. Closer to home, we are struggling to fix a system called “healthcare” that is desperately sick.

Even closer to our core, is the irony of materialism. It seems that the more you have, the more you fear losing and the less secure you feel. It seems those who have very little are often happier than those who have very much. It is ironic that one must try to live like they are dying to understand how to live.  Why is it that sinners make the best saints?  Why are there no atheists in fox-holes?

Yes, we can always agree to disagree. And of course, irony is the essential DNA of humor.  Why is it that men drive faster when they are lost?

Irony flits all around us like little celestial fireflies at twilight reminding us of a higher purpose.  It is the beauty of Ted Williams hitting a home run in his last professional at bat. It is Haley’s Comet appearing at the birth and death of one of America’s most brilliant literary lights- Mark Twain.  It is the simple contradiction of thorns on a rose.

Irony after all is not random coincidence or accidental contradiction. It is divine design.  It is a celestial yin and yang that stretch far beyond our mortal horizon line – – an imaginary barrier that only exists because as humans, we can only see so far.

I eventually did discover the identity of that perfect girl who left me in an attention deficit during my lecture that indian summer day–and no, I did not marry her.  However, I did hear, years later, that she went on to become an English professor at a midwestern college.  Ironic?  Perhaps. I squeaked by Lit 101 with a passing grade but not without a reproach from my professor for my verbal incontinence.  His note scribbled on my essay like a doctor’s prescription read,  “Michael, an antiphrasis to live by:  Less is more.”

I still don’t know what the hell he was talking about.

Simply Being

Image by Just a Prairie Boy via Flickr

In summer, the song sings itself.  ~William Carlos Williams

To find the universal elements enough; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter… to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest or a wildflower in spring – these are some of the rewards of the simple life. ~John Burroughs

There are certain summer mornings that hang like Spanish moss off of a sapphire elm of sky.  The whole world seems pregnant with possibility and willing to extend almost until tomorrow. The heat from the previous day still lingers and causes you to hesitate, waiting for a breeze to breathe. It is a time of simple pleasures and slow, economical motion.  The green grass is dry and bleached in places where water cannot relieve the relentless penetrating sun.  The air is alive with the croaking of toads pleading for rain, insects conspiring to multiply, birds serenading the verdant Gods of summer and squirrels and chipmunks quarrelling along sienna and slate rock walls which line my hiking path.

This is a morning to wander in the New England woods along a cool river filled with shadowy brown trout.  Here, in this grove of trees, the river is little more than a wide stream in most places.  Yet, it is an ancient artery feeding this living place  –  a natural dividing line in the wild with each side appearing different once you have crossed over and have the advantage of looking back.

The woods that buffet this particular stretch of water are a restless contradiction of growth and decay.  The pastel sky heats up pushing golden filtered light across the clear, determined water. Cool air idles listlessly above the brook’s cascades and in the shadows of an old footbridge. It’s uneven planks and irregular length creak as I step above the shallows. It is the kind of isolated crossing where one would expect to meet a troll who might quickly scurry up onto the opposite bank and demand a tithe for passage. The north side of the water’s edge is a cat’s cradle of ferns, vines and wild flowers that fall down to a broken root and stone pocked shore.  A butterfly floats into the spotlight of sun, lighting on a giant midnight purple foxglove – its fanning wings moving rhythmically like the colored sails of some exotic Chinese junk.

My Australian shepherd, Brody, canters at my side.  Moments earlier, we had been content to rest underneath a giant oak at the edge of a meadow, readying for our morning adventure. He is forever indentured to my whims and obligations.  Yet, he is secure in his purpose.  He is a working dog and is content to patrol the edges of my world and to shadow me with quiet, unconditional companionship. He runs ahead and turns to be certain that I have followed his padded path.  He leaps and pivots as a hidden deer breaks off in the distance, crashing through impenetrable undergrowth to watch us from a safer distance. His ears rise and fall as he digests a world filed with constant motion and commands.  He is my eternal scout forever probing for the hidden pulse of any new place.

It is ten o’clock. Already great galleons of thunderheads gather off in the distance – – an invasion force of chrome cotton man-o-wars armed with lightening and bursts of rain. There is a shrill sound like cicadas that seems to be warning us that this day may be conquered by a sudden storm. Yet, on a morning where one is so alone and yet so surrounded by life, one must accept the notion that anything is possible.  It is hard to not think of grander things on a delicious day such as this. My best laid plans of July pour forth from a soul at peace – goodwill that bubbles up with great expectation and grand intentions – only to later lose momentum falling still in stagnant pools of inaction like the brackish water that sits silent between rocks of dry August streams.

I am carrying only a backpack, water, my journal and a water bowl for my companion.  Our plan is to climb away from the stream working our way through pines and hickories up the southern ridge of this wooded canyon.  We pass ebony ponds along a wide path swept of its topsoil by wild spring streams and winter run-off.  The trail is marked by dark, muddied edges and deep pointed imprints of deer that had passed this way in the soft dawn. Brody suddenly stops and looks up the trail.  A young couple is moving briskly in our direction. The man in his late twenties immediately slaps his leg and beckons my companion to him.  The young woman appears more cautious, uncertain if my tri-colored partner harbors bad intentions.  My shepherd joyfully accepts the overture and bounds in two leaps to the young man – leaping up to tattoo two perfect muddy prints on his white undershirt.  “I asked for that.” He mused as he unsuccessfully wiped the marks only further smearing the mud.  Sensing his faux pas, Brody circles back to me.  Gathering that my absence of criticism should be construed as praise, he pushes forward to reconnoiter the trail.

The couple carries on – – a fourth dimension encounter with my past.  It is my wife and I – – perhaps twenty years ago.  To be so young and so early on the great trail of life.  Passing them and venturing deeper into the shaded woods reminds me of Robert Frost and his spiritual journey into a snow filled winter forest.  In these moments, I consider my own mortality and my brief time on earth to breathe in an infinite mélange of scents and experiences.  I am a ship – sturdy enough to venturel far from shore – exploring new lands and experiencing the fear and exhilaration of being at the whim of something greater than myself – – an uncharted ebony ocean that is shaped by an invisible hand that guides and contours constantly shifting currents.  I could remain closer to shore always keeping land in sight and a safe harbor within my grasp or, I can set out in search of my reason to exist – allowing trades and trust to move me across unexplored places and among new and different cultures.  Hell for some explorers is routine, predictability and the absence of diversity.

We descend into a beautiful stand of birch trees that shimmer at the slightest breathe of wind.  We surprise a toad as he quickly leaps into an ink blot of dying pond.  Brody slaps at the water and noses closer to the eyes that now leer at him from the safety of this muddy refuge.  He moves deeper into the tarn swirling mud underneath the surface and obscuring his own view.  With a splash, the amphibian is gone.  Brody hesitates – half expecting a counter attack.  He instead declares war on the darting water bugs as they skate across the pond’s surface. As he uselessly slaps at vacant water,  I whistle and he jumps quickly across the trail to lead us to the highest point of our journey.

From the top of this broken ridge we can see rolling waves of green woods and summer foliage. I can almost see the British soldiers in their imperial red as they climb in disciplined cadence.  Phantom Colonials crouch behind stumps and trees waiting to ambush this ill-advised scouting party.  Somewhere to the northwest, a young Colonial officer named Benedict Arnold would distinguish himself at the battle of Ridgefield, CT by rescuing his commanding officer and leading a rear guard defense.  As a result of his actions, he would be promoted to a higher rank.  His elevated position led him to Fort Ticonderoga where his heroism would endear him to General Washington as one of his most trusted lieutenants – a faith he would later betray when he surrendered the Hudson stronghold of West Point to the British.

The hills roll like ocean swells across an endless horizon line of woods.  A few narrow roads cut the tree lines serving as fragile capillaries connecting small hamlets and towns.  It would not take too long for nature to reclaim everything that has been superficially scratched into its thick barked skin.

We linger for a minute – two time travelers.  We drink water and split a granola bar.  I am once again violating his strict diet for the sake of his sad eyes and endearing habit of licking his lips to signal his to desire to dine with me.  He is my companion and it is an unwritten rule that we must share everything.  We linger and then move south down another serpentine trail to reconnect to the river.

These woods are old and barely seem to raise an eyebrow at our trespass.  A trout rises to a fly and flashes his red stomach as he turns to devour a rare midday meal.  The riffles of water stretch further away and finally lap gently against the cut of the river bank. The stream angles and darts along this part of the woods as if it is trying to elude anyone who might be attempting to track its course.

I talk to Brody as we move across an elevated plateau carpeted by pine needles and wet sand. He hangs on my every word and studies me to be certain he is not missing some essential assignment.  We round a bend of broken pines and savaged, shattered tree limbs – exploded in an instant microburst of wind from a late spring storm.  Our foot bridge comes quickly into view and with it, our journey has come full circle.

We retrace our steps moving along a sunken road between ancient stone walls.  We mount a thin rail of two by fours that serve as a bridge across a fragile wetland.  We step down onto spongy green grass and climb to the great meadow and where we can now witness the armada of storm clouds as they gather and conspire. We deposit the moment in our pockets and move to our car.  He leaps in the passenger seat and settles into a perfect ball of fur and fatigue.  The engine whirls and we move off leaving behind dust and the memory of a perfect summer morning.  As we turn off a frontage road and skid on to a small country thoroughfare, my canine companion heaves a sigh of utter contentment.

Yes, it is true that sometimes the simplest of things can make my soul smile.

Summers With Lampwick

Disney's Electrical Parade: Lampwick and Pinocchio
Image by armadillo444 via Flickr

“Juvenile delinquency is a modern term for what we did when we were kids” -Anon

My mother called them, “Lampwicks”.

She ascribed this sobriquet to any of our friends who exhibited anti-social tendencies.  She seemed to have a sixth sense about boys and almost mystically understood which kid would be most likely to become Chief Justice or a ward of the criminal justice system. “Lampwick” was the name of the truant, ne’er-do-well, delinquent kid who befriended Pinocchio as the two “boys” were swept off by the dark shadows of temptation to a seeming adolescent paradise called, “Pleasure Island.”

In this land of youthful hedonism, there were no adults and a cornocopia of self indulgent choices – – shooting pool, staying out past curfew, smoking cigars, damaging public property, eating candy and exhibiting limited common sense.  Lampwick was Disney’s and every suburban picket fence parent’s poster child for the “wrong” kind of companion.

Each town had its Lampwicks – the habitual class clowns, east parking lot smokers and reckless free spirits who were on a first name basis with every vice principal and cop in town.  While some parents were not up to speed on kids and their transgressions, my mother knew every kid’s rap sheet. She knew that people judged a kid by the company he kept.  Shady companions could lead you down dark alleys and get you into trouble. It was, after all, out of the sight of parents where bad judgment could take root and blossom into highly regrettable mistakes.  The simple act of “borrowing” another kid’s bike for a joyride could eventually lead an adolescent to commit mass murder in Kansas for no apparent reason.

Like most matriarchs, she deployed a powerful BS meter that included a lie detector system more sensitive than a Cal Tech seismograph. She could easily distinguish the earnest kid from the obsequious trouble maker. Over time, she simply defaulted to the code word, “Lampwick”, as a terminal judgment – forever branding any undesirable acquaintance that we might try to insinuate into our circle of friends.

Summer was her greatest challenge as we were rudderless ships – – unable to navigate a day pregnant with possibility because we lacked imagination and our closest friends who had left town for family vacations and sleep away camps.  With the loss of our approved social circle, we went in search of new confederates.  Summer was a season for exploration, experimentation and rite of passage “firsts”.  July and August meant hot sidewalk days that simmered slowly and dissolved into heavy, woolen nights that would cloak our illicit activities. The grass stayed dry under your bare feet as the evening could never quite reach down enough to find its dew point.

The child of the 70’s was not oversubscribed.   Summer’s primary focus was to find a source of income.  To a kid, a job meant financial freedom and spending money.  To a parent, work meant less potential idle time for trouble.  Inevitably, most kids ended up partially employed and filled long open afternoons in search of water, dangerous liaisons and forbidden things.

Summer meant new things – the kid who just moved to town and did not know a soul, a day camp or a summer school class.  Invariably, one would make new “friends”. In our house, it might start with an innocent request to spend the night at “James” house. Having never met James, his parents or not knowing whether James was real or on a work furlough program from the California Youth Authority, my mom would insist on meeting and interrogating my new companion. If he passed this simple litmus test, the sleep-over might be redirected to our home where she could carefully size up the child as well as discern the level of engagement from his parents. She would look for signs of absentee parenting – did they call to speak with her about the alleged sleepover? Did the father even bother to slow down the car when he dropped James off? My mother considered the “drop-off” a leading indicator of how active a parent was in managing their child’s activities.

Mom understood that the mistral winds of July and August carried on them lost souls and latch-key kids whose absence of supervision was only eclipsed by their complete lack of judgment.  They were sirens calling to us with promises of throwing jack knives, shop-lifting from one eyed store owners and staying out all night. They were Lampwicks offering us the chance to bite from a tree laden with forbidden fruit.  After all, no one was ever home or sober at Lampwick’s house.

My mother’s finely tuned antenna could detect any criminal in waiting: the arsonist, extortionist, the joy rider, the daredevil, the school yard bully, the BB gun freak, or the demolition expert. Her thinly veiled, sodium pentothal questioning could disarm any kid into revealing a personality profile that would reliably indicate the probability for a restful summer or a summer full of arrests.

I was in the throes of begging to spend the night at the broken home of a boy I had just met at the community pool.  Within a span of 2 hours she had gleaned through her phone tree of friends and a few select questions the fact that the boy’s brother was a suspected drug dealer, the house was teeming with teens that had no supervision because the Mom was holding down two jobs while the stay at home grandmother was motionless in the den watching “As The World Turns” in a semi stupor.

How the heck she could gather this much intel in such a short period of time was beyond my comprehension. In a time before police blotters, she always seemed to know before I did which of my friends had broken his arm trying to jump his moto-cross bike off the roof of the school. She knew who had been arrested for shop lifting and who had been disarmed after shooting their Daisy BB gun at cars.  As a red-blooded child of adventure, I was starved for the adrenalin rush that only came from being chased or at risk of physical injury.  This led to a succession of alliances with boys who my mother had blacklisted for their ingenious ability to break the law and whose parents seemed impotent to stop them.

Through my arsonist friend, Ed, I developed a profound fascination with fire.  My budding pyromania and Ed’s engineering prowess teamed us up to create the first tennis ball cannon. The device was constructed by hollowing out three metal Wilson tennis ball cans, taping them together and puncturing the base of the bottom can with a ballpoint pen.  We would spray copious amounts of lighter fluid into the sides of the three-foot mortar and then shake the lighter fluid to even distribution.  We would load the device with a tennis ball soaked in gasoline, leveling the improvised weapon at a predetermined target. A match would be placed against the small pen hole at the base of the bottom can. With an oxygen sucking “whoosh!,” a flaming tennis ball would be propelled 500 feet through the silky morning sky.

As the incendiary bomb landed on the neighbor’s roof igniting dry leaves, we panicked – scrambling up a trellis in an effort to extinguish the blaze. The home’s elderly occupant was suddenly concerned at the sound of reindeer on her roof as she was certain that Christmas was not for several more weeks. A phone call, sirens, an ill-timed leap into another neighbor’s garden led to our subsequent “arrest”. Hours later, the verdict was delivered – – Ed was given the death sentence of Lampwick.

Despite my mother’s best efforts to steer us along a straight path, we could not help but test the boundaries of our suburban cocoon. We once built an elaborate mannequin out of street clothes and dropped it off a bridge into the path of an oncoming car.  The horrified driver stopped and took our dummy resulting in the loss of clothing and a visit from the police when my friend, Mike realized that his mother had written his name in an indelible marker on his shirt collar and pants.

We pretended to foist an invisible rope that caused cars to screech to a halt. Using surgical tubing and a plastic funnel, we fired water balloons, oranges and eggs with pin-point accuracy at buses, trucks and bicyclists without regard to the damage or risks that would ensue. We once tried to ride our bicycles twenty miles through fenced off sewage culverts.

Invariably, we were ratted out, eye-witnessed, caught, injured, or incapable of out-peddling a police car on our bikes – and subsequently incarcerated. Each kid’s parent would inventory the circumstances and promulgate punishments and tighter controls to prevent their child from becoming labeled “delinquent” in our small town.

After my new friend Scott and I got caught stealing bottles from the back of a store so we could turn them to the same store for recycling refunds, my mother had declared enough and forbid me from seeing my friend. I had to call him and share the bad news that he had made the dubious Lampwick list.

As I was preparing to dial his home, the phone rang.  It was Scotty.  “Mike, my parents won’t let me come over to your house any more.  They say you are a bad influence. “

He was suggesting that I was Lampwick.

I shivered at the thought.  Every kid knew that Lampwick eventually turned into a donkey and was dragged off into the salt mines of Pleasure Island to labor forever as a beast of burden – a high price to pay for making bad choices. Upset at the tables being turned, I sought out my mother for advice.  She smiled as if she had been waiting for this opportunity. “You remember what happened to Pinocchio? He almost turned into a donkey as well. Just be careful…“

At 12 years old, I did not buy into the whole Disney Pinocchio parable.  But just in case, I went in to use the bathroom and studied the mirror.

Were my ears getting bigger?