Jeopardy! Category: P Words
There’s change in it, the kind a greedy wisher tosses in a well, hoping for a return of 10 to 1. You won’t see this change at first, won’t know how to even pronounce it, but the coin is there, shadowing every future investment. Conversations about this word will quickly (inevitably?) turn meta. It’s associated with shifts after all, & these are depicted in amusing ways on PowerPoint slides. One old standard is the manila paper airplane branching away from the fleet of white. Little slashes to indicate loop-di-loops. There’s also a piebald Rubik’s cube mid-twist, and a series of matte arrows pointing down with one glossy or glowing arrow pointing up. Mostly, you will have an experience before learning the language to identify it, explain it. In a broader sense, this phenomenon is college, where the lexicon begins to bloat at prodigious rates. It’s uncomfortable when your old jeans don’t fit anymore, so imagine that too-tight feeling around your brain. Zipper-stick. Button-wince. But with concepts. Heteronormativity. Pinch. Gendered double bind. Pinch. White privilege. Pinch. And it’s worse than finding out you didn’t know because you were made to believe you did. Unlearning is like the scene in a hospital hallway where doctors cut a trauma patient out of their clothes. Forget the zippers! Forget the buttons! There’s no time! Bear in mind those scissors are medical grade. Bear in mind those scissors are coming for your mind. It’s your old version of reality that’s fading now, losing consciousness. Suddenly, the literal & metaphorical overlap. Your old worldview is fading. Your former consciousness is lost. In the analogy, though, you won’t actually benefit from triage. Angie calls this scenario “fake questioning”—when you wrap some gauze around a wound & reavow all the old bullshit—I mean, previous ideological frameworks. I learned this word my first week of college. Like many words, it floated around me, Baader-Meinhofed into ubiquity. The first person I ever heard say it is still one of the smartest people I know. I loved him effortlessly with my mind but found no place for him in my body. Wouldn’t it be easier if we could just make the cognitive & corporeal align? Then, the professor said it. She was also my adviser. She was also a lesbian, the first one I ever knew I knew. She was woke before people said woke. I doubted she had ever been asleep. Once, she told me a story about carrying home a huge glass jar of peanut butter when she was broke in grad school. I can’t remember the context for this story now, but I remember being stunned to learn that peanut butter ever came in jars. (Not plastic tubs?) That wasn’t the point. She had so many plans for that jar of peanut butter. All the sandwiches she would make, all the celery stalks she would fortify with protein. Was it creamy or crunchy? No matter. There was a fuck-ton of it—I mean, an epic quantity—& she was so happy to have made an investment in something that would continue to pay off for a long time. But she tripped on the front steps of her apartment building, dropping the jar, which shattered into a dangerous mountain of brown, slivery goo. Inedible, of course. Preposterous to clean. She was sobbing, scooping heaps of it into a garbage bag while wearing her gardening gloves. People were staring, laughing perhaps. She was sobbing as she hosed down the path, sobbing as she traipsed up the stairs. The waste, the loss, the disappointment. When my friend lights his joint so cavalierly & says, “You just have to dig it? Get it? Dig it?” Yeah, I get it. But it’s not always easy to dig the real shifts. Some people get airsick. That’s why they have those paper lunch sacks on airplanes—in case you “lose your lunch.” The professor lost so many lunches, so many snacks! She had her mealtime future so meticulously planned! Sometimes a shift is a harsh slip. Sometimes a dig is a cruel joke. Sometimes what I actually know amounts to a weird log cabin made of used Popsicle sticks, & each one is stained red because the red flavors (cherry, strawberry, raspberry) are the only kind I like. When people ask me how it feels to grow up in Washington & grow old(er) in Florida, I quip, “Apples & oranges.” A smile that feels real, but still, there’s a pinch.
“What is paradigm?”
And what of the bodies we leave behind? Aren’t these where, at last, all pre-occupations with mortality must lead? No, I don’t mean the after-life. (Think practical, not spiritual.) I’m interested in the literal after-body, the body post-occupation. (Think practical, not necrophilical.) When the tenant has left the building, regardless of where they head next, what becomes of the flat? Yes, the flat is the no-longer-occupied body. Yes, I like the British word better. Yes, we can think metaphorically & practically at the same time. I find it helps maintain a certain (necessary) distance. And no, I don’t mean the old binary of containment either: casket & bury or casket & burn. This isn’t about scattering ashes or hoarding them in an urn. It’s about the after that comes before that. Post-life/pre-commemoration. What becomes of the body no longer in use? (Now think semantics for a moment, how powerful they are: Should I be calling this de-animated figure a body at all? When precisely does a body stop being a body and start being a corpse, exquisite or otherwise? Maybe it’s like that whole cathedral-basilica thing: All corpses are bodies, but all bodies are not corpses until…? Or maybe, really, it’s like that whole bride-wife thing, which seems even less clear-cut, even more prone to individual interpretation. Is the bride only a bride until she removes the dress? Or is she a bride through her honeymoon, a bride through her first year of marriage? All brides are wives, but not all wives are brides…any longer? I like to think I’m a married woman who never was a bride, though I recognize that’s a reckoning for another time…) Alive, how I’ve loved giving blood: O-negative (but you’re so positive! ha!), universal donor, a stranger’s body hemorrhaging in the ER (no time to check their type, search for a match—get me three pints of O-Negative, stat!) The blood bank tells me my “donation” (euphemism, nicely placed) will be tested, then used within two days. Something I made with my body, through no special effort, no special skill, is serving a purpose without me, beyond me. (Think practically but also vocationally. I’m not there for the oversized t-shirt or the “fun-size” Frito-Lays. This is something I feel called to do.) So what about the body itself—anticipating its future status as corpse: I didn’t make this body, & I haven’t always been kind to it either. Once, long ago, I trashed the place & didn’t bother to pay the water bill. Even the lights were turned off for a while. But somehow my body forgave me, forgives me still. (The hard red scab is forgiveness. The green phase of the bruise forgiveness. The stunning white bone cloud a beatific form of forgiveness.) Put me back in the earth was once the party line for people like me. Now, perhaps, Give me a green funeral at sea. Let me decompose in peace among the coral. But what if a pulsing question of my life has been “How can I be of use?” Might I still be useful post-pulse, post-mortem? Are you Googling “What to do with a body after death?” right now because I am. (I Bing-ed it, too, just to balance the cyber-scales.) The Last Tangible Thing, that sole possession I hadn’t thought to bequeath—how might it be harvested, studied, used to teach—at the Mayo Clinic or the state university where I’ve spent my career. I didn’t pass down my genes, & anyone might pass on my art. (No posthumous pity purchases please!) But no matter what we make outside our bodies, how much or how little, to what glorious or ignominious ends, it doesn’t change what remains when we leave them—fittingly called (how does this only come to me now?) the remains. I find myself wanting to be useful after death, when the physicality that once answered to my name becomes the cenotaph of a history lodged elsewhere. (Think existentially, ephemerally.) Maybe the monument isn’t necessary after all. I don’t care where the “me” will be, only that it won’t be there, in that breathless cathedral, that basilica of organs & tissues & bones. In life, I have been urged to take more space, to resist the sexist imperative to winnow. In death, I have considered taking less space. (Perhaps aquamation?) But what of the space purposefully taken, the body deliberately given—the corpse as enduring caesura?
“What is posterity?”
The word itself is not beautiful—little irony of our language that vexes as it woos. And the adjective form, all five syllables, longest word in English for what’s attractive, beguiling, comely… So many synonyms, but in the end, everything boils down to A-B-C. “Elementary, dear reader,” & that, of course, a synonym for abecedarian. Back to beauty, though: I doubt we’re all gazing through the same looking glass. “…the beholder,” sure, though I haven’t just been watching with my one good eye. I’ve been studying Beauty all this time—assaying so as to essay? probing so as to poem? From 1994, a quote in my common book: “Sexy is much more subtle than that.” Lifetime was one kind of laboratory, open on weeknights from 9 to 11 PM. My mother devout, feet up on the couch, wielded the family remote. My father served Shastas before he reclined. My bathrobe doubled as my lab coat. In a film called Mortal Fear, Gregory Harrison signals to Joanna Kerns that the woman on the dance floor is being too obvious, trying too hard. Sexy isn’t pseudonym for Beauty exactly, but don’t they share an alma mater at least—classmates in the same yearbook? photos on the same page? Perhaps sexiness meant a kind of vibration. You felt it before you saw it, & you didn’t need to see it to know it was there. By these terms, Christ was quite sexy, sun-splashed & tunic-clad, straddling his noctilucent cloud. Now Blasphemy, of course, wasn’t beautiful—the nuns were very clear about that—but it had a certain bad-boy vibe (ribbed tank, tight abs, grease on his hands & flat on his back sliding under a car…) that some girls claimed could tug them like the tide. I didn’t catch the lyric, but its meaning landed just the same: “The chicks’ll cream for greased lightnin’!” Maybe not all of us, though, exactly. My great romance with Double Entendre. How I let Euphemism fly past first base, the heat between us sparking into second…e. e. cummings & his poem, “She being brand-new.” I couldn’t tell if I was the car or the driver. Now Beauty’s little sister is Pretty. She always tagged along to the skating rink & cinema, hoping someone would notice. (I did.) It was my task, nay my duty, to impersonate her. O, the crimping iron! O, the eyelash curler! O, the powder with its exaggerated puff! My mother said being Pretty would have to be enough since the leading role of Beautiful had already been cast. She dipped her comb in water, pronounced the part in my hair. But I cared more about parts of speech, you see, the way pretty itself was a double feature, a multi-valent modifier, if you will. (Were you pretty pretty, or were you really pretty?) Pretty could mean somewhat, could mean partly. Our language was slippery like that, like a body on a roller—& did you know that board is also called a creeper? Perhaps our language is a lady mechanic with long, thin hands, points on her shoulders, a blackberry vine tattooed around her torso. Woman as trellis. Woman as ladder I longed to climb. (Euphemisms, you see…they’re hot.) I knew who I liked to look at—girlish boys & boyish girls—everyone stretching from their ribs toward a fulcrum. Early on, the lure of hybrids, those invisible strings cinching my waist at the tolo, where, predictably, I was dancing alone. Then Lovely arrived on the scene, which made me wonder about the ways Beauty careened into Desire. (Or didn’t.) My co-workers all tittering about him, the lovely delivery man, so I nodded along. Some beauty is indisputable, elementary, after all. How Sharon turned to me, her cheeks aflame: “Oh! I didn’t realize that you could see that!” In my head, the swift retort, “I’m gay, not blind.” Instead, I flashed my pretty smile. How it thrills me when words pair up unexpectedly—people, too: each “pretty boy,” & better still, that fabled “handsome woman.” Think of the monikers we once called “unisex”—a man named Hilary (be still my heart!), girls named Max & Alex. The letter X in general, fine-tipped & branching, but also P, which has a certain feminine quality both beautiful & desirable to me. Enduring: my love story with our alphabet, my love story with a woman whose name pulses red as alpha, an A likewise at the start & end of it—Angela. How desire is recursive like that, the alphabet a slinky ouroboros like that. (Be still my heart!) Papaya our early code for love, a euphemism we coined before ever tasting the fruit. Then, when slicing open, we saw the woman’s body mirrored back. Beauty upon beauty, its pink pith seeded & ripe, a perfect visual echo.
“What is pulchritude?”