College English professors shuffle the greater influx of language into two distinct categories: what is said and what is meant. That is, what the greater number of these tenure-track sweater vests may define as ‘denotation’ and ‘connotation’ when restricted to single word or phrase, or those thinly disguised political allegories that has kept Orwell’s Animal Farm for years from the hands of Disney’s animators.
“No duh,” the kids say.
Frankly, plain honest integrity is a relic of the storybooks. Most conversations require translators, word-sherpas to cut a path through the various layers of polite or veiled rhetorical BS. Advertisers spin half-truths; politicians conceive full-lies; one girl I dated in college doubted everything but her religion: God exists here on Earth, dwelling in the body of one, David Matthews. Don’t drink the water, indeed.
The only saving grace for our species lies in the unilateral agreement among peoples of all races to never say what they mean. As such, our honesty depends entirely upon the propagation of lies. The sweater-vests would call that ‘situational irony.’
Thus, for a moment, let us peel back the curtain, shall we? Take a look at the truth behind the words for a change:
Ryan’s girlfriend, Mary, visited the house last Saturday. The rest of the family had already left to the kalee, a month meeting of Irish dancers established by the state Hiberian Society — lovers of all things Irish. Every month Mom, Dad and the kids visit a local lodge or Knights of Columbus hall to dance, cavort, and play cards until the music gives out or the ladies grow tired. It’s all good family fun, so of course I try to avoid it like the slug shuns sodium. Shannon and I sat downstairs engaged in a FIFA 2009 match on the Xbox, when Ryan shouted that he and Mary were leaving for the dance.
“Ryan, make sure bring home you know what!” Shannon shouted back up, scoring another goal on me. In the background, Mary tutted. “Mary, I know you’re thinking that I’m talking about alcohol, but I assure you that drinking is the devil’s brew! If you booze, ya lose!” He’s talking about alcohol.
“Riiiight . . .” Mary muttered in the kitchen. She suspicious but clearly has no idea.
“Oh and Ryan!” Shannon screamed again. “Make sure you get the dark stuff!” He’s talking about Guiness.
“Are you talking about porn?” Mary retorted quickly after. I . . . I have no idea what she’s thinking here.
Shannon and I burst out laughing. Fade to black.
Somewhere next to me, Kevin smiles in the darkness. You can hear the laughter in his voice as clearly as a foghorn. The afternoons of late have grown dark, and the cool air fills the night with fog. Our teacher lives on the far side of the Hollow, a great expanse of untouched unlit watershed, bordering the local reservoir. On the eastern bank, the long fingers of naked trees stretch over the roadways, weaving wicker tunnels of maple and oak. Crossing the bridge, the trees become taller, greener, flushed with cones and the scents of Northern Oregon. Neither side amid much moonlight. By the time Kevin, Brigid, and I leave for piano practice, the road feels isolated, giving the impression that you’re driving through empty space. Still, as my mind waxes poetic, the kids think only of presents and Christmas, now less than a month away.
“Bree,” Kevin sighs. “I don’t even have a laptop yet.” And if I can’t have one yet, there’s no way in this world, the next world, or Middle Earth, you’ll get one before me.
“So? I need it.” All my friends have one. I’m so uncool.
“Why? . . . whoa!’ I ask, slamming on my breaks as a helpless fawn jumps from the bushes, playing chicken with my Explorer. I weave between lanes, while the deer scans the road for morsels. The next vegetarian I meet, crooning about animal rights, will meet the business-end of my fist. “Stupid suicidal deer . . . Why do you need a laptop?”
“So . . . I can do homework,” Bree explains patiently. Facebook. Email. YouTube. Wikipedia . . . for homework.
“Just want it for Facebook,” Kevin mutters, flipping through songs on my iPod. God, Murph’s playlists suck!
‘Nuh-uh,” Bree shouts, smacking Kevin with one of her piano books, 50 Christmas Favorites. “You just say that because you check Facebook all day long. Even when you’re supposed to be doing homework!” Alright, if I’m going to go down, I’m going to take as many of you with me.
“Do not!” Kevin returns; my iPod disappears somewhere beneath his feet. Guilty as charged, but I’m not going to lose this argument.
“Yeah, you just use it to stalk your girlfriend! Kaylee . . .”
“She’s not my girlfriend!” Kevin shouts, banging on the dashboard. She’s really not his girlfriend.
My brother bangs on the dashboard again, and for a moment I have a fleeting — amusing — image of the air bag exploding in his face. Where did he throw my iPod?
“Well, you stalk her enough,” Bree says, smiling – I can tell – from the back seat.
“Why do you guys think that I stalk Kaylee? She’s just a friend . . . a beautiful huggibly-sweet friend who doesn’t know I exist.” I am so sad right now I could cry.
“You probably know what she’s having for dinner tonight, stalker!”
“Do not!” Chicken from KFC ‘cause her Dad got home late from the law office. Kaylee hopes to be a lawyer too one day, but not divorce law. Or maybe start an indie rock band, playing tambourine. She’s currently sitting at her desk, looking over chemistry. In seven seconds she will get the urge to chew a stick of wintergreen Trident. 3 . . . 2 . . . 1 . . .
Without realizing it, I’ve sped up the car over the last two miles, practically racing my way to the piano teacher’s house. Long ago, I realized that calmly discussing the issue or chiding impolite behavior only results in shifting targets. The screaming and yelling never really cease. Like most chemical reactions, you need to remove one or both of the catalysts in order to halt an explosion.
“Ok, we’re here! Bree, get out of the car!” I say pulling up to a single-floor colonial. Begone foul imp! Leave us and your questions behind!
Kevin sits silently next to me, sliding through websites now on my phone. No doubt considering his obsession with young Kaylee. He looks out the window for several long minutes, before shaking off the accusations with a sigh.
“Do you think I stalk?” he asks finally, dropping my phone on the floor. Dangit!
“Well,” I begin. “Information age and all that. It’s hard to avoid material people put on Facebook, particularly if you fancy this girl. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. I mean . . . it’s not like you actually know what she’s eating tonight or what time she falls asleep, right?”
“Right . . .” he laughs. 10:37 PM . . . give or take. “Soooo what do you want for Christmas?”
“Peace, quiet, and happiness,” I sigh, reclining my seat and closing my eyes. “There’s far too little of it in this world. If Mom and Dad can afford an hour of each, I’d be much obliged.” Maybe a new shock-resistant case for my iPod. And phone. And depending on its fate, maybe a new iPod too.
And with that, I settle in my seat, dreaming of frond-clad elf maidens dancing silently beneath a star-strewn sky.