Shattered Pride

Shannon sat in the back seat grumbling under his breath, indignant for this latest round of family-sponsored molly-coddling.  His leg, swollen and bruised rested uncomfortably on the backseat.  Each bump along the roadside — already mottled with winter-forced cracks and potholes — triggered another painful diatribe on why doctors suck and how his body is in fact invulnerable.  I smiled.  Mom simply tutted at each whispered curse, replenishing her rebuttals for the next explosion of rhetoric . . .

“I haven’t broken anything!  It’s just a sprain.  Throw a little ice on it and it’ll be fine in a day or two.  Drown out the pain with work and alcohol.  A doctor’s office and a sober mind . . . just like health insurance: ain’t worth a damn thing.” Continue reading

In which Murph considers the benefits of physical movement . . .

“Nobody should have that many talents,” Katie complained to the television this morning.

I looked up from the computer screen and stared at the program, where several men and women danced excitedly in a line while fiddling a hearty Irish jig. When the song ended, I smiled, noting the irony as my sister continued to shake her head with disbelief and eat her cereal – simultaneously no less, spilling a pool of milk and Corn Pops on the floor and some modest cursing from her mouth. My sister of all people should not be envious of anyone. Like most people – myself included – she sometimes fails to see herself completely, honestly. Not only has she performed and taught Irish dance, but she also plays the harp as well, a talent which unlike the fiddle does not improve with jump or jig. Some of us are even less endowed. My own dancing prowess less resembles Fred Asteire and more closely models Rodney Dangerfield. Athletics and I . . . well, we mix about as well as bleach and ammonia: when we collide someone – me – will pass out and die.

Yet everyone in my family possesses a strong fascination with sports of all kinds. Mom and Dad dated during softball games. When he was not golfing, Pat as a kid drained three-point shots as if the height and distance did not matter. Sean shaved his head (and perhaps other areas) to swim relays and drown his less buoyant teammates in water polo; he later traded in his Speedo for a wrestling singlet, foam mats, and sweaty men. Shannon broke his arm playing soccer and now receives (as well as deals out) regular concussions in rugby matches. Katie sprained, broke, and split her leg two or three times to score field hockey goals. Ryan not only wrestles, scrums, and swings a seven iron (albeit poorly) but was elected to the state championships as a defensive lineman.

Meanwhile after initial testing, my elementary school asked that I attend summer lessons before beginning first grade in order to improve my gross motor skills – translation: learn how to bounce a ball. Just last week after a rigorous study session, I received a nasty paper cut, which inexplicitly spread to a hang nail and a severe case of hives. While sleeping, I routinely run the risk of falling out of bed, bravely sacrificing my body to tile and cold for the sake of my nightly reading materials.

My sleeping companions.

Thus, well-acquainted with fail . . . er, falling, when it was suggested several years ago to form a Murphey family softball team, I was eager to experience the sensation of grass on teeth. Yet, unfortunately this decision nearly cost us our lives. You see, we signed into a local adult softball league, a mixed league which included both men and women and promised fun without the anger and bitterness of excessive competition. Though we enjoyed winning, no one could accuse us of taking the game too seriously. We bought a few bottles of cheap beer, recruited the kids as cheerleaders, ate unhealthy snacks, and spent most of the game laughing and cheering on each other. I played catcher, kneeling in the dirt praying that the bat did not connect with any part of my body and that I would not be asked to throw any farther than the pitcher’s mound. Throws to the infield usually required more skill and strength than I possessed, an awkward full-body push which usually left me on the ground and the ball just short of second base.

Pat and his wife, Tiff, actually met each other on that softball team through the benefit of a mutual friend. Tiff mentioned to us that what first attracted her attention to Pat was the way he used to hold up his pants while running to first base (pre-Tiff Pat actually was quite skinny). Apparently she sensed that he needed her.

Yet every so often we encountered a team bent on winning – at any cost. You may have encountered a few of these individuals in your own neighborhoods: the guys typified by bulging muscles, necks the size of small tree trunks, and short-cut hair like finely manicured lawns. The kind of guys constantly on the lookout for scouts, the rare opportunity to relive their high school years or satisfy the urge to bleed pitchers. Now do not mistake me, most of these Roy-Hobbsian acolytes are probably cordial members of society, ideal community leaders with Volvos and well-kept yards, proud fathers to boys with dog-names like Spike or Butch, who feast off Slim-Jims, Red Bull and nutrient supplements labeled with words like “Nitro” and “horse steroid.” Yet as the softball arcs through the air and falls across the plate, these men gradually change. That thick sphere of rubber, cork and twine transforms somehow into a bullet, the field into a firing range. Then scores, teams, and games no longer matter, only the potential targets.

Enter the Murphey family. The suckling pigs of this tale. Typically these crazed batters would first seek out the women: my Mom on the pitcher’s mound, my aunt on second base, my sister in the outfield. Apparently – not knowing our family very well – they mistook them for the weaker members of our herd, and fired shot after shot, line drives within inches of Mom’s head. The Woosh! of the ball passed once right over her shoulder blade. Another time, she ducked just in time as the ball sailed through the space where her frontal lobe had dwelt comfortably seconds before. The batter than pranced around the bases, laughing that we should learn to be more careful on the field.

“She should pitch a little bit farther on the inside,” Dad would say. “A little bit closer to the head of that . . .” (here he made some reference to the area near the batter’s colon). Mom would only walk off the mound, pick up her beer, and sit on the bench. She might complain a little, but only when out of earshot, unwilling to gratify the slugger with any unnecessary attention. The fact that no one else cared – nonexistent scouts and sports reporters included – amounted to retribution enough. The next time the slugger approached the plate, his line-drive found itself entombed in Mom’s glove. The game ended; no words were exchanged.

Nevertheless, I would love to report that these games ended in a battle royale, a fight to the death between bats, balls, and sand, yet this was not so. We ended the season and did not join the following year. We had faced several more sluggers, all eager for blood and high ERA’s (which were not even calculated); though none of us perished, our fun and excitement had withered away. In time we joined a bowling league, where the competitive spirit still thrives but at least we are in no danger . . . well, no intentional danger. When Ryan sidles down the lane with ball in tow, we duck and shrink behind the benches. You see, release is important in bowling, ultimately deciding the difference between a strike and a journey behind the snack bar to retrieve your ball from the pretzel machine. Thus, depending on the players all sports possess a modicum of danger. Most great joy after all is born of risk and challenge.

Therefore, I think that I will end this tale and grab me some apples and some video games. Risking electrocution, thumb-sprain, and choking seems like a good way to spend the remainder of this afternoon.

The true sport of kingsMy gym.


This weekend found Katie, Mom, and I spending most of our days at the hospital, while Dad underwent some basic (stressful, agonizing, fearful) surgery on his stomach. Thankfully all went well; although the surgery had its share of hiccups. Nevertheless, Dad should be arriving home shortly, well and anatomically whole. Yet his suffering paled in comparison with mine own. My adventures with the girls over the weekend nearly drove me crazy:

“Architecture: modern. Building: hospital,” Katie noted officially to me as I scribbled away in my notebook. “Population: sickly. Do you want me to do any more research for you, Murph?”

“Yeah, what do you think about that wall over there?” I pointed to a white space adjacent to the hospital entrance, totally devoid of all decoration but a wooden bench and the motionless form of an old nun dressed in faded civilian clothing.

“Hmmm . . . too plain. It needs some décor. A mural maybe, with bright colors, happy families, and smiling faces . . . and a moose.”

“Wait, a moose?”

“All murals need moose-i.” (moose-i: being the often unacknowledged plural form of meese, the rarely recalled collective noun form of moose; i.e. I saw a National Geographic special the other day featuring several thousand moose-i crossing the river from Canadia.)

“What’s he writing this time?” my mother asked, alternating her attention between Katie’s descriptions and the well-dressed gentleman sitting across from us, shouting meaningless words like “values oriented approach” and “the paradigms considering the structural integrity graphs would be nice” into his Bluetooth earpiece. “I think he was a metrosexual,” she would comment later, taking in the gentleman’s matching plaid socks, beige loafers, and finely pressed suit the color of martini-soaked olives.

“I don’t know, Mom. I can’t read his handwriting,” Katie giggled, her good-spirits immersing the hospital waiting room with mirth, the same way the odor of wildflowers drown out the ghosts of winter on a warm March morning. My sister possesses that rare laugh, a gentle honest humor devoid of deception or anxiety but strong and wonderful. The sound of pure joy. She also happens to be incredibly nosy and may haphazardly read aloud my unpolished notes concerning the aforementioned Mr. Bluetooth, unaware of my ready ear and eye. Thus, if my critique of my sister’s curiosity sounds a bit hypocritical, it probably is.

“Are you taking notes or signing off on a prescription?”

I smile at the semi-legible scrawl spiraling from my pen tip: long cursive l’s resembling undotted i’s or uncrossed t’s. Doctor’s scribble, quick and illegible. The sole blight on my elementary school record for poor penmanship made essay-writing drudgery and almost stymied my accession into third grade. Apparently my skills at math and reading could not convince Miss Drumm to ignore the similarity between my cursive lowercase y’s, p’s, q’s, g’s and j’s. Reading “Mary jumped her rope” or “Ben gimped his way home” from my copybook could become a lesson in absurdity or obscenity depending on the interpretation.

Nevertheless, my handwriting did prevent a great deal of in-class cheating as Katie discovered gazing at my notes. Almost anyone who tried failed from spelling errors alone (both real and misinterpreted). I breathed easier and continued to note the other patients and families sitting in the waiting room. To my left a family read from a large leather Bible – the father was a preacher I suspect – until a woman arrived from one of the many pasty-white corridors. The Good Book closed and they promptly left together. Katie, Mom, and I were left more or less alone in the waiting room except for an older woman and her husband, his face motionless and white like a plaster mask. A thin nun grumbled through the rows of chairs, occasionally calling out names and shaking her head with dismay when no response came.

“No one listens. No one hears,” she mumbled as she passed us, and the image of a small droopy cartoon dog flashed across my mind. Katie immediately took an interest in her, commenting that she liked the old girl very much.

“Awww, I like her. She reminds me of the nuns back in high school.”

Now the nuns I remember from grade school sent shivers of fear up my spine. Through my eyes, the nurse churned memories of multiplication tables, factors, and the awful Twack! of thick rulers against open palms. Corporal punishment of course did not survive through the late 20th century, yet the nuns still wielded wooden rulers at all times and exercised that strict icy stare, their eyes windows into damnation’s playground. The fact that the hospital nuns traded in their rulers for syringes did not ease my anxiety one bit.

Soon the time allotted for Dad’s surgery began to ebb, and so with notebook safely stowed in my pack Katie and I kept an eye on the flow of doctors draining from the operating room. Unlike Dad’s surgeon, most doctors (that is, those we recognized adorned in white lab coats) seemed young, early thirty-somethings fit and athletic, ready for the weekend and Saturday morning golf games. Mom and Katie used this time to consider dating ala carte.

“Ooo . . . did you see him, Kate? Oh, now he was quite cute. We should come to the hospital every Friday night.” Katie, of course, had seen him, her eyes shone with delight at each passing white coat. Nevertheless, she denied the shallowness of the exercise, citing that she would not choose her soul mate on the basis of occupation.

“Besides,” she said, “I’m going to be a doctor one day. Dr. Kathleen. Maybe, Dr. Katie to the lil’ kids, but I’m going to make you, Murph, and Pat call me doctor.”

Somehow this seemed just as shallow, but considering that many doctors seek out medicine for money and many scientists I had met seek out research for fame, I decided that her mindset actually improved her chances of amassing several degrees.

Academia . . .

All joking aside, I promised to call her doctor at our every meeting if she managed to gain her degree. Few people I know would have deserved that distinction as much as Katie, far fewer would I feel as honored to call doctor than my sister.

After three hours, the surgeon came out and informed us that the surgery had ended and that Dad was now resting in the recovery ward. We could see him in about two hours while they prepare his room. This prompted a collective sigh among the three of us, and I offered to visit the cafeteria for some much needed refreshments. I asked the girls what they wanted:

“I’ll have a hot green tea,” Mom begins. “No decaf or any of that fruity stuff; although if they don’t have Lipton, then I’ll have just plain tea. Unless of course they have white tea. That has the most anti-oxidants, right? Just get whatever’s the most healthy. With some cream. Or 2% milk if they have it. See if they have any honey, too. I think it was near the jellies. If they’re out, get me some plain sugar, no fake stuff. But they should have honey, I saw it there earlier.”

“Okay, and Kate . . .”

“Oh and be sure to get me a spoon too. For stirring.”

“Sorry, they probably will not have that. You’ll have to use your finger.” I receive the Look for that snide comment, and thus quickly hurry on to my sister’s order. “Katie?”

“Hmmm, just get me something delicious. But not unhealthy.”

Between this intense specificity and paradoxical ambiguity, I manage somehow to pick enough ingredients to satisfy Mom and gather enough general snacks to please Katie. I settle for a water and some salt packets. Then sitting back, I begin to dream as the old nun passes by again, mumbling like an old locomotive. Her mutterings mix with my dreams, dragging me back to the years of nap time, arithmetic, and brown and yellow uniforms.

“No one listens. No one cares. Yes, they’ll listen when I get my ruler again. Oh yes, then they’ll care. Then they’ll hear me . . .”

Twack twack twack

Just a few thoughts

Lately I have been feeling under the weather. Not physically sick, but just irritable, tired, and impatient. For those who know me, this shift in mood contrasts greatly with my normally optimistic (translation: annoying) self. Usually when I get this way, my body is telling me that I need to work out a bit. Nothing extreme, just an hour to an hour and a half of running or lifting will suffice to revive my spirits from their more somber depressing funk.

Yet my body’s method of communication intrigued me. In religion class, they taught us that suffering is a reaction to evil; in psychology, they taught us that anxiety is a reaction to stress; in gym they taught us that pain is a reaction to physical harm – which usually concluded my reaction to gymnastics. Thus, I discovered my body’s signals for languor: depression. And the immediate remedy for its cessation: exercise.

Or if funds allow, a visit to the bookstore . . . Or if time and money allows, a road trip to an unknown place.

For those of you, who have never ever ventured out to a Renaissance festival, I have three words for you: boostiers and bread bowls . . . Ok, that may have been four words, but if you happen to be scraping chicken and rice out of a bread bowl while young a lady trots by in a short period dress and a boostier, you too might discard some first-grade math to chisel that image in your mind’s temple. Albrecht Dürer clearly missed out on the medieval centerfold market; St. Jerome just does not possess the hips.

Seriously though, forgoing the tantalizing costumes, Renaissance festivals excite me each year. The fair grounds are set among the trees, the food tastes delicious, and the shows are always filled with bawdy quasi-British humor. With hot apple cider in hand, we can sit beneath several large oaks and watch short Shakespeare plays or shop for goblets and immense six-foot long swords. Although, personally I pass on the period weaponry; after twenty-five years on the job as big brother to seven siblings, I need not buy fuel for a possible funeral pyre. My voice creaks and groans from years of screaming lengthy portents:

“Sean! Do not play with the sheet-metal! You’ll cut off a finger!”

“Kevin! Stop playing with the bug-zapper! You’ll fry your tongue off!”

“Alright just so we’re clear: no one is ever EVER to attempt anything Macaulay Culkin does in this movie, ok? If you do and manage to survive unscathed, afterwards I will kill you. So Ryan, please return Mom’s good ornaments to the box. Thank you.”

Originally my parents attempted to completely secure the house: bubble-wrapping all the table corners, buying only dull knives, corking the electric sockets with plastic plugs, and vacuuming daily so no dead bee or wasp become the next appetizer to a crawling infant (that reminds of the old line in To Have and Have Not:

Eddie: Say, was you ever bit by a dead bee?
Beauclerc: I have no memory of ever being bit by any kind of bee.
Slim: (interjecting) Were you?
Eddie: You’re alright, lady. You and Harry’s the only one that ever…
Morgan: Don’t forget Frenchie.
Eddie: That’s right. You and Harry and Frenchie. You know, you got to be careful of dead bees if you’re goin’ around barefooted, ’cause if you step on them they can sting you just as bad as if they was alive, especially if they was kind of mad when they got killed. I bet I been bit a hundred times that way.
Slim: You have? Why don’t you bite them back?
Eddie: That’s what Harry always says. But I ain’t got no stinger.

Yet somehow, the kids always seem to avoid the protective coating usually by stepping outside now and then. Though convinced that complete security is impossible – particularly in Nature – I avoid placing long sharp pointy-daggers within reach of small children and Kill Bill-enthused teenagers. The way I see it, if protecting my family from prowlers requires the implementation of a medieval sword, if an army of undead ninja prowlers lie in wait outside my door, forcing me don my authentic Grendel-skin, Son of Cain cape, and to unsheathe my authentic Beowulf dragon-hide sword, then I am probably doomed anyway. Luckily enough that will not happen. From my experience, the undead masses just are not that organized.