WHO WAS THAT MASKED MAN? Steve Dresselhaus
Word of caution: please don’t take this post too seriously. Some readers have expressed concern for my well being after reading it. Thanks for your concern but try to read this post and laugh – a lot. The photo above was posed yesterday. I am fine, I really am.
I’m sitting in my recliner looking out my living room window. The tune going through my head is the old Hee Haw song that goes “Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck I’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.”(CLICK HERE) It is just a few days till Christmas. It is cold, cloudy, gloomy. Sleet is starting to pelt my bay window. To my right is a Christmas tree which used to be alive but which was savagely murdered in a vain attempt at bringing festive cheer to my dreary suburban life. All I can see are several trillion evergreen needles falling to the carpet and becoming one with it, rendering my Dyson vacuum cleaner no more useful than a razor at a Robertson clan family reunion. I paid $35 for the tree and will have to pay my garbage service $25 to haul its needleless skeleton away. Now, I am unhappy. I couldn’t muster a smile on my face even were I to star in a beer commercial while surrounded by all kinds of beautiful people who always appear to be the happiest people on Earth. I am not a Hindu nor a Buddhist, so neither karma nor reincarnation can explain my fate. I am not Catholic, so guilt and vengeful divine retribution are not major players in my life. That I have a Christmas tree proves my joylessness is not from following the mirthless, miserable rules of Charles Taze Russell. I peer into the depths of my mind, deep, deep into my soul, and remember that it was not always thus. How has my life become so vanilla in a multi-flavored world? How and why did I ever succumb to the soul-numbing comfort, the prosperity-induced lethargy , and the joy-retarding life of America’s middle class suburbia?
It has not always been like this. I used to laugh and smile. Life was a 24/7 adventure. I used to be a missionary in Baja, Mexico. I was happy, cheerful, optimistic and braver than all of the super heroes rolled into one. I was a courageous and fearless rescuer of lives and souls. No person was so bad I would not attempt a rescue. No damsel in distress was ever so enmeshed in trials that I would not go out of my way to save her. No person was ever so lost that I would give up on him or her without a major fight. Back then, I could have worn a cool mask and a cape flapping in the wind and it would not have been out of place. People would have understood, approved, applauded and cheered. Back then I was SBMM (Super Brave Missionary Man).
Now I live in the town of Wheaton, Illinois, one of Chicago’s wealthy, safe suburbs. I live in the town of the Immaculate Conception – everyone here was born without sin. No one here has ever done anything wrong. The town is perfect. Lake Woebegone’s above average kids recede back to mere mediocrity and are left in the dust by the perfect youth of Wheaton. Here, every kid is on the honor roll. Every kid is on a varsity sports team while simultaneously enrolled in a full load of AP classes. Every child does volunteer work. All kids go on missions trips to Third World countries. Wheaton, I’m convinced, was the seed idea and eventual model for the Truman Show. People here come to a complete stop at stop signs. They never honk. Road rage, if it happens to exist, which I doubt, is expressed with courteous smiles. Graffiti, at its worst, consists of eco-friendly chalk-drawn hopscotch squares on the sidewalk. Crime is nonexistent. I have a neighbor who once jaywalked in down town Wheaton. A week later with deep shame, conviction and remorse, he turned himself in to the cops. Being Wheaton’s only fugitive and living on the lam was not the life for him. His wife was embarrassed to see his photo on the wall at Wheaton’s post office.
Now, in my current life, adventure, risk and fun are but distant memories fading as rapidly as the possibility of me ever getting back to a 32-inch waist. I live in a culture where comfort is the highest aspiration and where risk aversion is the religion. Kids wear helmets in their strollers (I AM NOT JOKING). In Wheaton it is considered daring to try an imported tea. Wearing Sperry Topsiders without socks could get you honorably inducted into the Wheaton Adventure Society. Watching the Fourth of July fireworks without safety goggles is considered high risk and worthy of a feature article in National Geographic. In my former life as SBMM, kayaking in the Sea of Cortez was how I spent my free days and how I sought non-work related adventure. Now I attempt to get the adrenalin coursing through my body by mowing my suburban lawn and going mano to mano with dandelions. In my former life I used to listen to the phwoooh sound of exhaling whales as I ventured off-shore in my kayak. Now I listen for the sound of the sump pump in my basement cycling on, indicating that my life will not be disrupted by a soggy carpet and ruined cardboard boxes filled with stuff I can’t use but can’t throw away: the stuff which I think I’ll need the second I throw it away but since I won’t throw it away I’ll never need.
Back then when I was a practicing SBMM, on my days off, after returning to shore I would pack up my family and head out to a desert canyon up in the rugged hills minutes from our house. I would grill meat on an open fire, using locally gathered firewood , coyotes yipping in the near distance, a billion stars appearing overhead as the desert night air cooled to jacket-requiring temperatures. Dried cholla cactus, mesquite and pin oak logs would make a hot, smoke- free fire and the ensuing perfect bed of natural coals on which to cook the steaks, chicken or whatever was on the menu that night. After eating, we would with our other SBMM friends and families, drink hot chocolate made with milk and real chocolate and with TED-Talk-intellect discuss philosophy, international politics and religion while our kids played in the desert or made S’mores on the glowing red coals.
In an attempt to recapture my SBMM days, I still do cookouts. Mesquite and cholla are not available to me here in the Midwest, so I have adopted the local customs. Now I use charcoal shapes that look like children’s building blocks with OSHA approved rounded safety edges which prevent them from being properly stacked. The idea is to get as many of them burning at once as possible. This is a complicated process which involves vainly attempting to stack the rounded shapes, then using whatever is available to blow on them once there is even a scintilla of imagined warmth in them. In the suburbs we use lighter fluid to get the factory-made charcoal semi-squares to light. The secret is to find the exact amount to use. Too little does nothing but frustrate by being almost enough. Too much, which always turns out to be the only amount that really works, leaves your burgers smelling and tasting like a BP oil spill in the Gulf. If and when you get a flame, that flickering mini-monument of hope, Frisbees, Tupperware lids, serving trays, my kid’s snow saucer , anything that is sturdy, thin and waveable can be used to fan the flame to maturity. This past summer in a stroke of genius I hauled out my leaf blower and used it to fan the charcoal into flame. My son said it was starting to look like a YouTube moment as he ran for his camera, but it did work.
When the charcoal is eventually lit I move on to other cookout related activities; things like picking off those pesky bits of paper stuck to the half thawed, gray colored, prefabricated burgers I will put on the backyard grill in between mosquito bites. Somewhere along the way, once the burgers are on the grill, I will decide that the coals need to be fanned a wee bit more. This usually results in a flare-up of the fire, which I will then have to douse in order to keep it from immolating the burgers like a Thai monk. The breeze generated by the superfluous fanning produces small tornadoes causing uncountable bits of ash to adhere instantly and permanently to the burgers. As the burgers cook, and just prior to them turning into anthracite, I have to run back into the house to get a large forgotten plate on which to place them once they are totally carbonized. Just before taking the patties, which by this time have become virtually indistinguishable from the fuel underneath them and shrunk to the size of dimes, off the grill, I put squares of factory made cheese on some of them and watch the corners of the cheese melt and drip into the bed of powdery coals. When enough cheese has sloughed off the meat and into the coals I take the patties off the grill.
Eventually we get around to eating; but instead of sitting with my friends next to a campfire which casts flickering shadows on the rocky walls of the narrow canyon in which we would have our cookouts, I now sit on the back yard deck and watch the neighbors over on their back yard deck as they watch me on mine. Watching my neighbors watch me is kind of like looking into a mirror when there is a mirror behind you – the reflections are infinite. Just like back in Mexico during the SBMM days we sip hot chocolate, although what we are drinking here in the suburbs is a watery chemical mix from Monsanto or Dow that comes out of an envelope and is stirred into hot water. The brand is Swiss Miss–which certainly has nothing to do with Switzerland, but the miss part is accurate. Some of the chemical packets actually contain desiccated, petrified marshmallow bits in them, which when rehydrated feel like bits of under-the-fridge-lint which taste like they feel. The kids, instead of gazing dreamily into the fire, making S’mores, or building forts in the desert, stare blankly at their phones, ear buds in place, drips of spittle drooling from the corners of their half-open mouths and, like cud-chewing cows, occasionally lifting their heads to emptily look around them before vacuously returning to their device and getting reabsorbed by what some marketing genius has pawned off as entertainment. If we have adult guests over, we talk about sitcoms or complain about how liberals are taking over the country.
In my former superhero role as SBMM, the sea kayaking I did was actually a major part of my work, not just something I did on my days off. I counseled a lot of drug addicts, couples with messed-up marriages, and countless lost souls seeking help, all the while paddling gently along in the remote, wild, unspoiled beauty of the Sea of Cortez. Expeditions, open ocean paddling, accompanying whales and dolphins, and exploring sea caves used to be my life. Now in Wheaton as I sit in my recliner and look out at my dreary world, I wonder where my former life went. The smile muscles in my face have atrophied, leaving me nothing but phantom pains. I have become my worst fear. I am just one more piece of middle-aged, middle-class mediocrity muddling through life in Middle America. I am Joe Backyard. “Gloom, despair, and agony on me. Deep dark……”