I’m not always sure memory is my friend.
More often than I’d like to admit, a memory sponge lets loose and things I had hoped never to think of again come seeping across my forebrain (not an actual organ) slapping me with long-buried anxiety and shame forcefully enough that I am virtually living the grotesque moment yet again. In almost every instance, these dreg-fests remind me of miscalculations, awkward misunderstandings, cues missed, localized idiocy.
I would like to assume that opportunities for misunderstanding abound and that any of us can, at any moment, lack a clear idea of what is being said to us, asked of us, in store for us, likely to affect us. I’m not talking rocket science here; I don’t expect to understand anything about the Hohmann transfer orbit, for example. No, I’m suggesting that very simple initiatives can be confounding, if we are unclear on the concept.
What kid has not put up a sign, grabbed a few cans of lemonade from the freezer, found a crayon, and set up a roadside stand pitching cold drinks to passing neighbors? It seemed like a great idea to me, although I faced several impediments unique to my situation. I had neither lemons not lemonade and had no neighbors or neighborhood. On the other hand, I had a skill I hoped would stop traffic.
I pitched my sign on the side of the highway near a gravel turn-out.
Dissections 50 Cents
This where the lack of clarity on the concept came in.
I’d better start by assuring readers that I loved animals, would never knowingly harm an animal, did not set fires, did not hear voices that were only inside my head, had actual friends that were not provided by a taxidermist. I was a normal child in most aspects, a little dreamy maybe, gullible, easy to tease, but not unkind, certainly not cruel.
But, unlike the rest of my seventh grade classmates, I was fascinated with physiological systems and was very good at dissection. Our set of encyclopedias had beautifully detailed overlays, colorful diagrams that revealed the organs and skeleton of fish and mammals. I’d pored over those for years, so when the biology teacher dragged out the specimens soaked in formaldehyde, I could not wait to see if how real fish and frogs were put together.
It turns out that they are beautifully designed, miraculously designed. Ordinarily distracted and obtuse during instruction, I listened carefully as the teacher explained the procedure, hoping to avoid the sorts of mistakes seventh graders had been known to make. My penmanship was dreadful, but I had developed a steady hand while assembling model cars and in wiring the Progressive Radio Edu-Kit. I worked carefully and slowly on the frog I had been given, making sure that every incision was clean and precise, staying after class to make sure that every organ and system had been properly identified.
My diagram was beautiful.
I saved it and the next two, and, although the specimens did dry out and did shrink a bit, when covered with plastic wrap, they looked very scientific. I assumed anyone with a scientific turn of mind would celebrate my achievement and probably want to buy one of the three signed diagrams I had ready for sale. I may have been wrong.
I did set up my dissection stand and stood watching traffic go by for a considerable period of time before a car stopped, and a woman with two children pulled over. I can only guess at what she thought she was about to buy out of the kindness of her heart. She stopped short when she was close enough to read the sign advertising my craftsmanship, threw her hands out flat as of to protect her children from a collision, turned and walked away.
In that moment I understood that my understanding of the human condition was incomplete. I was mortified, embarrassed by my own idiocy, and filled with remorse that frogs once alive had become my shabby specimens. I got through the rest of the year in Biology, but whatever impulse I had once felt toward further work in the sciences had been removed entirely.
In the course of a bumpy lifetime I have made more consequential misjudgments, certainly injured more people, and probably damaged the universe more profoundly, but I recognize in this stunning folly just how disconnected my sensibilities were from those of humans properly considered “normal”. The only dissection I allowed myself from that time on was the bloodless dissection of sentences. I still marvel at the intricacy with which life begins and is maintained, but there’s no need for me to take it apart.
I pull over when I see a lemonade stand, a brownie or cupcake stand. I’ll buy whatever they’re selling, maybe a few extra, hand them more than I owe and tell them to keep the change. Their product may not always be entirely edible, but at least they are clear on the concept.