Evan Nichols, 2011

Hope springs eternal in the human breast.

Man never Is, but always To be blest” 

— An Essay on Man, Epistle I, Alexander Pope

King Norman’s, with the little cartoon crown above the ‘i’ on the green awning out front, was a tall, skinny shop. I picture it squeezed between two other buildings in an almost impossible arrangement, as if it was only visible to the believers. King Norman’s was special partly because it was in The City. Also because of its crowded shelves, with more toys than I could dream up. My favorite thing of all, cheap and simple, was Super Pinky — a bouncy ball the color and texture of a pencil eraser, soft and a little squishy, not hard and glossy like other super balls. Big enough that I could just get my hand around it. It bounced well, with a solid, confident thud and a high return. I can’t remember if I had more than one, or if several Christmases led up to my receiving one precious Super Pinky, but I do recall that greedy yearning building up inside, taking up space and air almost like a sickness, blocking out everything else. Of all the dazzling gadgets and gizmos and shiny boxes, I wanted Super Pinky. Even the stuffed animals — plush beyond plush, as if touch should be doled out carefully, or else either my hand or the stuffy would melt — did not captivate me as much as the simple pink ball. The bigger boxes with scary price tags hard to comprehend were off limits anyway, and there was no resentment or longing about them; they were just clearly, obviously out of reach.

The funny thing about my desire for this ball is that I wasn’t athletic at all – no eye-hand coordination to name just one of many flaws. I usually ran away from balls. And in our family, things had to be useful. If somebody really wanted something, a fair question would be, “Well, what are you going to do with it?” I don’t remember what I thought I’d do with Super Pinky. I just wanted to have it. My two sisters, one older and one younger, were much more coordinated and sporty than I, maybe because they competed so fiercely, or they competed because they had abilities worth asserting and proving. In dodge ball at school, I often stayed in almost all the way to the end, not because I was any good; because I was so easy to hit, it wasn’t even fun to aim at me, so people left me alone.

I wanted to have the ball. And a ball like Super Pinky is meant to be bounced. But once it was bounced, it would get dirty, and be less perfect. Would I still want it then? I wanted it perfectly pink, clean, soft, and I wanted it bouncing. “You can’t have your cake and eat it”. I used to hate that expression, because I didn’t get it and so thought it stupid. Of course you’re going to eat the cake if you have it! But once I did understand (and this took about twenty years), I found it the truest, best wisdom. Of course, once you eat your cake, you don’t have it anymore, but you miss having it before you, not yet eaten. It’s really the wanting that we want.

Where in my childhood home would I bounce a ball? Most floors were covered in carpet. The messy luxury of a big old Victorian home – privilege that I took for granted and that wasn’t comfortable. It was purchased cheap, my mom doing most of the labor, including electrical and plumbing, to get it into decent shape. My mother I also took for granted, who devoted her time and energy to her kids, coming up with all sorts of creative projects and games and outings and adventures, who sat with us while we did our homework, who cheered us up tirelessly from any school slight, fright, or failure. Who never judged, or did so only very subtly, in ways that made us just want to be as good, kind, patient, smart, and fun, as she was. Much later, she would say, “I could have dusted, or I could have played with you. I decided not to dust.” Raising three girls, each two years apart, with an aloof husband who worked long hours and couldn’t be bothered to learn the names of our best friends, must have been a big job. So we had grime on the floor and dust bunnies under the couches. A huge, dark living room covered in ‘oriental rugs’ that we never used except for Christmas day and grown-up dinner parties, where we kids would maybe serve hors d’oeuvres and then hide out in the kitchen or the tiny downstairs TV room.

The kitchen floor could have been a place for a pink bouncy ball, but it would too easily knock down a plate or cup on the counter, or end up under the ‘Hoosier’ (named for the ‘hoosier state’, Indiana). This was a huge, clunky old cabinet with tall cupboards on top, one wide gaping center where a machine used to sit, something for making flour, and below, small drawers that stuck. Clamped to the front left corner was ‘the grinder’, an old tool (originally for corn) where we kept pens and pencils. There was always someone urgently shouting, don’t turn the handle! to prevent the writing instruments from getting pulverized. After broom work to rescue a ball from the dark below the hoosier, it would come out covered in dog hair. The only other rooms without carpeting were bathrooms. Outdoors would be the street. I do remember playing “Oliver Twist” against the neighbor’s Mondrian-like garage wall from the box-like modern house when the neighbors were out. Who in this day and age would hang out in someone else’s empty garage with no fear of reprisals?

I don’t recall whether all three of us got Super Pinky’s in one year, or  I was the only one who wanted one. My parents were very careful about being fair. Did I fondle mine and hold back from bouncing it longer than my sisters, so theirs got grubby and I could show off my pristinely rosy one? Like the way my older sister would slowly lick at her once-a-week Ghirardelli chocolate square, wrap it up in paper towel, and torment my younger sister and me the next night, when ours were long gone?

I probably did not have a clear idea of what use the ball would serve.  There was something special about that simple, unpretentious toy. I think the object itself carries an intrinsic charm, in addition to all of the complex nostalgia attached to it. Even now, when I see one that looks like it (none with the same wonderful name, though) I get an instant flashback to the air-sucking greed, and along with that, something about the pure innocent joys of childhood. Do I mean pure and innocent, though? Not really. What’s pure and innocent about competing with sisters, treasuring something partly because you have it and someone else doesn’t, or wanting more than anything else the desire for something, which is always, inevitably diminished as soon as you get that thing? Maybe it’s the single-mindedness of the desire that I am nostalgic for, that at least on Christmas morning, when you carefully unwrap a package so as to prolong the tingly anticipation, and then the object of your focused yearning for months is revealed before you, joy is so all-encompassing and fierce that you feel this is all life needs to be, at least for one moment.

I was (and still am) a huge Mickey Mouse fan, and was drawn to just about any kitsch item with his likeness on it – mugs, tee shirts, posters. One year, when I was digging in a closet for something – winter boots, a missing coat? – I came across a hidden Christmas present, a Mickey Mouse bath towel. I knew it was meant for me, and felt queasy with disappointment that I had uncovered the secret early. That would ruin the whole delicious unwrapping ceremony, which I was forced to fake that year.

When I see my son reaching for a pink bouncy ball in a shop, and his face lighting up, I feel closer to him than at many other moments. Does that sound weird? Yet I have no patience for his object lust. He is a collector. He has to have not one or two Nerf guns, but every one in the line. Not one or two Lego Hero factory figures, but all of them. Once a collection is complete, he loses interest and moves on to wanting something else. The accumulation makes me sad. The fickleness makes me sad. I used to worry about how when he was little, he would have one favorite stuffed animal for just a few days or a week, and then he’d have another favorite. I thought that might say everything about who he would be in human relationships. I remember I let my stuffies take turns sleeping with me, so no one would feel left out. (Not much to do with who I am in relationships, I can tell you that, except maybe that I value fairness.) My boy is very decent in one central human relationship: his loyalty to me is humbling. He still offers daily hugs and tells me he loves me more than once a day. “Can I tell you a secret?” “What?” “I love you.”  I guess I want my son to appreciate what he has. I want, impossibly, for him not to desire what he can’t have. The hypocrisy of parenthood. We want them to be better than us. We don’t want to witness our same failures a second time, and wince with something maybe not entirely empathetic and loving, unless this is as close as we can get to empathy and love.  In both myself and my son, I see the tug between wanting to want and hating waste. Growing up, we were a thrifty household, and I still often ask myself, “Do I really need that or just want it?”

Stuff costs money. I want my son to understand that, because in my sheltered upbringing, I knew nothing about money. I knew that we had to be careful with it, and that we didn’t quite have enough not to have to think about it. Still, I’ve spent too many of my adult years learning to respect it enough just to be able to take care of myself. I wanted something different for my son. He gets an allowance, something I never had. He has to save up for the things he really wants. Sometimes I feel uneasy when he counts up his dollars and they don’t match a price tag (even though I often cheat on the tax and let that slide). I’m not convinced that a little boy should have to talk about needing one dollar and thirty cents more for a particular item. Does that take some of the magic away from the new toy coming home? The waiting makes it special, but I had that. It’s the taint of money that I worry about, but then again, I’m the one with a warped, still developing understanding of money, its power and its limitations.

I remember wanting badly other things besides Super Pinky. I had to have that teal blue body suit (maybe not called a leotard because I didn’t dance?) when those were in and everyone else seemed to have one. Did it have snaps across the crotch? I remember some did, so you could pee more easily, but those weren’t comfortable, or was it that they made your underwear a little lumpy in an awkward way? There was something inferior about that model, even though more convenient. After much begging, I did get the body suit; I think it even came from one of the fancier shops, maybe a dance supply store in our quaint little town, not the bigger, cheaper department stores where we usually shopped when we didn’t buy second hand. I found that I didn’t love it so much after I had it.  There was something imperfect about it. It might have been that the one they had left was sleeveless or short sleeved, when the others I saw around had long sleeves. I had to pretend enthusiasm and force myself to wear it.

I also had to have pants with rainbow stitching up one leg, the arc of the rainbow going across one butt cheek. I don’t think I ever got those, and it’s probably just as well.  One day I came home with a different pair of pants, second-hand from my friend Joan, and my mom was furious (well, deeply disappointed) when she found out that I had bought them from her. If Joan didn’t want them anymore, she should have given them to me, was my mother’s thinking. There was something wrong with my friend, but worse, with me, for being such a sucker and for coveting someone else’s stuff so much. I wore those pants with an accompanying heaviness from guilt, but I still loved them. I’m not sure how much the red stripes appealed to me in themselves – I have always loved stripes – or how much it was that they had belonged to blond, rich Joan, who had a white, fluffy dog that she brushed daily and dressed up in her baby clothes, whose mom drove a green Jaguar that somehow I knew was incredibly luxurious, even though I didn’t usually have any interest in cars.

There were two dresses that were special: both for graduations – middle school and high school. The first was canary yellow, with a white lacy top layer over the yellow, above the princess waist. It was light like custard and flowed like water. There was something that matched – a hat? A hair ribbon? I can’t remember now. And best of all, my mother made it from scratch. In my childhood fickleness, I didn’t want to have anything to do with the dress after the graduation party, and I don’t think that was only because a seagull dropped a very big, wet poop on it as we rode over to The City on the ferry. Somehow I was embarrassed by the color – how could I think sweet, light yellow suited me? Maybe no one else wore yellow on that day, so some peer pressure too affected my judgment, as it always did in spite of my adamant claims to the contrary (since I was unpopular, practically a loner, I had to convince myself that I didn’t care at all about what others thought.)

The high school graduation dress was white (that may have been a requirement) and with immense kindness and patience, my mother had let me pick out a Vogue pattern, which, like Julia Child’s recipes, had about 100 steps and too many different pieces. It was a beautiful, complicated, layered gown with puffy sleeves that tightened to glove-like sheathes just below the elbow, ending in little lace fluff around the wrist. Two different kinds of white on white, stripes I believe in the top half, and smooth from the waist down, with an outer layer –some kind of lacy or textured fabric –  hung over the skirt half. The white on white stripes were taken up again in the sleeves.  A high collar with more of the same lace was not so comfortable, and in pictures I see that it was the worst design for my skinny neck and tiny pin head. The dress tightened again just at or below the knees, where another lace fluff matched the wrists and neckline.  The dress wasn’t tight like a mermaid, but I seem to recall that it was a little hard to walk in.

It has taken me many years, far more than most people I know, to consider what clothes actually look like on me. I tend to love them as separate objects, appealing in textures or design, playful or original, regardless of the fact that I’m going to be wearing them. The complicated textures all in white of this dress somehow spoke to a controlled clutter aesthetic that has always appealed to me – my messy room full of treasures and imagination adventures, our unclean, dynamic home full of unfinished projects and lost toys, my need for patterns and then disruption of patterns. My mom made little jokey complaints then and years later, about the impossibly complex pattern and instructions. And I’m sure I felt bad about how hard she worked. Yet to see a beautiful dress emerge slowly, to try it on unfinished and then again when it was done, was magical, and prolonged the excitement. I don’t remember if the longer wait made the disappointment more poignant. I had more time to expect perfection, along with the incorrect notion that our actions, wishes, and input can actually make something more perfect.  As beautiful as it was, did I spend the days leading up to and during my graduation noting its each and every flaw? I don’t remember that. I do know that I loved that dress, and told myself I’d keep it forever, but maybe more as an art piece, something to look at and reminisce over. I did consider too that it might double as a wedding dress (because really, when else would I wear such an elaborate white dress? I put stains on white with great ease; I still do). Partly I was thinking that I’d not feel wasteful with my mom’s hours and hours of work. It didn’t cross my mind then that I’d outgrow the dress in a few years, not due to height, but girth. I’m not fat. I just grew up.

Growing up seems to be about wanting what we can’t have. I want the wisdom of age when I’m young and the energy of youth when I’m old; I miss a romanticized past self or imagine an idealized, future one. We want to be understood but also to surprise. We want to have our cake of identity and eat it too – stable, yet a wild ride, delicious, yet no harmful fat or sugar, an image that is forever before us and that we also eat up and then reinvent. There have been parts of my life when I was sure I was a solid, permanent self, and other times when I wasn’t confident that I’d wake up the next morning and recognize myself.  There’s the physical aging, which maybe after thirty years old or definitely forty, made me feel like a fractured person – on the inside I’m still the shy, nerdy little girl craving a soft pink bouncy ball, and the outside I can’t recognize as me: age spots, grey hair, bags under the eyes, fatigue even in the eyes. This discrepancy will only get worse, I know. There are the other times when I think my self is unpredictable and spontaneous, that I’ve been pushed by life into some exciting, new experience that will stretch me or bring out some other new, intriguing person. Then, a longtime friend will report with complete accuracy what I’m about to do, saying ‘You’re so predictable” with a warm but condescending giggle. One thing I can count on is never getting exactly what I want. I still want a pink bouncy ball, and would be thrilled to acquire one. But then it would sit on a shelf, collecting dust, and leave me deflated. Or I’d decide what the hell, I’m gonna play with it, while feeling too old and awkward, and it would get dirty, and leave me deflated. But not getting what I want is not a bad thing.

That bit from Pope[1] is one of my favorite expressions. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast./Man never Is, but always To be blest”. The saying connects to my notion that life is a Malthusian curve, which approaches a line, but never reaches it. Like an inverted whale’s back, in a graceful arc, it sweeps down towards the x axis and goes off with it to infinity, never quite touching. This connects to the cake you can’t both have and eat. Anticipation is everything. The very best moments in life are great because we look forward to them, and that split second right before we bite into the lush chocolate mousse cake, or kiss the man we’ve desired for a long time, or plunge down the freaky slope of a roller coaster — for those who find joy in that — that’s where bliss resides. As soon as the actual experience is under way, its death is also imminent; it also is never as good as we expect it to be. We hope because we aim to be ‘blessed’, to be perfect, to achieve; we keep aiming for this, always in a state of about to.  This doesn’t make me a pessimist, though. Somehow it just has me looking for the next Super Pinky, the next slice of cake, the next man who might break my heart but whom I’ll love with all of my self until he does.


[1] Apparently Alexander Pope went for walks with his Great Dane named Bounce.

©Sara Schupack, 2011

Sara Schupack enjoyed the East Asia Writing Project invitational in 1997 in Thailand. She has taught English in secondary and college classrooms, and currently is a doctoral candidate in education at University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is not in possession of a Super Pinky at this time.

 

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