Originally published in Molehill Journal, Vol. 4
You feel like a Cartoon Eskimo alone on an ice flo, floating in the Arctic Sea. The temperature drops, the wind picks up, and the memories roll in: a Cartoon Family around a Cartoon Fire with plates of Cartoon Whale Blubber. These pictures float out of your brain in cloud-shaped, flat, black and white, pen and ink thought balloons.
But really, you are not that Cartoon Eskimo.
You have been working long hours, haven’t had time to see friends, have drunk too many late-night PBRs, and you feel like your family–for whom you are giving everything you can muster–is drifting away from you.
The adventures, nobilities, and sacrifices of others move you, even when they’re not all that adventurous, noble or sacrificial. Once the wife and kids are asleep, and you are alone with the TV, you cry over cheap stories with ridiculous sentiments. You press pause and the tears run down your boring, human cheeks.
The Cartoon Eskimo is, you think, a Better You. First, he is an Eskimo, which is way better than a white man. (You never imagine Alternate-You as a white man. White men suck.) Eskimos–though you know little about them–bear faces of dignity, and have twenty-seven words for “snow.” It makes you wish you knew any one thing so well, and not just that you knew it, but that you shared that knowledge with others who also knew it twenty-seven different ways.
You google “Eskimo words for snow” and discover that it’s not exactly like you were told when you were young. It’s more… well, linguists think it’s a bit of a charade. Americans have a lot of words for water if you count, you know, “liquid,” and “estuary.” You speak English. English is as boring as being white, as boring as the cheeks your tears run down when you cry over made-for-TV movies from the eighties. Liquid? Estuary? You know those words. They’re not magical. You find yourself worrying about the bond that unites real Eskimo communities, about the solidarity of real Eskimo wonder… but it’s okay. You are a Cartoon Eskimo, and so you close the window. With the facts gone, the cold winds and frozen sea return.
Besides, you are not short on reality. You are rent from The Cartoon Eskimo Dream every morning. Cups of coffee, morning meds, and emails marked unread make a merry-go-round of dizzy to dos and disabled dreams. You are so hot with pedestrian concerns you can’t stand up straight, and you feel nauseous from the spinning in minutes. Roller coasters are fun, but you’ve always hated spinning rides, and–while you secretly pine to be just a little bit sexy–you know that no one looks sexy when they throw up from dizziness.
Most of the time, you fend off all of this–including The Cartoon Dream–so you can punch the clock, and provide for your family. It’s not just the money. You try to be a good dad, a good husband. You mark the bridge before the right turn into your neighborhood as the place where you shift gears. You change the economy in your head, and prepare to be excited or sad for your family’s excitements and sadnesses, and most of your days orbit around the goal of making a good, safe place for your family. That’s all, really.
The other day, you lay on your daughter’s bed–she was home from school, sick–and you explained that she should not fear the argument she heard you have with her mother last night. You know she heard because you asked her, and you know she was troubled by it because her answer was to look at the wall and sketch out a small, short, head nod as if her using actual words might cause the pain of it to return. You explained vows to her, the idea of “til death do us part.” Have you heard of that? No, she said. Well, your mother and I stood in front of hundreds of people and said that, even if we argue, there is no number of arguments that will tear us apart. We love each other through the fighting, sweetie. It’s our way of working out the problems we have, and we apologize to each other and forgive each other at the end. She listened intently, more than usual.
You notice how unlike an adventure this is, how conversations are slight, ephemeral things that slip through your dream-hungry fingers, and how this particular conversation clearly overstayed its welcome. At the end, she said, Okay, you can go now. Okay, you said, I love you, sweetie. I love you too, Dad. And then she smirked as she clicked her mouth and made a gesture with her hand like a closing door. She is six years old, and she tells you what to do.
You still want to be a rookie knuckleballer walk-on for the Saint Louis Cardinals, still imagine you have the determination and stamina to learn major leage pitching, despite that you never even played little league. And yet, here you are failing to get your daughter to listen to you talk about the marriage of her own parents for more than five minutes.
The adventure is happening with or without you, you schmuck. Your daughter did listen. Halfway through those five minutes of conversation, she said her eyes were watering, and she didn’t know why. She’s often that way with strong feelings. You know that. You know she keeps them to herself, that she’s easily overwhelmed, but that even little girls who keep their feelings to themselves sometimes spill a few out. You suspect you reassured her at a deep, scary, and lonely place where she wonders whether her parents will wind up like Andrea’s parents, divorced. She just learned about divorce last year, but you lay down next to her, professed your love for her mother, and explained vows. Who knows which of these moments are the ones she’ll never forget?
Same with your son, whom you taught, today, to hold a ball glove sideways: “No! not forward like that! Do you want to get a ball in the teeth?!” you belted. And then you said sorry, and he forgave you as he always does. You covered him with hugs, and kisses on the top of his head. You are far from perfect, and he’s getting old enough to see that, but he still wants to play catch with you, or a board game, or to tell you about the video game he’s been playing, one slow little-boy detail at a time.
Both of them love you, and their hearts are full of your face; their ears, of your words; and your boring workaday adventures are soaking them to the bone.
I’m not saying you can’t hike a mountain. I’m not saying you can’t take a trip. Shoot, I’m not saying you can’t train to become a cop. …Well, actually the police academy may have an age cutoff for applicants. You can look that up online. Point is you are swimming in a world of boring human hearts who tread water in private frozen seas, who yearn for the twenty-seven mysterious names of the harbinger of cold; who imagine themselves as cartoon-different for fear of their own impotence and insignificance; who apologize for their watering eyes when they know they are crying; who watch forensic crime dramas, PBRs in hand, and meditate on the dreams they’ve killed and stuffed in their trunks; who long for a shrewd investigator to find them out and call them to justice.
All of this is more normal than you can possibly imagine. I know you would rather be Bruce Wayne, Frodo, Jim Henson, or Abraham Lincoln. But remember Abraham’s Mary Todd, the anxiety she suffered, the rages she entertained. Remember the deep and lonely darkness of the Bat Cave, or how the Ring sometimes had the upper hand in Frodo’s fragile little Hobbit mind. Remember that Jim Henson sounded a little like Kermit the Frog in real life, and that there’s no way that was an asset in college, at parties with hot looking co-eds.
Say goodbye to your sweet Cartoon Eskimo. You are not floating away to your doom. The picture is wrong. You will take him home to his Cartoon Igloo, sit him down at his Cartoon Ice Table, with his family, friends, and tribal leaders (including Akkilokipok who has always irritated him and he can’t put his finger on why, exactly). You will listen as their conversation turns once again to the mystery of snow, that sticky, soft, quiet, nurturing, magical, halting, insulating, essential, rolling, cruel, velvety, icy, flat, stern, protective, kind, sweet, rough, deadly, warm, freezing, useful, foreign, familiar, moving, softly-descending, lying-smooth-and-quiet-like-a-blanket, made-by-God-for-his-people-below stuff that makes up the Cartoon Eskimo world.
You will whisper goodbye, and leave out the Front Door Ice Tunnel as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb their revelry. You will head back home on the Cartoon Ice Flo you came in on, and think about your daughter and the vows, about your son learning the baseball glove, and about how watersheds are systems of water, comprising brooks and streams and creeks, swollen by rainfall and wandering their way down the Tennessee valley, until they spill into the Cumberland River on their way to the wide, wild ocean; the ocean, where whales and seals swim and play, where hidden volcanoes and mountains lie, majestic and buried under miles of water which turns itself over daily underneath waves who lap at our shores in a never-ending rhythm, like a Bossa Nova.
You will close your eyes, and remember the rhythm of a Bossa Nova. You will decide to find out if the community center teaches Bossa Nova lessons. Your wife has always wanted to take dance lessons with you, and in sixteen years, you’ve never gotten around to it. You google “Bossa Nova dance lessons,” and find your phone.