Monday, December 12, 2011
The Puppy That Wouldn't Wake Up
Before my medical update, here is a short memory:
The worst day of my life was the first Christmas I can remember. My mother and father bought me a little puppy, the one I saw in the window of the pet store. They woke me on Christmas morning and told me to look under the tree. I was so elated to see the puppy sleeping there. I ran over to him.
“It’s your new puppy!” my parents chimed, but after a minute they saw tears in my eyes.
“He won’t wake up!” I cried. “Why won’t he wake up?”
“He's not sleeping?”
“No, he’s not!” I cried. “My puppy’s dead!”
Just kidding. That was me making fun of my tendency to tug at the heartstrings with old memories. This past Saturday, at a Nutcracker performance, a friend told me, “Your blogs are great, but I always cry at the end of them! Write something happy, will you?” She punched my arm and pointed a stern finger. “Something funny for the next blog. Got it?”
I have an appointment with a retinal specialist in one week. My neuro-ophthalmologist wants the back of my right eye to be examined more closely to make sure my current symptoms requiring an eyepatch are not anything more than the mouthful that is central serous chorioretinopathy. That will be next week. On Wednesday of this week, my testosterone level will be measured again. If it's still unacceptably low (as it was two months ago) my endocrinologist may switch me from AndroGel to needles in my stomach.
Well, that's not funny at all, so I'll do what I have been doing best recently: writing old memories as a way to reduce stress. I hope this is funny enough:
In the eighth grade, I was back in Michigan after a childhood in Mexico, Australia and Venezuela. Classes were canceled one week for an annual event my school called, “The Game of Nations.” All eighth graders convened in one large room and divided into five fictitious nations. Basic parameters defined our nations, but for the most part we were set free to do what we wanted, learning in real time about the complexities of diplomacy and how to make the world a better place.
“Can we assassinate people?” one student asked.
“Yes,” Mr. Price said.
Mr. Price was my favorite teacher in the eighth grade. He taught history, and under his tutelage I grew interested in the subject for the first time. He was sturdy and he wore blue blood on his sleeve, the pipe in his hand adding to the look. He walked in at 8am every morning in his tweed blazer and stepped over the tangle of students wrestling on the floor. He tipped his chin up before addressing us bookishly: "Good morning, gentlemen. Let's get started, please.”
At the Game of Nations, the teachers listed off specifics about our countries: GDP, agriculture, governmental systems and population. Mr. Price handed five sealed envelopes to each nation’s appointed Secretary of Defense.
“Arsenals,” he said tonelessly and chewed on the tip of his pipe for dramatic effect. “Top. Secret.”
I was part of Nation One, and we soon found out Nation One had an added wrinkle. A teacher sectioned off a quarter of us—myself included—and she drew a sixth landmass on the giant map in the room.
“Colony,” she said. “You’re part of Nation One, but you’re settlers.”
“Okay,” we said.
The game started. The teachers left us alone for a week. We didn’t quite enter “Lord of the Flies” territory, but we flirted with it.
“Nuke ‘em! Nuke ‘em! Nuke ‘em! Nuke ‘em!” chanted one of the students. He shouted this war cry all day, every day, for the entire week. His bellowing baritone voice bounced off the concrete walls and echoed while he inhaled another tank of air.
Our first task was to give our nation a name. One student cleverly composed: “Federal United Communist Kingdom.” The name eluded the teachers for a few days until he designed an elaborate poster calling attention to the first letters of each of the four words. (Please don’t look back.) The teachers intervened.
The other time a teacher intervened was when I brokered a deal between our colony and the mainland of Nation One. The way I saw it, we had everything to gain by moving back there. They had cities and we had bananas.
“You can’t go back!” the teacher told me sternly. Then she whispered conspiratorially, “We set it up so you would rebel against the mainland. Declare independence or I’ll fail you!”
Both my brothers were good with strategic war boardgames (in the days before video games) and as their little brother I picked up a few things.
“Let me see the arsenal,” I demanded of our Secretary of Defense.
“No,” he said.
“Lemme see it!” I pressed.
He said, “You’re not doing much. Get us foreign aid.”
I walked over to Nation Three.
“Can we have foreign aid?”
“Foreign aid. Give us money.”
“You know. Stuff.”
I walked back to our colony.
I devised my own two-tiered plan. Deception, then chaos. Deceive another nation into thinking we had a low arsenal, tempting them to attack us, then assassinate their leaders while unloading our real arsenal. Then I would figure out what to do next.
I typed a fake arsenal report and sealed it in an envelope like the one Mr. Price handed out. It read: “No ICBMs. Don’t let other nations know you don’t have nuclear capabilities or they will be stupid not to attack you.”
I went to the cafeteria at lunch. I wrote, “ARSENAL: MOST TOP SECRET” on the forged envelope and got in line for meatloaf. Upon sitting at the community table, I slipped the envelope under my tray and passed the lunch hour chatting with nemeses from other nations.
When lunch was over, I lifted my tray and pretended to forget about the arsenal report under there. Behind me I heard a skirmish followed by animated debate. As I walked out the cafeteria, a student rushed up to me.
“You left this by mistake and they wanted to open it!” he stammered. “I don’t want us to get in trouble.”
Foiled. My plan—whatever it was—foiled by a lone citizen with a conscience.
At the end of the game, we presented reports to the panel of teachers. One student easily stood out above the rest of us. All week he had been a case study of diplomatic industry, traveling between different nations, brokering deals, saving the planet and kissing babies. He even had a briefcase. When called to give his presentation, everyone applauded wildly.
“Thank you for that warm welcome,” he mused. Then he gave an elaborate report on the state of the world.
I was up next. Two or three students clapped lamely.
“Thank you for that warm welcome,” I mimicked. All the teachers—straight faces until now—cracked up in unison. That had always been my gift: charm the teachers even though I was a misfit amongst friends. They gave me a passing grade even though I obviously faked my way through the presentation.
Later in the school year Mr. Price dove into details about World War II. He played tapes of Winston Churchill’s voice on the radio.
"Listen to the tone quality," he instructed us. "Listen how the sound of a voice could rally a nation!"
The sound. As a budding musician, this interested me very much.
Then we were on to Vietnam and a parade of sobering photographs. Mr. Price brought in a television one day and showed us “Apocalypse Now." As our bodies grew and changed, the seriousness of the world out there evolved with us.
But eighth grade still was the year of wrestling matches, fist fights and a sport we invented called "Killer Ball." No rules, just fight anyone to score at any cost. We fought because we loved to. We punched one another so hard our arms turned red. And we loved receiving punches, seeing how much our stronger bodies could take. But at every turn Mr. Price was there showing us what war really looked like. It was our world; we had the power to do anything but there were consequences, bad and good. Perhaps influenced by this, some in my class have already gone on to shape the national debate on certain issues. Aim high, Cranes and Aardvarks! (Our school motto and mascots.)
At my high school’s 25th reunion last summer, I met Mr. Price once again. I would not have recognized him had someone not directed me to the man bent over in a wheelchair. But once I kneeled by him the teacher I knew appeared. I jogged his memory by telling him I played the oboe.
“Oh yes,” he remembered. “You spent a lot of time on that back then.”
“Still do,” I replied. “Professional now.”
He nodded. If the pipe had been in his hand he would have bit on the end of it to mark the moment. Another one of his students, he thought, somewhere in the world now.
I added, “You were an important teacher to me.”
“In seventh grade I was coasting, too erratic. You showed me the value of honest research and how to construct a compelling argument. Thank you for that."
“Well, you just made my day,” Mr. Price said.
I hugged him goodbye. As I walked away I kicked myself for forgetting to mention the most interesting thing I took from his classes, the passion he had for the sound of Winston Churchill’s voice and how it shaped the texture of a world at war. My history teacher may have been my first great music teacher, actually. Musicianship begins with a passion for sound, identifying and curating iconic sounds.
As it turns out, this memory wasn't as funny as I had originally envisioned. I guess I'm just a sentimental kind of guy.