A Camel at the Bottom of the Ocean

One more time for good measure. I’m giving you yet another chapter illustration from Playing with Sharp Objects. I think this one comes from chapter 4. Curtesy of Michael Swearingen. A camel at the bottom of the ocean.

My wisdom teeth were removed during my sophomore year of college. I was twenty. The line that Michael used to inspire his cartoon above was something my Shakespeare professor told me. Dr. Peter Reed approached me on the first day of the spring semester. Students were sitting quietly, waiting for class to begin. It was 2000, so this was before iPhones. So everybody was staring at their feet.

“You’ve got puffy cheeks,” Dr. Reed told me in the thickest of British accents.

“I do,” I mumbled. “My wisdom teeth were just removed.”

“It’s so strange that we have no evolutionary use for wisdom teeth, isn’t it?”

The rest of the class listened to my quiet, awkward interaction with Dr. Reed.

Dr. Reed was one of my favorites. What an accent. He wrote books about Kurt Vonnegut – the two were good friends. He also gave me my first taste of plays like The Tempest and Hamlet. Dr. Reed died last year. He was an old man, but I felt sad all the same. He wouldn’t have known me from Adam. Or Eve. But he left an imprint on me, that’s for sure. Teachers always leave their mark. For better or worse. That’s part of what Playing with Sharp Objects is about, I think.

I met Dr. Reed when I was 20. I didn’t really know what I was doing back then. Do I know any better now? Maybe. Maybe not.

As with the other chapter illustrations I’ve been writing about, I love Michael’s image above. We see a camel. It walks into a body of water. We see it standing on the bottom of what might be an ocean – it may as well be in the desert – surrounded by empty space. What a cool transmutation of the way I felt when I was 20. A clueless traveler surrounded by a confusing universe.

***

I got pretty good at teaching Hamlet. It was the text I started with in a 10-12th grade dramatic literature elective. I always followed Hamlet with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. A brilliant play. Stoppard’s work is a deconstruction of Hamlet that imagines the source material through the eyes of two minor characters. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead extends from the joke that the only thing we really know about Ros and Guil, in reading Hamlet, is that they both have die. There’s very little else to go on. So Stoppard’s tragicomedy follows two hopeless characters as they try to make sense of their enormously irrational, doomed appearance in Hamlet.

Time and time again, Ros and Guil are referred to in Stoppard’s play as travelers. They only know that their name was called, they arrived in a confusing situation (Elsinore), and they are bound for somewhere (death).

I love the way the play captures the fragility of their lives. They are born. Given a name. Get swept up into a story they can barely make sense of and, without much explanation, are killed by the King of England. There’s universals here. We are born. Given names. We get swept up into histories and narratives that were rolling long before we got involved. The only thing we can be sure of? Death.

Talk about heavy.

But this reminds me of Michael’s drawing above. A traveler. And just when that traveler thinks they’ve figured something out – the camel enters the ocean – they find themselves more confused than ever.

Poetry.

***

I’ll stop writing about the chapter illustrations in Playing with Sharp Objects soon. It just feels right to decompress after writing three books about growing up. Weepy books, at that.

I did two things last week that were out of character. First, I changed a light switch. You should’ve seen my hands shake as I twisted wires, even after I’d shut the power off. Katie laughed at me as she positioned the flashlight on her phone so I could see what I was doing. Next, I changed the propane tank on my grill. I still can’t believe I didn’t explode.

These might not seem like impressive tasks. But I had little in the way of training as a child. Read the memoirs if you don’t believe me. The Weepy Memoirs. I’ve figured most things out on my own. And the idea of changing a light switch or replacing a propane tank terrifies me. So do most adult tasks.

I’m 38. I can see a bald spot forming. My belly is bellier than it used to be. I get tired more easily than when I was 33 or 28 or, Dear Lord, 20, sitting across from the recently deceased professor who prompted this blog. Time passes. You can’t stop it, fellow traveler.

So I guess there’s no way to avoid it. I’m turning into more of an adult who does more adult things. I’m a child inside, to be sure. I giggle harder than my boys when they scream penis at the top of their lungs. But I also change light switches.

Two crazy things happened in State College last week. First, a teacher at a local elementary died in her sleep. She was 38. She got sick, stayed home from school for two days and didn’t wake up in time to call a substitute on the third day. She never made it back to her classroom. Pneumonia. Yikes. Next, a young black man was shot by the police. He was mentally unstable. His father called the police to check on him. You can imagine how things ended. I can’t believe how little media attention this killing is getting around here. Again, yikes.

These are two adults stories, for sure. Travelers traveling along and then yoink. It’s all over. Get right with Jesus, friends. Or something like that.

The last few weeks have been a blur. I’ve had visitors in town. I’ve been busy with work and improv. I have a major article due at the end of the week, classes to teach, and I’m directing a freakin’ musical. Good Lord. I just want to sit on the couch with my two boys and play Mario. But the adult world keeps calling. A world of work, of people clashing with people, of pneumonia and racial violence.

I don’t have a tidy moral this week. I can only say that Michael’s drawing feels right. It captures 20, yes. But it gets at being 38 too.

A camel at the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by confusing, open space.

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