Monday, March 15, 2010

Asleep in Perfect Blue Buildings

I love Tim Coates. More particularly, I love Tim Coates's English teeth. They remind me that life at lived at 72 degrees Fahrenheit is not normal.

I'm sitting in the dentist's chair this afternoon while he's pounding away at No. 14, an upper molar that had a root canal and now needs a crown. The television screen in the ceiling is turned to National Geographic (only because Fox Soccer Channel's friendly between Brazil and Ireland had its signal blocked). The first program was The Dog Whisperer. The second turned out to be an expose of the Crop Circles that tend to show up in late summer in Wiltshire, an English county home to Stonehenge and other various covens and societies. So, this program is trying to figure out whether these crop circles could actually have been made by humans. Enter Tim Coates, mathematician at Imperial College, London, who has designed an intricate geometric design which will be given to the Crop Makers (They use capital letters to describe themselves) to duplicate in a field of rye one summer night. As he's explaining the geometry involved in creating the design, he smiles, and I burst out laughing, just about skewering my tongue on the drill. His teeth are brilliant. One front tooth crossed slightly over the other. A leaning picket fence occupies the bottom front six spaces on his mouth, as if a horse has leaned against it, and the slats gave way under the pressure. What a wonderful, delightful set of English teeth.

I always know where a film has been made by looking at the extras. Say, for example, there's a medieval battle scene, with badger-fur clad Picts dashing across supposed Scottish moors, faces painted blue and hair strung with chains of bones and bits. For a few seconds, there'll be close-ups of the hordes. If I see in the mouth of extra no. 25 stage left of Celtic general a set of perfectly matched ceramic veneers, all ivory-colored and each fit together with the precision of an Italian stonemason working in granite on the Cathedral of Siena, then I know the movie's actually being shot in Canada, or some Pennsylvanian countryside. If, on the other hand, I see in the mouth of extra no.25 stage left of Celtic general, a gap between the front two teeth, with one yellowed incisor and one chipped, and a lower set that includes at least two out of alignment, then I know these Picts are running across bona fide English, or at the very least, European moors. One doesn't ship in American extras; maybe American leads, but not extras.

You see, I have the same set of teeth as bona fide European extra no. 25 and mathematician Tim Coates. The top row is near to perfect, with a little graying on one bicuspid from something I took to the face a few years ago. But, color variances aside, they are as perfectly straight a row of teeth as you hope to find in any American high school year book. On the other hand, the bottom row has one tooth which, as Seth said one day when he was about three and was taking a close look at my mouth, "Mom, that tooth's got no parking place." He's right. It's squished backwards at a slant, just like Steve Buscemi's top row, only it's my bottom. A boyfriend once said to me, in his good-natured Australian bluntness, "Your teeth are strange. The top is perfect and the bottom is all crooked." And just what do you say to that? Thank you? I hadn't noticed? My parents were too poor to afford orthodontia? Which they weren't. We just lived in a different aesthetic, one where a little crooked didn't spoil perfectly healthy, functional teeth.

I'm sitting in the balcony of our town's Tabernacle, in a church meeting of multiple congregations. Luckily, my sister Laura is sitting next to me. Ever since some ecclesiastical gerrymandering a few years ago, we no longer attend the same congregation even though I can see her bedroom window through the field when I sit in my office chair. But at regional meetings, our families find each other on the south balcony one row from the railing. Laura and I spend a good portion of the two hours talking out of the side of our mouths, eyes on the pulpit, shoulders pressed together, heads cocked toward the other so we can hear our conversation better.

This particular meeting, I'm counting lights in the ceiling and then wondering why the dust pattern in the air conditioning vents in the ceiling of this nineteenth-century beauty arranges itself in such consistent patterns, like a valance, down the center of each panel on each four-sided vent. Soon I will move onto examining the stained glass windows. The noise level is amusing, even threatening, and watching the congregation is like watching the seals at La Jolla Cove. There's never a still moment, always somebody up, walking, rolling, stretching, child running, mother sidling with reverently folded arms after the culprit who's making a break for the spiral staircase in the corner towers. Laura asks me why my head is tilted back at such an angle. I tell her "I'm counting, and soon I will try to calculate how many sermons these stained glass windows have heard."

Just then we hear the speaker talking about happiness being the beginning and end all of our existence. I make some comment about the problem with thinking that this life is supposed to be one long bout of happiness is that then you need uppers and downers to keep you consistently happy. Laura wants to make sure the description about being a plan of happiness is actually correct. We turn to the scriptural texts sitting on the pews. We find one reference to the "great plan of happiness." More often and consistently, whenever a plan is referenced, it is called "a plan of redemption" or a "plan of mercy." In other words, a saving plan, one in which we turn from wrong to right, and do it over and over again. At the center of the plan sits a Redeemer, one who buys us back from our wrongs. Underneath his presence lies the assumption that we will, despite our best intentions, get it wrong. We sit and think about the implications of casting this as a "plan of happiness" or even a malapropistic "plan of great happiness."

Our conversation goes something like this: "You know, there doesn't seem to be this great emphasis on happiness in the early generations." "Yeah well, they didn't expect to be happy. They were cold all the time, and if they tried to get warm, they got smoked out. They lost all their teeth, and some of their children, and died before age forty. And then the king took the harvest and threw them a bone." "So, I suppose when there was a good harvest or a child who lives past their first birthday, the party's on." "Yes, we'll dance, we'll eat, we'll worship the sun, and we'll lay gifts at the altars of the gods for the good fortune." "The problem with living now is that we don't even know what season it is. If you don't go outside, you would think that the temperature is 72 degrees all year round. That's normal. That's what you would expect . . . 72 degrees all year round in your life. No days, months, years where things are just rough . . . even bad."

We sit for a while thinking about what your life would have to be in an expectation of constant happiness. "Straight teeth . . . ha!" We both stick out our bottom jaw to show our crooked ones. "No children would ever fail out of middle school because their homework's stuffed into the bottom of their locker." "All my chickens would still be alive instead of eaten by the neighborhood dog." "Adam would never shout, 'I hate you; everybody in this house hates you.'" "Our boobs wouldn't be down around our waist. No drooping upper eye-lid." "I wouldn't have to have a pacemaker right after I turned 40 and ran a marathon." "No miscarriages." "No bulldogs that pee on my carpets every winter." "No flooded basements." "Our kids would get asked to every dance by the cutest kids." "No dirt bikers on the hill behind the house for hours every spring afternoon." "No PMS." "No birth defects." Or, if you're Tina Fey, screenwriter and Oscar announcer, you'd get virtual actors who can be digitally manipulated on a computer screen without ever having to interact with them in the flesh. In other words, "No hurricanes, no earthquakes, no tsunamis. Just 72 degrees, balmy with a slight breeze. . . . And a pool boy."

We start laughing. The idea seems ludicrous. That you could expect to live your life at 72 degrees every day, that it would contain all of the good and none of the bad. How would you know then that the good is good, if there is no bad? What if, just to throw you for a loop in your air-conditioned life, you encountered really rough, just really, really rough? Sort of like Matthew's rain that falls on the just and the unjust. You'd have to medicate to get that 72 degrees feeling because you'd feel like your life is seriously, egregiously, God's not keeping his promises, out-of-whack.

In an artistic composition, the contrast between values serves to focus a viewer's attention. (Value is the whiteness or blackness of a color). Our eyes perceive the world via values. If there is no contrast, there is no picture. Contrast is most evident when black is next to white. On a painting, the area where the darkest dark and the lightest light come closest together is the most visually attractive. The greater the difference, the more attention the area attracts. In life, just like in art, the most interesting part is the part where dark meets light. That's the place where the eye begins its journey around the piece. That's the intersection where our eyes and hearts linger, where our minds mull, where we know the light, looking out or back to or even from the dark.

We're sprawled in the living room reading at seven in the morning. It's a verse I've read and heard many times before, only I thought it said "there must needs be opposition in all things." I've thought that to mean that in every encounter there's a good versus bad dichotomy, or, if there is no easily identifiable good and bad, there's another choice that serves as the opposition to the path you choose. But, I notice this morning that it actually reads, "There must needs be an opposition in all things." The language strikes me differently that morning: "an opposition" present in all things, something against which my experiences can lean so that I can see the difference. Experience that allows me to know good from evil, dark from light, joy from sorrow, pain from peace. Without the opposition, or contrast, I don't have a way to know that I know. If there is no dark, there is no way to know light. If there is no sorrow, there is no way to know and appreciate joy. If there is no heartbreak, there is no way to recognize and sink into peace.

There is nothing more beautiful to me than a perfectly calm spring day in the Rockies spent at a noon soccer game. In the background, the mountains are still covered with snow, which is brilliant white against the blue. The grass is spring green. The sun warms my shoulders through my long sleeve t-shirt. The boys are eager to play from the off-season and we've trained hard for this game. We do the cheer in the huddle, their fists clenched, their gap-toothed grins looking up at me. "Play hard, Play clean, Pride." They sprint onto the field. During the game, Niles manages to execute the ball fake he's tried over and over again at training to perfect; from center back Grayson distributes the ball up the right wing and the left wing rotates to cover as Grayson provides the drop. Adam sprints away from his defender into the open space of the corner to which Josiah has sent the ball. Cross back to center, Jake's running in, finds the ball in the air and delivers a strike that is . . . stopped by the goalie. Perfect. Great ball movement, great attack, great defense. Just perfect. It doesn't get much better than that.

How do I know? Because just yesterday, I sat huddled underneath the suggestion of an umbrella on ice cold bleachers clad in everything I could find in the car, including a really ugly Denver Broncos beanie and one glove, in a freezing, driving sleet storm, watching Christian play. There is nothing worse than spring soccer in the Rockies when winter decides to reappear. Those days are bad, just downright bad. They're "one of those good, miserable, days" that I know will be mine because we live where we live and our boys play soccer. But, the whistle blows after 90 minutes, and after a few hours, we're warm again.

So, when that perfect spring soccer day shows its face, I know. And the knowing is all the sweeter, knowing what it could have been and still might be.

Title: Counting Crows, "Perfect Blue Buildings."


  1. This morning the sun was bright and clear (remarkably, in a blue sky, which we don't get very often in Ohio!), and perfectly silhouetted the neighbors trees. The grass was frosty, and it was indescribably beautiful--and perfect. Especially since the last 5 days have been miserable, gray drizzle. We must have an opposition so we can appreciate.

    Also--this thought just came wandering through--sometimes, opposition is a very good thing--opposable thumbs make life much easier--sometimes we need the opposition just to hold things still for us!

    Also, you made me wistfully miss my sisters who all live in other states. Be thankful she is so close.

  2. I love that image: opposition allows us to hold things still. It's true. Because something pushes against our lives, we find the point at which we want to come to rest. Without opposition, it's easy to be "tossed to and fro by every wind."

  3. I am teaching Book of Mormon in Seminary this year, and we just got to Helaman, where the cycle of Righteous/Blessed/Proud/Wicked/Humbled (rinse and repeat) really speeds up.

    I am trying to personalize and apply the lesson in my life--"Do NOT forget, when things are going smoothly, that it is A) Temporary, and B) all Blessings given by a loving parent, and not something I caused! Do Not Be An Ungrateful Wretch!"

    Sigh. Much easier to teach than to live!

    Also--There is the possibility that I may be coming out to UT this summer, and I wondered if we might possibly do lunch or something?

  4. This is brilliant! I love loved it. The first bit about teeth made me laugh and laugh, too.

  5. Prism, would love to do lunch or something.