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The Existential Resonance of the Temper Tantrum

2003-09-03 - 1:26 p.m.

Okay, so this entry was first going to be about the last episode of "Why I Don't Date," which wound up disappointing in about 26 different ways, not the least of which was the way in which Andra, La Best Friend, did absolutely nothing to help dispell the stereotype that behind every gay man is a woman with serious emotional dysfunctions.

But it's not.

Then, this entry was going to be about the genius that is Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, specifically about how actor Andy Serkis, director Peter Jackson, and perhaps the most brilliant team of CGI craftsmen EVER created the most complex character in the history of fantasy cinema. If Gollum had been done with make-up rather than with CGI, Andy Serkis would have an Oscar by now.

But it's not.

Instead, it's about what I like to call The Moment of Absolute Absurdity, which I was fortunate enough to experience today at lunch.

Spalding Gray sort of talks about The MoAA in his monologue, "Monster in a Box" (yes, I know that admitting to an admiration for Spalding Gray lumps me in with a certain kind of East coast intellectual, but I think he's really funny and sometimes touching, so bite me). He speaks about how, whenever there is a theatre piece that goes on for a long run, there is, at some point, a Great Unifying Accident, something totally unexpected that more often than not completely screws up the show that nevertheless unites actors, audience, and any and all tech people that happen to be observing that moment (because there are plenty of tech people who try their best to avoid watching a show for the 956th time, and who can blame them) in a moment that is utterly spontaneous and real, something every theatre artist tends to strive for. In Spalding's case, he talked about a moment during a run of "Our Town" at a very well known New York theatre (Spalding Gray played the Stage Manager, narrator of the piece) when a little boy on the stage, during a particularly moving monologue in which the Stage Manager contemplates life after death, projectile vomited all over the sets and a few of the actors, after which the only sound heard in the theatre was the joyous, schadenfreude-enriched laughter of a boy in the front row who had been dragged there by his parents.

That, my friends, was a Moment of Absolute Absurdity.

My own Moment of Absolute Absurdity (for the day, at least) happened today at Whole Foods. I had gone there for lunch, as I do almost every day. I had a copy of Jeanette Winterson's latest novel in my hand to read while I enjoyed my barbecued vegan wheat roast burger (yes, I am that guy). I lucked out in that I managed to score a table. I was sitting there by myself, trying and failing to keep barbecue sauce from dripping onto my book when I heard a scream.

It was high pitched, the scream of a child. But it wasn't a scream of physical pain. I knew there wasn't some deranged vegetarian in whole foods who had become so fed up with tempeh and portabello mushrooms that they decided to eat the next piece of meat they saw, namely a toddler. No, this was the scream of a child that was not getting it's way. Maybe it wanted a chocolate chip kashi bar when its mother was insisting on plain old vanilla. Maybe its father was so busy trying to choose between buying a quart of anti-oxidant enriched carrot juice or two pints of spirulina "super food" green smoothie that he wasn't noticing the pretty cow on an organic milk bottle that the child found so enthralling. Regardless of the reasons, this was a child who was not going to take things lying down.

I turned back to my book, figuring the parent would be able to shut the child up.

Oh no.

No, the parent could not.

The screams kept going on. On and on and on. They began to change. What was originally the slightly gutteral, vibrato, pterodactyl in a garbage disposal scream so common among the under 6 set became a piercing, sustained, Mariah Carey subbing in for a malfunctioning fire alarm sound, a scream so loud and high and long that I abandoned all my feeling of annoyance at a child that apparently couldn't be controlled by his parents and I nearly applauded, because that was a kid who was going to have a future in opera.

As this was happening, I noticed the other people around me, the UT students and the Capitol employees and the dreadlocked punks and the soccer moms (who, in particular, had a mixture of sympathy and smugness as they heard the noises), all of us wincing at the shriek, but at the same time turning our ears towards it, trying to determine what could possibly prompt a child to demonstrate his skilled imitation of the Emergency Broadcast System. I began to hear the whispers from other tables "What, is the kid getting stretched on the rack?" "Why can't his mother do anything?" "I hear this same kid is in here ever week and always does this." As we looked around to see if we could spot the offensive child, we noticed one another doing the same thing, and then the smiles started, and then the giggles. They were small and surreptitious; never would anyone, armani clad attorney or tattooed record store clerk, be so gauche as to laugh out loud at the kid. But whenever our eyes met, turning up the corners of our mouths so subtly, we were connected. All of us were in that moment, and we would all remember that moment when we had coffee with our friends later, or called our parents on the phone, or came home to our loved ones. It was ridiculous, something that couldn't and wouldn't be staged, yet something that had each one of us captivated, and connected, for a moment.

A Moment of Absolute Absurdity.

This was not, actually, my favorite MoAA, though. That came last summer, when I was sitting in the Penn bookstore doing my research project on sadomasochism. This was something very hard to do in the bookstore, but it was a place that had an endless supply of coffee and snacks and, unlike my apartment, it was air conditioned. However, doing this project in the bookstore meant having books spread around me with titles like "120 Days of Sodom" and "Between the Body and the Flesh" and "The Sadeian Woman." I was a bit bashful about these books, particularly when families would walk past. In my own head, I am as sexually liberated as they come, but in public, I still have something of the refined Southern boy in me.

So it was with Sade's "Philosophy in the Boudoir" in my lap, where no one could see the naked ladies on the cover or, for that matter, the name of the author, that I sat in the bookstore in a very comfy chair opposite a little girl, no more than 10, who was reading a children's book with her grandfather in the next chair over. The girl was very pretty, with bright, cat-like green eyes and an olive cast to her skin that she had inherited from her grandfather, who looked Middle Eastern. She and I were both wrapped up in our own little book reading worlds, barely conscious of each other.

Then came the kids. Loads of kids, all of whom were junior high age, 7th or 8th grade. I eventually figured out that they must have come on a school trip, perhaps to buy summer reading books, or maybe they were just relaxing in the bookstore after some Penn-affiliated program. There were dozens of them, all of them noisy, all of them inconsiderate, moving through the bookstore, talking about crushes and stupid teachers and sports and movies and all the other things that you and I and everyone else talked about back then.

They were annoying the living fuck out of me.

Eventually, a group of them sat in the chair next to the little girl, on the opposite side of her grandfather's chair. The three chairs were angled in such a way that the grandfather didn't notice the kids in the other chair. And yes, I said kids. There was a group of six or so of them, some standing, but there were two in the chair itself and one on each arm. The one on the arm closest to the girl was actually more on the little girl's chair than on the communal chair. She began sliding over slowly into the little girl's space, puching the cushion in the back of the chair further and further over, until eventually the little girl was scrunched up into a corner of the chair.

I looked at the girl, barely able to read her book because of being smushed by this loud, older child. And she looked at me. And we smiled. And we giggled. And we burst out laughing.

The laugh brought her grandfather out of the book he was reading, and he yelled at the older kids to move away so that his granddaughter could have her chair all to herself. But it was too late to stop the moment. The moment that connected me and that little girl, with her pretty eyes and missing baby teeth and her laugh, had come and touched us both.

A Moment of Absolute Absurdity.

These moments are crazy, and they don't happen often. But when they do, you realize that you're alive, and in the world, and that there are all these people experiencing the same crazy things that you experience. I wish these moments happened on the battlefields. I wish that whenever two armies lined up to slaughter one another one general on one side would let out a big, loud, stupifyingly disgusting fart that would leave both sides convulsing with laughter, because you can't kill someone after that. I wish it would happen in diplomatic meetings. I wish that during a meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians, or the Indians and the Pakistanis, or the Chechens and the Russians, a pigeon would fly through a window, land in the middle of the desk, crap, and fly out. Suddenly all the ancient grudges and the needless killing would be revealed as just as absolutely absurd as a pigeon crapping on a desk during a tense diplomatic meeting.

In the meantime, I'm going to hope that the little kid puts on an encore performance sometime next week, with a whole different group of people there. I saw him in the parking lot, still screaming, slung over his father's shoulder. He screamed all the way to the car. Everyone stopped and stared, and talked about it and laughed about it, sometimes with complete strangers. Actually, forget about him coming to Whole Foods again. That kid needs to go on tour.

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