“Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.”
Surgery is not a delicate process. My left arm was flayed open, from the wrist to the middle of the forearm, and a surgeon was sawing my left ulna in half. The electric whirl of his saw produced a lower octave once it started eating away at the bone, much like a bandsaw does when it bites into wood. Burning enamel, iron, and some brand of iodine percolated in my sinuses. The doctor then jerked at the bone, pulling it up towards the shredded ligaments he intended to stitch together. All I felt was a slight pressure and tingle; my left arm was bound and anesthetized from the shoulder down. But I was awake. And I could see the surgeon fighting through the red and white goop of muscle and bone.
“God, his bones are weird,” the surgeon said to a nurse as he tried to jam my bisected ulna into the right place.
He then looked down at me and it’s him and a bright white light and I could tell he was giving me a “no offense about your goofy bone structure” smile behind his green mask. He was right about my wrist’s odd composition (a knobby and ill-fitting joint, passed on from my mom’s side of the family that my dad has dubbed the “carnival gene”). But, for a moment, the surgeon must have forgotten I was awake.
“We’ll make it work,” he said with a wink.
It was my third surgery (the first on my wrist), and all of them were because of football’s capricious brutality. Though this time I was fully conscious for the roughened tedium. And this newfangled process was as thrilling and horrifying as watching an autopsy for the first time.
There were about ten more minutes of cutting and shoving and more sawing. The surgery was such an indelicate process, a total departure from the careful and meditative flourishes you see on medical dramas and on dining room tables while playing the board game Operation (I have a feeling my little red nose would have been glowing amidst the electro-buzz screams indicating an imprecise attempt at Hippocratic glory). Yet such gore was what I wanted. At certain points in life, we need to have the veil of antiseptic passivity lifted. Regardless of the shocking imagery, I craved oneness with my biological workings, an intimacy I’d always eschewed. Sometimes, we need to dive into the sensorial sewage to remind ourselves that the world is rife with fecal waste and fertilizer and rotting flesh. And blood-stained bone saws.
“Get me the metal plate and screws,” the surgeon said to a nurse. A plastic tube inhaled pools of excess blood and the screech of a drill joined the procedural din.
* * *
Like most men, I love gross stuff. And, if my memory is correct, I always have. About two years ago, I found the decapitated head of a large crow in my backyard during late summer. I assumed the culprit was one of the many feral cats I have to chase from my backyard. It was about two in the afternoon. The maggots and hornets had already started their consumption. The crow’s eye sockets were empty and its beak was slightly agape, giving the poor creature a look of comical astonishment. So I picked up the crow’s severed head with a snow shovel (I didn’t ever find the rest of its body) and deposited it atop a mound of dirt between my garage and the neighbor’s. I placed a few shovelfuls of dirt atop the crow’s head, patted the mound down gently, and said a quick and silent prayer for the avian fellow (I had just finished Bernd Heinrich’s Mind of the Raven, so I was aware that birds of the Corvidae family [crows, ravens, jays, magpies, etc.] are the world’s most sensitive and intelligent birds and thus the crow was probably greatly missed amongst his mourning murder). Sadness, however, was quickly replaced by a totemic fascination.
Curiosity welling, I wanted to peek into the hidden world of death. I would desecrate the grave of the crow’s head in daily intervals, checking to see the effects of decomposition. After only three days, general rot, along with a colony of ants, had cleansed the crow’s head of feathers and most traces of black pigment (the end of its beak still had an obsidian sheen). I cupped the white crystalline object into my hand, blew away any trace of sticky black detritus, and placed the skull in a box that once housed my daughter’s shoes. I’ve never shown anyone the skull (it seems insulting to have fellow weirdoes gawking at the crow’s bones), and I’ve only looked at it a few times since putting it in the shoebox. When I peer at the bleached lattice that was once a living being, I fill the cavities where the crow’s eyes used to be with a first-person narrative of feeding chicks in a nest or picking at roadkill or some other harsh but tender snippet of animal existence. It’s a form of necromancy that is at once unnervingly strange and reverent. And it’s a process that started when I was about four years old.
As a preschooler, I used to cruise around my Saint Paul, Minnesota neighborhood on a green Kawasaki tricycle. On some perfect sunny day of yore, I came upon a baby bird on the sidewalk. It was pulsating and nude; its eyes were blue gobs that were too big and its beak was yellow and yawning and too small. A foul clear liquid came out of its mouth. Vulnerable little guy was obviously hurt. Ants were encircling it. It was alone and needed help. I was going to save it. Possessing the heroic purity of all four-year-old boys, I pedaled home with a power that was belying of legs that were mostly kneecap.
“Mommy!” I said. “There’s a bird on the ground and it needs help!”
We went back to where I found it. Its tummy sucked at the air like it was underwater. I hated how such gruesomeness, such cold and naked savagery, could rudely infect my block.
“We need to pick it up and make it better,” I said.
My mom looked up, muttered something about it being a baby robin, and crouched down to investigate further.
“It must have fallen from its nest,” my mom said. She put her hand through my hair. “I don’t know where his mommy is. But we can’t touch it.”
“Will it be okay?” I said.
“I don’t know.”
My mom ushered me back home, maybe with the promise of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. It was my first memory of death as a concrete thing, an uncomfortable thing. And a true thing. It was also my first memory of how the yucky cruelty of death must be approached with the necessity that is estrangement, lest it consume and corrupt a fragile universe. So the next time I rode by the baby bird it was just a dark stain. Then nothing at all. Pedaling and pedaling, I tried not to think about the mean and gross possibilities. The robins still sang their sad song when the sun was going down.
* * *
When I was in third grade, I saw a dead black cat nailed to the back of a church in my neighborhood. It could have been a small black dog; I was too unnerved by the matted fur and white quills of ribcage that jutted from its body to get a close look. It shook me, sure, but by the time you’re nine years old, the world has shown you plenty of its hideous undercarriage. As a way to combat the indignities of a gross and horrifying planet, the nine-year-old brain, with its hues of color painted in large and polarizing swaths, figures the best method of coping is to consume as much “yuck” as your $6.37 will allow (parents-be-damned). So I walked to the pharmacy, meager allowance in tow, and purchased the insurgency-posing-as-media known as Cracked and Mad Magazine. Crass potty humor filled the speech bubbles. Characters disemboweled each other with glee. And then I got into Garbage Pail Kids. Snot, warts, chainsaw wounds, flesh being stripped from bones; the butchering of a girly, wimpy group of characters who represented the “nurturing” contrivances of false cultural mores. It was fantastic.
As a grade-schooler, you’re just starting to see the adult (or “real”) world for what it is: condescension peppers every conversation with an authority figure; double-speak is the preferred parlance on the nightly news; manners and etiquette at the kitchen table are arbitrary at best, stifling and purposefully deceitful at worst. Cracked, Mad Magazine, Garbage Pail Kids, and all their ilk are the antithesis to the willful charade that is the adult world and their head-in-the-sand approach to reality. Hyperbolic and cartoonish as such media are, they are willing to show us the world for what it really is: nasty and mean. Those sentiments were exactly the defense mechanism I needed, so I gorged myself on it. The dead cat and all its heavy implications about the cruelty of our existence weren’t going to scare me anymore. Young boys aren’t attracted to gross stuff because they’re inherently deranged; they like gross stuff because the world is terrifying. Sometimes, the best way to react to the inclement fright of life is to not only embrace the fright but gleefully inure yourself to it. In my young life, the revolution didn’t start with a bang. It started when a black spy and white spy eviscerated each other.
* * *
Libby wanted to show me her vagina.
“Um. Okay?” I said.
I was seven years old at the time, playing with my Transformers (Megatron and Optimus Prime, specifically; my Optimus Prime only had one working leg after my friend Dan had broke it) atop the stump of a tree that had succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease in the 1980s.
“Let’s go into the alley,” she said, clawing at my arm.
Libby was about ten or eleven. Cute and tall, she had light brown hair parted perfectly in the middle and locked into two equally precise braids. Her legs looked comfortable and soft and totally different from my smudged sinew.
“Wait,” I said, looking down, clutching my toys. “What about my Transformers?”
She huffed and crossed her arms.
“Don’t be a baby. You wanna see it or not?”
I didn’t know. I was watery-eyed and ecstatic, embarrassed and overwhelmed. I vaguely knew of the “vagina” as a girl’s privates, but it was a secret and hushed thing, so mysterious and misunderstood that I couldn’t say the word without giggling. A part of me wanted to run and tell my parents (I wasn’t supposed to go in the traffic-clogged alleys of Snelling Avenue anyway). But I had also recently bragged to my friends at school that I had seen a “naked lady” in the pages of a Penthouse stashed under my dad’s bar in the basement. One spread in particular (it’s hard not to get punny here) left an indelible impression on my puerile brain. It depicted a brunette woman, hair teased and curled into a gargantuan briar, laying against a bale of hay, holding a bullwhip and doffing a cowboy hat. Her eyes were half-open and purpled by mascara; her lips red as a Corvette Stingray. Yet all of this was secondary, mere ornamentation for the image’s central motif. With the woman’s legs spread far enough to induce hip dysplasia, the rest of the cowgirl-in-a-barn affectations became vestigial. Her vagina dominated everything. It was hairy, folded, and intricate, much darker on the outer labia than her normal white pallor and contrasted even more so by the glistening pink in the deeper recesses. Complex and fascinating but seemingly crafted by an alien being. The woman’s vagina was beautiful. And absolutely disgusting. As a mostly asexual seven-year-old, I had to ask Libby…
“Why do you want me to look?”
“Because boys are supposed to like it, dummy.”
“I am a boy, Libby!”
But why didn’t I have an overwhelming urge to follow her? I had been taught that the “bathing suit area” was a sacred space, something to be hidden and protected. What was Libby’s deal, anyway? God, what if hers was hairy and all folded and gross, like the naked lady’s in Penthouse? Although I certainly wasn’t developed enough at the time to think it, why was Libby trying to dominate me with her proto-sexuality, a mental state so far ahead of mine that such shameless displays might as well have been in a foreign language? Perhaps, like all boys and girls, there comes a time, a distinct rite of passage, that transforms something “gross” into something that dominates your worldview. I guess that in every life there’s a defining instance, a coming-of-age experience, that morphs “yucky vaginas” into John Updike’s “sacred several-lipped gateway”.
“So?” Libby said, pushing my shoulder.
“I’m not supposed to go in the Snelling Avenue alley,” I said, clashing Megatron against Optimus Prime. “My parents would get really mad.”
She turned around and walked away. And I think she called me a “baby” again. Yeah, naked ladies still scared me a little. But Libby was way older than me, so she might have been on to something. Maybe the next Penthouse vagina would seem a little less…intimidating.
* * *
Here are some random things that I love, even though they are indisputably gross:
Batman, issue #399: It took me two years to work up the nerve to buy this comic book. On the cover is a decapitated and shrunken head (the shrunken head was also the color of a rotten apple and had its eyes and mouth sewn shut). Next to the head is an axe, an axe pretty much anyone would conclude was the weapon used to cause the aforementioned decapitation. Batman fighting an axe murderer who chops off heads and shrinks them? Wow! Terrifying and thrilling stuff! At the age of ten, once I paid my two dollars, I was trembling while I pried the issue from its plastic bag. Could I handle the horror? Would I run from my room screaming and have nightmares about axe-wielding lunatics for the rest of my life? So I dove in…and loved it. Batman (of course) kicked ass, justice prevailed, and I felt like a champion, baptized in the fires of the macabre.
Men’s bathrooms: At the Triple Rock, a punk-rock dive bar in Minneapolis, there are two places to take a leak. Using the words of Sideshow Bob from The Simpsons, both would qualify as a “dank, urine-soaked hellhole.” I couldn’t be happier in them. Dive bar bathrooms are one of the last acceptable refuges of grossness. They are places of unholy defecation and bad aim, places where the phone numbers of slutty women are next to scrawlings of giant phalluses that just so happen to be next to band stickers touting the musical talents of Gay Witch Abortion. Limericks above the urinal espouse the many talents of men from Nantucket. Sanitation and social decorum are kept at bay like a vampire from a crucifix. The Triple Rock bathrooms are a safe haven from a cultural onslaught against the recognition of base desires. It’s a microcosm (made manifest) of my brain’s devious troublemaker; his repressed obsessions, whether they be bawdy jokes or raunchy graffiti, can come up for air in places like this. And that air smells like total shit.
Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: A book that is about a group of scalp hunters killing pretty much everything in sight. An “anti-Western” to the core, Blood Meridian dispenses with the romantic notions of westward expansion in America and instead details the gory underbelly of Manifest Destiny. Here’s a passage picked at random:
“He rode back to the camp at the fore of his small column with the chief’s head hanging by its hair from his belt. The men were stringing up scalps on strips of leather whang and some of the dead lay with broad slices of hide cut from their backs to be used for the making of belts and harness. The dead Mexican McGill had been scalped and the bloody skulls were already blackening in the sun. Most of the wickiups were burned to the ground and because some gold coins had been found a few of the men were kicking through the smoldering ashes. Glanton cursed them on, taking up a lance and mounting the head upon it where it bobbed and leered like a carnival head and riding up and back, calling to them to round up the caballado and move out.”
There are no valiant cowboys righting wrongs with a gun or bonnet-clad damsels being led by noble savages. There’s only the aftermath of selfish violence. Blood Meridian is an affirmation of how the romantic notions of conquer are a Lysoled fantasy. It fills in the lacunae of American history with gallons of forgotten bloodshed. The sanitized mythos of our collective past is a dangerous bedrock on which to construct the future. Sometimes the omission of gore is the worst possible decision a storyteller can make.
Honorable Mention of gross stuff that is adored: chewing tobacco (it smells like decomposing leather and resembles viscous melted chocolate mixed with snot; it ruins your gums and gets stuck in your teeth, but, man, it gives a good buzz and is fun to spit out), dogs (they constantly eat puke and other weird shit; they lick their own asses, too, but they’re sooooo sweet), the names of death metal bands (Prostitute Disfigurement, Anal Cunt, Goatwhore, etc.; it’s hard to defend the music I love, yet it reveals a sinister truth that is ignored in most of the Top 40 radio tripe), and my Twins baseball cap (it smells like sweat and dirty head, but I kinda like that smell, as it’s very…me). Now there’s a reason why we love gross stuff. Gross = interesting. The grotesque is dramatic, it’s conflicted, it’s complex. It’s difficult. Think of the cleanest place you can imagine. I envision an operating room. Everything’s white or stainless steel; linens are folded and all medical accoutrements and surgical instruments are organized. As a patient, I’m glad that it’s spotless and germ-free. Yes, clean operating rooms and soap and good plumbing save lives; for this I am thankful. But it’s also boring as fuck. To constantly exist in the pristine is to exist in a motionless and uneventful freeze-frame, like Jurassic Park’s mosquito in her hunk of petrified amber. To hell with makeup and Spanx and potpourri and Polo Sport! Life needs gross in order to fester and coagulate and grow. To get dirty is to truly live.
* * *
Pizza wasn’t a good idea. Ingrid, my daughter, still possessed a temperature of about 101 degrees and had yet to reacquire the insane zest inherent in all toddlers. But she was recovering well from her flu; her temperature had dropped a few degrees since the morning and she seemed to have her appetite back. Ingrid gobbled little squares of olive and mushroom pizza, my wife and I enjoyed some breadsticks, and my greyhound, Beth, waited under my daughter’s booster seat as always. My gal’s sleeplessness and whining and marsupial clinginess was safely confined to the past tense. Ahhh…normal. Then Ingrid paused. She stared ahead. My wife (Nicole) and I stopped, breadsticks frozen in the act of mastication, and gave each other the universal eye-lock of impending doom. Plumes of gut-slimed pizza chunks burst from Ingrid’s mouth like a popped open fire hydrant. My daughter wailed, a malignant swamp of marinara and dough washed over most of our dining room table, and my wife hopped next to her side before the second wave of puke was unveiled. For her nurturing maternal instincts, Nicole was rewarded with a bowl-sized helping of pizza vomit in her cupped hands. I never knew the smells of oregano and parmesan cheese could be chemically transmuted into heave-inducing dumpster bile.
“I’ll get the paper towels,” I said, shuffling through an anti-oasis.
“Yeah, you do that,” Nicole said, afraid to move, clutching her trove of foul orbs.
A gluttonous slurping intermixed with my daughter’s sobs. I did a stupid thing and looked down.
“At least the dog is happy,” I said.
Children have a knack for producing some of the most revolting substances known to man. Whether you’re cleaning the liquid-shit out of a car seat after a “blowout” or you’re imbibing the floating mystery food that is approximately 25% of your water because you were kind/dumb enough to share it with a two-year-old, kids essentially force their parents into a morass of gross dalliances. There’s a point to all the nastiness, though.
Every time I wipe away my daughter’s “silver eleven” (the double-barreled snot that constantly runs from a toddler’s nose) or pick an encrusted booger from her cheek or ignore her Smaug-like breath in the morning to kiss her, I pass a miniature test, a test designed by biological processes to gauge my effectiveness as a parent. The soupy textures and reek of putrification are nature’s way of trumpeting an important message: STAY THE FUCK AWAY! A child’s preponderance of offensive stimuli warns all those nearby, including their mom and dad, that they should hightail it to another locale as fast as possible. “Abandon that stinking and contagious creature!” says your knee-jerk logic. The decision of whether or not to toss your shit-stained babe in the woods is the crossroad where love is born. It’s easy to take your child to the park, wrestle with their laughing forms, read to their patient gazes, and tell them you love them before bedtime. Participating in rollicking fun, however, only gets you to the half-way point of love’s Rubicon. The rest of the perilous journey is fraught with ear infections and bloody knees and holding a frightened little fever-beast as close to your own body as is possible, knowing full-well you’ll probably get their flu, too. Roald Dahl sums it up well in Matilda when the narrator says, “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” Yet the grotesque emanations of your child are unfazed by mere proclamations of love (meaningful and veracious though they may be). Fording through their unseemly bodily fluids is where your high-minded sentiment is earned.
Every parent encounters a Trial-By-Gross from time to time. This conflict with nastiness is where love is not just told but shown, thereby sealing the parent/child bond in the sappy ooze of phlegm. Love, real and true love, fist-in-the-diarrhea LOVE, is forged in the quagmire of yuck.