Friday, February 26, 2016

Zoolander, Tyra Banks and my Mother

           The alarming number of photographs required in my new job was unanticipated.  I have been Assistant Director of the VA Long Beach Healthcare System for thirteen months and I have had my photo taken in a variety of settings for a variety of reasons at least two to three times per week, not to mention posters and the facility Christmas card.  When we have our quarterly Employee Town Hall with their associated awards, I will stand with the other members of the executive leadership team and have photos taken with the three Employees of the Quarter and the 10-15 employees who are being recognized for 25-40 years of service.

                Most people fear being caught in a bad outfit or not looking their best in a photograph.  I do not share their concerns as I am properly dressed and color-coordinated even while slumbering.  I am also not afraid of the camera stealing my soul, which many of my Native American ancestors believed.  I am 1/32nd Cherokee, Iroquois, Blackfoot, something, according to The Dad.

                What I am concerned about is my smile.  Growing up, I always smiled happily in photographs and had no issues with the outcomes.  However, as my third grade class photo shows, I was not prepared for picture day due to no fault of my own.  It is evidence I was an active child as I was a sweaty mess because my teachers thought it wise to have class photos taken after recess, because, you know, that makes the most sense.  Insert smirk here.

  You would have thought I would have simply not participated in the running and associated sweating, but I didn’t become pre-occupied with my wardrobe and general appearance until sixth grade.  Third grade was a time spent wanting to be like The Dad, I assume.  Otherwise, how do you explain the western wear in the colors of the desert or the fact I voluntarily chose to dress as Buck Owens for Halloween?

As I got older, I tried to pretend to be caught off-guard while laughing as it seemed the closest to natural for my smile, but it somehow came off more psychotic than happy-go-lucky.  My mother told me to smile with my eyes (smizing as Tyra Banks would say).  I tried it but I looked more like someone in need of a restroom than someone pleasantly contemplating the future.  And, as a child, I was the future if George Benson and Whitney Houston are to be believed.  That’s a lot of pressure on a pudgy face, people, especially one with eyes as small as mine.

Thus I conceived my “pleasant face”, a look conquered by my freshman year in high school, shown here with the tie that caused quite the ruckus when I arrived on Picture Day wearing it. 

The look worked for many, many years but now I am in Long Beach and our photographer demands “teeth” through cajoling and/or demanding depending.  I attempt to comply but after seven or eight photo ops where there are five or six photos per op, my face starts to hurt like a runner-up in a beauty pageant who simply wants to leave the stage and eat her candy bar.  I thought about putting Vaseline on my teeth (an old beauty pageant trick) but it makes your tongue numb…or so I’ve heard.

So I am left with a photo legacy that is, at best, a mixed bag.  Sometimes I look great, often I look appropriate.  There are the times I look odd and on the rare occasion there is one where I have a decidedly pained expression. 

And although I have attempted a smile in the photo studio setting, the one thing I do appreciate is no matter the quality of my smile, I don’t think I look my age (45) and for this I am thankful; tiny eyes, ruddy cheeks and all.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Would Carson McCullers Write a Murder Mystery?

In the short hallway between my living room and kitchen I have a mirrored buffet table, atop which sits a photo of my parents cutting the cake at their wedding.  There is also a photo of my niece, beautiful on her late spring wedding day last year.  This photo is propped against my parents’ frame as it was only recently obtained when I gifted it to myself after I arrived at my sister’s home for Christmas.  Mailing things in a timely manner is not my sister’s spiritual gift.

Never giving them more than a cursory view most days, last night they brought to mind a particular wedding, many years ago in a small community in Southwest Mississippi.  Tylertown is where I say I’m from as it is where I graduated high school.  A tiny community west of town called Mesa (mee-sah) is where we attended Mesa Baptist Church, the location of my dear sister’s nuptials to one Jody Darryl Thomas.

The wedding date was set for Labor Day weekend to ensure they were married before Darryl set sail for Navy boot camp, which I’ve been told is not very strenuous as long as you can swim and/or float with any amount of skill.  The wedding itself was pulled together in quick fashion by my mother and Ann Simmons, flower arranger/event planner/family friend/saint.  I was asked to sing as part of the blessed event.  My sister was of course excited about the wedding and her beautiful dress but she was most fond of her Precious Moments music box that was to be the wedding cake topper.  It was indeed a wondrous thing and I was tasked with ensuring it’s safe arrival atop the cake in the downstairs fellowship hall at our church for the reception, which consisted of only cake, Jordan Almonds and punch the same color as the bridesmaids’ dresses, as we are Southern Baptists and that is how we roll.  The chosen colors were apricot and candlelight.

The morning of the event, I was resplendent in a borrowed caramel leather sport coat and moss green chinos and a moss green and rose pink plaid tie as dress clothes were not high on the list of necessities for those with meager means.  While I sang like an angel, the voice was somewhat disembodied as I was hidden behind a rather large fern, of the kind found usually in zoos and/or wildlife refuges. The genesis of the idea to hide me behind this Amazonian flora was never revealed due to, I can only assume, a secret pact between Ms. Simmons and my sister.  They are not talking, y’all, but I am not still bitter or anything.  Truly.  I only mention it for the sake of the big picture.

As I was already dressed when we arrived at the church, I was tasked with ensuring the cake was properly placed next to the fountain of punch, made apricot by adding orange sherbet to pink lemonade, by the ever-resourceful mother-of-the-bride.  The baker and her husband had been in the basement by themselves.  I made my way down the stairs and turned the corner to see a black and white plastic monstrosity sitting atop my sister’s wedding cake.  It took me a minute to process what I was seeing.  It was something akin to Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, with mother-of-pearl seagulls attached by wiring, allowing them “life-like” movement.

My poker face failed me and the baker asked what was wrong.  I motioned to the eyesore and said in an urgent whisper, “Whatisthat?  Whatisthat?  Ohmygod, Whatisthat?!?!”

Unbelievably, she asked, “What?” as if she did not know.

I said, “That…THING on top of the cake!  Where is my sister’s Precious Moments cake topper?!?!”

She looked crestfallen and said, “Oh, that?  We accidentally dropped it.  It’s broken.”

I inhaled so sharply her hair and apron moved toward my mouth.  I said very slowly, “Please tell me you are kidding.  This is a joke, right?  She will kill you, you know.  She will.  It will be unpleasant.  It will be painful.  You’re going to die.”

She just stared at me.  Her husband walked over and said, “It’s not that big of a deal.  We got a replacement.  It’s free of charge.”

I turned and said in my most condescending manner, “Oh, good, I’m glad it’s not that big of a deal.  And, yes, I see you’ve replaced it with what I assume is one of your brood’s art projects, but my sister is expecting a Precious Moments music box cake topper atop her cake.”  Gaining momentum due to fear of said bride, I continued, “And you’d better go find a more appropriate replacement because THAT…HORROR (motioning to it) is no one’s idea of a proper replacement and I assure you I will not be here when she comes downstairs.  She will kill you.  In your face.”

Hearing the beginnings of some sort of ruckus my Mother started down the stairs, asking, “Dusty, is anything wrong?”  With a bride’s overly-sensitive hearing, my sister said, “What?  Something’s wrong?  With the cake?  What’s wrong with the cake?”

Faking a lighthearted laugh, I practically screamed, “Oh, Shontyl.  Ha Ha. Relax, sister of mine.  There’s nothing wrong with the cake.  Don’t come down here, its bad luck for a bride to see the cake before the wedding.”

Skeptically she said, “What?  No it’s not.”

“Yes it is, I read it somewhere.”

                “Ugh.  Whatever.”

                “You’re so funny.  Go fix your hair.  I’ve GOT this.” 

                My mother looked at me quizzically and I mouthed, “Do. Not. Let. Her. Down. Here.”  And I gave her a smile like you give when you realize you’ve forgotten your wallet while on a date.  Turning to the baker’s husband, I said, “Shouldn’t you be on your way?  You have a music box to purchase.  Precious Moments.  Go now.”

                He whined, “But its Labor Day weekend.”

                “That’s not my problem.  I’m trying to keep both of us alive.”

                “She can’t be that bad.”

                Chuckling, I said, “I see you have mis-assessed this situation.  And you’re right, she might not kill me, but one or both of you will perish.  Please leave now.  I’m not telling you again.  Don’t make me start cussing all up in the church.  I’m not Methodist.”

                Looking fearfully at me, as she heard shoes on the stairs, the baker turned and said, “I hear someone?  Is that her?”

                “You're closest.  Are they wearing a white dress?” I asked hurriedly shooing her husband out the door and into the mini-van.

                “Not white.”

                “Is it the color of the punch?”


                “Then it’s a bridesmaid.  Everyone knows the bridesmaid dresses match the punch.  Are you a Yankee?

                We were able to shift the focus from the cake to the wedding itself.  It went off without a hitch.  I did not protest the fern placement and sang my heart out to “The Wedding Song” and Debbie Gibson’s “Lost in Your Eyes”.  It was 1989, y’all.  That was a “the song”, do you hear me?

                I don’t know how he did it, but in the end, clumsy baker-husband found a reasonable facsimile of the music box.  It wasn’t Precious Moments but it was close enough to fool my sister until after she returned from her honeymoon.  By that time I had returned to school and have been afraid to broach the subject.  I truly hope she didn’t kill that man, although if she did, I understand.

I wonder what Carson McCullers would say?