Siffling in the dark

There have been times in my life when the bars of the chromosomal prison to which I was sentenced have seemed especially cruel; times when vocabularic training and clever sesquipedalianism did not suffice to win me friends, or invitations to play in the pick-up baseball games every Saturday in the sun-laden Winnipeg summers. At first, I hoped it might be an indication that, like the ugly duckling of Hans Christian Andersen fame, my genetic bouquet had yet to flower -that if I were patient, my height would blossom, and my myopia would disappear; that if I could survive the vagaries and vicissitudes of the education system, I would emerge tall, talented and, once I had achieved sufficient dominance, scatter beneficence and non-maleficence on all and sundry.

It was, of course, unrealistic -chromosomes cannot be bribed with patience any more than myopia can be cured by lying on the family clothes-stand in the back yard and letting the hot prairie sun bake my eyeballs through closed and sizzling eyelids (as a then-popular book Sight Without Glasses seemed to suggest). I began to realize that I was a genetic prisoner and searched for exaptations -kludges- that might help repurpose the otherwise inept machinery to which I was heir. I back-combed my hair -pompadoured it- for extra height; I managed to convince my mother that butterscotch frames for my glasses were far less obvious than the thick-black Buddy Holly style that she had found attractive; I even agreed to wear braces on my teeth in the forlorn hope that it had been my teeth, not my smile, that had been hindering my hormonal mission.

At any rate, I had been unduly influenced at the time by the visualizations propagated in the runaway best seller, The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale… Well, perhaps ‘runaway best seller’ is overstating it, but for a while it was the book most often lying open on top of the Reader’s Digest pile in our bathroom. It was a bit religiousy for me, actually, but it made a few quick points I could assimilate without unduly overstaying my welcome in that busy time after breakfast. For example, trying to think only positive thoughts so the negative ones couldn’t hang on. Oh, and I think I was supposed to stop copying what others did because I’d never do it as well -so, I had to make up something new and do it better than they could. I have to admit that in the spirit of the book I started making up new rules that I probably didn’t actually read from it. Anyway, my time was limited in the morning bathroom so I figured it was a matter of making the best use of a port in a storm…

Those were merely growing-up pains, but although their importance has receded somewhat over time, the old urges still nag at me. You’re supposed to learn to accept what you were given, and to pretend you never really wanted what you weren’t: the old Reinhold Niebuhr quote ‘Lord, grant me the strength to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.’

I fancied myself more of a cerebral athlete actually, more prone to verbal feats of derring-do than scoring goals or being roughed up by people twice my size. Large words were my day to day weapons, and I was famous for pulling frightening esoteria from my innermost warehouse when threatened with imminent bodily harm: curses not loud but deep, unfamiliar comparisons with mythical anatomical structures, and frightening faces I’d practiced in the bathroom mirror -these were but a small selection of the competitive armamentaria I could brandish if the occasion demanded.

And yet I recognized that they fell far short of how I’d hoped to be remembered. I felt a profound need to be seen as a well-balanced adversary, feared for my righteous anger, and yet respected for my mercy -a benevolent soul, perhaps; somebody others might wish to emulate. After puzzling over this as I slowly moved from grade to grade in school, it occurred to me that the answer might have been hiding right under my nose all those years: my father had always found whistling a powerful tool to cover his frustrations and bridge any gaps in his ability to manipulate my mother. He also used to whistle as a warning sign when he couldn’t make up his mind whether to exact punishment or bestow forgiveness on his recalcitrant son.

But whistling was another talent I had never able to master, however. I assumed it was my lips -I mean they slid back and forth well enough for smiling and cursing, but for some reason I couldn’t pucker them functionally. I simply couldn’t garner the familial respect due my lips; I longed for the power of an unshorn Sampson and his lips to defuse aggression, attract women, or call my dog… Uhmm, perhaps I put that rather poorly.

Anyway, I realize that whistling ability is probably fairly far down in the list of existential musts to which most people aspire, but over the years it has striven to occupy an ever-present vacuum in my persona… or should I say mouth? .

Of course in light of the recent zeitgeist, whistling at waiters for service is considered rude, as is whistling to express one’s appreciation of appealing scenes -corporal or otherwise. So, not wishing to further diminish my admittedly never breathtaking status, I decided to abandon my hitherto secretive quotidial exercise of anticipatorily blowing through my carefully, albeit incorrectly, pursed lips in hopes of a miracle. And anyway, it never helped me whistle -it merely converted the resulting airstream into an embarrassing siffle that attracted little but amused grins: mouth honour, breath which the poor heart would fain deny and dare not… to paraphrase a friend of mine.

After all these years, and feeling an urgent need for a suitable scapegoat before I, too, am forced to siffle off this mortal coil, I have come to believe it was the braces on my teeth which were to blame for my chronic disability -not me per se. The steel scaffolding prevented certain lip movements from assuming their biologically-driven courting positions -well anyway, the moves at the end of a date while fumbling on her parent’s veranda just before the porch light came on.

I think my mother was clever though, she discouraged me from practicing what she thought of as a silly and rude noise. And anyway, she insisted, there was a critical age beyond which learning to whistle was unlikely; she had no wish to become a Whistler’s Mother she would always add -she already had to put up with being a Whistler’s wife… I have no idea why she always insisted on capitalizing the ‘W’.


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