A brief departure

The Oxen and baby Jesus (detail) (1400s) - Martin Schongauer

Oh, hello Wednesday. I didn’t see you there, with your demands on my time, and your guilty reminder that I told myself I’d blog each time you came around.

…so I’m doing something weird for me: I’m posting some allegedly creative material I wrote for a class assignment. The assignment was to write an imitation of Mary Ruefle’s prose from The Most of It, which consists of brief (a few sentences to a few pages long) reflections or stories or descriptions. It’s delightfully strange in many ways, and was the 2009 winner of the Essay Prize. Rather than try to duplicate her language, I tried to replicate the way she looks at the world, which is singular.

Anyhoo. Not my best work, but I’m far from Mary Ruefle, and it is better than anything else I’d try to cobble together in the next 20 minutes, no question.

The Cowlick

The prototypically active young boy is at special risk for the cowlick. His scalp sweats, the hair holds the sweat, the sweat dries over time, and leaves a salty residue behind that is imperceptible to the human eye. It is this salty residue that attracts animals: they seek out the mineral content – sodium, calcium, iron, phosphorus, and zinc – that is not present in their typical diet.

The phenomenon was initially identified in agrarian societies – the first-recorded instance being in 1732 Scotland, when a crofter awoke at night to discover one of his herd surreptitiously laving the uncovered head of his sleeping young son through an open window. This and other eighteenth and nineteenth-century instances were connected explicitly to witchcraft, but later scientific analysis overcame this early impulse to ascribe supernatural causality to a simple, natural phenomenon.

The term “cowlick” is a misnomer. There are recorded instances of deer, sheep, goats, horses, donkeys, and other mammals seeking out salt content in human hair. Stealthy nocturnal animals – such as housecats – are frequently-cited “lickers” in the contemporary home. To avoid cowlicks, scientists recommend quarantining all housepets and securing windows and doors each night before bed.

In the Cluttered Halls of the Louvre

The warehouse vibrated with soft-rock hits of the eighties, the parolees joked to each other as they sorted clothes and housewares for sale in the thrift store, and the little painting quailed under the untrained eye of the partly-reformed meth dealer who pulled it out of a water-damaged cardboard box. The painting was desperate for someone to see its worth, to look beyond its unassuming pastoral scene and recognize historical significance in the way its artist had represented the so-called peasant class; in how the bent-backed man and his mule were just illuminated by an autumn sun that peeked through the clouds of a sullen sky, no less noble in their suffering than Jesus himself, or so the painting fancied. The painting knew it wasn’t the flashiest or most stunningly beautiful work of art, but it did believe it had a place, however modest, in the cluttered halls of the Louvre, or maybe just the Musée D’Orsay, though it predated most of the work there. Instead it passed, ungloved hand to ungloved hand, to a manager who marked its back $7.99 with a Sharpie and hung it on a metal grid in the shop. Even though it was lit from above by an unsheathed fluorescent bulb, it glowed with an inner warmth from the sure knowledge of its own humble place in history.

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2 responses to “A brief departure

  1. Hey, I recognize that cow lick business 🙂

    I tried to find some of Ruefle’s work online, but didn’t find anything written by her. The stuff you wrote inspired by her I thought was good. I like how you take details and go with them in a sideways manner. Description is much better than I would do.

  2. I can’t IMAGINE why that cowlick stuff would be familiar.
    I’ll lend you The Most of It if you want, you’ll finish in very quickly.

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