Friday, May 13, 2011

Heart On My Shortsleeves

I cannot remember the last time I wore a specific one of my favorite t-shirts. I know I still own it, because I see it when I dig through that drawer sometimes, but I haven’t put it on in ages. And since I just spent an entire month away from work, wearing t-shirts every single day (and a different one every day, at that, as opposed to some work weeks when I change into the same t-shirt and jeans after I get home each evening and figure it’s acceptable because I’m only in the casual outfit for a couple of hours) it became undeniably apparent: I’m consciously avoiding the shirt.

Let me back up a bit and tell you the origin story of said garment. I bought it shortly after I got divorced, and I sincerely consider the shirt to be a relic of that particular time and my preoccupations therein. I haven’t mentioned yet what this t-shirt looks like but that’s because, before I do, I want to make absolutely clear that it represents good and positive developments in my life (albeit in an arguably twisted way).

For the longest time, whatever social group I was part of, I was the one forever trying to keep everyone getting along with one another. Sometimes that meant mediating genuine conflicts, but it also meant that I was reluctant to put down anyone, even as a joke, even when everyone else was ragging on each other. I was, in fact, the guy who was always first to say “oh, come on, that’s mean” in response to someone else’s jokes, or back away from my own with lots of urgent “not really, just kidding!” protestations. Some little part of me was always terrified of the social breakdowns that would ensue if I didn’t immediately and thoroughly salve every wound from every exchange of harsh words, playful or otherwise. (There’s probably a lot of reasons for that, none of them really relevant at the moment, so ... moving on!)

So then I got married, to someone who was simultaneously extremely judgmental and extremely thin-skinned, quick to take offense but even quicker to dish it out, and who never heard a cruel, spiteful, mean-spirited joke she didn’t wish she’d thought of first. And I spent a couple years trying to broker ceasefires between her and my friends, and wincing every time she lambasted someone and added her own “oh, just kidding” that was stunningly devoid of human conscience. Eventually I gave up on ameliorating the path of destruction she left in her wake, and then some time after that gave up on the relationship as a whole.

But a funny thing occurred to me in the aftermath of all that: the marriage collapsed but society around me did not. Whatever anxieties I had about the dire consequences of her meanness proved to bear little relation to reality. People got over the really vile stuff eventually, and the stuff that was technically “just kidding around” really did get laughed off remarkably quickly. I know this makes me sound like I hadn’t really been raised by human beings prior to that revelation, but I’m being fairly honest here. I had a terrible, irrational fear of nasty interpersonal conflict and it took some hardcore, if inadvertent, immersion therapy to get me over it.

And once I was over it, my friends noticed, because suddenly I was dishing out abuse like never before. Instead of swallowing every unpleasant thought I ever had, I was giving at least some of them an outlet, the harmless ones that I could exaggerate for comic effect that made everyone laugh, even the person I was busting on, and made me feel immeasurably better. My friends zeroed in on the fact that I was finally mixing in being mean-funny with being goofy-funny and simply characterized this new evolution of me as The Mean One. Which inevitably led to comparisons with Mr. Yuk.

This is actually the face of someone who has not ingested poison accidentally but rather cannot stop himself from eating posion constantly.
And then around the same time that my friends were starting to call me Mr. Yuk I spotted a green ringer T at the mall with a big Mr. Yuk on the chest and had to have it. And for a long while I wore that thing every chance I got. I said at the beginning of my post it was one of my favorite t-shirts and in the moment of its acquisition it was far and away my #1 favorite. And as I also alluded to, it’s not like I went through this post-divorce phase where I was lashing out and being horrible to my friends and wallowing in it up to the point of emblazoning my meanness on my chest. Getting divorced was a relief for numerous reasons, and one of them was that I had gone through the worst-case scenario of my worst fear and realized it wasn’t like what I had imagined, that I could behave in the same normal ways as everyone else in a way I never had before. My friends were genuinely happy for me, but that in turn just meant they had to give me a hard time too because that’s what friends do, so they laughed and gasped in mock-horror at every uncharacteristically harsh thing that came out of my mouth even as they gradually became more and more characteristic. So Mr. Yuk might be mean, but he represented some good times.

But that’s the meaning that I've assigned to the poison-control mascot myself, and of course on a more mainstream level Mr. Yuk represents bad stuff indeed. Or maybe good stuff, depending on how full or empty you choose to view the glass: the thought of kids drinking household chemicals that could kill them qualifies as bad, but the notion of an easily recognizable ideogram that warns children away from such a fate is therefore good. I have kids now, and I certainly don’t want either of them ever to try to satisfy any nascent curiosity about what Raid tastes like. Which is why, at a minimum, we have childproof latches on all the floor-level cupboards and keep a lot of stuff as high up as possible. But that only keeps things locked down for so long, and I’m sure eventually we’ll have a bunch of green frowny stickers on bottles under the sink and an explicit understanding with our children about exactly how untouchable that makes the contents.

Even though that’s a ways off, though, some part of me must have realized a while ago that there’s no need to undermine my own efforts with mixed messages. Because if the little guy had even fuzzy memories of daddy wearing a shirt with Mr. Yuk on it, and a positive enough relationship with daddy to want to be like him and like the things he likes, then the little guy could very well end up thinking Mr. Yuk is cool. (He’s certainly not going to know the whole backstory of my failed marriage and late-developing male bonding skills and whatnot which properly contextualizes everything. Assuming that the context even makes sense of all of it in the first place.) It’s just not a risk I’ve been willing to run, so I just haven’t let the little guy see me in the Mr. Yuk t-shirt. Even when I’m home every day for a month, it's really been absolutely no contest. Still, I have a hard time letting go of things, especially t-shirts, so I’m content to leave it in the back of the drawer for a long while, and maybe way way way down the road I’ll put it back in the weekend rotation or something.

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