Cosmic Context

‘Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is’

If there really is a collective consciousness, it must be something like the Internet. We could, if we wanted to, virtually hold hands and sing “Kum-Ba-Yah,” but we choose instead to huddle in our little corners — the News Junkies sipping cybermartinis over there by the plasma-screen TV, the NASCAR buffs drinking domestic beer in their chat rooms — and they wouldn’t even be aware of one another’s existence if there weren’t a line at the virtual bathroom.

Or maybe they get together all the time. Maybe they Do Lunch. Who am I to say? I don’t even know if there are NASCAR chat rooms.

Meanwhile, right under our virtual noses, side by side, sharing some massive server in Seattle or Silicon Valley, are the Recipe-Exchangers and the Terrorist-Plot-Hatchers.

It’s astonishing, when you think about it, how differently people define what’s important.

Recently, doing some research on Scotland, I stumbled upon a Web site that describes the unrelenting grip of temazepam addiction. Back when prescription temazepam was dispensed in gel-filled capsules, certain adventurous types who like to blaze new trails on the frontiers of self-destruction figured out that it was much more fun to melt the capsules and inject the liquid than it was to (yawn) swallow the capsules. (These visionary pioneers were Scots, which is how my research and the temazepam phenomenon happened to intersect.)

All good things must end, it seems. Not only did injected temazepam (“jellies”) cause inflammation around the injection site, it also congealed in the arteries. Gangrene was a not-infrequent consequence.

I read on, in masochistic revulsion. A temazepam addict whose leg has just been amputated barely blinks before he starts punching holes in the other leg. A man dies after injecting temazepam into one of his eyeballs.

You read stuff like that, it makes you want to listen to Yanni, take a lavender-scented bath, carry an armful of lilacs to your grandmother, and all the way to Grandma’s you pray that while you’re pulling into the driveway she’s pulling cookies out of the oven.

There’s so much we don’t know, couldn’t even imagine, about one another. Everybody suffers, everybody rejoices, but for each, regardless of geography, the causes of pain and bliss might be galaxies apart. A woman in Darfur weeps because of the flies that cover her baby’s pus-encrusted eyelids. A woman in Tacoma weeps because a contractor installed the wrong hardware on her kitchen cabinets. She wanted eggshell porcelain drawer pulls, for God’s sake, not winter white.

I had a neighbor once who threw a big party after her doctor gave her wonderful news: Her malignant tumor hadn’t grown. Great bash. Totally impromptu. She went up and down the block, inviting everyone on the street, even people she’d never met. There must have been thirty-five people there.

It’s a wakeup call. I ask myself: How big is your world? How inclusive is the context of your joys and sorrows?

One of my favorite movies of all time is The Untouchables. Patricia Clarkson and Kevin Costner are Catherine and Eliot Ness, observed billing and cooing as Elliot packs for a business trip. Destination: Chicago. Mission: To put crime boss Al Capone (Robert de Niro) away.

Ness arrives in Chicago. Chaos turns to bedlam. Ness is getting his butt kicked until he enlists the help of a street cop named Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery).

At one point, when Ness and Malone haven’t slept for, I don’t know, months, what with people being “offed” and buildings exploding all over the place and Robert de Niro’s Capone strutting around Chicago, magnificently arrogant and wicked — and smug, because the Feds can’t touch him — the phone rings in Ness’s headquarters, where he and Jimmy are looking at maps, or maybe they’re perusing photographs of evildoers — the sneering Frank Nitti (Billy Drago) and his ilk. 

Ness picks up the phone. Listens. Says something like “I don’t care, Sweetheart. Sure. Yellow would be fine.”

He hangs up the phone and — this must be the hardest part of film acting — he has to stand there for a long time, not saying anything, just looking bemused. For us, the audience, there’s music, there’s motion, there’s context for the look. But Kevin, he’s sizzling in a studio, facial muscles twitching from overexertion, having to look bemused for what must feel like hours without the benefit of bemusement-inducing music and with all those people listed in the credits (the Key Grip, the Secretary to Mr. Costner’s Masseur, etc.) looking on.

Jimmy says, “Was that your wife?” Ness replies that it was.

          Jimmy: What did she want?

          Ness: She’s sitting in some room, surrounded by people she doesn’t know, going over kitchen color charts or something. [Pause. Bemusement.] Some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.

Damn good thing, too.

I love that line. I look for ways to work it into conversations.

Sara: Looks like rain.

Me: Yeah… Well, some part of the world still cares what color the kitchen is.

Got a writing question? Leave a comment!


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