Mixed Media Fine Arts
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5 - Up To My Neck

An earnest mind is the devils playground.

I’ve heard a different version of this proverb that references an idle mind but I’m pretty sure that’s a mistranslation.

An idle mind sounds so wonderfully relaxing. An idle mind and the devil’s playground sound like a vacation in Ibiza.

Taking life too seriously is what gets you into trouble.

It’s possible that the center of the universe is just another rabbit hole anyway; or perhaps the universe is inside us already. Maybe the center is a grand unifying force of undulating joy. In any event, the center of the universe is most probably not a whorl of worry and fear.

It was in my first high school psychology class that I found I had an affinity for clinical inquiry and the study of the mind. I felt a deep calling. It was then I decided to pursue a doctorate in psychology. So, I studied psychology for four years in college and another seven to complete the graduate work for my PhD.

Only now I’ve discovered that the catalyst for my path was a prank.

The devil set me up.

“You tricked me?” I ask, dumbfounded. An idiotic expression spreads over my face. “I don’t understand.”

“What’s to understand?” Satan retorts, covering a wide smile with the back of his hand. “It was a joke.”

“You gave me a sense of purpose as a joke?”

I shake my head back and forth as if a tick has lodged inside my ear.

Unable to contain his revelry longer, the devil cracks up. He stamps his feet over and over on the ground.

“I can’t believe you fell for it,” he whoops, doubling over and pointing his finger my way.

I’m immobilized, as if roots are twining around my ankles.

“But,” I stammer, “fifteen years…”

“I know,” he howls, slapping his thigh.

I stare dumbly at his jubilee trying to absorb the implications. Satan laughs uproariously. He struts in triumphant circles hooting out inarticulate noises.

“It’s a relief you finally know,” the devil says finally, wiping away tears. He draws in a deep breath and gathers himself. “You have no idea how many times I almost blew it. You know, little lapses, offhand remarks…”

“But why?” I interrupt. “I mean, what was the point?”

“I don’t know…” he says with a flip of his hand, “dark humor I guess? You know, to cope with the job. Besides…” he chortles, “You were so easy.”

“I was a kid,” I shriek.

“Come on,” Satan says, waving away my complaint. “This was basic sleight of hand, like 3-card Monte. You should have spotted it.”

“I was sixteen!”

“Exactly,” he says, pointing his long finger upward. “You were sixteen! The prank never should have stuck. You take yourself way too seriously, kid. Why weren’t you out partying?”

“I think you really need to examine what’s wrong in your life that taking advantage of a 16-year old girl is the way you get kicks.”

“Stop it,” the devil snorts, gripping his sides. “You’re killing me.”

“I mean really – it was like fish in a barrel, wasn’t it?

He lifts his palms upright and shrugs.

“It was funny.”

The devil insists it was all in good fun. He says eternal beings just have a really long game. And he did apologize. But it’s pretty obvious that he finds the whole thing hysterical, especially the bit about me having ‘a calling’.

Admittedly, Satan is right about me taking things too seriously. I have a perfectionist streak as sharp as a straight edge and a ‘Go not gently’ preoccupation with death. My bebop’s the rough pop - a jive of intrusion. It’s a badass mania with a gravedigger’s backbeat - where every situation gets turned over and studied, every angle examined, every detail dissected. The scientist in me calls this ‘critical thinking’ but the neurotic in me knows that it’s pure obsession.

Iteration is a useful tool in research design; also for general adaptation to events as they happen. But iteration unchecked leads to recursive loops and left on its own, obsessive thinking gets ugly. There are no good answers to obsessive questions, just tangles of pointless thinking where torrents of kabuki anguish get attached to ordinary worries. Everything is nothing and nothing goes on forever. Rinse and repeat.

My appearance, for instance, can become warped by my frame of mind the way a fun house mirrors distort a reflection. Every defect becomes exaggerated and subject to spiraling scrutiny. Social mishaps steep like old tea; even minor foibles are inflated into monstrous flaws. Slights, better forgotten, are overworked into a repetitive glut of instant replays where well-turned comebacks replace the grunt that was actually muttered.

So, graduate school was a terrible idea.

Doctoral programs in general are known hatcheries for OCD triggers. Psychology as a specialty is a goddamn breeding ground, an inordinately ruminative field of study where introspection has been all but canonized.

Of all the places for a feverish mind to land.

The devil tells me to relax and enjoy the irony; but, to me the whole thing reeks of teen spirit.

It was during my graduate career that I became obsessed with the length of my neck. My hair had been cropped very short and, at first I’d been pleased with the cut. I thought I looked quite smart, like Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday. But after taking a shower one day I looked in the mirror and was taken aback by the length of my neck. I leaned through the steam and studied the protracted curve that stretched out like soft taffy. How could I have not noticed before? I looked like one of those dinosaurs that eats leaves from the high branches of trees. My head was dwarfed on top of the long pole of my neck. Spiky hair jutted out in wet tufts like a toilet brush. Even after it dried my hair appeared to be little more than fuzz on a skull at the top of a plummeting slope. I searched through my closet for camouflage of some kind and pulled on a thick turtleneck before leaving for class. As I walked across campus, I felt flushed. People were gawking openly and pointing my way with curt gestures and bemusement. In retrospect, this was likely because I was wearing a thick cable sweater during a mid-summer heat wave but at the time I was certain they were staring at my deformed neck, making fun of the Modigliani freak-show shuffling through campus center.

At the assembly hall where my pathology seminar was held I slid into a seat next to my study partner, Lisa. She turned to say hi but stopped short, looked me over and frowned.

“Are you okay?” she asked. Lisa was wearing a thin cotton sundress and the sheen of perspiration was still noticeable on her skin.

“Uh-huh,” I said casually, pulling a binder from my knapsack and leafing through the notes from previous lectures. I could feel her eyeballing me. I looked up and smiled.

“It gets kind of chilly in this auditorium, don’t you think?” I suggested, flicking away the sweat that was pooling on my forehead.

“It’s about a hundred and ten degrees in here,” she said flatly, fanning the still air with a section of a newspaper she had folded in half.

“Really?” I asked, coiling a plaid wool muffler over the top of my sweater and gathering it up under my chin, “It seems a little cool to me.”

In the months that followed, I dressed primarily to conceal my neck. Blouses were buttoned high and collars heavily starched, stiff-winged in a kind of Transylvanian contour. I wrapped long scarves in elaborate twists at the neckline and stayed on the lookout for new ways to hide the monstrous thing lurking just below my head.

“Isn’t that my tablecloth?” Lisa asked one afternoon.

We had been studying at her place and while pouring us coffee I’d come across a pretty length of fabric on her dining room table.

“What do you think?” I asked, turning a full circle to twirl out the delicate material encircling my neck.

Lisa set her book down and caressed the fabric indulgently between her forefinger and thumb.

“Well, I must say,” her voice softened into a therapist’s lilt, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a silk runner tied into a swan.”

“I know,” I said, preening the complicated truss. “I learned how last week from a balloon twister at the mall.”

Lisa nodded politely.

“I can also do a giraffe and a poodle,” I shrug.

Of course, none of the cover-ups were very effective. Fixation is an internal disfigurement. You can’t really hide it with textiles. Thankfully, as my hair grew out, the obsession with my neck waned; at least it shifted to something else…pigeons, I think.

All over the world people associate beauty with happiness and success. We want to be special and at the same time, we want to fit in. We’ll do whatever it takes to embody our ideals.

What’s that you say – branding is le dernier cri?

“Then yes, by all means yes, sear the image of a dragon onto my back with a heated poker. That would be perfection. How much?”

In my parent’s home, it wasn’t only appearance that was beholden to standards. My sisters and I were judged on all the little things too, like posture and grammar, and arbitration was binary. We were either perfect or a total disaster; unfortunately usually the latter as our point of comparison was slightly skewed. Had DNA from Martha Stewart, Einstein and Jesus been spliced together into the body of a Victoria Secret model it still would have fallen just short of our benchmark.

We tried to square with the ideal but in our house reality was a fat fickle bull’s eye. Up - up - up we would rise to my mother’s high reckoning and there at the top we’d find my father waiting, ready to take us down a notch and keep us in place. Home-sweet-home where perfection would always be expected but never actually tolerated.

My grandmother’s voice added a puritanical note to our upbringing. Her mission in life was to soak the quintessence out of sin. She was like a maxi pad for lust. I think my grandmother felt most alive during our adolescent years when sexuality steamed out of our pores instead of sweat. There was just so much to clean up.

At the faintest whiff of pubescent swagger my grandmother’s nose would twitch like a rabbit picking up a predator’s scent on the breeze. As I would linger over the jewel stained shadows and blushes that promised to end my teenage humiliation, my grandmother would sit on the edge of the tub and explain the folly of my conceit.

Pride, she would scold, is a gateway sin. Ego, including all its proxies such as sports or cosmetics, goads the other six deadlies to action.

But, during the disorienting years of adolescence, proxies can be all that a kid has to hold onto. I loved my grandmother, but sometimes I felt like bludgeoning her with her King James testament.

“The devil’s vanity makes all the angels in heaven cry,” she told me one day, bowing her head low and tucking her chin like a pious old turtle.

“What’s that supposed to mean,” I asked, stricken at the thought of angels giving me the snub. At fourteen, rejection is a pretty big deal.

“Beauty’s ugly sister is vanity,” she replied, humility slipping off her like a funk.

I wrinkled up my forehead and frowned.

“What are you saying?” I demanded, slathering on moisturizer to sooth the furrows of my confusion. “You think my sister’s are prettier than me? Is that it?”

I never got a straight answer from my grandmother. She was obviously dissatisfied with things I was doing but the finer points got lost in the snarl of my everyday shame.

So, I thought I’d try to clear up the details with the devil - maybe get an inside story about his fall at the same time. The opportunity presented itself recently as I was getting dressed for a dinner meeting with a new funder. Satan showed up as I was pulling on my heels. He followed me into the bathroom to keep me company while I was getting ready.

I brushed my hair out and pinned it up loosely at the nape of my neck. The devil settled coolly on the edge of the tub.

“So D.,” I started casually, misting the messy bun with a spritz of hairspray, “when I was a kid my grandmother talked a lot about you. She said you had some, you know, issues…with authority I guess.

“Umm,” he murmured non-committedly.

“…and some kind of weird body image hang ups too…”

“Seems unlikely,” Satan said with a sniff. “After all, I can change my appearance any way I choose.”

To emphasize the point the devil snapped his fingers and in a flash reconstituted as a Unicorn, brilliant as platinum and otherworldly in size. He raised his dazzling head and shook his lush mane. It streamed pearly and wild around a sterling horn that gleamed as if dusted with Swarovski crystals. His beauty shimmered like stars reflecting in new snow.

The devil can be a bit of a queen when he gets riled.

“Well,” I shrugged coolly, studying my own mundane reflection, “my grandmother was very knowledgeable about biblical things and she said that vanity got you booted out of heaven.”

I traced the outline of my mouth with liner and filled in my lips with red lipstick, blotting a cherry kiss on a tissue. “So, what’s that about?”

“One man’s ceiling is another man’s floor,” the devil replied in an off-handed manner, then added a don’t-give-a-damn snort through his glistening nostrils.

“It was no good working for the man,” he went on, “I wasn’t suited for it. I’m better as my own boss – King of my dominion, you know?”

The Devil flicked his ivory tail and stepped in confidentially.

“Besides if anybody’s vain, it’s God – what with all that power and glory business. Truth is, he just couldn’t handle a little competition. That was the problem.”

“Ah,” I said, sensing the bit in his mouth, “I see. If you can’t stand the heat…?”

“Exactly,” he replied.

“It sounds like a bit of a rationalization to me,” I said, putting pressure on his snaffle.

With a stamp of his great snowy hoof, the unicorn vanished and the implacable effigy of my grandmother appeared in his place sitting rigidly on the edge of the bathtub, like a sainted relic, the chip of something to prove bronzed on her shoulder.

I rolled my eyes and turned back to primping. I looked myself over and smiled. I looked pretty.

“Important date, I suppose?” wheedled my copycat Grandmother.

“Yes,” I said, heat rising in my cheeks. D’s doppelganger was spoiling my mood. I swiveled around to face my demon. “I’m signing a new contract, if you must know.”

I glanced at my phone and caught sight of the time.

“I have to go,” I said. My heart quickened.

“I’m actually pretty excited,” I said. The anticipation gave me buzz that made me chatty. “I’ve been working on this research for months and tonight we’re signing a 3-year continuation.”

I reached down and smoothed my stockings.

“I’ve just published my outcomes in a very important journal.”

I felt my face flush.

“I feel good, you know, top of my game.“

“You are so clever,” my Grandmother assured me, nodding with support like my best bosom buddy, “and you look very pretty too.”

I beamed, taking in my reflection again with a small thrill of satisfaction. I pivoted slightly to admire the lines of my new dress. When I tilted my head a perfect golden tendril spilled across my forehead.

I picked up my purse and turned to leave but stopped short at the sight of my Grandmother’s eyes narrowing. I was paralyzed, like a dove on a spit, as her gaze took in each detail of my appearance with preternatural magnification. She considered every inch of me from shoe to brow. As she neared the top, she hesitated. Her gaze lingered and she frowned.

“What?” I asked, deflated, whirling around to see what unrecognized blemish she’d detected that I’d overlooked.

“Well, I don’t know,” she said slowly, a queasy pout turning the corners of her mouth downward. “It’s just, well, we really need to do something about your neck. Would you like to borrow a scarf?”