Aaargh Matey (or “Dialing it Down”)

As people look back over their lives and think about the events that made them who they are today, it’s the bigger things they tend focus on. The grown-up job that started their careers, the time they got to second base in the back seat of dad’s Toyota with the cheerleader captain, the time they decided on gut instinct to move out of the apartment owned by the town maniac ten years before the first body was found in the boiler room.

A lot of firsts and misses; these are the things that flicker most prominently in personal highlights reels.   When I think through my own, it seems it’s always been the smaller, more insignificant events that stand out as the things I obsess over and redirect my life around.  Tiny, but pivotal instances, and the stomach churning clarity with which they snap into view the lenses through which other people see me.   I hit one of mine the week I showed up to work wearing an eye patch.

This story happens in two stages. The first was essentially this. An acquaintance of mine, Lyric, belonged to a flag football league.  Over lunch one day, I mentioned that I wasn’t familiar with the sport — had never even watched a game. She was a bit thrown by the idea that I’d been so isolated from what she saw as the most American of sports and invited me down to the park to play that Sunday. I’m generally up for anything new, and I liked the way it sounded in my head  when I played it back (What did you do this weekend? Oh, the usual. Brunch, played some touch football, scrubbed projectile cat diarrhea off the staircase paint), so I showed up at the appointed time and place.

The weather was perfect; the rare Charlotte day that’s both clear and cool.  But other things were off from the get go. Firstly, the crowd was too competitive. Secondly, no one could really effectively explain the sport. It was like asking someone who suggests the flavor of a particular type of animal is “gamey” to describe what game means. After some hand fluttering and frustration, they invariably end at “You just have to taste it.” Those explaining football lamely ended with a similar aphorism – “You’ll understand it once you play it.”

I still have no idea how the game actually works. The gist of it is this – and feel free to skip if you’re already familiar with the sport — two teams of people, apparently perceiving themselves to be of vehemently opposing although unarticulated ideologies, start on either sides of a white line in the center of a grassy field. For reasons surpassing understanding, one of the teams, we’ll call them Team A, is attempting to drive toward the field end which they are facing.

As a “play” begins, Team A runs toward their end of the field and both teams come crashing together and stop. At the place they halted, they once again divide into ideologically opposed teams, and repeat.   And then, for reasons known only to the gods of chance, everyone comes crashing together again. There is a lot of “smack talk” involved between the teams, having to do with, on supposes, the disparate ideologies.  Also, a medium sized prolate spheroid is involved.

I have to say, I enjoyed playing. There was a topsy-turvy element of “I-have-no-idea-what-this-means-or-what-happens-next” that one generally only experiences from an afternoon spent consuming psychotropic fungus. The running bit was a lot of fun, though several times I admit I was actually running toward the wrong end of the field, as our objective end seemed to switch without provocation.

We were playing a variation of the game known as “flag football,” which barred physical contact and instead involved grabbing a short streamer from the belt of opposing players to tag them out. This meant it was two long plays before I was tackled by one of the more enthusiastic players, and ended up getting smashed in the face with an elbow.

I have had black eyes before, but never a black face. Within three hours, my cheek, temple and eye area were so swollen I looked like I had survived a fight scene in a John Wu film. Not as a hero, mind, but as a vanquished underling. One of those revenge flavored one-to-one pummelings in which the protagonist does a very thorough job. Heading to work the next day, I realized I had three choices: 1) ignore it unless asked and then tell the truth, 2) proactively explain what had actually happened, 3) make something up whenever I noticed someone looking at me.

Option three seemed the soundest course, and the most fun, so I prepared to spend the next three days saying something vague like “My boss and I disagreed about the Fall marketing strategy…” and then trailing off uncomfortably. (My boss, to his credit, thought that this was hilarious when I gave him the heads up). But here’s the thing… No one asked. No one stared. No one in any way indicated that it seemed as if I had used the left side of my face to stop a charging rhinoceros.

I figured out the actual reason for this that Spring, when replanting the sad, sad flower beds in my front yard; a vain attempt to stay on the good side of my HOA. As a hangover from a youth spent interred on my parent’s farm, I was using organic fertilizer (translation: manure) to supplement the red clay pit my condo sits on. And unfortunately, an over-enthusiastic flip of the spade, got a fleck in my right eye. Given my allergies, and my location in Charlotte, North Carolina, the runner up pollen capital of North America, I was on substantial amounts of immune suppressants at the time. I ended up with a very nasty pseudomonas infection, one symptom of which is severe sensitivity to light.

While the antibiotics were doing their work, my doctor prescribed an eye patch. A big, black surgical eye patch clapped over my face. As obnoxious as it was, I have to say, I secretly liked the way it looked as I headed out to work that Monday. Firstly, it matched my black sport coat perfectly. Secondly, I thought it added an air of mystery I’d previously lacked. As if I was a European jewel thief. Again, the point here, it was not a subtle change.

And as with the black eye, for two days, no one at the office said a word. In meetings. In the hallway. At the water cooler. Here I was, a parrot short of Captain Avery, and not a single query. I recall my thinking was optimistic, as it was with the black eye. Something along the lines of “Well, it’s the South. They are being polite and well-mannered. People are concerned something is seriously wrong, and they don’t want to point it out or seem insensitive.”

Then came Wednesday. The antibiotics had worked their magic and the eye was fast on its way to healing. Far enough along that it was no longer light sensitive. It was still obvious that something had been wrong, but I was able to function sans patch. It was at work that day that the questions came pouring in.  “What happened to your eye? Is it going to be OK? Bless your heart, that looks terrible! I didn’t realize something was wrong with it.”

It was at that point I asked, because I had to, “Why did you think I’d been wearing an eye patch for three days?”

The replies I got remain as absolutely ego deflating now as they were then. “You’re just so… quirky. I thought it was something you were doing now.” As if I’d worn an ascot or a jaunty scarf.

Since then, I work very hard to “dial it down” in front of others.  Quirky and creative is good.  An eye patch as a fashion statement?  Not so much.

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