Thursday, September 17, 2009

Significant Things with the Madonna of Conflagration

“I’m no longer interested in significant things, okay?”

I never know how to respond to the Madonna of Conflagration when she says something like this. There’s usually an edge in her voice, a light in her eye and a hand on her hip. A Momentous Decision Has Been Reached and It Is Now Time to Talk About It.

“Um, how are we defining significant things here?”

“Anything that isn’t, like, minutiae. Matters of life and death. Matters of import. Matters of great moment. That stuff. I am no longer paying attention to it. From now on, I am going to sweat the hell out of the small stuff. I am going to take care of the little things and let the big things take care of themselves. Actually, the big things can do whatever they want. The big things can get fat and start smoking again for all I care. They no longer exist for me. I'm totally through with significance.”

She stands and starts pacing up and down the sidewalk. The very first of the autumn leaves are falling and a light wind is blowing them around her feet. There aren't many other people around, as it's one of the first colder days of the season and most everybody else has rediscovered how much they hate the cold. Even the traffic going by on Rawson Avenue seems slower and lighter, squeezed down by a bridge construction project going on a few blocks away. They're racing to finish before the first snow. They're not going to make it. I find that comforting for some reason, perhaps because poor public works planning is one of the few constants in this world.

The Madonna of Conflagration loves the cold. While the season itself often brings her down emotionally, the weather invigorates her mentally and physically. For most of October she's a blend of moping and extravagant gesticulation, hopeless sighing and vigorous pacing. Things usually reach equilibrium by the end of November, but these early weeks are often quite trying.

“Maybe I'll start collecting something,” she says. “I bet you can get really mired in the details if you collect something. That's pretty much, like, the definition of being a collector. There's rituals and conventions and message boards. Filing and labeling and organizing. All that shit.”

“Sounds like a clerical job. Are you looking for a hobby or are you thinking about temping?”

There's nothing quite like the thrill of a beautiful woman giving you the finger. This particular finger goes flying by as her pacing has intensified.

“This is bigger than a hobby, motherfucker. This is a philosophical thing. This is me readjusting how I interact with the world. It is heavy heavy business, is what I'm saying."

I nod, but her pacing has carried her too far and too fast to see it, sending her up the block and away from our bench. I watch her almost vanish from sight, but she abruptly swivels around and comes marching back benchward.

I’m going to collect antique bottles!" she declares. "I’m going to get really into collecting them. I’m going to have price guides, and a tool box full of instruments specially designed for antique bottle cleaning, and solvents that have been approved for use on old glass. I'll subscribe to a quarterly magazine about antique glass, and at least two glass discussion news groups. Maybe more! I'll go to antique stores and flea markets. Every weekend! After a while --and sooner than you would think-- I'll be able to identify and describe a bottle just from a little fragment of glass.”

“Like an archaeologist.”

Another finger goes whizzing by. “And…and….and…I’ll specialize. I'll be, like, the country's foremost expert on one particular kind of bottle. Bottles from the northeast! From dairies! If someone is making a movie about an old eastern dairy, they'll totally consult with me to get the bottles right. But I won't know all the bottles. I'll specialize in one specific kind of dairy bottle. And not milk bottles either!”

“Did they bottle anything else?”

“Butter bottles. I'll be the country's, no the world's go to source for the history of butter bottles of northeastern dairies. From 1919 to 1925.”

“Pretty sure butter didn't come in bottles.”

“It didn't?”

“Little crocks, I think. I'm almost positive it came in little crocks.”

She suddenly stops pacing. I realize the cold breeze I had been enjoying was entirely generated by her. The weather almost seems hot without it. She flumps back on to the bench.

“That’s sorta taken the wind out of my sails,” she says. “I’ve got no interest in collecting crocks.”

“Are you sure? It would be pretty, uh, minutiae-y? Minute?”

She frowns.

“No, it’s like, I dunno, trying too hard? I want to get involved with organic minutiae. Something small and real like, trainspotting or botany or...” she looks around and her eyes light on my shoes. “Or people's habits. Their weird little things. I could investigate that. Like that fucked up thing you do with your shoe laces.”


“They don’t cross. Why don’t they cross?”

“These are dress shoes.”


“Proper dress shoes are straight-laced.”

She stares at me.

“It’s, you know, traditional. It’s where the term ‘straight-laced’ comes from. It...presents a neater appearance than, uh, crossing the laces.”

She continues staring at me. She leans in, keeping eye contact, further and further, until our eyelashes nearly touch. She has found some minutiae clinging to my soul and is giving it a good scrutinizing. In the scales of the universe, the Madonna of Conflagration's desire to study people's habits is sitting in one pan. In the other is the reality of things like straight-laced shoes. She sees that it's only the tip of the iceberg, hinting at a great frozen mass of banality beneath.

“My god,” she says, “I think you’ve cured me.” She stands up, gesturing for me to follow. “C’mon, c’mon, let’s go find something significant to do. Right now.”

I follow (of course), idly wondering what significant thing we'll find to do, and how many more weeks life will be like this, and whether I really want it to stop.

No comments: