Dial D for Despair

For a skinny, maladjusted kid growing up itinerant amid the stifling fens of American public school systems, portable refuges of stability were rare, cherished things. I had my dog-eared copy of The Hobbit. I had my pocket knife, favored by the alpine fighting forces of the Republic of Switzerland. And most reliable of all, I had the periodic table of elements. Books can be left out in the rain, or accidentally dropped into a campfire. Pocket knives can be lost or stolen. But the very elements of nature themselves? I never worried about losing a copy of the table once I had taught myself to recreate it from memory. Wherever I might wander, the halogens were and shall always be fluorine, chlorine, bromine, iodine, and (theoretically) astatine. The alkali metals are lithium, sodium, potassium, rubidium, cesium, and francium, now and evermore. No matter how many friends I had to say goodbye to for the last time, no matter how many piles of boxes I would have to pack and unpack, no matter how many miles of lonesome highway I rumbled over entombed in heavy Detroit steel, molybdenum boasted an atomic number of 42, then and in all the days to come. Some kids have a security blanket or a favorite stuffed animal. I had the periodic table of elements.

Along with my little Mendeleevian anxiety relief nostrum, I carried with me an assortment of tiny mental images of what each of the elements looked like. Iron was a flat, grayish metal, black when poured into a skillet cast and properly protected against rust and wear. Neon was an easily excitable gas, fond of lingering near dive bars in the rough parts of town. Aluminum was light in both color and heft. As for calcium, why, everyone knows calcium is white as the driven snow, and brittle to boot. Calcium shares with carbon the property that when refined, they each produce commonplace writing implements. One is for chalk, the other is for pencil filaments. Everyone knows this, as everyone knows that you save your seashells for use in gardens and grout thanks to bivalves’ propensity for stripping the worlds’ oceans of its roughly 560 quadrillion metric tons of calcium in the raw.

As is often the case, my mental shortcuts proved at odds with what I should have known to be the truth. Calcium is a metal. Its chemical properties are similar to magnesium and strontium, both of which I knew damn tootin’ well to gleam metallic in the sweet sunshine. But then calcium had always been one of those weird elements that occupied more cultural space than chemistry space. To a boy raised in a country with an active and powerful dairy lobby, calcium is a desperately-needed nutritional component ejected from cattle far more than a promiscuous metal with an affinity for carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, iodine, bromine, or pretty much anything near the right-hand margin of the table. I suppose if I had grown up in rural China under Mao, I’d be inclined to think of iron as the fatal intruder that showed up in my garden to choke my crops and fill my fields with poison. As it was, I ascended to adulthood knowing calcium as the bone mineral. Woe betide you should you skimp on your Daily Recommended Intake of dairy, which was mirabile dictu, important enough to warrant its very own quadrant of a state-sponsored nutritional guide plastered across lunchroom cafeterias from coast to shining coast. You didn’t want brittle bones, did you? The threat of becoming a withered husk of an elder slumped in a wheelchair, bones silently disintegrating just below the paper-thin skin was enough to make any kid reach for an extra cup of yogurt, right?

Imagine my surprise to discover that the calcium found in bones and teeth is there to support its primary role in blood chemistry. Smooth muscle, including the heart, relies on calcium to coordinate simultaneous cellular polarization. If you’ve ever wondered how it is that adjacent cardiac cells know to contract at the same time, you can thank calcium for the heavy lifting. You can also thank calcium for proper renal function, especially blood pressure regulation. I can’t help but admire the strange way in which my mental model of something so important was so wrong for so long.

Breakfast at the bay was damned oysters. Oysters again. Always oysters. Freshly shucked, chilled by the cool Salish waters, gleaming pure and clean. Dave had assured me before we departed that the red tides so common before the world fell were little more than a bad memory of a sad collective action dilemma. No one spilled lawn chemicals into the ocean anymore. No one maintained a lawn anymore. And so we ate oysters, the loathsome goobers of the sea.

“Remember what you said a couple of days ago?”

Please understand that when Dave attempts to provoke an irritated response, it is rarely with idle intent. Though we had been northward bound for less than a full workweek, I had learned that failing to indulge his attempts at provocation bore the opportunity cost of missing out on enlightening insights. “Refresh my memory.”

Over the sickening, sucking sound of slurped oyster entrails, Dave picked a fight. “You said that politicians were in the business of peddling hope.” He dipped his fingers into the water to rinse off the slick mollusk residue. “I was wondering if maybe you wanted to recant that tiny bit of Grade-A bullshit.” Satisfied with the cleanliness of his hands, he rose to prepare the boat for launch.

I moved to assist him, less than pleased with the lingering stench of low tide that clung to me like a wet overcoat. “Recant? Why? Have you ever listened to a political speech? In what sense are the hollow promises of political aspirants not stuffed to bursting with hope-laden platitudes?”

“I accept your admission, and I thank you for recanting.” He deftly unwrapped the mainsail shroud.

“Come again?”

“That, dear sir,” he opened the forward trunk then stood quickly to scan the horizon. The telltale stippled clouds that usually heralded a blustery day were absent. “Is what she said.” He reached for the bag containing the Genoa. “We got, what do you reckon, maybe ten knots yesterday?” He eyeballed the hold, judging whether or not to keep the big forward sail topside.

I refused to trade adolescent jokes with him until this matter was concluded. “I’d hardly call that ‘recanting’.” We were heading into a westerly sweep, which meant we’d be tacking all day. Dealing with a big, billowing Genoa would be more trouble than it was worth. “Clip the sack to the deck there. I don’t expect we’ll be using it much.”

“That also, sir,” he secured the bag to a D-ring at the base of the mast, “was among the sentiments she voiced.” Dave hauled up the crab pots we’d dropped the night before. As I expected, they were empty. “You agree with me. Candidate blather isn’t real hope. It’s a masquerade, an illusion, mimicry of the real thing.” He stowed the traps with a mixture of pique and disappointment. “Calling political speech ‘hope’ sort of discredits the real thing, wouldn’t you agree?”

“I see what you mean, but I’m not sure I agree.” I prepared to hoist the main on the skipper’s orders. “Stump speeches aren’t any more misleading or false than the suitor trying to woo the maiden fair.”

“Now there’s a heck of a claim. Please elaborate.” He checked rudder position and began unmooring. “Mainsail up, if you please.”

I dutifully complied. “A boy promises a girl he’ll love her forever come hell or high water. That’s objectively… “I trailed off, choosing my words a bit more cautiously. “Okay, not objectively, but statistically. It’s statistically false. Eternal, sincere, devoted love, the kind in fairy tales? That’s the bullshit. It always has been.”

“Ha! Says the guy who’s walked, what, 3500 miles looking for his lost wife on the suggestion of a dream? You’re the last person on this dead planet who should be badmouthing storybook romance, my sallow companion of the sea.”

He was mostly right, but I wasn’t about to give him the satisfaction. “That’s different. Entirely different. I was a failing scavenger. When you’re hovering near the edge of starvation, any alternative is better. Even a doomed one perched at the end of a slender reed.”

“Wow. It’s like you’ve completely forgotten what it feels like to be seventeen years old and in love.” He snickered as the wind caught the sails and we headed deeper into the channel. “You don’t remember waking up every morning with that crazy cocktail of fear, lust, hope, and anxiety animating your every move, coloring your every thought? You forgot the grueling, intoxicating obsession? The breathless anticipation?”

“Oh, come off it.” The invitation to make another off-color, puerile remark was deliberate.

“It’s like you’re dead inside.” A sudden gust caught us unaware. We worked in tandem to cinch the sails in a bit. “Also, what you just said, so also did she.”

I was evidently not yet off the hook. “Okay, I’m dead inside. But it sounds like you agree with me. Young love is delusional. It seems to me that may be its greatest allure and its greatest peril.”

“Allure, peril. Yes yes. Continue.” He had adopted a cartoonishly condescending tone. I found myself amused. I couldn’t wait to introduce him to Brigit.

“Political flattery and pandering has the same sickening allure, but its perils were…”

“Are” he interrupted.

“Very well. Are. Its greatest perils are all bound in force. A lying suitor breaks hearts. A lying statesman can slaughter millions.

“So it’s a matter of stakes?”

“Well, partly. It’s also a matter of learning from your mistakes. A rake can seduce a naive girl, but that girl will learn. Try the same tricks on a grown woman while expecting similar results will be an enterprise all but doomed from the start.”

“But the political seduction is different?”

“Yeah it’s different. If electoral politics resembles any sort of relationship, it isn’t a fairy tale seduction, it’s more like a…” I hesitated to make the comparison, knowing that it might well be taken too literally. “More like domestic abuse.”

“That’s pretty different. I’m listening.”

I briefly wondered if I’d just ran blindly, stupidly into a rhetorical trap he’d set. I decided that, no. This fool’s remark was my own doing. “Don’t abuse victims routinely claim that they were the ones at fault for the violence they suffer? That’s the same sort of thing you hear when people go out of their way to excuse the cruelty of elected tyrants. We are instructed to respect…”


“Okay, but can we please just stick with a single tense? Grammar is dandy, but isn’t it a little tedious to interrupt an impromptu diatribe over minor points of syntax?”

“Quite right. I do apologize.” I appreciate that he did not bother to mask his insincerity. Honest dishonesty is a refreshing character trait.

“Where was I? Ah yes. We are exhorted to respect the institutions we are born into, and that lesson is repeated and reinforced throughout childhood. Obey, even when the teacher is brutal and stupid. Obey even when the cop is an abusive bully. Obey even when the executive wages pointless wars of vanity to cement his ranking among bloodthirsty historians. The potential for abuse is pretty clear.” I looked around for something to wash the taste of oyster out of my mouth. “Or at least it is to me.”

“Do you think that maybe thousands of years of literature from Homer to Hermione might also exert some undue influence?”

I found an expired packet of fruit punch mix. I decided the cure would be worse than the ailment. “Hm. Well sure. And there you go: same shit, different toilet. Politics is cheap seduction, just like real seduction. The only difference is that with sexual seduction, you have the luxury of correcting your mistakes the next time round. With politics, the only way to get over continual betrayal is to convince yourself that somehow, you’re the one at fault.”

“That’s pretty sick, dude.”

“Yes, that’s my point. It is sick.”

“So you recant.”

“I do?”

“Hope is a virtue. A lovely enough virtue to be one of the three theological virtues. Hope is patient, hope is kind. You recant, because the false hope of the politician is corrosive, abusive, and tyrannical.”

“Damn it, Dave.”

He smirked.

“I recant.”

Luck was with us that evening. A fat woodchuck happened to cross my path just as I had my pistol out. Breakfast would be roasted land mammal.

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