string theory

String Theory

The morning we met her is still fresh in my mind.  After being led to a small, sterile room of non-descript furnishing, my wife and I were instructed by an official-looking woman to simply wait.  As we sat and talked about the unfolding circumstances bringing us all together, the door opened.  Entering the room, TB surveyed her environment with intelligent, piercing eyes that missed nothing.  No pale vegetarian or fragile flower was she.  Still relatively young and not yet in possession of her full powers, she presented a natural grace of limb that managed to convey  superiority.  The idea of royality formed without resistance in my mind.  As we all sat together and became acquainted, I gained confidence that her sojourn with us would be “right.”  Little did I know what was in store for me.

She came into our home and, over the next year and a half, presented the fundamentals of String Theory to me again and again.  I found the externals of the Theory to be entertaining, but its secrets, incomprehensible.   TB never got tired of going through the motions of yet one more session.  I played my part with polite enthusiasm. The truth was, she gloried in the exercise for her own reasons.  It would be almost a year before I discovered what those “reasons” were.

While on a homeschoolers’ field trip last year to Tigers For Tomorrow (a big cat sanctuary and rescue facility), our group got the explanation of how some handlers could actually go into a cage with a full-grown, wild tiger. It was that they had an understanding of instinct.  Our guide was one of those who had a relationship of sorts with several of the tigers.  He shared with us that as long as none of the instinctive behaviors of the tigers were triggered, a knowlegable handler could interact safely with the cats.  However, if an action provoked, say, a territorial defense instinct, the handler would become a total stranger to the tiger and be perceived as a threat.  Unfortunate culinary things could follow if cool-headed action wasn’t taken.  Recently, as I reflected upon what we learned about the big cats and their instincts, the mystery of TB began to untangle itself.

I was sprawled across my bed, trying to make some sense one of my schoolbooks when she entered the room.  My high frequency hearing had long been lost to an employment environment in my youth, so I didn’t perceive the delicate tinkling sound that can sometimes be caught when TB is near.  She approached me as I lay there and, from the direct look she gave, it was clear what was on her mind.  She had just finished her dinner and was feeling frisky.   She hopped onto the bed beside me and I glanced up to see that she had her treasure, folded and firmly held, between her teeth.  There is still nothing on this earth that Tinkerbell cherishes more than her “String.”  Riveting jade eyes peered owlishly out from her dark face.  Luxurious, iridescent black fur covered her slightly pudgy body.  She dropped the string by my hand and, crouching into position with tail swishing, assumed the role of dangerous carnivore.  Suddenly, she was one of Plato’s forms, the archetypical cat.

As I had done dozens and dozens of times before, I took one end of the string and gave it a pull.  Not a real pull,  just a tease.  Tinkerbell gave me the look that said that she would brook no such impertinence on my part.  Our tradition was well established and I was expected to perform.  Very well. ( I have occasionally noted that females of all species have an unpredictable sense of humor in such situations.)  I gave the string a proper jerk and feline joy erupted upon the bed!  As if in disdain of the laws of physics, Tinkerbell sprang after her end of the string with a lightness that belied her ample frame.  Back and forth and up and down we performed our dance until, finally, I took the string and hid it under the pillow so “she” could rest.  Sitting there on my comfortable bed in my comfortable house, I thought about my poor unsophisticated friend.  Bless her simple little head.  She would gladly chase that stupid string just as long as I wanted to pull it.  However, with just a glance at her satisfied demeanor, a suspicion began to form in my consciousness.  It began to dawn upon me that maybe, just maybe, my so-called “sophistication” had never really delivered on the fulfillment such vanities promise.

As a member of that illustrious club known as homo sapiens, I have something that Tinkerbell doesn’t – opposable thumbs.  These marvels of dexterity make me a dandy therapist for Tinkerbell’s condition.  I don’t mean that I am special, but just that I am someone who can pull the string – someone who can help her transcend her tame existence for a few minutes.  There’s little doubt that the act has resulted in a connection between us.  Proof can be seen in the fact that it is usually I, and not my wife or children, who is chosen to perform the sacred ritual.  Who knows what a cat can feel, yet I am certain that I have a special place in her world.  Unaware that she gives the greater gift, her unapologetic drive to satisfy that wildness within causes me to examine my own heart for signs of such a need.

As I sit now and ponder the wealth of friends and family that I enjoy, I am humbled.  There are so many who, having passed my way, left their mark upon my life.  Each one, in their own way, taught, challenged, and provoked me into the person I have become.  In my great and impatient need for meaning and purpose, affirmation and respect, each gave such as they had.  I guess you could say “they pulled the string” for me.

The first to serve in this capacity was my mother.  Pathologically supportive, she would have packed me a lunch and asked me to write if I had told her that I was walking to the Moon that day.  Even my earliest memories of when I was 2 or 3 years old had something in them of my Mom taking me seriously.  How did she know that was, and remains, my greatest need.  Mom was a Stringmaster.

Dad wasn’t around much when I was young and I would have been deprived of a much-needed bad influence had my mother’s step-dad not claimed me for his apprentice.  “Pop” taught me to deal with demanding women.  His wife (Nanny to me) was as formidable a woman as had ever shaken a finger at anyone.  Maintaining self respect around her was dangerous work but could just be managed… with the right technique.  The trick was to agree to anything and then go and do what you “dang well” pleased.  I was too small to pronounce “passive-aggressive.”  My favorite memory was when we would come back to his house in the evening and Pop would pull his car into the old single door garage behind the house.  It wasn’t a great neighborhood, even then.  I sensed Pop’s concern for security as I would watch him padlock the flimsy old door.  It never failed that he would give me time to search the ground and select the perfect stick.  He would then pick me up so I could thrust the little limb through the clasp of the lock and add my small measure of protection to that which guarded the old Cadillac.  Watching the man in action was like reading Huck Finn  He was unaware that his “string” dangled behind him.  I chased it just to be near.

In spite of all the love and care that my mother and Pop had lavished upon me, my teenage years were a study in dumbology through which I maintain an impressive 4.0 grade average.  I was not a “winner.”  It was spelled similarly but it was actually “whiner” (or possibly “wiener”).  I hated that everybody and everything intimidated me.  Like most young men, I had fantasized about being self-confident and a “force to be reckoned with.”  One day, a guy from Nebraska moved here to Birmingham to open a karate school.  He was only 3 or 4 years older than me, but he seemed to this small town boy to be a minor deity.  After I signed the contract and received the pajamas he called a uniform, I was ready to put the fear of God in every bully who had ever sat on my chest and fed me grass on the school  playground.  There was one problem.  My instructor wanted me to actually spar with the other students.  What if they hit me?  It’s all fun and games until someone gets a mouthful of foot.  At last the time came when I couldn’t put it off any longer and I lined up opposite another student of my own rank.  The command to begin was given and he HIT me!  Just then, something primeval awoke within me and I realized, to my amazement, that I really kinda liked it.  String!!!!

My late teens and early twenties found me working in my Dad’s business.  My Mom and Dad divorced when I was 14 and his new “freedom” gave him leisure to start the company that my brother and I now own.  My father was a tortured soul who was given to fits that alternated between anger and depression.  Dad pulled a different “string” than any of the other figures in my life.  Already, I had accumulated enough financial obligations to require a regular paycheck.  I needed the job and so when my dad would pull the string of ridicule, I gritted my teeth and stayed put.  When he pulled the string of unreasonableness I kept quiet and despised myself for a coward and a weakling.  Not all strings are joyful, but they all do a necessary work.  The truth is, many of my father’s negative observations of me were justified.  Many years later my father would soften and become a close friend and trusted advisor.  His immense knowledge, both of songwriting and the music industry, would enable me to pursue my own musical quest.

Now, at 50 years of age, I still have things inside me that grumble to get out.  None of the keys on my own ring seem to open their door.  Times change.  Pop and my Dad are long gone.  As it happens, I have had the privilege of pulling the string for others who were, as yet, unaware of their own hidden potential.  Some have thanked me for it while others resented it.  How could I not pay-forward the services rendered to me by those who have so touched my life?  My Mentor has bid me be a “fisher of men” and this I try to do.  I have discovered that the best anglers fish without being obvious.  In my mind, I can see Peter’s whole body quivering, cat-like, in the boat when the Master came walking by on the water.  He was pulling the string.

Tinkerbell and I now display signs of our inevitable domestication.  Good health and a mid-body pudge are the results of limiting ourselves to manageable dangers.  Some physicists suspect, that according to their version of String Theory, the most basic particle of matter is a “string.”  Tinkerbell and I are OK with that.

I still can’t hear that high pitched jingling of the tags on Tinkerbell’s collar, but I still imagine that, when she brings me her string and I look in her eyes, I do hear the request of her heart – “don’t let me forget what I am.”

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4 Responses to string theory

  1. Cary Chandler says:

    Wow Brother, really great writing and deep transparency. Thanks for sharing your heart and mind here. CC

  2. john edwards says:

    at first I thought that you were talking about Teresa Burchfield

  3. Kevin Rhea says:

    Mark, this is a very, very good piece of writing. The insight into the nature of your cat, and then into your own nature, and finally into the hidden things that drive all of us is dead on right. Your “string theory” on how others helped lead you onto better things is a sound theory. The creative writing that you employ during the article was interesting and inviting to me as a reader. I have a cat of my own, he enjoys wrestling with my hand, chewing on it, and clenching it as he would, prey, in the wild. This leaves scratches and occasionly he draws blood, but not often. Maybe, now, I understand why I enjoy it a little too. Maybe, I am not a complete masochist afterall.

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