Friday, December 2, 2016

Unless ...

It came to me in a dream, and I awoke with this thought: What is (almost literally) the least I could do to make some sort of adolescent, midlife crisis-type statement reaffirming my commitment to humanity and "positive thinking" in response to this miserable slum of a year?

I know! Get a hopelessly unoriginal tattoo referencing Dr. Seuss's The Lorax! The last time I got a tattoo, I was 19 and impulsive. Now I'm 39 and impulsive, so I figured why not celebrate the 20th anniversary of one puerile impulse by indulging another? 

Yes, I would do this.

I walked into High Tide Tattoo in downtown Juneau on my lunch break, and was greeted by two friendly twenty-something women who were both inked, pierced, and dyed from head to toe. 

"Um . . . I want to get a tattoo," I said meekly, as if there were any other reason to be standing in this establishment. I verbally identified myself as a dorky mom, as if that too weren't obvious. 

"Okay," the person at the front desk responded with perky cheer. She asked me what I wanted, where I wanted it, and showed me some options for fonts after I told her I would like the word "unless" followed by an ellipses on the back of my neck. 

They weren't sure they could fit me in, so while they were checking I had a few minutes to think about whether this was an impossibly lame thing to do, i.e., just one more petty regret to tally in my life's long line of petty regrets; or whether it would feel physically and emotionally cathartic. 

I decided that the two were not mutually exclusive: that tattooing the word "unless . . . " on the back of my neck was both impossibly, regrettably lame and would be physically and emotionally cathartic. I then proceeded to reverse-engineer a symbolic justification for it that ended up feeling pretty real to me.

It felt right to get a tattoo that referenced my favorite childhood author, in a typewriter-font reminiscent of the comfort and ferocious power of the written word. It also seemed right to put it on the back of my neck, a discreet location yet one where a lot of tension and emotion is stored. And it seemed right, too, to choose a loaded word, imbued with so much cautionary foreboding and potential.

Humanity is capable of inflicting so much misery on itself. In fact, it's arguably humanity's first and most natural impulse to do exactly that. Nothing good about the way we treat ourselves or each other is guaranteed. Now more than ever, I think, it's important to acknowledge that harsh (SAD?) reality. 

American democracy as we know it is not some immutable structure. It ceases to work properly unless people care to have it work properly. People cease to care about each other unless they cultivate empathy. At a more granular level, we as individuals can never be happy unless we internalize the classic "serenity prayer:" Unless we accept those things we cannot change, have the courage to change the things we can (and should), and are wise enough to know the difference.

"Dare I ask if we're up to the "l" yet?" I asked the tattoo artist about two minutes into her work. When I wondered aloud if it would hurt, she had warned it would feel "a little spicy," which was the perfect description. I reminded myself I'd had two babies and could handle this. Even as I asked if we were almost done, I was hoping we weren't; it was oddly more pleasurable than painful.

"We're done!" she laughed, and we were. We were done with the tattoo. But we will never be done with the reason I got it.

I don't think Dr. Seuss was in AA (and fuck knows I'm not), but I think he nailed it when he wrote that "unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not."


  1. I can see it now, when they roll you over on the gurney for the final check ride the coroner will have the final chuckle: unless, what?


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