dminmem

dminmem

13 January 2009

Hang Lanterns in Celebration of Eunuch Cattle

The other day I was considering a name for a new project, looking for more in-depth history or information than my prior knowledge for the word "ox." I found this on Wikipedia:
Oxen (singular ox) are cattle trained as draught animals. Often they are adult, castrated males. In New England and Maritime Canada, the term oxen refers to trained steers at least four years of age. Prior to age four they are referred to as handy steers. Oxen are used for plowing, transport, hauling cargo, threshing grain by trampling, powering machines for grinding grain, irrigation or other purposes, and drawing carts and wagons. Oxen were commonly used to skid logs in forests, and sometimes still are, in low-impact select-cut logging. Oxen are most often used in teams of two, paired, for light work such as carting. In the past, teams might have been larger, with some teams exceeding twenty animals when used for logging.
As some of you know, the word is part of my name. And up to this point I hadn't seen or heard any reference to Chinese New Year, but the Year of the Ox begins January 26. I'm sure this is all coincidence. I think.



Years of the Ox have occurred four times during my life, beginning February 15, 1961, February 3, 1973, February 20, 1985 and February 7, 1997. Since I can be somewhat superstitious or at least looking for odd coincidences, parallels or "signs" I began trying to recall if any of those years bore any significant events or changes in my life -- good or bad.

1973
I always thought she was stylish and impressive. My maternal grandmother, Grace, managed the cosmetics department at Taylor's Rexall Drugs. She wore fashionable hats, drove a white 1961 Pontiac Tempest. Her red vinyl seats were sheathed in custom, clear plastic covers complete with a geometric pattern of bubbles that as an adult I assume were supposed to improve ventilation on hot, humid Kentuckiana days. As small children, however, my sisters and I were entertained with pushing the bubbles in while my mother and grandmother talked, or more likely argued, in the front seat. She always kept beanbag ashtrays on the dashboard and used Ronson lighters, the kind with colored lids and curiosities floating inside like miniature fishing flies or glitter, to light her Bel Airs. She leaned against the driver's door as she drove, her high, teased hairdo nearly reaching the headliner. She and "Crampie" used to collect Brown and Williamson coupons and Planters Peanut wrappers to redeem for things like Mr. Peanut banks for us. I have so many more memories of her, but during the few visits we made to her house throughout my childhood I remember a small metal bookcase next to the bathroom door filled with prescription bottles for what we knew as "nerve pills." I'm still not sure I completely understand what took her, but we buried her on a cold, rainy day in rural Kentucky in 1973, at the age of 53.

This Year of the Ox also took me from middle school to junior high. Seventh grade was my first experience with gym class, locker rooms, other naked boys, and learning not to wear briefs over a jock strap after following instructions from my mother. She was my guide in life, and although she'd never worn an athletic supporter I trusted her judgement until Gary Burton, a blossoming basketball star who no doubt had an involved father who taught him the ins and outs of jock wearing, pointed and laughed at me. Throughout that year I never understood why "Chet" our health/gym teacher stood at the top of the stairs watching us dress out/dress down and shower. The whole scene was intimidating to me. Naively, I figured he was keeping sentinel to prevent inevitable locker room shenanigans like towel flipping. Many years later, I was told that his motivation was more about seeing thirty or so young men naked. Sometime in the eighth grade I was standing outside with some friends before school early one windy morning and witnessed him using his hand to guard his overly-lacquered, light brown helmet of a coiffure. When we asked if he had a headache he replied, "no, I don't want my hair to get mussed, do I?" I'm serious. His relentless referral to us as "ladies" must've been a feeble attempt to prove his masculine superiority. It didn't work. I thought he was a priss.

1985
My ex, Buddy, and I had leased a big four-square on Brook Street in Old Louisville, one with a long, narrow lot and off-street parking on a former garage pad. It was a lovely home with an entry hall, pocket doors to the living room, decks off of each floor and an established asparagus garden in the back yard. We'd shared the first and second floors with one of the ex's dependable co-workers from a restaurant downtown, "By the Bridge". I rented the third floor apartment to person with whom I wasn't acquainted and that we rarely ever saw. He seemed nice enough. He told us he was a student and he worked at a corner grocery at First and Magnolia. Over time his periodic acne and seemingly unmanageable hair was always a curiosity to me. Little did I know, I would gain more understanding of his condition than I could have wanted or imagined.

After evicting him for being several months in arrears I entered the apartment and was immediately sickened at the foot-deep, blended mess of clothes, magazines, newspapers, mail, and fast food wrappings. In the bathroom, on the back of the toilet, I saw a can of "Psssssst." This was a spray shampoo popularized by women in the early 1960s who wore bee-hives. It works on the same principal as cleaning fur coats if I understand correctly. However, I'm sure the intent wasn't to completely forgo a good scrubbing at least once a week with soap and water for a regimen of nothing but the spray. Yet, I'm sure he wasn't shampooing or bathing with any regularity as evidenced by the petrified cat turds in the bathtub.

Leaving the room to continue my assessment I went into the kitchen, where I discovered that he'd never brought in a refrigerator or stove. I'd offered to provide the appliances while negotiating the rental agreement, but he assured me that he had some of his own and that he wanted to move them in. Thankfully, this meant that there wasn't a waiting Frigidaire laboratory needing fumigation. But it did mean that I'd find spoiled leftovers in take-out boxes and random pieces of Tupperware mixed with canned goods and dirty dishes inside the cabinets.

I used a large gravel shovel to clean out the apartment and apparently the timing was perfect. Shortly after all this, my in-laws' trailer suspiciously burned to the ground. I heard tales of a drunken threat from my stepfather-in-law. The investigation concluded that the fire started with the oven. So, the three of them -- mom, step dad and teenage son -- moved in with us. Then there was a trip to Detroit to rescue my mother-in-law's sister and her dog from a toxic living arrangement with a man who wore a bad toupee and invested in too many Franklin Mint collections. While this aunt could be charming she was more often obnoxious and hateful, lit up like a neon sign with cheap bourbon purchased from the sundries store a block away.

The sisters were from northwestern Tennessee where another sister still lived, and between them they decided it was time to move back home. I had been working a dead-end job at a 36-pump gas station/convenience store that friends and I sarcastically referred to as Stupid America, unable to afford tuition for school. My relationship with my family was all but non-existent because my mother misunderstood and did not want a gay son. I couldn't bear the constant scripture battering so I just stayed away. Consequently this estranged me from my little brother. It would be many years before my younger sister and I would reconcile the wrongs born of many misgivings and misdeeds on both our parts. She'd begun her career in the Air Force earlier and the distance only added to the chasm. My youngest sister was the only family member I can remember being supportive, but she was living Southern California with her Marine husband and their two baby boys. I saw a move to Memphis as an opportunity to escape, a chance to start over and an adventure. I agreed to move with my ex the following year.
1997
At this point I had lived in Memphis for eleven years, my cheating, drug addict ex was long gone, I had been working at a good job for nine years. Cameron and I celebrated our fifth anniversary shortly after we celebrated our second year in this house that August. And if I remember correctly, 1997 was a pretty uneventful year.

All in all, these Years of the Ox seem pretty much like all the others. They all have their share of good and bad, and now, I look back on many of these memories with gratitude because they've put me where I am today. I'm not sure what this Year of the Ox will bring, but I am sure of one thing: I'm going to live this one a day at a time.

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