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Of Flying Sandwiches and Sensory Life, part 1 (4-21-21)

Updated: Apr 26, 2021

Music, an easy one; the first few measures of the Overture from “Carousel,” one of thousands, for me. Food grilling, on the breeze from a nearby house; ‘is that pineapple?’ or the combination of garlic and ginger? The evocative, bodily feel, that sensory response, of certain songs or smells. Oh. To be alive! In a human body. What did we do to deserve this – all this?

Connections to memories, well-buried or visited periodically. Sometimes a single word -- without melody or scent of its own -- can rouse other senses, whole other stories.

Here is part 1 of 2 for a rousing few words, for me:

“We’re overdue for bite-wings,” Dr. Lipps told me last week. Been 4 years.

He’s let me off the X-ray hook during several years of extra otherwise radiation (repeat mammograms). Also, dental insurance sucks. But I had to agree to the bite-wings.

He got up to summon his X-ray technician, back from Iran. A memory tried to surface. Wings, but what of them? I’d always felt compelled by birds, always wanted to fly, figured I "took to" swimming competitively in part because of its partial release from gravity.

When I first got an email account through AOL, ‘donobird’ was the only name that came to mind.

When a Toyota Tundra rear-ended me while I sat at a red-light in ’08, and totaled my Civic and whiplashed my neck, insurance paid for some physical therapy. After several visits and tests, the doctor indicated vaguely that we’d hit the wall of insurance coverage. He asked me, “Is there anything you want to do that you can’t do?”

I thought for a second and had to answer, “Fly.”

He looked at me first with confusion.

I flapped my arms a bit and added, “Me, fly.” (What I can’t do, but want to.)

He was not in any kind of mood for the likes of me.

“Is. There. Anything. You. USED TO BE ABLE TO DO that you can’t do now?”

My broken wings pulled in toward each other. “I guess not.”

And that was that. (Therapy-wise. My totaled Civic still moved, so I kept driving it for another year.)

Anyway, I got bite-wings the other morning. As usual, I walked out of the dentist’s poorer but refreshed.

My teeth feel so well-scraped and buffed after a cleaning, I don’t want to eat lunch. Lunch feels like a misdemeanor, a vague sacrilege, at least for a few more hours.

But the hungry part. Maybe I would buy, just not eat, some lunch, until it became dinner.

The word “lunch” has always bloomed a very specific taste in my tongue’s brain: tuna-salad-and-iceberg-lettuce-on-Wonder-bread sandwich.

I can’t explain. Especially now, when I haven’t eaten this specific sandwich in recent decades. (Do they even sell ultra-refined, white Wonder-bread any more?) Yet, if someone says, “Had lunch yet?” or now types in a Zoom chat, “Stepping away to make lunch,” my senses go completely tuna-sandwichward.

A lunch-bag regular, that one, during childhood. I went to 4 different schools from Kindergarten-6th grade. Rock-Creek Palisades, Maryland; St. Paul’s, Massachusetts; Holy Redeemer, Maryland; St. Edmund’s, Illinois.

None of them had cafeterias. Nowhere to buy lunch, no tater-tots, no pizza-bagels, no friendly “lunch ladies” until 7th grade and public-school, in yet-another Maryland. Until then, only half-pint cartons of milk, delivered to our classrooms. We sat and ate at our same school-desks. (From friends with grade-schoolers, now trickling back to their “bubbles” in-person, 2021 school cafeterias are still pandemically closed. They eat at their desks. I’ve felt unexpectedly charmed, and warmed, to hear this.)

At St. Edmunds in Oak Park, Ill., a man would bring around a milk-crate full of small, squat cartons each day (just before 'missing children' were advertised on their architecture) while we pulled out whatever had waited in the cloakroom from inside our brown-paper bags from home.

Some children lived close enough to dash home for lunch. Most kids’ lunches waited – unrefrigerated with mayonnaise notwithstanding -- beneath our damp coats on hooks, behind a half-wall. (No one wore anything called a “cloak,” but the name had stuck, from olden cloaky days.)

Milk-money was the coin of our daily lunch realm, and invisible; I think parents wrote monthly checks. Usually my little red-and-white carton was the only ‘plain’ one in the crate.

Not sure why, but I couldn’t abide premixed chocolate milk in a carton. Something really wrong there. To me, it tasted so much nothing like lifting a spoon of Nestle’s Quik out of the canister-hole, its powder reaching my nose first on household wind, then stirring up my own, into a glass of plain milk.

I didn’t mind if kids teased me for being the odd-ball. You could not have paid me to drink a half-pint of ‘chocolate’* along with my sandwich and Red Delicious apple or twig of green grapes.

With 5 of us in school in Oak Park, our mother would usually make our lunches the night before, assembly-line style and into brown-paper bags. Either basic peanut-butter & grape-jelly, or bologna & peeled slice of American cheese, OR! tuna-fish salad & iceberg lettuce.

Canned tuna, forked apart by a spoon of sweet-pickle relish, then a blob of mayo, possibly a shake of celery-seed. Plus one, crunchy if browning curl of iceberg lettuce, all leaching into white, gooshy Wonder bread. Highly refined Wonder bread, preferable to the masticating hardship of actual grain for children in the late-‘60s/early-‘70s? “Builds strong bodies 12 ways,” according to Saturday morning commercials. We watched a boy quickly grow toward the height of his surfboard, and believed the commercials.**

By the mid-‘70s, the question of fiber, then called “roughage,” arose. Whole-wheat or multi-grain, even a return to dark-rye with caraway seeds, gained favor.

Iceberg? Funny name for a lettuce, or any food. Looked it up: comes from ice-packed train cars that carried them over many hundreds of miles in our vast, “superior” post-War country of countries. Those watery, pale-green heads from the farms of California fared much better than romaine or butterhead, even if those options were grown locally (and with greater nutritional value). Just outside any big U.S. city in late-Boom or Gen X fridges, most crispers held iceberg lettuce. Caesar salad, with its dark romaine and salty fish, they called fancy. Now, a throwback “wedge” of iceberg with blue-cheese, bacon and walnuts shows up on a menu, and they call it fancy.

By the mid-‘80s, we had options like “spring mix” and mâche, frisee, roquette, as if they’d never existed before, when in many countries they pulled such dark-leafy greens out of their backyards into the kitchen. (How the rest of the world must watch us, mystified! And ever more so. And ever more rightly so.)

Remember when there were only 3 kinds of apples in a bag-lunch or fridge – Red Delicious, Golden Delicious, green Granny Smith?

And only a few dog breeds in most neighborhoods – dachshund, collie, spaniel, poodle, maybe a German Shepherd?

Now I can’t imagine a world without Gala apples! I don’t blink at the dozen options of apple varieties, even at Safeway. Just this weekend I met a Cava-tzu and an Aussie-doodle in the woods (as their humans described them, when I guessed only half-right).

Maybe my “lunch” association with tuna-salad-and-iceberg-lettuce-on-Wonder is just a symbolic mystery, never to be understood. I’m used to the mysterious, and am cool with the vastness of the incomprehensible.

My dentist’s office is on the same block as a Whole Foods, where they sell small containers of pre-mixed tuna with:

1) dried-cranberries and red-onions (small containers that had all expired the day before; don’t think I don’t check, Whole people!) or

2) ‘Mediterranean-style’ with artichokes, red peppers, red onions and fresh herbs (made the day before -- all righty then)

(Yes, I know I could buy those ingredients and mix up my own version) (especially when I’m teleworking in a global pandemic) (But) (I don’t really want to eat any lunch, with teeth so clean and only temporarily so, even if these Mediterranean containers are not expired and) (Lunch = tuna-salad sandwich prepared by someone else, with wait-what sweet-pickle-relish, and at least something like love) (Which always tastes better than any sandwich I make) (Can’t explain) (And it’s a special treat, just, getting out into The Economy) (Stop judging me!) (You internal judging Self) (And member of a “suspiciously frugal” car-buying segment, as reported about the new Honda Fit that replaced my totaled Civic, eventually) (But Golly-gee do I digress).

Bite-wings cost more than you’d guess, if you had read about Marie Curie, from a series of biographies with hard-bound orange covers in your school library way back in Oak Park, Illinois. But my teeth, including “tooth 13” now gone from my head, are still precious and grateful body parts, so their wings are worth it.

Throughout my childhood, and until one specific dream in Lucerne, Switzerland when I was 23, I awoke from recurring dreams of my teeth falling out.

Many interpretations of these kinds of dreams land on “issues of loss and life changes.” (Of those, I had plenty. Just going to 4 schools in 7 years never occurred to me as one of those until I typed it out, some paragraphs above. Life changes, sure. But who knows. Surely not me.)

Recurring as they were, every such dream would surprise me when I woke. Asleep, and suddenly, my teeth would start to tumble out of my mouth, calving away from the whole of my upper and/or lower jaw’s iceberg or glacier. Usually the teeth would collect in the palm of my own hand, sometimes scatter onto the hardwood floor of the bedroom in which I dreamed, where two of my three sisters also dreamed. All my teeth, every chunky bone eventually, would fall out before I woke up.

Woke, my dominant, right hand would fly to my mouth. They were there. All there, all my teeth. Oh, sweet baby Jesus, really? Okay. Relief to the nth power. When their falling out of my mouth, launching from my body, had felt so REAL, so meaningful and so other-words-I-couldn’t-even-gather out of my brain, just awake. Except that I would think: again?

Loss. Life changes. Teeth flying off. Okay. Even young, I’d think, On the other hand, What day, any given day, of any life, did NOT hold loss or change? All of the days did. The cardinals in the tree outside were never on the same branch when I pulled back the curtain; the light never reached through the trees to my eyeballs in the same way; some blade of grass or leaf had commended its spirit to the Spirit in the Sky since I’d last looked at the grass and leaves. Then I’d think: I never tell anyone about my teeth-falling-out-dreams, and maybe other people had them too, but they didn’t tell anyone either. Or, maybe I was just weird that way, in the way that yes, I was the one who really wanted the one, not-chocolate little carton of milk in that crate, Mr. Milkman. Also thank you. The crate must be heavy, to haul around.

Now and then I would remember our Dad’s story that he needed dental work the summer between high-school and college. “Back then,” he explained, “they just pulled all your teeth out. That was easier, and less expensive.” So he was toothless, waiting for dentures at age 18 when he started college. Wow, I would think. Looking like a cartoon gummy 90-year-old, and just starting college? We had it so good, like we often heard. (He and his brothers had roller-skated to school at Gonzaga.)

My first memories of having those teeth-flying-out dreams?

a) my same father, coming back from Vietnam – early -- somehow ‘sick’

b) into a still-Federal institution called St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in D.C., and

c) he would come ‘home-home’ when he was “okay” but

d) we were never sure how long he’d be “okay,” or have to go back “in-house,”

e) he was smarter than smart, and insanely meaningful to any employer, he was also, insanely not-correctly-diagnosed

f) and there hung the tale for all of us, including himself.

We celebrated my 9th birthday at St. Elizabeth’s. Sort of. It was subdued, even somber. But I’d overheard my mother say into the kitchen wall-phone, “the doctors think it would be better for us to celebrate together, in spite of, you know …”

Loss, Life Transition Time, Baby. Maybe even: on your own, Muffin? Let your dreams tell their own stories. Be okay with all that. Be you. Let the teeth tumble out your mouth, if they want to fly.

Worked and borrowed my way through college, still dreaming of my teeth falling out. In a stroke of good-friend-Karen-A.-luck, I ended up illustrating a series of greeting cards with college themes, and set all that illustration money aside, for a Eurailpass and a couple months (turned into many months) of bopping around another continent in the ‘80s, sleeping on trains or in youth hostels, hitchhiking or whatever it took.

My very last teeth-falling-out dream flew away on a specific day and place: top-bunk bed inside a youth hostel in Lucerne, Switzerland, where I’d found myself amid the pagan-turned-Christian festival of Fasching (Fastnacht) (Mardi Gras) (Party before Fasting Sacrifice for 40 days) (Winter Will Be Over but Not Yet -- Hang On) (Scare the Demons of Dark Winter Out of the Woods and let Life, a.k.a. Spring Again). Dream – and Life -- shifts are rarely so clear or defined, but this moment was one, for me.

A February day in Lucerne, cold but sunny. I had met a lively woman from Lodi, California on the train there. Maureen asked me what I missed most about home. Hmh – thanks for asking! “The feel, the bodily sense, of playing my guitar.” The calluses on my fingertips had melted like glaciers. “How about you?” I asked.

“I miss a spoonful of peanut butter with chocolate chips.” Nice! “I have to lose 20 pounds before I go back home, to be in my friend’s wedding.” She looked fine to me, and I told her so, but I could see she would probably not eat her spoonful of peanut butter with chips until after that wedding.

Before we debarked from the train, she suggested we find a hostel together. We tossed our backpacks onto bunk-beds and headed outside, to see what was what. Something was up in Lucerne.

What a cheerful festival, this Fastnacht/Carnival! Everyone there, whether Swiss, Japanese, Kiwi or Yank (west coast or east), was in this party together. That night, both men and women loaned us eye-liner and face-paint so we could masquerade like everyone else. Sitting on a street curb, Maureen and I drew Egyptian-thick liner around each other’s eyes, then swept on gold eye-shadow and mascara, which someone had passed along. (Completely unhygienic, FYI, this stranger-sharing of cosmetics! Don’t do it, if you find yourselves sitting on a street curb in French Switzerland when winter needs a final push of tilted-planet faith. (Still glad I did it.))

Maureen and I checked each other’s ancient-Egyptian faces on the curb. We both said “Gorgeous!” and meant it. We had lost track of time. Well after midnight, we could guess.

Before we knew it, a Swiss guy, our age, pulled us up off the curb. “I am Beat (say Bay-aht) – b-e-a-t,” he spelled. So appreciated the instant spelling. In English. Plus the pronunciation. And his Fasching, Mardi Gras energy.

We were standing. Beat pulled another man by the arm and asked us all if we wanted to learn “The Flying Dutchman.” (You had me at ‘flying,’ Bay-aht.)

Four people huddle, link arms across the shoulders and circle in one direction, faster and faster until two (opposite each other) can literally lift up their feet and fly around, from the momentum of the other two. You opposite pairs take turns flying. Centrifugal force for the win!

I will never forget that airborne feeling. Gravity-free. I’ll never forget the whirling swipes of white – turned out to be swans in the Lac – from the corners of my eyes as I spun around. (Poor birds couldn’t sleep, impatient for the town to run out of its annual, crazy-ass gas, and wake up to 40 days of quiet Lent.)

Parades of giant puppet-people and vehicular floats ambled through the streets all night long. Drums beat. Beat sang. We sang with him.

We stayed out all night, dancing in our sweatshirts and sneakers and someone else’s eyeliner and gold sparkle. At daybreak, Maureen and I finally crashed, back in our hostel bunk beds. I remember thinking, “Wish I were a napper. I can never fall asleep during daylight,” just as I fell asleep.

There in that Lucerne hostel top bunk-bed, I dreamed for the hundredth time that my teeth began to fall out. They somersaulted into my palm, no surprise. But this time, I discovered I could press them, mush them all together, like the soft center of a slice of Wonder Bread. (This part was totally unprece-dreamed.)

Now I had a squished tooth-ball in my fist.

I opened up my hand, and the tooth-ball took off, like a hang-glider. It soared over the cliff edge (suddenly there was a cliff edge) then sailed back, as I realized I was the tooth-ball, flying beyond the edge of this cliff and back.

It wasn’t scary. As a tooth-ball, no longer quite ball-shaped, I somehow had arms, or wings, to hold out and glide …

Without even flapping: a self-propelled Wonder-bread soaring tooth-ball-flat-slice. Hadn’t I always wanted to fly, really fly, me, fly?

Weren’t those flying dreams my very favorite? I’d had so few of them, they were so precious.

Exhilarating and freeing, this dream, mere hours after flying as a Dutchman on a Swiss street amid music that might not even be characterized as music, so much as cacophony. I flew, a piece of tooth-ball-bread, with the motive effect of an undersea ray, or skate. I never wanted that to end.

I woke up. And did not need to feel my mouth.

I realized where I was. Still daylight, and all good, and all would be good.

That was my last teeth-falling-out dream to this day, decades later. Also my very last flying dream, however. I miss the flying. But I’ve always thought the exchange a fair one.

The nightmares that had begun when I was 8 or 9 transitioned somehow, when I was newly 23, maybe shedding a skin, loss and life-change, with new life ahead. Two weeks later I would meet – after recognizing, somehow, beforehand, from behind, on the street, more later – an Australian who would become as meaningful as any man to me, to that point, including my loss of him and further life-changes, welcome, all of them, even if I couldn’t feel them at the time, in my body.

Have I shared a thought from Rumi (born in Persia in 1207)? There are so many thoughts of his to share and I’m sadly not much the wiser about him, but here is one: “Life is a balance between holding on and letting go.”

(thanks so much for reading; part Two coming soon)

*My first year of college, a hall-mate whose name I can’t remember, in part because she dropped out after 1st semester but let’s call her Diane, in our introductory ‘meet-each-other’ hall conversation, she shared that she’d grown up on a dairy farm in South Carolina. Among other intriguing details, she told the rest of us, “Just don’t you ever drink that store-bought chocolate milk, just don’t! It’s the milk that’s got blood in it. So they can’t sell it, regular-like.” So many questions, Diane.

.** Wonder Bread commercial from 1970:

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