Wednesday, May 30, 2007

#108 - Cracks in my Memory

Cracks in my Memory

5/30/07 (#108)

I am a chronic counter. Dump a bag of M&Ms on the table, I will involuntarily compare the quantity of each color, forming various alliances of primary and tertiary arrays; when filling the coffee pot, I tick off sequential numbers in my head while it fills as if I might one day need to fill it without looking; when I see a phone number, I habitually examine it for its value as a cribbage score. A psychologist would likely refer to this as Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder, but I've learned from my job searches that it's better to pitch it as "exceptional attention to detail."

Worst of all is walking---while my brain wrestles with whatever concerns the day has offered, there's one little corner of the gray matter that devotes itself to counting my foot steps. It's as if my brain is a small office, with various synapses in various cubicles devoting themselves to the glorious and mundane tasks that get me through my daily life; the bean counter who sits in the "steps taken" department is relentless, whether I ask him to be or not: it's not uncommon for me to become aware of this counting mid-stride, and finding myself on number 96 or 148 or some other number that indicates I have been doing it for a long time without bringing it to consciousness' attention. (Not that it would matter---Consciousness has long given up trying to wrangle that particular cube dweller.)

While the step counting goes on, another synapse in an adjacent cubicle concentrates on the placement of those footsteps---on checkerboard linoleum, I subconsciously try to step on only one color; in the autumn, I try to walk the dog through the park without stepping on any leaves. (A task that gets exponentially more difficult with each passing October day.) Most commonly, it involves sidewalks, finding a gait that allows me to move at a smooth, normal pace without stepping on one of the lines that divides a sidewalk into sections. I do this not because of OCD, but for a practical and obvious reason: Fear of breaking my mother's back.

I am fairly certain that these seemingly incongruous items---the location of my footsteps in Oregon and the integrity of my mother's spine in New England---have no official connection, as I confess that in my 40 years, I have inadvertently tramped upon a sidewalk crack or two and my mother has never had to wear a back brace. (None the less, please forgive my irreverence to your skeletal health, mom.) Yet despite 40 years of evidence that my feet possess no ability to injure her, the children's chant "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" reverberates in my ears three decades after I last heard it uttered. It is absurd superstition that I know to be absurd, yet I am helpless to defy it. Even if I walked to lunch today and thought, "I'm going to step on every crack", I would do so until I got distracted by tulips or a song in my head or the anticipation of Black Pepper Chicken and then the brain cell in charge of crack avoidance would sneak back to work. (If only the brain cell in charge of dieting was so diligent.)

My particular feet and my particular Mom aside, I have been pondering the origins of this ruthless phrase, curious how innocent mothers came to be the victims of their children's errant footsteps. Much to my surprise, I found no satisfaction for my curiosity. Extensive web searching have resulted in nothing more than either vague (and mostly implausible) speculations or evidence of others searching for this same elusive information. I am baffled that a nation that copiously documents the most mundane details of every episode of Star Trek and compiles baseball stats as if Saint Peter is going to stand at the gates of heaven and demand, "How many 9th inning triples did the 1968 White Sox have against American League opponents while playing at Comiskey Park?" would allow this strange near-matricidal phrase to slip into the lexicon without documentation. I'd like to know the origins of, "Step on a crack, break your mother's back" because I have a few issues with the directive.

The two-syllable "mother" is awkward within the rhyme---say it aloud, then say "Step on a crack, break your friend's back." The latter has a 4-4 symmetry that gives the rhyme a more natural flow, and barring the rare misanthropic soul, everyone who has a mom probably has a friend. (If not, who would utter the phrase to the crack stomper? What kind of nut would walk down the street by himself, worrying about stepping on a particular 1 percent of the pavement?)(Wait, I take that back.)

Obviously "mother" wasn't chosen for the poetic grace of the word. And even if it was, "Father" could be subbed without further breaking either the meter or the familial bond. The phrase is rumored to have appeared in our culture in the mid-20th century---so why is it that some June Cleaver-esque woman at home ironing a crease into her son's Tuffskins is suddenly doomed to collapse like a rag doll, immobilized by pain on the laundry room floor, while the Ward of the family is free to traipse about the office walking erect? Perhaps the office is the clue: in that era, dads spent most of the day away from home, so their value as recipients of this bizarre concrete voodoo was limited; What good is the threat of a broken back if the person afflicted isn't of essential value of the stepper? "Step on a crack, break your uncle's back" is likely to be of impact to the nephew or niece only at annual family reunions, where uncle John or Jerry will be resigned to sitting outside the improvised flattened-six-pack-box base lines with a gin and tonic tinkling in his hand rather than standing on first base with a mitt and a gin and tonic tinkling in his hand.

Focusing away from the victim for a moment, I wonder about the brutality of the phrase. A broken spine---short of a crushed skull, that seems like the most heinous thing you could inflict upon a person. There are myriad other rhymes available for "crack", any one of which would greatly upset a mom without condemning her to a month in traction and the rest of the year having to maneuver like a waddling penguin just to see over her shoulder:

"Step on a crack, kill your mom's lilac" would quite certainly get my wife's attention---and not at all the kind of attention one would normally seek.

"Step on a crack, make your mom fat" is an imperfect rhyme, but at least it's a kinder fate to foist upon an unsuspecting mom. (Actually, that isn't necessarily true: I've had acquaintances in my life who would consider that outcome far more cruel than a surprise spinal collapse---sure, recovering from surgery would be a lengthy, painful process, but at least you would recover; dieting can go on for years, often with no evidence of results.)

"Step on a crack, tear your mom's anorak" would probably never catch on in the south, but anyone who has priced these winter jackets at LL Bean knows that it's not an investment you want to make every year---I'm still making payments on mine, and I purchased it before moving west in the early 1990s. (True story: My friend Jamie purchased a 1966 Cadillac Convertible for less than my fleece-lined, Teflon-coated, hex-resistent jacket cost me. Of course, my jacket has never broken down on a remote section of Stillwater Avenue, so maybe you get what you pay for.)

I suppose the brutality shouldn't be such a surprise---Jack fell down and cracked open his skull (at least that's how I always interpreted "broke his crown", considering he wasn't "Prince Jack"), Humpty Dumpty wound up scrambled on the sidewalk, and as one cheerful little ditty advises, "ashes to ashes, we all fall down". Frankly, while much is made of kids exposure to violence on television, they've already been exposed to a multitude of violent images well before they learn to use the TV remote. (Just ask the wolves of "Little Red Riding Hood" or "The Three Little Pigs", or the rock-a-bye baby who plummets from the tree top.)

While I still don't understand why mothers are the victims of this senseless rhyme/senseless crime, I recently had the opportunity to break the cycle of violence. My daughter has never heard me speak of these issues, but has previously exited the Laurelthirst making a point to step only on the black floor tiles, urging me to walk only on the white; then last night, we were walking through Target (where the linoleum is only one color) and she insisted we both try to avoid stepping on the lines between the tiles. I played along, and as we neared the escalators (surely looking like father-daughter drunkards with our inexplicably uneven steps), she pivoted and asked, "Dad, what happens if we step on the lines?" I think she was trying to establish some sort of consequence---if I stepped on a line first, we'd have to buy popcorn; if she stepped on a line first, we'd have to buy popcorn. (Such are the rules when the game is invented by a 4-year old.) While I enjoy sharing bits of history at any opportunity, I had no intention of saddling her with a lifetime of that little cubicle worker in her head, that sub-conscious toiler who will exhaust her with an erratic gait in a vain attempt to spare her mom's vertebrae:

"Nothing happens, Sage. Nothing at all. Want to get some popcorn?"

©2007 wpreagan