Tuesday, April 5, 2011

It Depends on the Fish

She was standing at the counter when I entered and I stood the appropriate ATM distance away from her, just far enough away to NOT be mistaken for Todd but not in the next area code either. Good thing, too, because I would've missed this exchange had I been half a step farther away.

After placing her breakfast order by number with a surly sales associate, the woman added, 'and I don't want any mushrooms on the sandwich.' The associate seemed to barely blink as she responded 'the sammiches don't come wif mushrooms' (offered in a 'so there, beyotch' tone of triumph). 'I don't care,' countered the woman, 'I still don't want any.'

The counter person started to say something and the woman put up her right hand and offered with both malice and menace 'you need to shut up and bring me breakfast. And no mushrooms.'

That seemed to take the fight right out of the Employee of the Month and a moment later, it was my turn. 'I'd like what the lady had,' I offered brightly since in short bursts I can be absolutely charming (time's up) 'except I want something different, but no mushrooms.' There was the briefest of moments when it looked as if there might be something less than lovin' it, coming across the counter and then suddenly there wasn't.

What I was living through was Colonel Scheisskopf's announcement that the Sunday parade had been cancelled, though no one had ever held a parade on Sunday or any other day. Confused? Good, that means we're all in the right place and in the same device. I offer this today of all days because while life imitates art, sometimes they're one and the same.

Today, fifty years ago, Joseph Heller's Catch-22 was first published. Happy Birthday. An early review in the New Yorker offered "it doesn't seem to have been written; instead, it gives the impression of having been shouted onto paper." I, for one, wouldn't have it any other way. I own at least three copies published on different continents (though all are in English to include one that is illegal to sell in the United States, it says).

I've been known to give people the book as a gift (I do not like the movie at all, sorry, Mike Nichols) and can quote chapters from memory, down to the punctuation, at the slightest provocation so consider yourself warned.

"It was love at first sight. The first time Yossarian saw the chaplain he fell madly in love with him." I'm hard-pressed to come up with a greater opening line in any published work (okay, except maybe this one), though you won't find it in this online version of Heller's novel which is why you have to go purchase the book.

Until I joined the US Air Force in the middle Seventies I thought Catch-22 was hilarious fiction-I discovered it was anything but and did so just in the nick of time. (I found this today and it suggests, based on its publication date, I was ahead of my time and that the Air Force Academy and every graduate owes me big time.) I can attribute the abbreviation of a career in the service of my country to Yossarian's Fish Dream (Chapter 27, Nurse Duckett; I didn't hate the whole movie, obviously). And considering the career I wasn't having, you are certainly welcome.

Could there be a more revelatory moment in life or art than the exchange between Yossarian and Clevinger that has 'no mushrooms' written all over it: "They're trying to kill me," Yossarian told him calmly. "No one's trying to kill you," Clevinger cried. "Then why are they shooting at me?" Yossarian asked. "They're shooting at everyone," Clevinger answered. "They're trying to kill everyone." "And what difference does that make?"

And in the end, the exchange that echoes across the years: "From now on, I'm thinking only of me." Major Danby replied indulgently with a superior smile: "But, Yossarian, suppose everyone felt that way." "Then," said Yosaarian, "I'd be a damned fool to feel any other way, wouldn't I?" Absolutely Yo-Yo, absolutely.
-bill kenny

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