I HEARD MY MANAGER REFER to “skunk work” the other day, and I had to figure out what he meant from the context. I was so busy mentally writing this glossary entry that I have no idea what he went on to talk about.
skunk work n. [L. stinkus]: work you don’t want to do but which you get stuck with. ~this job stinks.
I’ve had my share of skunk work, some of which is actually kind of rewarding. Cleaning out the big closet under our staircase fell into this category. I’d been putting it off for three years (it’s a big closet). But eventually it became hard to actually get to the stuff way in the back. To put something new in there was to set it down just inside the door, on the only available walking space. Finally I needed to get to the summer bedding, and I had to haul everything out. It filled up two rooms.
Three boxes of books were the first thing to go. That’s what libraries are for. A box of stuffed animals went to someone at work who actually has children. Eventually my husband got interested in the process, and he found several items he could sell (answering machine, bike rack, computer video card). It got easier and easier to be ruthless. Am I really going to decipher this ledger book full of notes taken in 1974 using three pages of handmade shorthand symbols? There were half a dozen photo albums with only six or eight pictures in each. We agreed to dump all the photos in a grab-bag box. We went on like this for about half a day before I came across a binder full of love letters we’d sent each other at the beginning of our relationship. That was when the phrase “skunk work” took on a secondary meaning.
“These are awful!” I said to my husband.
“I know it,” he said. “I thought that the last time I looked at them.”
“I can’t believe you didn’t want to get rid of the evidence,” I said. “It’s embarrassing. Were they always this bad?”
“I think so,” he said. He showed no interest in looking at them, but they were mesmerizing to me.
“Why in the world did you save these?” I said after a few minutes of self torture.
“Because they were so bad, I guess. They’re a deterrent. You can’t read them and take yourself seriously. They’re so . . . self-conscious . . . pretentious. I think what would happen was, I’d get a letter from you that was all poetic, and then I’d feel like I should top that.”
“Yeah, well . . . my stuff is dreadful. I’m getting rid of it.” But I couldn’t put it down. It was like this book I kept checking out of the library when I was five. It was a book with pictures of all the fish species. Mixed in with the pretty tropical fish were things like rock fish, which looked like they had pieces of rotting flesh hanging off them. And there was a picture of an eel with its mouth open, so you were looking down rows and rows of teeth that lined the throat in rings. I would pretend to look at the other fish. But secretly, when the librarian and my mother weren’t looking, I turned to the pictures that made my skin crawl.
Now I sat reading those skunky love letters. Who uses phrases like “the nether regions of my mind” or “languishing between empty sheets,” for heaven’s sake. The worst sitcom in the history of TV is better written that my letters—more honest, more believable. It’s really an eye opener. It made me wonder if all the columns I write are that bad. Suddenly I felt like I needed to bathe in tomato sauce.
I put the letters into a bag and hauled them to work. I wanted to torture myself with them one last time before they hit the incinerator. A person who writes this badly deserves to flog herself with the actual paper—lots and lots of paper cuts. I don’t know why Dee married me after reading that stuff. He should have confiscated my belongings and put me into service as a stock boy in a small grocery run by people who don’t speak English. “This is skunk work!” he should have shouted.
In one of these letters I wrote, “Is this painful to read? I could edit everything out if you prefer. How am I doing?” He should have sent a telegram:
IT’S CRAP STOP
Reading my letters throws a lot of things into doubt. I thought I looked good on Friday, but maybe I didn’t. Last week someone gave me a picture taken at a millennium party. I was dressed up as Princess Di, and at the time I thought I looked swell. But in the photo, I looked like a dork—no waistline, mediocre haircut, lips that were small and too red. Obviously I lack the proper perspective about myself. I’m like this writer I heard interviewed on the radio. David Sedaris wrote a collection of essays called Me Talk Pretty One Day. How great is that title? In one chapter he writes about the period of his life when he discovered crystal meth (speed) and performance art. It was a deadly period during which he thought he was invincible, talented beyond measure, and had so much free time due to not eating and sleeping that he could share himself with the world. Tell us about your performance art, the interviewer asked. “Oh . . . it was horrible,” he said.
When you think about it, being in love is a lot like being on speed. Your lover is perfect. You’re perfect. Life is perfect. The dead dog in the street has pretty white teeth. You can’t sleep; you don’t eat. And you have a lot of time to spend flogging your friends with descriptions of how great everything is. Well, now I was watching a video of my performance art period.
“Are you still reading those?” my husband asked a week later.
“Yeah, I just can’t believe you still liked me after getting them,” I said.
“Were you sincere?” he said.
“Sure. Sure I was. I guess I just don’t have what it takes to write about the big issues in life—love, remorse, death, beauty. I’m only good at reporting stuff like an embarrassing moment that happened on Tuesday at 3:30.”
“I like that about your writing,” he said. He’s a nice guy. He loves me no matter what.
By the way, I looked up “skunk works” in the dictionary today. I was completely wrong about the definition.
skunk works n. sing or pl [f. the Skonk Works, illicit distillery in the comic strip Li’l Abner]: a usu. small and often isolated department or facility (as for engineering research and development) that functions with minimal supervision within a company or corporation.
Just one embarrassing moment after another reported here, folks. Don’t look for anything else.
You can’t smell your own armpit.
Not the same day anyway.
You need to take the shirt off
and hang it in the closet.
And after a bath the next morning,
then you can sniff the sleeve.
I won’t know anything about my life
until after I’m dead. Today
I don’t know what to regret or what to
Everything is performance art. But later,
when the drug dealer moves away
and I come down from the speed . . . .