Sunday, October 2, 2011

On German words with no direct English equivalent.

Picture yourself, for a moment, in your grade school cafeteria--with its plastic trays, milk cartons, and hot lunch line, all steamy and smelling of taco hotdish and shattered dreams. You slide your tray down the steel bars, holding it up to accept an ice cream scoop of "mashed" "potatoes" from a hairnet with a smoker's cough, and then raising it again for a ladle of ominous looking Turkey Tidbits in Gravy, served by the lunch lady with the hairy mole.

Your movements are automatic. All you are thinking about is catching a little Scooby Doo after school, maybe playing some kickball...but the universe has other plans. After today, nothing will be the same, at least not until summer vacation helps fade the collective memory of your classmates. Today you are a marked man.

As you turn around to find a seat, absentmindedly scanning the sea of faces for those of your friends, the untied shoelace of your left Reebok catches on the cutlery cart. By the time you realize what is happening, it's already too late.

[cue Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings]

You take a step, trip, and begin to fall.

As it often will during traumatic events, time slows to a crawl, and every pulse beat echoes in your head like muffled gunfire in a canyon.

Frame by frame, your tray floats from your hands, spiraling as gracefully as an Olympic diver, catapulting its contents through the still air towards the waiting floor below. Your milk carton explodes like a grenade. Fruit cocktail ricochets off the side of its beige plastic bowl, which bounces twice before coming to rest upside down near the lunchroom monitor's sensible flats; her mouth forms an O of surprise as syrup splatters her support hose. Gluey gobs of potatoes, Turkey Tidbits, and gravy (what kind of gravy? you know, they never do say) slap against the tile, mingling with greyish green bean shrapnel and cubes of canned pear.

Later, in your room--as you analyze the physics of this event--you'll wonder how you had time, on your descent, to watch that sixth grade testosterone case with the full beard nod approvingly, making the devil sign with both hands while his jeering buddies high-fived. Or how, as you braced for impact--scenes from your short life flashing before your eyes--you perceived your paper napkin drifting gently down from the sky, coming to rest by your outstretched hand like a white flag of surrender.

Time returns to normal speed.

The entire cafeteria erupts into applause.

As you attempt to pick yourself up--along with the last tattered shreds of your dignity--three hundred students share a rare, unified moment of undiluted Schadenfreude*, whooping, cheering, and stomping their sneakered feet. The mess from a dropped school lunch is awesome to behold, and pratfalls are a signature of juvenile comedy; but mainly, the other kids are rejoicing because this happened to you and not them.

In a way, you are a little bit of a hero--not that it feels that way, as Mrs. Erickson leads you to what she insists on calling the “lavatory” to clean the gravy off your Levis. There's a reason that a lunch tray gets dropped on average once per school, per school year. Tomorrow, while the other kids yell, “Hey, how was your TRIP?” and pretend to duck and cover as you make your way through the cafeteria, they will be gripping their trays of rectangular pizza, soggy California Mix, and apple slices with raisins just a little...bit...tighter.

* Not familiar with this marvelous and highly useful word? Here's all you need to know, courtesy of singing puppets!

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