Until you’ve been publicly caught with your hand in the proverbial cookie jar, you’ve never known the true meaning of shame. Or so they say.
Speaking of cookie jars, I’ve read and reread Proverbs and can state authoritatively that nowhere within its 31 scintillating chapters is there a single (or married) reference to cookie jars or cookie bags or tough cookies or even Mrs. Fields. And who are these argumentative Philistines known as “they” anyway?
The argument is absurd on its face (or on its back or even its butt) and, more important, shames everyone who repeats it and should condemn to Hell anyone who perpetuates its absurd life by ushering it into print in any form. Except me, naturally, since I’m here only to hold it up to its deserved ridicule and perhaps nudge myself just a wee bit closer to that elusive Pulitzer Prize, which I’ve been coveting of late, even more than that certain item of Britney’s intimate apparel.
No, shame comes in many forms, but cookies just ain’t gonna cut it; that’s one tub of lard I’m not about to swallow.
My probing into the fetid fundament of shame naturally led me to television documentaries, such as “Life’s Most Embarrassing Moments,” “Punk’d,” and “Joanie Loves Chachi,” where I encountered assembly line incidents of unexpected hits to the groin, weddings besmirched by stomach contents, and a lot of folks whose red faces were caused by their own friends setting loose their own inner Marquis de Sade.
What I’ve been hunting down are examples that provide a great amount of honest empathy, not laughter, the kind of incident that makes you want to run up to the shamed one, say something like, “Oh, I’m sorry that happened! I think I know how you feel right now and you have my sympathy. Hey, it’ll pass . . .” But you know it won’t, so don’t even open your mouth, you freaking liar. Nobody knows it won’t pass better than the person you’re talking to. And if somehow you get off on telling lies, you shouldn’t have been let out of the kennel to begin with.
At last, my several hours of scholarship reached their end, having finally found a supreme example of an occurrence of such royal embarrassment, that the shame is surely alive and gnawing away over four decades after it did the hidden word in “embarrassment” proud.
That hidden word is, of course, Mbar, a contraction of the ancient Mishbar, which eventually corrupted into Ishtar and became the title of a shameful film, starring Warren Beatty and Dustin Hoffman. But that’s beside the point, and I hope this entire paragraph embarrasses me enough to delete it from this column’s published draft. If it doesn’t, then I truly have no shame.
The supreme masterpiece of shame occurs within the rather elusive, rarely seen 1970 film Celebration at Big Sur. It’s a documentary of a folk-rock festival that took place up north, when the peace-love-hippie vibe was at its zenith, the performances far less formal, and a sense of community and brother/sisterhood permeated the event as filmed. At least until one freak on a bad trip becomes belligerent and threatens to make it a real bummer for anyone who happens to be near him. So, sage-like Steven Stills, in his flowing serape, seems to decide that his own prodigious, inborn vibe of peace will allow him to gently talk this bastard down, to redeem him in the glory of Stills’ glowing celebrity aura. Suddenly, when the drugged-out freak lays a hand on the revered musical sage, it’s all that a few other fellows can do to keep a flailing, suddenly enraged Stills from trying to kick Mr. LSD’s psychedelic butt. I’d bet that Steven Stills has been turning over in his grave ever since, and he hasn’t even died yet. It’s a riveting performance, and my heart has honestly been out to him ever since I first saw the film at the Academy Theatre back in 1971.
To prove to any doubters among you that I’m not gloating over Stills’ unfortunate lack of decorum and hilarious duplicity, I’ll make my Hall of Shame a bit more personal.
Back to my own high school days once again. I’m finally out on a Friday evening for the first time with the school’s all-time Legendary (and “virtuous”) Babe, and we’re having a wonderful time. There’s palpable animal attraction, the conversation has been involving, even astonishing, and it feels as if God himself is blessing our union. There isn’t a bit of doubt that Sherry is The One.
Just as Heaven’s gates begin to open and we find ourselves in gloriously energetic passionate petting, Sherry whimpers that I should talk to her, or rather, that I continue to verbally assess the situation in which we are happily imprisoned. The honest, impassioned bons môts that escape my engorged lips send her into uncontrollable paroxysms of laughter, which embarrass me and shame me and certainly curtail our exercise. It was much later that I understood that what she was after were words of a more prurient variety – the old “talk dirty to me” syndrome – which, at the time, I had yet to apprehend or encounter.
I was quite upset with myself, to say the least. What an idiot I had been – to have used on Sherry my favorite line from the Tyrone Power version of The Mark of Zorro, even if it had perfectly summed up my feeling at that moment! (Don Diego, disguised as a padre, confesses to gorgeous Linda Darnell, “You’re more lovely, more radiant than a morning in June.”)
That Sherry quoted me perfectly accurately to her girlfriends became apparent the following week and throughout the ensuing ones when again and again I’d be in the hallway and the random babe, whether I knew her or not, would stop me, repeat the line, and walk away giggling.
What ultimately erased all my shame was when I finally understood that which shame itself had so jealously kept from me: the certainty that each of these concupiscent young ladies were simply doing something admirable. They were, of course, only speaking the truth. I should have been flattered and thanked them all.