I love poetry, everything from Beowulf to bawdy limericks, which is why I thought of the nursery rhyme about the crooked man when I saw this subway ad on the 1 Train about “nano braces.”
The crooked man seems to be very content in this poem. He has a crooked house, crooked cat, crooked money, and crooked life. In fact, he is crooked, which means that he is living in harmony with everything around him. Since the pieces are all crooked, they fit together nicely. Imagine what his life would be like if somebody came along and told him that he needed to straighten himself out and that he could do so through a revolutionary technique involving “nano-braces.” I doubt he would say, “Is that right? Please, sir, tell me more.”
Yet the ad suggests otherwise, playing on people’s insecurities and fears about themselves. Essentially, we’re all afraid of death, which is what marketing is based on. In its own way, the ad promises, if not freedom from death, the prolongation of youth, which is the next best thing. And if we can’t prolong youth (we can’t), we can at least look youthful, which means looking perfect, like a character out of The Aeneid: straight nose, flowing locks, rosy cheeks, and physical elegance. Something like that.
If you call the 800 number or go online to the Web site, you can get a free consultation that will start you on the road to “a better job, better relationships and a better life all around” just from straightening your teeth. The fact that they do not follow the Oxford comma should immediately raise more red flags than in Tiananmen Square, but in case it doesn’t and you contact them (operators are standing by), they undoubtedly will have easy payment plans to fit any budget.
If given a choice, I suppose nobody would really want crooked teeth or a crooked smile. But the reality is that we can straighten our teeth, our noses, our stomachs, and just about every other body part, but straightening our lives is not so easy. Sure, we have specialists for that, too. For everything that ails us, it seems there is somebody in a lab coat ready to anesthetize us or straighten us out. But the crooked man serves as a cautionary tale here. His happiness does not come from straightened paths but crooked ones; his hope not from passing a credit application for nano-braces, but from being content in crookedness.
This being the season of Advent, I would go even further. Maybe the life of crookedness is actually a life of grace. I like to think that the crooked man is crooked, because he follows a path that God has led him on, or is at least open to it. It is crooked, because it is filled with mistakes, missteps, and regrets (unlike Sinatra, I have more than a few). Many of us may look down our very straight noses at the crooked man with disdain, but perhaps what we count as mistakes are milestones on a different path.
This path is different from the one we are accustomed to follow whether for fame, money, achievement, or power. This one allows us to be present to others precisely because we are not enslaved by our own fears and insecurities or so hard-hearted that we become machines. Really, who cares how many degrees you have or how straight your teeth are? And if they are crooked, maybe they are for a reason: to help you follow a path of grace and meet others along the way.
Why would you mess with that?