Words About Shapes: The Evil Box & The Lessons Of Frustration

Pop, weasel, damn you!

We've been cranking this handle for four years now - shouldn't something come out?

My grandmother's house was remarkable for the density of its accumulation - every wall was lined with shelves, and those shelves held books, clear to the old-fashioned 10-foot ceilings. Every room was crammed with the detritus that remains when six children have grown and taken their leave: half-constructed plastic models of Apollo moonshot rockets, a treasured (and deeply hidden) stash of Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers comics, first drafts of college entry essays. And, like most grandmother's houses, it had the inevitable laundry basket filled with toys - most of them a generation out of date, and most of them looking like it. Every tentative grappling with a half-working toy from the ancients brings the shout-out through time: "Your father played with that when he was your age!"

In the specific case of my grandmother, most of the toys were army men - her two youngest were both boys, and apparently they'd smashed most of the girl-toys to flinders by the time they reached maturity. Army men and a jack-in-the-box. For some reason, the jack-in-the-box was the toy every kid picked out of that laundry basket first. I was the oldest grandchild, so I was the first to realize there was something different about it: This jack-in-the-box wasn't a toy. It was a first hard lesson in frustration.

I think I remember the thing working normally, although it's possible I've simply layered memories of normal, pleasure-based jack-in-the-boxes over my recollection of the Evil Box. I distinctly remember being startled, again and again, by some box's jack. The Evil Box was different.

Think now of the experience of a jack-in-the-box: You're cranking the handle, and the song is playing. As you get older, you get hip to the fact that the song is signposting when to expect the jack to pop out: All around the chicken coop / The possum chased the weasel / And then again in double haste and you know that what's coming is BANG! comes the jack: POP goes the weasel. It's that release you're waiting for. It's a subtle lesson in anticipation, and dread, and the excitement of those two things. And it's endlessly repeatable, as anyone who's recently seen a small child with a jack-in-the-box can attest.

Like I said, the Evil Box was different. Its mechanism had gotten stripped, somehow, over all the years and all the windings. Turning the crank started the song, just like normal; but at the point where it's all supposed to pay off - the lid slamming open, the little Punch figure leaping out - it would, instead, slip backwards to the first part of the song to start over:

All around the chicken coop / The possum chased the weasel / And then again in double haste / All around the chicken coop / The possum chased the weasel / And then again in double haste / All around the chicken coop / The possum chased the weasel / And then again in double haste / All around the chicken coop / The possum chased the weasel / And then again in double haste I AM ONLY FIVE AND YET I KNOW DESPAIR.

The Evil Box's lesson was a cruel one: Sometimes, broken things don't repay your attention to them. Just wanting something to work doesn't make it so.

Which is where the Chicago Fire enter the story. In the last 48 hours, we've seen a little bit of a PR meltdown from the front office, a PR meltdown brought on by all the gosh-darned negativity around here, mister. (Picture me scuffing my foot on the floor in modest chagrin.) And I'm certain it's frustrating to have someone shout mean things about one's stewardship of the team, so I'm trying to approach this in a spirit of learning and growing. Perhaps, I think to myself, the people in the front office who were behind that self-immolating editorial are really just trying to reach out and understand, and to in turn be understood. I think we can agree those goals are laudable.

So it's in this spirit I offer the Evil Box as an instructive metaphor. Supporting the Fire, in the Andell years, has been like nothing so much as turning an enormous crank on an enormous Evil Box; hearing the music and knowing what's coming; then swallowing rage and frustration as the song, so near its climax, starts over from the beginning. Again, and again, and again.

We keep hoping Jack will pop out. Since Hauptman, though, Jack has simply been a no-show. The song keeps playing, promising that somehow, this time, it's going to reach its narrative conclusion. We keep turning the handle, breathless, waiting for it to BANG! It never does.

One could say ‘has not yet,' but here's the thing: Most sane people avoid soul-choking frustration, given a choice. As I got older, I'd offer the Evil Box to my younger cousins, curious how they'd deal with its teeth-grinding lessons. Usually, after a couple of cranks, they'd put it aside, never to be played with again. And that, to me, is a lesson to which this organization should attend.

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