Remember When You Had Never Heard of a Debt Ceiling?

Two days ago, when I started procrastinating over writing this post, it seemed like everywhere I turned I was hearing about the United States’ debt ceiling, and whether Congress would raise it or subject the country to a lot of letters from collection agents.  For weeks now I’ve been picturing the Representatives and Senators walking around stooped, the ceiling of the Capitol Building pressing down on them like that Floor 7 ½ in Being John Malkovich.

I do not know any stories about the debt ceiling.  But I do know a story about a ceiling.

When I was around ten years old, slime was a popular toy.  Not the kind of slime you find on week-old turkey cold cuts, or the kind that rained on anyone who said “I don’t know” on You Can’t Do That On Television, but the kind that was pliable and sticky for maximum destruction.

The slime would stick to any solid matter it touched.  One morning my mother came downstairs to see me cutting clumps of my own hair out after a particularly educational experiement with the slime’s adhesiveness.  Another time the slime led to a hasty farewell to our family’s cherished VCR.  But the most memorable experience was how my brother discovered the slime’s aerial properties.

My brother and I took an annual trip to Florida to see our paternal grandparents.  They lived near Fort Lauderdale in a senior community that had a swimming pool and a lot of women named Rose.  Of course we loved our grandparents and savored every game of Po-Ke-No and story about the Great Depression.  But the best thing about spending a week with grandma and grandpa was that we went out for ice cream every night.

In that year of the slime, my brother brought a specimen onto the plane.  Had he done that today I am sure the full body scans would have detected the item, and my eight-year-old brother would have been interrogated for hours in a small room.  But in those days the only thing the airlines cared about was that we not kick the seat in front of us.

My grandparents’ house, like most houses in Florida, had a ceiling.  I never noticed it that much until my brother tossed his smuggled slime up in the air hard, so it stuck to the pebbled white ceiling.  We could not reach it, even after stacking the hassocks atop one another, and our 78-year-old grandfather had to get up on a ladder and pry the slime off.  He was not pleased, and asked that my brother not do again.

Not two hours later, the slime was again stuck on the ceiling.  My brother was fully engaged in brinksmanship.  Again our grandfather had get on the ladder, again he had to pry the slime off his white ceiling that now had two greenish stains, and again he scolded my brother.

“If you throw that slime on the ceiling again,” he said, “we’re not taking you out for ice cream for the rest of the week.”  From his face we knew this threat was serious.  My brother loved ice cream even more than mischief, and to even hint that the nightly ritual could be compromised was like threatening to remove one his limbs.

So he was good for the rest of our time there.  Mostly good.  He still splashed the wrinkled octagenarians at the community pool with his cannonballs in defiance of the large sign that said, “No Cannonballs.”  And he still gave my grandmother a near-coronary by getting a little too friendly with the neighborhood lizards.  But the green slime from Long Island remained in its clear plastic egg, and we got our ice cream every night during that vacation.

Finally the time came to take our leave of our grandparents, and fly home to the land of snow and homework.  We packed our suitcases, stuffed our still-damp bathing suits into plastic bags from Publix, strategically placed the porcelain ashtrays with palm trees on them that we’d gotten as souvenirs, even though no one we knew smoked.  And in the deepening afternoon, as we were about to get in the car for the airport, my brother took out his plastic egg of green slime, removed the contents, and tossed the slime up onto the ceiling, where it stuck as faithfully as ever.  And my brother shot my poor old grandfather a look that said, “What do I have to lose now?”

I just read that a tentative deal to raise the debt ceiling has been reached among the great compromisers on Capitol Hill, who say they can save $4 trillion by switching to paperless sex scandals.  Clearly there is some connection between that deal and my story about my brother throwing the slime on my grandparents’ ceiling: the gaming, the line between real and empty threats, the intergenerational battles.  And someone is wearing a smirk that says, “What do I have to lose now?”

13 thoughts on “Remember When You Had Never Heard of a Debt Ceiling?

    1. Thank you! I’m so glad you liked it. For days I tried to think of a way to write about the debt ceiling issue. Glad I was to finally able to produce something.

  1. Paperless sex scandals is pretty funny. My first slime came with my Ghostbusters firehouse, a huge toy to score in those days. You know we called it ectoplasm and you could pour it through the roof and down onto the main action figures. Loved that. Had it all over stuff for months. Still remember the smell.

    1. That’s funny – when I was writing this I wasn’t thinking about the smell of the slime. But now that you mention it, I can recall. A plasticky smell. Or maybe I’m confusing it with Silly Putty. That was another great toy.

  2. I loved slime. And this was a great post. I can see the cottage-cheese ceiling now. And I’m thinking either your grandfather wanted to lower the ceiling — for easier slime retrieval, or he would have wanted it raised much higher, so your brother didn’t have the required arm power to launch his slime up there in the first place. Where is your grandfather in this debate? I keep thinking more like Ty Pennington from Extreme Home Makeover: I’m wondering why so much focus on the ceiling? Can’t we just bang out a wall or two?

    1. Thanks, Renee. I wish I’d thought of the cottage-cheese metaphor. I tried hard to come up with the perfect description, and yours is right on.

      My grandfather was not one for big sweeping changes. He liked to keep things simple and routine. Plus, even if he had raised the ceiling, I think my brother would have found a way to get the slime to its rightful home.

  3. First time visitor here (Thank you Journey). Interesting tie with your story to our politicians. AS I like to think … we avoid financial default, but achieved political default.

    1. That’s a really good way to put it. And I don’t think that the politicians are even fooling themselves this time. Thanks for stopping by; hope you’ll be back again soon.

  4. Great post, Mark. From the “pool and a lot of women named Rose” to the slime on the ceiling, right on the money. They have nothing to lose. We and our children have everything to lose. I think we need to find a way to make them live by our rules. They do work for us, after all. Thank you for your thoughtful blog.

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