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Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Imagine yourself someone else

I've thought recently about people who write books with characters. How they can live in the lives of all those people, start to finish, until done with them. Or actors, moving from character to character, not letting go of the persona until “it’s a wrap,” or however a film ends.

This isn't like walking a mile in someone’s shoes. I can do that, mentally. I've lost loved ones, some so young. I know gut wrenching, mindless wailing grief. I've stood at the finish line, cheering a marathon runner on to the end. I've listened to old folks relive their lives. Slipping into a character isn't walking a mile in their shoes. A mile or so and I can leave.

I cannot imagine a soldier. I've never been terrified. I cannot imagine myself a refugee; I've never been hungry enough, or seen my children in want of life’s necessities. I cannot imagine living in a patriarchal society. I cannot imagine accomplishing heroic feats of strength or daring. I cannot even imagine myself accomplishing a feat.

I cannot imagine having a screaming fit, or throwing things. I cannot imagine assembling or preparing a gourmet meal; setting a table for eighteen; having a dining room big enough. I can imagine cleaning up afterwards.

I am too literal. I am more corner German greengrocer than shape shifter. I cannot imagine how a writer moves through a piece of fiction, hanging all the facts in their precise places, characters saying the right things, arriving in the proper place, at their time.

When I was very young I wrote stories in my head. Once I had such a complex bit of conversation forging on in my head I began reciting it out loud, to keep everything straight. “Who the hell are you talking to,” my cousin asked me, from up in his apple tree. That was so daring, to hear my three year older cousin swear, I made up a story about that, too. In my head, of course.

I am so literal, my stories all are about me, and the characters in my life. I can write about them, but only as I see them.  My world of flat Stanley’s. Take my cousin Bob, there in the apple tree. I loved his mother, my Aunt Laura, but never understood Bob. I once met a man who knew Bob for years. He mused a moment and said “Strange couple, Bob and his wife.” I nodded. “Live like the lilies of the field,” he added.

Lilies of the field, a lovely image. Living that close to the moment, not. So, Bob hasn't been in my stories. Because when all is said, I’m of the corner German greengrocer stock; he got all the Irish dreams to live on. I cannot imagine that.

1943, the greengrocer's son and me
My Grandfather Rolf

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The helmet

This is not a nice story; it ends in two deaths. Stop here if you wish. 

I was surprised I found The Helmet on EBay. So surprised I said I knew what happened to my helmet. That was not necessary; it did not move the story along, but the helmet on the desk was something I remembered from that night.

When we bought the motorcycle that helmet was the only one of its kind. All the others were sparkly red or blue or black. That glitter was popular. Riding, I saw only one other, and that was somewhere in Missouri. We were going opposite directions through a large intersection. Each waved and pointed to our heads.

I said we were down to one car, and I used my motorcycle. I even picked Beth up from school, took her to day care and went back to work. Rain or shine. Come fall I knew I would not be riding the bike in winter. We sold it; Jim bought me a ten year old Chevy Corvair. The biggest mystery--how it became ten years old.

The helmet sat on a hall closet shelf. We divorced. The helmet sat on the shelf. My oldest and best friend, Carol, divorced not too long after I did. She had just come to work at my company as a temp; a few weeks in I told the president of the company he should hire her full time. He did. That was 1972; my divorce 1973. Hers, probably 1974.

Carol met a fellow somewhere. His name was Carl. They were together at least a year. Carl was a biker; I believe that's all the transportation he owned. He admired the helmet sitting on the shelf, I sold it to him. Carol and Carl eventually broke up. He had more women on his string than her. She was crushed.

In retrospect, I cannot remember Carol ever being a passenger on that bike. I may ask her, though the fact also doesn't advance the story. Or the Corvair, or the divorce, or Beth and day care. They're all just padding to avoid the end. Carol came rushing into the house one night, hysterical. There was an accident; Carl and his passenger were dead. A picture in the paper included that helmet, shattered in many pieces.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Teaching moments

Long, long ago I taught evening English classes. These were not youngsters there on daddy’s money. Evening students have already put in a full day on the job; they come back at night to get their money’s worth toward a degree to advance themselves in the working world. I had a smattering of eighteen year olds, but on the whole my classes were people of my age. I thought I related to them.

I carried away two profound experiences from one class. We were reading The Enormous Room. My thesis for the semester was Picasso, “Art is a lie that makes us see the truth.” It was the early seventies, the war in Vietnam was full blown, and I was a rather shallow twenty something.  I cannot remember what I said, but I know it was mildly anti-war. A few words in passing, on to the next…..

A young man toward the end of the first row erupted. He stood up. “You don’t know what you’re talking about. I have killed men with piano wire, or they would kill me….” He threw the book at my head and started to the door. I was first, and stood in front. “I am so sorry. I am abjectly sorry!” and I was.  He shoved me aside, and was gone.

I apologized to the class. In retrospect, that was another textbook psychological moment. On the whole they assured me I’d done nothing wrong, he threw a book at you, he might have knocked you down, and so on. I called the dean that night and saw her the next day. Her take was, “These things happen, don’t be concerned.” He never came back to class. I gave him an A. I remain humiliated when the incident crosses my mind, and it doesn’t matter that we know about PTSD these days. My arrogance remains bitter.

Another student left that class, too. It was freshman English, and I was supposed to be reinforcing their grammar. I also rode my motorcycle. My husband was between jobs, we were down to one car, so I  rode my motorcycle. I rode it to my day job, too. I’d say I drew the short straw, except he also had a motorcycle. But, I digress.

I was teaching grammar, and I said that sentence structure is another kind of engineering; if they could diagram the sentence they understood grammar. It was toward the end of the class, the exam was right around the corner. It was the school’s exam, not mine, so the evening was a last review.

I rode the motorcycle, of course. My Captain America helmet was sitting on the desk, and so was I, the easier to return to the board and put another word or phrase into the diagram. We were stuck on gerunds and participles. “Listen,” I said, “there’s a trick to telling them apart.”

A fellow in the first row leaned back, legs extended way out. “The only trick in this room is the teacher,” he said. I didn’t skip a beat. “Those are failing words, son.” He never came back, either. And, I did fail him.

Cannot believe I found this on EBay, sold as a vintage sixties or seventies helmet. It's the one I had, although not mine, as I know what happened to mine.