Happy New Year, and may you see many vegetable people in 2012

I was just glancing through “Old Friend from Far Away,” thinking it’s been a while since I just wrote randomly from a writing prompt.  I stopped on a page titled “Radish.”  The first paragraph opens:

“This is a wish. When you are writing about a radish, that you and the radish meet face to face. That you stay specific, present, and direct and through your true intention the radish becomes RADISH. You instantaneously summon the particular and also give life to the essence of that buried root plucked up red and edible.”

It’s good advice, I think, as I’m typing it out now, but that’s not what came to mind when I began to read.  I got distracted by memories of vegetable people.  I went through an odd phase a long time ago, when I couldn’t help but compare people to vegetables.  Visually, I mean.  One night, I was sitting at IHOP with my roommate and best friend, and someone walked in and I said, “Doesn’t that woman look like broccoli?”  My friend worked hard not to spit out his coffee, but in the end, he agreed that she looked surprisingly like a stalk of broccoli.  I can’t picture her anymore or I’d describe it for you better.  You might think people don’t really look a lot like vegetables, and maybe you’re right.  But, I challenge you to give it some thought.  You may not always see a vegetable when you look at a person, but you will be surprised how often you do, if you just think about it.  Leave your mind open to the fact that people can resemble, or at the very least, remind you of, vegetables.  Or other foods, if you need a broader target.

In the next few days, you might find yourself noticing that someone with a mottled complexion makes you think of frozen mixed vegetables, or someone that stands stiffly brings to mind a carrot.  Perhaps a balding man reminds you of a peeled onion, or someone else with spiky hair makes you think of the root end of a green onion.  The point is, allowing yourself the extra space to think about random things like this might make you smile just a little more frequently, and we could all stand to do that.  My New Year’s resolution is to see more vegetable people this year.

I haven’t given it a lot of thought until this minute, but if I had to classify a few of the characters I’ve introduced you to here, I’d say this.  My partner most resembles a stalk of celery (she’ll probably want to smack me for this comparison, but I mean no harm).  Barefoot boss – he’s a fingerling potato.  Gopher-man, hmm, I’ll have to come back to him – a cabbage, maybe.  Long Back Guy, an unripened Fresno chili.  The Guatemalan, a pineapple.  Cat Power, a roma tomato. Grass-phobia girl, a crimini mushroom.  Me, I probably look sort of like an eggplant.  Happy New Year!

Jobs from my youth – The Downtown Club, 1993

A few weeks ago, I posted about a writing exercise in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories.  It had to do with creating a timeline for some period of your life, to help jar your memory about details and spawn some story ideas.  One of the things I did when I started my timeline was go through old tax records, which reminded me of various jobs I had when I was much younger.  There was a period between 1993 and 1995 where I reported income in two states for each of those tax years.  I moved a lot back then.  I was trying to find a way out of Wisconsin, and it took me a while to make that work.

In 1993, I reported income from five employers in Wisconsin, and one in Illinois.  All those jobs, and my income only came to $5436.18.  I wasn’t great at holding jobs back then.  Nothing made me happy, and I hadn’t developed the will power it takes to stick with something you don’t like.  In one job, I waited tables at what was a new restaurant/dance club in Sheboygan.  During the day, we opened for lunch, then closed for a couple hours to get ready for dinner.  At 9 0’clock, the dinner tables went away and the place turned into a night club.  I learned some interesting lessons at that job.  The Downtown Club billed itself as a fine dining restaurant, and back then, there weren’t many to be found in the area.  However, that also meant that those of us that worked there didn’t really know what fine dining was – not the food, not the service, certainly not different wines.

I did my best, but I remember a wealthy couple in for lunch one day.  I served their sandwiches or salads, or whatever it was the ordered, and they were drinking coffee.  As I made my rounds to see if anyone wanted refills, the wealthy woman nodded that she did.  I picked up her coffee cup, and topped it off.  She told me condescendingly this was not the way to refill someone’s coffee cup.  I should lift the cup on the saucer, so as not to touch the cup itself.  I clenched my teeth and bit my tongue instead of apologizing and walked away quickly, hoping they would soon leave and I would still get a half-way decent tip.  I felt a certain shame that I didn’t know those fine details about how things are done for wealthy people.  All my coffee-pouring skills were learned from the overworked waitresses at IHOP who poured my coffee only occasionally after they left the “Bottomless pot” on my table.  Even then, I was lucky if they didn’t pour the coffee in my lap as they leaned across the table to reach my mug.  I’ve never completely gotten over the bitterness I felt at people who had money, coming from a mostly lower-middle class background myself.  I still carry a chip on my shoulder, even when I choose to go to fancy restaurants now, and money is no longer a big issue in my life.

Another lesson from my job at the Downtown Club was how to tend bar, Wisconsin-style.  I’ve learned since then that the way people make drinks in Wisconsin doesn’t really match the way they make them anywhere else.  For instance, the Old Fashioned is a very popular Wisconsin drink.  Age doesn’t matter – everyone drinks them.  You can order an Old Fashioned with either whiskey or brandy, and order it either sweet or sour.  This is a departure from the traditional Old Fashioned, which calls for no soda whatsoever.  In Wisconsin, though, sweet means put 7-up in the drink, and top it off with a cherry wrapped in half an orange slice, impaled on a plastic sword.  Sour means put sour soda in the drink.  I have yet to find any other place where “sour” means sour soda.  When I first came to California, I’d order a sour drink – Amaretto Sour, Whiskey sour, whatever – and the bartenders put that horrible sweet and sour mix in the drink – the kind you’d find in a margarita.  The first time I took a sip, I almost sprayed it all over the people standing in front of me.  

50/50 was a popular sour soda used as a drink mixer.  It was a grapefruit & lime soda, and all bars had it.  It’s soda, but not as sweet as 7-up.  I have no idea why this soda seemed to be such a regional drink.  The closest thing I’ve been able to find in California is called Collins Mix, and it’s not available in bars.  I eventually switched to ginger ale when I wanted whiskey with something less sweet in it here.  Bourbon and ginger ale was my standard drink for a few years.  Lately, I drink fruity drinks, which I get a lot of crap for from all my friends, because I am not supposed to like girly, fruity drinks.  Maybe I’d drink Old Fashioned’s again if “sour” meant what it does in Wisconsin.


Another exercise suggested in Bill Roorbach’s Writing Life Stories has to do with timelines.  The idea is that you create timelines for various years in your life.  He suggests jotting notes in a box for each month of the year you are digging into.  I took a slightly different approach that suits my super-organized way of doing everything.  I used Excel.  On each row, I entered the date in one cell, then a description of some event in another cell.  This way I’d never run out of room in any given boxes for a period of my life, and I can just keep adding to it as I find time to work on it, periodically resorting the list in chronological order.  I then went through a lot of files I keep.  The two that were most interesting were my old taxes and my medical records folder.

My timeline file has only 57 events in it so far, but by going through my old taxes (I had copies of every year from age 17 on), I was able to reconstruct the jobs I had when I was younger.  I’ve had a lot of jobs, which I will talk about in another post – but my timeline showed me just how many jobs I had during the few year stretch immediately out of high school – from factories to dive restaurants to department stores.  It was fascinating to look back at how little money I made, and how often I changed jobs.  I also moved a lot.  There were three years where I filed taxes in more than one state because I was moving around so much.

The medical records were eye-opening, too.  Since I live far from home, I must have requested copies of my records from the local hospital where I had a few surgeries and other health encounters that landed me in the ER.  If you can get your hands on copies of your medical records, you should.  Not only for practical reasons, but to read what these people actually wrote about you.  It’s really interesting to read about the actual procedures in medical terminology, and the opinions the doctors have of how you presented to them.  I will find something to share one of these days, but to get back to the point of sharing my first experience with the timelines exercise, it really did do a lot to jar my memory of different events.  I’m kicking around the idea of writing a piece just based on the medical mishaps of my youth.  I recommend the timelines exercise to anyone that wants to take a different angle on remembering their past.

And more first lines

I’ve looked at first lines a couple times in the past, here and here.   Below are some others from books on my shelves…

The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson.
This new world weighs a yatto-gram. But everything is trial-size; tread-on-me tiny or blurred-out-of-focus huge.

I like this opening because it evokes senses, but not quite images.  That makes me want to read further.  After looking through my notes and finding this blurb, though, I realize I’ve been unconsciously copying the hyphenated phrase style she uses here.  I am a big fan of Jeanette Winterson, so it doesn’t surprise me a ton.  What I like about this approach is that it alters the pace of the sentence itself.  Often, writers talk about pace in the context of a whole work, zooming into a scene and providing lots of detail and dialogue, slowing down the pace versus summarizing larger chunks of time passing with narrative.  I thought it was worth looking at pace within a sentence based on the use of language and punctuation itself, though.  The other thing I like about this style is that it’s a way of creating a new word when the right word doesn’t quite exist.

The Prince of Tides, by Pat Conroy.
My wound is geography. It is also my anchorage, my port of call.

I think these two lines work because they immediately introduce paradox.  When I think anchorage, I think home.  Comfort, familiarity.  When I think wound, pain and discomfort come immediately to mind.  I think this is a great introduction that at the very least, explains to the reader that place will be important, and the narrator’s association to that place will be complicated.

From My Father’s House, by Sylvia Fraser.
My father’s house was a three-story, frame building on a shady street in Hamilton, Ontario

I don’t like this first line that much.  It gives a bit of information, but it doesn’t hook me, beg me to read more.  Having read the book, I can say it is very well written, and a worthwhile read, and with the benefit of retrospect, the important element of this first line may be in its references to a large house – that can evoke a spooky feeling, especially from the perspective of a child.  The use of the word shady introduces a dark element, too.  When I read this the first time, though, those things didn’t mean anything to me yet.  To me, this is an example of how a great book can live without a great hook, though.

Middlesex, by Jeffery Eugenides.
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

This opening line tells the reader exactly what the story will be about, and the subject itself is unusual and promises to be intense.  References to place and time help set the stage for the inherent struggle the narrator will have in dealing with gender identity.  Most of the language is straightforward, unadorned, though the first four words imply the significance of the subject matter.  I like the combination of the gravity of the first phrase, and the almost boring everyday description of the remainder of the line.

Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.
Only three people were left under the red and white awning of the grease joint: Grady, me, and the fry cook.

“Only three people were left,” – this part of the sentence implies that we’re joining the narrator at some later point in the story – I expect to hear what led up to there being only three people left.  The terms “grease joint,” and “fry cook,” both make me think of lower class characters – people that don’t have much money.  The line isn’t earth-shattering, but it sets the stage a little bit, and the opening words make me want to read more.

More First Lines

I wrote a post recently on the first lines that open books. Below are five more first lines and my thoughts about them…  I did cheat a bit in two cases, and I included the first few lines because despite the punctuation, I felt they were meant to be read together.

Then We Came to the End, by Joshua Ferris.
We were fractious and overpaid.

I recently shared an excerpt of this novel, Joshua Ferris’ debut.  I loved the book, and identified with the humor of the ad agency world contained within it.  This first line is incredibly short and simple, but I think it grabs the reader very effectively.  The line clearly indicates the story will be about a group of people and have something to do with jobs.  The reason I love the line, though, is because of the use of the word “fractious.”  What an awesome word, and one I doubt I’ve seen in print anywhere!  Dictionary.com gives two great examples of the meaning and use of the adjective:

1. refractory or unruly: a fractious animal that would not submit to the harness.

2. readily angered; peevish; irritable; quarrelsome: an incorrigibly fractious young man.

Looking at this first line after having read the book, I couldn’t possibly pick a more appropriate opening line, and I think that also underscores it’s effectiveness.

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss.
When they write my obituary. Tomorrow. Or the next day. It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.

I absolutely love this first line, and I loved the novel.  The reader is introduced to Leo Gursky, the main character, and knows the story will be narrated by him.  It also immediately introduces sarcasm and humor, both of which are big pluses in my book.  The narrator’s name to me reads “quirky,” and I know that Leo is old or doesn’t expect to live long for some other reason.  If you’ve never read this book, go get it.  It’s brilliant.

The Sunflower, by Simon Wiesenthal.
What was it Arthur said last night?

This simple first line doesn’t tell the reader a whole lot, but it does instantly convey that he is not in top mental shape.  It sets the mood, though, as I quickly pictured myself with eyebrows scrunched, searching my memory for something I couldn’t quite remember.  I love that readers do that – fill in details themselves as they read, whether its’ picturing themselves or another person with an expression that’s well-described, or painting a picture in their heads of a character, even though only certain details are provided by a story.

Fool’s Crow, by James Welch.
Now that the weather had changed, the moon of the falling leaves turned white in the blackening sky and White Man’s Dog was restless.

This sentence primarily sets a scene, though it also introduces the main character and illustrates his general state of mind.  The language is descriptively rich, and continues that way throughout the book.  As a tale of Native American life, this type of description runs throughout the entire novel.  I don’t believe it is the type of first line that completely grabs the reader, but the question of why White Man’s Dog is restless is compelling, and the many references to nature, weather, and season do set a certain ambiance.

Lighthousekeeping, by Jeanette Winterson.
My mother called my Silver. I was born part precious metal part pirate.

Again, these statements are classic Winterson.  You know instantly that you’ll be reading a tale that has some fantasy in it.  Punctuation is missing, which subtly reinforces the concept that this character is  truly a combination of precious metal and pirate – there is nothing to separate the two elements of the character.  The unique and odd combination itself begs for more information, so I think these lines do their job.

 What are some of your favorite first lines?  Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?

First Lines

One of the exercises in Writing Life Stories, by Bill Roorbach, is to write down the first lines of a ton of books so you can analyze them, and look at why they work. Below are some first lines from some of my books that are within arm’s reach of my desk.

Gut Symmetries, by Jeanette Winterson.
First there is the forest and inside the forest the clearing and inside the clearing the cabin and inside the cabin the mother and inside the mother the child and inside the child the mountain.

This sentence reads to me like classic Winterson.  The lack of punctuation and repetitious phrasing creates a rushing, falling forward, feeling of things growing smaller and smaller until you reach the smallest thing and inside it is something larger than everything that led up to it.  The sense of spiraling motion and paradox startled and hooked me.  I have yet to read this book, but after doing this exercise, it will jump high up on my list.

Typical American, by Gish Jen.
It’s an American story: Before he was a thinker, or a doer, or an engineer, much less an imagineer like his self-made-millionaire friend Grover Ding, Ralph Chang was just a small boy in China, struggling to grow up his father’s son.

While this sentence contains little drama, it tells me the story has the global theme of son-trying-to-live-up-to-dad’s-expectations.  It also sets the stage for the journey of Ralph Chang, and introduces a character that seems quirky simply based on his name – Grover Ding.  Hard to take seriously anyone with the surname of Ding.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini.
I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.

This simple first line instantly frames the story as a remembrance, possibly a dark remembrance based on the description of the weather.  It also makes clear the narrator will experience something very significant at the age of twelve, and as a reader, I want to know what that is.

Still Alice, by Lisa Genova.
Alice sat at her desk in their bedroom distracted by the sounds of John racing through each of the rooms on the first floor.

This sentence simply sets a scene, and although I did continue to read this book and enjoyed it in the end, this first line had no big impact on me at all.  I can visualize the scene, so it is effective in achieving that and introducing two main characters, but it doesn’t scream, “Keep on reading!”

The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson.
It was Napoleon who had such a passion for chicken that he kept his chefs working around the clock.

This sentence sets the historical period of the book, while introducing a quirk the reader doesn’t expect to be associated with a figure like Napoleon.  The image of Napoleon having people working around the clock to serve him fits, but the reference to chicken passion adds a unique twist and generates curiosity for the reader – at least when that reader is me.

I wrote down (or typed, to be more accurate) many more first lines than these today, but in the interest of NOT writing an overwhelming amount of information on this subject, I started with five.  I’ll post more another time.  What are some of your favorite first lines?  Or, if you don’t have any off the top of your head, open up a couple books and jot them down – what do they do for you?

Fragments of memory

With my latest obsession of reading books by writers about how to write memoir, I’ve stumbled upon one that’s a little different than most of what I’ve been reading.  Writing Life Stories, HOW TO MAKE memories into MEMOIRS, ideas into ESSAYS, and life into LITERATURE, by Bill Roorbach with Kristen Keckler, PhD offers much of the same advice as other books, but comes with a different style of writing prompts and “exercises.”  When I finish the stack of books I’m reading, I’ll make a post comparing them all, but for now, I’ll comment only on the first major exercise presented in Writing Life Stories, which I now intend to repeat many times.

Excercise 1: Mapmaking

Please make a map of the earliest neighborhood you can remember living in.  Include as much detail as you can.  Who lived where?  What were the secret places?  Where were your friends?  Where did the weird people live?  Where were the friends of your brothers and sisters?  Where were the off-limit places?  Where did good things happen?  Where did you get in trouble?

I’m not a very visual person, so I wasn’t sure what this exercise would do for me, but I was shocked at some of the random things that came back to me as I sketched the earliest neighborhood I remembered.  First, I can hardly say I remembered the neighborhood.  I was only 5, and my brain doesn’t seem to have been able to recognize space outside the main intersection our house sat on.  We didn’t live there for long, so most of my memories were fragments, single moments in time.  Exercise 2 is to tell a story from your map.  I’m going to dive in right here, so this may not come out sounding like a story, since my mind only retained bits and pieces, a little out of context, not connected by much other than the setting.

The house we rented was across the street from a tavern.  The door opened on the kitchen, where I see my grandmother making hot cereal for us for breakfast.  When she asked what she should bring us to eat that morning, we’d said “Cocoa Puffs!,” thinking we’d be able to sneak one past Mom and fill our little bodies with sugar to kick off our day.  She meant to indulge us, but somehow mistakenly settled on chocolate Cream of Wheat.  It could’ve been worse.  It could’ve been plain Cream of Wheat.

The street in front of our house is the street I learned to ride my bike on.  I remember the training wheels, riding barefoot, relatives hollering encouragement as I took on this classic childhood challenge.

Running around barefoot in the grass between our house and the neighbors, I stepped on a honey bee who immediately took umbrage and stung the bottom of my small foot.  I screamed my head off, paralyzed, with one foot in the air, until someone I didn’t know scooped me up and ran me to my back door to hand me off to whoever was home.

There was a kid that lived around a corner and down another street that couldn’t say the word “towel” correctly.  She insisted it was “tolow,” and I never was able to convince her she was wrong.

Behind the bar across the street was a baseball diamond and a small playground.  I see two kids on the teeter totter – one bigger than the other.  When the older kid descended hard, the smaller kid flew over his head, right off the teeter totter, like something out of Tom & Jerry.

At a birthday party when I turned five, a little girl put our kitten in a dresser drawer because he was so little she was afraid he’d get lost.  It took us a day to find him.

One day after school, I came home and gave my mother her wisdom teeth in the little plastic box the dentist provided.  She looked at me with utter confusion.  “What are you doing with these?,” she asked.  “I took them to school for show and tell.”

When the babysitter told us in the afternoon we had to go take a nap, we dutifully went upstairs to bed.  We laid around for a while, bored, not able to fall asleep, but we weren’t allowed to get up again until we’d napped.  When I heard her coming up the stairs to check on us, I hung over the edge of the top bunk and whispered down to my sister, “Hurry.  Close your eyes.  Pretend you’re asleep.”  She didn’t get it.  Five minutes after we were checked on, I crawled out of bed and headed back downstairs.  My sister was stuck in our room until she actually fell asleep, sometimes for a whole afternoon.

We had a small playroom at the top of the stairs, mom’s bedroom on one side, ours on the other.  I see the ragged-edged holes punched through black construction paper for the Lite Brite.  I feel the wobbly nausea from a long turn on the Sit-n-Spin.  I remember fumbling with the nylon bands on the Loop N Loom so we could make garishly colored hot pads for every adult we knew.

My sister never flushed the toilet after she went to the bathroom.  One day, my uncle, who lived with us, heard her flush, and thought it odd.  She’d grabbed a handful of candy from the kitchen and was hiding in the bathroom eating it, flushing one wrapper at a time.

A funeral in winter

A more somber post today. The writing prompt that struck me in Old Friend from Far Away was “Tell me about a funeral you attended in winter,” so I went for it. For those of you who have read my previous post, Memories with my grandmother, this story is not about her – it’s about my other grandmother, my father’s mother.

My grandma died in 2004, in January, just days after the New Year. Few of us had come home for the holidays that year. Not me or my cousins; not my sister, her kids, or my uncle. It was a smaller gathering than normal at Grandma’s house on Christmas Eve, but I don’t think she minded. She was proud of all of us for the lives we lived in faraway places she’d never seen, doing complicated jobs she never understood. She’d lived through The Great Depression, some of her childhood spent in an orphanage when her widowed mother couldn’t raise enough money to provide for her and her brother. She understood that people didn’t always have money to spare, and never wanted us to feel badly on those years we didn’t make the trek back to Wisconsin.

We minded, though. We minded a lot. We had been too busy or too broke to come home just a week and a half earlier, yet here we all were, travelling for a funeral instead of a holiday. It seemed fitting punishment that we experience her death in the darkest, windiest and most wickedly cold days of the year.

In the first couple days after her death, my aunt was a wreck, unable to decide what to put in Grandma’s obituary, afraid she’d left someone out of the “survived by” list, but by the time we got to the wake, she’d stopped torturing herself and decided she’d done the best she could.  The mood at the wake was somber, but not excessively so. She was 90, had lived a long life, and she was ready to go. In many ways, she had been ready since the day her husband died thirteen years earlier. We were sad, but we knew her last days had been full of joy, despite some of us missing the festivities.

I remember being astonished at the vigor in her voice when I called her on Christmas Eve. We talked for a half hour, about everything and nothing. She told me about the latest electronics my aunt bought her, laughing her infectious golden laugh at how she’d never be able to figure out how to use them. She chuckled that still no one visiting could outlast her in the evening.  For years, she’d kept late hours, watching TV and doing crossword puzzles until 4am, sleeping into the afternoon.  She was eager to hear anything I could think of to tell her. I spoke with my dad after we finished. “She sounds great, Dad! It’s like she’s ten years younger! She hasn’t sounded so good in such a long time. I just can’t get over it!” He agreed, with a smile in his voice, and I hung up a minute later to sounds of laughter and music in the background. They say that happens for some people right before they die – they feel wonderful and alive and healthy for no reason anyone can point to. It’s the body’s way of sending you off with a parting gift. I hope that happens to me.

The day after the wake, we held her funeral. We drove in a few cars to the cemetery and gathered in the snow next to a dark and frozen hole in the ground. Everything was gray that day. The sky, the bare trees, the casket, the light, my father’s face. I don’t remember what words were said. I don’t remember who stood where. In those moments, in the punishing cold, surrounded by my family, I was alone with only my thoughts, and even they were fleeting. I simply stood and existed in the whipping wind and desperate cold for what seemed like both an instant and a day all at once.  The wind went through me and I didn’t fight it.  I just felt it in every bone in my body.

After the funeral and lunch at a nearby restaurant, we all gathered at Grandma’s house, determined to deal with her things as a family, as a team, so my aunt wouldn’t have to handle it all alone.  Everyone was encouraged to find something of Grandma’s they wanted to keep, whether for practical or sentimental reasons.  We packed boxes of bedding and dishes, marking them with the name of whoever it was that would take them home.  Her furniture and jewelry was split among family members, and her clothes packed away to give to Goodwill.  After everyone else had claimed what they wanted, I chose a print that I’d always admired.  It was a Picasso print, something that stood out in my mind when I thought of her house.  It hangs on my dining room wall now, a happy reminder of my grandmother that I look at every day.

Piles of papers had to be reviewed and lists made of who needed to be contacted with the news that she was no longer with us.  Social security, a realtor to list the house, her credit card company. As I rummaged through odd notes and papers in Grandma’s bedroom, I found an obituary she’d written for herself.  When I realized what it was, I felt like the wind had been knocked out of me.  I couldn’t comprehend writing my own obituary.  I read it a few times, slowly, imagining her lying in bed in the wee hours of the morning, jotting a few paragraphs in a pocket-sized notebook, writing her own brief summary of her life.  It was simple, not very wordy, written with pride about those she would be leaving behind, and focused mostly on the idea that she’d gone to be with her husband.  Though I don’t believe in heaven, when I read her handwritten notes, I sincerely hoped I was wrong, and that she had found Grandpa again.

Remembering teachers

Well, I’ve had to skip another writing prompt from Old Friend from Far Away.  This one was : “Give me a picture of a teacher you had in elementary school.”  I don’t remember a single teacher from elementary school.  In fact, I can barely remember any from junior high, either.  I do have some high school teacher memories, though.

Falls High School was the kind of place that teachers stayed at for entire careers.  A handful of my teachers had also taught my step-dad twenty years earlier.  One of the more colorful characters was our algebra teacher, who proclaimed loudly every day that there were only three certainties in life – death, taxes, and algebra homework.  His motivation techniques were a bit suspect, though.  Almost daily, he yelled at the class, telling us if we didn’t get our act together in algebra, we’d grow up to be nothing more than basket weavers.  His comb over prevented us from taking him too seriously.  My sister had an English teacher she had wrapped around her finger.  She regularly told him she had a headache and could she put her head down on her desk during class.  Every time, he agreed, and often went so far as to ask the rest of the students in class to be quieter in their discussions so they didn’t disturb her while she was resting.  Every couple weeks he told her she should have her mom take her to see a doctor because she had so many headaches.

In my senior year, my Spanish teacher had to take most of the year off for health reasons, so we got a long-term substitute.  Our sub was an elderly lady who had already retired from teaching, and she had no interest in actually teaching us any Spanish.  Every single day we played bingo in Spanish – yelling “¡Loteria!” when we filled a row on a card.  Most kids couldn’t even get that part of the game right.  It was too instinctive to yell “Bingo!”  Spanish was my first class of the day, and occasionally, I skipped it.  A good friend of mine wasn’t in school anymore, and she picked me up in the morning so we could run to McDonald’s and get breakfast.  The nearest McDonald’s was in Sheboygan – a 15-minute drive one way.  We had just enough time to get to there, run through the drive-through, and make it back to school as my first period was ending.  After missing class a couple times, my teacher asked me what was going on.  I told her that I was going to McDonald’s to get breakfast and, since we were only playing ¡Loteria!, I didn’t think I was missing much.  I wasn’t disrespectful in my tone.  I was just being honest.  She agreed, and told me that as long as I brought her a danish, she wouldn’t mark me absent.

My chemistry teacher was by far the quirkiest of them all.  He must have owned a half dozen of the exact same suit – or he literally wore the same suit to work every single day – it’s hard to say which.  The suit was a dark navy blue, and hung big and baggy on his tall but hunched over frame.  He had white, disheveled hair, thinning on the top of his head.  His glasses were a little crooked, low on his nose, and he personified the cartoonish figure of a mad scientist.  He was known to be a packrat and filled his pockets with oddities.  Rumor had it his need for large pants pockets was satisfied only when his wife replaced them by sewing tube socks into his pants.  These new pockets were constantly filled to the top, so his legs looked lumpy from the knee up.  He was also a photographer, and for some reason, he needed to have a few cameras on his person at all times.  He slung the camera straps over his shoulders underneath his suit jacket, which added another odd bulkiness to his appearance.  He drove a small pickup truck with a camper in the bed of the truck that extended over the cab.  We could never figure out why, but the thing must have had a dozen antennae sticking off the roof.  We could imagine having one or two for a CB radio or something, but why so many?

He was the hardest teacher in school, and graded strictly on many things besides the actual content of the course.  Most of the time, he had us grade each other’s papers.  We’d pass our papers one person back in the row, and we had to use red pen to mark each other’s answers wrong.  If, as a grader, we didn’t use a red pen, that resulted in a dock on our own test scores.  If we didn’t write our names on our assignments in exactly the right way, we’d get docked for that, too.  He was also a pilot, so we had an aviation class in school, an odd elective for a small rural high school.  I took the course because I thought I wanted to learn to fly one day, and part-way into the first term, I dropped the class, because no matter how hard I worked, the grades I got made me think I was going to fail.  He graded on a curve, and I found out after I dropped the class that I was getting an A, because despite my low percentages scores, they were still at the top of the class.  Our assignments often seemed impossible.  Make a paper airplane that will sail down the stairs at the end of the hallway.  The stairs doubled back halfway down, though, so the plane had to somehow make a 180 degree turn halfway through its course.  No one succeeded.

Give me a memory of the color red… or not.

I am one of those people that likes to follow the rules.  Pretty much all the rules – all the time.  I take rule following to a ridiculous level that annoys the hell out of many people that associate with me.  I’m lucky they like me enough to let it go, but seriously, the term rule-bound was invented just to describe me.  I abhor being late to anything – in fact, if I’m not at least fifteen minutes early, that qualifies as late.  I always put the shopping cart away in a parking lot.  I never miss a deadline of any sort.  I don’ ride a bicycle much, but if I did, I would wear my bike helmet, use the correct turn signals, and never ride through a stop sign or light even if no one else were coming.  I wait for the walk sign even when the street is empty.  You get the point.

This came up for me today because I was about to sit down and work on another writing prompt from Old Friend from Far Away.  The prompt was ‘Give me a memory of the color red…’  I read the prompt and an example the author provided.  I was to describe a memory of red, without using the word red.  I pulled up a new post and titled it, ready to sit down and see what I could crank out in ten minutes.  Nothing…   More nothing…  Even more nothing…  It seems the color red triggers absolutely zilch in my brain.  After staring at my screen for a few minutes, I thought to myself – well, maybe I should just skip this one.  Then the rule-follower in me screamed, “No!  What are you thinking?  You have to do every exercise in this book!  And you have to do them in order!”  So I got up and went outside for a cup of coffee and a cigarette.  This is a tactic that often works for me when I need to mull something over in my head for a bit.  Not this time.  I came back, sat down, and stared some more.  The only thing that came to mind was an apple, and I don’t feel like writing about apples at all.  I have no interesting stories that involve apples.  Grapes, maybe, but apples?  No.

So, I am taking a leap here – I’m going to break the rules.  I’m not going to come up with a memory of the color red for today’s writing prompt.  I’m going to skip it – at least for now – and see how I feel about the next prompt, which is “Give me a memory of a sound…”  This one I think may come a little easier.  If someday, the color red sparks something in my mind, maybe I’ll come back to it, but I’m going to try to force myself NOT to write about things that don’t spark anything for me just because I normally feel I need to do every single exercise in front of me.  We’ll see how well that works out.  I didn’t go to Catholic school in the days where a nun could whack you on the knuckles with a ruler if you disobeyed – but, I think my inner rule-follower was one of those nuns, and she retired into my brain in order to keep me in line.  I may have a real battle on my hands, here, but I’m giving it a shot.  Wish me luck.