Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Because it sure is surreal sometimes

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Length does matter

Ever get treated to a story by a friend or acquaintance, and stand in awe of how well it’s told? I’m talking about the kind of experience in which someone says, “Have I got a story for you!” and gosh darn if they weren’t absolutely right.

I appreciate the telling of a good story not only for the details sprinkled throughout by an adept storyteller, but for a focused storyline and engaging ending that leaves me saying, “Ahhhhh. I shall not soon forget that tale,” as I kick up my feet on a velvet footstool, lean back into my worn leather chair, and take a sip of sherry, mesmerized by what I’ve just heard.

Enough with that crack-pipe dream. I have children. I don’t have friends who drop by for stimulating conversation in the parlor. I have a countertop, with unidentifiable smears that stick to my sleeves, or even more enjoyable, my bare arms. Furthermore, I use that same countertop to speed through the latest People magazine. When my doorbell rings, it isn’t Robert Redford and Meryl Streep showing up with a bottle of fine cognac to “have a story now” as they did in Out of Africa. It’s a girlfriend looking to discuss this week’s episode of Real Housewives of Crazytown.

Where have all the good stories gone? Where is the oral tradition that passed on such epic dramas as Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, or Beowulf, so many centuries ago? As much as I love the written word, I just find it more satisfying to listen in rapt delight and watch the facial expressions of a human being standing before me, weaving action and dialogue, humor and tragedy, into oral gold.

Most of the stories I’m treated to are told by my little people, which means that what they lack in plot, they make up for in incoherence. Endings? Not so much. With my kids’ stories, it’s not a matter of when they end, but if.

My daughter’s stories are so long I’m sure that someday when I’m comparing war stories from a rocking chair with my friend Gladys, the conversation will likely go something like this:

“Say, dearie, when did you go through menopause,” Gladys will ask me, as we sit on the porch of some old folks home, our necks craning and our tongues searching for the bendy straws sticking out of our 32-ouncers.

“Let’s see…what year was it when Landry turned nine? Let me think..."

“Wow, you went through menopause in one year?”

“Don’t be ridiculous, Gladys; I went through menopause while my daughter told me about her first day of fourth grade.”

(Note: To be totally honest, I have not gone through menopause. That was purely an imaginative attempt at making a point.)

Now that I've covered length, I can spend a little time on delivery.

You know you are talking to my ten-year old daughter when the end of almost every sentence sounds like it should be a question, but it’s not. Think of the tone of one’s voice when picking up the phone and saying, “Hello?” That's how all of the sentences sound when she tells a story. Not only that, short her stories are not.

Unfortunately, my daughter is not completely responsible. Genetics are also working against her. My daughter comes from a long line of women who would no sooner leave a detail, no matter how irrelevant, out of story than they would throw cat shit all over their living room just to see where it landed. Sadly, I’m one of them. I’m working on it.

The compelling orations that come forth multiple times a day from my daughter are also sans verbal punctuation, otherwise known as logical pauses. The question-yet-not-actually-a-question-tone of voice takes the place of periods and commas. In one aspect it’s rhythmic and almost hypnotic, as her voice rises and falls and rises and falls, until…it becomes evident that the sentences just keep coming…and coming…and coming.

Quite honestly, listening to my daughter tell a story sometimes causes me a bit of anxiety. It’s like watching a movie in which some poor lady crashes a car into a river. Water begins to fill the interior. The water is rising. It’s up to her chest. She desperately claws at the door handle and pounds on the window. Then, the water is up to her chin. It covers her mouth as she juts her chin up and tries to keep her nose above water. This is the point where you yell, "Breathe through your eyes! Breathe through your eyes!" Then, the water level is over the top of her head. She’s completely under water, and you're thinking, “She’s got to breathe! Breathe! But she can’t! She can’t take a breath or she’s dead! She struggles, but still, she can’t inhale! You’re watching this and you suddenly realize you’re holding your own breath, and possibly digging your nails into the arm of the person sitting next to you.

I’ll bet you’re just holding your own breath in anticipation of an example. I’ll bold each word that should be said with the same rise to the voice as a person would when picking up the phone and saying “Hello?”

Ready? Here we go? Are you getting the picture? I’m going to begin? Don’t forget to pause slightly at each bolded word, and say it the way you would if you were picking up the telephone and saying Hello?

“Mom, you won’t believe what happened today. Okay, so, today at recess Kaylie M. and Kylie R did that thing to Khloe and Kayla who had their backs turned and Mrs. Gardner told them again not to but they did it anyway and right then Clem Cadiddlehopper caught the ball and threw it up on the roof so that we couldn’t get it and Mr. Souza walked by and looked at us and said, “Hello girls!” and so then, later, at recess, I was on the swings with Keely and Sammy S. and then the bell rang and we lined up for lunch and guess what?

“What.” (I purposely withhold any trace of intonation that would indicate I am asking a question. I am taking a moral stand at this point and refuse to contribute to the shameful overpopulation of question/statements in the world. In fact, I may even start an effort to rid the planet of needless statements, questions and possibly, all communication whatsoever. I may just climb trees all day.

Back to the story?

“Right then, Chloe and Kayla turned around, and oh my gosh.” The look on my daughter's face communicated just one thing to me: I had missed something.

I quickly rewound, only to end up with a mental pile of tangled, black cassette tape encasing my head which I could only hope would result in a swift and painless death as it tightened around my throat. Technically, because I could not detect any exposition, rising action, climax or falling action, what I’d just heard wasn’t a story. I know the little darling tried to tell me something, but what was it?

I fondly recall the days, somewhere in the neighborhood of eight years ago, when my daughter’s stories took this form:

“Mama, I went potty in the potty chair at Nona’s house today!”

Now, that’s a story! A not-so vibrant verb, but who cares! Look at all those setting details: in the potty chair! At grandma’s house! Today! The only thing I was required to do all those years ago was smile, put out my arms and hug. There was no quiz at the end, in the form of, “Mom, did you hear me?” or “Mom, are you listening,” or the occasional, “Mom, why is your head in the oven?”

Now, it’s a little different. What makes it all even more fun is the anxiety I feel as the non-story- story seems oh-so-close to wrapping up, and my almost 13-year old son suddenly becomes aware there are people in the room with him. Like Rip van Winkle, his little head jerks a bit and the glazed-over look disappears from his already wide-open eyes. How he managed to daydream during the last ten minutes is beyond me. The glimmer of hope I had just seconds before of possibly being lucky enough to escape the scene with no more than a slight trickle of blood from my ear, as if I’d been concussed with a blunt object, recedes. My son opens his mouth and speaks:

“Wait. What happened?”

Then, she starts over.

I feel the two halves of my brain slowly detach from one another. A jackhammer sparks to life between my ears. I cannot listen to this again, I think to myself. No matter that I’m in the middle of making custard in the double boiler – I’ve got to get out of here! I try to sell her my departure.

“Well, I just heard the story, so I’ll just go in the other room and…”

“No! Mom. You didn’t hear what happened to them after she did that!”

What the hell is she talking about, I wondered to myself. Why don’t I get it? She basically just told me about every muscle that moved on the playground from 8 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Why did every sentence sound like the question of the century? Would the falling action ever appear, let alone the conclusion? What is wrong with me?

Back to my original assertion: with kids and their stories, it isn’t about “when” they might end, it’s a matter of “if” you can survive them. Pull up a comfortable chair when you come to my house.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

The Other Temple Grandin

By now, you’ve probably seen the movie or heard the story of Temple Grandin. Inspiring. Unbelievable. Poignant. The true story of a highly intelligent and autistic woman who craves the feeling of a hug, but can’t endure the human touch. She forges a special bond with cattle and then carves out a career designing systems for them to travel to their death without getting so much as one hive.

Apparently, completely calm, centered and happy cows make happy T-bone steaks. Rile them up, deprive them of the perfect coziness and pressure of Grandin’s specially designed chutes and you’re left with cortisol-riddled beefsteak that both tastes nasty and disrespects the beast. Like Grandin said, “We raise them to eat them so how’s about showing them a little res-PECT!!” Grandin even perfected a “squeeze machine”, as she calls it, which mimics the comforting feeling of a hug, without the unnerving (for her) sensation of two arms wrapped around her.

Somehow, she figured out that all she and the cows need is a little TLC.

I am inclined to agree with Temple, not because I totally understand her reasoning, but because I trust her. I saw the movie. I heard her interviewed on NPR. I’m also a fan because of another, more personal link.

See, there’s another Temple Grandin, one who lives in my world. I trust him, too. My version is a 43-year old math teacher and varsity softball coach who, each morning at precisely 7:20, takes his coffee and Sudoku into his "squeeze machine": the toilet closet. This, immediately after eating one bowl of cereal with sliced bananas both below the pile of cereal and placed on top, which he first slices lengthwise and then across, so each slice is a little half-circle. I guess this reminds him of geometry.

My Temple comes home every day at lunch, eats whatever I have fixed for him and then goes back to school with his afternoon treat in a bag: a yogurt and a banana. He sits at his desk, dipping the banana into the yogurt one bite at a time. His students pretend to be doing calculus problems, while secretly texting each other the following: BYGIAIA! (Banana Yogurt Guy Is At It Again!)

Those mornings when he peers into the fruit basket and sees that we’re out of bananas are dark, dark days. His face immediately droops. His brow furrows. He looks at me.

“You’ll survive, chief,” I say while pouring my coffee and shuffling toward the stove.

Trust me when I say, there is a teensy-weensy kernel in his brain, called the Temple Lobe, that tells him not to believe me. Unless he reads it in the sports page or on, no piece of data is trustworthy.

There are other things that give him the warmth and security he needs.

“I need my squeeze machine!” my husband yelled the other day when I told him I would not get off the laptop to let him check before he returned to school after lunch.

“You’ve checked it forty-two times today already. You checked it 10 minutes ago when you got home. What is the point?”

“The point is that if it doesn’t rain I need a plan B for practice. If it rains we’ll discuss situations in my classroom,” he said referring to what he might do if water fell out of the sky after school.

“So, write down an outside practice plan. You already know rain is likely. Why keep checking the weather? You could have had ten practice plans written for the next two weeks with all the time you’ve spent checking the weather!”

“Why can’t I just know?”

“Because you already DO KNOW. It said 80% chance of rain before mid-afternoon. Even if it said ‘150% chance of rain’ you know damn well you’d keep checking because that’s what you do.”

I knew what was coming next. Imagine the little black and white sketches that zoom through Temple’s mind when something does not compute.

“There’s no such thing as 150% chance of rain!! You know that!!” He hates it when I disrespect numbers as much as Temple hates it when cowboys disrespect cows.

“Whatever, Temple,” I said, referring the movie we’d just watched a few nights before, just to see if he was paying attention.

Suddenly, he was smiling. It was time for a scenario. We love scenarios.

“What if you found out that I was a highly functioning autistic?” my husband asked.

“What do you mean, IF?” I snapped, unable to keep the smirk off my face.

“Whaddya mean by that?” he said with that fake sad face he adopts just to get me to laugh.

“You check in the middle of FRIGGIN' JULY, that’s what! We live in California! It’s going to be hot! You’ve even got the kids doing it!" At this point, I can't even keep a straight face, even though I passionately believe in what I'm saying.

“What if a summer thunderstorm comes along?”

I turned and pointed to the living room window. “There’s my, all year long,” I said, adding, “Want to know what my ‘Plan B’ is? The sweatshirt in the closet!!”

There’s more. There are the clocks that he is umbilically tied to whether he’s at home, in a hotel or camping under the stars, where he ties his watch to the little pocket hanging on the inside of the tent. This because he is compelled to look at the clock just so that he knows what to feel: relieved (before 2 a.m.) or nervous (after 2 a.m.).

I once presented an alternate plan: my way. My way and my husband’s way are a little different. While he scopes the horizon, I tend to look straight down, careening through life, adjusting on the fly to whatever mishap I’ve recently created and fairly content to be in the moment. Other than important things, like appointments, kids’ practices and happy hour, I tend to take life as it comes. I'm not saying my way is better; like Temple's mother always told her, and anyone else who was tempted to judge, "Not more, just different."

I once suggested he cover up the clock at night, as I do, to ensure he won’t catch a glimpse. Of all the times to get bad news, the middle of the night is my least favorite.

“Why put yourself through the anxiety of seeing it’s 5:15 a.m. and that you only have 45 minutes left to sleep, which basically guarantees you won’t be getting back to sleep at all?”

“I just like to know,” he clipped.

“Well, I hope you are satisfied. You have most of our kids doing it. Way to go, Temple.”

“I need my squeeze machine!”

“Come here, honey. I’m you’re squeeze machine. I’m your Plan B.”