Tuesday, August 6, 2013

"Ready for my close up, Mr. Demille."

Although I do love to travel, I'm really not wild about the public side of public transportation. Inherent in this concept is the necessity of having to interact with the public, after all, and this means actually speaking to people, getting close to people, letting people get in your bidness. I don't particularly like anyone getting up in my bidness, thank you very much. I only spill everything on the internet. It's cleaner that way.

During the trip to New Orleans I had one man--a farmer from Atlanta--who insisted in telling me all about his family and the problems they were having getting to Cape Cod. God, it was so annoying. Eventually, I did get into it and found him kind of charming, and my daughter Ashes thanked me profusely for taking the heat off of her. Still, there was a huge learning curve from annoyance to charm. At first I gave him one word answers, looked away. Tried to look down at the paperback in my hands. Finally, I succombed.

But the worst was on the plane ride home from Missouri. On the trip, I was 22B, which of course meant I was right smack between A and C. At first I thought this was going to turn out just fine, because the girl in the window seat had her headphones on and kept to herself. And, the seat to my right was empty. "What luck," I thought. Maybe I'll catch a break and the flight won't be so full. Maybe once we lift off I can scoot over and-

"Here's your spot, professor." I looked up. A beautiful Indian woman motioned to the place next to mine. "Here is where you sit."

Answering her call: an enormous African American gentleman with an afro the size of Cleveland. He stood at least seven feet tall and looked as if at one point he had been half of a basketball team. He was dressed in a strict black suit, like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction. This thin and tall drink of water possessed eyes that were perpetually alert, constantly on the move. He held a small book in his hands.

He sat down and immediately turned to me. Extended a hand. "Good afternoon, sir. How are you, today?"

I put on my show face. A warm smile, which wasn't very warm at all. "Just great. How are you?" See, short answers. Then I went back to reading my book.

He turned his head and spoke sotto voce to the person across the aisle. "See, that's how you do it. Make a polite introduction, even if you don't say another word to the person for the rest of the trip."

What? I heard tittering around me. I glanced up. All the eyes in the seats around us were focused on the man next to me. In those seats were college kids as minty fresh as wrapped candies, of all races and creeds. They all looked squeaky clean, as if Mitt Romney had sneezed all over them.

My immediate thought: I was surrounded by a cult. Shit! I mustn't call attention to myself by looking around. Quickly, I stuck my head back in my book prop.

The doctor's grew louder. "You know, I was trying to think of an ice breaker to use for this flight. In fact, I thought all night about it. Then it came to me. Here's what I thought: let's say you were approached by a famous Hollywood producer and offered five million dollars to tell the story of your life.

"What would be your opening scene?"  

I jerked my head up. Wait, was he talking to me? But no, he was turned away, he was talking to the college kids. I was safe. Head back into book prop.

A Chinese boy in the row across raised his hand. "Five million dollars, just for the opening scene?"

"Five million dollars for the story of your life, but what would the opening scene be?" The man chuckled, pleased with his ice breaker. "I'm actually writing my own screenplay about this, so be warned, you might end up in it. So what is your opening scene, Xang?"

Although I couldn't measure Xang's reaction because I was supposedly too absorbed in my book, it certainly sounded enthusiastic. "I would start with the day my father walked out on our family. I was 15 years old. I would show how that bonded my mother and sisters and made us stronger from the experience."

"Excellent, excellent!" The preacher man (for that is what I decided he was) nodded appreciatively. "And you, young lady? What would your opening scene be?"

Oh, shit, It was at this point I realized he was going around the cabin. Would he stop with the kids? Would he move on to me? Would he involve the entire plane?

This was intolerable! I had no urge to tell complete strangers the story of my life. What would I do if he turned to me with all those overeager college students paying rapt attention? Besides, what story would I tell? Would I talk about my split with Josie? My meeting Corb for the first time? Would I dig real deep and talk about the time in high school I chased my best friend into a costume closet and we fell into each other's arms and held each other for twenty minutes, and how that moment shaped my entire life?

Yes, what a LOVELY scene that would be to share with the kids. Twenty minutes in heaven. I sat there and imagined the reaction.

Ack! This was terrible. Frantically, I fished around for an escape route. I knew my little book prop wouldn't be enough to safe me from the inevitable. I needed something stronger. I glanced at the girl next to me. Head phones! Yes, I had head phones in my carry on bag. Perhaps if I dragged out my iPhone and plugged them in I could pretend I was listening to something...anything...at least until the plane...

"Yes, the birth of your baby brother certainly would be a powerful way to start off the story of your life, particularly seeing as you assisted with the birthing. And you sir? Would you like to participate in our little ice breaker?"

BUSTED! I dropped the head phones from my hand. Guiltily, I looked up. The preacher man's alert eyes were focused straight on me, pinning me up against my airline cushion. He had an easy smile on his face, but there was a firmness there, hovering around the edges.

I looked around. All the kids were staring at me, a silent chorus. I licked my lips, felt a lump in my throat. I was being called on to perform. How much of myself did I dare reveal?

"Well, you see...that is..." I felt as if my head were going to explode. "Well..."

And then it hit me. Of course! I literally stood up two inches straighter. "Funny you should ask. I know exactly how I'd start that movie," I replied. "That movie of my life."

The doctor feigned interest. And I thought to myself, he's more interested in catching me, pinned and wiggling up against my airline seat. "And how would that be, sir?"

I paused for dramatic effect, aware that I was, for just this minute, the center of attention. This mild mannered looking middle aged bald guy that none of these kids had ever met, ever would meet again, this chump who hardly cut a distinguished figure in my red Led Zep T-shirt and khaki shorts. Certainly not compared to the preacher man in his natty black suit.

And then I said,

"So there I was, sitting on a plane headed back from Missouri. Just minding my own business. And out of nowhere. this gentlemen sits down next to me, looks me in the eye and asks, 'If you were offered five million dollars to tell the story of your life, what would the opening scene be?' And that's what it would be, all right. Just that. That's my opening scene."

And with that, I went back to reading my book.

I didn't hear a word from anyone for the rest of the flight. 

Monday, August 5, 2013

Tedwords Tomes: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Really, there are too few books out there that make you feel.

I mean, evoke a real emotion. Most fiction simply moves you along on a tidal wave of action. Biographies and histories fill you up with page upon page of facts. Political invective intends to make you something, I suppose (it certainly doesn't intend to appeal to your head,) but that emotion is primarily hatred for the other guy, whoever that is. I don't consider that genuine feeling.

Then there are books like The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, which is a book that makes you feel the real deal. Those sorts are far and few between. The book was released in June, so it's actually quite remarkable I've read it, but after having done so, I'm placing it up there with some of my favorite children's classics, like A Wrinkle in Time or The Dark is Rising saga. The former, because of the obvious echo the newer book contains between its female protagonists and Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which. The latter, because of the sense of childish comfort I derived from both, like a thick quilt your mother would throw over your bed as you were sleeping on a cold winter's night. 

The story involves a middle aged man who returns to his childhood home in Sussex, England to attend a funeral, and is drawn to a farm at the end of the road. When he was seven, he met a remarkable girl there named Lettie, along with her mother and grandmother. Of course, from there, the story becomes one long flashback. We are swept up, like a wave upon the sea, into his story, his discovered memory of past events. And while I have absolutely no idea what our narrator looks like, either in childhood and in middle age, and while some descriptions are a bit overused (yes, I am well aware that Lettie has lots of freckles. Thanks!) those quibbles are trifles, really. It's the bigger things in this story that make it so vivid and memorable. 

Neil Gaiman has a talent few other authors possess: he captures the feeling and emotions of being a child vividly. He's done that in other novels, but in this one there are clearly bits snipped from his own life that have been woven throughout, giving the novel a sense of authenticity that make the fantastical elements spring to life, like bacon on a skillet. That, and the delicious way he has of capturing the absurd make this one tasty meal, indeed.

Particularly vivid is the villainess of the piece, a nasty piece of work known as Ursula Monkton. This book is at its best when it is chronicling the little tortures she visits upon our narrator. The child who all at once finds his or her safe family surroundings becoming a place of horror and fear has always been a fascination of mine. Was it always that way? Had it been eroding for a while? That look at childish creature comfort being intruded upon by adult creature unpleasantries always makes for great fiction, and Ursula's methodical deconstruction of a once seemingly halcyon family environment into something approaching a perverse prison camp is particularly gripping. I flew through those pages. My kids became irritated as I made little worried noises. It's really good writing.

The best writing of all is the contrast between the clear sightedness of childhood set against the delusion that adulthood often represents. At the book's heart is the following marvelous quote:

Grown-ups don't look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they're big and thoughtless and they always know what they're doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did, when they were your age. The truth is, there aren't any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane made me remember what I look like on the inside, what I felt as a child. It returned me to a more innocent and creative time. It made me feel things I should be feeling every day of my life, like how truly breathtaking a full moon can be or how comforting a good slice of warm pie can feel after a particularly bad day. Or, how a really good book can have the power to take you to another place and time.

These are all good things to remember, even if, as the narrator does, the present somehow manages to make you forget them in the blink of an eye. That's why we need more books like this one. Read it. You'll see what I mean.