In Spec: A Highly Sophisticated, Appellationary Rant

I’ve always thought it a terrible crime that one might say “in retrospect” when looking back upon something that’s already happened, but cannot say “in spec” when referring to something happening at present.  Of course, one can say “at present,” but that’s an entirely different phrase.  No relation to this mysterious “retrospect.”  And anyway, “at present” is boring.  It’s as if your mother, perhaps wearing the pea coat and netted hat of her early days, is tapping you on the shoulder and telling you that at present, you are not behaving properly.  Spec implies something much more romantic.  Spec implies spectacles.  Implies, by extension, rose-colored glasses.  Implies, then, Edith Piaf, implies Paris, implies yellow lights on the river, dark-capped apartment buildings with balconies pushing out.  And since dear Edith is not with us at present (she was once), and since we are currently not in Paris (we have been before), but rather on the living room rug with a sweaty dog leaning against our right knee, “in spec” seems to imply retrospect.  So while “at present,” (and this is me blatantly ignoring all free access to the OED which my UMM alum status hath granted me) only implies the current, “in spec,” while referring to living room rug, sweaty dog, right knee, actually encompasses much, much more.  Therefore, “in spec,” from now on, must for all romantic souls replace the colorless “at present.”***

I will be contacting Andrew Clements immediately.

***Please note that I (most irresponsibly) watched Midnight in Paris before writing this post.

 

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The Waiters: A Short Story

Because it’s cold, and because I’ve been using said chill to justify a long afternoon of lazing around the house, and because having finally settled down with my Feminist Theory readings, I find myself engrossed, I’m posting a story.

I wrote this several years ago, submitted it to First Line Fiction, and won third place.  Having come a long way since 2010, parts of this were painful to reread.  You may cringe at the sentimentality.  You may wonder what on earth led me to disregard quotation marks.  But please know that I’m right there with you.

That being said, I do like a few things about this story, hence I’m submitting it to the Internet for the second time.

I also think this blog needs a little fiction every now and then, if only to punctuate many days of non-fiction ranting.

Here you go.  Happy MLK Day!

The Waiters

He brought in his shirt pocket the last photograph he’d taken of his son.

Poor guy.  You should have seen the way he walked into the office that afternoon.  He wore a yellow jacket that seemed inappropriate.  Its brightness contrasted with the hollow expression on his face so drastically that it was almost shocking.  I was relieved when he took the jacket off, carefully hanging it up on the rack in the corner of the waiting room. 

And then the man began to slowly cross, crumpling a little with each step.  I imagined that he’d be on his knees before he even reached the chair.  I imagined myself putting my hand on the shrugged shoulder, shouting into a wrinkled ear.  He made it though, sitting next to me as I knew he would.  There was no other place, after all.  The waiting room was full of people waiting, most of whom were buried in magazines or clicking on small phones.

He began talking as soon as he sat down.  Talking to me, or so I figured after a few seconds.

I had a son once, he said.

A son?  This was before I decided he was speaking to me and not to someone else.

Yes.  He died, though.  Car accident.

I’m sorry.  Because that’s what you say, isn’t it?  I’m sorry?  I’m sorry I can’t know what you’re going through, and I’m sorry that I’m going to try my hardest to comfort you anyway.  I’m sorry I don’t understand.

Thank you, he said simply.  I thought that would be it, and I could go back to staring at the wall.

He continued, though.  So many people die that way; it isn’t terribly original.  But my son doesn’t die that way.  My son doesn’t die.

He did, though.  I spoke softly, hoping he would know that I wasn’t trying to hurt him with my bluntness.  I wanted him to keep talking all of the sudden.  I wanted to know how this man had come to be folded into himself.  How his eyes got to be the way they were now.  Drowning.  He could see, but he wasn’t really looking out of them.  I saw all of these things in that waiting room, and I wanted him to keep talking.

The man paused for a moment, fiddling with the pocket at the front of his shirt.  Out of the pocket he plucked a folded bit of paper.  A photograph; it said Kodak across the back.  He unfolded the photograph and stared at it for a few seconds before folding it once more. 

He took a deep breath before he spoke again.  Afterwards, we all mourned.  No one talked during meals anymore.  My wife and I cried ourselves to sleep every night.  We tried to comfort one another.  I tried so hard.  But it is so very difficult to dig yourself out of the well of your own grief and reach for someone else.

Suddenly the man looked up at me, as if just realizing that he was talking to an actual person who was listening. 

He looked down again at the photo in his hands and continued.  My wife stopped grieving after awhile.  She got on with her life.  She went back to work.  She started running with the dog in the morning.  She drove our daughters to lacrosse and modern jazz.  She didn’t understand why I couldn’t get up too.  She used to become angry with me.  Why can’t you get over him?   She would yell.  Why can’t you see that he’s gone and that we’re left? You have two other children.  You have a job.  This needs to stop.  The man looked at me again, warily this time.  Do you have a job?

I nodded.  I deliver packages.  I drive a truck and I stop and I make people sign for brown boxes or tan envelopes.

The man took this in.  Do you enjoy your work?  He asked me.

I thought for a moment.  Then I answered.  I enjoy the people.  I watch them.  I guess what they’re like, what their names are. 

Do you ever get them right?

I don’t know if I do or not. 

The man frowned.  I would like to know.   He unfolded the photograph again and stared at it again.  I would like to know.

I saw that he was on the verge of crying.  His eyes squinted up and his knees shook a bit.  People across the room were beginning to look at us.  Not obviously looking, but peering at us every so often over their Newsweeks, as if to warn us that they didn’t want to overhear, but that they would if we spoke any louder.  They didn’t want to overhear.  They didn’t want a share in the anguish on the man’s face, the bewilderment on mine.  They read their magazines.

The man shuddered three more times and was still. 

He began to speak again after a few minutes.  I realized soon that I could lose my wife as well.  That she wouldn’t die, but that she would be just as permanently and irrevocably gone if I didn’t stop missing my son.  So I stopped.  I had to, you see.  I knew if I lost anything else I would disappear completely myself.  Everything tying me down would be gone.  I would be gone too. 

I stretched my legs out across the carpet and arched my back a little bit.  I wasn’t bored; I was only sore from sitting so long.  He knew I wasn’t bored.  Even if I had been, I don’t think he would have stopped.  We both knew now that he needed to say these things.  We both knew I needed to hear.

He kept talking through my stretch; his gaze wandered down to my brown boots and anchored on to them. 

I donated all of my son’s clothes, and cleaned his room.  I even took down his posters and painted over his walls with the spring green color my wife picked.  The paint erased my son’s smell until I couldn’t breathe in that room anymore.  I was about to shut his door behind me for the last time when I spotted the edge of something white sticking out from under the bed.

It was the photograph, wasn’t it?

The man nodded gravely.  I had taken it a few weeks before he died.  We were driving in my old convertible going west.  West like the pioneers, my son had shouted joyfully.  While we were stopped at a red light, my son dug the camera out of his backpack and thrust it at me.  We were laughing hard, like two teenagers instead of one.  My son rested one arm on top of the rolled-down window and leaned back away from me.  He grinned the same smile I had seen all his life.  My son leaned back into the wind against the highway and grinned while I took the picture.

It was all too much for the man then.  He dropped his head into the picture in his hands and sobbed soundlessly.  His back rose and fell with each rolling breath, and as I deliberated patting him gingerly on the shoulder blade, I intercepted a few raised eyebrows from across the room.  I shot those eyebrows straight back, sending most of the waiters diving back into their Popular Sciences.  I wasn’t a big man.  I wasn’t even a brave man.  Not then.  But I knew when things were private.  This was between the man, the photograph of his son, and me.

When the man finally calmed down he looked relieved.  Now he could finish.

Very slowly he opened the photograph in his hands.  I couldn’t quite see it, but I didn’t fail to be amazed at its proximity.  I only had to raise my eyes.  I didn’t, though.  I waited.

He spoke.  The last photograph of my son, the one I clung to when my wife wasn’t around, the one that allowed me to keep him and to keep myself together…He trailed off.  He wasn’t sure how to end, now that he had begun to end.

He tried again.  The last photograph of my son is something I both love and hate.  I can’t make myself throw it away, and yet it feels heavy in my pocket.  He stopped.

A woman had walked into the waiting room, and was now looking around with a definite air of impatient authority.  She called out a name.  I didn’t hear, but I guess the man did because he slowly stood and walked towards her with that same worn down gait he had entered on.

I sat back in my chair and looked around the room.  The other waiters stared boldly at me now.  I dropped my head, all defiance gone.  I sat and I thought.  I knew this was a story I would remember, not just another observation to drop in my brain like a marble.  I wondered if I would ever retell it.  I wondered how I would do it.  But mostly I wondered how it ended.

How did I know about the photograph in the man’s pocket?  Because he told me about it while we waited.

On his way out, the he passed me with only a nod.  Thank you, he said quietly, slipping either arm into that inappropriate yellow jacket.  I stared, decided.

Yes I must.  Sir!  I bounded after him past the alarmed waiters. Sir can I please see the photograph of your son?

He looked at me in his watery way, and then seemed to surface.  I imagined the last waves breaking around his eyes before receding like the tide.  Yes, he replied.  Yes of course you can see my son. 

Slowly he reached towards his pocket and drew out the creased picture.  He handed it to me without unfolding it.  Perhaps he thought that by unfolding it himself it would only make it harder.  Perhaps he needed me to take it from him, to hold his regret and his pain for a little while.

I unfolded the picture and stared at it for what felt like a long time.  I wanted him to feel me take it in.  But really it only took me a moment to understand.

As I handed the picture back to him and watched him refold it and set it gently into the same pocket, I listened to him speak the last words he ever said to me.  I had a son once, he explained patiently, as if we were starting over, as if we were just meeting each other.  I had a son once and he died.  I had a son once, and the last photograph I ever took of him captured only his elbow. 

I stood and saw the glass door swing shut behind him, watched it forget instantly that such a man had ever passed through. 

You know, with people you meet when you’re delivering packages, you can guess.  You can assume that a woman is snobbish, or that a man is out of sorts and late for work.  You can guess about them, and it never has to bother you if you’re right or if you’re wrong.  You can just let your imaginings hang in the air above your head.

Sons and photographs, I have come to realize, are a different matter altogether.  With them, you have to wonder your whole life why you didn’t look through the lens before snapping the shutter.  You have to wish that you had taken the time to aim, wish that you hadn’t been too captivated by the living, breathing boy to focus on capturing all of him forever.

Eventually, though, you have to know that when you tell the story of your son in a waiting room, when people listen, and when people look at the photograph of your son afterwards, that those waiters see all of him.  You have to know that those waiters see all of you too.

Marathoning

I needed to write my Virginia Woolf final paper last night, and my friends, I was struck down by apathy.  Otherwise known as senioritis, otherwise known as the senior slide, otherwise known as post-Thanksgiving culture shock.  Suddenly, it all seemed futile: writing papers, doing readings, sitting through lectures, even serving on student government.  How would any of this help me with my life’s work?  I wondered.  How was it relevant, and why was I killing myself with stress and fatigue juggling it all?  Further, why did my intelligence have to be dependent on a literary paper, or a history exam?  Why are we forcing our young people to compete like this, and to stretch themselves so thin that they can hardly breathe?

Giving up, I went to bed at eleven.

I skipped two classes today so that I could stay home and write, but still, I couldn’t come up with a good idea.  A little of the apathy was gone, but the desperation that replaced it was even more paralyzing.

Now, sitting in an empty classroom in the social science building, To the Lighthouse propped open with my cell phone, Mrs. Dalloway marked over with pencil, I finally have an idea that could potentially become a ten page paper.

This is a small gain, however, as there are five more papers ahead.  And two exams. And a senior seminar presentation.  And a job interview.

The worst part about finals, let me tell you, is not the actual work: it’s the anticipation of the work, and of the effects said work will have on your well-being.  It’s knowing that you won’t sleep, will eat whatever’s quick, and will not have any social contact outside of class and the library.  It’s like a marathon:  We prepare ourselves for it, we put ourselves through the intense stress of the actual event, and then when it’s over, we feel triumph, but we also wonder (maybe in the back of our minds) why we ran in the first place, and whether we’re really better for it.

I don’t know, folks, but I’m gearing up at the starting line regardless.

Warning Letter

Dear Friends,

I know that Friday night is coming.  I know that it’s the day after Thanksgiving, and that having gorged yourself on cranberries still in their can-like form, turkey smothered in gravy and abutted by mounds of stuffing and potatoes, and a few rolls thatjustbalanced on the edge of your plate, you’ll be lethargic.

I know that you’ll wake up on Friday morning still woozy from that last “sliver” of pie.  And yet, and yet, you will still trek to Target before the sun is up, if only to elbow your hair stylist’s elderly mother out of the way, that you might claim the last Nikon.

I know that Friday night, after sandwiches bulging with leftovers, you will seek entertainment.  Something light, something out of the house (away from the dishes), something the entire family can enjoy.

But friends, I implore you: do not go see Breaking Dawn Part 2.  If you do, you will laugh at first, then you will furrow your eyebrows in dubious mockery, and then you will be overwhelmed by waves of revulsion and worry for the future of popular filmmaking.  You will find yourself snatching your neighbor’s Milkduds to throw at the screen. You will sob the entire way home, because how can any movie that people pay to see be that bad?

Trust me.  I’m still emotionally shattered from my own viewing last night.

Wishing you happy Thanksgiving travels,

Holly

You Don’t Have to Burn Books to Destroy a Culture. Just Get People to Stop Reading Them.

When I was in middle school, I loved A Series of Unfortunate Events.  I owned most of them, but once I had read through those, I went to my school library (where I was a frequent shopper) to see if I could check out the rest.  Not seeing the books on the shelves, I asked the librarian if the library had them.  “No we don’t,” she said in a strangely tight voice.

“Is there any way you could order them?” I asked.

“No.  We don’t think those books are appropriate to have here.”

Feeling embarrassed without really knowing why, as if I had reached for something forbidden and been caught in the act, I walked away slowly, passing by even the Dear Americas, my trusty fallbacks.  What was wrong with A Series of Unfortunate Events?  I had them at home.  My parents didn’t seem to mind that I read them.  I had friends who read them.  But if they weren’t allowed at the library, didn’t that mean there was something inherently dangerous about them?

That night, I paged through The Bad Beginning, looking for some sign of Satan (I was in Catholic school at the time).  Nothing.  It was just a book, really.  A good book, a book I liked, but just a book.  There was no ooze seeping from between the covers, no curls of smoke or beckoning witch claws.

Finding no tangible reason not to, I scrounged up my twelve-year-old savings and bought the next book myself.  It was fantastic, but because of the library incident, the series had soured for me.  Reading it in class, I was self-conscious, afraid I was breaking some grown-up law that somehow divided books, things I had always viewed as free and untouchable, into categories.

To this day, I’m not sure what the reasoning for the Unfortunate Events banning was.  Perhaps because they’re rather morbid (although satirically so, I must add), perhaps because there are parts that might be considered violent (someone is eaten by leeches, at one point).  I’m not sure, furthermore, if the banning was a result of a parent’s objections, a teacher’s, or a librarian’s.

What I do know is that that incident, my first conscious brush with banning, shaped the way I read and the way I thought about reading for years to come.  I might be generous, and say that it made me more aware of the fragility of one’s basic rights, even in today’s modern society (that is, to the extent that a twelve-year-old understands such things).  That it did me a good turn, in a way.  But I don’t know that I want to be generous, because book banning, in my twenty-two-year-old opinion, is one of the most heinous crimes imaginable.

I don’t care if you don’t want to read a certain book.  I don’t care if you don’t want your child to read a certain book.  I don’t care if you don’t think I should be reading a certain book.  None of these things give you an ounce of justification for banning said book.  For saying, essentially, that because of your personal opinion, you get to deny fellow human beings their basic rights.

We all have the right to read, and to learn, and to explore.  We all have the right to take our resulting education and to make what we will of it.  I think that this applies to 6th graders as well as to college students.  Words are powerful things.  If people didn’t think so, there wouldn’t be book banning at all.  But words do not make choices for us.  Reading A Series of Unfortunate Events did not provoke me to stick a baby in a cage and dangle said cage out of a tower.  Don’t Ask Alice didn’t prompt my suicide.  Mrs. Dalloway hasn’t turned me into a lesbian.

Strangely, despite having read hundreds of potentially ‘dangerous’ books in my time, I’m still here, and I’m still okay.

There are four days left in Banned Books Week.  I encourage you to spend those days reading one of the gloriously damaging banned or challenged books on this list.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_most_commonly_challenged_books_in_the_United_States

Back to the 1950s

When I first came to college, I was a Communications, Media, and Rhetoric major.  I switched to English after taking (and heartily disliking) the intro class.  Probably because most of it was spent memorizing and reciting the definition of rhetoric (short definition: the art of suasory symbol use.  Long definition: I don’t remember).  What I regret, though, is that I didn’t take at least one more CMR class, even if just for fun.  There’s a lot to be learned from the way we communicate, whether it’s via TV, internet, or cell phone.  Further, entire eras can be understood through a study of their advertisements.

Take the 1950s for example:

What initially strikes me about 1950s ads is that they’re all so silly.  Really?  Give a woman a vacuum for Christmas and she’ll be utterly happy.  Put Coca-Cola in your infant’s bottle and he’ll surely grow up to be an investment banker.  But the thing is, that’s the way things were sold; companies made a claim using the right combination of wit, relateability, and idealism.  That’s the way things are still sold today, albeit perhaps more subtly.

We don’t say straight out that every woman should ask for cleaning supplies for Christmas, but we do say it nonetheless, well into the 21st century:

Please Stop Sneaking in Walmart Candy

There’s nothing quite like going to see a movie at the movie theatre.  I’ve loved it ever since I was a little girl, and although, then and since, I’ve not gone more than a few times a year, it’s always been one of my favorite things to do.

There’s nothing like the smell of popcorn and the crush of stray Hot Tamales underfoot.  There’s nothing like waiting, breathlessly, for the lights to darken and the screen to quiet.  There’s nothing like previews, which are often more entertaining than the movie itself.  There’s nothing like sitting in a theatre with hundreds of people, and hearing everyone sob at once, or laugh at once, or scream at once.

Movies, I firmly believe, are best when shared.  They’re best when more than one hand digs into a bucket of popcorn, and several straws are poked into one giant Coke (although who ever remembers which straw is which?).  They’re best, of course, when seen in a theatre.

Which is why, as we all knew I would, I thoroughly enjoy my volunteer gig at the local movie theatre.  As of right now, I’ve worked a concessions training shift and a ticket booth training shift.  Both were enjoyable, but what I really want to do is be a projectionist (yes, that’s an actual title).  I’ve wondered for some time now about the man-in-the-tiny-room-behind-the-theatre, and it’s time I found out.  The theatre I work at, additionally, still uses old-fashioned reels.  They’re saving to buy a digital projector, but before that happens, I want to nudge myself into that tiny room.

One of my English professors (let me tell you, I’ve seen several, several professors today, between the theatre and the grocery store and walking down my street) is a projectionist, and he offered to let me shadow him on any Monday when he works.  I think I’ll take him up on that offer.  Tomorrow.

In the meantime, friends, please stop sneaking snacks into the movie theatre.  I know that jumbo box of Charleston Chew is cheaper at Walmart, but here’s what I’ve learned: individual movie theatres only get to keep about 6% of every ticket they sell.  The movie production companies get the rest.  Ergo, almost all theatre profits come from concessions.  It makes sense, then, that concessions are overpriced; because if they weren’t, the theatre likely couldn’t stay afloat.  So every few months, when it’s rainy, and when you decide to go see the new Nicholas Cage, please please buy concessions at the theatre.  I know I will from now on.