Saturday, December 22, 2007

Santa and Me

As you can see here, I was a skeptic about Christmas right from the start. Who is this guy, my two-year old self seems to be asking. He is leering, right? And that number: 3890—what’s that about? I don’t actually remember this moment, but I have to say that looking at the photo at age 60, I still feel a twinge of anxiety—
though I absolutely love looking at my tasteful little coat and fabulous matching hat.

In my first real memory of Christmas, I’m five. I got a bride doll, all the rage then. I liked dolls, I probably asked for it. But when I saw the electric train Santa had brought my brother, I wanted that. Now. I pitched a fit when my dad said it was Jimmy’s train and Jimmy would share it when he was ready. Then sulked until Jimmy decided he was ready, which seemed like about a year. I was furious with him for having something to lord over me and at myself for not having the good sense to ask for a train myself (even though I was a girl). And, of course, guilty, guilty, guilty for being bad—on Christmas.

It pretty much went downhill from there. Every year I wanted something we couldn’t afford, I wanted a present someone else got, I wanted more presents. Things took a turn for the worse in the fourth grade when I fell in love with Little Women. Reading the scene in which the four perfect sisters sacrifice their Christmas breakfast so the poor family down the street can have a meal, I was consumed with guilt for wanting anything at all.

To tell the truth, I never have gotten in sync with Christmas. What is it, anyway? A religious sacrament, if you’re religious. The aftermath of pagan ritual,if you’re not. In either case, how did so much of the way we experience the holiday season become a months-long obligatory celebration of stuff? Christian, pagan, or just a regular person trying to live decently and well, who of us completely avoids the rat race? Who never gets stressed out by all there is to do? Who isn’t at least a little glad when it’s all over?

As for the magic of Santa, is there anyone who’d like to try to explain to poor children why they get virtually nothing and rich children get so much? Would anyone like to explain it to rich children, for that matter? Surely, some of them must wonder why Christmas works that way.

Okay, that’s my holiday rant. Predictable, since I just got back from the mall (again). If you have any "Bah, humbug" sentiments, feel free to vent them here!

Sunday, December 16, 2007

More Fabulous Realities

While I’m on the subject of fabulous realities…

The phrase came to me by way of Ken Macrorie’s Telling Writing, published in 1970, and still one of the best books about writing and teaching writing that I know. It came to Macrorie by way of Thoreau: “Shams and delusions are esteemed for soundest truth, while reality is fabulous. If men would steadily observe realities only, and not allow themselves to be deluded, life, to compare it with such things as we know, would be like a fairy tale and the Arabian Nights Entertainments.”

According to Macrorie, a fabulous reality is something we encounter in the ordinary world that surprises us. “It is not fairly surprising, but absolutely surprising, because it is unique,” he wrote. “Tension is necessary to make a fabulous reality. Two things that do not belong together touch in some way. And their touching creates waves of further suggestion that are not stated.”

Having collected fabulous realities for more than thirty years now, I’ll add another indicator: discovering one is bound to make you smile. One of my first was a sign on the door of an office at the Indiana State Fair that said “Rabbit Director.” Typing it right now makes me smile…again. What the heck is a rabbit director? What, exactly, would his duties be? Would any kid, anywhere, asked what he wanted to be when he grew up, answer, “Rabbit Director at the Indiana State Fair?” I mean, really!

Sometimes fabulous realities make their way into stories—like the pink Volvo, the punk couple with the beautiful baby, the 7 year-old Elvis impersonator I wrote about earlier. But, mainly, they just bring a shock of pure delight into an ordinary day. Some things just shouldn’t be forgotten, it seems to me, so I have little notebooks full of them. Here are a few I’ve come upon lately:

* An advertisement for “Clown Therapy.”
* A large white bra lying in the middle of the park across the street from my house.
* A guy wearing a T-shirt with a facsimile of the Burger King logo on it—and written on the hamburger: JESUS IS KING
* A display of kid-size pink rifles at a gun show. The sign advertising them said, “My First Rifle.” In small print below: “Not a toy.” (I was doing research for a book I’m writing. That’s why I was there. Honest!)
* An elderly lady in Las Vegas dressed in a full-length mink coat and rhinestone flip-flops, an oxygen pack tucked neatly into her pocket.

Nothing cheers me up like a good fabulous reality! Anybody have a good one to share?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Fabulous Realities

The heater in my car was on the blink, so I drove over to my neighborhood service station and asked Tiffany, the receptionist, if they could fix it that day. One of the mechanics was standing next to her, writing up a bill.

“Can you take Mrs. Shoup’s car today?” she asked him.

He looked up—your generic mechanic. Tall and rangy, he was wearing a filthy gray jumpsuit. His hands were streaked with oil, there was oil beneath his fingernails, which were—Oh! My! God!—painted bright pink. A dainty row of three diamonds dangled from his ears—those “Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow” earrings that certain kinds of husbands give their wives. He was wearing sparkly blue eye shadow. His hair, dyed strawberry blonde, had a black streak at the part where it was growing back in.

“Yeah, we can take it,” he said, in a deep baritone.

“Phone number?” Tiffany asked me.

“257—” I began

Then, apparently, I spaced out, staring at him.

Tiffany cleared her throat. “257—” she repeated.

“Oh.” I could feel myself turning beet-red. “Jeez. I’m sorry. 2682.”

If the mechanic noticed my discomposure, it wasn’t apparent. He nodded, walked toward the garage to get back to work.

“It’s not what you think!” I wanted to shout after him. “I'm shocked with delight!”

It totally made my day: the simple image of him--and as I felt it enter the wacky mix of stuff in my right brain that cycles round and round trying to become stories, I thought of a something the writer Stephané Mallarme said: “Everything in the world exists to end up in a book.” Who knows what future scene the mechanic in drag might walk into?

This happens to me all the time. I see things that I know instantly are mine—and, more often than not, eventually, they plop themselves into stories. A pink Volvo with a decal of pastel teddy bears dancing across the back window, driven by a preppy girl with streaked blonde hair ended up at—of all things—the funeral procession for a murdered teenager. A young punk couple dressed in leather, struggling to open a stroller for their beautiful baby who was dressed in a pink snowsuit trimmed in white fur, strolled into the mall when a character of mine was Christmas shopping. A seven-year old Elvis impersonator I saw at Graceland made his way into another’s road trip.

There are some things you just can’t make up! And the world is such an amazing place that you don’t have to. Stories are made of it.