Saturday, March 23, 2013

Life Is What Happens To You

Before you cross the street
Take my hand
Life is what happens to you
While you’re busy making other plans…
           John Lennon   “Beautiful Boy (Darling Boy)”

In the fall of my seventh year, my parents bought their first home and I was forced to switch schools a month into second grade.  I loved my old school, even though I did try to run away when I was in first grade.  I have never made friends easily, and have always been a bit of a loner.  My original school was the school of my father, mother, and dozens of aunts and uncles, some only a few years older than me.  There was family tradition and history in the red brick walls of Our Lady of Peace Catholic School, and I had to leave it all behind.

There was nothing inviting about my new school.  Now I was a complete outsider—no friends, no connections, no joy.  I arrived in Mrs. Vinette’s class a stranger in a strange land.  She was a woman in the final years of her teaching career, dried up, bitter, tough and severe.  The school principal was a similarly pinched and mean nun named Sister Benedict Joseph.  We called her “Sister Billy Jack” after the lead character in a series of hokey karate movies popular at the time.  In the films, Billy Jack solved most of his problems with a smartly placed kick to the face of his enemy.  Sister B.J. did no such thing; however, she was very good at seeing through my charade of a stomach ache every day when I tried to escape and go home.

Without fanfare, I was unceremoniously dumped into Mrs. Vinette’s class already in progress one Monday morning, and the transition was done.  Now I had to live with the consequences.  To lessen the sting, my parents bought me my first Timex wrist watch in honor of my ability to tell time.  I loved the watch, which had a calendar feature on the face, and I quickly fixated on the glow-in-the-dark dial, checking it incessantly a hundred times a day in the hopes someone would notice.  Therefore, I missed many of Mrs. Vinette’s intricately plotted lessons.

Before long however, I found my new watch much less interesting.  Her name was Magdalena and she was the prettiest girl in my new class:  light brown hair in a bob, green eyes, and olive skin.  In the weeks before I arrived, all of the students had made posters celebrating their ethnic heritage.  Hers was Portuguese-Irish.  She sat two seats ahead of me right in front of Mrs. Vinette’s desk.  I quickly noticed she was the smartest kid in the class.  I fell in love, but other than the eye contact we made when I was introduced on my first day, she paid me no attention, even with my shiny new Timex.

Out on the playground one day during recess, I saw Mrs. Vinette talking with Magdalena.  This seemed like a good opportunity to impress my young love and my new teacher with my timepiece.  I summoned my courage and made my approach.  “Mrs. Vinette, look at my new watch.  Do you want to know what time it is?”

Magdalena turned and ran off to join some other girls in jump rope.  Mrs. Vinette looked at me with plain irritation on her face.  “What’s so great about a watch?” she said.  “Lots of students have watches.”

Things went from bad to worse in my new class.  We started learning cursive writing, and Mrs. Vinette quickly discovered that I was left-handed, and as she said aloud to the class, I held my pen “weird.”  Every afternoon, we copied our letters into our tablets.  My hand ached with cramp because I gripped the pen tightly and pressed too hard on the paper.  It is a problem that has followed me through life.  I had trouble controlling my swirls and loops, so my penmanship was illegible.  Of course, this should have made me a candidate for medical school, but Mrs. Vinette wasted no time in calling me to the board for a one-on-one public tutorial.

In addition, the pace of the class was faster than my previous school and I struggled to keep up.  They had blown through addition and subtraction before I arrived, and I was still using my fingers and occasionally, my toes.  When I was called to the board to solve a problem, my fellow students were quick to point out that my lips moved as I counted up the answer in my head.  This led to big laughs.  Magdalena just looked disappointed.  The one area where I excelled, privately, was reading.  At home in the evenings, I was swallowing Matt Christopher sports novels by the truckload, often at the expense of my other homework.  My mother took me to the public library where I cleared the shelves.  One obsession was ghosts; I found a book of photographs of alleged portraits of spirits, and immediately started having nightmares.  But I could not put the book down.  I checked it out over and over again.

After a while, I eased into the groove in the new class.  I was an average student, unremarkable and rather dull.  I continued to love Magdalena from afar, and I started dreaming about how in future grades I would woo her and maybe by sixth grade, we could be boyfriend and girlfriend.  By then I would be able to do something spectacular to get her attention.  But it was not to be.

There came a day when Mrs. Vinette called Magdalena to the front of the room.  A strange woman entered the classroom with a large Tupperware container filled with cupcakes.  It was Magdalena’s mother who brought treats for the class to celebrate her daughter’s birthday.  We sang songs and wished her well, and one of the girls in the class presented her with a giant card her friends had made the day before during recess.  Mrs. Vinette had allowed them to stay behind in the classroom so Magdalena would not see.  Then, Magdalena grew sad and the party darkened.  “Thank you,” she said, and began to cry.

Mrs. Vinette stepped in.  “Boys and girls, this is Magdalena’s last week in our class.  She and her family are moving to Arizona because her father has a new job.  So even though we will miss her terribly, we must say goodbye and wish her the best of luck in the rest of her life.”  The class was silent, and I heard sniffles.

“We will come to visit,” her mother said, smiling through tears.  “I’m sure Magdalena will never forget all of you.”

She would, I was sure, forget me, because she did not know me.  I was the new kid in the back of the room near the window who was always dreaming of ghosts and heroes who saved the game.  She did not know she was the love of my life.

Almost as soon as Magdalena left, it began to rain and she was quickly forgotten in the torrent.  Usually, fall in Los Angeles meant fires in the hills, smoke on the horizon, and ashes on cars in the driveways all across suburbia.  But that year, the rains came with a vengeance.

In an unusual confluence of things, rain poured down, my mother went into the hospital, and my school prepared for its annual carnival.  I did not understand it then, but my mother had gotten pregnant and suffered a miscarriage with complications.  My father was no substitute for my mother.  All he wanted was for us to leave him in peace to drink beer and watch football, which meant we did what we wanted.  I gladly skipped homework and waited until I heard him snoring down the hall before snapping on my bed light and reading late into the evening while the rain battered the windows.  I had discovered Beverly Cleary books, especially The Mouse and the Motorcycle.  I was quickly working my way through her shelf in the public library.

On the Friday the carnival was to start, the rain started up again with thunder and lightning.  My mother had made arrangements with a friend to pick me up from school, and as we ran to the woman’s car, the saturated earth refused to absorb any more water.  The streets became raging rivers, and the sky split open with electric fire.  All the rides and booths had been set up for the carnival, but as the wind kicked up, it appeared most of the work would be undone by the storm.  The clouds made the sky black in places, yet we could also see laser beams of sunlight streaming through across the valley.  It was weird, exhilarating weather.  By the kickoff of the carnival at six o’clock that evening, the storm abated leaving a soaked playground of red-flagged booths, a Tilt-A-Whirl, Ferris Wheel, and a converted tractor-trailer rig called Uncle Funderburk’s Madhouse.

My father took me and my three year old brother to see my mother in the hospital.  She was weak and pale, but she kissed each of us and told us to have fun at the carnival.  After a stop at McDonald’s, we arrived at the brightly lit and colorful school playground to have some fun.  My father was stuck with the stroller and my brother, so I rode many of the rides by myself.  I felt a little queasy after the Tilt-A-Whirl, but I managed to keep my dinner down.  As we walked around the different attractions, the temperature dropped and clouds stacked ominously on the horizon.  I felt strange and electrified as we walked.

We came at last to Uncle Funderburk’s Madhouse.  One entered through a curtained door at the back of the trailer and exited out a corresponding door at the front.  I could only speculate what might be in between those doors.  My father bought a ticket for me and urged me to go.  He had to stay behind with my brother.  I stared up at the dark door in the white trailer with the gigantic psychotic male face in spastic contortions painted on the side, all of it silhouetted against the menacing sky, and realized I didn’t want to go in.  I turned to look back at my father.  “C’mon,” he shouted, “just go.”  I could tell he was losing his patience.  I mounted the metal stairs and pushed through the curtain.

Inside, I found profound darkness.  I waved my hand in front of my face, but could see nothing.  I stumbled down a hallway filled with screams.  Bodies brushed against me, pushing me into side aisles and I felt smothering layers of cloth and what felt like netting.  Someone grabbed my right arm and jerked down, nearly pulling me off my feet.  I took an elbow to the face and slammed up against a wall.  The screaming intensified in the pitch black darkness, and I sensed people running and pushing.  I have always been claustrophobic, and suddenly, I felt the panic kick in with frightening intensity.  I ran back the way I thought I had come, but I kept running into walls.  I struck out against a human body and began clawing my way through the flesh.  The person shoved me away.  I lost my mind and punched out against every solid object.  Some of the blows landed against muscle and bone, and people yelled into my face and hit back.  My face hit the floor and I instinctively rolled away and continued crawling toward where I thought the door might be.  My eyes detected a lighter darkness ahead and I leapt to my feet.  With rubbery legs I launched myself toward the break in the darkness and suddenly I burst out into the night, nearly falling head-first down the iron stairs.

My father had not moved.  He stood staring off at the Ferris Wheel, gently rolling the stroller back and forth.  I ran to him sobbing and buried my face in his stomach.  “What happened?” he asked, bewildered.

“I…couldn’t get…out,” I choked.

“That scared you?  It’s just a fun house.”

He took me over to a food booth and bought me a Coke.  I was crying too hard to drink, and I felt again as if I would throw up.

“Stop crying,” he said with anger.  “Don’t be a baby.”

“I couldn’t find my way.”

“You should’ve just kept going.  You would’ve found the door eventually.”

At home, after a hot shower, I fell into a dreamless sleep, and the next morning, Saturday, I got up early to watch cartoons—Bugs Bunny, the Roadrunner, and Elmer Fudd, who I always thought looked just like my father.  Later that day, we picked my mother up from the hospital and I tried to tell her what had happened at the carnival, but she was very tired.

The weeks ran away and Thanksgiving approached.  I continued to read Beverly Cleary books and when I could summon the courage, I’d return to the ghost book and stare at the photographs of mists on staircases, ghostly hands on bannisters, and orbs of light that floated over graves on dark nights.  My cursive improved, as did my grades, and Mrs. Vinette did not seem to hate me so much.  She did keep me in the seat near the back next to the window, but I did not mind.  It was a good seat for dreaming.  I also continued to have problems with Sister Benedict Joseph—Billy Jack.  Once, I convinced Mrs. Vinette that I had severe stomach pains and loped out of the room on my way to the office to have the secretary call my mother to pick me up.  I came around a corner and slid right into black polyester.

“Young man, what in Jesus, Mary and Joseph’s name are you doing out of class?”

I stared up into her thin, bony face boxed in white and black.

“I’m sorry,” I mumbled.  “I’m sick.”

“You’re not sick!”  In a deft move, she spun me and launched my body back to the door of Grade Two.  “You’re perfectly fine,” she called after me.  “Get back to class.”

That was the last time I played sick to get out of school.

On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, we spent the last minutes of the school day practicing our handwriting.  We had graduated from copying letters from the strip above the board to writing full sentences and composing our own stories.  I looped and whirled through an adventure of a boy who was always brave and always saved the day.  Even when danger lurked, he kept going.  I sensed something was amiss and glanced up to see Sister Benedict Joseph and the parish priest standing in the classroom doorway.  We all jumped to our feet.

“Good afternoon, Sister Benedict Joseph and Father Lyons,” we shouted in monotone.  Sister B.J. motioned for us to sit back down.

“Okay, students, put down your pens and pencils,” Mrs. Vinette said.  “Clear your desks and fold your hands.”

We assumed the required position and waited.  When Sister visited our classroom, she often talked about our First Holy Communion scheduled to take place that spring.  But once we were seated and quiet, the three adults didn’t say anything.  They just stood there.  Sister glared at us—her usual demeanor—and Father Lyons, who actually looked like a red-headed lion, studied our history posters hanging on the bulletin board.  Mrs. Vinette looked at her two superiors as if waiting for a special signal.  When none came, she turned to face us and clasped her hands in front of her.

“Boys and girls, we have an announcement,” she started.  “A terrible thing has happened.  A terrible, awful, unimaginable thing.”  Her face began to turn red.  “There are things God gives us.  Or takes from us.  And we do not know why.  But we must trust him, and pray.”

Mrs. Vinette did not look good, and I could see from the back of the room that her hands were shaking.  Father continued to look at the bulletin boards.  Sister Benedict Joseph was now looking down.  The situation contained almost unbearable tension, and the class was silent, collectively holding its breath.  But I felt drawn away, out the window, to the bare tree branches scraping against the glass in the cold breeze.  A bird landed on the waving stick of tree and bobbed there, up and down.  It was an English sparrow.  I recognized it from a book in the library on birds of California.  Mrs. Vinette cleared her throat, pulling me back to the surreal scene at the front of the room.

“We have just received word,” she said.  “We have just received word, that Magdalena, her mother and father, her little brother, were called home to Jesus.”  No one moved.  The branch scraped against the window.  Mrs. Vinette appeared to want a response, but when none came, she cleared her throat again.  “Poor little Magdalena and her whole family were killed on a highway in a terrible car accident on the way to Arizona.”

“Father Lyons will lead us in prayer now for the souls of Magdalena and her family,” Sister said in a voice I did not recognize for its softness.

I looked around the room as we prayed.  All the students, Mrs. Vinette, Sister, and Father Lyons, everyone had their eyes closed in concentration, except me.  I glanced in the corners of the room, looking for mists or orbs of light, or a faint smile and green eyes with wisps of soft, brown hair.  I tried to picture Magdalena’s face, but it was already slipping from memory.  I was drawn instead back to the window, the grey sky, the already bare branches of the tree outside the classroom.

Mrs. Vinette’s announcement had no meaning.  It simply wasn’t true.  Magdalena was not dead.  No, she was still very much alive, on her way to Arizona and the rest of her life.  She would finish school, become a ballerina, maybe, or a doctor who cares for children in Africa.  She would fall in love with someone, marry, have children, grow rich.  She would be happy in her life; she would never grow old, and she would never die.

Or, if only I could make time go backward.  Magdalena would still be in our class in her now empty desk.  I could tell her one of the stories I was writing.  Maybe she would fall in love with me, but most important, she would still be alive.  If only she had not gone to Arizona.

When you are in second grade in the fall of your seventh year, things happen, and then you must go on.  Sometimes that is all that you can do.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Book Was There

When any writer takes on the subject of reading in the digital age, he must understand that this is not new territory.  The digital age is aging, and the landscape shifts like sand on the beach at high tide.  To me, there is no better book about the state of reading right now than Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies (Faber & Faber, 2006).  However, there is always more to be said, and in that spirit, Andrew Piper takes a crack at 21st century reading in his 2012 entry, Book Was There:  Reading In Electronic Times (University of Chicago Press, 2012).

From the start, Piper assures us that the current so-called crisis in reading is nothing new.  It is true:  reading books has withstood the challenge of movies, television, audio books, and e-readers, yet reports that more than three million hard copy books were published in 2010.  The big change in that statistic is the rise of print-on-demand titles, which accounted for approximately two million of those books.  Piper cannot imagine a world without reading, however, how we read may be continuing to morph.  His children now read on digital screens, and he worries that upcoming generations of new readers may never know what it is like to “sit in a room of their own and read a book.”  He means, of course, a physical book.  The form we know as book, also called the codex, originated millennia ago and spread with the rise of Christianity.  It is doubtful books will ever be replaced by iPads, Nooks, and Kindles, although the digital and the physical might exist for many more years side-by-side.

If anything, books might become collectors’ editions with the average reader and student utilizing the digitized version because it will be easier to transport.  No more aching backs from overstuffed backpacks and satchels filled with heavy textbooks.  A number of readers still love engaging with a book, the feel and smell of print and ink which comes with the ability to mark up the pages, leave notes in the margins, and highlight, although many of these attributes are now permissible with e-readers.

Piper comes from the generation that lived at ground zero of the computer explosion.  He remembers getting the earliest desktop computer models, and learning to program them and play the standard pong games on the screen.  He simultaneously lived in both worlds—the book and the screen, and he has an interesting take on the development of reading in pixels rather than pages.  He includes in every chapter photographs and artistic expressions of his research into the human relationship with text, and although these are black and white and often grainy images, they enhance his ideas and create a visual anchor.  Piper comes down decidedly on the side of books even with his recognition of the power and manipulative capability of the screen.  “To hold on to books is to hold on to time,” he writes, and “Books are how we speak with the distant and the dead.”  These are great sound bites for those of us who love the tome, but Piper also cautions that “Possessing books, holding on to books, can keep us from life.”

What I liked most about Piper’s writing here is that he not only addresses the physicality of reading—the book versus the e-reader—but also how the act of reading has transfigured and fluidly morphed over the years, especially since the coming of the digital age.  In the classroom, teachers see this most clearly.  Students do not read in-depth, but tend to skim across the pages.  They are used to getting the gist of what is written, but miss the nuances and details.  Why does this happen?  Piper explores this in several chapters.  He also discusses the narcissism inherent in social media, and how this affects readers.  With the rise of texting and emails, Piper bemoans the fact that we are always on, and that people expect nearly instantaneous responses to their queries and communication.  Parents expect to access up-to-the-minute grades for their children, and they want teachers to respond immediately to questions.  Piper says that all of this leads to fatigue as “one of the basic conditions of the digital.”  He writes that “When we look at screens we become prematurely tired, the optical equivalent of carpal tunnel syndrome.”  Facebook, Twitter, and Tumblr have led us back to an age “before the invention of privacy,” he says.  And in evaluating how the digital age has impacted recent generations of readers, we see an overabundance of both narcissism and openness that has often been dangerous.  Children today live in a world “that has largely given up on anonymity.”  He goes on to say that “Facebook presupposes an inherent presence of another, that there is no I without You, and that, too, is ethically profound.”

The skimming culture of reading could have long term effects on children today.  Piper believes “We are breeding generations of distracted readers, people who simply cannot pay attention long enough to finish a book.”  He tells us of publishers who now dream of including soundtracks and moving images to text, so readers will be able to hear music the characters in the novel access, and see live images of streets and cities where characters walk and interact.  This could actually lead to some exciting advances in bringing a novel to life, but reading was never about just images and music clips.  Excellent writers bring the reader into the world through imagination, and there is something wholly engaging and rich about reader and writer working together to bring the world of the book to life.  When does the reading experience become watching television?  Viewers do none of the heavy lifting in front of the TV or in the movie house.  The director, camera operator, producers, indeed a small army of people bring the world to life while the viewer simply watches.  I believe we will lose quite a lot if reading a book becomes more of a voyeuristic experience rather than a collaborative imagining by reader and writer.

In his final chapter, “Letting Go Of The Book,” Piper argues that “We may need to put down the book from time to time, but we should make sure not to let the computer become the new book.”  Too many times in education, I have heard principals and administrators, technology proponents and digital “visionaries,” proclaim the death of old school staples like textbooks, white boards, lectures, and discussions.  This is the age of blogs, tweets, Smart Boards, PowerPoint slides, and Skype.  Technology is a tool, an exciting group of methodologies to communicate a lesson to a class.  However, the computer is not the end of everything, most especially the book.  People mock the rise of Harry Potter, but to an English teacher, there was something immensely satisfying about seeing kids in restaurants, at bus stops, in doctors’ offices immersed in thick books with a distinctive wizard on the cover.  Yes, book stores have disappeared, and it may be more convenient to carry one iPad with hundreds of books loaded on its hard drive than hauling around five pound novels, but many of us, old and young, still love the feel of books.  Andrew Piper adds nothing to this conclusion of mine; he simply reaffirms what we know, often in dry academic writing.  But it is quite satisfying to read his work on old fashioned paper in ink.  I finished his book on a rainy, late-winter day, the kind of day perfectly suited to reading a good book by the fire while seated in a cozy sofa chair.  Curling up with a tablet screen just wouldn’t be the same.