What will be, was

I picked up a little box of cards at a party recently that had little conversation topics written on them. I thought they would make interesting writing prompts.

#1  Which school subjects do you think will be useful and which will be useless?

At the time, I thought school was boring and a waste of time. There were some classes that made sense to me, like Art and English. I enjoyed French but that was mostly because the two French teachers we had at Novato High in the late 60’s were lively and interesting people.

Our French teachers were polar opposites. Miss Morin was stout, portly, and her personality was warm and kind, motherly to go with her big body, a Venus of Wallendorf. She wore her black hair in a French roll at the back and dark clothes like a French peasant. I trusted her and visited her at her home once, just dropped in during my senior year. Rumor had it that she was a lesbian because she lived with a woman roommate and hadn’t married. It was 1968 and I didn’t really know what a gay person was. There was curiosity attached to the rumor, nothing malicious.

I have forgotten the other French teacher’s name. She was tall and thin and energetic and a lot of fun. She wore calf-length flowered dresses and had long reddish hair that was out of control. It waved and curled past her shoulders. My feelings for her were more volatile and unexpected. I wanted her approval so actually I did some of the homework assignments.. I would mess around exaggerating the rolling “r’s,” parodying her a little. She told me I had a very good accent.

Miss Robb, the art teacher was a small woman, too, but she had a layer of baby fat that made her look young, even to us. She wore her hair very short and taught us all kind of things. She ran the class like a survey course in all the arts and crafts. She taught us to to copper enamel. I still have a piece I made on a penny with an astrological sign on it. She also had us do a light show. She brought in a bunch of exposed 35mm film and we scratched and painted on it. We  mixed colored oil and water and mushed it around in dishes on the overhead projector. When my team gave its presentation I was supposed to give my partner a cue by passing my hand over the oily mess but he didn’t start the movie projector. I cued him again and still nothing. Finally I said, go! Turned out that he was waiting for me to shut off the overhead. In the critique someone pointed out that there were too many hands flashing through my part of the show.

I was interested in making jewelry so one day after school Miss Robb took me to Berkeley to an art store on University Avenue. Neither of us had made any plans for me to get home and there were no buses between Novato and Berkeley. Besides I had no money. I don’t remember how I got home. She might have driven me there.

2001, the movie, came out while I was in High School. One of the male teachers, I don’t remember what he taught. I was wary of him because he had a lot of groupies hanging around him. He held a whole class on the movie 2001. His thesis was that it was a representation of  an acid trip and that the world was going to become a better, more enlightened place if everyone took a trip. I think he got fired and then rehired due to student protests. Maybe I am making that up. There was some fuss about him for encouraging students to rebel and rumors that he took acid.

Mr. Burger, my geometry teacher was pretty cool. He was in the process of building a house in the hills of Marinwood that didn’t have any 90 degree angles. It was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. I wonder how he got the money for that. I always struggled with math, but geometry was easy for me. I have no idea how I got through algebra to get into geometry class. After we had been working with the various formulas he gave us the assignment to make a geometry puzzle. I drew circles and lines and plugged in every formula we had learned up to that point into a diagram. He put mine on the board and solved a lot of the puzzles but gave up before he finished them all. I enjoyed being singled out but disappointed that he didn’t finish. I felt like his inability to figure it out was my failure, not his.

I just realized that if he had answered the questions in order he would have been able to solve the whole puzzle. The answers to some of the questions were dependent on the answers to earlier questions. I just now thought that. After 49 years I figured out why he had to stop. (Just to give you an idea of my math skills I had to write down on paper the 2018 minus 1969 problem and I had problems with all the zeros. I forgot how to carry.)

That was the second time something like that happened.

When I was in 7th grade I wrote a fairy tale for my English class. It was a jokey thing and I made up some elaborate names for the characters. The teacher would read one of the stories out loud to the class on Friday afternoons. She told me, maybe in front of the class, that she would have read my story except that she couldn’t pronounce the names. I felt cheated.

When I was in high school I wanted to be a scientist and write poetry. My counselor told me that I should take typing so that I could be a secretary. I refused. The idea of working in a an office was disgusting. I wouldn’t join the squares and work for the military-industrial complex! Of course computers cured me of that typing bias and I have worked in offices of one sort or another my whole working life. Much more interesting than I expected. Even data entry has its charms, it’s a lot like paid knitting or playing solitaire where it isn’t cheating if you sort the deck if it doesn’t work out.

My political views were full of teen confusions, foggy even, but I really did believe that the War in Vietnam was a horrible, terrible, vicious example of how stupid the government was, that the war was run by a bunch of heartless generals. The tv show M.A.S.H. said it all for me.

In a political science class we played a global simulation game. Without naming the countries we had been given, we were to solve the puzzle of how to avoid nuclear warfare during the Korean War. I don’t think the disguise of giving the countries new names was necessary because hardly anyone knew what the Korean War was. We were randomly assigned to “countries” and given roles to play within that country. We were given the situation and allowed to play it out. I handled the agricultural department of my country. I thought that it was a dumb role. Who cares about food production? (My only justification for my ignorance was that I was in school to learn such things. Later when I heard about the food production problems in China I remembered my little rebellion and wondered what was in my portfolio.) In the meeting of my country’s departments I saw that my fellow countrymen didn’t have a clue how to proceed. They were very confused and I am not sure they understood the assignment. There wasn’t even any horsing around, just muddle. I’ve never been very patient with muddle.

Since I thought I was a minor player and had no stakes in the game, I decided to defect. I packed my folder of agricultural materials and moved to the table where North Korea was trying to figure out how to stop the Chinese from invading. What a shockwave that created. The teacher was called in to adjudicate but he (or she) said there was no rule against defecting and let my defection stand. If there had been a CIA recruiter spying on us he would have rejected me right then. Maybe even busted me.

But I was suspicious of all kinds of fanatics, gurus, and born agains. I resented people who told me what to think and people who didn’t think like I did. School was just another system for soul crushing. If it wasn’t painful it was boring. Mostly boring.

I had a friend who became a born again Christian and he and  I had a long series of arguments about how his beliefs were illogical. I think we only succeeded in hardening our own convictions without opening our minds to other ways of seeing things. Mike. His name was Mike. We didn’t have anything to talk about after we reached the impasse of the faith vs. reason conversation. I had felt animated by our talks but I think he felt bullied. He was probably right. I held the Hewitt convictions coupled with an inability to listen. I had to fix things. If I couldn’t fix them I was willing to toss them aside, to break them further.

One of the teachers at my high school was Harvey Susser. We were supposed to call him Mr. Susser but those who took his drama classes called him Harvey. I was not a Dramie, I was a Hippie, so I didn’t take any classes from him until I was at College of Marin where he had transferred around the time I graduated from Novato High. I knew him there as Harvey. I took his history of film class 3 times.

When he was still at Novato High, Harvey put on school productions that had sold out audiences. Our Town, of course, but also a series of short absurdist plays like Sandbox and Rhinoceros. He also did a full production of Oklahoma and then The Lady’s Not For Burning and The Lottery.

The Lottery burned into my brain. It articulated the paranoia of military life in the 50’s to perfection and helped me identify my fear of groups and authority. “Yes, that’s how it is,” I thought, “I am not going to get any help. I could easily be the sacrifice. I am not going to join any group.” I did eventually find a group, but that is another essay.

Writing this is confusing. There are times in the present when I am stubborn and thoughtless but they are very brief compared to when I was a teen. I no longer hold convictions with the same rigidity, in fact sometimes I marvel at my ability to see multiple points of view. I can say yes and then no to a question and both answers make sense to me. Both are correct. I chew on myself,  “You’re wishy-washy. Don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out.” Etc.

As I get older I find it harder to like my younger self. Not that I really appreciated myself then. I was defensive and scared most of the time and I didn’t find safety for many years. Gentleness and compassion came late, too. Any sense of self appreciation still has to hide. I am still surprised that people like me. Who me? Are you sure?

A friend recently reminded me that I should trust my friend’s judgments, that it is a little insulting to fail to acknowledge that they like me. I try to remember that. I try to appreciate their appreciation of me. They are not nuts for liking me.

Still, there is a part of me that is amazed that my friends show up.  There is a part of me that feels shame when I appreciate myself. When people compliment me I cringe, I feel a fraud, they must be talking about someone else or misunderstanding my selfish evil intentions.

That soul crushing I was so worried about the “establishment” forcing on me was already there. My struggles as an adult have always been about being safe in my skin even though I thought my skin was stupid and useless.

I am 65 now and I wonder why this self-loathing ‘me’ hasn’t looked at the evidence and seen that I am not a creep. I am loved and appreciated. It still surprises me.

#2  How does a person become courageous?

I think courage has a lot to do with experience. Or maybe confidence.

My experience with courage.

My non-boating/camping friends tell me I am crazy for going whitewater canoeing. That some of the adventures I’ve had were borderline crazy. When they say these things I am at a loss to explain that while I am scared at the prospect of flipping in a rocky rapid, I am not mustering up courage. I am fighting down fear. I am not becoming courageous. I am becoming less fearful by pushing fear down into excitement and challenge. Those friends who put themselves in my place, who try to imagine what it would be like to dart down a Class III rapid, should be terrified. If they were going where I was going they would be in danger. Real danger because they would have no idea what to do to protect themselves. I have had practice. I studied with master paddlers and practiced on many levels of river so I know my limitations and strengths in situations on rivers.

This is where I get the idea of courage being circumstantial. If you have practiced a certain task it becomes a skill, you can practice CPR on a dummy, or paddle with someone more experienced than you are, but practice also has taught you something about yourself. You have found confidence in your skills and you have found out something about consequences.

Going back to the courage question; in this context practice and experience can dull your fears and change your expectations so that you can do more daring and potentially dangerous things. You can look more courageous to people who don’t share your experience. It doesn’t feel like courage.

My working definition up to this point is that courage is being willing to take the risk of doing something known to be dangerous.

Spontaneous. There is something spontaneous about courage that I am leaving out in my musings.

I am trying to distinguish between the fireman who has been trained and wears equipment to go into a burning house and the average person who does the same without training and equipment and often without thought. Maybe we need two different words for those experiences. The fireman has far more skills and knowledge about what he is doing and he does it anyway. The average person has an incomplete idea of what she is getting into and she does it anyway. The similarity is in the ‘doing it anyway’ part of the situation. The binding between the two is courage. But you can’t measure courage volumetrically.

Maybe courage is something that happens, rather than something one becomes. Maybe that is the part of this question that stumps me. The fireman has fear but he also has figured out how to work within that fear. He also knows the consequences of going into a burning building without the gear and expertise he brings to the situation. He’s seen the ruins of people who failed to escape. To him the above mentioned average person is completely nuts for entering, not courageous, but stupid.

The driving force for my fireman friend was that he wanted to save someone, some day. I think he wanted to feel heroic. The “average person” is often pronounced dead at the scene, which is what holds most of us back. Is it courage that propels that average person into the flames?

When I paddle a Class III rapid, I am using my skills. I am solving the puzzle the river is throwing at me. I am thinking fast and not at all. I am not brave or courageous, busy is more like it. On rare occasions I have spontaneously jumped into a potentially dangerous situation without thinking beyond, “Oh, god, I hope I don’t land on a rock,” and having a little flashback to the time when I was a kid floating on my air mattress in a shallow stream and hit that rock with my stomach. But all my hesitation had been while I was already in the air heading for the water.

Maybe part of the definition of courage is what people say about the person after the courageous act. Perhaps what they say about themselves should be included.

I’ve never heard someone say,  “I was brave,” or, “I have courage.” I can’t really say those things about myself because I don’t really know what those feelings are. Are they even feelings? People have told me I was brave when I jumped into a river to rescue someone but brave wasn’t part of the immediate experience. Fear, certainly. But mostly on the river I am not actually thinking about what I am doing. I jumped into the river. The water was cold and shocking. I saw rocks and current, things that could threaten me, but mostly I was trying to figure out how to save the situation. Is anyone trapped underwater? Whew, two bobbing heads heading downstream. Can I get over there? Is there someone closer who can be more effective? Where is my throw rope? That boat is really stuck! I really hope someone knows how to do a z-drag.

It isn’t the adrenaline rush or the death wish I seek, it’s the… I don’t know exactly, I just find those situations and how to avoid them, equally and deeply interesting. A friend referred to this as “focused high,” which seems a bit smaller than the experience warrants but it will have to do for now.

So I am circling back to the idea that courage is not something you become as if you suddenly become a redhead or six inches taller when necessity demands it. Courage is a word that gets applied to me by others who didn’t happen to think as quickly as I did, that particular time. Or they didn’t think the same things I did. Or, they gave up on the situation before I did. They gave up on their ability to solve whatever problem lay before them before it occurred to me that I should avoid getting my one set of dry clothes wet on a cold windy day.

Souris

There is a man sitting in profile at a small rough table in a small tough cabin. The window behind him is deep blue with black tree shadows in the mid-distance. Inside, the cabin is filled with warm light, orange pine paneling, old oak furniture, a well-filled, but small bookcase. The man has a lot of hair. His head is covered with longish curls, a little shot with gray. His beard is long but neatly trimmed. His lips show unnaturally red and wet and soft surrounded by the coarse black hair.

His eyes are blue and ½ closed. He is tired form a long day but he can’t remember in any detail what he did since the sun woke him at dawn. His body is stiff from sitting and he looks out the window and notices for the first time that they day is over, now he has to get through the evening.

Hunger suddenly pulls on his leash and he pushes away from the table and stands a little unsteadily and blinks at the piles of yellow paper, covered in pencil scratchings, (“writing” he sometimes called it, when things were going well, “hieroglyphics,” when he was overwhelmed with words that came so fast he couldn’t read the scribbles later, “pencil scratchings,” when he was anxious and depressed). The yellow papers cover the side of the table where a friend might have sat, if he was expecting someone for dinner. He picks up the tablet and reads the last few sentences and with a disgusted snort he throws the tablet onto the pile of papers to keep them in place. He wishes he could remember to number the pages so he didn’t have to struggle to keep them in order. He pushes at the top layer of paper slightly, then he forgets this thought and walks into the part of the room with the stove and refrigerator. He opens the old refrigerator and pulls out a ½ pound of thick sliced bacon from the meat drawer. He peels 4 greasy strips off the slab, lines them up and cuts them in ½ so they will fit in the frying pan. He scrapes the bulk of the mornings drippings into an old red coffee can set on the back of the stove, puts the heavy cast iron frying pan on the burner and lights the flame with a white tipped match that he struck on a piece of sand paper taped to the cabinet door next to the stove. The heat turns the cloudy residue of fat left in the pan into a clear oil filled with small flecks of bacon glaze. He pours this into the red coffee can and arranges three slices of bacon in the frying pan. As they shrink while they cook he puts the rest of the bacon in the pan. The cooked bacon goes on a paper towel to drain. He gets two eggs out of the refrigerator and cracks them into the bacon fat. He had the exact same meal for breakfast.

Somehow lunch had passed him without stopping the flow of pencil onto paper.

As he mops up the runny egg yolk with the last bit of bacon he hears a thumping and scratching in the wall behind the stove. His stomach churns at the sound. He knows he has to do something about the noises but he hates killing things.

Souris.

Misery.

Mice.

Somewhere he had heard that the word souris was French for mouse and was also used to denote misery caused by many small but intractable irritants. He consults several dictionaries but cannot confirm this usage.

With the obsessive neatness of a sailor he washes his plate and fork, dries them and puts them away in the cabinet. He drapes the dishtowel over the faucet to dry. He leaves the bacon fat in the pan to cool overnight. Someone had told him that bears were particularly fond of bacon fat so he keeps it in the red can in the cabin instead of taking it out to the trash with the other garbage. He’s never seen a bear near the cabin, no tracks or damage that might even suggest bears, so he feels like an idiot taking precautions. He mutters to himself that he is a silly old woman fussing about bacon fat. Then he corrects himself; a silly old man making sure he wasn’t attacked by bears.

The evening stretches ahead. He doesn’t want to go to bed yet, it’s too early and if he falls asleep he will wake up before sunrise and lay thrashing around until light. But he also doesn’t want to start a fire because there will be the trouble of going outside to collect some wood and kindling, then kneeling on the cold bricks in front of the hearth, and assembling the wood, put the match to it; nurse the flame and then sit with the fire until it could be put to bed.

He thought about taking a walk but the path to the lake was too dark, there was no moon, he would stumble on a root or lose his way. The white dust of the road solved that problem but he still sat at the table.

He knew his apathy was a comedown from the intense writing he had done during the day. He stretched and bent back and forth, cracking his back, dropping his shoulders down, lifting his arms over his head then swinging them back pulling at the muscles in his chest. Trying to reverse the hunched over, pulled together, posture he spent the day in while he filled the yellow paper with pencil marks.

He thought about burning the yellow papers on the table. Pile them up in the fireplace and set a match to the whole mess without reading any of it. It wasn’t a strong temptation, just a little thought in the back of his mind, easily ignored.

Unlike the mice in the walls.

Were the little creatures messengers of his unconscious? Is that why he didn’t kill them? He had invested them with power over the space between the walls, he had surrendered a closet to them, hoping they would take the space and stop bothering him. He knew better of course. Given a warm spot and enough food they would reproduce until there was no food left and their warm spot was fermenting with feces and urine.

Anything but that. It would be easier to read the text on those yellow pages than deal with the mice. That was a cop-out. He was ashamed of himself that he thought he had to bully himself into reading his work, but he also knew that if he read it while it was still new he would hate it. It wouldn’t match up with his imaginings. Sometimes writing was like trying to catch a half remembered dream, events might carry weight, a huge feeling of significance, but when read are simply a pair of boots sitting under a table, a wine glass with a dried pool of red wine glazing the dimple where the stem joins the bowl. Significant things but without the context of a dream they are the ordinary stuff of life, no big deal.

He was practiced enough to avoid reading right then, he would read a book. The dictionary was still lying on the table so he picked it up and started reading at random.

Souris. He had picked up the French dictionary. Mice. That made him hear once more the scratching in the wall and smell the faint ammonia of their nest. What was he avoiding?