Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Road Show

I grew up in a household where watching “the soaps” was just part of the day. I thought of it as the adult version of a nap: eat lunch, watch the soap, go back to regular life. Regular life…which seemed pretty good after watching an hour of backstabbing, husband stealing, plotting, addiction, the occasional murder, sweet revenge and children who went from newborn to high school grads in just two years. Oh, and we can’t forget true love. Love which won out after a rather excruciating round of trials and tribulations, often involving kidnapping, double cross, the self sacrifice of lying for someone else’s own good and perhaps a touch of the paranormal. I never figured out if I quit watching because I was a kid with other things to do in that time slot or if the alien stuff seemed really silly, even to me. Plot lines came and went, the only constant the soothing voice of McDonald Carey paternally intoning, “And so are the days of our lives.”

I didn’t realize I’d maintained the storytelling aspect of soap operas until today, during my commute. As a bluebird flit across the hood of my car, I discovered that living in the country means I don’t just see “a bird”, I recognize each species. By flight, or call or attitude…hey, you ever tried to motivate a buzzard to move when it’s dining on flattened possum? Hawks float and glide on an invisible playground of air, while Bluebirds have a happy little skip in their flight, bringing to mind the Disney version that cheerfully hung curtains. I learned that deer have a stunning red winter coat unlike the light brown version I know. And if it runs like a fox but is twice as big, it’s a coyote breaking my mental rule of never seen in the light of day.

My commute isn’t boring because I’ve turned it into a series of “the rest of the story” moments. A few years ago a piece of land which had formerly been fenced for cattle was planted with a septic tank, light pole and brand new mobile home. Soon a young couple appeared, doing all those first home things while never more than kissing distance apart. Down the road, just over the county line, an older black gentleman who reminded me of Uncle Remus was building a small brick home with such love and care I wondered how long it’d taken him to save for it. I came home one day to find he’d proudly put up a sign declaring “My One Acre”. Up and down the road I watched crops follow their life cycle from seed to harvest. I admonished the young couple’s dog to stop laying in the road to nap, even if the traffic was sparse. I saw graffiti spring up on a small bridge: I heart Mandy. I subconsciously noted spots of interest along my way. No matter how many times I pass, time will change them.

A year after the mobile home was planted, I saw the Woman waddling up the steps under the weight of a first pregnancy. Down the road the Gentleman’s cultivation had resulted in a yard filled with beautiful, colorful flowers. At 9 months end, a new color was added to my route: a pink balloon dancing cheerfully from the mobile home mailbox.

It’s amazing what you notice, even when you don’t think you’ve been paying attention. Will we get enough rain in time to unfurl that corn? How many soybean plants have those 3 deer eaten this week? Funny, turkeys look spastic when they run away. Uh oh, Mandy is history, her name crossed out of someone’s life with spray paint. Hmmm, the Man is the only one I ever see in the yard any more. I’m glad the Gentleman is sitting down to water today because it’s so hot.

Will Rogers said, “Not everyone can be a hero. Someone has to sit on the sidewalk and clap as they go by.” Well, I may be the one physically moving, but I’m like a cheerleader on the sidelines of their lives. Whispering unheard words of encouragement when the toddler crossed the now lush lawn, looking ironically like the Woman who’d waddled the same path before her birth. Thanking the Gentleman for giving me a mental vacation in an oasis of color as I crossed the county line toward home.

I use to laugh at people who watched soaps…those who seemed addicted, HAD to know what happened next. I didn’t realize how sucked in I’d gotten until I began noting changes in my daily drive story.

One day I noticed the Man wasn’t mowing anymore. No, an older man was doing that task, one who approached the Woman as if she was his daughter. The dog was gone and the graffiti had been buried under a coat of white paint. I hadn’t seen the Gentleman sitting underneath his favorite tree, admiring his yard with a smile, in over a week. Little by little I received hints, but none were good. The Man’s truck was no longer parked in the yard. As the Girl ran up the steps on her sturdy 5 year old legs, I saw an alarm company sign by the front door. What had happened? A fight? Had the strain of raising a young family led them to divorce? I didn’t even want to contemplate that someone so young could’ve died.

A week later, I realized there was a ramp now leading into the Gentleman’s house. The chair sat empty under the favorite tree, leaving me feeling a little empty too. About a month later, my heart dropped. In the front yard was a red lantern, sign of a death in the family. I found myself hoping the Gentleman didn’t live alone, that perhaps he’d planted the beautiful yard for someone inside the house who couldn’t get out. A week later, I saw his station wagon at the end of the driveway and my heart lifted. Seeing the driver was not him, it fell. When I realized the station wagon wasn’t coming back, I was shocked when a tear fell. I just hoped he hadn’t been alone at the end…especially when he’d quietly shared what he had with me.

The Woman and Girl come and go with smiles. They have a cat now. The “My One Acre” sign remains and for some silly reason, I’m glad no For Sale sign has cropped up to keep it company. I drive along, waiting for the next chapter. Wondering, wondering.

And so are the days of my life…on the road.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

I Wonder

Sometimes I wonder, after reading a book, if the book was really that good...or did my overactive imagination have a role in it?

You see, I don't just read. I experience a book. Maybe that sounds strange, but it's true. If the author goes to the trouble of describing the hero, I SEE him, right down to facial expressions and intonation of voice. If the book is really good, I find myself mentally "casting" the characters as if I'm going to be in charge of a "soon to be released motion picture". And no, Brad Pitt does not get a call from central casting. In fact, very few "major" stars get a calling to my mental movies...unless they play a second banana. I was very saddened to hear that Tom Sizemore had taken the wrong road because I'd always cast him as the rumpled Detective in Patricia Cornwall novels. Hugh Laurie of "House" fame wrote "The Gun Seller" and because of the hero's wit, it was easy to cast Laurie in the part, right down to the all knowing smirk. Ironically this one is being cast as a movie and Laurie doesn't think himself right for the hero's role.

I think part of the enjoyment of reading for me is the casting process, which in a way brings a character truly to life. It's also part of the reason that I tend to shy away from books on tape. The only one I ever listened to that came close was read by actor Will Patton and it was a sequel to Forrest Gump. Patton managed to continue in the vein created by Tom Hanks on screen without me having to block out the fact I know what Patton [another beloved second banana] looks like.

All of this occurred to me the other day as I was reading the 5th in a series of 7 of the "Dark Tower" series by Stephen King. Here I was in my 5th volume large enough to give you carpal tunnel syndrome just from holding it when I realized I STILL wasn't sure what hero Roland looked like. Part of the problem is I once worked with a cranky, older, balding gentleman named Roland who smoked a pipe. He wasn't very pleasant and certainly didn't bring to mind any heroic ideals. Secretly I was angry with King for using that name until I discovered that he'd gotten the idea from an epic Robert Browning poem entitled "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came". Okay, it was an explanation but I still don't care for the name. In fact, I found myself having a difficult time "putting faces" on most of the cast of characters...well, except the ones that died. Ironically, I saw them as the same three poor stunt guys who've been killed off in almost every action film I've ever seen. My husband and I have all but named them at this point because finding them in the credits is next to impossible. But the two which bothered me the most, in terms of not being able to see, where Roland and Father Callahan...the reformed alcoholic, former priest drawn into this most unusual quest. You'd think, even as a Baptist, I could envision a priest. But I couldn't seem to come up with the right amount of holy, battered, yet tough as nails.

The latest volume, a HUGE paperback, came with illustrations. And that's when the battle really began. There is a seemingly stupid robot named Andy which I cast in my head as C3PO with an even snootier accent and an agenda. At one point in the saga, the kid in the book even points out the resemblance to the same Star Wars character. The illustrator stretches the annoying robot into something unrecognizable to both King's words and my imagination. It was at that point I thought, "Get out of my story, Illustrator Guy!"

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it's self defeating when it's not the right picture.

So today I pick up Volume 6 and slowly Roland's image is coming to me. All, oddly enough, because of something King admitted at the end of Vol. five. He dedicated the book to "Frank Muller, who hears the voices in my head." King goes on to say that Muller had recorded the first four of the Dark Tower novels-a total of 60 cassettes that are UNABRIDGED! Muller has recorded over 500 novels but told King that the Dark Tower series was his favorite. King explained that he was overwhelmed how his friend had been able to breathe life into the characters until they became actual people...to him, the author. Great! I thought. I'll just find the audio version for Vol. 7 and see if ol' Frank and I agree on what I've been reading. By then I'll be very sure of Roland's and the priest's appearances. I'm curious to see if the three of us agree.

But sadly there was a footnote that Frank had been in a motorcycle accident and suffered severe brain trauma. He survived, but will probably live the rest of his life in the N.C. center he entered for rehab after the accident. Because the expenses will be astronomical in the long run, King and several other writers got together and created a foundation to help offset the expenses. The original fund has been reestablished and donations can now be made by following this link: http://66.129.72.58/Restricted/patient-detail.cfm?pat_id=1486.

I was curious [imagine that!] and went to the site in order to see this man who will never be able to tell me the story I wanted to hear. I took one look at his smiling face and thought, "That's my Father Callahan!"

So Mr. Muller, you may never be able to tell me the story, but I'll be taking you along for the rest of the journey. I say thankya. Big-big.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Comfortable Shoes

A while back I took a step off this road to take a breather. Sometimes life can get overwhelming...if you let it. And I was on the verge of letting it, so I sat down on the side of the road to think.

I'm done. Musing in my head, that is.

So I picked Father's Day to start again. Dad may not be walking amongst us anymore but he's here in spirit. Not Ghost Hunter and image on an infrared camera kind of spirit. As in the spirit of fun, living on in my silly sense of humor and the expectation that good will win over evil, even when it looks like evil might have the edge.

You see, Dad kinda broke the family mold when it came to putting on a pair of shoes and going off to see the world. Most of his family had been farmers, until his father's generation got into the furniture business. I think Dad saw the writing on the wall, the family expectations of him to go into that new line of work. And he did. Eventually. You see, Dad had a buddy who wanted to enlist in the Navy. He talked his pals into coming to the recruiting office with him...and the Recruiter talked them all into joining. Dad use to laugh and say he was more afraid of telling his Mom than what Boot Camp was rumored to be like. If Boot Camp was sending a southern boy to Chicago in the winter, I can only imagine what Grandma offered up.

Dad did his four years and despite an invitation to remain, he decided all that being away from home for four more years was more than he was willing to agree to. He joked that maybe he should've stayed: his buddy Ted became Admiral Ted. I'm glad he chose to come home. Even if he did end up in the furniture business. His travels inspired mine. But my path is different.

I guess that down-to-earth farming gene stuck in me...I've never had wanderlust. My feet have never itched to see the world. Maybe it's because Dad was such a great storyteller. Between his adventures and my imagination, I was convinced as a small kid that I'd actually gone to England, Germany...to Triste and Naples. I'd look at old black and white photos while Dad told the tale. I can see Casablanca as we pull into port on a naval transport ship...one which transported people, not weapons. I can feel my feet trying to grab hold of the deck as it rode Hurricane Hazel, salt air spraying in my face OVER the back of the fantail. I still giggle at the thought of my no-nonsense father being reprimanded by his CO because he and his buddies were on deck taking pictures...during the hurricane.

One day I realized the stories fascinated me more than the actual traveling. It seemed the storyteller in me was stronger than the urge to pack a suitcase. My true joy wasn't in the "going", it was in the "telling"...in making people see places they'd never been, yet feel as if they'd just left there that afternoon. And I wanted to know WHY people made the decisions they did. What made my by-the-book Dad stand on deck in a hurricane? Youthful stupidity? Curiosity gone mad? Didn't give it a second thought and just wanted to see for himself? [My conclusion: probably all three].

And so the storyteller in me won and my roots went deep. Oh, I've gone here and there, but not across the pond, as it were. But in my mind I have, all because of what Dad told me when I was a kid. We would vacation at the beach every year. Some people will tell you standing beside the ocean makes them feel small and insignificant. To a tiny kid like me, it was just one more thing bigger than me. But one day Dad paused as we came out of the ocean, pointed at the horizon and said, "There are wonderful things over there." He meant across the ocean, where a variety of cultures and people lived that I might one day see firsthand, just like he had. To this day when I see the ocean, I hear him whispering that in my ear. Of course at the time, I asked him if we used my pail and shovel, could we dig through the sand all the way to China and see people standing upside down.

Wonderful things over there. Over the ocean. But in my little girl mind, it was the horizon that I literally believed was the starting point for seeing wonderful things. And that feeling never left me. Whether from my backyard or someone else's travels, I never lost the urge to want to help people see those adventures so clearly, they'd believe they just left that very spot..that very morning.

So put on some comfortable shoes...or sit back and put on some traveling music. I'm ready to head around the bend and find a new story to tell.