1989: The First of Four Elephants

Several life-changing events happened to me in 1989, but in order to choose a story to tell I will have to ignore a very large elephant that happens to be crowding out almost everything else from the room. One of the rules I set for myself in this storytelling series is that I would try not to tell anyone else’s story, and writing about my first marriage definitely qualifies as telling someone else’s story — even if the someone else isn’t likely to read it or to care about what I might have to say. This rule is self-imposed, and it’s about respect. It’s my rule and I’m sticking to it.

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In the spring of 1989 I took the GRE and applied (and was accepted) to graduate school at Miami; in May I graduated with honors from Miami University with a double major in Creative Writing and English Literature. In July I got married, took a brief honeymoon in Denver, and returned to Oxford just in time to take an intensive pedagogy class for graduate assistants who would be teaching freshman English in August. In that class I met someone who would become a fast friend; in fact, you could say he owns the second elephant.

The summer of 1989 kicked off a complicated and stressful time in my life that persisted for entirely too long, and I didn’t often make the best decisions. Thus, we witness the generation of a series of elephants which shall not be discussed. (Special note for those who are 22 years old and think they know everything about the world: You don’t. I’m sorry to have to be the one to tell you. But it’s all right; I know you’re not listening anyway.) I’ll let you know when one of my elephants has wandered into the room, and we can talk about something else while it has a bit of hay and water.

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To avoid talking about my elephants or anyone else’s, let’s go back in time a bit to the spring of 1989, when my capstone project for the Honors program was due. Because my degree was in creative writing, I didn’t have a research project to present. My requirement would be fulfilled when I read from my work, to an audience in Hall Auditorium. I repeat, my degree was in creative writing. Not speech, communication, theatre, drama, broadcast journalism, or performance art. In silence and solitude I had written my words, considered them, revised them, and offered a portfolio of short fiction to be evaluated by my “thesis” committee in the creative writing program. Now, for the sake of the Honors program, I had to make the transition from the page to the stage.

Hall Auditorium, located on the other side of the campus library from Bishop Hall, was originally constructed in 1908 and named after Miami’s fifth president, John Hall. Over the years I had attended several events there, including a reading by Tom Wolfe and a performance by the Second City Touring Company. It has a seating capacity of 750, and in my day it was sometimes the site of huge lecture sections of Western Civilization classes.

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After a $6.5 million rehab in 1992….

It looks pretty big when you’re in the audience, and it has the curious property of looking even larger when you’re all alone on the stage, looking outward.

Mine wasn’t the only “act” on the agenda for that afternoon. I waited backstage for my turn to approach the microphone and read my work to whoever was in the audience — other members of the Honors program, I assumed. The student before me concluded their talk, received a round of applause, and walked off stage left. Everything was going just fine as I walked on from stage right. I placed my pages of text on the podium, took a deep breath, and began to read.

I heard my voice, small and soft in the large space. When I was a few sentences into my story, I noticed strange looks on the faces of the audience. When I was a few paragraphs in, I realized that they could not hear me well and it was possible that the microphone, which had worked perfectly for the previous speaker, was now not working at all.

As I continued to read, I brainstormed. Had the person before me turned off the mic before walking away, and had I been expected to turn it back on? No. Had the mic really just broken without warning? I wasn’t sure, but something did seem to be broken. Was it going to come back on? Perhaps. Should I keep reading, trusting that the mic would turn itself back on? Maybe. Should I stop reading, apologize, and start over?

The repercussions of my last question to myself were what made me decide to just keep reading and pretend that all was well. I was keyed up enough as it was; if I stopped now there was no guarantee that I would be able to calm down enough to start the reading all over again. I also couldn’t fix the mic, so there was no guarantee that it would be able to start all over again with me. There was a tech person on the stage, just behind the front curtain. Presumably they would be able to fix the mic if it were broken. (If I broke down, I wasn’t sure that I could be fixed.)

If that’s true, I asked myself, why haven’t they come over, stopped me, and fixed the mic? Maybe it’s not broken after all and I just THINK it’s broken.

So I kept reading, paragraph after paragraph, maintaining the gentle momentum of the text, staying as calm as I could. The short story itself was more of a tone poem with plenty of onomatopeia and internal rhyme, with a rhythm like a rocking chair, and it propelled me forward.

Two sentences before the end of the story, the microphone came back to life. My voice boomed through the auditorium as I read the last few words.

“Thank you,” I said, and exited stage left to a round of tepid, confused applause as my legs tried to turn to jelly.

I had done my reading, even if nobody heard a word of it, and there was no way they would get me back out onto that stage again.


Knitwise, I have completed the Grey Shawl of Eternity. Have I the proof of this accomplishment? Nay! I cast off last Tuesday night, displayed the shawl to my Jefferson knitting group, and folded it up and tucked it into my knitting bag. I then started a project with the only pattern I had on hand – for loafers, of all things – with the closest yarn to what it required, an orphan skein of brown-and-white marled bulky wool that ranged from extremely thin to extremely thick. It wasn’t fun or satisfying, but it was knitting. Two days later I took the shawl to my Whitewater group, unfurled it, and handed it over to the woman who had given me the donated yarn in the first place. While she wrapped herself in the Shawl of Eternity I knitted two more rows on the unsatisfying loafer pattern, paused, and then pulled out the needles and frogged the project.

Kate Hepburn knits

What would Katherine Hepburn knit?

I am open for suggestions.

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1985: Back to the Future

Monday, May 14

This post will be written and published whenever possible this week; tonight I am finally going to see Avengers: Infinity War! Shh! No spoilers!


Monday, May 21

Why did Back to the Future seem to mean so much to my generation? The action took place in the year I graduated from high school, but several months later. We graduated a month before it was even released, so seeing it in the theater wasn’t even a bonding experience for the Class of ’85.

Perhaps it was its celebration of the 1980s and the Reagan Years, even as it subtly mocked them. Perhaps it was the DeLorean — an older classmate’s father owned one, and it seemed like the coolest, most exotic ride in the world. Perhaps it was Michael J. Fox, fresh from “Family Ties,” which was set in Columbus (okay, probably Grandview or Bexley). Perhaps it was Huey Lewis, whose 1984 “Sports” album (okay, tape cassette) went platinum seven times over and was a huge album in a year of huge albums (the soundtracks to Purple Rain and Footloose immediately come to mind).

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“I’m sorry, boys, but you’re just too darn loud.”

Perhaps it was just that Back to the Future (BTTF) was a very, very good movie. It was well written, it was funny, and it was tremendously appealing. It wasn’t the first time-travel story enjoyed by a mass market — my own mother was addicted to “Quantum Leap,” and certainly two versions of “The Twilight Zone” had prepared us for time jumps — but it was the best.

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“Great Scott!”

This still doesn’t explain my own devotion to the movie and, eventually, the whole franchise. I own more copies of the trilogy than I should admit, I own a car charger that mimics the flux capacitor, and I can’t turn away from a showing of any of the movies.

Fluxing

“Flux capacitor… fluxing…”

In the fall of 1985 I went off to my future, to college at Miami University. I had a new home, new teachers, new classes, new responsibilities, and a roommate. In my freshman dorm I was surrounded by girls — young women — from everywhere else (but mostly Cleveland). They brought their favorite music with them, and instead of Barry Manilow and Amy Grant I was hearing Genesis, UB40, Sting, and more.

In my first semester I struggled with calculus that I could perform but not understand, struggled to connect with a roommate who had goals and values so different from mine, and struggled with the weight of a course that compelled us to wrestle with the moral implications of the Holocaust. I also found new friends, new foods, new books, new places to watch people, and new places to be alone. I dated a young man who didn’t understand me at all, but before I broke up with him we saw several movies for a buck or two at the student center. Without someone to go “out” with, I might never have gotten out at all.

Gradually I expanded my circle of friends, took different classes than I thought I would, tried on a minor and dropped it, and came to find all my geeks in the small but extremely nerdy online bulletin board community of MUBBS. And on one school break, I got a ride home (or was it back to Miami?) from the guy whose father owned the DeLorean. The fall of 1985 was only the beginning.


Knitwise, I’m plugging along on the gray shawl whenever I remember that I really should pick it up because it’s not going to knit itself. ONE SKEIN OF YARN TO GO. I also purchased a new shawl pattern, with some stash yarn in mind. Never mind that I don’t know exactly where this particular stash yarn is, nor do I need a shawl, and neveryoumind that I’m not allowed to put another needle to another yarn until the BORING GRAY SHAWL is all done. Because what’s worse than knitting on a boring gray shawl? QUITTING.


Regarding Avengers: Infinity War, I’m not worried. I’ve seen movies before, and I’m looking forward to the next installment.

1981: Summer Camp of the Nerds

The summer of 1981 brought great relief. I had survived the eighth grade and would be going to high school in the fall. (Considering that our middle school and high school buildings were positioned about 30 yards apart, this was not so much of a big deal.) I had made it through two years of marching band and was attending summer band practice. (There was this thing called “band camp” coming up in August, but that probably wasn’t going to be a life-changer.)

My big deal was that I was going to spend one week in July at Miami University, in a summer camp emphasizing science and math. Not only was it a camp about science and math, but it was pretentiously and embarrassingly titled the “Summer Institute for Tomorrow’s Leaders.” Nice job, Miami. Apparently I had been considered nerdy enough to attend this camp the previous summer, but my parents hadn’t gotten my application in before the spots filled up — grossly underestimating the number of extremely nerdy seventh and eighth graders in the nation’s heartland. I was waitlisted for the following year, and off I went to Oxford, Ohio.

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Our drive of one hundred miles went due southwest along I-71, wound through Lebanon, south of Middleton, and north of Hamilton, and then ended at the top of a steep hill where State Route 73 would have run straight into a forested campus if there hadn’t been a stoplight. We were in Oxford. The sky was sky blue, the grass was grass green, and every building was made of weathered dark red brick crawling with real ivy, with cream Georgian columns out front. The campus screamed COLLEGE in 72-point bold type, and I imprinted on it like a newborn duckling on Konrad Lorenz.

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We stayed in the dorms, and my roommate for the week was a girly girl named Kelly. She had come equipped for the week with a curling iron, a metric ton of makeup, and cute clothes. If I had missed some memo that summer reminding me to be girly while I studied science, it was to be the first of many. In my jeans and sneakers I happily ran around all over campus with the boys while we caught moths, saw early LOGO programming on the Apple II, played 20 Questions on the DEC VAX in the lab in Kreger Hall, and worked out solutions to math problems of our own devising.

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For example, a bunch of us made it to Culler Hall to watch a Foucault pendulum in action. A sign next to the pendulum noted how long it took the bob to swing once out and back. The same idea came to each of us simultaneously: how many times would the pendulum swing in one year? We took out pens, papers, and calculators and calculated furiously. We were astonished to find that each of us had arrived at a different answer. This led not to arguments, but to a longer conversation about our different assumptions and methods. I was in nerd heaven. And when I was with the boys, it didn’t matter that I was a girl – all that mattered was getting the right answer or asking the right question. With the girls, it seemed to matter how girly you were. I knew I wouldn’t ever win that contest, so I ignored as much of girl culture as I could afford to.

However, I did temporarily align with the girls when it came to deciding who was the cutest boy at the camp. I don’t remember his name now, but he was medium height with blue eyes and curly golden brown hair. The entire girls’ wing of the dorm was swooning over Mr. Cute & Curly, but by Wednesday I noticed that his roommate got less attention even though he was friendly, tall, and slender. I can’t tell you how it happened, but by the time my parents came to pick me up at camp’s end I had found a hand to hold as I navigated the campus. I think my parents were as surprised as I was when I introduced them to gangly, dark-haired Scott and took his picture on the front steps of Minnich Hall. Even though I never saw him again, it was a confidence booster. Thanks, Scott.

Bachelor

Four years later, when it was time to apply for college admission, no college ever measured up to the memories I had of Miami. No other school had a chance at capturing my heart. When I did attend Miami, my new experiences overlapped my old paths: in the lecture room where I had heard about moth selection and elementary statistics, I took a night class on American literature. In the Bishop Woods where I had captured insects, I later darted from computer lab to geology class in a spring rain. In the computer lab where we had played text games on the mainframe, I later had the chance to alpha-test a new computer called a NeXT. And in Bachelor Hall, where our group had composed a song, I later worked at my first student job, took English and math courses, survived creative writing workshops, and — much later — shared an office with my future husband as I prepared to begin graduate school and teach my own English class. But I’m getting far ahead of myself, and the future wasn’t going to be as simple as a well-crafted ambiguous sentence can make it appear.


Knitwise… I have spent quite a bit of time reorganizing my patterns and stash over the last week. I started and finished the blue-green rectangle that I described in my previous post, and went looking for yarn to complement it. When I went stash-diving for blue fun-fur yarn for a friend, I found the unfinished projects about which time had truly forgotten. Felted loafers, two steps from being done? I pulled them out to re-prioritize them. Red, white, and blue cotton yarn? I’ll re-home it. And I found several would-be project bags filled with some high-class skeins of laceweight. In some cases I can almost remember the patterns I meant to use to knit them up. These are bags of hope, of ambition, of misplaced yet admirable levels of confidence. When I can start them, I will.

Meanwhile I have cast on for a simple triangle shawl made of fuzzy grey-and-white yarn, with a eyelet rows three stitches in from each edge. I use the easiest pattern in the world, which works just as well for a small cotton dishcloth as it does for a king-sized blanket, and it will allow me to knit on with confidence and hope through all crises.

Part One: Me and the Mockingbird

Recently the American novel To Kill a Mockingbird and its author Harper Lee have received a lot of attention because of the publication of her “sequel,” Go Set a Watchman. This summer I purchased copies of both books with the intent to read them both.

I wasn’t alone; for a while this summer, both novels were Top Ten New York Times bestsellers. But since you know me — either in person or through my writing — you may be interested in knowing my own reasons for doing this. To Kill a Mockingbird is a novel that most American public school students read in the eighth grade. I, however, did not, and thereby hangs a tale.

First, let’s discuss why I did not read this wonderful, amazing, brilliant novel in the eighth grade. There are, basically, two reasons: the first is that I had already read it. The second is that I had the same English teacher for both seventh and eighth grade. And when “Bob” (his real name, but not his full name, as he may still be teaching English somewhere) realized that I had already read the novel, he didn’t think I needed to spend another six weeks (or was it longer?) slowly re-reading it as the rest of the class encountered it for the first time. In retrospect, this may not have been the right decision to make, but his intentions were good.

As I said, “Bob” was my English teacher in seventh grade. He was new to my school district, and — if I remember correctly — this was his first or second teaching assignment. He was 26 years old, and I was 12. I was the daughter of two teachers, a rabid reader, a diligent student, and a budding writer. I got through English classes with one finger serving as the bookmark for the front-of-the-textbook matter that the whole class was reading, and another finger poised to flip the pages to the much more interesting reading at the back of the book, despite the teacher-of-the-year’s exhortations not to read ahead.

“Bob” soon realized that I could read whatever was put in front of me, write papers that were excruciatingly organized, whip almost anyone in Scrabble, and diagram complex sentences until the cows came home. My saved English assignments from seventh and eighth grade are covered with his positive feedback, his encouragement, and his judgment that I could soon be submitting my work for publication somewhere. He gave me extra books to read and extra assignments to do to make sure I kept being challenged. He also gave me what was, apparently, some remnant of his college career — a spring-loaded black vinyl pouch to keep my folders and papers in. I felt honored and special.

Then came eighth grade, and he was my teacher again. This was not supposed to happen, and everyone knew it. To this day, I still don’t know why or how it happened. But everyone knew how the tracking worked. I had had Teacher “A” for seventh grade and was supposed to have Teacher “B” for eighth grade. Most of my friends moved on to Teacher “B.” I still had “Bob.” Everyone noticed, and that’s probably when people started to talk. (This was, incidentally, the year that The Police released the hit single “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” about an English teacher with a crush on a student who was half his age. Thank you very much, Mr. Gordon Sumner. You made eighth grade extra enjoyable.)

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Eyebrows were raised, but my schedule didn’t change. We proceeded through the year with the usual assignments until it came time to read To Kill a Mockingbird. I don’t know if “Bob” asked for a show of hands in class or I discreetly let him know after class, but somehow I let him know that I had already read the book. He soon decided that it was better for me to give me new assignments than to make me re-read the book. And off I went on my own course, doing a sort of independent study while the class plodded through Mockingbird with oral readings in class and quizzes and tests a couple of times each week.

Somebody got upset. Somebody thought there was favoritism. Somebody thought I was getting special privileges. And probably somebody (or somebodies) thought there was more going on between the twentysomething new teacher and the teenaged student than met the eye. There wasn’t, but it was enough that someone thought there was. Meetings were held. My mother was called in to talk things over with the principal to help “calm things down.” It was decided that I would join the rest of the class in following the standard curriculum. I traded my independent studies for a paperback copy of Mockingbird, joining everyone else just as Bob Ewell was called to the stand. The quizzes were easy, the plodding was slow, and that was apparently the desired outcome. I managed to finish eighth grade without receiving any further accusations of misconduct, then went on to the high school and never looked back. What became of “Bob”‘s career, and what effect his decisions regarding my assignments had had on him, I never knew. I never saw him again. But at the end of the year I emptied out the vinyl pouch that I had so treasured, and returned it to “Bob”‘s desk when he wasn’t looking.

I eventually went on to Miami University, where I earned a bachelor’s degree, with University Honors, in the dual major of English Literature and Creative Writing.

Next: Re-reading Mockingbird

Published in: on August 28, 2015 at 10:16 pm  Comments (1)