Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Life Is Like A Box O' Chalk-Lits," said Forrest.

My dear artist friend Emily Lisker -- check out her astounding work here:                -- suggested to me this morning that I should write plays, in large measure because I am good at writing dialogue.  

I should tell you that I did once write a comedic play about the first charter school I worked for, but that school is pretty famous these days, and super-tight with the Department of Education, so I’d probably get sued if I produced it.

But I gave thought to Emily’s suggestion. I know something of dramaturgy. I have taught theatre, and I've taught drama (the latter is when English teachers force students to read plays).  I’ve directed plays, been in plays, attended plays, so I feel confident telling you that plays can involve “dialogue.”  Something Emily insists I am good at. (All that other stuff – blocking, lighting, set design, costumes -- I’d hire all that out.  Directors change it anyway.)

Her suggestion that I become a playwright got me thinking about other talents I don’t believe I have.  Like music. I played the flute as a kid, and in five years, I ended up being the youngest person in Norfolk County to achieve a score of 1 in Division One in our annual District Music Festival.  It wasn't "talent." I was a lonely only child who spent way too much time practicing. 

At one time I was crazy-good at running
But I do keep forgetting that writing dialogue is not as easy for others as it feels for me.  It certainly wasn’t easy for unpublished professors at my college.  One of them did inform me, once, that I had talent for writing dialogue.  She would go on to give me a C- on a  Final Exam on three novels we had studied because, as she wrote, “It is clear you did not read any of these.” 

I only passed that exam because I was good at writing dialogue.  I answered the essay questions in the voices of characters I knew nothing about, but I used believable dialogue, PLUS – and this part is key so pay attention -- I was particularly deft at use of “quotation marks.”       " . . ."     <---See?

And by the way, dialogue is just people talking. How hard is that?  I talk to people all the time. Sometimes I even listen to what they say back.  

Writing dialogue is putting down conversations that characters have with each other.  It doesn't feel any more 'talent-dependent' than going to a chicken farm with the hope of buying eggs and -- by the gods, what is this?? They have eggs for sale!  

Without some context, I have no way of knowing if I'm any good at something.  It feels more like a warm mess of good fortune simply fell into my lap.

Take running.  At one time, I was crazy-good at running, but had no clue. This was back in the 1960s at an event sponsored by Quaker Oats. My father literally worked his whole life at the Quaker Oats Company starting in the cliché’d mail room. My mom was quite a bit younger than he, so I was only 8 when he was months from retirement. By then, he was the territorial manager of sales for the Quaker Oats Company. His "territory" was much like those you’d find in Canada.  His included all of  "New England" which back in the 60s was like... a ton of states.

Quaker was my first entree to the concept of conglomerate.  It meant that Quaker Oats also owned other businesses.  They owned Burry Biscuit which I believe owned all of the Keebler Elves.  Despite my discomfort that my Dad was connected to slave trafficking, I loved their rainbow-chip cookies. And any time a TV ad came on for Quaker Oats, I would try to inform my friends, "Did you know that the people who make Cap’n Crunch cereal also own the Keebler Elves and make them bake Girl Scout Cookies?"   

Same when an ad for Fischer Price toys came on. I would tell my friends that Quaker Oats, where my Dad was a Territorial Manager, OWNS Fischer Price. 

My talent for explaining how conglomerates worked went unnoticed.

Quaker Oats also owned Ken-L- Ration and Aunt Jemima, Gatorade and Atari which, if you think about it, the latter SHOULD go together. 

And Quaker also financed the movie Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory after the producers agreed to reference a Quaker product – which they DID using dialogue.

Of greatest fun for me, Quaker sponsored TV shows meaning I attended promotional meet-and-greets and acquired autographs of local celebrities... like Major Mudd, Rex Trailer and Miss Jeanne from Romper Room.  I also got to meet national celebs like Sally Field from The Flying Nun and Elizabeth Montgomery from Bewitched.  There were other show-events where I could have met and gret, but they came on after my bedtime so I didn’t bother attending their promos.

Anyway, one year, Quaker Oats sponsored an event related to the Presidents’ Council on Physical Fitness.  I was 8 years old at the time because my dad was still working. One event was a foot-race. Contestants of all ages and gender were to run around an indoor track a total of three times. 

I paced myself and sprinted that last lap, leaving everyone behind.  Only I thought I was 'catching up' to them, having likely “miscounted to three.” I got a D in geometry that year and didn’t trust math, so I kept on running.  I’m pretty sure the whole Forrest Gump movie was based on someone watching me in that race.

There was such a GAP between me and the other kids (mostly boys who were older, taller and stronger than I) that I assumed I had finished in last place.

My parents -- unaware I had any running talent -- were off giving away free conglomerate samples of kibble and elves to dog-owners and missed my big finish.

The Race Sponsor had my 'award' ready and approached me with it.  There were no official barkers at this event. No announcements.  No media, podia or medals strung ‘round winners' necks. What we received was a sample of an event-sponsor’s “product” which was handed off informally by marketing reps. In this case it was some cool kids' game -- maybe a train set. Doesn't matter, because I had come in last so I was baffled a stranger was coming at me with a big box of game.

I kept walking AWAY from the lady. “But sweetie, you WON this.”

"But I came in LAST," I screamed, hysterically, at her.

Her eyes darted nervously around as she took stock of a potential scene she'd somehow triggered with a mentally challenged child. But also because I was practically sprinting away from her.  Clearly she could never keep up.

More likely, she felt like a pedophile.

Within seconds, however, I discovered I HAD come in first when the bigger and stronger and -- I thought -- faster-than-me boys congratulated me for winning.

Where the fuck was that Game Lady? I thought frantically.  Only I had not yet heard the eff word.  I wouldn't hear that word for another six years and even then, I wouldn’t know it represented every part of speech until I earned a degree in my own language decades later.

Well, the Game Lady was off giving my prize to the idiot that came in second.

That was my first experience with 'talent' I did not know I had.

Around the same year (third and fourth grades were apparently my banner years) our classroom teacher had us copy a cartoon image of a duck during art class. I copied it pretty exactly.  My dad was an anateur artist who pored through countless books of country and wter scenes, which he 'copied' using either charcoal or oil pastel.  So 'copying until it looked precise' was not rocket science.

My teacher whipped my finished product from me and raced it out to show her colleagues.  Back then it was acceptable to leave an entire class unattended, as often as necessary. We believed deeply that teachers had invisible sensors all over their bodies that informed them of even thoughts of wrongdoing.  I should have been born Catholic. I'd have done great with nuns. Sigh. More unnoticed potential.

Anyway, hordes of teachers gathered and murmured there in the threshold of a door that joined grade 3 with grade 4.

Suddenly, there was silence when my teacher pointed to me, and the four other teachers just stared.

There was more whispering after that.  I assumed they were trying to decide what to do with my duck, based on 'who I was.'

"Should we tell her this is good?"

"Not sure about that. We COULD ask her parents to send her off to private school."

"Oh, that's an EXCELLENT idea, Beth."

"Have you seen the dad, though?  I hear he's retiring. I think he's almost 100."

"You're right, Sue. On a pension, private school is outta the question."

"We could just encourage her art."

"Jesus CHRIST Lois, we CAN'T let her know she has talent.  My gawd, as it is, her hand is ALWAYS up to ask a question, give an answer, ask to go to the bathroom.  I've never seen a kid more starved for attention."

"It's called ONLY CHILD Syndrome."

"Well it is ruining my career."

"Let's just forget we ever saw this."

"Great idea."

My teacher came back inside our classroom, closed the adjoining door, and placed my finished product back on my desk.

When everyone's cartoon ducks were later displayed in the hallway, I finally realized what the fuss was about.  My duck was the only one that did not resemble a Picasso-rendering of an asshole.

"Oh. They must have LIKED my duck.  Because it doesn't look ... like  -- THAT," I mused, reflecting on the wall of assholes.

The only other time I realized I had 'talent' for something, defined as 'a thing one does with exceptional ease that others cannot do at all, after years of expensive lessons' is shooting a rifle at a paper target.

My first boyfriend that owned a car was a real gun aficionado and on our second date, he took me on a tour of the local Rod and Gun Club, and then we went back to his Mustang where he reached across the stick shift and kissed me.

Anyway, he kiddingly asked me that afternoon if I wanted to join the gun club and learn to shoot a rifle.  Only I didn't know he was kidding, or speaking in innuendo, so I said yes.

I'd never even shot a BB gun.  Nor a sling shot. In Girl Scouts I shot a bow and arrow once, but had Arm Warble, so they took away my weapon. Not sure I did much bowling as a teenager, either. 

But lying prone and taking aim through the site of a rifle attached to my arm with a sort of stablizing 'sling', then squeezing the trigger -- and hitting the center of every bulls eye -- seemed to bring my boyfriend disquiet.  This seemed somehow important.

Since he didn't react too much, I assumed everyone got bulls eyes.

Eventually, after we went twice a week for an entire season of rifle-shooting, he explained to me that I was hugely good at this, and he showed me all of my scores.

Without context, they were just numbers.

So he showed me scores of OTHER people -- all of whom were neither female nor brand new at this.

Suffice to say, that year I was awarded a trophy and a wall plaque for being "HIGH JUNIOR OF 1975."  Or maybe '74.  

That 'award ceremony' was just as special as my previous dabblings in public recognition.  The rifle shooting participants stood in a voo doo circle.  The Grand Master awarded the lower scores first.  I forget what they were called.  The Year’s Super-Lowest Junior, and The Low Junior. Then they awarded the trophy and plaque to “CAROLYN SMITH, who is brand new to our gun club and to shooting.  Join me in congratulating this year’s High Junior of 1975 or maybe '74. Congratulations!’

No one applauded.

I was old enough by this point in my career as a human to recognize they were jealous. Not only was I afflicted with beginner's luck.  I was a girl. The notion was inconceivable and, so, all 20 young men pretended this award circle was not happening.  A murmur slowly broke out and the circle dispersed.

I did not go back for a second year at the Rod and Gun Club.

I did, however, out-shoot the shit out of a woman touting herself as a professional marksman (I was already a marksman first class but it didn't mean anything to me) at the 1996 Boy Scout Overnight Mom and Me Camp.  We had to do Boy Scout-style Tri-athalon stuff.  One event was the dreaded bow and arrow and I, fortunately, only injured a canoe.

There was also a very tense knot-tying race and my sheep shank pretty much resembled a magician’s slipknot – or a noose. 

Then came rifle shooting.

Without having touched any weaponry except my Vitamixer in three decades, I out-shot the Mommy who was a professional marksman – I mean like for the Olympics.  

I walked past her with my target, all clean in the middle, and she just stared.  

We never spoke after that, not even during the big Wienie and Marshmallow Roast / Improvisational Comedy Bonfire that night.

Anyway, writing dialogue for me is the same.  Which probably means I could write a play. 

And that’s all I got to say bout that.