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Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Mary, You're a Fine Girl

I knew the big report was coming my way.  I can sense these things before they occur.  I'm like a meteorologist who specializes in bullshit storms.  Sketchy details, a comprehensive lack of focus, a limited grasp of the material.  This one had all the earmarks of a Category 4 squall.

Tension builds during these stressful weather events.  I put my cows in the barn and clear my calendar.  I don't really have any cows, but if I did, they'd be in the barn.  Cows hate it when ladies yell.  So do the neighbors.  I close the windows. Still, no report materializes, despite such careful preparation.

Every day, more pressure is added to the cloud of anxiety that looms like an unaddressed journalism essay nobody wants to actually sit down and write.  Bits and drabs of useless information are being revealed each day.  Until finally, I can take no more.

"Have you written anything yet, son?"  I ask.

"No.  I'm still gathering my resources."

This accumulation of facts and figures continues for nearly a week.  On Saturday morning, I interrupt a podcast of some sort being viewed on a laptop in my bedroom.

"Shut the computer off, Desmond."

"But I'm still watching this."

"You're done, my dear.  You need to write something."

*******

When I was a little kid, I thought my mother was brilliant.  I based this assumption solely on her clerical skills and the equipment that came with her from the last office position she'd held.  Big Mare knew how to use a typewriter, and she'd taken dictation in high school.  From time to time, she used strange symbols to jot down the lyrics of songs we liked on the radio.  I thought this skill was ridiculously useful.  Thanks to Gregg shorthand, I knew all the words to "Brandy, You're A Fine Girl."

"How do you know what to write down?" I asked her.

"You just do what your boss tells you."

"Oh.  What about what you wanna say?"

"That's not important."

We always had this impressive gray stapler in the kitchen junk drawer, a Swingline.  Underneath the bottom of the fastener, my mother had taped a piece of paper with her maiden name, Mary Purdon, in fancy script lettering.  Mom had very nice handwriting.  She could address an envelope like an angel.

I wondered what my mother's life was like before she met my father.  I loved looking at photographs of her and the other girls in the secretarial pool.  They always seemed like they were having a good time.  I couldn't wait to get a job someday and enjoy myself.

Big Mare always insisted that Judy and I get good grades in school.  Not because she valued education.  I'm pretty sure she just thought it was polite.  Mom wanted the nuns to think she was a decent mother.  She was desperate for some rules to follow.

As I got older, it started to dawn on me that maybe Mom wasn't all that smart.  She did, after all, marry my dad.  She couldn't drive, and her math wasn't so great, either.  We didn't even own a calculator.  Just that stupid stapler.
"Honey, you can't just go to CNN.com, copy someone else's conversation onto a sheet of paper and call it an editorial piece."

"I know, Mom."

"But that's what you've done.  So clearly, you don't know."

"Yes, I do."

"Listen, I'm not gonna argue with you.  But if you truly knew what you were doing, you never would have handed me these four paragraphs of whatever the fuck this is and asked me to read them."

"Just forget it."  My son attempted to grab his half-assed effort from my sweaty grip.

"Don't be like that.  I just spent eleven minutes of my life trying to figure out what it is you're attempting to say.  And four hundred words later, I still have no idea."

"You don't understand, Mom."

"Yes, I agree!  I don't understand.  Help me to understand," I begged my sixth grader.

"I have to write about digital libraries."  Desmond looked like he was about to burst into tears.

"Are you gonna cry?" I asked.

"No."

"Good.  Then neither will I."

I paused for a minute to collect myself.

"So - What is a digital library?  And why should I care?"

"It's a collection of electronic documents, exclusively available on the internet."

I guess the child was waiting for me to say something.  I wished I could, but I had virtually nothing to go on.  As a rule, all subject matter has to at least include a person in order for me to pay attention, let alone become emotionally invested. Desmond's explanation of this weird futuristic database didn't even sound like it involved books.  My hopes for a quiet librarian with a dark past were impractical.

"So, what's the problem?"  That's the best I could manage, as far as relevant questions go.

"I don't know how to write what I feel."

"Look, kid.  As long as you feel something, you're headed in the right direction.  You just need to choose good sentences that describe your thoughts.  But they have to be your thoughts.  Otherwise, you're not gonna learn anything."

Just then, I realized my message was the absolute truth.  It's what happens whenever I write.  I found myself explaining a valuable lesson to both of us.

How neat.

1 comment:

  1. What a fantastic essay on what it's like to pull essays from children. This takes me back to this past weekend and a half-assed attempt at writing new lyrics for a song based on Romeo and Juliet. It takes me back even further to 4th grade and that time I had to write a book report on Balboa and the only thing that felt remotely interesting was the part where Balboa and his crew were so hungry they ate their own dogs. Writing for others is tough work. Nothing like being a secretary, apparently. That picture is priceless. I want what they're having.

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