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Plastic Santas

 

santa 2.0

My Parents got divorced when I was very young, so there are a lot of things I thought were normal that I have since found out were not.  For example, Most people don’t have two sets of parents, or keep a calendar of which holidays will be spent with which parent, or have two sets of snow boots in the exact same color because they’re too much of a hassle to transport. 

I was 12 years old before I realized that the surplus of dancing Santas in my grandparent’s house wasn’t normal.  Every year the day after Thanksgiving, my grandmother would set them out as part of her Christmas decorating ritual she would sometimes ask me to help her pick where to display them and we would discuss the merits of different locations, but the same Santas always went in the same places with the special Elvis edition going on the dinning room table.  “Jingle Bell Rock” played whenever I pushed the button at the bottom and the Santas would began their mechanical gyrating and sometimes I would challenge myself to have all the Santas dancing at once in what, I’m sure, was an incredibly loud race around the house to hit all the buttons as quickly as possible.  I once asked my grandfather where all the Santas came from, and he told me about how the glove factory down the road had once been used to mass produce the plastic Santas.  He also told me about the mean, old woman whose job it was to rip the heads off of the defective Santas.  She was a very strange woman who, even in such a small town no one knew much about.  She didn’t have many friends, and I think the only joy she ever got was from twisting the heads off the flawed Santas.

My grandfather and I were riding around in his truck one Saturday afternoon, as we often did when I would come up to visit, when I thought of that woman.

It was the middle of August, but we still had the Christmas CD playing from when we had first bought it a few months earlier in the gas station just down the r3rd gradeoad next to Mel’s Fireworks.  The album had been recorded by Mrs. Sturgill’s third grade class at their annual christmas pageant and only had five songs.  The song “Jingle Bell Rock” was playing in the background and the image of an old, heavy set woman twisting the heads off of the Santas and laughing because of the perverted enjoyment she was surely getting from it popped into my head.  I wondered why the Santa factory had closed.

I asked my grandfather about it and he told me the story.  The company was founded by Steve Hoover and his girlfriend, who he has since married,  and I have yet to figure out their inspiration, but for a few short years they made millions off of the dancing Santas.  It wasn’t until Walmart began to produce and sell the Santas that the entire company came crashing down around them.  For a while, they talked about a lawsuit and the entire ordeal was well documented in the local newspaper, The Tomahawk.

Shorty after meeting with Walmart’s lawyers though, the brothers became convinced that they couldn’t afford the lawsuit they would ultimately lose.   With the patent expired and the owners gone, the factory was closed.  Some of the employees were hired by the new factory taking its place and others were hired by the Super Walmart being built in town.  Those who stayed took the necessary pay cuts and began learning how to make those off white cotton work gloves that can be found in any gardening department.  A few years later, that Qtpfsgui 1.9.2 tonemapping parameters: Operator: Mantiuk Parameters: Contrast Mapping factor: 0.1 Saturation Factor: 1.8 ------ PreGamma: 1factory was moved to Vietnam and the remaining workers went to minimum wage jobs at fast food restaurants or at the Walmart that they had all boycotted for the first few months of its existence or for as long as they didn’t suddenly need milk after 8pm when the local grocery store closed.

With many factories in the area meeting the same fate, people began to move away and the small town I had grown up in only got smaller.  I still have that album, but “Jingle Bell Rock” has begun to sound a little cheerless lately.

I called my grandmother last week to get more information about the Santas that were such a big part of my Christmases growing up.  She joked about how “Jingle Bell Rock” stayed in her head all season because of my inability to deny myself the pleasure of button pushing and she caught be up on all the town news.  Harley is having a baby, the elementary school is having their annual Christmas pageant twice this year because of the strong attendance last year, and would I be Mary for the living nativity scene again.  She also reminded me to keep a little “mad money” in my car and recommend I get the Tomahawk sent to Sweet Briar so I could stay up to date on all the important things.  I’m sure she’s referring to the business section where they do a feature on an “inspirational professional” every month and not the ever growing list of local arrests that we used to read together over Sunday breakfast.

We both sobered up when we began talking about the Santa factory though.  She described the woman who took the heads off the Santas again because thats her favorite part and she told me the glove factory is now a self storage facility.  Then, she told me a part of the story I’d never heard.  When the Santa factory closed, it was only a small arm of the larger company, Blue Ridge Designs, and they still employ people in Boone, NC.  She also told me that when the factory closed a lot of the employees were able to get jobs at Appalachian State.  The college is now the largest employer in the town with over 1,000 employees, almost 10% of the population.  It wasn’t the ideal situation, but eventually almost all the former employees who stayed were hired in town and even though Trade, where my grandparents live, is shrinking, Boone is stable.  They even have a Cookout now.  My hometown has changed more in the last ten years than it did from the years 1950-2000.

 

 

shorten the factory bit

add a location

add biographical information

write better

The “Rent” Effect

Before Rent, I was a moderately terrible person.  Not horrible, mind you.  I was nice to my classmates, polite to adults, and a generally happy person.  My main flaw was how I secretly viewed other people.  My family, you see, is full of conservatives who have difficulty seeing things from someone else’s point of view, especially if those people aren’t like them, and I was sucked into the same school of thought for the first sixteen years of my life.  Like my family, I wasn’t open about the disdain I felt for some people in this world, but I felt it, all the same.  Discussions about race and sexuality made me extremely uncomfortable, thanks to my extended family’s influence, so I never associated with the people my family scorned.  All of this began to change, however, when one day in my sophomore choir class my teacher showed the first twenty minutes of a musical that would change my life.

I never noticed how conservative my family is until probably eighth or ninth grade.  My immediate family sponsored a little girl in Mexico when I was in early elementary school, and one day my sisters and I got to talking about how fun it would be to have an adopted sibling from a foreign country.  Our hopes were quickly dashed, however, when our mom told us how furious our grandfather would be if we adopted a child who wasn’t white.  While I do admit to having racial prejudices in the past, my views were nowhere near as extreme as my family’s, and I vividly remember how shocked I was by that statement.  Over the years, my awareness of my extended family’s character flaws broadened, and I began to notice the jokes that they made about people of color and homosexuals.

All of my beliefs began to shift one day in my sophomore choir class.  It was towards the end of the semester, and my teacher decided to give my class a musical theatre education instead of making us sing.  The show he chose to play for us was the 2008 DVD recording of Rent, the final performance on Broadway.  That day, I was shocked by the characters in the show.  I barely even knew what a drag queen was, so Angel was a complete surprise, especially since he is also gay and Hispanic.  Mimi was far too risqué, and although I found Roger to be an intriguing character, his past drug use and the fact that he has HIV was just too much for my sheltered little conservative mind to handle.  I went home that day minorly scandalized and looked up the show’s synopsis, where I was even more shocked to find that about half of the leading characters have HIV/AIDS, or are gay.  I made up my mind that the show sounded way too depressing and scandalizing for me to enjoy, and I resolved to never finish watching it.

This show, however, seemed destined to be life-changing for me.  Roger’s song, “One Song Glory,” in which he expresses his need to write one meaningful song before he dies, lodged itself in my head and refused to budge. Roger’s tragic ultimatum, the fact that he was going to die much sooner than he should, made me realize how quickly lives pass and how little time we actually have to do something meaningful.  That June I finally succumbed to this earworm and watched the 2005 movie version of Rent with my sisters.  I was astonished to find that the show I was determined to hate actually resonated with me.  I fell in love with the characters I initially despised.  I participate in musical theatre, and Mimi, Maureen, and Joanne, who are the show’s female leads, now make up the core of my dream roles.  “Out Tonight” and “Without You” are now two of my go-to audition songs. The songs are both heartbreaking and beautiful, the characters are complex and relatable, and the show truly does a magnificent job of conveying the idea of living each day as if it is your last.  The theme of acceptance especially related to the ideas of tolerance that I struggled with and helped me navigate the road to becoming a better person.

As I delved deeper into the world of Rent, I realized that the racial diversity of the cast and the sexualities of their characters didn’t matter – the love that the characters have for each other is the same that every couple experiences, no matter if they are straight or not.  Collins and Angel, one of Rent’s gay minority couples, sing about their newfound love for each other in “I’ll Cover You.”  Together they sing, “I’ve longed to discover / Something as true as this is.”  I realized if I read the lyrics of this song without knowing who sings it, I would think it was a regular love song between two straight people.  The more I listened to “I’ll Cover You” and its reprise, which Collins sings after Angel dies, I discovered that “love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love,” as Lin-Manuel Miranda said in his 2016 Tony Awards acceptance speech.  The love that a straight couple feels for each other is the same that a homosexual couple experiences, no matter what my homophobic family tried to make me believe.

My extended family has recently decided that, because I don’t fangirl over boys like an airhead or have the confidence to wear revealing clothes, I must be gay.  If I had learned they thought this about me before Rent, I would have been mortified and upset beyond belief.  But now, with Rent’s message of tolerance and acceptance as my guide, I’ve come to realize that their opinions don’t matter to me.  I am straight, but even if I wasn’t, they would be in the wrong for being unwilling to accept me as I am.  My family’s views of homosexuals and non-white people made me furious in the past, but now I feel sorry for them for being unable to see past the color of a person’s skin, or the gender of the person they hold hands with, to acknowledge the value of that person as a human being.

 

 

 

 

I was always one of those girls who was completely oblivious to the presence of guys.  Up through the end of middle school, and even into high school, my main priorities were homework and my horse.  In those years, the Dixie Chicks song “Ready to Run” was my mantra.  Why did I need to worry about boys when there were so many fun, important things that I could do with my life?  “What’s all this talk about love?” I sang with glee, meaning every word.

My first real introduction to the world of boys came in my freshman year of high school, when Miguel, the boy whom I sat next to in government class, asked me for my number at the end of the fall semester.  I was shocked and blurted out the first thing that came to my mind, which was: “I don’t know it.”  Technically, this was true, but I’m sure that Miguel didn’t believe me.  After winter break had ended, and I discovered that our paths never crossed with our new course schedules, I realized that I felt bad for not thinking more thoroughly about what I had told him.  We had become friends over the course of the semester, and, honestly, I was curious to learn what he really thought about me.

Shocked at where my thoughts were headed, I put in my earbuds and pulled up “Ready to Run,” but I couldn’t escape my newfound angst.  “You see it feels like I’m starting to care/ and I’m going to be ready this time,” the Dixie Chicks sang, and I discovered a whole new layer of meaning in the song.  Was I starting to care about what some guy thought about me?  Me, the girl who practically lived at the barn, who barely knew how to talk to anyone outside of her small circle of friends, was suddenly concerned about the feelings of a boy that she had never spoken to until about three months ago?

No way.  That wasn’t who I was, or who I was planning on becoming.  “What’s all this talk about love?” I reminded myself, and then threw myself into school work and riding with renewed vigor.  Often I was too busy to even talk very much to my female friends, and I was so quiet that I think most of the guys in my classes didn’t know what to think of me.

And yet I found that I couldn’t completely avoid the boys in my classes.  In my sophomore year, it was Jordan, whom I had known since first grade, who began paying more attention to me.  He went out of his way to talk to me and even sent me a note and some candy on Valentine’s Day.  I never plucked up the courage to talk to him about it, and my best friend at the time teased me mercilessly, so I couldn’t even talk to him without her laughing at me and making the conversation awkward.  I ended the school year frustrated and embarrassed, but I did my best to forget my troubles and focus on my riding.  “What’s all this talk about love?” I reminded myself yet again, and, as summer dragged on, I began to believe it once more.

My junior year was a whirlwind of honors, AP, and dual enrollment classes.  In the spring semester, I decided to branch out a little and do the spring musical.  I was cast in several smaller roles, one of them being a married woman.  My onstage husband was David, a friendly but rather awkward senior.  He was always very affectionate towards me, often putting his arm around me or letting me rest my head on his shoulder when I was tired.  “You two make such a cute couple,” my friend Dani told us, and I blushed furiously, acutely aware of David smiling at me.  I made the mistake of telling my little sister about this encounter, and she teased me ceaselessly, even after the production had ended and David and I returned to our normal lives, where our paths did not cross.  I was relieved when he took another girl to prom so I could convince myself and the rest of my family that we had never been, and never would be, any more than an onstage couple.

As my senior year rolled around, my closest friend suddenly got the attention of a boy in her choir group and became his prom date.  I wasn’t jealous of her, exactly, but I wondered: what is it about her that guys notice that I don’t have?  Was I too quiet?  Was it the way I dressed?  What did I have to do to prove that I was a normal girl who could have a relationship with a guy?  For the first time, I was acutely aware of how many of the girls at my school had boyfriends, or just male friends in general.  What was I doing to make people ignore me?

By senior prom, I had developed a plan to create a new persona for myself.  For just one night, I would be outgoing.  I would wear makeup, dress in something that I would never normally dare to wear, and dance no matter how awkward I looked.

And I got attention that night; but not from someone that I had ever expected.  And, once again, I found myself considering, “what’s all this talk about love?”  This new guy was John, whom I had known since sixth grade, but I had never spoken to him very much.  I had always just thought of him as one of the choir guys, socially awkward, somewhat geeky, and never someone whom I would have ever spoken to outside of the choir room.

But now, out of nowhere, he was adding me on SnapChat and making an effort to talk to me.  I truly wasn’t sure how I felt about him; he was nothing but nice to me, but I had heard bad things about him from other people.  He’s misogynist, racist, and homophobic, my theater friends said.  My twin sister and my best friend found the whole situation hilarious.  I, on the other hand, was so confused that all I could do was pretend to be completely oblivious to his admittedly obvious crush.  Does he like me because of what he saw at prom, or because he thinks I’m a nice person? I wondered frequently.  The last thing I wanted to be was somebody’s accessory, but there was also something extremely flattering about being able to elicit such a reaction from a person.  I was embarrassed when John would notice me and get a soppy expression on his face, but his clear infatuation also gave me a confidence boost.

Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew that he was eventually going to try to get past the “talking” stage, but I did my best to not think about it.  The idea of me being in a romantic relationship was interesting, but too bizarre to think about seriously.  When John did ask me out, though, I knew immediately that there was only one answer.  All of the attention that I had gotten from him was flattering, but I had also seen hints of the conservative, narrow-minded person whom my friends had warned me about, and I knew that I could never willingly choose to associate with someone like that.  I turned him down as kindly as I could and went home that day feeling freer than I had in weeks.

So, really, “what’s all this talk about love?”.  I’ve only gotten a glimpse of it, but I have the rest of my life to figure it out.

Silent

I know where you stand, silent in the trees. And that’s where I am, silent in the trees.

Had someone asked my twelve-year-old self if I related to those lyrics, I would’ve said no. I would’ve said that they were weird and slightly creepy and that I would never relate to something like that. Had someone asked me the same question a year later, I would’ve said yes.

When I was thirteen, I lost three family members in less than a year’s time. It was eighth grade, my last year of middle school and the first of my teenage years. I was supposed to be having fun, goofing off with friends and getting excited about high school. I was supposed to be the happy kid I had always been. Instead, I plunged head first into a world I was not prepared for – reality.

Up until that point, I had never been exposed to death, not really. My paternal grandparents had passed away when I was little, far too young to remember them or to be affected by the loss. Other than that, I had only seen death on television or caught glimpses of obituaries in the newspaper. Death was something that happened to other people – strangers – not people I knew, the ones I loved.

I had known my aunt and my cousin were sick. Cancer, both of them. While I often heard my mother speaking in hushed tones about their worsening conditions, I naively assumed they would get better, or at least that there would be more time. I wasn’t that close with either of them, but they were always there for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I’d often see them at family dinners at my grandparents’ house on Sundays. While I didn’t know them well, it was still a punch to the chest when my mother told me they had passed away. My cousin would never again bring her kids over to play in the creek. My aunt would never again come to check my grandmother’s blood pressure or talk to me about the books I wanted to write. Just knowing the fact that I wouldn’t see them again was overwhelming, something I didn’t want to process.

With my grandfather, it was different. He and my grandmother lived next door to me, and it was rare that I didn’t go visit after school at least a couple times a week. When I was younger and they had to watch me while my parents were at work, they would sometimes take me to Walmart to get a new toy, and my grandfather would always cut the package open with his pocket knife, and I would sit in the living room floor, playing and eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches until my parents came to get me.

When he got sick, none of us thought anything of it. We thought it was just a cold, and he’d get better in a week or so. On the day he had to go to the hospital, my mom made me go to school. I told my dad on the way home that I felt guilty for not being there, but he assured me it would be fine. About an hour later, we got the call.

I remember going back to my grandmother’s house after the funeral. The whole family was there, and there weren’t enough seats, but still no one sat in my grandfather’s favorite recliner. I found myself staring at that empty chair, expecting him to shuffle in from the kitchen at any moment and light up a cigarette. His was the death that hit me the hardest, the one that really began the changes in myself.

It wasn’t a conscious decision, my retreat into myself. I wanted to protect myself. As high school rolled around and all my friends were worried only about boys and drama, I became distant, scared to get close to anyone new in case tragedy struck again. I had always been shy, but it was different now. I was different. I began thinking more, questioning. Wary of the world around me, I pondered things like religion and whether there was an afterlife – things most people in my small, conservative town would never doubt. I felt like I was the only person who thought the way I did, and I yearned to find someone, anyone, who felt the same. Like many others, I found the solace I’d been searching for in music. More specifically, I found it in Twenty One Pilots.

I discovered the duo just before they shot to fame with their release of Blurryface. I’d heard about them for a while before I finally gave in and listened to some of their songs. My first impression wasn’t a good one. With rapping, ukulele playing, and screaming, it seemed like they were trying to combine several genres that just did not mix. I was about to give up on them and continue searching for other bands, when I clicked on one more song, a song called “Trees” from the album Vessel. And it was one of those moments. I fell silent as the world melted away, leaving nothing but the music. At that moment, something was different. And it was never the same.

To this day, I don’t know what that song is about, and I don’t want to. Sometimes I take a break just to listen to it, and I can still feel what I felt the moment I first heard it. I felt the emotion that burst out of Tyler Joseph as he sang. I felt it in the music, the lyrics, everything. And while I didn’t know the actual meaning, it felt like I did. After that, I listened to the rest of the album. None of the other songs made me stop like “Trees” did, but the lyrics started to jump out at me. I’d never before listened to a band who put as much emotion into every single song as Twenty One Pilots did. Their lyrics held so much meaning; they were about sadness, confusion, loss… all the things in which I needed reassurance. I had finally found what I was searching for – someone I could relate to. For the first time in a very long time, I felt like someone knew me, knew what I was going through. I felt understood.

Hello.

The Smile Sessions

I really enjoyed the readings for this week and I was pleasantly surprised by them.  I was expecting a dry review of the albums, but instead they were interesting writings on the effect the albums had on people.  I found the topics intriguing because often with art the most important part is not the art itself, but instead the effect it has on the viewer.  With music this can sometimes be overlooked.  It is easy to forget what makes music iconic or great.  It is easy to forget that music has the supreme power of message sending among the arts.  Songs are the perfect length to make a statement and to have every part of it heard without a loss of interest.  It’s easy to listen to a song or an album and forget to pay attention to what it really means, but albums like The Smile Sessions affect the listener on a subconscious level as well.

I have never listened to Coldplay very much, and I probably couldn’t recognize one of their songs off of A Rush of Blood to the Head, unless it was “Clocks.”  Maybe it was because I was still very young when this album came out, but I have never felt the need to dislike Coldplay the way the author of the Rolling Stone essay did.  Listening to the album, though, I can see why it was as popular as it was.  As many of the songs in A Rush of Blood to the Head were written not long after September 11th, the aftereffects of these attacks are present in the songs.  One song that this is very apparent in is “Politik.”  Part of the second verse reads: “And in confusion, confidence/ Give me peace of mind and trust/ And don’t forget the rest of us.”  These words call for peace and cooperation, something that was hard to come by in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.

Lena Moses-Schmitt’s essay on Coldplay’s second album, A Rush of Blood to the Head, resonated with me when she discusses tapping into the music to understand her own emotions.  Matching music to my mood is something I’ve done for as long as I can remember, something I know everyone does.  As long as I’m not trying to focus on schoolwork or something, music helps me concentrate on my thoughts.  Fun, dance-y pop and country complements a good mood helps make it last.  Bands like Flyleaf and Evanescence (in small doses) help calm me down when I’m upset and figure out how to navigate my way out of a bad mood.  Songs from Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, Green Day, and Twenty One Pilots are like a balm to frazzled and stressed emotions.  Moses-Schmitt’s essay on A Rush of Blood to the Head is relatable to all readers who use music to navigate the sometimes tumultuous sea of emotions that a person experiences in a day, even if not many of us use soft British rock to help ourselves recover from a car accident.    

Sand and Smiles

Elise Burke’s homage to her sister stirred near forgotten memories from when I was twenty-three and purchased Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE. I wanted to know what The Beach Boys were about, more importantly, what they were about that had been put away for so long. How could rejection and something that sounded so joyous be one in the same? Maybe it was simply the rejection that intrigued me.

Burke’s well-executed introduction provided enough detail that the descriptions contained something recognizable for me, too. I was unable to remain in the backseat of a Chevy that was thumping Ace of Base or lamenting my stolen clementine crate of cassettes within a few sentences. Resounding intimacy could be found in “Enduring surgeries, treatments and false hopes.” I wanted to know this child of wilting youth, still vibrant in part because of quirky harmonies and bizarre lyrics. I read of her precious life and cradled her into a metaphor for my own dying youth and needs for silly, smiling, and dysfunctional.

The incorporation of Ferris wheel halos, heaven-sounds, and assumptions altered the focus from complete suffering to a reality maintained in smiles and rhythms.

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In comparison to The Beach Boys, Coldplay is very similar in some ways but they are also very different. The Beach Boys are happy and carefree in their music; their music is the kind that you hear in older movies where the setting is somewhere like California. I also noticed while listening to the music that it was really kind of catchy and good change-the-mood-of-someone music. Coldplay’s music, however, is very melancholy, the type of music that most people would listen to when they were having a bad day or something sad was going on in their life. I mostly connected well with the Coldplay album, not just because it’s more of a modern style, but because I wasn’t really into the Beach Boys. It’s something that I wouldn’t listen to in my home because I was raised on different styles of music.

This essay stuck out to me because of the way the author spoke about listening to music during her teenage years. As someone who was quite obsessed with certain bands and music in general, especially during my early teen years, it was something I could relate to. When she describes how the music video for “The Scientist” was the “Most Beautiful Thing I Had Ever Seen,” it made me remember feeling that way myself – even if I no longer see the appeal in the music videos I once loved.

She then goes on to write, “I cannot imagine Coldplay’s music as a shared and communal experience, though such an experience is arguably fundamental to the very roots of music itself, because my teenage relationship with them was solitary and internal. For me, they embodied emotion itself. The minute I imagine Coldplay as a band that can be heard and scrutinized by other people, I can hear how they actually sound: cheap and sentimental.”

This is something else I remember experiencing, feeling like bands and songs belonged only to me and that others who listened to them didn’t understand or feel it like I did. It is such a teenage feeling, the idea that only your favorite musicians understand you and that only you understand them in return. While not everyone listened to Coldplay growing up, the experiences the author describes are something anyone who ever felt a connection with a certain musician can remember and relate to. Music is a retreat from the roller coaster of emotions that feel unique to you only. While most people tend to grow out of this feeling, listening to albums you used to adore from that crazy time can take you back, allowing you to relive your thoughts and emotions. Whether you were a teenager two years ago or twenty, it’s something you never really forget.

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Amy Hempel writes with great insight into human nature. She writes in a way that makes the imperfect most poetic. In “Today Will Be a Quiet Day” Hempel uses the sincere, familial love to express humanity and humility. Early in the story a glimpse into the father’s psyche elicits such sentiments, “He wanted to know how they were, is all. Just—how were they.” This occurs only after reference to a possible foreshadowing of disaster when the brother provoked his sister with worry, a threat confirmed in the form of birds. Directly following, Hempel slips in a toxic look only a sister could give a brother.
Hempel uses a halved red belt, a ping-pong paddle, and a lighthearted death threat to blur the everyday and the extraordinary.

“You think you’re safe, the father thought, but it’s thinking you’re invisible because you closed your eyes.”

A car ride, music lessons, revelation, and conversation reverberate throughout the story a commonality that resonates with middle and upper class America.

Grab your coat and grab your hat
Leave your worries by the doorstep
Life can be so sweet

I used to walk in the shade with my blues on parade, hating its guts
But I’m not afraid…this rover’s crossed over

This story ends on the sunny side of the street.

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Thoughts have been speeding into and spewing out of my head; I wouldn’t be surprised if aura readers and the like can see sparks. This increase emerges as a result of true moments of awe. Reading Steven Millhauser’s “Dangerous Laughter” marks one of these moments. I was inspired to new thought upon reading the title.

Instantly, I thought of the moment in the hotel room when I was scolded for laughing too loudly because “it was early”. We were at the ocean, $@8!#! I suppose this memory is so intense because the ocean is a place where one’s sense of freedom is even greater, but mostly because at thirty-five, I was reprimanded for laughing too loudly, in the wrong pitch, at a place that served a continental breakfast.

Early childhood memories came with as much intensity: memories of matches, gasoline, and curiosity. I was aware that change would be significant from Millhauser’s decision to open with the sentence, “FEW OF US now recall that perilous summer.” My reflections were somehow confirmed. I saw milk and a whole Cheeto shooting out of my little cousin’s nose.

“We wanted to live—to die–to burst into flame—to be transformed into angels or explosions.” Yes! Yes! I was fully Millhauser’s half way into the opening paragraph. I was right on target with my matchbook memories. I was now thinking of humanity in whole, transferring desires for everyone to feel in such magnitude. I was trying to squelch out the negative thoughts creeping in, “Not enough laughter is what’s wrong with this world…” I barely underlined “or explosions” because my mind did not want to wait for my hand to keep up with it. Yes, the mundane is offensive! I am not alone in that secret fear of my destiny; so secret, it was not until reading those words strung together that I let myself in on it. This was one step closer, in the present, than “Everybody wants to go to Heaven, but nobody wants to die.”

My pen remained tightly gripped in my hand. I was no longer marking, as horizontal lines soon became vertical. For me, every word carried a certain momentum and I read importance into every single syllable. I began to feel as though I had entered into a coming of age story. I was reading a sexual charge in word and rhythm: “fanatics of laughter, devotees of eruption,” “the art of invading and withdrawing”. Elements of the desire for the forbidden became intertwined with that of need for change. I was seduced. I opened myself up to laughter in audible form. I wanted to achieve greater depths of happiness in physical manifestation.

I began to long for the moments when I am able to allow my imagination to be fully “seized”. I thought of the area where pain and pleasure merge, separate, and merge again. What was so captivating in the perceiving of laughter as dangerous? I wanted to know more, I was lured, and yet I wanted to remain in the state Millhauser referred to as “conjuring new possibilities”. I wanted to linger in the pleasure, in its ripest state. I wanted to catch hold of such a “fever of obsession”. Or maybe it was that I became reawakened to the escape found in secret distractions; I wanted to touch the lace of curtains in Clara’s house and see the frill of the bedspread. I wanted to go to that place where laughter fringes on indecent. I wanted these things because Millhauser lit this fire for me, early in the story, with “our eyelids grew heavy with obscure desires.”

Throughout Amy Hempel’s short story “Today Will Be A Quiet Day,” the reader gets the sense that something is absent in the family’s relationship, and that they fear whatever it is.  After reading through the story, the reader discovers that it’s the mother who is absent– it can be inferred that, based on the lack of reference to her, there is some point of pain that is related to her absence.

The story is written from a third person limited omniscient point of view, in past tense.  The narrator is the father, so the reader gains a little insight on his thoughts on the situation.  During the course of the story, the father takes his two children (a son and a daughter) on a drive over the Golden Gate Bridge and to a diner in the city because “he wanted to know how they were.”  This interest in their well-being is obviously a valid concern.  Both children express bitterness when talking about things like the death of their dog and the rain, but the reader can tell that the line both of them use (“I hate its guts”) really has a deeper meaning and actually refers to whatever their mother did to cause them grief. 

At the end of the story, the father and his children are lying on the floor of the master bedroom in sleeping bags, trying to sleep.  Seemingly to finish the evaluation of his children, the father tells them that he has “good news and bad news.”  To his apparent delight, the daughter tells him to “get the bad news over with,” showing that she is emotionally prepared to face whatever bad things the world can throw at her.  Through this line, Hempel shows that her characters have gotten over whatever bad thing happened with their mother, and that they are healing together. 

Amy Hempel’s story, “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” uses a minimalist writing style, similar to one of her other stories that she wrote, “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried.”  She provides sparse details about the setting of the story, and does not even properly name her characters, but readers are still provided with enough details to glean meaning from the text. 

We can assume that the parents in this story are no longer together; in the beginning of the story, it is mention that the father “just want[s] to know how [his kids are], is all.”  This suggests that the father and children do not get to see each other very often, making a separated family a plausible explanation.  Through her depiction of a family that is separated in some way, Amy Hempel creates a story that is suffused with nostalgia; through reminiscences about past events (like the death of the family dog, Homer) to thoughts about the future (like the daughter’s Driver’s Ed class) it is clear that the family was close at one point, and longs to be able to continue that closeness even in their divided situation.

Amy Hempel’s decision to write about a family with separated parents gave the story a sense of meaning that gave each event a sort of bittersweet joy, because readers know that this family does not have the privilege of enjoying this closeness every day.

This story was by far my favorite out of the bunch.  As the reader, I felt it was easy to put myself into the story. I was able to connect and understand the protagonist’s emotions.  The characters, of course, found some sort of emotion with anyone reading it.  Rash captured the reader’s attention and kept him or her interested.  The story even left enough open for the reader to think about what pieces connect and hypothesize  on how the characters felt and why they felt that way.  Even though the there were no complete moments where the author told the reader what was going on, from context clues they all could come up the same ideas about the story.

Amy Hempel’s story was a bit interesting. I really enjoyed how the story started off with dialog and the dialog continued throughout the story. However, I felt like the story bounced around so much I couldn’t honestly say what the story is about.  The types of things that I wanted to know as the reader I felt like I had to fill in with my own thoughts.  To me the beginning of this story kind of confused me because I couldn’t understand why the story about the little boy who I’m assuming committed suicide coincided with why the father decided to hang out with his children for the day. Although I was confused by this story at some parts I really thought whatever I did understand was written very well.

For some, running away from reality is better than facing the facts. By refusing to acknowledge what is brought before them and shift it to their own reality, only then can they handle what is happening. This is portrayed throughout the short story, In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried, via the narrator. The author, Amy Hempel, uses the narrator in this way by revealing how the narrator acts from one scene to the next. She distracts herself from her friend’s sickly state by talking about chimps that can talk with their hands, the earthquake, flying, and the beach. At one point the narrator is not strong enough to stay by her best friends deathbed and leaves to party her fears away. It is shortly after that scene that the narrator mentions her friend’s death she cannot get over. Instead she reminisces about the useless topics she talked with her best friend about, trying to come to terms with the reality that has been set before her. Like with any death, many people don’t want to accept the loss of their loved ones and will even refuse it. Most come to terms with the reality of what has happened, but there are a few that instead want to run from the truth. They may take up drinking, drugs, or any other distraction to relieve them from the reality of the situation. The narrator just needs to be strong enough to accept what has happened and move on for the better for her sake and her for friend’s.

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In Amy Hempel’s short story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried,” the masks worn by the narrator and her terminally ill friend symbolize the pair’s habits of hiding their true feelings.  The masks that these two characters wear are used to keep the sick friend from inhaling germs in her weakened state, but the narrator especially hides behind her mask, trying to stifle her guilt at the fear she feels when confronted with the reality of her friend’s imminent demise.  The reader can infer that the dying friend was always the strong one before she got sick, and now the narrator feels that she needs to take up the leading role due to her friend’s incapacitation.  The narrator fears her new role in the dynamic of their friendship; she doesn’t feel able to maintain control of her emotions as she watches her friend die.

Amy Hempel’s minimalist style is an excellent vehicle for the portrayal of the two young women in this story.  While her lack of description leaves out detail about the setting of some of the scenes, it does a wonderful job of showing the narrator’s awkwardness in dealing with her friend’s illness.  The narrator is afraid of many things, from earthquakes to flying, but her friend’s death terrifies her to the point where she doesn’t even want to think about it.  The story’s flow is interrupted by time lapses, both forward and back, as the narrator tries to avoid thinking about her friend’s death and how she isn’t brave enough to stay and comfort her friend in her final days.  This choppiness enhances Hempel’s minimalist style, which I believe is an admirable stylistic choice in her storytelling.  

 

The Best Fiend

Senior woman laying in hospital bed

Senior woman laying in hospital bed

The most interesting part of Amy Hampel’s “The Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is when The Best Friend leaves when she knows the extra bed was brought in for her.  She chooses not to stay for what could be her friend’s last hours.  The narrator is afraid to stay with her friend even though she knows her dying friend is afraid to die alone.  Even when faced with an opportunity to improve the last moments of a woman she considers to be her friend, she chooses selfishness instead.  This is also the reason she has not come to visit her friend earlier.  She was too afraid and she allowed her fear to make her selfish.  This is a conflict often seen in all different types of genres, but usually the protagonist overcomes the fear either by acting selflessly or by wishing to act selflessly.  This is not the case in “The Cemetery pondWhere Al Jolson is Buried.”  In this story the narrator does not overcome her fear and her friend does not receive a cure at the very last second.  There is no happy ending, but it could be that by leaving she was avoiding a situation where a memory that her friend would want to keep would be made.  It could be that her selfish act, most likely unintentionally, helped to fulfill her friend’s last request, and that makes the ending just slightly less sad than I had originally thought.

 

The narrator of the story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolson is Buried” is a person with many fears. We are privy to many of her trivial fears – like flying – but we must infer much of her greatest fear, which is her fear of visiting her dying friend.
The narrator visits her terminally ill friend after her friend has been hospitalized for two months. She doesn’t stay for long, even though her friend desperately wants her to, and goes as far as to set up an extra bed in her hospital room. The ill friend seems to have always been the strong one in the two’s relationship, and now that the narrator has to be brave for her friend, she backs down from the challenge. It seems as though she is letting her fear of losing her friend interfere with her duty of supporting her best friend in a time of need.
Protagonists in works of fiction are usually brave (although admittedly flawed in some way). The protagonist in Amy Hempel’s story is definitely cowardly; she mentions being shocked by a friend’s story of a man who was scared to death in a car crash when he saw his injured arm, and draws a parallel to her friend’s illness, saying that, until now, she “hadn’t dared to look any closer. But now [she’s] doing it – and [is] hoping that [she’ll] live through it.” The main character is less likeable because she is reluctant to be there for her friend when she needs her the most, but she is also more believable because of her flaws.

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