Friday, 28 February 2014

On Not Being the Vice-President

Long ago, in Grade 9 English, a district superintendent or some such official came to look in on us and help with a story we were studying.  I can’t remember what story it was, but there was a scene in a park with picnickers carrying their grandfathers.  And there were samovars.  Maybe it was a Russian story. 

The superintendent asked us if anything struck us as odd in the scene.  Someone ventured, “The samovars?”  “No, no,” said the superintendent, or maybe our regular English teacher, who was also there.  “That’s just a Russian teapot.”  It was the people carrying their grandfathers, which I think had struck me as odd, but too odd even to ask about.  It’s hard to raise a question when you hardly even understand something – except that’s the very thing to ask about, I learned that day.

And maybe I also learned to enjoy analyzing stories from that and also to think that it’s better to do something hands-on like analyzing a story than to be some distant superintendent, a manager supervising others who get to do the hands-on work.  I felt sorry for the District Superintendent, if not then, at least in retrospect: he was someone who knew how to get to the root of a story, making it come alive for students, but mostly his job must have been just overseeing others.

In some fields, of course, management is the prize people aim for, and some people must like managing others, but to me it’s a bit like being the coach instead of Wayne Gretzky.  You could say, of course, that an athlete, even a star athlete, or a creative writer or a comedian is doing mere grunt work.  Better to be the Vice-President in charge of whatever instead of some lowly pencil-pusher, but if pencil-pushing is somehow creative, if the work is something like Gretzky behind the net or Graham Greene producing a new novel, who wouldn’t rather be that than mired in management?

The Talent, not the manager, the literary critic, not the district superintendent.  But everyone is different, I suppose, and I suppose we need those Vice-Presidents.

When I read the first part of this blog to my girl-friend, she paused and said, “I’m a Vice-President.”

Uh oh, I said.

So let me say that I have nothing against vice-presidents, and as my girl-friend went on to tell me, sometimes she likes to do the hands-on work, but not always.  Maybe the District Superintendent was happy not to have to teach an English class every day; maybe it was nice just to do it once in a while.  I published a novel once, but haven’t since, and when I think of someone like Agatha Christie or even, yes, Graham Greene, maybe even creative work could seem tedious if you had to keep churning it out year after year.  So there you go …

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Making all the Stops

I was thinking of a Seinfeld episode the other day, the one where Kramer tells the story of how he was on a hijacked bus and had to fight the hijacker off, ending up driving the bus himself.

(It’s interesting, by the way, how this violates the old bit of writerly advice to show, not tell.  And it’s not the only time Seinfeld does this.  What to me was their most glorious episode is the one where George tells how he saved the beached whale by removing a golf ball from its blowhole.  We don’t see this at all, except for George in rolled-up pants wading out from shore.  There’s a sort of discretion in that, a cutting away from the action, another way to write not encompassed by the old writing rules.)

But I digress.  In the episode, Kramer explains how he has to grab the steering wheel because the driver has passed out, and meanwhile he’s having to fight off the hijacker, or mugger, while steering and also preserving a severed toe that he’s trying to get to the hospital.

Eventually, he explains, he was able to kick the mugger off the bus at one of the stops, to which Jerry replies, “You kept making all the stops?”  Well, says Kramer, people kept ringing the bell.

I was thinking, well, that’s life, or maybe heroism: you’re in a life-and-death struggle, you’ve got a 20-ton vehicle to control, you’re worrying about a severed toe, and yet you keep making all the stops.  Life goes on, there are things to do, so despite your headaches or heartaches or whatever else crosses your path, there are stops to make, people who keep ringing the bell and expecting you to do your job.

It reminds me of Robert Frost’s famous poem about the woods so lovely, dark, and deep, so tempting, but not tempting enough to divert the rider from keeping his promises.  To be an honourable man, says Confucius, keep your word, do your duty.

Man’s lot?  Woman’s too, of course.  We have to keep making all the stops.  It’s hard sometimes, though.

P.S. February 12:
It occurs to me, waking up this morning, that sometimes in times of stress, making all the stops is actually a lifeline.