Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Noticing

There is nothing more satisfying than giving advice to someone, especially when it’s your granddaughter. You get to sound like a hero to someone who is more than willing to believe that you are a combination of Mother Teresa and Albert Einstein. It’s win-win for everybody.

A while back Sarah sounded interesting in writing. It was time for my advice to flow like a BP oil well, only cleaner. But I startled even myself when I found myself telling her good writing had nothing to do with grammar, spelling or even sentence structure. (I’m not completely sure they learn sentence structure in fifth grade but I figured saying stuff like that made me sound smarter.) I told her it was more than getting the words on the paper in the right order, although that part does help. Good writing was the art of noticing, I told her. “Notice something that no one else notices and write about that.”

Maybe I’m an easy critic but it just seems like I’m more into unique ideas more than the way something is described. I remember when Truman Capote wrote “In Cold Blood.” It was hailed as a whole new way of writing. He combined fact and fiction for the first time in that book. No one was really paying attention to his words as much as they were fascinated by the new thing he had done. Lately,though, I’ve come to an opinion that he did a great disservice with this dangerous new genre, opening the door for Oliver Stone to re-write history. But that’s neither here nor there. My point is that he saw something that no one else saw.

That was my challenge to Sarah. For the next few days I would periodically ask her what she had observed that no one else spotted. It’s a fascinating way to view the world and I’ve been doing it a lot lately.

So, the Sunday before Memorial Day when we came to the Passing of the Peace during church I caught something out of the corner of my eye that nobody else noticed. It seemed ordinary enough. Josh White was home on leave from the Army. He went into boot camp about this time last year when he graduated from high school. He is entering one of the most dangerous specialties in the Army; he's training to disarm roadside bombs. Pat Tripp went up to him and shook his hand and said “Welcome Home, Soldier.” His tone of voice was somber and respectful and he did everything but salute.

I’ve known Pat for about thirty years now. In all that time I had never seen him so respectful to anyone as he was to that 19 year old kid on Sunday. On the contrary, Pat is generally known as a wise-cracker without a serious bone in his body. But in that moment I remembered that Pat served in Viet Nam and the veterans of that unpopular war never had a “welcome home” from anyone outside their own family. Pat knew better than most in our church what Josh needed and what he was facing when he went back to the base. The whole exchange didn’t take more than a few sentences and I doubt Josh had any idea what an honor he had been given.

I had found something to write about. True to my advice to Sarah, I noticed something nobody else spotted. And now I’ve told you about it. If I had more time I might spruce up the words and change the order they’re in. You can create symphonies out of words by varying the cadence and rhythm; by using sharp words or soothing words. Words can take you on a flight or put you to bed with the way they are arranged. But the true gift was in finding a unique message to give my reader.

The other thing I wanted to tell you about today was the opposite: I’m sure many people know this story; it made the newspapers, albeit only five sentences on page two. The story was about a guy trying to break the record of getting the most hugs in one day. He set up camp just outside the main gate at Six Flags last Saturday. I think the record was something like 5,050 and this guy got 5,232. It had to be documented before Guinness would approve it as the record but it looks like the guy did it.

Here’s what is interesting about it: I was one of those 5,232 people. We walked right past the guy going into the park but on my way out I figured, what the hey; I was already dirty and sweaty and what’s not to like about a hug? I had to sign a list so maybe I will be part of the official documentation of the record.

As hugs go, it was OK. I prefer my hug to come from someone about the same height so there’s no bending into a pretzel. I like a “both heads over the right shoulders” type; this method produces the best body contact. Because, after all, what’s a hug without body contact? You need it to last a good two seconds but probably not over five unless it’s someone you haven’t seen in a really long time. You can enhance a hug with a little pat on the back, the cherry on the top, so to speak. If I’m hugging someone on an especially joyful occasion I’m inclined to do a little body sway as part of the hug. I have a friend in Guatemala, Miriam Leon, who is the perfect height and who understands the little “sway-dance.” I’m already looking forward to seeing her in July.

Which brings me to one last thing before I close. Guatemala is experiencing torrential rains and mudslides. I emailed another friend (a good hugger but no Miriam) who told me one of the towns we visit every year, Teculutan, has had their municipal water supply contaminated but no deaths. That’s only one city. We have friends all over that country. So I’d appreciate your prayers for them.

The weather is so much more in the news nowadays than I remember from my childhood. Certainly we didn’t have oil spills like this one when I was a child. My friend Colleen O’Toole told me it snowed three times in New Orleans this winter. She told me this when I visited a couple of months ago and she mentioned it two or three times. OK, I got the point—it doesn’t usually snow in Louisiana. It’s a hot state. But, no, I had missed the point entirely. The last time it snowed in New Orleans was the first time in memory it had snowed and it was the winter before Katrina. And this year it wasn’t just one snow. It was three.

Not many people noticed that conjunction of phenomena. But it wasn’t lost on the people who live in New Orleans.

Prayers all around, bartender.

Coming next week: I should receive my annual reading list compiled by my friend Susan. Just in time, too, I’m running out of books.

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