Real-life dramas: Lost cash at Dandy Donuts, 4 pounds of crap on a 2-pound plate

Dandy Donuts, Rockford, Illinois, Wednesday 30 July 2014, 11:56 a.m.

A woman customer, probably in her 20s, came back into the cafe, saying that she’d lost the cash she’d received a few minutes earlier as change. The cash belonged to her coworker, for whom she had ordered food. Dandy’s owner Dan came around the counter and searched the booth where the young woman had been sitting as she waited for her food to be prepared. Then Dan said, “Where were you parked at? Let’s go check it out,” and they went outside.

A 60-ish white guy who was sitting in a booth from which he could see the door and the sidewalk outside told the young man sitting at the table next to him that he’d seen a different woman pick up the cash outside and walk away. This 60-ish guy then went outside to tell Dan and the young woman what he saw.

The woman left, and Dan came back in. At 12:05 p.m., Dan told this story to people sitting at a booth near the front door. He said the young woman had also, earlier that day, lost a credit/debit card. And I’m not sure, but I gathered that Dan may have given the young woman some money to make up for the lost change.

Other dramatic (or not) moments I witnessed yesterday:

* Also at Dandy Donuts, a white-haired dude of approximately 75 years said to a young man, “I had to sell all my stock to move into Peterson Meadows [retirement community]. I had a ton of Pepsi stock and it’s all gone now. Supposedly I’m set for life now.” Then he ordered both of the two remaining pieces of rhubarb pie and said to the waitress that something — I’m not sure what — “doesn’t made much difference, does it? Not with rhubarb.”

* At the Beef-A-Roo restaurant across Riverside Boulevard and a block or two west of Dandy Donuts, at about 1:30 p.m., a 50-ish woman told her two other female companions that she has “4 pounds of crap to do on a 2-pound plate.”

* Later in their conversation, one of the other two women said [perhaps of her step-son] she saw that he’d posted a picture of a cat to Facebook. “You can’t put gas in your car, but you can have a cat?” she said, and later, when she told that her husband had offered to put the son up in a hotel, she said, “You shoulda seen the roof come off the house when I got mad that day.”

Bible verses, paraphrased: Matthew 7:28-29

2009_07_08_mh (531)

See the lilies of the field, and how they don’t do shit? Be like that.

Odd jobs: Stacking pig butts

Edited from a journal entry dated evening, Tuesday, 3 Jan. 1995.

Over my junior-year winter break from college, I worked a temporary job at a cold-storage food warehouse in my hometown. Among the several tasks I was assigned to do was restacking hams:

Another temp worker a year younger than me, Phil, and I were told to go to the “U.S.D.A.” room , where we worked with Jim and later Dave in restacking hams from the loose-pack, barrel-like round reinforced cardboard totes (like the containers holding dozens of watermelons one might see at a grocery store) onto flat, cardboard-separated layers on skids (pallets). I was fearing that it would be like the Bukowski ham-tossing story I had recently read, and it was.

We got into white coats, hairnets, and rubber gloves, and we then used sharp steel meat-hooks to haul these 30-pound pig quarters, skin and all, cut on two sides to raw meat. Swiping with hook in meat side, through meat, and stuck into skin was best method. I would tug to break each ham from its neighbors, frozen and molded into place. We hauled the hams over the 4-foot or 4-and-a-half-foot- high walls of cardboard, and onto the 12-count layers, five layers high, which was then entirely closed in a plastic bag. We did 20 or 22 totes from 10:30 a.m. til 4:30 p.m., half-hour clean-up til 5.

When the hook hits bone, the sound is solid sunk, like an axe hitting and sticking into a green log. It was kinda gross at first, the first tote, to look at the meat, but it was no big deal after a while. (But we humans look like that too beneath skin.) I had seen all those skinned animal carcasses that my uncle had hunted and trapped, and it is OK as long as you don’t connect the pigs to humans. Keep distanced. The grease and bits on the gloves, the two leg bones movable in the shank, the blood soup in bottom of totes, the bacon smell. I sweated, and my shoulder tired of hauling the hams up to shoulder level. I tried to switch off striking and lifting arms but I’m just not as quick or agile with left arm.

After we finished, we were told not to come back tomorrow; we were no longer needed.

What is it that we do most of the time?

A text from my pocket notebooks, dated 19 August 1994:

What is it that we do most of the time, when we’re not distracted by something else like working, being angry, etc.?

Like, for example, the pauses between volleys of dialogue (besides thinking of either your own next point or a response to your partner), or the walk between your car and the destination building — we don’t always think of who we’re going to meet or what we’re going to say; sometimes, our minds wander.

What is it that we do, such as while driving or riding (and not doing some well-defined activity like reading)? We don’t always have thoughts running through our heads — or do we? Current observations, opinions, or some unrelated occupying thoughts (of one’s job, family, etc.). My guess is that most people do think all the time — too much. Few times do I just sit and unjudgmentally watch.

In writing, I mean, are people always doing or thinking something? Is there a stream of thoughts or merely watchful emptiness? Must one always be doing something?

M*A*S*H time: Chronological or concurrent?

While writing this post, I commented about the run of the TV show M*A*S*H, which, according to Wikipedia and IMDB, included 256 episodes over 11 seasons.

Of course, the Korean War itself lasted just a few weeks more than 3 years, or about 160 weeks. The fact that the show lasted longer, in real time, than the war in which it was set, is self-evident and not in itself all that interesting. What does interest me though is how time within the show, fictional-time, might possibly be mapped to real time.

So, 256 episodes for 160 weeks would be a simple average of 1.6 episodes per week; 7 days divided by 1.6 episodes is roughly 4.4 days per episode, meaning that most episodes would take a setting-duration of 4.4 days.

There’s a way to figure out approximately how many days each episode requires:  watch all 256 episodes and map out how many days are depicted in each show. I’m not interested in doing this data-collection myself, but it might look like this:

In the fourth season episode “Dear Mildred,” Col. Potter writes his wife a letter. Judging by how the scenes flow together, whether time-jumps are indicated by dialogue, action, or day/night lighting, most of the episode occurs during what seems like one day. Potter starts writing his letter and is interrupted, and the camera follows Radar to Hawkeye and B.J. as they meet a helicopter pilot who mentions a wounded horse. A later scene has Potter writing in the mess tent, and he explains that he left his office to go get a cup of coffee. While he’s there, he has a flashback of Father Mulcahy singing, at some earlier movie evening. Later, Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar capture the horse, which seems to be the same day they learned of its existence (since the horse is still alive and near where the pilot indicated). The next scene shows Potter writing in bed, having returned from Rosie’s bar, and when he looks out the window, there is a light (hite, like moonlight or an artificial lamp) that seems to indicate the night of the first day. There’s a cut to Burns and Houlihan hiring a sculptor to make a bust of Potter, and then a cut to the two doctors and Radar removing shrapnel from the horse. When they go outside to avoid the horse’s kicks, it’s night-dark over their heads. I surmise that all this happened within one fictional-day.

The following day begins with a daylight scene with Hawkeye, B.J., and Radar talking about what to do with the horse. More difficult to ascertain in time is the next scene, a cut to Burns and Houlihan where Burns says the sculptor promised to deliver the bust that morning, and it’s night moments later when the sculptor arrives. I’m guessing here that this scene takes place at least a couple days after the sculpture was commissioned, to allow for sculpting time. That same night, Potter is presented the bust and he is also presented Radar’s horse, and the last scene of the episode shows the Colonel riding the horse during daylight, so at the earliest, the following day.

So, the time-within-the-story for this episode depends on how long the sculptor took to make the bust, which in theory could be as little as two or three days (he was, after all, paid $7.50, above his initial asking price). If so, then the episode could fit within the episode average 4.4 days.

However, some M*A*S*H episodes take much less than this average amount of fictional-time. A famous episode is set in real-time, with a clock in the frame indicating the time that has passed since a soldier’s circulation was cut off. Other episodes, including  “Your Hit Parade” (season six, episode 18), “Hawkeye” (season four, episode 18), and “The Army-Navy Game” (season one, episode 20), take place within hours.

The season two episode “Radar’s Report” takes place very specifically during “17 October — 22 October inclusive 1951,” Radar says in voice-over as he fills in the report that structures the sub-stories of the episode. At the end of the episode, as Col. Henry Blake signs the weekly report, he says, “Well, every week can’t be exciting,” which seems to suggest that the episode contains the only notable events of the week.

But at least one episode, “A War for All Seasons,” showed scenes from the camp across the whole year of fictional-1951. If this episode contained all the interesting story moments from that year, it would leave only about 2 years in which the other 255 episodes take place. But it can’t be the case — using the story’s logic — that nothing else of note happened in 1951, because the episode “Radar’s Report” also is set in 1951. So these two episodes are set, as it were, concurrently, suggesting that M*A*S*H episodes are organized thematically, with particular stories followed across days, as in “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet,” days in which other episodes’ stories are also occurring, but off-screen. “Radar’s Report” wouldn’t likely have taken place during the same time as “Sometimes You Hear the Bullet” (because of the all-inclusive nature of the report), but maybe an episode like “The Incubator” was put together from events that were happening on the same fictional days as in “Sometimes ..” The editing of one scene to another allows gaps (what was edited out) into which the events of concurrent episodes could be seen as having happened.

It’s kinda fun to think about which episodes may be concurrent — and if someone wanted to take the time to do this, perhaps it could be figured out which episodes take place on the same days, and this could add information to help explain, say, why a character does things in one episode that may seem puzzling — maybe that character’s behavior is influenced by something that happened earlier that same day in the character’s life but which appears in a different episode. (Of course, to be satisfying, each episode should contain all of its own causes and effects — unless we take the whole series as an interlocking story.)

Clearly, this entire post is looking at the fictional world of the art work (the series as a whole) from within the story (and setting) logic of the work itself. It may be that the story’s whole fictional timeline, were it mapped out as each episode having happened on separate days from every other episode, or whether episodes happened concurrently, doesn’t perfectly fit an actual calendar, and if so, that does not diminish the series itself. We don’t need to demand that every narrative artwork be completely realistic and fill in its “plot holes.” For instance, this page points out a few time issues the series has, such as how the war lasted only during three Christmases, but the show depicts four (unless, again, these could be seen to be overlapping, with four episodes containing stories that happened only during three holiday days).

But what interests me about thinking of M*A*S*H episodes as having taken place concurrently is that it provides a metaphor for understanding how we organize our own life stories. When I write every day in my journal, I write chronologically (as in “Radar’s Report”), including everything I did the day before, even if those events were unrelated to each other. But when I write thematically about my life, say, when I write about teaching a particular unit in my classes, I’m talking about experiences and ideas that occurred to me at moments across several days. Chronological and thematic organizations could be seen as two different dimensions along which experiences could be graphed/grouped. I’m wondering what other dimensions of experience there could be — and what these different groupings would show us about our own lives.

Of course, there’s the larger issue of how we decide what makes up one unitary experience, where to begin and end those experiences, those stories, out of the continuity of one’s life’s duration, and what do we decide to edit out of our life stories, and why. The choices we make about which memories to include or exclude are probably not based in logic either but in something more personal, less conscious, even (see here and here). We probably shouldn’t be too hard then on fictional works with “plot holes” when we may have our own “plot holes” in our own life stories!

 

Small town living’s fine, except for the white people

I don’t mean to sound racist, but I’ve got a problem with white people.

Lately I’ve realized that, living in my rural area, the people who drive too slow in front of me, the construction workers who (as I write this) blast country music toward my house, and the voters who made this guy my county’s sheriff are, almost without exception, white people. Also, the drunks, the racists, and the racist bullies out here are mainly white. (What’s uniquely stupid about rural racism is that it’s based almost entirely in the abstraction of difference, rather than in actual experience with people of various races, because these experiences simply don’t happen often in rural towns.)

I usually say this as a joke to my friends and family members, most of whom are also white, but I think the reason that this seems to be a joke is because so many of us rurals think of whiteness as being the default, so much so that we often aren’t even aware of our whiteness (our skin color, but also our cultural choices, not to mention our privileges). I suspect this is why some of my white conservative acquaintances sneer about “political correctness” — white people out here are so used to only talking to other whites that they don’t often think how their words and statements would feel to people of other races. My grandma didn’t think calling my wife a “dago” would offend her, but by pointing out my suburban-born wife’s difference from my family’s ruralness, my wife did feel hurt.

This is partly why I found this recent video, which points out the weirdness of what so many white people think is acceptable, so amusing and enlightening:

I particularly enjoy “You must listen to that rural music, right?” and “You don’t sound like a dumb hick at all!” (which, of course, a lot of my fellow rurals can’t carry off).

My serious point here is this: All too often, national discussions of poverty seem to fall into the pattern of a white guy like Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan diagnosing poverty as being a problem of nonwhite people who live in cities. As Ryan said this spring:

“We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning the value and the culture of work, and so there is a real culture problem here that has to be dealt with,” he said.

Of course, as rural areas in general lack racial diversity but do not lack for poverty, the rural poor ignored in Paul Ryan’s quote are mainly white. In fact, if Ryan wanted to address the largest racial group of people in poverty, he’d be talking to white people. This U.S. Census report from 2012 (located at a link from this site) shows the raw numbers of our population in poverty:

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

More than 19 million whites were considered to be in poverty in 2010 and 2011, millions more than the poor of any other race. And while people of nonwhite groups can show how they’ve been harmed economically by a history of discrimination (as pointed out here), white people can’t offer a similarly systemic cause for their poverty. So, what’s the reason for white poverty, white people? Is there also a culture of poverty among poor whites? And can we include country music in this “tailspin of culture”?

‘Boyhood’ and Nonfiction Across Time

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts writing in the present

My notebooks: 20-plus years of texts written in the present

Last night on “The Daily Show,” Jon Stewart interviewed Richard Linklater about his new movie “Boyhood,” which was shot over a period of 12 years. Thus, the three-hour film contains footage of all the actors at yearly intervals.

In the interview, this passage caught my attention:

Jon Stewart: “Philosophically, did the act of being observed, for the younger actors, change their behavior? Were they conscious …”

Richard Linklater: “I don’t think so …[but] I guess it [the film] was pretty mind-blowing to them [the younger actors] when they finally saw it.”

JS: “What did they, what was their reaction?”

RL: “I gave a DVD to [actor] Ellar and I said, I suggest you watch this alone. Um, you know, build up some kind of relation with this crazy thing. And I didn’t hear from him for a while , so I was worried, but, ah, yeah, I think they’re still processing.”

JS: “Right. It’s an awful lot to take in.”

RL: “Yeah, yeah.”

JS: “What’s very interesting is, it’s hard not to watch it and process your own life within it, which is how art works that way.”

RL: “Yeah, you have to.”

Some of the movie’s reviewers have also responded to the images-through-time/time compression aspects of this movie. This article at Time concludes with:

We now know that cinema can depict the passage of time convincingly in a way we never thought possible before. Here time is real. We watch it accumulate on the actors’ faces and understand the toll it takes on adults and on mothers specifically.

Of course, this movie is not trying to prove that time is real; what this writer intends, I think, is that watching this movie prompts viewers to think about their own relationships to time.

I have yet to see “Boyhood,” but the method of filming a movie across so much time highlights some aspects of artistic creation that are otherwise easy to overlook. For example, Anthony Lane makes a point about how a plot-driven work can obscure character, which is revealed in

those episodes which seem dim and dull at the time, and only later shine in memory’s cave. A haircut, in short, matters more than a Quidditch match. We happen upon ourselves when nothing much happens to us, and we are transformed in the process

Lane generalizes from the movie’s structure to claim that the meanings we find in our own lives — the stories we tell about what has mattered to us, what has shaped us — depend on “memory’s cave.” Lane also writes, “that twin sense of continuity and interruption—of life itself as tracking shot and jump cut—applies to everyone,” which editing metaphor also implies that our memories may themselves be artistic products.

An individual’s memories, along with most of our culture’s stories (both fictional and non-), are structured as events from the past that are recounted in the (storyteller’s) present. We can’t tell a story — in fact, we may not even have a complete, satisfying story — if we don’t know how it turns out. Even if a writer starts off telling a story that she doesn’t know how to end, it will end before she finishes the book, and she would be able, before publishing the book, to go back and revise the early parts of the story to better fit the ending, once she knows the ending. (Stephen King writes — if my memory is accurate here —  in “On Writing” that it’s after the later drafts of his novels that he plays up the symbols that appear almost unintentionally in the first draft.)

But, of course, Linklater could not have gone back after Year 12 of shooting to film something from Year 2. He could re-edit what he had, yes, but he could not have gone back with the same actors. Even if, say, Linklater could have fabricated — because it IS fiction, and there are options such as stand-ins and CGI — a new Year 2 scene in Year 12, Linklater would himself be a different artist than he was earlier. As a review in The A.V. Club states it,

Because of how it was filmed, in piecemeal from 2002 until 2013, Boyhood exists in a constant present tense, providing a snapshot of recent history as it unfolds. Conversations about Obama and Bush were written and delivered without the hindsight the audience now possesses, as was an unexpectedly funny moment of Mason and his father discussing the possibility of more Star Wars sequels. (Ah, the innocence of 2008.) The movie also functions as a chronicle of its creator’s artistic evolution: The filmmaking becomes more confident and relaxed as Mason gets older, Linklater increasingly letting go of his plot aspirations in favor of a loose, conversational hang-out vibe. He, too, seems to blossom before our eyes, gestating incrementally into the director he is today.

What intrigues me about “Boyhood” is that its “constant present tense” describes how most of my nonfiction writing is done. Rather than telling memoir-type stories about my long-ago experiences, I mostly write journals about previous-day events and present-day impressions, and I write down my real-life observations and my thoughts within moments of having them in mind.

I don’t often tell stories about my past, but I do tell some, and I’ve become skeptical of telling these stories because the versions of these stories that exists in my memory doesn’t always match the versions that I wrote on paper soon after the event. For a few years, I warned my high school senior students not to drink when they go to college because I remembered seeing a person have his stomach pumped outside my dorm on the first Friday night of my freshman year of college. Not too long ago, I found the journal entry where I’d written about this, and it happened on the fourth, not the first, weekend of that year. This new setting doesn’t invalidate the story as an anti-example, but it bothered me that I’d remembered it wrong (and in a way that heightened the student’s foolishness, and thus, the anti-example lesson). It made me less confident in trusting my memory, particularly when I have these texts written more closely in time to the actual experiences.

In fact, I’ve also noticed that some of the things I remember from college didn’t get written down in my journals, and that what’s in the journals, I don’t always remember having lived through. It’s actually sorta disturbing to feel this disconnect between what I wrote (which reflected who I was) in the past, and how I now remember these things (as the person I am now). Maybe this disconnect is part of what Stewart and Linklater were referring to when they said that watching “Boyhood” required the actors to process their experience.

I value having my writings going back 20-plus years now, and I’m not so interested in present-day telling of stories of my past. I mean, sure, I can go back now and re-interpret my remembered experiences of years past, and this can be a diverting pastime, but it doesn’t draw my attention to the current moment, and how to live in the current moment, which seems to me to be the most interesting part of my writing.

I don’t want to overly define myself and my writing, but it’s valuable for me to understand who I am and what I do, and I think that what motivates most of my writing is a drive to understand — to form concepts of who I am, what I should do, how I should act toward others, why others do what they do, how I should think about my job, my writing, etc. These concepts, of course, I am willing to revise over time, which thinking and revising feel like the most interesting, even necessary (in the way that I get out-of-sorts when I don’t have enough time to write) processes of my being alive. Others may have a need to run marathons (maybe they do — it’s hard to understand others except by analogizing their needs to my own) while I feel I need to write, and specifically, to write about myself and my experiences.

So I’ve got these 20 years of texts, mostly journals and notes, and I used to wonder how I’d make these interesting to other readers. I felt that I needed to do that, if I were ever to become a Famous Author, and yet, I didn’t find myself naturally writing things that would appeal to others. What I had were my journal writings, and I thought for a long time about how these writings could be made interesting to others. I still don’t have a final answer, and now I don’t expect to find one, but I have come to think that there’s value in the texts written as they were at the times they were written.

Like Linklater’s movie, these texts present the problem of time: when I wrote about my college years, I was in college. I could write now about about my college times, but that’s 18 years after the events. So at the time of the journal-writing, I had lots of particulars but no distant perspective; now I have perspective, but that it’s the perspective of a 40-year-old.

And this is kind of a basic problem with writing (and it’s the basic problems that interest me the most): Everything one writes must be written from a perspective; writing is a product of a consciousness, and every consciousness is always already situated in time. I’m a better writer now than I was at age 20, but I’m no longer the person I was at age 20. I can see the changes when I read “between the lines,” as it were, in my texts written when I was different ages. I’m a different person. Yet, I’m not an entirely different person, which may be the point Lane was making in his quote above.

So if I want to be honest to the perspective I have now, I could write only about now, with the knowledge that whatever I say now will be superseded by what I write later. Or, maybe not — maybe one’s later nonfiction writings don’t supersede one’s past writings; maybe they’re just completely different and shouldn’t be compared?

That Linklater’s film was filmed over 12 years interests the commenters above because it uses real actors. If the film were made of, say, animated characters rather than human actors, the movie could’ve been made over 12 years without the characters’ appearances changing, as “The Simpsons” characters haven’t changed much over 25 years of TV episodes. (Although the characters were drawn differently in their first appearances on “The Tracy Ullman Show“.) Of course, what Linklater did is maybe not all that different from looking at how the actors of M*A*S*H change over 11 years of the show (which was weird, too, as the show was set during a war that took only 3 years).

And I suppose I could put together a document that contained my writings across the years, like an overview anthology of any author’s work, but then the main impact of such a document might be to show the change in the author’s voice over the years (which might overshadow any thematic concerns of the particular works anthologized). Linklater’s film may show the cinematic equivalent of that, but it also coheres as a single story. I’m still not sure how this would work with nonfiction.

But perhaps this problem requires a format of writing and/or of publishing that’s broader than any one book or other single-themed work.

P.S.: See related thoughts on writing in/through time here.