Sunday, October 14, 2007

Chapter 2 ~ Introductions

Photo by
Brendon Stuart

According to the experts, (Aristotle? Aaron Spelling?) there are five stages of plot in every story. The first stage is exposition, when the characters and setting are introduced. Then comes the rising action, when a series of conflicts face the hero, or heroine, as the case may be. During the rising action, which typically begins with an “initial incident,” things usually get worse and worse for our hero, and the dramatic tension gets stronger and stronger for the audience, until we come to the climax, or turning point, in the story, which is followed by the falling action and the resolution, which, if you want to sound sophisticated, you can call by the French term, denouement (day new ma). Plot structure can be visually represented like this:

I suppose I am the hero of this story (I don’t see the point of diminutive feminine suffixes), since I’m telling it from my point of view. I am a 50-year-old woman, mother of three, wife of one. I would like to say “recently-turned” 50, but I don’t think five months ago counts as recent. Still, 50 isn’t what it used to be. “60 is the new 30” was the headline I read on a magazine at the dentist’s office. It had a picture of Lauren Hutton on the cover, focusing on the sexy gap between her front teeth. “If 60 is the new 30,” I thought, “then 50 must be the new 20.” I decided not to calculate what this math would mean for my 20-year-old firstborn, Rose.

My name is Josephine, but my friends call me Jo, and I have been teaching English and Journalism at Santa Inez High School for the past five years, a mid-life career change that makes me both proud and insecure. I am intelligent and attractive, or so I consider myself, which is the principal ingredient of all attractive women, don’t you think? They have a natural self-confidence, a sense of well being, an instinctive belief that all the world welcomes and adores them. I read an online astrologer, Rob Bresny, who advocates fostering an attitude he calls “pronoia”—the opposite of paranoia—in which, when everyone in the office is huddled around the water cooler whispering your name, you don’t imagine they are gossiping about you, but planning a surprise party. Attractive women have that. I may be a bit plumper than is strictly necessary, and my skin may lack that springy resiliency of youth. I may have wrinkles radiating from the corners of my eyes and breasts that slope gently downhill, but I’m still curvaceous, and I still love to have sex with my husband (who worships my voluptuous ass) whenever we can capture time alone or unnoticed by the other members of the household. My hair is long and coppery red, thanks to L’Oreal hair care products, and two years ago I received quite a bit of attention from a lonely and brainy young man—a friend of my children’s—who enjoyed playing the cello for me and taking me to the symphony in San Francisco, but that’s another tale.

My son Eddy is another hero in this story, since much of the action is centered around him. In Eddy’s case, the word anti-hero comes to mind: anti, from the Greek for opposite or against, and hero, from the Greek for protector but also meaning the principal male character in a novel, poem, or dramatic presentation, according to the New College Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary. That volume describes “antihero” as “the protagonist in certain forms of modern fiction and drama characterized by a lack of traditional heroic qualities.” And what are traditional heroic qualities? Courage, primarily; also strength, size, and nobility, which took two dictionary hops to arrive at magnanimous, meaning “noble of mind and heart; generous in forgiving; above revenge or resentment; unselfish; gracious.” Magnanimous, in turn, is from the Latin for “great-souled (magnus meaning great and animus meaning soul). At almost 19 years old, Eddy’s certainly not above resentment or generous in forgiving—not of his mother, anyway. But he could be considered “great-souled” in the Jungian sense, meaning he’s lost his individual soul and become part of the collective soul of humankind; meaning he sees and hears things on a universal and archetypal level; meaning, of course, that he’s insane.

Eddy is extraordinarily good looking. I realize that many parents say that about their children, but in Ed’s case, it is true. His father wondered recently if perhaps Ed is suffering from “pretty girl” syndrome, in which no one will take you seriously because you look too good. While Eddy very much wants a serious, romantic relationship, the girls who want him are drawn by his face, not his mind. That could be part of his recent troubles, but it wouldn’t explain everything. Not the delusions. Not the voices. Not the inability to make himself understood.

Besides looks, Eddy also has intelligence. He seems, to most members of our family (me, his father, and his older sister Rose—but not his little brother Henry) to be a near genius. But while he’s very intelligent in some spheres, he’s quite stupid in others, like knowing when to stop, for instance—like knowing when he’s on the brink of getting grounded, or suspended, or arrested, or expelled. Once, for Christmas, when he was maybe 10 years old, he gave me several little slips of paper. This was a popular gift at the time, a notion fostered by one of the teachers at Jefferson Elementary School. His sister Rose also gave me slips of paper, saying things like “good for one breakfast in bed,” or “good for making brownies.” Eddy’s slips all said the same thing: “I will stop.” Eddy has always been unable to correctly calculate the cost-benefit ratio of certain anti-social behaviors such as defying teachers, coaches, policemen, probation officers or other figures of authority; alienating the parents who are feeding, clothing and sheltering you; or putting your fist through a window at a local junior college and then refusing to get into the ambulance the security guards have called.

Finally, no introduction of Eddy’s character would be complete without mentioning his enormous penis. When changing his diapers as a baby, other mothers would turn their heads and gasp. I thought at the time, being unfamiliar with boy children (I have four sisters), that perhaps it was a condition of infancy—that over time the rest of his body would grow to catch up with his equipment. But, in fact, it grew right along with him, a detail which I’ve had the opportunity to verify annually at the clothing optional swimming hole which we frequently hike to with other people from camp. During his particularly hostile years, from age 6 to 16, I often wondered if he suffered from testosterone poisoning. During his recent difficulties, his father faulted him for compromising his natural gifts. “He’s got good looks, brains, and a big cock,” said his father. “I can’t believe he’s going to throw all that down the toilet.” Lawrence seems to think it’s sadder to lose a smart, handsome, well-endowed son to insanity than it would be to lose a dumb, ugly, genitally inadequate one. As a mother, though, I doubt this theory. Whatever bursts out of the womb after nine months of pregnancy and hours of labor and delivery, we’re pretty much predestined to love.

There are other characters in this story, but I’m beginning to tire of introductions. You’ll simply have to meet them as we move along. Instead, let me try to remember the paragraph I read on a piece of paper at Sisters of Mercy Hospital. We were visiting Eddy in the psychiatric ward when he was called out of the room by a member of the staff. Naturally, I walked over to his desk quickly and pawed through a pile of crumpled papers there. On one, a questionnaire put out by the hospital, he had written this description of his family:

My mother is Xena. She’s practically a lesbian, but 20 years of relationship has forged a commitment of sorts with a man known as Mr. Thibedeaux. My father doesn’t like you, or that’s what he’d want me to tell you if you asked. My sister is a scientist, which makes her incredibly happy and knowledgeable and a ball of bliss. My brother is a punk ass, but an adorable one. But sometimes his brain gets paralyzed which makes it difficult to hold a conversation with him.

I was insulted when I read my description. I didn’t mind the lesbian reference so much, but it seemed to discredit my relationship with my husband, as if the only reason we stayed together was because we’d already put in 20 years. But Lawrence only laughed and said it sounded pretty accurate. “At least he’s making an attempt to answer the question,” he philosophized.

As to the setting, we live in Sunnybrae, California, which is 17 miles south of San Francisco on the thin peninsula between San Francisco Bay and the mighty Pacific Ocean. You might think that means we live in a liberal neighborhood, but we don’t. Our block, particularly, is full of conservatives. The people across the street have their own U.S. flag which they fly proudly on patriotic occasions. During the last presidential election, only our lawn and the one at the far corner—where my sometime friend Carla the massage therapist lives—had Kerry/Edwards signs. Despite the war in Iraq, the war on terror, and the astronomical price of gasoline, everyone in this town drives an SUV—except us. One actually ran over my bicycle at a crosswalk one morning as I was on my way to the high school where I work. It was huge, bright white, the size of a condominium, waiting at the corner of Peninsula and Delaware to turn right. I was off my bike, ready to walk it across the crosswalk safely. When I got the green light, I tried to peer up into the massive vehicle to make eye contact with the driver before stepping in front of his two tons of steel, but the windows were tinted black and I couldn’t see in. So I stepped into the crosswalk at the same moment an Indian (dot not feather) named Patrick began to heave his behemoth around the corner, crushing my front wheel under his tire. “It’s a good thing you started screaming,” he said a few moments later, “or I wouldn’t have stopped.” He seemed to think my screaming was a strategy I was cleverly deploying to capture his attention, not an involuntary response to being crushed by a huge physical manifestation of deliberate American ignorance and greed.

When I’m not riding a bike, I drive a little, black, two-door, 15-year-old Nissan. Lawrence decided in the past few months that he never wants to drive a car again. First he sold his Ranchero and bought a used bicycle and an old 50cc Vespa he found on Craigslist. He also bought me a used bicycle and an old Piaggio Bravo moped. Then he bought me a Puch moped. Then another Puch for parts. Then two more bicycles. Then two more. Now we have a veritable fleet of ecologically-correct vehicles which we park in the driveway under a big white plastic tent. When the two of us scoot around town, I feel the exhilaration of a gang member, complete with anti-social attitude. I made mock plans to start a club and embroider jackets to wear as we cruised the streets at 15-25 miles per hour—Eddy’s friend Sonia even came up with a name: the Mo Peddlas. Just to be sure everyone knows where I stand, I affixed a little bumper sticker to the back of my Bravo that says “SUVs Suck Gas.”

“Well, that’s pretty snotty,” my friend Karen said at camp when I told her about the bumper sticker. And I suppose it is. I may live in Sunnybrae, but I don’t fit in here. I’d probably be happier with the radicals in Berkeley, across the Bay.

You might think by this description of our vehicles that my husband is a flexible man who is open to new possibilities, but again, you’d be wrong (that’s twice now). He has acted like an old curmudgeon ever since I made his acquaintance on the school newspaper at San Francisco State University at age 21. (He was 21; I was a more-sophisticated 25.) Yet, inexplicably, he made this major change to his lifestyle at age 46. In a moment of clarity, Eddy asked me, “Do you think I had anything to do with Dad’s decision to give up driving?”

I said I thought that he did.

Read the next chapter HERE, or buy a paperback copy of Count All This HERE.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

After last week's battering I wasn't expecting this relatively benign and considered 'introduction.' I enjoyed the use of accepted structures, both in the deployment of traditional story architecture as a means of introduction, and the use of pop psychological terminology to relate Ed to the reader, I also like the way you throw in the unexpected and challenge the reader (Ed's enormous manhood, can you get testosterone poisoning?).

The dichotomous and rationalised series of relationships in this chapter form a measured counterpoint to the startlingly vivid and emotionally charged first instalment.

Looking forward to Sunday.

October 19, 2007 at 7:46 AM  

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