Friday, December 14, 2007

The Shoes Off Her Feet

I work with a woman named Shelecia, who is beautiful inside and out. She is really wonderful colleague - warm, intelligent, kind, helpful, and funny. She is also drop dead gorgeous and a total fashionista, and always looks very glamorous no matter what she is wearing. She has a special weakness for sexy high heeled shoes and boots, and I'm always ogling her.

Today she was kind of scuffling her feet around the office and someone noticed she was wearing some kind of hiking boots, which are not her usual thing. Turns out, they are her daughter's. She wanted to wear comfortable shoes today, she said, but she didn't have her sneakers any more.

"I gave them to a woman on a train," she told us casually. When pressed, she told us the story.

Apparently, one cold, rainy night, she was taking the subway home and was wearing her brand spanking new Nike Air tennis shoes. (Keep in mind this is a single mom, who works in Manhattan as a legal assistant and supports two teenagers. She does not have a whole lot of disposable income.) On this particular evening, she was also taking some personal stuff home from the office, including a pair of high heels that had been under her desk for a while.

A panhandler came through her subway car. This happens a lot - so much that people are pretty much inured to it. But this was a woman, Shelecia said, who shuffled through the car wearing only one shoe, one foot dirty and bare, clearly cold and wet and weeping as if her heart would break, telling a tale of domestic violence and poverty and hunger and suffering, and begging for help. No one responded. Sometimes we are paralyzed with indecision or waiting for someone else to make the first move in these situations... and there are so many panhandlers...

And Shelecia sat there, holding her bag, and thought with sudden determination, "if she comes back through this car, I'm giving her my shoes."

Panhandlers don't often come back though a car. They move from one car to the next on down the line. But this woman happened to come back. So Shelecia stopped her, and took off her new shoes, and gave them to her, with a dollar. And then she took the high heels out of her bag and walked home in the sleet in them. So now she doesn't have any sneakers.

And as so often happens, this one act of generosity spurred others all through the train car to dig through their pockets. As a general rule, I tend not to give money to panhandlers, although I frequently buy them sandwiches or slices of pizza. But if I had been on that car, I'm pretty sure I would have come up with some cash.

I dearly love my colleague Shelecia and have always had tremendous respect for her. And this story just confirmed my high opinion, as if I needed confirmation. Thank you Shelecia, sweetie, on behalf of the universe. You made my day!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Finding Hemingway

"The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry."

- Ernest Hemingway
A Farewell to Arms

I never much cared for Hemingway. It's hard to put my finger on why. Oh, I'd like to give you a high-minded reason: drinking, machismo, misogyny, a pointless suicide… there's so much to choose from. But I'd be lying if I told you any of those. It wasn't the way lit was taught in my schooldays either, though it certainly didn't help. Forcing something like Hemingway or Steinbeck down a 20th century teenager's throat without context or criticism is the first rule of What Not To Do if you want them to understand Why This Is Good. But that wasn't it either; I was largely immune to teaching by the time I hit The Sun Also Rises.

It was rebellion, pure and simple.

I know that sounds odd. Most people rebel by listening to loud music, growing long hair, getting piercings, donning eye makeup, wearing black clothing, majoring in art, etcetera,ad nauseum… and I did all those things too, but my parents took those things in stride (mostly). Honestly, the greatest rebellion I managed to pull off was disliking Hemingway. Vocally disliking Hemingway.

You'd have to meet my dad to understand.

My dad is incredibly well-read. I grew up surrounded by shelves of books, boxes of books, piles of books, bags of books, lockers full of books, books under the bed, on the table, on the counter. History books, cook books, novels, classics, plays, philosophies, biographies… you name it, dad has a book on it.

There was no question of whether I'd grow up to read and write. It was fait accompli. So the only way I could really rebel was to define myself in different literary terms than dad defined himself. So I hated Hemingway. Also Steinbeck and a host of others, but mostly Hemingway and mostly because dad loves the Nick Adams stories and I refused to for no better reason than differentiating myself on a generational footing.

I've spent a good deal of time talking to my dad about these things lately, so in some ways my thinking is clearer than it ever has been, and in some ways murkier than ever.

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."
- Mark Twain

Now I love Twain, and the quote is funny, but it's here that we part company.

While I'll never claim that I somehow transcended the ignorance and arrogance inherent in being a teenager, I never thought either of my parents were stupid. Quite the opposite, actually. My dad's intellect has always intimidated the hell out of me… in a good way. My dad made it abundantly clear that it was a Good Thing to be well-read, literate, and well-spoken... not to mention soft-spoken.

To be well-read, you have to read. A lot. Constantly. Even stuff you don't like… like Hemingway and Steinbeck. If there's no book handy, read a newspaper… or the back of a cereal box. I read all the time, several books at a time, mixing fiction and nonfiction with furious abandon. My personal collection is in the thousands, and my mother tells me that (in that respect at least) I have exceeded my forebears. I always have a book with me. Always.

Because dad made it right. He made it look cool.

But this isn't really about reading, and it's not even really about Hemingway or any of the others any more than the Mark Twain quote was about parental stupidity. It's about the scales falling from our eyes so that we may see our parents as they are. And ultimately seeing our parents in ourselves and vice-versa. Attaining the perspective to begin to grasp the strange and subtle nuance of how we interact with our parents.

Our parents give us gifts on a daily basis, or at least mine did. I'm not talking about cars or computers, or even three squares and a roof over our heads… I'm talking about the careful crafting that goes into raising children not to be better kids, but to be better adults. Not everyone receives that from their parents. I did and I am eternally grateful.

I wrote this in part to get it out of my head so I could go on to write other things, and in part because I wanted my younger friends to spend a little bit of time in honest reflection on why they react to their parents the way that they do. There is so much time wasted in our lives striving against our parents. Some of that is necessary, some of it is even constructive, and some of it blinds us to what's really going on.

I recently found out my dad has a cancer of the intractable sort. We have no idea what this means or how long he has. It could be a year, it could be ten years or more, dad comes from tough stock. But either way you look at it, it casts the past present and future into a new and sharper relief. Binds us that much closer together and at the same time makes the separationthat much harder.

It's something I cannot fully wrap my mind around and I assure you I am not posting this to garner sympathy, or condolences (though prayers are always welcome). So to everyone out there who still has their parents… I invite you to look at them… really LOOK at them. And try to figure out where your Hemingway is.

Recently, I spent almost an entire month at home for the first time since I left for college. Almost every day of it dad and I spent hours with our heads together, talking. We trolled through bookstores and took car trips and sat in waiting rooms together. Whole hours of it were spent reading as we sat next to one another, saying nothing. Just being there, reflecting one another as fathers and sons should.

And without speaking, without even bringing it up, he convinced me that it was time to give Ernest another shot. So I am… and while so much of what I disliked about the man is still there... I'm almost ashamed to admit how much I'm finally enjoying the man's sparse, evocative prose.

And next time I see my dad, we're going to have that much more to talk about.

-Scott Perkins