Please enjoy these blogposts, written between 2011 and 2015. Another blog is on the way.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

An Introvert's History of Telephone Use

I am terrible on the telephone, by which I mean that I have trouble conducting a conversation longer than ten seconds. I can convey information, period. It's impossible for me to communicate important feelings like enthusiasm or love. I make small talk over a telephone wire about as well as I do at parties. I just want to hang the hell up.

The following are a few highlights of my checkered history of using the HI (horrific instrument):

Children didn't talk on the phone in my house unless a relative was calling from a great distance, as my brother once did from a German army base. I interpreted the static on the line as the roar of the Atlantic Ocean. I told my brother this, and he laughed. I was eight years old, I hadn't seen him for months, I took the occasion very seriously, and he laughed. My brother is a good guy now, of course, but then? Sororocide by telephone.

I started using the HI in earnest in my teenage years, to do homework with my best friend, Christine. We'd do our math problems separately, then compare answers via our parents' kitchen telephones.

In our sophomore year in high school, for example, our math homework usually consisted of geometry proofs: side angle side, angle side angle, you remember. If our individual efforts resulted in different answers, we'd work through the problem together step by step until one of us found a mistake. That way we both received high homework scores, and since there's no better way to prepare for tests than poring over homework, high test scores as well. Christine is a doctor now, and I'm . . . well, it worked for her.

We were among the smartest girls in our sophomore class—and the least visible. Unless they needed help with their homework, boys looked right through us. But even eggheads fall in love, and introverted eggheads often turn to the telephone, thinking it must be easier to make initial contact if one's face is not involved. This belief is erroneous.

Christine was a sensible person, but somehow I persuaded her to let me call her crush, Tom, a dreamy senior basketball player and watercolorist, in order to make idle conversation, bring up the subject of her, and pass along her phone number. I made a list of possible topics Tom might be interested in, including basketball, which I knew nothing about. The next time Christine and I were together after school--it was essential that she hear at least one end of this conversation--I looked Tom's number up in the phone book--remember the phone book?--and dialed it.

When Tom's mother answered, I asked politely if I could speak to him. She said he wasn't there and did I want to leave a message.  No! I said, one or two tones higher than usual. Christine nearly had heart failure listening to this much, so it's probably just as well that Tom wasn't available.

We tried this again another afternoon, and once more Tom's mother answered. No Tom. In retrospect, this seems suspicious. "Didn't you call before?" his mother said. "Who is this?" It was time to hang up. I dropped the receiver. I can still hear it banging against Christine's kitchen wall. Sadly, this is the end of the story.

Those old phones didn't have redial or caller ID, so short of a police investigation Tom's mother had no way to discover who had the temerity to try flirting with her son. On the other hand, there was no way to leave a private message. And unless you were lucky enough to have an extension in your bedroom, your parents and siblings had as much control over who reached you and the impression you made on him as you did.  It was a dark time for teenagers. For girls, who were expected to talk on the telephone to boys only if the boys called them, it was the darkest of times.

Why did I think a phone conversation was easier than a face-to-face encounter? With a boy in front of me, I might have made use of tangible clues. He might be carrying a textbook: "How do you like civics?" His goggles might be hanging around his neck: "When's the next swim meet?" He might be walking with a girl. Veer sharply to the right. If I'd been able to look a boy in the eye and use these clever opening lines, getting a date would have been a miracle. But on the phone, with only vague ideas about what constituted cross-gender conversation, it was not going to happen. And remember, I was still trying to get a date for someone else.

Here's how I solved my problem. I wrote letters--to a senior who got interested in me only toward the end of sophomore year, then shipped out to Stanford. For two years we corresponded. This meant I could avoid learning further social skills during my junior and senior years in high school. After that I followed my epistolary boyfriend to Stanford, where face-to-face encounters put a speedy end to our romance. In my defense, this man is now a Jesuit priest. The odds were never in my favor.

I lasted two years at Stanford. Imagine me there, a working class girl wearing polyester dresses my mother made and cleaning Palo Alto houses for extra money. After Stanford, I went to Berkeley, where it was easy to hide in used bookstores and crumbling movie theaters. Now I worked in offices, and offices in 1975 meant phones with multiple lines.

I learned the lingo quickly enough, and I appreciated knowing exactly what to say: May I put you on hold? Sorry to keep you waiting! Who can I get for you? Please hold, I'm transferring. No answer? I'll ask Mr. Hopkins to call you back. Where can you be reached? That reduced some of the pressure, but introverts tend to get rattled.  With several calls going, I inevitably transferred one to the wrong number, hung up on another, and muddled the script. "Yes, I'll have Mr. Hopkins call you," I might say, and a senior secretary would overhear and correct me: "Never ever use those words. Who do you think you are, Mr. Hopkins' boss?"

Before long, someone figured out that I could not only type but spell, and my receptionist duties were passed on to someone with a cooler head. I don't remember ever being fired.

And then . . . the answering machine. If this contraption had never been invented, I would be a better human being today. It trained up the mean girl in me. Later, email fully empowered her.

Knowing there would be an answering machine on the other end of the line, I could prepare, sometimes in writing, a withering or snide message, practice it, and sometimes deliver it intact. By the late 70s I had no trouble getting dates. It was relationships that defeated me, and I helped that process along by leaving recorded messages that started something like this: So, roses, again? Really? How many times do you think you can talk to me like that and make the hurt go away with roses?

I would never have said this in person, with the roses nearby. In person, I'd have been forced to begin with a thank you, and that kind of thing sets a rude person back.

You might recognize a pattern of insecurity here.

One swell thing about the answering machine was that I knew for sure if a guy was trying to reach me.  None of this I-tried-to-call-you stuff. And I could filter calls, or claim that I didn't receive a message because my machine was selectively malfunctioning--which it often was. They didn't last long, those early models.

By the time my children were growing up, the cordless phone had arrived. I could talk while watching a kid in the bathtub or looking out the window at an argument developing in the backyard. I could carry the phone outside to a kid with muddy feet. I could call the advice nurse with one hand and wipe up vomit with the other. I used the telephone for IMPORTANT MOTHERING BUSINESS and still hung up as soon as possible.

The cell phone. A black, black day. For the first few years, I rarely understood what the person on the other end was saying, which made we wonder why I was bothering to listen. Sound quality at least has improved.

In theory, I am now reachable 100 percent of the time, wherever I am. Everyone with anything to say to me can leave me a message and feel quite confident that, unless I'm a total moron, I'll be able to retrieve it. Or, they can send me words that beep their urgency at me. I can filter cell phone calls, too, of course, but now we have a culture in which we celebrate opportunities to talk, friend, twitter, text. I am supposed to answer every call with a cheerful voice, a cheerful attitude.

My kids do not admire my telephone skills. My oldest has all but given up on me. I announce my primary message, and he says, "Okay. Thanks for calling, Mom." My youngest claims that I always sound a little panicky on the phone. She's afraid bad news is on the way. I have tried to explain that being on the phone is what makes me panicky, but that is so far outside her experience that she can't take it in.

Mercifully, my middle kid is as awkward on the telephone as I am. We  agree to get our business out of the way and wait for a time when we can be together in person--which we always enjoy.

My husband? Calls he's made while traveling on business have called our compatibility into question. Once he called me at 11:30 my time from Milan, at the end of a long night when all three kids were sick, to tell me he missed me. I suggested that he go out and see what Milan had to offer.

The smart phone--I don't want one. I don't want to know every possible factoid that might possibly affect the way I might possibly spend the next ten minutes. No, thank you. My head is crowded enough. I spend my days trying to make sense of what's already in there.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Girl's Thoughts

In July, I began a yearlong workshop with writer Kim Stafford, sponsored by Fishtrap, a writing center in Eastern Oregon. I'm the only fiction writer in a group of nine students--the others are writing memoir or natural history or both--but I was sure that Kim could help me see my stories in a new light. I haven't been disappointed.

Kim's newest book, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared (Trinity University Press), is a memoir about his older brother, Bret Stafford, who committed suicide in 1988. I read it because I wanted to journey a little deeper into the Stafford family story after reading Early Morning, Kim's hypnotic biography of his father, poet William Stafford. I read it as well because Kim described its genesis to us at Fishtrap last summer, and I wanted to see if his structure worked. I didn't expect to learn quite so much from it about maleness.

Kim takes his title from a book Bret loved as a child. The book suggested, for example, that a boy might successfully yank a tablecloth out from under tableware. Bret tried this and broke a crystal glass.

Kim wrote a table of contents first, a list of nearly 100 incidents, to be loosely framed as tricks, from his childhood with Bret, their adolescence and college years together, their increasingly separate lives as young men, and, obliquely, about Bret's death when Kim was 39. He organized the titles under four phrases he and Bret said together as kids before sleep: good night, God bless you, have sweet dreams, and see you tomorrow. It is fascinating to ponder, after reading each episode--the longest is nine pages--how the section where Kim placed it illuminates its meaning. Kim's structure also allowed him to avoid a chronological telling of Bret's life.

"It is possible . . . to write in a series of short bursts," Kim says in his 2003 book, The Muses Among Us: Eloquent Listening an Other Pleasures of the Writer's Craft, "and let the engine of the book's idea do the work of collecting these pieces into a whole book."

I loved the motif of the trick. It hints at so much that is fine in this book. Many of Bret's pursuits are just as tricky as the tablecloth and glass, but more serious--terribly serious. As a junior in high school, he organizes a mass planting of cherry trees. He leads Kim across a glacier repeatedly testing its safety by throwing a boulder ahead of them to see if the ice will hold. During the Vietnam War, he qualifies after long effort for C.O. status, but moves with his family to Canada anyway because he doesn't want to live in a country that would fight such a war.

Kim and Bret are close in age, and inseparable as children, but gradually their differences emerge. Kim reveals a great deal about himself in this book, particularly his struggles to please parents who give him a lot of freedom but seem to expect him to use it well, to do the right thing. Kim wanders his neighborhood at night while his parents sleep, climbs a hill and takes shelter under a tree during a lightning storm, and tries to break into his boyhood church to play his clarinet for God. He marries young and tolerates years of unhappiness before divorcing, teaches at the same college his father does, although in a different way, wanders and writes and wanders some more. He both conforms to and resists his parents' hopes and society's standards.

"After my brother died," Kim writes, "I asked our father why I had survived."

"'Bret was a saint,' he said. 'You're not. That's good.'"

Readers will wish this message had been delivered earlier and more effectively--to both boys, but especially to Bret.

I read memoir to live other lives. My own life, a girl's, most of it lived indoors, postponing many risks until after I'd raised my children, has little in common with Kim's. My father was quiet and remote like Kim's dad, but for different reasons, and since my father had to leave school in the fourth grade, his legacy to me didn't include writing. My mother loved children as Kim's mother did, but my mom kept an eye on us always, told us, whenever possible, how to handle every situation, wasted no time herself and expected us to waste none. In my family, no one wandered.

What I learned from this book is that growing into manhood in this country in the second half of the twentieth century was tricky indeed. Sexual relations, from a young man's perspective--very, very tricky. Finding a career path, making a living, supporting a family while also trying to be a member of it, all tricky. You were liable to lose the best part of yourself. I knew this, but now I know it.

"Can I say it now, my brother?" Kim writes. "Maybe I can say it for you: There is something inside a boy, not yet man, that has almost no chance. To show this thing would be taken wrong, surely, cause pain, steel your resolve for utter reticence. This wordless treasure could not come forth as it is felt within. When I looked down naked on our town, when I walked the midnight rails, when I climbed the vine, and finally tried to play my heart, I was apart from the trials to come---sex, money, resume, family, and all the rest. By some language of pure light, I and the moon could send the best of the boy in safety beyond the man."