Friday, November 10, 2006

Today's Rickety Contrivance

Overheard snippet of conversation at the health club:

"So at lunch today I was chatting with the couple next to me, and when they left, they paid my bill! I couldn't believe it! That was so nice! I can't wait to do the same thing for someone else!"

Last Tuesday we had some extra time in my fiction workshop, so I gave the students an exercise. I put a list of six abstract nouns up on the board (things like honor and poverty), and told them to write a scene, using only concrete nouns, that would illustrate the concept they'd chosen without ever naming it explicitly.

I listed three positive nouns and three negative ones. All but one student chose to write about one of the negatives.

On Thursday, we did the same exercise again, but I gave them only positive nouns. They found this more difficult, and we talked about why: because nice things are less dramatic and therefore less story-worthy, because the students were afraid of sounding corny, and -- most interesting to me -- because writing happy stories makes them feel childish, since happy stories were what they wrote when they were kids.

When I was in graduate school, I wrote an essay called "Poisoning Peter Pan: the Inner Child in the Academy," about my own experiences with academic contempt for anything "childish" -- i.e., emotional or enthusiastic or un-ironic -- by way of earlier observations on the subject by Alice Miller and Jane Tompkins. I never tried to publish the essay for a number of reasons, including the improbably-optimistic hope that maybe this kind of thing only happened at Yale. (My advisor's tart warning that I should only publish the piece posthumously was also a factor.) After listening to my students last week, I wonder if the topic's more relevant than I thought. Hmmmm. I do have tenure now. Maybe I should dig it out and look at it again. Or maybe I could post it here. Hmmmm . . . .

Anyway, during the conversation last Thursday, I told my students that lots of nice things happen in the world that we'd never buy if they were fiction. The rickety contrivance I overheard in the health club is a perfect example; if anyone wrote that in a story, the readers would all be saying, "C'mon, doesn't work, why would the couple buy this woman lunch? What's their motivation? Are they really white-slavers or something? Are they crazy? Are they going to stalk her and kill her? Are you going to try to sell the movie rights to Quentin Tarantino?"

(Yes, I remember when Pay It Forward came out, although I didn't see the film. I also remember that many critics made merciless fun of it.)

But now the woman who was unexpectedly treated to lunch wants to do the same thing for somebody else, and maybe that person will be similarly inspired. This could start a trend of kamikaze kindness: walk into a restaurant at lunchtime, strike up a conversation with a stranger, pay the stranger's bill, and walk away.

Bwah hah hah!

I'm not sure I'd have the nerve to do this myself, although I'm not sure why I wouldn't. Is anybody out there braver than I am?


  1. Cathie could, could and did at Interaction (and the stranger is now a friend) Melissa would. Me? I have problems talking to people I know never mind strangers.

    The fat man's fear of rejecton.

    Odd, isn't it, that so many of us in all areas of the fiction field excoriate the happy ending, yet the biggest selling genre is all about happy endings - romance. And which genre is even more subject to scorn from intellectuals than sf/fantasy? That's right, romance.

    I could go off into a riff that the ending of life is, on Christian terms, a happy ending, but I'll just drop that pebble in my mental pool and watch the ripples spread . . .

    Good exercise.

  2. Velma5:57 AM

    Some time in the 90s, Mark and I went to a Philcon, at a hotel where they had a fancy Sunday brunch. While we were there, a family of five came in: mother, father, grandmother (perhaps great-aunt?), and two little children, all in their Sunday best, and obviously looking forward to a special meal out together. The little girl was so cute (all careful braids and lace and big solemn brown eyes), and both children were so well-behaved that I told Mark "I'm going to pay for their brunch."

    It took me a little while to get through to the wait staff exactly what I wanted, but they also thought it was a lovely idea. So I paid, and tipped exorbitantly. I can't tell you what books I didn't buy because I'd spent my book money on that family's brunch, but I remember smiling at the family more vividly than I remember anything I read that year.

  3. Martyn -- Gary and I had that exact conversation about romance last night! And yes, I think Christians are more comfortable with happy endings than other people because of their faith (and I wonder how much this has to do with the intellectual disdain, at least in certain quarters, for Christianity).

    Velma: That's a great story; thank you. And good for you!

  4. i found you randomly, let me just start there..but i love this post. i often think about paying it forward and that idea. i've heard somewhere along the way that oprah pays for the next 50 people in line at the toll booths (she's from ill). i'd love to buy someone's something..thing is i think in this day and age people are either confused by this idea or (and sort of coupled with number one) want to know what the person doing the nice thing wants from them, wants to know about the motives..this is my guess...but i think that on a regular basis people aren't just nice to be nice anymore. part of what makes me think that is because i teach high school students..and part of it is when i do things like hold the door for a woman struggling with a stroller she'll look shocked and say 'oh thank yoU!' like its the nicest thing she's had done for her. so there's my two cents..

  5. Hi, Alison! Thanks for your comment. What about teaching high school students makes you think that people aren't nice just to be nice anymore? My college students are nice (mostly); they just don't want to write about nice things. Guys have more trouble with that than women do, too: it's partly a gender issue, I think.

  6. mostly because my students are not nice just to be nice. they'll avoid doing the obvious little things--walking over paper on the floor, not putting throwing their garbage away, minimal things mostly, but things that add up when you are one person cleaning up after so many. then they'll do bigger things--intentionally putting pencils on the edge of their desks and breaking them, breaking other art materials, they'll hit eachother as a means of communication, things like that. it makes me sad. i tell each group of students that the one thing i ask of them as far as rules go is to respect. and that's me, the room, themselves, their classmates, and the materials. and of course, i'm generalizing. but the older my students get the more they seem to be disrespectful, intentionally distructive, or just plain mean. it happens often enough that it makes me wonder if this is just the nature of working with young people..if i shouldn't expect to be respected.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.